Field sketch of Rafe H Andrews by Eric Andriantsialonina | Sri Lanka, June 2024 | Pencil and watercolor on paper

Photo Rapport

Rafe H Andrews reflects on the trust-building efforts that brought five of his pictures to life.

June 2024

In this recurring series, the DAWNING team presents images with a look behind the scenes at how each shot came together. In this second installment, our Lead Creative Producer, Rafe H Andrews, looks back at five of his photographs that mean the most to him.

I Dream of Lions

This is Lepish Oleset. Lepish is a Maasai herder we met in 2021 while doing fieldwork around the Maasai Mara game reserve in Kenya. Drought is rendering a shortage of grazing land, so he and his fellow herders risk bringing their cattle into the reserve, putting them in the path of lions and other predators. We met the morning of November 27th. Lepish was just coming off the graveyard shift to guard his tribe’s cattle, but still he graciously invited us into his hut. He said he spends so much time thinking about lions, he sees them in his dreams.

We spent some calm time talking and building a rapport, but he was so exhausted that he kept nodding off. I took a few shots but none of them were quite right, partly because the hut was very dimly lit. I stepped outside to confer with the team, and when I went back in, I found him sound asleep with his face glowing beneath the small window light. The light and shadow give it a kind of ominous effect. It’s almost as if you’re seeing someone in the grave, but there’s a sense of peace in his expression – he could finally rest after a long night on the open savannah.

Keep in mind that we spent the whole day in his village, and Lepish did wake up after which I chatted with him more. I showed him the photos from the hut, and while I took many more before we left, I knew this was the one. It’s just one of those magic moments where you’re invited in, bide your time, and, unexpectedly, story and circumstance align in the perfect shot.

Wintering

Perhaps the toughest trip I’ve been on with DAWNING was to western Mongolia in the dead of winter. We were there researching the struggles of traditional herders amid increasingly severe and unpredictable seasons. On top of the extreme cold, we also had to weather the initial suspicions of locals. We spent a lot of time in huts, or “gers,” just talking to people to build a sense of camaraderie and closeness: learning about their lives, listening to their hopes, eating what they ate.

Mongolian herding culture is understandably reserved; they’re all survivors in an environment that demands them to be tough. It’s a subdued and slow-moving life, and, while beautiful, you have to wait for things to happen in front of your lens. I was really hungry to capture a sense of human movement and exuberance against that vast and lunar landscape. During the initial trust-building process, there was a lot of sitting around, talking and waiting. I felt quite anxious at first, wondering when something would actually happen that I could photograph.

So it was a good moment when, after a few hours in one man’s home, he let me follow him out into his corral, where he started to play with his cattle. It was so cold even they had sweaters, which he lovingly adjusted. It was a simple moment that probably happens every day, but it was raw and spoke to the bond between man and animal that’s been a part of herding culture for centuries. I had to shoot quickly to keep up with him – the end result is a spontaneous picture of the simple joys of herding life in Mongolia. Even as a vast and desolate wilderness stretches out behind him.

The Safe House

This might just look like a photo of two buddies goofing off at home. But as with everything we do, there’s more than meets the eye. The two young men are Nicaraguan pro-democracy activists, and the photo was taken at an undisclosed safe house on the outskirts of San Jose, Costa Rica.

In 2018, they marched alongside thousands of other Nicaraguan students in the streets of Managua, demanding the resignation of their country’s strongman president, Daniel Ortega. Both of them were arrested and tortured, physically and psychologically, by Ortega’s notorious security forces. After their release they fled here to Costa Rica, unable to return home.

We had already spent a few hours with them in the living room of their safe house, as part of our 2019 project on Nicaraguan exiles in Costa Rica, “Ortega’s Most Wanted.” There were five or six young guys staying in that tiny house. It was probably the last place they wanted to be, but they were really active and playful with each other in spite of everything, with a lot of joking and wrestling around. We spent the whole day there, and there were a lot of great moments that passed in front of my lens. But the fun and abandon in this moment stayed with me.

