When difficulties due to local unrest as well as COVID-19 complications prevented my wife and me from being able to visit the Congo and photograph the local gorilla population, an unforeseen opportunity presented itself to go to Uganda instead, and I jumped at the chance.
In 2020, I traveled to Uganda to do something I had always wanted to do, visit the mountain gorillas of Bwindi, Uganda. My wife and I have always had a passion for animal welfare, an interest in biodiversity, and a pure love of all animals. So since we met and started earning any form of salary/wages, we began traveling to various places where we could spend time with wild animals, and it was on safari, up close and personal with all types of incredible creatures, where I really started to become interested in photography, and my love of capturing a subject and/or a moment was recognized.
While planning to go, I decided to add on an individual photography expedition to the rural heartlands around Bwindi and Jinja. My aim was to experience firsthand what life was like in some of the poorest areas of Africa, where people had nothing other than the turf beneath their feet. Trying to avoid the cliches of African poverty, what transpired was an effort to relate observers with the faces of the local peasants (this word is commonly used to describe poor levels of wealth in Africa) and try and give an insight into not just suffering, but also their simple happiness, warmth, and expectancy of “life.”
My trip was really split into three parts: firstly, my time with the gorillas, second within local villages in the Bwindi area, and thirdly I would head to Jinja, which is located on Lake Victoria and widely considered as the “Source of the Nile.”
Second to the main goal of spending time with gorillas was to experience other parts of the country, and particularly the people within it. After spending a few days trekking with the gorillas and taking plenty of photos — see here for that gallery – I spent extended time in Bwindi village (adjacent to the National Park) to explore some of the local activity and the people within it. In a place that relies heavily on tourism, it was easy to get wrapped up in some of the less authentic practices, and so I searched for life a bit farther away from the gorillas and looked for areas where I could not only explore the people but some interesting photography opportunities.
After a bit of digging and persuasion through my guide and various security personnel, I managed to gain access to coffee plantations, foundational projects, local schools, hospitals, and people’s houses. Of course, being the only Mzungu (white man) within hundreds of miles, I was aware that my time, certainly when it came to photography, was limited before the authenticity of the situations and environments I found myself in were degraded and would consequently lead to me not making many interesting photos. So with time against me (I wish I had planned more strategically) and a lack of lighting equipment (I left this with the tour company at my next destination in Jinja), I relied heavily on street portraits and environmental light towards dusk and the least amount of wide-eyed onlookers as possible.
After a day of walking around without a camera, humoring the local guides by visiting places they wanted to show me (but that I had no actual interest in), I found myself gravitating towards wanting to photograph the children within the villages. Rural villages in Uganda have average life expectancies of below 50 years old, and with many children unable to access any form of education or healthcare it seemed appropriate to focus on the lives and emotions of the young, and how they perceived both me and the outside world. All that aside, I just wanted to observe and learn, and hopefully, impart some warmth and kindness where I could.
My photos in and around Bwindi reflect maybe more reportage or street photography than portraiture, but nonetheless, the experience certainly allowed me to ease into all the unseen facets that go into travel photography: exploration, research, getting to know subjects, putting subjects at ease, accurate translation, visualizing ideas, expressing ideas, directing, managing assistants, space, people, weather, light, narrative, etc. Usually, this takes a good day or two to mold, but I had to get straight into it and as such, I believe my street/environmental photos reflect that.
Once I got to Jinja, I had had my so-called “practice” and essentially landed in the middle of an array of villages near the huge Lake Victoria. Here I would spend three days (again, I wish I had longer) and the area’s own unique challenges presented themselves straight away. I lost most of the first day due to weather and poorly communicated (on my behalf) ideas, as well as almost being conned out of large amounts of money on previously agreed photo setups, subjects, and locations — word spreads quickly when a Mizungu comes into the area, especially as I was on my own.
At the end of the first day, I had nothing, so I took some time to clear up a few things with my guide and other local helpers. These types of debriefs are great over a drink at the end of a day and have to happen quite often when you are working with different people all the time (rather than taking your own crew with you).
You can see some of my lessons learned on my blog for Uganda, but the second and third days went smoother, even though there was plenty of rain to ruin what was “Plan A” of outdoor sunrise shots. Plans changed, and the photography became more enjoyable for everyone involved — people relaxed a bit more, they got to know me a bit better, they played with my camera and I printed them some photos. From then on, the trip went far too quickly and of course, I didn’t get nearly the amount of content that I dreamed of, but there is always next time! One’s favorite photograph is always the next one.
There were a few magical moments in just these few days that I will not forget. Although once again I was on my own, I didn’t feel alone when surrounded by the warmth of the local people. Throughout the whole 10 days, I was given so much hospitality and kindness from those that had nothing but a torn shirt on their back, and for that — as well as some of the unforgettable people I met and managed to photograph — I thank them, as well as all of those that helped me get the content that I am proud to publicize.
If you want to see a bit of footage from behind the scenes please watch my video, read my blog or purchase my book, all of which are linked on my Uganda project page. Feel free to send me a message to ask any questions about the project, or indeed anything at all, I’d love to hear from you!
About the Author: Matt Jacob is a photographic artist who specializes in capturing the evocative, dynamic, and complex lives of various subjects whose stories grab his attention. With a focus on authentically encapsulating a moment from all metaphorical angles within a photograph and a deeper story over a collection, Jacob has dedicated his passion to truly understanding the essence of different perspectives, as well as understanding the “why” behind various forms of human nature. He believes a fearlessness in beholding his subject’s story is what makes his photographs unique. To this day, he relentlessly pursues the capturing of untold stories of unfamiliar life.