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Missoula Art Beat: UM Photojournalist Shaun Bell Documents Hopeful, Promising Africa

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Coups, conflicts and corruption… these three words sum up the news themes Americans receive related to social, political, and economic happenings in Africa. These problems typify a pattern of failure that has plagued the Dark Continent in the quarter-century since most of its nations became independent. Indeed, there’s no denying deep troubles beleaguer even the most developed countries such as Zimbabwe, Kenya, and South Africa; the prospects for most of the continent's other places appear bleak.

Nonetheless, another Africa exists, one of promise, beauty, optimism and transition. University of Montana sophomore photojournalist Shaun Bell documented this Africa over the course of five weeks spent there this summer. In fact, he’s got more than four thousand photos to share of hope and healing.

“I had the chance to blend my love of language, international culture, political theory, and photojournalism with the passion and the mindset to see and understand Africa. I’ve always wanted to see the faces, cultures, and people of Africa, and I want to relay those images of another world back here.

“My generation needs to care more about things in order to get things to change in the world.”

Bell traveled to Africa as part of a larger contingent of members of a group called Launch Out Ministries. Upon arriving, he was fast reminded of the land’s wide potential for unvarnished danger.

"I had six vaccinations before I left. There’s known to be malaria all over Zambia, and if bitten there, you can be dead within 12 hours. A mosquito bit me as I was getting off the plane; I was thinking 'okay, God, my faith is in you here.'"

The problems of one African nation, by and large, are similar to those that afflict the entire continent: abject poverty, rampant corruption, gross mismanagement, tribal enmity, uncontrolled population growth. But, in spite of this assessment, Bell feels that the continent can and will somehow break out of the vicious cycle of political instability and moral neglect. And instead of taking the negative route, he tried to photograph the positive winds of change slowly blowing across the dry Saharan plains.

“It’s easy to focus on the pandemics and the genocides and how terrible things are, but people are making changes there in some countries. Yes, it’s a very impoverished and corrupt continent, but change is certainly possible.

“The power of images impacts people, it can move nations. That’s what I love about photography.”

Bell’s photographic images tell the basic human anecdote of smiles, friendship, affection, hospitality, opportunity, and the brazenness of hope.

“The people aren’t unhappy there,” says Bell. “And Africans are extremely affectionate. It was a shock at first because people are so nice, so hospitable. I saw poor families giving up crates of cold Coca-Colas. People that have nothing were giving up everything. I was blown away.”

Bell says he covered quite a bit of ground in short amounts of time, adventuring in Tanzania, Zanzibar Island, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa, and he says the journey, while missionary in nature, wasn’t solely about proselytizing people; it was as much about helping Africans better comprehend neglected health and social issues.

“The program has good objectives,” says Bell.

In Zimbabwe, he saw firsthand the effects of President Robert Mugabe’s tyrannical despotism. “I was there in the middle of June, and watched displaced families and some of the poor people who he has threatened. There were so many grocery stores with no food on the shelves.”

Many Africans find the mechanisms of the camera to be something of a revolutionary, if not mystical, concept. Some of them even believed at first that Bell’s camera was a weapon. Photography, he learned, comes with its own set of sensitivity standards. So, for the most part, Bell simply followed his instincts while minding his manners.

“As a photographer,” says Bell. “you’re always looking for that great shot, but you have to be bold but respectful. Tanzania and Zanzibar Island have a more Islamic influence, and I was told that it’s extremely disrespectful to their culture and religion to take photos without asking them first. In Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa, most enjoyed the camera, especially the children. Some of them had never seen themselves in the mirror, so they had no idea what they looked like.”

In Zambia, Bell was involved with humanitarian projects in the harshest of slums, saddest of orphanages, and grimiest of child prisons (yes, he did do some touristy things, such as participate in a safari trek). The lack of health-related institutions and basic human services in not just Zambia but all of Africa startled him. One of the most poignant images he captured there was of a group of energetic children stampeding through a schoolyard, free as only a gaggle of giggling kids can be, barreling blissfully past a posted sign — warning of the dangers of AIDS.

“There are so many areas with no hospitals, no ambulances, no health care, and no benefits of social cooperation through government.

“In Coloma, Zambia, I was at a place with the highest concentration of AIDS orphans in the world. The tribes have very skewed views about how to get rid of AIDS, such as sleeping with a virgin. Contraceptives are demonic instruments of evil.”

In another photo, Bell managed to capture the distinct look of a mentally ill man named Alfred, a ragamuffin who at once seems gladsome and melancholic, tormented but at peace, disheveled yet dignified.

“In Zambia, there live some of the most weathered people I’d ever seen in my life,” says Bell. “Many are living in rags, meandering with no purpose. Through a translator of Swahili, I met Alfred. He couldn’t converse directly, but the photo nonverbally communicates a happy, troubled life.”

The children of Africa supplied Bell with further emotional strength to continue advocating global cooperation, greater encouragement to fight harder for the underprivileged, and the lasting impression of human dignity.

“They are beautiful, but many of them lack basic nutrients. Some have blonde hair at the tips due to the lack of nutrition and malnourishment,” says Bell who says he brought with him a suitcase full of toothbrushes and toys to distribute.

No matter where in Africa Bell strolled or sauntered – country or city, rural dirt road or paved lane – he says that children would race toward him from all four directions, ebullient, exuberant, and inquisitive as to the nature and meaning of the young, pale-skinned man’s visit. Perhaps not surprisingly, he had a hard time – even through a translator – explaining to these interested onlookers the hallowed staples of Montana life and legend, such as grizzly bears, fly-fishing, and heavy snowfall.

Perhaps a bit oddly, Bell says that visiting Africa wasn’t the culturally jarring experience he had anticipated, but that it was the return trip to the United States, following five weeks of participating in the African existence, which left him feeling maladjusted.

“It took me a whole month to re-assimilate. It’s hard not to get frustrated when you get back here to such a self-consumed culture.”

Looking back on his journey, Bell is most fond of the profoundly interpersonal nature of the sojourn, the mutual benefice he discovered rooted in the very universe of cultural symbiosis, human equality, and chance greetings.

“There was a huge need to help in Africa. What I found, though, is that Africans will help you out just as much as you help them out. They help you, too. There’s an exchange.”

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About Brian D'Ambrosio