I was backpedaling, the way photojournalists do, trying to get a photo of South Sudanese dancers in Monument Square during July’s First Friday Art Walk happenings, when I ran right into another photographer’s lens. I mumbled a “sorry” and we both went on shooting.
To my astonishment, when the dancing stopped, he approached the dancers, getting names, tapping them into his phone and smiling all the while.
I was impressed.
In my experience, nobody but working photojournalists have the courage and the motivation to approach strangers on the street to get their names after taking a photo.
I know all the the other newspaper photogs in town, but I didn’t know this guy. I introduced myself. He shook my hand, still smiling, and told me his name was Egide Mbabazi. He didn’t work for a newspaper. He was a student.
Over coffee, a week later, I learned Mbabazi, 27, arrived in the United States from Rwanda in late December 2009. The then 20-year-old came alone, and spoke no English. He was fleeing ethnic violence at home. His father died in the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
But he made one thing clear to me. He wasn’t interested in talking about the past, only the future.
That’s fitting for a photographer. With a camera, you can only focus on what’s in front of you. He’s left his old life behind in Rwanda. He’s building a new one, here in Maine.
“When you get here, there’s a lot of challenges you have to meet,” he said. “For me, for every challenge, I have to come up with a solution.”
Photography is one of his solutions. He bought a camera with the first paychecks he earned in Portland after getting out of the homeless shelter and living on his own.
His camera became a license to meet people, to make friends and connections — to approach anyone. His easy smile and pictures open doors.
“I try to get interested in a person before I even ask them if I can take a picture,” he said. “That’s how the friendship starts.”
Sometimes people aren’t interested in being photographed or talking to him. But he takes the rejection in stride.
“That’s the worst that can happen to me,” he said. “They say ‘OK, I don’t want to talk to you.’ That’s the worst thing that can happen. But, most of the time, like 95 percent, I always get in touch with someone.”
Mbabazi is currently studying communication and media at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. He’s got a few more semesters before he graduates. When he’s done, he hopes to have a career in photography or music video production.
He’s already shooting paid work. He’s shot weddings locally, in New Jersey and even the Bahamas. He’s also been hired to shoot a slew of portraits and modeling portfolios.
Sandi Brown is a woman he connected with early in his time here. She helped him navigate the system and find his way in Portland. He now calls her his “American mother.”
As we were crossing Monument Square on Friday, she called to him from a few yards away withe her tattooed arms outstretched. They hugged and laughed.
“His photos are so good because he can see the soul of people,” said Brown, beaming up at Mbabazi and holding his arm. “And he can capture it. Eternal optimism, that’s what he’s got. To come here and to not know anyone, I mean, how do you find that?”