Chris de Bode on visual languages, respect and his Panos print ‘Walking home’

I want to show love because I think everything in the world, between people, is essentially about love. It’s for most people the reason that they’re born and and hopefully when you die you’re surrounded with people you love. And if you manage to do that, I think you live the good life. When I photograph I also feel that I am looking for that, for gentleness. In the work I have done, you know, you’re not only a photographer, you’re a human being, you deal with people, you have a responsibility, you have to have communication skills, you work with people who are, in certain cases, heavily traumatised, you have to listen very carefully to what people say, you have to be careful what you ask, and you have to come up with a decent image.

This image is shot in South Africa. I was working on a story with the Panos Institute on the high prevalence of HIV in the Drakensberg region and we were following a couple of families there who had HIV positive family members. We were driving around, from one family to the other and we passed this girl by chance. She was the daughter of one of the families, on her way to school, and she was walking on the road with this very dramatic sky all around and the sun shining through the clouds. It almost feels like a metaphor maybe for what is waiting for in her life. It was a long assignment, we had the budget to do research, which I have to admit is very special, and how it should be. I’ve done so many assignments, where you only have a couple of days, and the expectations are always very high. Sometimes you lack information, or it’s just too short and too quick. Which is frustrating sometimes. But on this assignment we were able to meet people before we started shooting and have quite a few conversations. That is really meaningful to have such an approach to people’s stories.

Lungi Ngidi’s school shirts – her smartest clothes – dry in the wind that is carried down from the Ixopo Hills. Lungi’s father left her family many years ago and her mother died of Aids in 2002, leaving her to bring up her siblings on her own. KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

This image doesn’t reveal the girl’s identity. That’s something that I’ve been struggling with during my career. We project our own thoughts onto somebody we see in an image. An image is so subjective. Maybe they just look the way they look because I pointed the camera at them. Maybe I chose that picture where they have that certain look, which illustrates my story best. During my career, I’ve slowly but surely drifted away from making images of faces, because I thought there were other ways that could explain more than a face would do.

On one assignment I decided to take along a backdrop that I could put in the landscape and I did family portraits with this. I would walk away sometimes 50 metres or so and stand at this distance from the people I photographed. It became more like you were looking at a community in a sense, who are living somewhere. And so the context was given a much bigger role in the image. The image allowed for more layers. I find it really interesting. If you’re close to someone, as a photographer, you have much more importance, because I have to tell people, you should look a little bit like that, or you should move your hands or you do this, do that. Then my personality, my mind becomes very important in the image, but the image should in fact be all about them. I think it’s all got to do with making people feel respected.

Uganda. Anna Angolere (59), the mother of eight children, and the Nakipenet village’s buck goat keeper with one of the animals who is named Lomugiel, after its colouring.

I did a shoot on hunger, around Lake Chad where Boko Haram was very active. Buying or growing any kind of food was very difficult, people were really affected by it. I decided not to photograph the people but rather the food they had available. Through photographing the foods and food items, I was able to explain how hunger works, and how people have to deal with it, and without showing any faces. When we look at stories on hunger, we are so used to seeing images of really unwell people or animals, and the reason this story was so successful was because it didn’t tap into that bank of images we all have in our heads.

A plate of okra (ladies’ fingers).
The extreme north of Cameroon is suffering a food shortage exacerbated by climate change and conflict with Boko Haram. Diamare, Cameroon.

I’ve tried to shoot stories in different ways, to come up with a visual language relevant to the project. When I teach photography, it’s one of the first things I mention, to put an idea in your photography, think about it. There are so many images which are beautiful, Instagram is full of them. The idea is what is powerful.

Walking home

Drakensberg Mts, KwaZulu Natal, SOUTH AFRICA 2008

A young girl walks home from school in the Drakensberg mountains. HIV has swept through communities in South Africa. Denial of the impact of the virus has had a huge impact on many lives and has changed the shape of the family as mothers and fathers die from AIDS. The impact on children is dramatic. Grandparents often step in to take on the role of primary carer. But who cares for whom? Many grandparents are frail and in reality, it is often the children who assume family responsibilities.

This image was part of a project advocating for improved childcare to reduce pressure on this generation of young people. During the project Chris De Bode was with a young woman when she received news of the death of her mother. Aged 21, she became head of the household, responsible for her two brothers, four cousins and an aunt who was too weak from AIDS and TB to look after her own children.


About Chris de Bode

Dutch born Chris de Bode’s path in life started with a dream. On his way to primary school, he always passed the photo shop in town. By the age of 10, he could advise people which camera to buy. In his early twenties, he was still searching for a purpose in life, until he remembered the photo shop. He decided to buy his first camera. As a mountaineer he took his first pictures. Following a trip to Palestine he decided to focus his work on humanitarian issues. He now has travelled to over 90 countries, meeting people and collecting stories.

Chris searches for find different angles in visualizing the stories he works on. In ‘No Way Home’ he has tried to explore what it means for people to lose their homes while ‘Tour du Monde’ took him to China, Colombia, Cuba, Eritrea, Qatar and Senegal, following international cycling teams as they raced across diverse terrains and through culturally and politically charged environments.  The work was brought together in ‘Tour du Monde’ (Schilt) published in 2009.

More than a decade ago while on assignment to photograph Ethiopian children in their school. He decided to ask them what they dreamt of?  At first some answers seemed improbable, or mere childish fantasies. A closer look revealed the opposite to be true: almost every child’s dream turned out to be a solution to things that needed improving in their lives. Little did he know that this would be  the start of a ten year global project to photograph and collect children’s dreams culminating in the publication of DREAM (2019).