Along Ethiopia's Omo River
For the last six years, photographer Randy Olson and I have been documenting culture, change and conflict in the watershed that connects southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. In the August issue of National Geographic, we’ll publish our latest work, from Lake Turkana. But before that issue arrives in print, we’ve begun a new storytelling experiment on Instagram—pairing Randy’s photos with my short, true stories.
Far as we know, it’s the first collaborative storytelling done using the platform, and we’re hoping to draw attention to the people we met back when we began this project, in 2009. The intent is not to rehash what we’ve already done, or to add more normal journalism to the stacks, already plenty high. With these stories we’re aiming for something else—new work that pulls nearer to the art and poetry that inspire us, while also complementing and pushing documentary form. Please join us on Instagram across three accounts, @natgeo, @randyolson and @neilshea13, as we follow water through the desert.
This story from the Kakuma Refugee Camp, out now in The American Scholar, began as a post on Instagram. It’s an experiment in seeing how small stories can grow into larger ones, and move across media. The Scholar is also running a series of portraits I made during my time there, including one of these sisters, whose story is up on my Instagram feed.
Telling stories is about gathering fragments of truth and sharing as many as you can. I hope this work will help erase distance, reveal struggles, and frame beauty in the lives of the people I met in Kenya’s northern desert. I’ve been searching for new ways to think about what photographer Donald Weber recently called “the periphery,” and this collaboration is an experiment in trying to get there—to reach further, and show more, from the edges.
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates—Early on Monday, if the desert wind rushing toward the Strait of Hormuz lays down and dawn comes in clear and bright, a very large and odd-looking experimental aircraft will lift off from a military airport in Abu Dhabi, turn east toward the rising sun, and take a run at history. On board will be a single pilot, for the cockpit is too small, and too cramped, to carry more. He will steer through morning quietly and quite slowly—faster than a running man, but far slower than, say, a Vespa scooter driven by a guy who’s late for work.
From below, his aircraft will resemble a toy, with enormous, stiff wings jutting out of a short, thin fuselage, and stabilizers at the tail that are as blunt as pegs on a pogo stick. As the plane begins to climb, almost imperceptibly, the impression will be of an object set adrift more than one purposefully driven. By contrast, almost any aircraft it meets, even certain thumb-toggled drones, will seem like overachievers.
Short narratives from Ethiopia, Kenya, Cuba and other places. My new favorite place for nonfiction.
Demanding answers from a war criminal
Little more than a year ago, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales would have been called a hero. He had deployed several times to Iraq and Afghanistan, seen combat, seen friends maimed, been injured himself. After each tour parts of him probably shifted, certain lights within him fading, and at home his life gave sign of the ailments that often follow repeated tours, including problems with alcohol and money. He was not perfect, but he had done what his country asked. In the generic way a nation offers thanks, he deserved them. In the thin way we talk about war, thousands of other troops share his story.