Nick Czernkovich is a TV meteorologist on weekdays and skydiver pilot on weekends, but no matter what day of the week, his kindness and generosity reign. He’s also a sensational photographer, with a gift for allowing the innate beauty of a place to speak through his lens, and for capturing emotion and stories without the use of a single word.
Two winters ago, Nick went to Uganda to assist Missionaries of the Poor in providing basic aid to villages in need. After seeing the magnitude of the poverty firsthand, he made it his mission to spread awareness and help complete the construction of an orphanage that could not be completed before due to a lack of funds. The orphanage was finally opened this Saturday!
Bianca: Do you feel safe when you’re traveling to these villages, especially with expensive camera gear?
Nick: In general, yes I feel safe. African countries often get a reputation because of all the violence and corruption that we hear about, but it’s important to remember that 99.9% of the people are good and honest. I’ve traveled through a number of areas that were very remote. In fact, in one village I visited in East DRC, I was the only white person to have ever come through, in as long as anybody there had been alive. The villagers were tremendously curious and excited to see what I was doing, but I was never under any threat of danger. The real concern for someone like me would be getting hijacked by rebels or bandits, but fortunately that hasn’t happened to me.
It is far more dangerous for a villager living in a conflict zone than it is for a foreigner like me. I have access to resources like cars, updated information from peacekeeping forces and my government to help me plan, and if necessary, get me out of trouble should I run into it. Locals on the other hand don’t have access to any of this, which makes them much more vulnerable targets.
When it comes to camera gear, it is the odd bandit or rebels you need to worry about, not locals. My advice to anyone planning to do this is get good insurance on your gear and be ready to hand over your camera if it comes to that. I also back up my photos every night and leave them in a safe place, just in case.
Bianca: A lot of people have sad thoughts about Africa, and all they see are devastating images. Do you have a beautiful, positive anecdote about the places you’ve been or people you’ve met?
Nick: I think the most uplifting thing I’ve seen is the sense of community among people. In DRC for example, about 85% of people displaced by war do not live in camps, they live with host families in other villages. It goes to show you the nature of the society. Even walking through camps, I always felt welcomed. Despite having so little, one lady even invited me into her place and offered to feed me.
One concern of mine is the idea that I am being intrusive by taking pictures. You have to be respectful, of course, but I have found that more often than not, people will say “take my picture, tell me story.” And that’s what it’s about, telling their stories. There is sadness and suffering, and if you go looking for it, you will find it. But if you go with an open mind, you will also find many other stories and photos.
Nick: The Uganda set was taken largely in Kampala. Half of it involved children in an existing orphanage run by the Missionaries of the Poor. The other half is largely of members of the Karamoja tribe who migrated from the north of the country. They are some of the poorest people, and the MOP work to serve them as well. I went along on their visits to the Karamoja to see their work and the impact they had on the people.
The DRC set was taken in East DRC in the war-torn region, last April. It is a mix of refugee camps, villages, a foot patrol with the UN peacekeepers and time in Masisi hospital spent with MSF.
Here I tried to tell the stories of the people and the place. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to photograph a woman giving birth by c-section, which was quite a miracle because she and her baby would have died were it not for MSF.
At one point during the operation it looked as though she might die. I remember thinking I might be photographing the last minutes of her life, so I tried to do that in the most respectful way possible. That’s always a difficult call, to decide at what point it is time to stop taking pictures and leave, but thankfully she pulled through and so did her baby.
Bianca: These images are all so beautiful. Do you have a favorite?
Nick: I think this is probably my favorite image.
I think it is a combination of the scene, and the faces on the man and children that tell the story. Answering that question is always tough, and more often than not my favourite image will not be someone else’s. But that’s the beauty of it, each image speaks to each person in a unique way.