Aperture in Somalia

by Steve Simon

BIDOA, SOMALIA-- It is very interesting to observe the process that Dr. James Orbinski, the former head of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of MSF in 1999, goes through in determining whether we travel to Somalia or not.

He was there in 1992-1993, when the country was going through terrible drought, with war and famine taking thousands of lives. It would be good for the film and for him personally if we get to go, but safety is the primary concern. And we all have to agree.

We have very good contacts in Somalia, and we plan to go to Baidoa, about 250km from the war zone in Mogadishu. In the end, the documentary crew following Dr. Orbinski puts our trust in his thorough and meticulous research, and contacts with people on the ground there. When he determined it would be safe for us to charter a plane and go, we all decided to make the trip.

It is not a cheap trip. Chartering a small plane for the two-hour flight from Nairobi is $13k; return. Once on the ground, we would be taken care of by James's good friend who lives in Baidoa, and has arranged a team of armed guards and accommodation for us.

Our personal armed guards were always with us.

We are only here for three nights, but from the moment we landed on the airstrip and noticed the Ethiopian tanks and troops awaiting us, I knew this would be different from the other locations.

From the moment we drove away in SUV's with two armed guards in each truck, I admit, I was nervous. Watching the street scenes as we drove to our hotel, Baidoa looked dirt poor, a vibrant town with remnants of bombed out buildings and people dressed in colorful clothes. This is a Muslim country which in some ways looked more like the Middle East then Sub-Saharan Africa.


Baidoa street scenes.

We had a busy schedule from the moment we arrived. We would meet with The Prime Minister and Speaker from the transitional government. We would go to the hospital, one of the most basic I have ever seen, even by African standards. We would visit a variety of places that James Orbinski had been 15 years earlier; schools, the former MSF grounds, burial sites and meet with old friends he had not seen since his last time here.

I brought my MacBook Pro, and our hotel had a generator that was turned on in the evening so I was able to charge my stuff. But the reality was that by the end of the day, we were all quite exhausted, and my tiny, hot room was not a good place to work, so I didn't.

It didn't take long for me to get used to traveling with guys with guns, and the people we met were very friendly, and often didn't mind having their pictures taken, which did surprise me. I had thought a primarily Muslim population would be a little more guarded about photography, but they were not.

The speaker Shiekh Adan Mohamed Nuur "Madobe" (top), and Somalia's new prime minister, 52-year-old Ali Mohamed Ghedi with bodyguard in background.

This assignment was a fantastic and inspiring journey on so many levels, but it also had its frustrations. Because the main goal here was to make a documentary, the video camera was always front and center and close to the action, which I had to work around. As well, we were on a very tight schedule, which meant that places I would have loved to spend more time, well--it just wasn't possible.

But that being said, working closely with the team of Director Patrick Reed, Cinematographer John Westhauser, and sound man extrordinaire Ao Loo, taught me much about grace and professionalism under pressure. Dr. James Orbinski's story is one of an inspiring role model whose courage in helping people in the most difficult and dangerous situations will no doubt inspire others to get involved.

A man suffering from Malaria, lies in hospital in Bidoa.

On the plane on the way back, Dr. James and I took some of the selects and put together a slide show with music that he would use in a lecture in Toronto the night of his return.

What's great about Aperture is the ability to move the order of images around in multi-screen view, letting James and I storyboard the images in an order that made sense. We then click on Slideshow, click on the pull down menu to "edit", and look at the vast possibilities Aperture provides when creating a slideshow.

I like to keep it simple, using dissolve, best quality, crossfade--and then choose the song from iTunes and "fit to music"; ready to go. The one big problem with the slideshow function in Aperture, is you can't save the show as a Quicktime movie like you can in Keynote and other programs. Here's hoping future versions will remedy this oversight.

A girls school near Baidoa, Somalia

This was my first road trip with Aperture and I have to give it the highest of marks. From ingest to archiving on the road, even with a portable USB2 drive and not Firewire, it performed flawlessly and enabled me to get my work done as I was shooting, saving a lot of post processing time when I came back. I can't wait to take it out on my next photo adventure.

Look for a review of my book Heroines & Heroes in American Photo Magazine, March/April Issue, @ newsstands now.


Ben Drucker
2007-02-22 04:59:38
Very nice pictures.
Brian Auer
2007-02-22 16:27:57
Amazing stuff, what an adventure! Love the second shot with the goat and the truck full of soldiers.
Stephen C.
2007-02-24 19:20:40
very good photos and great article. would like to see more.