Behind the Page ii – Eritrea harvest

Continuing the Behind the Page series, here’s the story behind my first magazine double page spread, which ran in Tearfund‘s magazine, Tear Times, for Harvest 1993.

I’d spent a year working for Tearfund in Tanzania, as a trainee engineer following my Mechanical Engineering degree at Leeds. It became abundantly clear during that year that my natural aptitude for engineering was, shall we say, limited, while my passion for and love of photography was huge. I’d spent a few months before heading to Tanzania working in Teafund’s photo library, and they’d sent me off with 50 rolls of slide film to shoot while I was away, alongside another 70 b&w films that I took myself.

When I came back to the UK in April 1992, the temporary job of photo librarian became a permanent one, and thankfully I got it. After nine months of sitting staring at slides in a Portacabin, my boss, Mike Webb, sidled over to me at the end of one day and asked whether I’d be interested in travelling to Eritrea and Ethiopia with him, which obviously I needed to think about for all of five seconds…

The story we were  covering was about the birth of the new country of Eritrea, which had been fighting a bitter civil war for thirty years against Ethiopia, and was now about to hold a referendum to decide whether to become an independent nation. We were covering the work of Tearfund’s partners, local churches and NGOs who were working alongside some of the poorest people in Eritrea. The story was going out in the Harvest edition of the magazine, aimed at churches in the UK wanting to celebrate their Harvest Festival services with a more international understanding – more than just a congregation bringing along a tin of beans, but understanding what farmers in a very different environment were going through to get enough food to feed their families.

Asmara was a truly beautiful city – compact, peaceful, gentle traffic and architecturally low-lying but interesting. The work the partners were doing was great, lots of tree planting and small-dam construction, but the shot in my head needed food, and it needed something very active to happen.  Mike was a great travelling companion, intensely focussed on finding the story that would work, and shooting video for the Harvest pack, still something that was relatively new for Tearfund to be doing in-house rather than hiring in a full-scale crew.

We were in Eritrea in January, the weather ranging from stunning blue skies to deep fog, and the harvest was been winnowed by the side of the road as we drove out on one of our visits. Mike just called for us to stop, and we both ran over and after a quick greeting with the farmer and his family started work. I had known before we set off that I really wanted to get a shot with winnowing and lots of the chafff  just flying around, and here it was – the only problem was the farmer was desperately trying to avoid covering me in stuff, so whenever I got into line, he’d throw it round me. Finally, two or three rolls of film in, I got the one frame that worked – almost the eye of the storm.

It’s so easy to forget on digital, but with film you didn’t see your shots for what felt like weeks after – it was probably fourteen days later when this arrived back in the office, and I managed to dig it out from the 80 rolls of tranny I’d shot. It ran as the opening spread of the story, across a double page, and looked great – one of those moments when you realise you’re actually a photographer, not just talking about it. And still one of those images I’m most happy with.

Eritrea Harvest :: January 1993 copyright Tearfund

Eritrea Harvest :: January 1993 copyright Tearfund

Technically, who knows? But my guess is Nikon FM, 24mm f2.8 Nikkor lens, probably 1/60 second at around f16. And Kodak Ektachrome 100 something – I ended up shooting 100VS, because I liked the saturation, but this was before that was around I think.

Eritrea voted overwhelmingly for independence in the April, and for a while looked as though it might become one of the success stories for the region. Things now are detiorating again, with civil war and human rights abuses reported.