I left South Africa’s gleaming Johannesburg airport terminal muttering about the homogenization of the world, bitching at the triumph of international anonymonist architecture. Squeaky clean, brightly lit, fairly shining with stainless steel modernity, I could be anywhere. Sydney or San Diego, Chengdu or Chicago, Dubai or Dallas. Landing in Antananarivo, I reminded myself, not for the first time, to be careful what I ask for. We were met by Ravo, our driver, translator and guide, whisked through the airport trailing a line of underfed baggage handlers and touts, deposited in a shining Land Cruiser and driven directly into the city’s gridlocked traffic.
We spent the next three hours slowly winding through the city streets. This wasn’t my first trip to the rodeo, but I was stunned into silence by the abject poverty of the place. Children and grandparents alike picked through mountains of garbage by the roadside, beggars weaved through the stalled traffic. All the while I sat in a cocoon of soft leather, air conditioning and moral discomfort.
Ten days later, I was tired, dusty and not much the wiser for my travels. Many days, photojournalism feels like one more way to monetize human misfortune.
Which is also a handy excuse to just stay in the rental car.
Once in a while, I work up the nerve to push past that doubt, and go out and face the world. I asked the driver to stop on the airport road, by a large red mud pit. A dozen men or more worked in teams, creating crude bricks. It was brutally hard labor under a scalding hot sun. I was unsure about the reception a posh western visitor trailing cameras might expect.
I was greeted with nothing but gentle curiosity and kindness. Though the portrait reflects the grim working conditions these young men face daily, I felt humbled by their hospitality, good humor and curiosity. The tough part was asking them to stop smiling and look suitably serious.