Culture  Unyama through the lens

Concordia students photograph a northern Ugandan refugee camp

When I heard that two Concordia students were putting on “Limbo,” a vernissage of photos they took in a northern Ugandan refugee camp, I made a snap judgment.

The 18-to-27 set – confident and optimistic – seems to adore going to far-off places that have problems to fix. Voluntourism has become an institution. There’s an entire Lonely Planet guide dedicated to helping readers find an organization well suited to their talents and budget. 3.7 million Americans volunteered abroad in 2007, according to Corporation for National & Community Service.

But Matthew Hood and Devin Wells, the two photographers behind “Limbo,” know that not all volunteer abroad organizations are created equal, and some can help more than others.

Hood and Wells think Unyama, the camp they photographed, could benefit from a local approach that capitalizes on residents’ expertise and energy – aspects that are lacking in the work of the many organizations who try to address overarching problems in the community.

Proceeds from a silent auction at “Limbo” will be directed to Wells’s and Hood’s brain child: a community development program for Unyama that would work with camp residents on solutions to disease, violence, and malnutrition. They are inspired by projects in other camps in the region that focus on community farming co-ops, daycare, sports, and dance.

“The huts [in the camp] literally touch each other. Privacy is given up. You can’t fend for yourself; you can’t farm. You can’t go back home to farm. There are 20,000 people and half a dozen wells,” Hood said.

The residents of Unyama camp are Ugandans who have been internally displaced by the civil war between the rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the government. The LRA raids villages to build up its army, prompting the government to coral citizens to camps to minimize the risk of abduction.

Wells and Hood approached the Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program with the idea to shoot documentary photographs at Unyama. Pairing their photos with narratives about the faces captured, they hope the vernissage will awaken their audience to the reality facing internally displaced people in Uganda. The two worry that short Western news stories fail to communicate the human side of conflict.

“We read things in the news and it’s another earthquake, another tornado. What am I supposed to do? But if you really get into the person’s story, and relate to it, people can see themselves in it, and people’s minds can change hopefully for the better,” said Wells.

When Wells slept in the camp during his last week at Unyama, he learned things that were impossible to glean from the day trips they took there for the majority of the trip, while staying at a hotel four kilometres away.

“When I slept in the [camp], I got a full understanding of the breadth of people’s situation at night. Everyone is drunk, but the women get up early and go to bed early,” he said.

Hood and Wells are aware of the politics of the camera, of the way their photos can tell certain stories and keep others silent. Shooting on digital, Hood tried to take his camera out of the equation completely, hoping to capture pure moments of action. “I took the fly on the wall approach…. I feel like they are doing what they’d be doing if I wasn’t there. There is no presence of the camera,” Hood said.

Wells, who used film while at Unyama, took a different approach. “My approach is to try and create a relationship, I am present as a photographer. I want to have the intimacy to let them present themselves as who they are,” Wells said.

The vernissage features photos of men watching European soccer games in makeshift video halls and women who were mutilated in the conflict – blown up to almost life-size. The title, “Limbo,” channels the sense of stagnancy in the transition between conflict and peace, village, and camp.