Working as an NGO Photographer in Africa [and How to Not Contract Ebola]

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There are few things I love more than traveling, photographing remote areas of the world, helping others, and not contracting Ebola. Luckily I was able to fulfill all four of those dreams on my recent work trip as a travel photographer to Africa.

I was able to spend my time getting sunburned in a couple of African countries, but my work was all done in The Gambia. It’s a small sliver of a country that’s smaller than the state of Connecticut. The Gambia is sandwiched smack in the middle of Senegal and rhymes with Zambia, but has a pretentious official article in front.

I worked for Penny Appeal, a UK-based nonprofit operating in more than 30 countries around the world. They provide emergency relief, house and educate orphans, build wells, and more. They have dozens of locals working in their own villages. They’re awesome people. They also happen to be a British Muslim organization.

While many I know have issues with this religion and way of life, I felt fine 99% of the time. Seeing little kids memorize the Qur’an doesn’t really make sense to me, but then again, I’m no Muslim. Yes, I am a pretty devout Christian—or spiritual, as might be more appropriate—but I saw no reason not to work with these folks. While I find many of their practices odd and limiting—and oftentimes sexist—I’m quite sure they feel similarly confused about me. Given this particular group’s comments on my clothing (I wore proper attire while working in the field, of course, but shorts when at the “resort”—like the men and holiday-goers), they likely think that females wearing shorts are a sign of physical and moral indecency. But we talked about these issues quite a bit, and I did my best to learn as much as I could. Besides, I’m friends with Muslims in several different countries around the world, and know that just like Jews, Catholics, Christians, and virtually every other religion, interpretations of religion and practices vary widely.

But why does any of this matter? It doesn’t, unless you’re stuck in times of the past or choose to group everyone of a religion into one category. What matters is that these were the nicest, most delightful folks I’ve worked with, and if I can participate in helping orphans, villagers, and needy people, why shouldn’t I—whether I agree with the religion or not? The group does wonderful work, and they’re great people, so I was delighted to work with them for the first of what I hope is many times. I now consider many of them my good friends–they were that awesome.

While photographing the poverty, well projects, orphans, school systems, and more in West Africa, I heard about quite a few ways to not contract Ebola. Tips include:

- Don’t shake hands, as this spreads germs. || In certain villages—or when meeting entire orphanages, we’d shake hands with 40 different kids and adults in the span of just a few minutes.

- Don’t make out with the locals or foreigners while in West Africa. || Though many tried getting me to stay (I was married off over half a dozen times, but I don’t think any of the marriages stuck), I avoided official wedlock—and therefore did not kiss anyone while there.

- Resist making out with any water buffalo. || I already made this mistake somewhere in Asia*, hence why I came back sick years ago.   *This is not actually true.

- Don’t go to West Africa. || Whoops.

- Avoid contacts with bats and nonhuman primates, as well as their raw meat. || I really wish someone had told me this before I ate all that ape. But seriously, they eat rat in The Gambia (huge, HUGE rats), because it apparently helps lower blood pressure. No, that’s not really related.

- Don’t be a doctor treating patients in West Africa. || Shirley you can’t be serious.

Now that you know how to stay Ebola free, I’ve included some non-Ebola photos from my trip. Check back soon for another update, where I’ll be ranting about husbands in Gambia, Moroccan tea, and so much more.

 

Exciting News, Coming Up Eventually!

Exciting news!

Before I break into the bit where I don’t actually tell you what the news is,  here are some photos of fall. Or are they?? Perhaps they’re photos of another season entirely, and somewhere else, too. Take a guess at where and when they are—details are in each photo caption.

 

Fall really is beautiful around here, and I’m glad I’ve been feeling pretty well and was able to go out and enjoy some hikes. Speaking of feeling well, my exciting news involves my first international trip in years. I am super excited to be going somewhere—finally—and am looking forward to bringing some great photos back. It’ll be a short li’l work diddy, so don’t get all worried now. Except for Ebola. You can worry about that.

