Water for Food

Photographing Jordan: joyous firsts and lessons from a broken lens

April 15, 2016

Carved out of a sandstone rock face, tourists crowd around The Treasury in Petra.

By Morgan Spiehs, student intern, Water for Food Institute; senior news-editorial and women’s and gender studies major; University of Nebraska–Lincoln

A team of Water for Food Institute staff and four student interns traveled to Amman, Jordan March 18-26 to learn first-hand about the impacts of the Syrian crisis on neighboring countries and the difficulties local governments face in providing water and food to thousands of refugees. The students also explored Jordanian culture and history, including visits to world-famous archeological sites. They will showcase what they learned during the conference, “Water Scarcity, Human Security and Democratization: Aspects and Impacts of the Syrian Crisis,” April 19 at Nebraska Innovation Campus. WFI intern Morgan Spiehs shares her experience.

I heard a distinctive sound that my camera didn’t land well.

I stood up quickly after slipping and falling down a few stairs of the second century Roman amphitheater. My lens took the hit. I had yet to determine how extensive the damage was, but I crossed my fingers in hope that an expert’s removal of the bent filter would do the trick. My Keds were no match for the theater’s stairs, which were much steeper than any multi-million dollar arena I had been to in the United States. I was strangely comforted by the idea many Romans may have also fallen down those same steps.

We’d been in Amman, Jordan for less than 12 hours and I was down one lens. I only had two.

This was my fourth international trip as a photographer and videographer. I’ve been working as a photojournalist for over four years and never broke a camera or lens. This trip was full of joyous firsts: My first adventure in the Middle East, my first camel ride outside of the state fair and my first time dancing dabke. But my first lens break was not such a joyous first.

I felt defeated, embarrassed and afraid I let my team down. I was the only intern responsible for capturing the sights and sounds of our study tour – and wondered how my work would suffer having only one lens at my disposal. But the trip carried on.

On previous travels, I chose my story. I Googled topics I was interested in within each country I was traveling to, made contacts and documented the story after arriving in the country. Our trip to Jordan was the first time I’d traveled without a set story. Instead, I wondered how to document broad issues related to water, agriculture and humanitarian matters. Not only were these broad concepts I wasn’t sure how to document, it was also a heavy topic. Our conference is focusing on the impact of the Syrian Crisis, a crisis I believe could be the most significant human plight of my lifetime. I felt and continue to feel momentous pressure to give the weight of this issue justice within the work I do during my internship.

Another difference between this trip and my previous travels as a photojournalist was that we were able to be tourists outside of the work we did in Jordan. On other trips, I’d almost exclusively focused on my stories and other than a trip to the Taj Mahal, I don’t recall feeling like a tourist in India, Brazil or Ethiopia. In Jordan, outside of our interviews and work related-trips we floated in the Dead Sea, we hiked to the Monastery at Petra, and rode in the back of a pickup driven by a bedouin in a desert used as a film set to emulate Mars. My appreciation for these experiences hasn’t even sunk in yet.

Though, oddly enough, being a tourist raised issues for me. I’m a photojournalist through-and-through. I rarely remember to take photographs when I’m in a tourist capacity and don’t find joy in it personally. I felt out of my element attempting to find the moments between interacting with others or within a certain environment while in Petra or Wadi Rum like I do when I’m at a Nebraska football game or a women’s rights rally. And there was the disadvantage of my broken lens weighing on top of this uncertainty. Luckily, Richael, one of our Water for Food trip sponsors who joined us late in the trip, was able to bring another lens for me to use for the remainder of the trip.

Within 48 hours of returning to the United States, my photos were slated for printing. The reaction from the First Friday show we hosted featuring photos I took on the trip was astounding and reassuring of my worries related to my work and the gravity of the topic we covered. My friends, family and strangers asked questions related to water scarcity, irrigation and humanitarian issues. Hundreds of people filtered through the gallery and read the detailed captions accompanying each photo with information pertaining to the area’s complicated crisis. A friend and fellow photographer said he couldn’t believe I photographed how I did with one lens for most of the trip. I enjoyed the evening, feeling my worries were laid to rest. But there’s still work left to do.

See you April 19.

Students and experts on water issues in the Middle East will present a one-day conference April 19 to discuss the important water security and humanitarian implications of the Syrian refugee crisis, focusing on the impacts in Jordan. “Water Scarcity, Human Security and Democratization: Aspects and Impacts of the Syrian Crisis” will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Nebraska Innovation Campus conference center, 2021 Transformation Dr., Lincoln, Neb. USA. It is free and open to the public with online registration requested. For more details on the event, including the full agenda and registration page, visit: http://wfiglobal.org/10mIFt.

Morgan Spiehs is a senior news-editorial and women’s and gender studies major from Wood River, Neb. She’s interned for the Northeast Nebraska News Company, the Lincoln Journal Star and News 21, a national investigative journalism project. Her work in the United States and abroad has been nationally and internationally recognized. As a Water for Food Institute video intern for spring 2016, she hopes to create visuals that inspire positive change and further the WFI’s mission. After graduation, Spiehs hopes to combine what she learns from the WFI and her photo/video skills and continue working for humanitarian and environmental causes.

A photo taken as Morgan Spiehs fell down steep stairs in a second-century amphitheater in Amman. The resulting cracks in her lens can be seen.

A photo taken as Morgan Spiehs fell down steep stairs in a second-century amphitheater in Amman. The resulting cracks in her lens can be seen.

A Zalabia Bedouin walks with camels in the Wadi Rum desert.

A Zalabia Bedouin walks with camels in the Wadi Rum desert.

Morgan Spiehs

Morgan Spiehs

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