Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Start of a New Adventure


Disclaimer:  This blog may contain material which some may find disgusting, gross, nasty, TMI, gag inducing, sappy, or at the very least corny.  Read at your own risk.  

Melinda and I met at Peace Corps staging in Philadelphia on October 5th 2015.  All 36 members of our group (Education 85) were meeting for the first time before traveling to Lesotho, Africa.  During an ice breaker exercise we shook hands and had our first conversation, which went something like this:

Me: Hi I’m Joel.

Melinda: Hi I’m Melinda.

Me: Melinda, where are you from?

Melinda: I’m from Colorado.  Where are you from?

Me: Oregon

Melinda:  I like Oregon.  I think we should be friends.

Me:  I think we’re going to be kindred spirits.  
After that encounter, we spent the next few days traveling to our training village in Lesotho, where we would spend the next 10 weeks.  Melinda went to a house in the village Ha Ramonyaloe and I was put up in Ha Motebesoane about a 50 minute walk away.  
The next 10 weeks would be filled with training sessions, meet ups at the local bar, and solo hikes.  We didn’t really speak to each other the whole time.  Then on one of our last nights before we left for our respective sites, all of the wild youth in our group left the bar for the night and some of the more seasoned volunteers stayed behind.  Melinda was sitting across from me and we started talking.  We quickly found out that we really enjoyed each others company.  The next night we stayed behind again to talk.  I asked her to dance and we had a really good time together.  
The following day was the 16th of December, the day we Swore in officially as Peace Corps Volunteers.  The ceremony was nice and we had a fun party lined up with all of our host mothers.  The bar donated several cases of beer for our…   uhm    uh    ahem    “support” of them throughout the previous 10 weeks.  I’ll just show you what happened next.
The following day we packed up and parted ways for our sites.  I was sent to the far NE corner in the highlands of Mokhotlong and Melinda was sent to the far SW end of the country to the beautiful Quthing district.  We were essentially the furthest two volunteers from each other in the whole country.  On top of that, Melinda gave me a fake phone number (she may recount a different story but this is my blog).  Eventually she missed me so much she contacted Lisa and we were finally able to text and talk.  Also there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon that would help us see each other more often than we thought, training conferences. 
This is the first photo I ever took of Melinda.  I was selected to be our district security representative and Melinda and I were both elected to be members of the peer support network.  This meant we would be able to see each other for conferences several times per year.  Furthermore, as teachers, we had vacations during school (think spring break) as well as out of school vacations to look forward to together.  
We’ve had some great times together.  We’re about to complete our last backpacking trip from Sani Pass to Sehlabathebe National Park during independence break in early October.  
In between the breaks, we communicate via WhatsApp text messages, voice messages, and phone calls.  We talk almost every night, in fact it feels weird to not hear Melinda’s voice before I go to sleep.
 We had our final completion of service conference September 1-3rd.  The conference was located at the historic Thaba Bosiu (mountain of the night) near Maseru.  The plateau served as a stronghold for the country's first leader Moshoeshoe I.  From the top of the plateau, Moshoeshoe was able to secure refuge for the Basotho people and fend off invaders again and again.  The area is sacred to the Basotho people and seemed like the perfect location to complete this chapter of our relationship in this silly little country.  
I had been planting the idea of a hike for some time now with the aim of “getting more photos of us together”.  On the second and final night of the conference Melinda and I hiked up the plateau.    I took a few photos of her on the way up and she took a few of me.  Then we took a couple photo in front of some flowering blue agave.  We walked to the far end of the plateau and came across a grass field under the perfect sunset light.  I setup my camera on a tripod and the plan began to unfold…
First we took a photo of us sitting down.  I walked over and checked the camera and everything looked alright.  We then took one standing up and I walked over and checked the camera again.  Everything looked good so I tried to set up the camera’s built in intervalometer to automatically take several photos in a row.  When I walked over to stand next to Melinda, I noticed it wasn’t working properly so I had to return back to the camera and change a setting to get it working.  Then the camera started clicking away and I walked over to her.  I told her “We took one photo of us sitting and one photo of us standing.  So how about we try one with just you standing?”  I got down on one knee, pulled out the ring and said “Melinda Anne Johnson will you marry me?”  She said “Yes”, I think.  It was all kind of a blur at that point.  I think she said “yes” but as I write this my memory eludes me.  Anyways we’ll just say she said “yes” for logistical and legal purposes.  

