(Can be fun but you need your wits)
Harare is a curious place. Like most cities in Africa, it has its share of problems. For one thing, the place is falling apart and there’s been no real planning in donkeys’ years. For another, there are lots of people who don’t have two cents to rub together. Speaking of dollars and cents, the greenback has been the de facto currency in Zim ever since the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) launched the Trillion Zim Dollar note, shortly before throwing in the towel.
Paradoxically, Harare is a city where you can walk out of the hotel by yourself and get around on foot relatively unhindered. And I’m not just talking about the the well policed centre. I’ve often walked off the beaten path or taken the back route to the office (it is still Africa after all, so it pays to be a little unpredictable) and the most I’ve had to deal with is the odd beggar. Speaking of which, a US One Dollar bill makes any beggar super happy (more on that below).
Photography is a different matter. Around the last election, there was a great deal of antagonism and paranoia surrounding foreign reporters and the BBC are still banned from reporting in Zim. It is not illegal to take photos in Harare but, unlike any ordinary European or US cities, it’s not common to see people taking photos, so if you’re out with your camera, you’re going to stand out.
In practice, this means you can meet with a variety of reactions to walking about with a camera, ranging from people asking if you’d take their photo (sometimes followed by a “Could you spare a dollar for some sadza.”) to mild hostility. Worse still, if the authorities suspect you’re taking photos for the BBC, or that you’re any kind of journalist, that could invite a whole lot of trouble you could do without, especially if you’re not a journalist and you don’t have the right stamp in your passport.
Also, it’s important to bear in mind that some government buildings are sensitive. Under no circumstances photograph the President’s office on Samora Machell or try to approach State House, especially with a camera around your neck. I know people who’ve been detained for doing the latter!
Still, Harare has some interesting architecture, including some interesting examples of Brutalism and the avenues outside of the centre can look very nice when the Jacaranda trees are in bloom; in spite of the obvious urban decay. Also, notwithstanding my warnings above, you should find that most people you encounter are friendly and courteous.
So, how then to go about taking photos, should you find yourself in Harare. Firstly, I would say a lot of what I’m about to say probably doesn’t apply if you you look Zimbabwean. In a country where race plays a big part in the politics, that’s just how it is. If you look local, you’ll not be noticed. If, like me, you have the famous North European tan, you’re going to stand out like a well lit Christmas tree.
I do recommend bringing along discrete equipment. A modern, pocket point and shoot camera isn’t going to attract as much attention as a DSLR and has the advantage that no one will think you’re shooting for the Beeb. If you’re serious about your photos, consider bringing along a mirror-less system camera, preferably with a small, fixed focus pancake lens rather than a zoom. Panasonic, Olympus, Sony and even Nikon all produce cameras that are perfect for the job.
Now, you should also bear in mind your surroundings at all time. While Harare isn’t subject to the rampant criminality found in Nairobi or Johannesburg, the crime is there and opportunists are on the lookout for soft targets. If there are plenty of people around, this shouldn’t be a problem but still, it pays not to attract too much attention. On the odd occasion I’ve been out and about with my camera, I’ve found myself using it to steal moments and move on, rather than spending minutes carefully composing each shot.
If you want to take photos of people, always ask, unless they’re asking you. Remember, Zimbabwe is a very polite society and manners are taken more seriously than you might find in many parts of the first world. Sometimes, you will encounter people who would rather not be seen in one of your photos and I recommend respecting this.
Regardless of the situation (or company) you find yourself in, I would always recommend getting the shot and moving on quickly.
I will finish off with a little more on security. You’re going to encounter beggars from time to time. Some are genuinely poor people in need of a dollar for food while others are sadly just looking for their next high. If you don’t mind handing over the occasional dollar, then have some available in your back pocket and when you encounter a beggar you can, if you want, hand over a dollar quickly and without fuss before moving on.
Whatever you do, don’t go for your wallet or purse up and start fumbling for change. You shouldn’t do that in Paris or New York so why do it in Harare? And remember, the number one thing you can do to stay secure is to keep moving. When dealing with the odd beggar, I seem to have gotten saying “Hello,” handing over over a crisp, clean one dollar bill and saying “You’re welcome,” all without actually losing any forward momentum down to a bit of a fine art.
Go out with your camera with a route planned but also have an alternative route, in case you spot any potential security issues you’d rather avoid.
Finally, if you find yourself on business in central Harare, even if you don’t want to take photos, get out when you can and enjoy the climate, which can be glorious, even in the winter.
Slideshow: Harare Photos