Words and photographs by Gordon Lewis
My wife and three kids and I recently returned from a two-week trip to Ghana. This excursion consisted of a week of volunteer activities in Lolito, a small village in the Volta region, followed by a week of sightseeing in Accra (the capitol) and Cape Coast, the former center of the slave trade. Not only was this our first trip to Ghana, it was our first trip to the African continent. This holds special significance for most people of African-American heritage, just as a visit to Ireland might for Irish-Americans.
We had researched and talked with Ghanian friends before the trip, so we had a good idea of what to expect. Nevertheless, there are always a few surprises when visiting a country so different from one’s own. One such surprise was that, despite heritage, we couldn't pass for African, at least not by Ghanian standards. Our skin wasn’t dark enough, we didn’t speak any of the local languages, and the English we spoke had a distinctly non-Ghanian accent. We were obroni—foreigners. This made me a lot more conspicuous than I expected, even more so when I had a DSLR slung over my shoulder and my multi-hued family in tow. My street photographer’s mindset of keeping a low profile was often useless. Instead, I had to resign myself to being the center of attention—not that there’s anything wrong with that.
This situation was most acute when I was anywhere near street vendors eager to make a sale, less so when I was visiting crowded local markets and could wander around long enough for my novelty status to wear off. Fortunately, and with few exceptions, the people I encountered were friendly and liked being photographed. Even indifference would draw a smile when I shared the results. Patience, mutual respect, a cheerful attitude, and humility are a universal currency.
Another pleasant surprise was that the continually overcast skies in Ghana, which I had expected based on prior research, did not result in drab, washed-out images. In fact, the reduced lighting contrast made it easier to record acceptable shadow detail in dark African skin tones without blowing out the highlights or having to resort to flash fill. Shooting in color added enough additional “pop” that I rarely felt the need to touch a saturation or contrast slider. Here's a very small but representative sampling of the images I got.
My biggest regret was losing an SD card that had two days' worth of my best shots. I left my laptop at home for weight reasons and was well aware of the risk of not being able to make daily backups. Nevertheless, the constant activity of traveling, packing, unpacking, shooting, and card-swapping made keeping track of several identical-looking cards an even bigger challenge than I expected. I console myself with the knowledge that my family and I had a wonderful time and returned home safely, with no major mishaps, infections, or digestive distress.
As a final note for those of you who may be curious, the equipment I brought with me was nothing special: a Canon EOS 70D with 18–55mm ƒ/3.5–5.6 STM kit zoom, 28mm ƒ/2.8 IS USM, and 50mm ƒ/1.8 STM. The zoom was for daylight, the primes for low-light. Because of their quick and quiet focusing, all three lenses were equally handy for video. The 70D’s large battery capacity and low current drain were also a great comfort in a country where power outages are common. The combined weight was still under five pounds, which is my personal limit for travel.
If you like the photos that accompany this post and aspire to something similar, my advice would be that it's more important to be in the right place than to have the "right" equipment.
For more photos from Ghana, feel free to visit my online gallery.
Friend and regular contributor Gordon Lewis is the author of Street Photography: The Art of Capturing the Candid Moment, published by Rocky Nook.
©2015 by Gordon Lewis, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
John Garrity (partial comment): "Gordon Lewis's post is pertinent for myself as I'm currently in my wife's home city in China. Being tall and a 'long nose' I stick out. Am an object of curiosity—frequently at the receiving end of stares, which while often impassive are not hostile. I just smile back and say hello in Mandarin, while if at a suitable distance and appropriate, flap a hand in a gentle wave, and embarrassment normally melts. Photographing people here is easy if you are patient. Wait ten minutes and don't hide what you are doing, then you soon become a familiar if eccentric presence."
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Ken Tanaka: "A wonderful photo essay, Gordon. The best photographs pose more questions than they answer, and some of yours pose memorable questions. Was that man painting bars on his house's windows? Is that fellow the sculptor of those bronze pieces? And, best of all, what's up with that painted fellow walking near the car?! (I think he has a brother in downtown Chicago, by the way.)
"Your remarks about being an obvious foreigner in a country with which you might feel genealogically linked resonates with me. Although I do not have strong Japanese facial features I recall being rather a bit embarrassed while visiting Japan. In one incident a group of museum curators, guided by my name, immediately began assuming that I could act as translator for my party of fellow Americans. My slightly yellow face turned quite red.
"Thank you for your delightful notes, and for the reminder that being and seeing trumps the 'right' lens and camera."