Giving The World A Human Face
Travel+Leisure|October 2017

Whether traveling through Ethiopia, North Korea, or any other of the long list of remote countries she has visited, writer and photographer Wendy E. Simmons finds nothing builds bridges quite like the act of taking a picture.

 

Wendy E. Simmons

It was as if joy had somehow managed to come full circle. I was sitting in my New York apartment, smiling at photos of a family smiling at photos I had taken of them outside their home in Maputo, Mozambique, two months earlier. 

Like all of my most treasured travel images, the picture was born out of a chance encounter. I had asked my guide for the day, Miguel, to show me where he’d grown up, and he’d graciously taken me to see Maputo’s sprawling bairros, or slums. We had just entered Bairro de Laulane, high above the city, when a young girl caught my eye. She was dressed in yellow and sitting in front of a bright blue door, and she appeared to be crying.

Miguel assured me she wasn’t hurt or in danger, just upset about a missing toy. I offered to cheer her up by taking her picture, but her family was suspicious. Why would an outsider want to photograph a total stranger? Miguel explained that recording new people and places was a hobby of mine—adding, at my suggestion, that I would be happy to shoot a family portrait and give them a copy.

That changed everything. Like most residents of Maputo’s “poverty belt,” the family lives in a makeshift home with very few material possessions,  and had never had their picture taken together. It was clear that, for them, the prospect of owning a portrait was a big deal. So they posed for me and then, together, we came up with a plan to get them a copy. When I got home to the U.S., I would send the images to their local check-cashing store, which had a tenuous Internet connection and a general e-mail address. Having extracted Miguel’s solemn promise to help make it all happen, I left him with a thumb drive to transfer the files to a photo printing store, and money for the prints.

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