I’ll be back with the details soon…ish.

Weddings, Waterfalls, and One More Alliteration

A favorite of my wedding photos from Marina Del Rey, Bronx, NY. Shot with Jimmy Ryan Photography.

A favorite of my wedding photos from Marina Del Rey, Bronx, NY

Well, I suppose wacky is what I might call the recent chain of events and situations. Perhaps I should have thought of that descriptor back when I wrote the title, but it’s far too late now.

For the past month I’ve been busy almost every week and weekend with weddings, wildlife, and otherwise slightly wacky events. I combined some of my wedding trips so I could see waterfalls, like this out-of-the-way beauty in the Delaware Water Gap.

Pennsylvania waterfalls are beautiful even in the rain

Pennsylvania waterfalls are beautiful even in the rain

From the You Know You’re in Pennsylvania When… signs (you’ll see one in just a minute) to odd nature, nothing compared to the premier of Art and Craft, a fascinating documentary about Mark Landis. For those of you unfamiliar with this art forger, Art and Craft—whether you care for art or not—will interest you as it details how Landis created his copied masterpieces—and how he eventually (and slowly) got caught. After duping dozens and dozens of museum curators across the country, he was eventually discovered–but not until the FBI had heard about him first. This talented and extremely smart (though delusional) man faked names, faked art, and even faked being a priest.

But while I tried to blend into the background as the photographer for the movie premier, Landis actually walked over to me and introduced himself. He said he wanted to meet me because he had studied photography in school, but then never found anything he wanted to photograph. Yes, he uses this line in the film. And as I stood next to him throughout the night, it appeared he had his act under control. Sure, he’s fascinating to be around, and yes, I believe he’s fully aware of how odd he appears to everyone else—and likes it that way. His slow stuttering and drawl remind you of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote. It’s hard to listen to and slightly disarming—but I believe Mr. Landis loves putting people off while making them all jealous of his notoriety. A wonderful film it was for sure, though photographing this deathly pale man was no easy feat! For once I was not the whitest person in the room. Below, one of my favorite shots is this slightly disturbing reflective portrait I took of Mr. Landis in Lincoln Center.

A portrait of Art and Craft's Mark Landis

A portrait of Art and Craft’s Mark Landis

Aside from movie premiers, the past month was full of weddings—and there are more to come! While I never imagined I’d be photographing so many weddings around the Northeast, I do love using creative lighting and angles to make the most of the scenery and subjects. Oh, and the food ain’t bad, either! Except wedding cake. Wedding cake is always bad. Always. Don’t tell me, “Oh, but my wedding cake was different. It was done by a local baker and I did lots of taste tests everywhere and this was the best.”

It was bad. I’m 100% positive of this statement. But here are some wedding photos I love from the past few weeks. Let them make your heart grow a little less hatred.

When I haven’t been photographing weddings or movie premiers, I’ve been attending weddings. Here’s an awesome sign I saw while driving to one in Pennsyltucky.

You Know You're in Pennsylvania When...

You Know You’re in Pennsylvania When…

As summer came to an end, I spent as much time as possible outdoors photographing. From waterfalls and birds (see the blue heron below!) to strange growths, green lakes, and newts, I thoroughly enjoyed our not-too-hot New York summer as much as possible. I’m still hoping for that end-of-year adventure, so we’ll see if one comes about. Until then, it’s all about weddings, waterfalls, and whatever little surprises come along.

Note: Several of these wedding photos were shot with Jimmy Ryan Photography. All other wedding, nature, and event photos were shot under my own company, Kathryn Cooper Photography.

Blood, Guts, and Mountain Biking: Photographing a World-Class Red Bull Event

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You think I like adventure? You believe that I love traveling to remote lands and photographing native tribes? You assume I love exploring foreign cities, living like a local, and reporting on daily life, food, culture, and more? Naw. I love talking about nails, makeup, hair, purses, and shoes. That’s what matters in life, I say.

