‘A Poised Moment’

A globetrotting photographer living in Mississippi tells Brandon Hoops the story behind one of her favorite pictures from Mali.

By / March 2012

I made my way across the West African desert for the Crossing of the Cattle Festival in 1994. I had been in Bamako, the capital of Mali, for the first African Photography Biennial and arranged to stay a few extra days so I could photograph the festival.

The festival celebrates the return of young herders who have been away for several months driving their cattle to more fertile grazing land north of the Niger River. The experience allows the young men to grow up and learn and bond. After the rainy season, they return to let their cattle feed on the rich grass the rains have left behind on the south side of the river.

The Diafarabe people eagerly wait for them to come back. It feels almost like Christmas or maybe a big country fair. It’s one of the most exciting times in the village. It brings the whole town together. Everyone dresses up. They decorate their homes. They have big feasts. There is music and dancing.

Every child looks forward to it. I can still see the brimming enthusiasm in the face of one of the Peul girls, maybe 10 years old, at the home where I stayed during the festival. She had on her best dress and jewelry. She had already done her hair — they are so creative with what they do with hair — in the typical style of that region. The final touch was putting on eye makeup.

Betty Press is the author of “I Am Because We Are,” a collection of pictures and proverbs from Africa.

The light was so nice, almost like a spotlight, to bring her face out of the shadows and highlight such a lovely smile on her face. It was a very simple picture of a poised moment. Minutes later, she would be dancing and running through streets on her way to the bluff overlooking river for the festival’s signature moment: the crossing of the cattle.

I can’t get Africa out of my blood. I lived there for eight years working as a freelance photographer in East and West Africa with my husband, who worked as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.

I was not trained as a photographer when I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, with my Canon AE-1 in 1987. Sure I had taken a couple of photography classes at the University of Michigan, but there was a lot of self-doubt on my first couple assignments.

I can remember thinking, “Are you up to task? Can you do it? Did I get what I need?” I always ended up having something, and eventually it got to the point where I told myself, “Relax, I can do this.” And I did, for more than 20 years, which is what makes publishing my first book so exciting. It’s a culmination for me. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time.

Often the pictures in my book were taken while I was on assignment for a story about famine or war or some problem. Around those scenes there was always life going on. Life goes on. People cope with these challenges in different ways. They still manage to find beauty in their lives. Children still want to play and have fun.

There is more to Africa than war, famine and poverty, which is what the media focuses on. The more time I spend there — my husband and I still return every year — the more and more I hope to see beyond the horrors and develop an appreciation and sensitivity to their ordinary, complicated, persistent, beautiful lives.

Maybe the North African proverb paired with the picture of the Peul girl best describes the impact of my 20-plus year journey of steeping in this life and wisdom: “The world is a mirror; it looks at you the same way you look at it.”


— as told to Brandon Hoops