A Letter to the World From a Compassionate Humanitarian Photographer

Writing as the official photographer for ISMS Operation Kids, I am proud to say that our recent trip to Kenya was, in my opinion, the team’s most successful mission to date. 86 complex surgeries were performed with great success and 300 children were seen and treated in our mobile clinics. In addition to the care provided, the local doctors and nurses worked side by side with the OpKids team eager to learn new ways to improve their current practice. Most of the equipment and supplies were donated by ISMS Operation Kids.

Incredible cases: mostly burns and tumors — the kind of burns we have never seen before. Eighty percent of the people in the Kisumu area  (population 5 million) have no electricity or running water. There are no nannies. The kids are left alone to fend for themselves so burns from fires, candles, petrol explosions, etc. are common. The people have little choice of what clothes to wear and little to eat. In fact, we mainly ate skinny chicken and rice. A lot of the children’s clothes were covered in holes. I gave away everything I had: my crocs, scrubs, health bars, pens, t-shirts, etc. and I gave my sneakers to a man who told me they were the first pair of sneakers he ever had. The Kenyan people are proud and beautiful. In the hospital there was four people to every bed, rarely any sheets and the families were still smiling.

After four missions with OpKids, I feel more comfortable. It is such an intense week together that we become very close on these trips. We work 13-15 hours a day for a week and everyone is volunteering their time. Our last case was incredible. An 8-year-old boy came in with his face sliced open with a machete by his older brother. The boy was lucky. It was our last day and our plastic surgeon Dr. Stephanie Cohen stitched up his entire face. She peeled his face open for the before shot and I have to say that my mouth was hanging open under my mask. One day later and the boy would have missed her brilliant and nimble hands. I feel that these doctors are the true artists and I just document their work. I am learning more on each trip, so I know what to look for and I feel more confident that I capture the images that the team needs for fundraisers and press for magazines, interviews, etc.

The team calls me “Nurse in Training” since many times I have to help them in the OR (operating room) by opening surgical instruments, wrapping the surgeons in gowns and running errands, etc. We had four OR’s on this trip which helped the number of cases to be completed. I fell in love with many of the patients. My favorite was Elizabeth, a 6-year-old with a badly burned arm. Her style and calmness was inspiring. I never saw her cry once. When she came to see the team, she couldn’t unfold her right arm and after a long surgery with skin grafts, she will have use of her arm again. Our orthopedic surgeon was amazing. I really had a soft spot for one of his patients. A teenage boy was struck by a car and broke an arm and a leg. He was an orphan, no home and no visitors. Our team took his case and fixed both limbs. I went to visit him in the OR a lot because he was awake during the surgery. The doctor was afraid of too much blood loss so they gave him spinal anesthesia. It was amazing to see his big eyes watching me while two surgeons were man-handling the bones in his leg. I also wandered the halls of the hospital between surgeries and met other patients. One young teenager named Lillia really affected me. Her legs were horribly burned from a petrol fire in her house. Her father was killed. Our team couldn’t do anything for her. She had been lying in the hospital for four months. Her mother sleeps next to her on the floor. The Kenyan people don’t complain. Lillia will never walk again because she can’t straighten her legs. The Kenyan doctors don’t give her any pain medication. She can’t afford it. Every day the Kenyan nurses go in to rip off the bandages from her legs. Her screams could be heard through the hospital. My team told me I could give her some pain medication when no one was looking. I first gave her a liquid form and she slept that night for the first time. The next two days I gave her pills to help her cope. Her mother and everyone in the burn unit kept thanking me. In fact, I made a lot of friends. I wanted to help them all. I wonder what will happen to Lillia. What she really needs is a wheelchair. Our doctors told me it was a miracle that she was still alive. I left a care package for her when we left. The nurses never bothered to cover her up, so I made her a shirt cut up the back so she could slip it on with dignity. So many cases and so many stories. An enormous will for survival. You can see it in their eyes.

I shot close to 2000 images in a week. I am going through the medical edits now. I hope to finish editing in a couple of weeks. I start with the portraits, team shots, and do the medical images last. The shoots for trades (barter) were done first. And the rest of the images from Lamu & Amboseli are being worked on now. I use PS3 & Bridge to filter and edit all of the images. My intern is preparing several different slideshows for magazines and interviews.

Kisumu to Nairobi: From Humanitarianism to Fashion.

Switching gears after the intense medical mission I traded several nights for 5-star hotels. At the Tribe Hotel in Nairobi, I shot a fashion show with top designers and models. I instantly arranged for another trade. One of the designers, Penny Winter, invited me to Ngong Hills to stay in a wonderful tree house in the jungle, The Ngong House. The trade: I took images of her beautiful house on Lamu Island and her showroom in Nairobi. Interiors and jewelry, with all transfers, meals and driver included. You can only get to Lamu by boat. There are no cars, only donkeys everywhere.

I traveled to Amboseli Park for a safari and stayed at The Tortelis Camp in a big tent with an electric fence around the property. Beautiful birds everywhere, flocks of bats at dusk and two game drives every day. Huge herds of elephants everywhere, water buffalo, wart hogs, impala, lions, giraffe and zebra. Next I flew to Lamu Island, the east coast of Africa on the Indian Ocean and spent four days in a private house. The house had indoor/outdoor rooms, a roof-deck overlooking the 1000-year-old fishing village, a private cook for three meals a day and pink coral walls with beautiful Swahili architecture and furniture.

The cameras: My favorite camera was the Leica M9 with a 75mm lens. It’s very clear to me in my editing process which images the M9 shot. There’s no comparison. There is such a rich texture to the color portraits. The Leica D-Lux 5 is fast and fun to play with as long as I have the grip and viewfinder attached to the camera. I was also very happy with the Macro feature in the OR, I don’t have much time to get the shot during surgery and the D-Lux 5 captured with precision. I have already convinced eight members of our medical team to purchase the D-Lux 5. It’s really the best point & shoot out there. Hands down. And of course, I still love my Leica M8 with a 24mm lens for the landscape and wide-angle shots.

I miss Africa. The place settled inside my senses. Everyday I was reminded of where I was. I witnessed a spitting cobra bite on a 21-year-old patient in the hospital. The fangs were so big that the wound had four holes. Luckily the girl survived. I asked her where it happened. She answered that she was walking around her house in flip flops and stepped right on the snake. I asked her if she was afraid, she said, no not at all, the snakes were all around her house. One of our team members spotted a black mamba (snake) right outside our hotel in the grass. The animals were everywhere. I drove from Nairobi to Kisumu – seven hours. The scenery was amazing. Passed the Serengeti, dormant volcanoes, salt lakes with flocks of flamingoes flying overhead in the distance. Right off the highway I could see giraffes, wildebeests, baboons and we were nowhere near a reserve or game park.

My favorite parts: the Maasai tribe, the endless sky and land, the beautiful birds and elephants, the vibrant color all around and the stories from the people about their lives and fascinating cultures. I was humbled by the survival instinct and determination of these people. Kenya has forever settled within my heart.

I plan on going ‘Back To Kenya’ in 2012.

– Gigi Stoll

You can see more of Gigi’s work on her website, http://www.gigistoll.com. You can also connect with Gigi on her Facebook page and Twitter account.