Edit: I just consulted with Melinda and she said her reply was “Of course”.  
The camera kept snapping away the whole time.  I set it to take one photo a second for 140 seconds.  Of all the photos it took, this one ended up being my favorite.  
We headed to the restaurant where we had dinner and met with the rest of our Education 85 cohorts.  We are incredibly blessed to be a part of a really awesome group of Peace Corps Volunteers.  Only two volunteers have had early terminations of service and one transferred to Peace Corps Botswana.  Other than those three, we all made it, which is almost unheard of in Peace Corps.  After some entertaining superlatives and a song, we announced our engagement to our fellow volunteers, who were naturally excited.    The whole engagement was an incredible experience.

Here are some mostly new photos of our past two years together.
So that’s it.  I feel like the luckiest man in the world for finding the love of my life in this little country.  We’re very much looking forward to the next chapter in our lives together.  We are officially done with the Peace Corps on November 21st.  Beyond living in the general Portland, Oregon area, we have no idea what comes next.  I’m both excited and anxious but with Melinda by my side I’m 100% certain that everything is going to be alright.


Peace,

- Joel


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

One Child at a Time


There are subjects I love to photograph and subjects I don’t love to photograph, such is life.  Humanitarian photography with complete artistic freedom ranks up there as one of my favorite gigs, while “can you take a group photo of us?  Where is the sun?  Ok let’s all stand here squinty eyed facing the sun.  Ok we’re ready… 1… 2… 3… cheese!”, ranks down near the bottom of my list.  Now imagine my joy when I was asked to accompany Touching Tiny Lives Foundation’s (TTL) outreach team on a few nutrition corners.  Needless to say, I was thrilled and jumped at the opportunity.  


Lesotho has a huge problem with HIV and AIDS.  In fact, Lesotho currently has the second highest prevalence rate in the world at 25%.  25%!  I’ll let that sink in for a second…         While there are plenty of organizations out here working to reduce that number, very few organizations work with those most affected by HIV and AIDS, children and babies under 5 years of age.  


I’ve written about TTL and their nutrition corner project in my last blog so I won’t repeat too much here.  A nutrition corner is a monthly gathering of caretakers (mostly mothers but often grandmothers and even siblings) and their babies.  


Photo credit:  Melinda J. who nailed this with a manual focus lens.

The women help with the preparation of a large and nutritious meal.  


A class about nutrition and child development is presented, although not everyone is interested.


Then everyone eats!


With such a high HIV and AIDS prevalence rate combined with the low adherence to the life saving antiretroviral (ARVs) therapy medication, there are a lot of single and double orphans in Lesotho.  Often grandparents must assume the responsibility of the parents.  


TTL is a great organization.  They don’t have a lot of waste (a huge problem with many NGO’s in my opinion) and they produce real results.  


'M'e Matelo of the TTL outreach team plays with a former safe home baby.

TTL has a safe home where they adopt malnourished children for a period of up to 6 months, and in some extreme cases, even longer.  They take the children in and provide them with excellent 24/7 support until the child is healthy enough to return home to the parents or guardians.  Before the children are returned though, the parent or guardian must undergo a training on nutrition and childcare.  



This little girl came into the safe home at 9 months old and 4.3kg (9.5lb).  I took this photo back in November of 2016  when I photographed the TTL staff and safe home babies. 


Photo credit:  Melinda J.

This is her today!  A happy and healthy little girl.  


This isn’t a one time story either.  TTL has helped over 2000 children.  


In a country where 1/12 children never live past their 5th birthday, TTL is working hard to change that alarming statistic.  


TTL outreach team member ’M’e Mamosa filling out some much needed paperwork.

According to the World Food Program, 56% of deaths in children under 5 years of age are related to HIV.  ARVs are free in Lesotho but children often have lapses in treatment because of many factors, a major of which is the parents knowledge of proper HIV and AIDS related care.  There are many myths surrounding HIV and AIDS in Lesotho.  TTL is working to dispel those myths and provide proper health care education to parents and guardians.  


TTL also works with special needs children and babies who need life saving medical procedures.  


This baby boy was born last November at 24 weeks, in a mud hut, to an HIV positive mother.  He also suffers from hydrocephalus, a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid deep within the brain.  This causes swelling of the cranial cavity, which leads to an unusually large head.  


