Portraits Of Tanzanian Villagers

In Tanzania, there’s more to camera & firearm comparisons than the verb used to describe using them and the fact that I wear mine on my belt.

Here, people react to a photographer by putting their arms and hands in front of their face in a blocking maneuver. Some turn away or use the nearby tree for defense. Some might take an offensive tact and get angry at the attack. “No picha!” Or, “Give money!”

And this has all happened to me when picturing public scenes like a market or soccer game.

But this just exemplifies a general trend—not every individual. I’ve also snapped many shots of people who were perfectly willing to have (and then see) their images taken on my camera. Seeing themselves. That, along with a familiarity with the picture taker, has been the route to open up the Tanzanian’s willingness to say “Cheese”—that is, if they choose to smile.

This post is about breaking through my village’s collective camera resistance shell, becoming their portrait photographer, and showing you the results.

It all started when I took my camera to the village center one day. I had wanted to photograph it for some time. The village itself is scene after scene decorated with red-tinted mud/brick structures, bright green crops in people’s yards (in the rainy season), chickens pecking and darting along, the occasional dog trotting by, and people always seemingly in one of these fashions: rugged, raggedy, worn work-wear or somehow-spotless suits and shoes for the men, and brightly multicolored wrap–around skirts, blouses, and headwraps on the women.

The village square is all of this concentrated, along with the addition of colorful produce and raw meat for sale and an air of social jollity in the after-work congregation. Walking along the village toward the townsquare this day, I reached this central cluster of wood, concrete, or brick structures with either metal, wood, or even straw roofs–a three little pigs offering. And in the center of this is an opening of a quarter-sized, dirt football field.

Entering this arena from a narrow break in the buildings, I took care to not photograph the activity, but rather the buildings and other less-controversial sights. At some point, though, one eager man wanted his picture taken. This happens every so often—an individual more allured than averse to the technology and wanting to see themselves on camera.

So I took the shot:

Then I thought to do something that some faculty I photographed at my school had requested and get him a hard copy. I told him this, and he was delighted. I then took the momentum and asked a couple willing women if I could take theirs.

People nearby huddled around me and pointed & laughed at themselves or their friends when seeing the results on the back of my camera. After these shots, I bought some peanuts from an outhouse-sized store and headed back to my school.

A week or so later, and having developed the pictures in the nearby city, Iringa, over the weekend, I returned to the village square. I approached a cluster of people around the produce stand, took out the photos, and asked where the people in them were. The ladies there crowded to see the images. If they had enjoyed seeing themselves or their friends on the camera, they really got a kick out of seeing them on a photograph…

…and now some wanted one for themselves.

I first reunited with a man I had met a time before whose first name I can’t recall, so will call him Grandpa Ndambo. He’s the father of the village chief executive, dresses like a common man, and knows a bit of English. After being asked for a photo by three women, I asked Grandpa Ndambo to translate that I’d need 500 shillings for the pictures–about 30 cents. Fine by them. One said she couldn’t pay me until the following day. Fine by me. “You pay when I bring the picture,” I said.

So I took theirs.

Others approached and asked about getting theirs done, and another villager nearby eagerly informed them, “Mia tano.” Five hundred. (Well, literally “hundred five.”) This information would most often then be followed up with an immediate nod and pose, which, despite the impression given by the ladies above, most often did not involve a smile. So I told them to do so by pointing to my own over-doing-it smile (with mixed results) as I readied to shoot. Then I’d count down from three and press the shutter. Finally, I’d show them (or they’d reach out to see) the results on the back of my camera, sometimes requiring me to grip it well lest they rip it from my hands to see these shots:

He came up with this pose on his own.

In all, I took about twenty-five portraits this time around, developed them in Iringa, and came back in two weeks with the results.

“Wiki mbili,” I said. Two weeks. Or literally, “week two.”

Coming back as promised, I returned to the square at the usual late afternoon hour with a brown paper packet waving in my hand. This time I found a vacant booth next to the produce ladies and laid the 25 pictures out on the uneven wooden surface. Villagers gathered, looked, and laughed as they passed them around. I wondered/worried if I might never see some of the pictures again. But they all made their way back to me, and then, to the people in them.

I collected some money, kept the pictures of those not present, and announced I could take more. And I did.

brother and sister

I collected another 20 shots, and as I did the time before, said “Wiki mbili,” and headed back to Iringa the following day.

Finally came Tuesday, July 15th, my most recent visit to the village square. This time, after laying out this week’s pictures on the wood bench, I asked Grandpa Ndambo to come by to translate. I had an announcement to make. Through him, I asked the villager’s permission to use their photos for my writing.

I worried about this hurdle, but what had been a whole country of picture-rigid folks had now become a village warmed to their photographer’s efforts. In exchange for their permission, I gave the pictures away—including refunds to previous recipients. This added up. Plus, now more people than ever lined up for free photographs taken just this last Tuesday.


After each session, I have walked away thinking how special an experience this is—that I get to see these people so genuinely, get to capture and share the images of this expression, and most of all, get to bring joy to people doing something I consider so simple. I wouldn’t cut it as a photographer in the U.S., but here I’m a pro. I realize one has more to offer the world than they think, and I’m seeing how offering what I have can enhance the lives of those about me.

This fall I will return to the U.S. and put all these portraits into a section of my book that I’ll be writing about life and the lessons learned living here. In the meantime, I offer you some of the results of the service I’ve been able to offer the people of my village: Magulilwa, Tanzania, East Africa.

I cap off this post with a video. This is footage of the town square, the villagers’ reactions to the photos, and this picture-taking process.

3 Responses

  1. Sue McNamara

    It just amazes me, something so simple as a photograph that most of us take for granted, gives them so much joy! You have given them something to treasure a lifetime. You have also given me and countless other people joy in reading and seeing your experiences these last several months!

  2. Vanessa Nguyen

    I’m so glad we kept in touch over the years. It’s really nice to see how people progress in their lives with their travels. Even though I’m too busy to keep up with my own blog, I try to catch snippets of yours. Your writing is inspirational. I look forward to reading more!

What say you?