Which is precisely why I was pumped when I heard I’d be photographing the Red Bull UCI Mountain Bike World Cup over the weekend. Held at Windham Mountain in the Catskill Mountains of New York, this exciting event—held in the USA for the first time in years—was little more than an hour’s drive away. Though I love biking and was given free reign to shoot as a press photographer, the most exciting event was Saturday’s Downhill event. The best bikers competed in the junior’s, women’s, and men’s divisions, and it proved to be quite an exciting day.

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Minus the beginning, that is. Less than 10 minutes into being there, I was photographing the cross-country race. While this might not sound exciting, it’s actually full of folks from around the world who go careening down hills, biking on roads, pedaling hard uphill, speeding through steep curves, and “small” jumping over rocks and little hurdles. It’s only for those well-versed in mountain biking. While photographing a section where bikers emerge from a rocky forest section, two bikers were battling it out, and one hit a rock (or perhaps the other biker?). His eyes widened, his bike careened, and he went flying over the course markers and onto the hard rocks just a foot in front of me. I yelled for a medic and kept asking if he was okay (despite blood coming out from his mouth, ear, and various visible body parts), but he was squealing and grunting. The sounds were not pleasant, but his friends rushed over and helped him on his way. Hopefully he’s all right!

Luckily that was the worst scare of the day, though upon seeing the professional’s downhill course, my heart skipped a beat for non-romantic reasons. One section careened blindly off a rock and over a brook, with only a narrow wooden bridge (and no corner bumpers or protectors) to land on. One wrong move at 45 m.p.h. and you are, pardon my English, dead meat.

You can get a sense of the action from the Red Bull recap below, or you can watch an even better video on their site. Naturally, there’s no way to tell just how fast these bikers are going–or how impossibly steep this mountain really is.

The juniors were fun to watch, but the women were quite impressive. Along with other special-access visual media press, I would lie on my stomach around a steep bend in order to get just the right shots. Drunkards around us—otherwise known as spectators—were luckily not on the course too much, and photographers/videographers were given special sections on either sides of the course. Up the mountain, the view of the green Catskills were just lovely, making for quite the nice jump backdrop.

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To say we were close to the action is an understatement; I was, in fact, under it at times. Positioning myself for just the right sky shot, I would kneel between jumps around a curve. That, my friends, is how I managed the shot below. Safe? Maybe not so much. But awesome, yes. Come to think of it, a few people gasped as one of the men rode over me…

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One of my favorite perspectives was taken from the chairlift and getting the timing right as a biker came down. But the best moment of all, besides seeing American Aaron Gwin zoom into first place with just one racer to go, was seeing the last racer come down the hill as the whole crowd held their breath. Brit Josh Bryceland—otherwise known as Rat Boy—came charging down the hill as the audience started shouting at the splits. I darted near the finish line and snapped a few photos just as he came into view on the bumpy home stretch. The crowd went wild as he zoomed under the finish line and first place by a whopping 1.5 seconds. The media stormed him, and Red Bull captured it all on film.

Just to be obnoxious, you can see the digital stills from Red Bull’s footage. I’m standing near the finish line in my issued green photo vest.

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And here’s the shot I got from the top photo at that exact moment–just so you understand what I do all day as a photojournalist:

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If I have any advice to give, it’s this: Wear a helmet, kids. I saw several people who weren’t, and there’s simply no excuse–though it’s your life, I suppose. And second, don’t go into mountain biking as a professional. Everyone–competitors and spectators alike–were in casts, bandages, and slings, and all were talking about their latest wipe-outs. Oy vey.

‘Twas quite the exciting day, and I barely got sunburned! Believe it or not, it was a long-time dream to photograph a downhill mountain biking affair, and I cannot wait to up the ante for the next Red Bull event. Or X-Games. Or the Olympics. I’m open to whatever adventure comes next!