TTL arranged the life saving surgery, which involves the insertion of a flexible shunt.  The shunt allows the fluid to drain into the body where it can be reabsorbed.  As he grows, the shunt will need to be replaced a few times.  For the most part, people living with hydrocephalus live long and normal lives.  


Through the help of donors, TTL is able to support this young boy’s family for all future medical costs.  


If you’re interested in helping Touching Tiny Lives out, please check out their Facebook page or website for more information.  

Working with Touching Tiny Lives has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in Lesotho.  It has been an awesome and eye-opening opportunity being able to tell the story of this fantastic organization through my photography.  

Thanks for reading!



Peace,

- Joel

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Back to the Roots


It’s been a while and for good reason.  Don’t think I haven’t thought about the dereliction of this blog.  I’ve opened the blog, checked and rechecked the blog analytics, worried as I watched the numbers drop and drop and drop.  The neglect was a necessary reminder.  A reminder that this is mine, my creation.  For too long I’ve posted what I thought people would want to see and read.  This lapse has been refreshing.  
My silence doesn’t imply I’ve been dormant or lazy, on the contrary, this has been some of the most productive time I’ve spent in Lesotho.  There are several projects on the horizon, which I’ll talk about in a moment.  
My focus remains the same, documenting life in Lesotho candidly and honestly.  I want my photographs to tell a story, to answer questions, to break barriers, to intrigue, and hopefully to inspire others to serve our beautiful world.  
Somewhere along the way, as it often happens, I veered.  I began following a detour from my original intentions of this blog.  
The numbers began to matter more than the actual content.  My thinking changed from “what do I want to share to the world with this blog post” to “I wonder how many page views this particular blog post will generate?”  The answer to the second question is a lot but I wasn’t happy with this new direction.  
I used to take a lot of photos of things I found interesting.  Being a naturally curious person, this meant I took a lot of photos (thank God for digital cameras).  But something went wrong along the way.  I found myself bringing my camera with me less and less.  
My thinking transitioned into a “if a photo isn’t worth being shared, it isn’t worth taking”.  It got to the point where I would hesitate to snap the shutter, then to lift the camera up to my eye, and eventually to bring it with me at all.  I stopped bringing my camera with me everywhere.  
But creative images are all around.  It is the photographers job to turn the mundane into a story.  I was passing up opportunities to improve my craft and to share stories.  
Some of my favorite photos are ones which were taken on my walk home from school.  That 15 minute jaunt through the corn fields and across two ravines has become so familiar with me that I honestly think I could make it with a blindfold on.  But every day is a little different because every moment is different.  Instead of capitalizing on the opportunities that a new day affords, I was blowing it off as just another day, just another walk to school, just another trip to town.  
I won’t be in Africa forever and I don’t want to leave Lesotho with photographic regrets or missed opportunities.  Instead of falling into the routine of life I want to embrace the differences that each day brings and capture those moments with my camera.  
This is what Paul meant when he wrote Colossians 3:23 which says “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.”  Or in the words of the Lebanese writer Najwa Zebian, “Whatever you do, do it with purpose.”  Even Walt Disney weighed in on this point when he said “Whatever you do, do it well.”  In other words, work hard for what you believe in, be it a noble cause.  
This brings me back to those projects I talked about earlier.  Recently I had the opportunity to do some scouting work with Eric and his colleague Andre.  They are finalizing plans to escort the humanitarian photographer David duChemin through the highlands of Lesotho with the aim of creating a book.  I’ve been following David’s work for about a year and all I can say is I really like everything he does.  

With the help of Eric’s coworker ’M’e Mamacue, we travelled through the Khubelu region of Mokhotlong.  While the main purpose was to scout out photo opportunities, we took quite a few photos as well.  It was an incredible experience.   
I’ve worked with the wonderful child malnutrition organization in Mokhotlong town, Touching Tiny Lives Foundation (TTL) in the past HERE but I finally got to travel with them on an outreach project.  Their outreach team travels to remote areas in the Mokhotlong district with the purpose of teaching nutrition classes to mothers, checking on malnourished infants, and spreading food aid to those most in need.  They have a wonderful team and it was amazing to work with them.  We will team up several more times in the coming months and I’m excited to continue working with them.  You can find out more information about TTL HERE.
In the meantime, I’m spending the winter break with my lovely girlfriend Melinda, my Fuji just passed 20 thousand shutter actuations, and my life is wonderfully fulfilling.  
Thanks for reading.



Peace,

- Joel