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I ran down the steps through the mass of other photographers, tripping but somehow managing to stay upright and moving forward. The others seemed confused by my burst of speed and near suicidal attempt to get down the steps quickly, but I wasn’t about to miss this opportunity. It would be the first time I would be able to get anywhere near the coffin and the honor guard. The soldiers had formed two lines, one holding the crowd back and one marking the edge of the route the honor guard was taking. I popped out of the throng of photojournalists and into the gap. Since none of my colleagues had made the same move, I assumed that I would be hearing angry shouts from the guards at any moment. I was soon joined by Thomas, a Nigerian journalist I had been talking to all day. He seemed confused too, but quickly took advantage of the opportunity and raised his camera to his eye.
In those few minutes I took many of the images that defined the day-long event and, while my editor at the Daily Guide would butcher those photos later by cropping them for the paper, it was the first time I was given a full, two page color spread. None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for some major differences in the way my Ghanaian co-workers viewed visual journalism.
I had been feeling somewhat guilty all morning. Here I was at a funeral barely able to contain my excitement. This was easily the biggest story I had ever covered. I had just gone through one heck of an ordeal to get in the press area, my cameras were ready and it was time to show I could handle an event as important as this.
President John Atta Mills had died. I knew little about the man. He seemed. like many politicians. to be loved and hated by the respective political party members though most seemed to agree that, in principle, he was a decent man. He had passed away just a handful of days after I arrived in the country so I was curious to see how the situation would play out. He was the first president to die in office in Ghana and people seemed worried about who would take power and if there would be some sort of coup. Despite fears, the Vice President was sworn in quickly and confidence in the government’s solvency was restored with him.
The funeral was a sea of black and red, the colors of mourning in Ghana. Independence Square was packed with dignitaries and common people alike. The press was set up on two raised platforms roughly 150 yards from where the casket would be placed for the ceremony. Videographers occupied one and photographers, like myself, occupied the other. Despite the fact that even major newspapers in Ghana could barely afford decent camera gear, we were stationed too far from the action to get decent images.
I suspect the Daily Guide fought hard to get me into the press box because of my “powerful camera.” My 70-200mm lens was an object of desire to the photographers at the office. It was an “L” series lens, Canon’s high end offering. I had bought it used and had, over time, beat it up pretty good. It was also a shorter zoom lens than the 70-300mm lenses my comrades had, but it was physically bigger because of its heavy duty build and larger aperture. All of this culminated into it being viewed as the most powerful camera in the office.
And so, because of my powerful camera I was given prime territory in the front of the press box. Somehow my big, bleach white lens and the fact I had two cameras slung on my shoulders earned some respect. I only had to trade a few elbows here and there, compared to other photojournalist “scrums” I had previously experienced. The extra space wasn’t needed most of the morning as the action was minimal. Hours of speeches were made, as appropriate for the funeral of a dignitary, but none of us could even hope to get a shot of the speakers 350 yards away. So we just sat quietly in our box. We couldn't even hear the speeches, so there wasn’t any use pretending that we knew what was going on.
I befriended Thomas, a photographer from Nigeria, and we whispered about California and the Gold Coast, swapping cultural oddities and stories. After a while, a TV camera crew from the national television station approached us.
“Obruni, can we interview you?”
“Sure, why not.”
It seemed odd to me that a TV crew would want to do it now. I thought it best not to be any louder than necessary, but based on the reaction of all the people in the box the impromptu interview wasn't taboo. We waited for what was apparently a moment of silence, (I still couldn't hear anything at the far end of the square) and the crew set up their camera on the press stand. They said they wanted to talk to me about what it took to photograph a big event like this. I pointed out it was my first time shooting something like this and our senior photographer would be better suited to handle the question. They looked around, presumably for the other obruni in the press box. I explained that I worked for a local paper and they seemed shocked.
“Well we actually would like to talk to you.”
“Because I'm obruni right?”
As the interview wrapped up, we heard the motors of the honor guards’ motorcycles start up. I didn't bother with an explanation as I situated my camera straps and headed to the front of the box. It was time to work.
I have always found it funny that so much of a story can come from a few defining moments. I tried to capture it all during those seconds after the motorcycles roared to life. The sorrow of the people, the solemn silence of the soldiers, the fan-fare, the dignitaries, all crucial parts that defined what the day meant for the people of Ghana. While my editor thought I had captured the story well, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had been respectful enough or not aggressive enough or any number of things that I could have done better.
Even after three years, I still find myself reflecting on that day in Ghana and the images I took and how I took them. Looking back now, I would have turned down the interview with the television crew. While my colleagues around me seemed okay with it, I still can’t shrug off the feeling that I was being disrespectful, not to mention it was a huge waste of time. I was the equivalent of a rookie player at the time and had no idea what it took to photograph an event like that. Of everything I took away, having the courage to dive into a situation was by far the most important. If I hadn’t run off that platform and into the line of soldiers, I never would have taken the images that defined the atmosphere and emotions that were present. I would have been left with the same images the line of photographers behind me had. Finally, I regret not fighting harder to have my images appear in the paper the way I took them. They were cropped beyond recognition, stripped of their meaning and raw emotion, (this was a recurring problem that I had to deal with throughout my time in Ghana and will be featured in the next installation of this series).
As this series continues, I’ll explore some of the experiences and lessons that I learned while working in Ghana. If you have ever had any unique stories where you learned a few things working abroad, Immersion Travel Magazine wants to hear them. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.