A Photographers View – By Simon Forsyth

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I said what any self employed photographer who had never shot a travel documentary would say, “HELL YES!”


I had never shot a travel documentary professionally before, so when Jeremie and Stephen asked me to film and shoot a trip to Senegal and The Gambia, I said what any self employed photographer who had never shot a travel documentary would say, “HELL YES!”. I went online to forums and blogs, watched youtube videos on how to protect the gear etc, and even watched Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boormans ‘Long Way Down’ three times. But after all that, I decided to do what I always do, just get on with it, pack light and keep it simple.

When traveling abroad there are so many things that stick out in your memory, the food, the people, the weather. The one thing everyone who has travelled to Africa can relate to though, is the wave of heat that hits your senses as soon as you step off the plane. Born and bred in Tanzania, touching down Senegal was rather nostalgic for me, as was the queue to pass customs. After such a long trip, via Madrid from Edinburgh, the guys and I were exhausted, but despite our heat induced sweats, we could feel the excitement building up as we were finally starting the Africa adventure.

The first port of call when we arrived in Senegal was the village of Lassar where Jeremie and Stephen had spent a huge amount of time living and working on other projects which have yielded amazing results despite being still small scale. We drove for about 5 hours to the town of Darou Marnane through amazing African countryside before going off-road to get to the village. Despite the 40 degree heat in the mid-day sun, we walked around the villagers fields and discovered that the micro-drip trials the guys had worked on previously were still showing successful results. This was a major high for every one as we left the village and moved on towards our next destination.

As we drove down to the South of Senegal through field after field of green agriculture we could see in the distance a huge storm approaching. By the time we had arrived at our hotel in Kaolack it had gained all the strength of an African tropical storm. There is something magical about a storm in Africa, as all you can hear is the rain drops smashing against the tin roof of the shelter you stand under, watching as the most spectacular performance of nature plays out in front of you. You can see what I mean in part 4 of the Documentary.

The next day we continued on our journey towards Serekunda in the North West of The Gambia. By this point I had successfully carved out a bum groove in the middle of the back seat of the pickup as I continued to document the trip, but I was itching to get behind the wheel and drive through Western Africa, oh how I missed those red dirt roads! It’s easy to get carried away when driving, distracted by Africa’s beauty. There is one thing you can’t ignore though, and that’s a police officer waving you down and telling you to pull over for a “routine” check. Failing to have a second roadside accident triangle and me forgetting most of my high school French, we picked up a fine so Jeremie (the French speaker) took over to drive us the rest of the way towards the boarder incase we got stopped again, which we did….

The Gambia is a country settled around a large river which feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. It looks like a worm wiggling its way into the South of Senegal, a poor analogy, I know. There are two ways which you can get to Serekunda, you can drive inland for hours to bridges which you have no way of knowing are passable or getting the ferry across the Gambie river which also takes hours. We opted for the ferry and made our way towards the queue to drive on board. Like most ferry crossings in Africa it’s a main trade route between the two largest cities in the Gambia and had all sorts of cars, trucks, bikes and trollies onboard, creating a busy atmosphere as vendors slid past the tightly packed vehicles. As we pulled up to the South bank of the Gambie, we could see the sky was grey with ominous looking clouds meaning the rains were on their way once again.

After settling in at the hotel in Serekunda we prepared for the next few days we had made the trip for, to provide solar lights to school kids who have no access to electricity at night to help them study. On our way to the first meeting with the school we could see the result of the heavy rains, roads were flooded, cars broken down and people trying to navigate their way through the newly formed bodies of water. We spent some time preparing with the Local Councillor and Head Teacher and were told the story of how the school had grown to become the Gambia’s biggest school with over 3000 pupils. It was inspirational, yet disheartening as we were told the statistics of how many still had no electricity to help them study in the dark. This really put the importance of this project into perspective.

When we arrived at the school the following day for the giving ceremony there was a crowd already gathered under two trees in the middle of the large court yard and we were greeted by the local Councillor, Head Teacher, a couple government officials , reporters from the national press and the Gambian Intelligence Services! Jeremie and Stephen were guided to a row of chairs facing the crowd and the Head Teacher started the ceremony with an introduction into the project and the collaboration between Power a Life, the school and the local councillor. Straight away we could feel how much the teachers, councillors and parents wanted the best for the kids and were delighted by the collaboration with Power a Life.

As the ceremony proceeded Stephen and Jeremie handed out the 100 lights to the students selected by the head teacher. There was celebration from parents and children as each one accepted a light. We could feel the immense gratitude for the lights which would provide so much opportunity. I could tell that the guys felt overwhelmed by the number of pupils at the school, but were motivated to provide lights to as many as they could. And if theres one thing these guys aren’t afraid of, its hard work! So we left the school on a huge high, although very dehydrated. The last stop before ending the mission was to see one of the lights in action at the home of one of the students. We were invited in and straight away you could see how anyone would struggle to do anything without light. It was so amazing to see the solar light being put to good use!

Then the bug hit! I fell ill that same night and am still not sure if it was a bug or heat stroke as I had symptoms of both. This also brought back memories of my days in Tanzania when these things were a regular occurrence. I had to bite the bullet as the next day we were making the long and arduous journey back to Dakar from Serekunda. Those of you who have experienced African toilets will know what I mean when it’s not pleasant having to travel when ill. Thankfully the ferry crossing was quite smooth, as was the border crossing. It was much easier to get back into Senegal than it was to enter The Gambia, with less checks, less waiting for customs to search our bags and fewer ‘fines’. The guys had done an amazing job with logistics and prep work for the trip, so the credit goes to them for how smooth the trip went.

The last day in Dakar was quite relaxed, with no other mission objectives to complete we decided to go for a tour around the city seeing the sites. Standing as far West as you can on main land Africa was a milestone for me, looking out over the Atlantic thinking how lucky I was to be doing this as my job. I could tell we were all quite tired and ready to go home, but held our heads high with a sense of accomplishment at the massive success of the trip.

Throughout the whole trip I was filming true gorilla style, with just the mic on the camera and fully hand held. It was the easiest way to move around without having the burden of a harness or shoulder brace. Plus when it came to taking stills I could simply switch off the live view on the camera and take the picture. As I got used to filming the trip, the guys became used to being subjects for the camera. Stephen was a natural so took the lead as main presenter, with comical additions made by Jeremie who I nicknamed the ‘Grumpy Traveller’. To be fair though, as the only French speaker, Jeremie suffered the non stop pestering from hawkers, curious locals and AK47 wielding officials the whole trip.

So would I do it again? HELL YES!

And for those of you wondering what the man behind the camera looks like, here I am in my natural habitat, taking a moment to relax from running my new social enterprise cafe – FIKA!

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