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Out of Africa: A Digital Day In the Life



Africa has long been a locale of mystery, centuries-old culture, and awesome scenic beauty. That's why 100 photographers journeyed there on February 28, 2002, all part and parcel of the "A Day in the Life of Africa" project, created to show the Dark Continent in all its complexity and diversity and to raise money for AIDS-education programs in the process. The twist on this field expedition: All the documentation was done digitally, with equipment and training provided by Olympus.

Training Day The first thing Olympus did to prep the on-the-ready photographers was to equip each participant with an Olympus E-20 SLR digital camera, a lithium polymer battery set, a 28mm-equivalent wide-angle converter lens, and a 200mm-equivalent telephoto extension lens. A Camedia P-200 portable dye-sublimation printer was also included in each photographer's donated gearbag so that they could produce images on the fly, and a C-4040 zoom lens was thrown in for good measure. (Photographers who wanted larger images were able to use the P-400 dye-sub printers back at the Paris project headquarters.)

While all the photographers involved in the project were among the best photojournalists in the world (with many Pulitzer Prize and World Press Photo winners), a good number of them had never shot digitally before, so Olympus knew it had to provide comprehensive training in a relatively short period of time. "What we found is that 60 to 65 percent of the photographers had not shot digital before," says Olympus marketing manager John Knaur. "It's not a significant learning curve, and it wasn't like they were lost because they didn't know how to take pictures, but we just wanted to get them familiar with the products."

Training sessions were held before February 28 in New York, Johannesburg, and in Paris once the photographers arrived. Topics covered in these sessions included everything from the differences between film and digital, how to work the menu system, and storage issues. Two Olympus technical reps hung out in Paris to help the editors and staff there with the downloading once the photographers headed out to Africa, and two of Olympus' Japanese R&D engineer liaisons went to Africa to get feedback on the operation of the camera and how it was used in the field. "The training provided everything that was needed and made it incredibly easy to use the camera and capture the images," says Magnum photographer Eli Reed.

Former UN photographer John Isaac didn't need as much training as some of his colleagues, but he was nevertheless impressed with the setup. "In my case, I was already using Olympus, so [it was an easy transition]," he explains. "It was very well-organizedI'm still amazed how well they [set everything up]."

Once everyone felt comfortable with their cameras and digital equipment, the time had come for everyone to leave Paris and set off for their final destination: Africa. After a group picture was taken, photographers packed their bags and headed off to the high plains of Madagascar, into the tobacco fields of Mtunthama, onto barges in the Congo River, and everywhere in between. It was here, in the field, where the photographers' learning curve and Olympus' equipment was put to the test. "Any typical glitch that you figure can happen in photography happened, but everything was controlled when they were able to get the image downloadable," says Knaur.

Each photographer's experience was not without individual challenges as well. Isaac was situated in Chad, a mainly Islamic nation, and had to overcome the dust, language, and cultural barriers to get his shots. "Chad is totally in dust and sand all the time, and everything was muted, almost like a fog," he recalls.

But even elemental dilemmas like this were easily overcome by the Olympus gear. "Because it's a field system, the equipment held up very well," says Knaur. "As far as I know, there were no camera-related failures."

With his digital arsenal, Isaac was able to prepare ahead of time for when he wasn't surrounded by technological amenities. "I had two digital cameras, my Mac iBook, and two digital hard drives," he says. "I even took two extra batteries for the cameras and one extra battery for the computer, so wherever there was electricity, I charged them. At one point I stayed overnight somewhere and there was no electricity, but I was able to still work and download all the stuff into the computer."

Whether they wanted to wait until they got back to Paris to download their shots or take advantage of the Minds@Work MindStor 5GB portable hard drives (or "digital wallets," as project organizers called them) to download images in the field, photographers were nonetheless pleased that they were able to view their pictures instantly without having to just cross their fingers and hope for the best. "With the digital experience, you have instant gratification, the ability to show people what you want to do, the ability to check your images," says Knaur. "There's nothing scarier than going out on a day shoot like this and not knowing what you got until you get back and start looking at the pictures. With digital you can check what you're getting on the fly and shoot much more productively."

Digital had other unanticipated benefits for the fish-out-of-water photographers: Because of cultural and language differences, some of the photographers' subjects were at first reluctant to appear in front of the lens, but once they realized that they could see what the final result would be instantaneously, they were more eager. "The old adage 'A picture is worth a thousand words' held true here," says Knaur. "One of our photographers, Mark Greenberg, was trying to shoot the queen of a village. She wasn't too enthusiastic about the idea, until he showed her the picture on the back of the camera."

Other photographers also had security showdowns with suspicious government and law-enforcement agents who thought the photographers were spies or worse. However, once the photographers were able to show the images right on the back of the camera, they were usually able to diffuse the tense situation.

Final Takes Out of the 50,000 or more images shot, about 250 were utilized for the A Day in the Life of Africa book that was published in November 2002. A dedicated photo team in Paris used Apple workstations, Gretag-Macbeth-color-corrected monitors, and Photo Mechanic editing software to achieve the Herculean task of narrowing down the thousands of stunning images to a manageable amount they could use in the book. "A vast majority of the photographers came back with the 5GB [digital wallet] full," says Knaur. "Some also had CD burners on their laptops and burned CDs as wellsome of them came back with seven CDs. That's a whole lot of images. Some of the photographers ran out of storage space before the day was over."

The final result of this daylong digital photographic extravaganza: the A Day in the Life of Africa book, with all proceeds from the sale of the book used to fund AIDS education programs in Africa. In addition to being part of such a noble and artistic cause, photographers and project director Cohen also hoped to reach their goal of showcasing Africa in a new light. "[Pictures and books about] Africa usually feature the negative," says Isaac. "This, however, was a quite positive book. It showed the struggles as well as how beautiful the continent is." DI

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