What we really see here is a picture of the resilience of the human spirit. These were young guys in the prime of their life, willing to go to great lengths for their country and their ideals. They had experienced tremendous pain and trauma, with the visible scars to prove it, and now were trapped in this house far from home, hiding from agents of their own government. Yet somehow there were still these simple joys of daily life. It was a personal moment of great pride and inspiration that we were able to share that space with them and help tell their story.

Get on The Truck

Every good photo is a gift that has to be earned. In the case of this shot, we were given the gift of being in the right place at the right time: Just a few hours after landing in San José for our “Ortega’s Most Wanted” project, we happened upon a Nicaraguan anti-government rally. So, we had to prove ourselves worthy.

It’s very easy to be a person with a camera at a protest, as the elements that make a good photo are abundant: Action, color, emotion, and above all, humanity. But I’m very guarded against protest photography as a general and ethical rule. It can be this attractive rush and feel like a quick payoff for photographers and onlookers. It would be too easy to snap a few frames and say, “I got it”, but there’s so much more going on here than that.

The pivotal opportunity presented itself in the form of a truck piled with protesters, snaking its way through the throngs of people. It had speakers strapped to the top, blaring the Nicaraguan national anthem. I was at street level when we noticed the truck and our director, Raul Roman, whispered in my ear that I should try to get on top. So I asked one of the demonstrators if I could join them, and they were just so excited and happy – one of them grabbed my wrist and hoisted me up.

I climbed to the top of the truck, which was pretty high, and I still remember looking through the viewfinder as I took this photo and seeing the story come together through the lens. The young man was in a moment that was both deeply personal and highly public, singing the anthem of a country that spat him out, but that he so clearly loved. He was waving and passionately draping himself in the flag. I didn’t get the chance to speak to him but felt so much of the human experience on top of that truck. There was conflict, pain, joy, and love all wrapped up there, and I felt really lucky to have shared this vulnerable moment.

There’s a mysterious alchemy to trust-building. Sometimes, like in Mongolia, it happens over a very long period of time. In other cases, it can all come together in a single moment.

The Dictator’s Daughter

A seminal goal during our time in Costa Rica was to interview Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo, Daniel Ortega’s stepdaughter. She was forced to flee Nicaragua and seek asylum in Costa Rica after accusing her stepfather of sexually abusing her as a child.

We weren’t able to speak with her during our first visit. But she gradually opened up to us after we shared some of our work, and Raul was also able to establish a bond with her over the phone on the basis of the two of them being educators. When we realized there would be another opportunity, we flew to San Jose again.

She welcomed us into the safe house where she was living at the time and we spent two hours with her, her cat, and her adolescent son. It was one of the most memorable conversations of my career and a great moment of teamwork between Raul and I. We knew it was as close as we were ever going to get to Daniel Ortega; and we were able to learn about him intimately from someone with firsthand knowledge. A lot of what we learned was off the record. But this was not about him; it was about her: She had wisdom and grace and warmth, and important things to share.

There were plenty of opportunities for photographs during our conversation, but the challenge was to strike a balance between humanizing her while also portraying her reality: She was in hiding, in danger, threatened. So while we were chatting, I went down to the street to get some shots from a different angle. The resulting image is layered, colorful, and tells the viewer the critical thing about her, which is that even while she’s in such a difficult situation she hasn’t lost her humanity and her playful spirit. She really liked that cat.

Soon after our piece was published in The Guardian, she finally received her refugee status from the Costa Rican government, which had been mysteriously blocked for years.

I am deeply fortunate at DAWNING to have shared these intimate moments and so many more, supported by world-class teamwork. No photographer ever rides alone – I was supported and lifted to make these magic moments happen. And I mean it when I say magic. At its best the work we do is the merging of profession, art, and spirit.

If you ask any of my teammates, they’ll be the first to tell you that the work carries a deeply spiritual component for me. They’d also tell you that at the end of the day I’m a softy. I care deeply for people, whether I’ve known them my whole life or just met them. And my personal values align closely with those of DAWNING – to stay humble, stay hungry, and be ready when the moments come. When they do come, I simply hope to be present and prove myself worthy.

Article by Elliot Waldman, based on two interviews with Rafe H Andrews | Photographs by Rafe H Andrews | Watercolor sketch of Rafe H Andrews by Eric Andriantsialonina

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