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A post by Pulitzer Prize winning documentary photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice.
So there I was, waiting in the quiet darkness that precedes Kibera’s beautiful sunrises, for the 12 disciples — our security team from a local tribal gang. They were the type of guys you want by your side and the definition of the guys you didn’t want to cross. Despite the high crime and desperation in Kibera, when any of those 12 guys were by my side, I felt safe and free to photograph as much as I wanted without having to look over my shoulder.
At the time of my visit, Kibera wasn’t just the largest slum in Kenya, it was, and as far as I know, still is, the largest slum in Africa. With two and a half weeks in the slum for our shoot, the crew and I had some time — which is really valuable in documentary photography work – time to research, time to talk to locals, time to scout locations, and time to return to promising locations. During our time observing the community, we discovered there was an exodus early in the morning, as many residents of Kibera left to go to work in local factories to earn meager wages.
Always thinking about strong storytelling visuals, we thought it was a good opportunity to get some footage and images of this mass daily evacuation. The early-rising Kiberans used the railroad tracks as a main thoroughfare, and there were little shops alongside the tracks and vendors serving food. We wanted to shoot at sunrise with the hope of catching that beautiful, golden light.
On this early morning, I was shooting both stills and motion, trying to capture the mood and the feel of this unique place. I knew that shortly after the sun came up at 6:45am, the local train was scheduled to come through. I always try to position myself and my camera where there are the best odds of making a good image.
I started building the photograph in my head, working on the things I could control, and let everything else go to chance. I saw some vendors cooking some ugali, a cornmeal bread, causing smoke to rise from the cooking. I thought if I shot backlit, the smoke would help capture the mood of what I was seeing. I was also keenly aware that shooting into the sun can work either for you or against you.
I moved in closer to where the smoke was rising so I had two contrasting elements, the sunrise and the smoke. I heard the train approaching and the masses of people started to rush to get off the tracks and onto the train.
My third element was the train. The only subject left to chance at this point was the people. I didn’t know where they would be or what they would be doing, but I knew I had all three other elements of the composition locked in. This is the fun part for me, in all of my work; when I build the composition and wait to see if I am going to get lucky.
My favourite was this image where three guys jumped up onto the train at the last minute as a starburst began to peek through. The smoke lends nice depth and layers to the photograph and the train was splattered with graffiti, adding a burst of color.
I shot these photos with manual settings on a Canon 5D MKIII with a 35mm f1.4 shot at 1/500th at f2.8, ISO 200. I was carrying my equipment in a Think Tank Change Up convertible belt pack/shoulder/ bag and a Think Tank Shape shifter backpack. For the video I was using a Zacuto z-finder, a Zacuto Target rig and a 3 Legged Thing tripod.
Deanne Fitzmaurice is a Pulitzer Prize winning documentary photographer and multimedia storyteller based in San Francisco, California. She is a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine, and has also been published in TIME, Newsweek, The Economist, Stern, and GEO. Deanne has also partnered with foundations and non-profits including NPR, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the James Irvine Foundation.
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