Road Home

Saturday morning we loaded the truck, said goodbye to the chief and friends, and left Banzena. When we passed Douentza, the sand track turned to pavement. We had exited the Gourma and elephant territory was now behind us. When we started down the narrow strip of asphalt toward Mopti, fatigue descended on me in a way I had not known in my time here. The elephants were deep in forest en route to Burkina Faso and I was headed home. As the truck gained speed, my body downshifted into a lower gear for the first time, and I sank into the seat. When I awoke a half hour later, the Gourma seemed far away. It is curious the way perspective changes when working in a place like this. You begin the journey with foreign eyes and everything appears new and different. But with time it all becomes normal. The exotic landscape becomes home. Strange foods become routine. The mysterious men behind turbans become simply men. The people you know as driver, guide, guardian, or chief shed their labels for names and become friends. And the elusive elephants that made your heart race when seen from a distance become familiar subjects you approach with steady pulse. What shifting perspectives does to my ability to capture the essence of a story, I am not certain. Surely there are benefits to adjusting comfortably to a new environment. But losing the eyes of an outsider may also cause one to overlook sensational elements or symbols that are important to sharing a story with a foreign audience. Perhaps keeping record of that which captures your attention on first glance is a good tool for allowing one to step in and out of any particular way of seeing. The road home from the Gourma, the straight black line fringed by streaming hues of amber sand, continued to hypnotize my eyes and turn my gaze. Looking back, I started to recall all the pictures I had made as well as the ones I missed. I began to measure my progress in what is currently the most comprehensive still photographic documentary of the Sahel elephants. I also caught my mind starting thoughts with “next time…”, and I am sure I will be drawn back to finish what I've started. It has been a privilege to work here in Mali and I gave thanks to all who helped make it possible. In particular, U.S. Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, Vance Martin and the Wild Foundation, Iain-Douglas Hamilton and Save the Elephants, elephant ecologists Richard Barnes and Hemma Emmanuel, Matthew Miller, and Elmehdi and the DNCN of Mali.View new photography at www.carltonward.com