My first camera was a 35mm disposable Kodak with 27 exposures and a power flash. It was a gift from my parents before our once-in-a-lifetime trip to San Diego, California, where we planned to visit the zoo and SeaWorld. I could already see the photos - bright pink flamingos with black-tipped beaks, fuzzy snow-white polar bears sprawling on ice, dolphins in mid-air leaps with water droplets flinging from their bottlenoses. National Geographic was probably going to want some of them.
After the trip, my mom dropped the camera off at a cute, little Kodak photo booth. A few hours later she handed me an envelope…of prints. My hands shook with excitement. These were going to be awesome! I opened the envelope and saw the first photo. It took my breath away.
Because if you closed one eye, squinted with the other one, and looked really, really close, you could almost see a dolphin. Almost. It was more like dolphin impressionism. And boy was I deflated.
I stayed on the periphery of photography after that, until high school when my interest resurfaced. Sandy, a friend and classmate of mine, knew a lot about cameras. But when she started talking about shutter speeds and f-stops and exposure values, my vision blurred from how mathematical and sciency it all sounded. So I ditched it again.
Years later, I was working for an organization that does relief and development work all over the world called Food for the Hungry, and I was employed in their home office writing web copy, annual reports, articles, and newsletters. But then they asked if I’d be willing to go out as a photographer to document their work.
Obviously, I didn’t know how to take photos, but the thought of actually visiting the places and seeing the projects and meeting the people I was writing about, captivated me. It was time to deal with those f-stops.
Enrolling at the local community college, I soon found myself taking photography, photoshop and design classes with a bunch of eighteen and nineteen-year-olds. I was the thirty-year-old weirdo. But I didn’t mind. In fact, I loved it. I even learned about f-stops, and how they control the amount of light that enters the camera. They don’t create the light, they just let it in. And then, mid-semester, Food for the Hungry sent me and a writer out on assignment to Marsabit, Kenya, to document their work among communities affected by HIV/AIDS.
Wikipedia describes Marsabit as an outpost of urban civilization in the desert of northern Kenya. Local Kenyans had another way of describing it. “No one goes to Marsabit,” they told us. “It is the forgotten part of Kenya. The only people who go to Marsabit are government workers who are being punished.” So, I would be taking photos in a desert outpost filled with forgotten people, disgruntled government employees, and aid workers.
It already felt dark. How was I going to find the light?
That’s the thought that kept haunting me before we left. Because Food for the Hungry was relying on me to get the shots. And Marsabit wasn’t a place I could return to if the conditions were bad or if I had issues with my gear. I would get one chance with the different individuals, families, and communities we visited. I had to get this right.
It took us about 30 hours to get from Arizona to Kenya. Then that first evening in Nairobi, I ate something bad at dinner and spent the entire night erupting. It was definitely the spinach pizza. I was two months pregnant at the time but had never been sick until that point. The next morning, bleary-eyed and still quite ill, I crawled into the front passenger seat of a Land Cruiser. It was the perfect vehicle for our journey, except for one crucial flaw. We could not turn off the heater. For 11 jarring hours, we drove from Nairobi to Marsabit on washboard roads in a sweltering vehicle. For most of the trip, I would stumble out of the car in a sweaty daze to throw up each time we stopped.
As we drew closer to Marsabit, the land dried out. We passed animal carcasses bleaching in the sun. We passed Rendille and their flocks of goats kicking up dust. A tree here. A bush there. A wasteland. The nausea in my stomach dissipated only to be replaced by knots of anxiety. This was it. This wasn’t SeaWorld with my little point-and-shoot. This was the real deal. And for some reason, a bunch of people at my nonprofit thought I could do it.
Photography, a word derived from Greek, means “drawing with light.” And ever since that singular moment in time when God spoke it into being, light is everywhere. Imagine that darkness, that all-consuming void, and how it suddenly exploded with radiance. Ever since then, light has been racing out, shooting like starfall through all of time and space toward the lonely places, the wounded places, the forgotten places—places like Marsabit, places like (perhaps) your own heart.
Slowly, as I sweltered through that interminable journey, I realized: I didn’t have to create the light. The light was already there. I just had to look for it. I just had to let it in.
From the moment the women in the village greeted us with dance and song to the moment we departed for Nairobi, I shot for hours every day. And every day I found the light. Sometimes—because Marsabit really did feel forgotten—I found it in unexpected places. When we first arrived, the women grabbed our hands and said, “Please tell people about us so they remember we are here.” They asked us to show and tell their story, so we could remind the world of their particular place in it.
We drank tea in their dirt-floor homes. We viewed their abundant gardens. We laughed at their gamboling goats. In each location, we listened to their stories, stories filled with pain and heartache, yet also buoyed by hope. And then we would step outside and they would smile and I would start capturing their joy by drawing with light.
When I took photos in Kenya, it wasn’t like the photoshoots I do with clients from suburban neighborhoods where the location is hand-picked for its architecture or natural beauty. I didn’t get to choose the backgrounds; I just did the shoot wherever I was, working with whatever I had, which is how backgrounds (familial or otherwise) actually work in real life.
In the village, left-behind orphans in tattered clothes surrounded me as I took photos of left-behind widows in front of tiny, mud huts. But they were new mud huts. And the orphans were no longer alone. Because the widows—who were neighbors—had helped each other build the mud huts, and then those neighbors took in all the orphans.
So much light. Can you see it?
The images I captured in Marsabit are some of the most beautiful photos I’ve ever taken because of how the light came in. Light that began with a single word, spoken outside of time, raced through time, to reach the faces of women and children who have never once, even for a moment, been forgotten.
The light is already here. You just have to look for it.
Dana Ryan lives in Southern California with her husband and three children. She is the author of the Martín y Pepe book series. When not writing, she likes to grow flowers, take photos, and go for long walks on the beach.
If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here.
Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.