They say living is easy with eyes closed, but, that day in the township of Soweto, South Africa, I learned to open my own.
In the summer of 2010, after my sophomore year abroad at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, I was chosen to participate in a leadership and service trip for two months in South Africa and Botswana. From the beginning, my peers and I knew that this would not be an easy experience.
On our first day in Soweto, we pulled up a dirt road leading to a compound made of several dozen wooden huts with sheets of tin thrown on top of them. It wasn’t the first time I had seen poverty, and I certainly knew it wouldn’t be the last. I had seen it in the bulky blankets under Rome’s bridges, in plastic cups rattling to the beat of desperation and solitude, and in the wearers of mismatched shoes staggering on the sidewalks of cities at night. However, I had not seen the contrast between poverty and joyful giggling children.
They ran up to us, tapping furiously on the windows of our bus, and motioned for us to get off. They reached in for whoever’s hand they could touch as we set foot on the muddy soil, and skipped back to the village with their newfound friend. Just as I began to take my camera out, I felt a warm, firm grasp encompass my hand. I looked down. A little boy was smiling at me. He began tugging on my shirt, looking up at me with the widest grin, refusing to let go.
In broken English, he told me he wanted to be my friend. I smiled and squeezed his hand, feeling the tears starting to well up. We walked in silence as he led me in and out of houses made of dirt floors and tin roofs that he and his neighbors called home, where women in the surrounding darkness sat in a circle peeling tomatoes. The South African sunset glimmered onto their faces as the little boy pulled me along from dirt floor to dirt floor, pointing at the spot on the ground in the shack where he spent his nights. He motioned for me to sit, saying his home was now my home, too.
My heart felt heavy in a way I had never known before. I began retreating into my quiet contemplation, trying to take it all in, both the inexplicable beauty of the moment and poverty I was seeing.Suddenly, I felt a pair of arms flung around my waist. The little boy broke the silence, asking me to take a picture of him and of his friends in the hut next door. I nodded with a quick smile, positioned my hands on the body of the camera, aimed, and pressed the shutter just as the group of smiling boys looked my way.
Being a photographer means more than just focusing and shooting; it is often living a life through a lens without completely being a part of it; it is turning and twisting and tilting until something that has been blurred for so long slowly begins to focus. After only a few minutes of what seemed so blurry to me, I began to perceive the lives these children were living. I started to see the reality of their world from up close, the unspoken pain behind their smiles.
It was then that I began to understand the Nguni Bantu philosophy of ubuntu, a word that signifies the essence of humanity, kindness and interconnectedness, and translates to “I am who I am because of who we all are” or “I am because you are”.The boys giggled as the camera clicked, and thanked me with a hug. I embraced them, and said, “no, thank you”. I then lowered my head gently and with a shaking smile whispered, “ubuntu”.
Carmen Pullella ’16 is an international student born and raised in Rome, Italy. She is an avid writer, a photography enthusiast, and frequent world traveler who drinks too many café mochas for her own good and who can often be found hiding in used bookstores or record shops downtown. She intends to pursue her Psychology degree in child and adolescent psychopathology after graduating from Smith, and continue her involvement in the world of professional photography, slam poetry, and academia.by