How Could I Say No
When my good friend, the singer and actress Patti Boulaye, called me and asked me to take pictures of the new health clinic she had campaigned to build in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, I could hardly refuse. Patti had put such a huge effort into fund-raising and organising this vital new facility for the community there, how could I say ‘no?’
I rushed around my friends in the industry, the wonderful Terry at Bayeaux, my developing and printing company in London; Richard at Fuji Professional; my friends at Hasselblad, everybodysmile and Ray Lowe for assistance and supplies. These are the unsung heroes of all the charity work that I do. I couldn’t manage without them and the photographic industry should be proud of them.
I packed in my Lowepro Mini Road Runner; my beloved gold Hasselblad 503CW; a spare 503CW; three lenses (40 – 80 – 120); two metz 45 CL4; my very old Gossen Variosix F Light Meter; 50 rolls of Fuji 400 NPH and plenty of spare batteries.
I set off for Nigeria with Patti, her husband Stephen Komlosy and Maizie Williams from Boney M. Virgin Airways sponsored our flights and made the journey very comfortable by up-grading us all to Upper Class. Thanks, Virgin, you’re brilliant !
When we landed at Port Harcourt, which is quite a small airport, we walked from the plane and made our way through the crowded terminal building to two cars which were waiting for us. I shared a car with Maizie Williams and, to be honest, we were so shocked by what we saw that neither of us spoke for the entire journey from the airport to the Novotel Hotel.
The rubbish piled around, the sadness in the eyes of the people we passed and the terrible smell – I wouldn’t let my pet cat live like that. But that is the kind of poverty and deprivation that Patti, Maizie and Stephen have been working so hard to ease.
The Novotel very kindly donated our hotel rooms to save costs and, as soon as we arrived at the hotel, we went into a press conference which was also very different to what I’m used to in England. In this country journalists and photographers respond to a press call and cover the announcement if it is interesting to them. In Nigeria, it seems, you have to pay the media to attend and use the story because they receive little or nothing in the way of salaries from their publications. There’s a strong sense of corruption in almost every aspect of life there, which makes the application of charitable work so difficult for people like us who are not used to such systems.
The second day we drove to visit the clinic itself. To get there we had to drive up what looked like a very unattractive alleyway, very dirty and uneven with pot holes everywhere, little goats wandering around and what looked like lots of little shacks. They were no bigger than my small bedroom at home and they housed all kinds of little businesses from hairdressers to car repairers.
Eventually we arrived at some big metal doors, which formed the entrance to the clinic and from the moment we passed through them everything improved immensely. It was really heart-lifting to see what Patti’s fund-raising efforts had achieved.
After I had been around the clinic and photographed Patti and her local helpers, I decided that I should walk back down the alleyway and take some pictures of the ordinary people who live and try and survive in the district. What I wanted to portray was the squalor and the terrible conditions in which these people fight to exist, and contrast it with how cheerful and smiling they are in the face of such adversity.
I was told it wouldn’t be safe for me to walk alone with my equipment so a couple of guys came with me to ‘mind’ me and we walked out of the iron gates and back down the alleyway. I had my Hasselblad in hand and Fuji film in pockets. The first person I saw was an old man just across the street sitting and reading a newspaper.
As I always do, I smiled, said ‘hello’ and asked his permission to take a photograph. He smiled back and agreed. My 400 speed film was excellent as I could photograph in the sun F16 at 250, or in the shade F8 at 125.
Once I was walking in the alleyway I could see mess everywhere. There was no drainage so the smell was appalling. I kept walking, passing the time of day with everyone, smiling and waving. They all immediately smiled and responded, waving back to me.
I felt so spiritual during the walk. By the time I got to the main road and turned to go back to the clinic, I had at least 30 children following me. It was probably one of the most heart-rending things I have ever done, but in many respects one of the best. It’s the children who are the future and who may, hopefully, make the difference – make the change.
I got back to the clinic and my spirits were so lifted by those kids, waving to me and really happy that someone cared. There is just so much aggression in the world. People walk towards you with their heads down and looking depressed. But as soon as you smile and greet them, they automatically react and do the same. At the end of the day a smile costs nothing.
On the Saturday of our visit I wanted to go to a market and photograph ordinary people going about their everyday business. I was taken to Mile One Market in Diobu which is part of Port Harcourt. The one thing that struck me immediately was how hard everyone was trying to earn some money. The people carry all their wares on the top of their heads or in wheelbarrows. As a result of carrying trays of such things as mangos, bananas, water, hats, shoes and fabric on their heads, the women have beautiful straight backs.
The people are very enterprising, they’ll try anything to sell and therefore earn money. All the stalls are out in the open with just a canopy over the top and there is fruit everywhere along with other foodstuffs.
There is fish and meat being cooked and there are flies all over it. They just must be immune to some of the diseases which would send us Europeans to hospital in no time. Sadly, of course, there are many diseases in Africa to which they are not immune.
I took a photograph of a very old lady, deeply grey hair, perhaps not quite ‘with it’ but content to be photographed – I’m sure it’s going to be a lovely picture. But other people immediately held their hand up and refused pointedly to have their picture taken. I was puzzled but Patti explained that some people felt that being photographed took their soul away. It doesn’t matter that much because I always ask before I take someone’s picture – ‘take’ someone’s picture is a rather pertinent expression in the circumstances.
The exception is when I am taking pictures from a car, which I did as we drove to another market. When I stepped out of the car there, it started to rain. When it rains in Nigeria, it really rains. Within three minutes I was absolutely soaked from head to foot. My camera, a limited edition gold Hasselblad 503 was soaked, too. But, amazingly, the local people just carried on, not stopping for anything.
As I have mentioned, there doesn’t appear to be a drainage system so there was water everywhere. And yet the locals carried on as if nothing had happened. The one good thing about the rain is that it cools everything down very quickly. The temperature was well above 30C and the humidity was overpowering. I took a lot of photographs in the rain just to record the change.
When I had finished I had to get back to the hotel to dry off and to dry the camera. I stripped the camera down and water dripped out from everywhere. Even the Fuji film was drenched ! But a quick session with the hairdryer proved to be successful. When I returned to England the shots were fine. Talk about necessity being the mother of invention !
On Sunday the difference in appearance of the community was amazing ! Sunday is, of course, very much the Sabbath and everyone was dressed in their best clothes. How they managed to look so lovely on the Sunday, given the conditions in which they have to live, is beyond me and I bow in respect to them.
We went down to the local church in what looked like a converted sports hall. At the Salvation Ministries G.R.A., Port Harcourt, River State, there is a service at 6am; 8am; 10am and noon every Sunday. The hall held about 3,000 people and it was packed for every service – that’s 12,000 people in one church on one Sunday ! Everyone was smiling and beautifully and colourfully dressed.
It was the formal opening of the clinic – the Support for Africa Health Centre, Rumuo Kurusi – on the Monday of our visit.It was a very colourful and moving ceremony, the culmination of Patti’s efforts. A lovely moment for me was when the local schoolchildren came out of school at about 11.30am and crowded round the gates of the clinic to see me.
Before I left England I bought about 70 whistles, all different colours. During a break in the opening ceremony I gathered all the children together and gave them the whistles. You should have heard the noise ! They loved them.
I don’t know in my own mind whether my travelling with Patti and taking all these pictures will help the plight of these people, but I hope that, somewhere along the line they will make a difference – however small.