Can I Come With You? Social Documentary Photography
We all love to travel. Most of us take photos as we travel. Some of us even try to help out, somehow, when we travel. However, we can always do more of the above, can't we? I've recently devoured a new book that highlights the magnificent, painful, poignant, and human side of traveling with your eyes and ears open. The book? Can I Come With You? Social Documentary Photography, by Amanda Koster. Long a photographer, her photos of life in Brazil, Kenya, Romania, and Morocco speak to the soul. By looking, deeply, into another culture, she provides a glimpse of humanity that travelers rarely see.
In this book, Amanda shares her work with NGOs, as well as a family heritage trip to Romania. The photos and story of pregnant women in Brazil was poignant - to see such poverty amidst new life was humbling. Sharing photos of people affected by AIDS in Kenya, Amanda shows us the human side of the toll this tragedy takes. Also in Kenya, we see and read of the 'full ninja'- the Swahili burka. A glimpse into another culture can teach us much about diversity and acceptance. The most powerful section of the book, for me, was about Morocco, and the Moroccan Women's Music Project. Inspiring for its joy and humanity, this is intercultural learning at its finest.
Seeing the diversity of human experience through her eyes, I was inspired by her work to think again about the way we all travel, and the impact that we can have on people and cultures around the world.
I was lucky enough to sit down and talk with Amanda - here's what she had to say..
WE: Please tell us about your book, Can I Come with You?
AK: Can I Come with You? is a compilation of select journals and journeys over the last 11 years, both through photos and words. The book essentially is an insight into my life; as a photographer, storyteller, and adventurer. Within the 100-odd paged book are 4-ish international photography projects I have worked on between 1997 and 2006. The projects range from work with Doctors Without Borders in Brazil to Female Sufi musicians in Morocco. I chased my shadow with each project, or ways I had seen myself: an orphan, homeless, in search of home and my unexplainable focus, devotion, and hunger to hear other peoples stories and retell them. Woven throughout the book are entries from my journals, which I have never shared with anyone. The words are excerpts from an ongoing 27-year-and-counting journal, and have come as surprise to readers. Instead of a description of the photo shoots the words describe more of what it felt to be in those places, in a moment, observations from listening and being versus doing. My journal has been my best friend throughout my life, always listening, always there, willing to be with me in any circumstance and in any state.
WE: What is your background?
AK: Logistically speaking I was born in Geneva Switzerland, moved to New York (right outside the city), then to a wealthy town in Connecticut. This part is all with my family. Then moved on my own to New Haven CT to university where I made up my own major: Anthropology, Art History and Religious Studies. I simultaneously studied photography at Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven then at the International Center of Photography in NYC. I started assisting and then shooting professionally. Alongside this I was teaching and working on my own documentary projects. The back-story is that I left a vicious, violent and abusive household at the age of 14 which played on 'repeat' for a while after that.
At 14 I surrendered to my church where a 72-year-old woman, Mrs. Green, stepped up and agreed to take me in as a foster child until I graduated high school. I was one of the very few kids who had to get a scholarship for their cap and gown, shyly and shamefully hand over state funded lunch tickets in a school system where kids drove past me in Mercedes to homeroom. I made a lot of mistakes, got kicked out of Mrs. Green¹s a few days after I graduated and couch, etc., surfed until I finally moved into University at 17. In high school I worked full time to save for school, managed endless financial aid lines and forms until I finally had a home: a dorm room, bottom bunk with 1 roommate from the Bronx, the other from Greenwich, CT. I let out an unforgettable exhale when I hung my psychedelic Beatles poster on the wall of my dorm. "Finally," I thought, "A place where I can stay for at least a semester." Hanging that poster was the happiest nail I had ever hammered. It got a little easer after that. And then I discovered photography.
WE: What led you to social documentary photography?
AK: I used to give all kinds of intellectual and practical answers. Though now, looking back and compiling my journals and photos for this book, I realize it's the same answer as the previous question. With the added footnote of: there¹s much more to 'my story' and all of that allows me to be with others in the world. All of that 'hard life' has really been a gift that fueled me to search for and recognize truth, so that when I say, "I understand," the other person believes me. I can BE with people on a level that creates immediate trust thanks to what I have experienced, all the lessons I have learned. I am now at peace with it all. This is humanity.
WE: Your book is full of concrete moments (visual and written) of true connections. How can travelers also create those kind of connections?
AK: Know that you are not there to take pictures or for the meet and greet. Of all the places on earth you could be, all the people you could be meeting you are meeting the person in front of you, and that is amazing. Be vulnerable and be still. Listen. Be very open to accepting what attracted you to a particular situation: person, place, or thing. Access your deep archive of good and bad self and know that this also within in the 'other'. Realize you really are looking straight into the mirror and there is a deep dark ugly joyous lesson in that moment. Don¹t look for it or force it. Let it show up and you will connect with people on a level of authenticity you have never ever imagined. Know yourself, trust yourself and you will connect with others. In other words, get to know your human-ness and you will come to understand all of humanity.
WE: You're involved in NGOs and raising awareness of different social issues. How can people help, when they travel, and also when they are researching their travel?
AK: The name of the book 'Can I Come With You,' is ironic. Many people have asked this question wanting to come with me on trips around the world. They want the same kind of experience, wanting to help with the tools they have; passion for travel, photography, writing, blogging, etc. So I created SalaamGarage. On a SalaamGarage trip, travelers come with me (and my growing team) to an international NGO. We mentor and work as a team; the travelers and the NGO, collaborating to tell a story that will cause change and help others. Travelers on a Salaamgarage trip work on those projects together and commit sharing the content with people back home. Examples of these projects are photo exhibitions, blogs, videos, slideshows, articles, etc. There is an irony to the title of the book because it ties in the creation and vision of SalaamGarage. The title also beckons readers, travelers, etc., to come with me on a particular adventure. Those who are attracted to the book, SalaamGarage and me know exactly what kind of trip that is.
WE: What were some of your favorite (or most surprising) moments while traveling?
AK: Read the book! :-)
WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
AK: Come with me on a SalaamGarage trip!
WE: Thanks, Amanda! Your book is so powerful - it is nice to hear the story behind it!
To see more of Amanda's photography, please see:
To learn more about SalaamGarage, and their work with NGOs, please see: http://salaamgarage.com/