‘Locked at Work’ by Ugandan Documentary Photographer Stuart Tibaweswa, focuses on a group of market vendors in Uganda who as a result of lockdowns put in place due to COVID-19 were left with no other option but to sleep in their market stalls. As Uganda confirmed it's first case of COVID-19 on the 24th of March 2020, President HE Yoweri Kaguta Museveni addressed the nation with a number of new policies, one of them being a ban on public transport. The President asked all market vendors who decided to continue working, to sleep at their stalls in a bid to avoid daily movement to and back from their homes.
We interviewed Stuart to find out a bit more about the story, his experience shooting it and any advice that he may have for Photographers shooting an emotionally sensitive topic such as this. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarification.
Anne: What inspired your project, ‘Locked at Work’?
Stuart: Two things inspired my project. The first thing that inspired me was the fact that these market vendors have families and kids to look after but they have to stay at work. The second thing that inspired me was how are they surviving? Is it similar to how they are at home? How do they sleep, where do they eat, do they have mattresses? I was trying to investigate and report on how they were sleeping and just get a general idea of how people are locked at their work space and how they are coping with the situation.
Anne: I'm sure that this must have been quite challenging for you emotionally, seeing their sleeping conditions? How did you process those emotions and still capture the story?
Stuart: It was really hard emotionally, trust me. The first day I went to the market it was during the day. Many ladies told me that they don’t have access to their babies, they can’t even go back home and make a decent meal for themselves. It was really tough for me and it took around 2 days for me to try and build some strength. As much as I wanted to document them, I also wanted to understand their situation. I decided to spend some nights with them in the market, my first night was terrible! I didn’t even take photos because of how sad the situation was. The first market shoot I did, I was with the Chairman of the market, he was telling me about how bad things get when it rains, and that they don't even have mattresses, they sleep on quilts. It took me some time to process these emotions, I needed to show that I am human like them. I had my notebook with me and I started noting down their stories. There were some mothers that had no choice but to stay with their children at the market and had to find a mosquito net to fix at their stall. It took some days to understand, know them and build a relationship with them. Whilst staying at the market with them, I got to understand why some were willing to go through this. Some were willing because they depended on it financially, others found it fun such as youths, and some of them were elderly and unable to walk back home due to the distance of their house from the market, so everyone had a different story.
Anne: What was the most challenging part of making this project?
Stuart: One of the most challenging things was at night when I would get tired and had to find a place e to sleep. Unfortunately, I didn’t plan well and didn’t even bring a sweater. It was cold at one point and I was tired and hungry. What happened was that there was a lady that I had created a bond with, and she offered for me to sleep right next to her stall. Right as I was adjusting myself, the Chairman called me saying that I can sleep in his office but it wasn’t very comfortable, it was very cold because of a broken window and there was just a chair in the office. So I picked up my camera and started shooting again. When daylight hit, I paid for a bike and rode home. I brought things to prepare me better like a quilt, a pillow and socks. Another challenge I faced was to do with hostility, some people did not want to see my camera at all and it was mostly young boys around 25-26 years old. They would threaten to beat me or hit my camera, so I would always talk to the leaders of the market to help walk around with me so that people would become familiar with me. I avoided situations where people were drinking and smoking during the night for purposes of my safety and my equipment.
Anne: This is so important! I believe as a Photographer you need to protect yourself, people put themselves in dangerous situations all for a story but the truth is, no story is worth your life! And that leads me on to my last question which is, what advice would you give to a photographer that is shooting something that is emotionally challenging and has certain issues around safety?
Stuart: From my experience, I am someone that respects peoples privacy. Those who were really not interested in being photographed, I would still engage with them and try to understand their story. Many Photographers forget that they are human, as much as we are supposed to be a witness to a situation, we need to have a human aspect to us. When shooting a subject that is emotionally challenging, try to respect peoples privacy. For example, there were times where people were showering in really horrible spaces! I observed the place but did not feel the need to photograph it because it was quite invasive. Some people were going hungry, it's important to just talk to them as human beings, don't give off the impression that you just came to take pictures of them and that’s it. Many people think that if you are taking pictures of them then you are getting money out of it. This was a personal project for me with the aim of the government seeing their situation and hopefully help the market vendors by giving them some tissues and things to take care of themselves. Remain human, sometimes it's not about your camera, spend time with these people and be intentional with what you are doing. When it comes to safety, safety is very important! If you are beaten tomorrow, how will you go out and shoot again? As you said, no story is worth your life. Try to find out who the communities leader is and become an ally with them.
Click here to view more of Stuart's work.