Chapter 5 — Life-Changing
The Other Side of the Lens
By Ace Kvale
I SAW DOCTORS PERFORMING MIRACLE WORK. FOR REAL. I'M SEARCHING OUT THE HUMANITARIAN AID PROJECTS, NOW, WHEREVER I GO.
In 2004, I met with Rob Haggart at Outside Magazine, and I hit him up with the idea that we highlight this American doctor doing cataract surgeries. I originally knew Geoff Tabin by reputation through climbing because he was the fourth person to have climbed the seven summits. Outside had sent me to photograph him in Sikkim in 2004. Geoff is one of those people who changes people's lives through these eye surgeries, but he is also a person who has this incredible energy and can just get things done. He believes more in the mission statement than his personal agenda or making money. I really fell under that spell. Working with him has really become one of my life's projects, photographing these eye surgical camps around the world.
I've been on six eye camps in five countries — Sikkim, Nepal, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and South Sudan. Dr. Geoff Tabin and the other doctors are always looking for the newest, wildest place to go and do their work because these places are often fairly neglected when it comes to eye care. These doctors are a different breed. They're like climbers: they want to go to new places that are a little wilder, a little woolier. They are mainly interested in giving care in places that have little or no eye care. They partnered with John Dau, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who lives in Syracuse, New York, who opened a clinic in South Sudan. This gave them a place to go in the South Sudan where they could fashion an operating theatre, have some generator power, and use some school rooms as structures to work in. We tried to go two years ago to John Dau's clinic, but some violence flared up. We went in December of 2011 during the dry season. The Himalayan Cataract Project funds me to go on two trips a year, and the one to the South Sudan all came together late in the year. We flew into Nairobi and then took little Cessnas into South Sudan. We had three doctors with us, and they did about 300 surgeries in a week. It was kind of like a M.A.S.H. unit, where you set up and everything happens. We all ate, slept, and worked in the same areas, and even though the doctors did the bulk of the work, everyone was expected to help. I helped out in the operating room, I gave patients steroids and antibiotic drops, I brought equipment in and out. Even though I was the photographer, I was expected to help with the "flow" of things. Geoff Tabin says people have negative flow, medium flow, or positive flow. Positive flow means that you bring a positive vibe to the situation and help everything work out in the best possible way. This means that you have a sense of humor, you work well in bad situations, and you work well without a lot of sleep. In the South Sudan we all worked the same hours, about 16 hours a day. Part of the reason I keep getting invited back is because Geoff Tabin thinks I contribute to the "flow."
The eye patients consider me to be like one of the doctors. They're getting their eyes poked at and prodded. They're get handled in numbers, so the movement of patients is fairly fast. I'm basically another white guy with a camera, so I have access to patients that I wouldn't have normally. I can take photographs at close range because I am trusted as the doctors are trusted. By the second day, these patients are having their vision restored, and the air of the crowd turns into a happy celebration because they are seeing already. The next patients then are seeing already the joy of their friends who have had their vision restored, and I get to record all of that on the camera. I tend to blend into the celebration. I have access that I normally wouldn't have as a just a traveler or a bystander.
When, I first photographed eye cataract surgery in India and Nepal, I felt a turning point in my career. It was life-changing. The cultures I had come to love through climbing and exploring became the focus of my work. I saw doctors performing miracle work. For real. I'm searching out the humanitarian aid projects, now, wherever I go. There are people doing great work out there.