Timothy Lamm takes a photo of a child in Sierra Leone, a country that faced great loss during the Ebola crisis just two years before the Go Love Africa team visited. More than 6,500 photos were printed and distributed during the trip. Photo by Aaron Williams.

Portraits of love: Local photographers share unforgettable images with African villagers

Six years ago, while on a mission trip with his church, Nathan Dewberry wandered the streets of Zimbabwe, snapping photos as he went. “People would stop me and ask to have their picture taken, and I would just show it to them on the back of the camera,” he remembers. “They wanted a way to have it.”

Even upon returning home, he couldn’t shake the memory of that encounter. He began seeking out a way to return and print photos for people who didn’t have access to them. “And that’s where I came in,” says Aaron Williams. Over a single meal at a local Chick-fil-A, the two Baton Rouge-based photographers decided to make a trip to Uganda. “And then, Go Love Africa was born,” says Dewberry.

Traveling to the remote villages of Bugiri, Buwini, and Nankoma, Nathan and Aaron photographed and distributed over 1,500 professional-style portraits to villagers, many of whom had never seen a photo of themselves before.

“We just wanted these people to be able to look at a time when they were happy, or just to go back and see their face and to have the ability to pass it on for generations,” says Williams. “Kids can see what their grandparents looked like, what their parents looked like.”

A 2015 trip to Madagascar produced more than 5,000 photos that were given at no charge to their subjects, like this young boy who shared his sweet smile with the camera. Photo by Brandon Maher.

But Go Love Africa’s mission extends beyond the gift of portraiture and into the realm of the spiritual. “On the back of each photo, we pre-print the Gospel of Christ,” explains Dewberry. “That’s our heart,” adds Williams. “That’s really what our heart is, doing this. Yeah, we want to take pictures and give them this piece of love. But on the back, with the Gospel message, we hope to invite them to have salvation from that.”

Since their inaugural trip in 2014, the pair has brought their mission to the villages of Ranomafana, Vatambe, Manabaro and Taolagnaro in Madagascar as well as to Sierra Leone. On each trip, the photographers partner with local pastors and missionaries to help villagers get connected with a spiritual community.

This emphasis on supporting existing establishments within the villages they serve is an important element of Go Love Africa’s unique mission. Dewberry explains that there is a misconception about missionary work, a belief that bringing things to these poor villages is the right way to help them. “When you go over there, bringing shoes and clothes, you disrupt the existing economy,” he says. “You put the local shoemaker, the existing cloth-maker, out of business.”

In bringing photos to these villages, Go Love Africa is providing something that doesn’t exist at all to the people it serves. “We’re bringing them something they want and that has lasting value to them,” says Dewberry. “It’s a need, or at least a want, that’s not being currently met.”

In September, Go Love Africa will embark on its fourth excursion, this time to West Kenya, where they will work with a Christian organization that runs an orphanage and cares for widows. They will be photographing three different semi-nomadic tribes along the Tanzanian border.

“There are a couple of firsts with this trip,” says Williams, referring especially to Go Love Africa’s partnership with Days for Girls, an international organization that seeks to provide girls with feminine hygiene products and education. “We learned that this is a major need in Kenya and other African nations. When girls hit the age of their first period there, they don’t have any way to manage it and are kicked out of school.”

Sourced from volunteer chapters in the United States and from cooperatives hiring women in countries like Kenya, Days for Girls makes hand-sewn, washable kits to meet this need. Go Love Africa hopes to bring 1,000 of these kits, purchased from a group of women in Nairobi, Kenya, to the villages they visit in September.

Dewberry says he hopes that as the organization grows, even more such opportunities will present themselves to serve the African people. “We are always asking, what’s the future for Go Love Africa?”

While they are taking it one trip at a time right now, the men agree that the organization is growing and that they foresee and hope for a day when they can make two trips a year. “It’s all about showing the love for the people in Africa,” says Dewberry. “Not going and saying ‘we’re better than you.’ We just want to offer them the basic thing of love, something they can hold onto. A picture is something of such personal value to you and to your family, and you can’t really put a price on it.”

To sponsor a photo for Go Love Africa’s upcoming trip to Kenya, or to donate a feminine hygiene kit from Days for Girls, visit goloveafrica.com