3 years ago I took a photo of a woman while working on a long-term project in what is considered the largest dump site in the World, Dandora. The photo I’m referring to was nearly the last image I took in the course of several weeks of working in the dump.
The light was low and rain was coming in - it happens fast when you are on the equator. Toxic smoke was blowing through and with the cloud cover, the light was changing incredibly fast and turning otherworldly.
As it started to drizzle I noticed a woman sitting alone; resting on a bag of a day’s worth of hard-earned plastic scraps, waiting to weigh-in her day’s wage.
What caught my eye, was that she was sitting alone and separate from the rest of the woman in the dump reading something, relaxing.
I approached her and took a few images and asked her what she was reading. She told me she was essentially just thumbing through some sort of found industrial catalog and taking a break.
Just then, the skies opened up. I had no protection for my cameras so I bolted one direction and she too, but in the opposite way.
Fast forward a year later, the photo won first place in the World Press Photo Awards, Contemporary Issues - for a freelancer like me, a lifetime achievement.
Along with the rest of the World Press Photo winners, the photo traveled to over 100 galleries across the World and seen by millions. I’ve received hundreds of emails asking more about this Woman and who she is and how to help in this community. It’s hanging in permanent collections with the Princess of the Netherlands and the Houston Museum of Arts, not to mention countless personal collections and homes. I’ve spoken on NPR and traveled all over to speak about my work and that image in particular. This Woman captured the imagination and hearts of so many. Mine the most.
Three years later I found myself back in Dandora, reconnected with my cartel contact “Tiger” and trudging through the swampy wasteland. Only a few hours back in, I find Her.
I ask, “unakambuka mimi?” (do you remember me?) and with a most beautiful smile, says, “of course!”. With that, my emotions got the best of me. To imagine the differences of our lives and what has transpired over the last 3 years; the disparity glaring and inequity harsh.
As she moved forward, three years ago, into appalling monotony of a daily life picking in the dumpsite six days a week earning $1.00 per day, what have I done? What luxuries and comforts have I experienced?
The moment came, “What is your name?”. Again, with beaming smilie, “Pauline Mweni“.
Not wanting to take more of her work time, I ask her if we can connect a few days later in her home to hear more of her life and story.
The sun was high and hot. The earth smoking beneath my feet as I hike out of the dump. I played soccer with some kids from the nearby slum, I’m sweating through my shirt and covered in dirt. A few hours later I jump into the pool of my guesthouse. The refreshment was cooling and instant. Probably a feeling she’s never experienced or will.
A few days later, I navigate through a labyrinth of corrugated metal homes, stray dogs, pigs and barefoot children, and me, still sucking the thick haze and smoke from the nearby dump to find Pauline welcoming me with the warmest smile you can imagine into her home. I don’t know what I expected, but she was surprisingly cleaned-up; don’t we all want a little dignity every day?
What I did expect was a small home. And small it was, smaller than I’m even used to. About the size of my walk-in closet at home. For her, just enough room for her and her two kids, a girl named Mwende (10) and a boy named Mumo (3), one small bed and a few belongings. Tiny yes. Dirty? Not a crumb. Simple, cheery, and clean, just like her.
In 2007 she lost a job and her only option was to become a picker in the dump. Because nearly all of what she earns, goes to rent and school fees, she has no time to look for different work or explore her entrepreneurial spirit.
After some time with her, we parted ways and in a few days I’ll head home, left with more questions than answers (story of my life) and try to sort out what to do next. Navigating these harsh realities have never been easy for me; to sit in that tension has become a new normal. But then what?
I don’t know how my story will connect again with Pauline’s but I believe it will and I have hope that the next time we meet, her ability to support her children will improve as well as those in her community.
I believe that photojournalism has the power to make change. To challenge the comfortable. To uncover the hidden. And to connect us all to stories that cause us to look beyond our comfort zone to those outside of it. How do we respond? Perhaps the hardest question of all.