“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”
— Ansel Adams
Words have escaped me in regard to writing this piece. I had written parts of it, scrapped it, written more, scrapped it again. Maybe because it is expected of me to say that this was the most incredible, life altering thing I’ve ever done. Or maybe it’s because I’ve grown weary of sharing more than I need to on the internet. Truthfully, I’m still not 100% sure why. But in securing a gallery to show my work next month, I felt a strong need to work through this block and share my experiences in traveling to Kenya to shoot a project for Fountain Youth Initiative. My emotions ranged from severe anxiety and distress to pure joy and gratitude. I learned a lot about myself and was exposed to a world opposite my own of which I am forever indebted to.
Prior to departure, I was indifferent. 2018 has been the year in which I’ve tried not to set high expectations for everything I do (as an admitted perfectionist, this is tough). Not in a nihilist manner—although I tend to be melodramatic and shout “NOTHING MATTERS” from the rooftops when any physical pain or superfluous stress passes through me (confirm with my physical therapist)—but in a “this will be whatever it will be” type of way. I put a lot of my own money into this during a year of financial change and stress. It was a difficult decision to make, but knowing that this was an opportunity I would likely never see again, I leapt. And I would do it again without second thought.
Upon my arrival I felt a sense of familiarity, flashing back to a week spent in Port-au-Prince during my senior year of college. A very small arrival gate and baggage claim; and upon leaving the airport, the smells of burning trash, and streets flooded with various vendors and peddlers. I found comfort from my past, but everything was still quite foreign.
An assortment of iPhone photos from Githurai and Busia, including the building I stayed in, my unit, typical mornings and meals, my affinity for mango juice, my favorite writing utensil, more food, and photos of my host children, Cayden and Ceinwen.
As a child, and up until I was about nineteen years old, I experienced severe separation anxiety. I hated being away from home and would frequently experience panic attacks while away. In sixth grade, and my family never lets me forget this, I sobbed in the cafeteria of my elementary school because I was going to sixth grade camp for three days and neither of my parents were chaperoning. Eventually, I was able to work past the anxiety (shout out to the University of Illinois) and haven’t looked back since. I am very comfortable traveling solo, and it’s something I truly enjoy doing. However; when I arrived in Githurai, I began to experience those adolescent anxieties; with jet lag further exacerbating my mental strife. I lied awake the first night, feeling like I was losing control, unsure of how I would be able to make it through the next 14 days. I felt those same feelings for the next 48 hours, with slight alleviation only coming from taking photos. Even with a day off; and activities including seeing baby elephants and feeding giraffes in some of Nairobi’s beautiful National Parks, I wanted to go home.
With these feelings came great guilt. I was given this incredible opportunity—how could I not enjoy it? My life of privilege, or as FYI project manager Cecilia described it, “living big,” elicited anxiety and fear that I wasn’t accustomed to feeling while traveling. I journaled, took many deep breaths, and told myself, sorry mom, to get the hell over it until I could get a grip.
It took a few days, but in working through and past those feelings, I opened myself up to a week spent meeting incredible women and children while creating work that I am extremely proud of. To see a vision of mine come to life through my art is an inexplicable feeling, but to create daily routines and grow accustom to a new culture 8,000 miles away from home was equally as satisfying.
I miss the mornings in Busia spent eating mandazi and drinking wheat grass chai as we prepared for a day’s work. I miss the conversations I’d have with my team comparing cultures, getting made fun of for liking cold water, and finding ways to laugh while sweating our asses off during field visits. I miss being unplugged and free of the compulsion to check my phone every five minutes. I miss the energizing feeling of creating beautiful work with a powerful story behind it. The only thing I don’t miss is ugali (Josephat, I know you’re laughing at that.)
The fourteen days I spent working around Kenya resulted in intangible personal growth. I gained a better sense of self, became more confident in my skillset as a visual storyteller, and realized that I have accomplished more this year than I’m willing to give myself credit for. Progress is never linear, and sometimes there is no problem in taking two steps back to make one, more constructive step forward.
When I returned home, I feared that people would see my work as perpetuating colonial-era stereotypes. The Western view of Africa depicts an entire continent through tired, cliché visuals of needy children, HIV/AIDS, and animals associated with The Lion King, and it desperately needs to change. It is my hope that my images show the beauty and magic in empowering youth; as well as the need to provide them with the tools to succeed.
We do not get to choose the life we are born into. But when we are born into a life that provides us with the privilege to create a positive impact in the life of another human being, I believe in making that change. On January 26th, 2019, I will be hosting my first gallery show at Congruent Space Chicago to benefit Fountain Youth Initiative. Small prints will be sold, large ones will be auctioned, merchandise will be available for purchase, and yours truly may or may not be taking portraits on site. All proceeds from the event will go toward FYI’s scholarship program for girls.
For more information or if you would like to donate to Fountain Youth, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out www.fountainyouth.org.
All images © Arielle Gallione 2018.