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|| News Item: Posted 2009-06-25

Sports Shooter Destination: Traveling to Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique
By Melanie Maxwell

Photo by Melanie Maxwell / The Star Press

Photo by Melanie Maxwell / The Star Press

Two young boys take a break from sweeping dirt into a pile as they clean up the front yard of their home at a home for special needs boys inside a compound in Lusaka, Zambia on Thursday, May, 7 2009.
I never realized how important the little plastic handles right above the window inside a car were until I rode the streets of Zambia, Africa in the back seat of an SUV.

I am not talking about some annoying potholes here I'm talking craters. Throw in a driver fit for the Indy 500 and you get to experience the likes of what a mogul skier would feel if the mountain were made of dust instead of snow. It was while bouncing around like a hot potato, hanging on for life when I spotted a photo worth letting go of the plastic handle for.

In the distance I could see smoke rising from a field and small figures looking through piles of trash. I knew letting go to reach for my camera was a "dangerous" idea, but I had to go for it.

I attempted to steady my camera, pointing it half way through the window, and while hitting my head on the roof and bouncing off my neighbor, I held my breath and my elbows in and thought, "just get it in focus, just get ONE in focus!"

In reality I could barely keep the viewfinder to my eye, but I managed to squeak out two-in focus frames. In retrospect, I probably could have asked the driver to stop the car, but I would have lost the moment, my "cover" would have been blown.

I found myself bouncing around the roads of Zambia after my managing editor at The Star Press approached me back in September about a Rotary International Group Study Exchange. Four, non-Rotarian, working professionals, ages 25-40, along with a Rotarian as a group leader were asked to participate in a five-week exchange with another Rotary district in another country. The experience is touted as vocational, cultural as well as a chance to build friendships with Rotary clubs overseas.

On May 1st, 2009 I left for the biggest adventure of my life. I spent five weeks traveling through Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, logging over 2,400 miles by boat, car, and bus, with a couple of flights in-between.

The structure of the trip didn't allow for me to just hit the streets and start photographing. My days were scheduled from morning to night with Rotary responsibilities and other planned events.

I recognized quickly that I would have to adjust my approach to shooting. I stole any opportunity to get close to people, often hanging behind tours so I could secretly slink away and look for real life.

Photo by Melanie Maxwell / The Star Press

Photo by Melanie Maxwell / The Star Press

Two young boys pick through a smoldering pile of garbage in a compound in Lusaka, Zambia on Thursday, May, 7 2009.
I did just that on a tour of a Rotary sponsored school in a compound in Lusaka, Zambia. I hung around with the tour long enough as not to be rude and slowly started hanging back. I found a pair of young boys sweeping dirt into piles as a chore outside of their school. I was able to make a photo that was real, instead of something I was meant to see and photograph through a guided tour.

Though I couldn't take charge of my days, I was given many opportunities through the connections of local Rotarians, to visit and photograph through out these countries. I had automatic access to many organizations that I would not have had otherwise. We toured many schools, orphanages, hospitals, and even visited the offices of four mayors.

This was my first time traveling overseas and I expected it to be a big learning experience. One of those experiences being what those in Africa refer to as "Africa time." Meaning, oh you know, whenever. Planning a 10 a.m. meeting? Expect your guests to show around 11 a.m. Things sort of happen, well, when they happen. This school of thought took some getting used to especially as we waited for rides, events and meetings to begin. In the end, everything always worked out, we didn't miss a beat and I always had a chance to photograph.

"Paparazzo, Paparazzo!" I tired to ignore the call as my host was attempting to get my attention at an orphanage I was touring in the city of Tete, Mozambique. I am going to be honest, hearing the word directed at me sort of made my skin crawl, but it's a term commonly used in area. The respect for a photographer is much different here than back in the states, they are not treated badly, just not always seen as a professional.

I was paired with a freelance paparazzo named Wilson while traveling in the copperbelt of Kitwe, Zambia. He makes money by hustling (no, not that kind of hustling.) He shoots sports, family photos, events, all the same kind of stuff we shoot here. But when he's done, he rushes to the corner photo shop and has prints made, rushes back to the event and tries to make a buck selling 4x6 photos. Oh, and did I mention he bought his camera on the black market and he has to hold it upside down, yes, upside down, to get the shutter to open for a clean shot? Meeting Wilson taught me respect for his effort and an appreciation for the conveniences and opportunities in my own career as a newspaper photographer.

Photo by Melanie Maxwell / The Star Press

Photo by Melanie Maxwell / The Star Press

The sun sets over the Lower Shire Valley in Malawi, Africa on Friday, May 22, 2009.
Although I didn't have a photo assignment to fill, this was, by far, the most challenging assignment I have ever had. Covering all those miles meant a lot of time in transport, causing me to fight the urge of constantly yelling, "Stop the car, I need to take a photo!" Instead I adapted, asked to stop occasionally, and mastered the ability to photograph out of windows.

I also learned to deal with the loss of anonymity, I stuck out like a sore thumb, not only because of my color but also because of the camera. I found that many locals feared being photographed, unlike our society, where advanced technologies have made everyone a photographer and most are used to being photographed. I also had personal pressure: I wanted to take advantage of this once-in-a-life-time opportunity and to come home with more than just pretty vacation photos.

Despite these challenges, I found myself coming back with photos that
I was proud of. What this opportunity meant to my family and my community was a chance to move Africa a little closer. I was able to bring back Africa through my photographs, words and experiences to those who may never have the opportunity to visit.

They say Africa changes people. Africa not only changed me, but it taught me to be a better photographer and a better person.

(Melanie Maxwell is a staff photographer at the Star Press in Muncie, Indiana. You can see her work on her member page: and at her personal website:

Related Links:
Melanie's member page

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