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Publication Date: Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Josh Haner: pictures worth more than words Josh Haner: pictures worth more than words (May 15, 2002)

Stanford senior Josh Haner has a rapid forefinger and knows how to shoot from the hip.

At age 10, he took a free course at the Harvey Milk photo center in San Francisco, where he started to dream of one day becoming a National Geographic photographer. Now he's replacing an entire National Geographic crew.

The crew was set to document Kimeli (another Stanford student and Josh's friend) who is returning to his home in Kenya to graduate from "warrior" status to that of "young elder." The ritual commencement took place late last month.

"But in Kenya, being on time means plus or minus a couple days," Haner explained. The date then moved later, and the crew had other assignments. So Stanford President John Hennessy offered to cover Josh's travel expenses so he could accompany Kimeli and photograph the ceremonies.

Five days before he left, Haner seemed like a person returning home at long last.

This past summer he traveled to Loodoariak, a village in southern Kenya, armed with a 35mm Nikon and six grants from five Stanford departments. Over the course of three months, living alternately in a dung-walled hut and a simple tent, he shot more than 6,000 photographs.

It was in his junior year that Josh started learning about the Maasai and realized they had been misrepresented, even idealized. "The only photos you saw of them were overly saturated color pictures of someone wearing beads or holding a spear, looking over an endless savannah."

But Haner sought the real thing, and found it by living among the tribe, taking wide-angle photos with a technique that showed the objects he focused on as well as their surrounding context.

"Color's something I've always struggled with," he said. "I removed the color variable so attention wasn't all on the beads and the jewelry, but also on the emotions and the eyes."

What he means becomes clear from a single glance at his black-and-white portrait of a Maasai couple on their wedding day. The groom throws a funereal stare at the camera, half turning away from his bride, who looks no happier. Then the eye can't help but wander down the groom's bare legs to the white tennis socks and Hush Puppies on his feet.

A photo like this one is about "different layers," Josh said, "an initial grab on the forefront. Then the context. You go back layer by layer, learning more about what initially grabbed you."

In Kenya, he himself peeled back the layers of an alien culture, spending hours on end in the shade of an acacia tree with boys his age, watching over their grazing herds. He had studied their native language and loved speaking in broken Maa to them. They loved to answer in broken English.

They also lived in the same huts together, gathered around the fires together, and drank cow's milk and cow's blood.

"The biggest difference between us and them is they have their priorities in order," he said. "A loving family, plentiful cattle, and enough food to eat on a daily basis. That's all they're worried about. Here at Stanford, we're always multitasking. Our computer crashes, a phone bill comes. Their culture eliminates all the small things we're worried about."

And that makes for a different approach to other people, too, Haner said.

"I came there and was accepted into the community like that," he snapped his fingers. "We usually have so many things to think about at once in our own daily lives. It felt good, talking to them and knowing that I was the only thing on their mind."

At the back of his own mind, he sensed that he stuck out -- being the whitest living being within a hundred miles. Near the end of his three months' stay, though, he was beginning to forget even that.

A day before his flight, Haner spent the night with a family in Nairobi and recalls something that struck him deeply. He was drinking chai for breakfast with the father of the family, who asked him what he planned to do for the day.

Checking his papers, Haner mentioned that he needed to develop some photos, stop by the post office, confirm his plane tickets, and make some phone calls. The father lowered his cup and looked at him.

"Josh," he said without smiling. "You're sounding like an American again."

Now returned home, Haner said at first he felt more like a foreigner in Palo Alto than in Kenya.

"I was slow. I didn't arrange more than one meeting or event for each day. My friends didn't understand me because they thought I was thinking, 'They'll never understand me.' It was tough, since in Kenya I got used to sitting quiet for many hours. Here if you don't talk people think there's something wrong with you. But my 're-entry,' as we call it, lasted only three months."

His photos and love of documentary photography speak for themselves.

"I'm going to be a starving artist when I graduate," Josh said. "It's where my heart lies." -- Daniel Velton


 

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