Speaking With Documentary Photographer And Photojournalist Glenna Gordon—Part 3

The train reaches Zaria around midnight and the station is mainly deserted. Photo by Glenna Gordon.

In August 2015, photojournalist Glenna Gordon was commissioned by The New York Times Magazine to photograph her 720-mile train journey across Nigeria, from Lagos to Kano, for its first-ever Voyages issue. (You can read part one and part two of this series.)

It was a dream assignment, but one that was rife with obstacles and challenges. Here’s part three, my final interview with Gordon about the behind-the-scenes details that enabled her to travel and photograph in one of the most difficult (if not the most difficult) countries in the world.

A man gets off the train with two chickens that he purchased a few hours earlier at the Guni stop in Niger State. Photo by Glenna Gordon.

AMY TOUCHETTE: How do you prepare the people who love and care about you for your travels in dangerous countries such as Nigeria?

GLENNA GORDON: With my parents, I tend to be a little vague about what I’m doing. Them worrying doesn’t keep me safer! My brother, who is my emergency contact, always knows what I’m up to.

AT: After 13 years, have you figured out what to do to make the transition back into your life in America easier?

GG: Good question!! It varies. Usually I hibernate for about 24 hours and order Seamless and watch TV, and then I’ll want to be out a bunch and see the people I love. The cycle varies… I’m more conscious of it after so many years, and these days, I have been trying to think about grounding when I return.

Getting tired… half way through the journey. Photo by Glenna Gordon

AT: Is it difficult to maintain friendships and relationships with a career that entails so much traveling?

GG: Yes, but I also have amazing friends who I have met all over while working and those bonds are so strong. We support each other as we do this work, which can often be very lonely.

AT: Throughout your career, you’ve photographed and experienced a lot of intense situations. Have you found something you do on a regular basis that helps you stay healthy, emotionally and physically?

GG: When I began this work, I didn’t take any of that very seriously. Now, 13 years in, these things are big priorities. I work out at least four or five times a week—less when I’m traveling, but I try and at least stretch or jump rope in my hotel room. I write in my journal a lot, which feels like a comforting tether.

AT: At what point in your career did you realize you needed to take better care of yourself?

A family shares rice with sauce served on a leaf from a banana tree. Most people bring some food with them and also buy food at the train’s many stops.

GG: After a really rough trip in 2017, I got a dog! And before that, the realization came in stages. Post-Ebola was bad, bad, bad. The whole press corps in West Africa seemed rough around the edges. I took off time, and that was when I first started spending more time in New York City and trying to make it feel like home, in late 2014. And before that in smaller ways… It’s a process;  I’m still learning about it.

Now, I’ve been working more in the US, and the signs and signals of [needing to take care of myself] are so different, I have to learn all over again.

AT: What qualities does a professional photographer need to have to take on jobs like this?

GG: The main thing is gumption. No one will make this happen for you. You have to make it happen for yourself.

@amy_touchette

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