Working in the industry for over 10 years, Emily switched gears and entered the academic world as an assistant professor of Digital Media at Utah Valley University. She’s hoping to inspire the next generation of Digital Media students with her escapades. When she’s not in the classroom, she’s plotting and planning new projects and expeditions that continue to take her around the world. Emily has been able to combine her love of video and photography with travel and in 2018 she finished her personal goal of visiting all seven continents. You can follow her on Instagram @highlandhedrick or the Instant Portrait Project @instantportraitproject
Words and images by Emily Hedrick
Cameras and lenses. Check. Extra batteries. Check, check. Instant film camera. Check?
I had no idea that a last minute addition to our gear list would launch in to a new and exciting side project. I’m a professor at Utah Valley University in the Digital Media Department. I had just finished my first year of teaching full time at my alma mater when I was preparing to take a small group of students to Namibia, Africa to work on The Untold: Namibian Women’s Stories Project.
The Untold Project is a three-year endeavor to capture women’s stories from all twelve ethnic groups in Namibia. There has never been a comprehensive research project about Namibian women by women. My mentor professor Mike Harper began the collaboration project in 2017 with journalism professor Emily Brown from the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). I took over the Utah Valley University (UVU) side from Mike for the last two years of the project. The NUST team will be conducting the interviews, while UVU is capturing the stories.
As our UVU team began organizing our gear for the interviews, our f-stop Loka UL and Ajna packs had to contain our individual mobile studios. We had to pack lightly but efficiently to make sure we capture the quality we needed. We brought Sony A7III’s and an A6400 with all the accompanying lenses, batteries, filters, and accessories. A last minute addition was the FujiFilm SQ6 Instax camera, which was definitely the oddball of the group!
Lotus carrying all the essentials in the ghost town of Kolmanskop
Located on the Atlantic coast and was once a part of South Africa, Namibia is a desert country that houses both the Namib with its giant sand dunes and the dry Kalahari. The landscapes are surreal and sparse with an occasional oryx or giraffe roaming the bush.
Interviews with the women didn’t begin for another week which afforded us an opportunity to travel to various sites around the country. As a group of budding photographers we decided to go to the ghost town of Kolmanskop near Luderitz. We were also in some of the best dark sky country in the world and we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to drive out to the Quiver Tree Forest and photograph the Milky Way.
Night sky at the Quiver Tree Forest with light pollution from nearby Keetmanshoop.
The following week the team traveled west to the coastal town of Swakopmund, we had planned to do interviews in an informal settlement on the outskirts of town. An informal settlement is essentially a squatter’s camp. The houses were all part of a network of corrugated metal huts with outhouses and water spigots on each block. It’s an alarmingly high concentration of people in impoverished conditions.
When the NUST van pulled in and the team piled out, our presence generated a lot of interest by the community. As an icebreaker, Emily Brown suggested that I take a picture of one of the mothers. When I handed her the photo, she gave me an expression that seemed to say, “Okay why did you give me a blank white piece of plastic paper?” I didn’t speak Afrikaans and trying to explain with hand gestures that an image will appear didn’t translate, but it did buy me time as her image magically appeared. And that’s what it was: magic.
Soon other mothers wanted photos of their babies and children. Snap, snap. More kids came from out of nowhere to get their photos taken too. Picture snap after picture snap. I had only brought 10 packs of film (or 100 instant film exposures) to last the entire trip. I thought 100 exposures would be plenty of film for the three-week trip. Oh, how wrong I was!
Swakopmund children and their photos. (Photo: Brandon Leavitt)
Everyone held their photos gently; they treasured the image and protected it from the dust. When I spoke to Emily Brown about it later, she said that many of these kids will never have a physical photo of themselves in their childhood. For them, a photo is a luxury item. In an age of digital abundance and selfie-taking in America, for these children and youth, an instant photo isn’t a novelty, it’s a precious keepsake.
Our next set of interviews took us to the eastern border near Botswana to meet with the San people: a kind, beautiful ethnic group that has unfortunately been marginalized in Namibia. We had traveled to another settlement near the town of Tsumkwe. Breaking the ice once more, I pulled out the Instax camera. Again, confusion and disappointment when I took the first (seemingly blank) image! That is until…
A portrait being revealed. (Photo by: Brandon Leavitt)
Soon the colors began to appear, and the image of the San mother developed before their eyes. Smiles erupted as the instant film worked its magic and created a small portrait. Soon there was a line of mothers and children all wanting their photos to be taken too. Cartridge after cartridge I snapped away at the growing congregation of adults and children.
Me (Emily Hedrick) handing out photos. (Photo by: Kellie Leavitt)
The most heartwarming moment was when the matriarch of the settlement was being interviewed and she asked if she could get her photo taken. I wanted to take her photo before because of the beautiful vibrant colors that she was wearing, but I couldn’t understand her native click language. When she asked for a photo I was able to take the last cartridge of film out and take her photo. But not before I accidentally bumped the button and took a picture of my shoes. Ugh, 8 photos left!
Matriarch and her portrait.
The matriarch had poor eyesight, but as the photo developed, her portrait ended up being the most vibrant one. The film clearly showed off the colors of her headwear and clothing. Hidden beneath her sash was a little satchel where she carried her most important valuables. Everything was inside her satchel was in pristine condition: ID card, wallet, and other mementos neatly stored inside and never brandished in the dusty settlement. After showing off her own photo, she tucked it carefully away into her satchel and gently hid it back away in her sash.
Emily Brown leaned over to me as the matriarch was putting away her photo, “This is something she will hold on to for the rest of her life.” A photo. A simple instant photo was the best tangible gift we could give. It was in that moment that I knew I had to do something much, much more.
Little boy and his portrait. (Photo by: Brandon Leavitt)
After we wrapped up our interviews and made our way back home to Utah, there was still so much work on the Women’s Project we had to do, but I couldn’t shake this idea about doing more instant film portraits for people. There is no shortage of international projects our university is doing and this idea could expand it to many more areas around the world. I had to do something.
I began working with UVU on extending the project to the community. UVU was 100% supportive on setting up a crowdsourced webpage letting anyone donate to the newly created Instant Portrait Project through UVU’s website. The project launched on September 6th and all proceeds will go towards buying a second camera and as much instant film we can carry with us. I think I’ll be upgrading to the Ajna backpack to get 8 more liters of space for instant film!
Photo by: Kellie Leavitt
The Instant Portrait Project is there to give a record of a moment in time in a person’s life. It is a keepsake that can be held on for many years to come.
We aim to raise $500 to get us started and plan to do subsequent fundraising as the project expands to other areas around the world.
The Instant Portrait Project: http://c-fund.us/mye