I am Christine Armbruster, paying rent in Salt Lake City, Utah, but spending most of my days on the road or in the mountains. Working as a full-time photographer, I do commercial photography with a focus on travel and outdoor lifestyle. I feel as if I may be addicted to being in new places and having new experiences, I can’t help but make lists of places to travel to next on each flight. There is something wonderful and complete about being in a new place, finding the beauty and stories in places I have never been before.
How does photography influence the way you travel and see the world around you?
Photography gives me an excuse to allow myself to go places I would have never even considered before and a reason to stay for sustained amounts of time. If I were simply going to a place to visit, a week would suffice, however, with photography three months barely feels like enough time. Because of photography, I can fully travel and experience a place and culture. And because of this, it is always pushing me to see more and go further. I would be totally comfortable sitting in a street cafe all day if it were not for my camera nagging me to find an alleyway with a better view.
What sparked your interest to visit Jordan? How did you plan for it?
The Bedouins took me to Jordan. Their name continued to pop up in every book and article I read for almost a year. The more I thought about them, the more their name seemed to show up. So, I did a little cultural research, found a few contacts, and bought a plane ticket.
What was your favorite approach to photography while there? Did you generally strike up a conversation with your subjects or just candidly capture the moment? How did they react to being photographed?
I tried to create as much conversation as possible. I feel as if it helps make the scene more intimate as well as allows me to become a friend and come back for more photography. Living with a few of my subjects helped, they grew used to me photographing and eventually ignored my camera and allowed me to work. But generally I tried to capture the moment with those I already had established relationships with. I was usually welcomed with open arms by children and men because of my camera, it was the women that took a lot more trust and relationship building to get in with them. I lived with the Bedouins for three months, and it wasn’t until into my second month a woman let me into her home, let alone photograph her. They are just a little more shy.
You spent three months living in a cave with some Bedouin nomads while in Jordan, how did this come about?
Couch Surfing! I had originally planned on staying with other Bedouins further south in an area called Wadi Rum. Doing all my proper research, I found a group willing to let me stay with them and contacted other females that had stayed with the group beforehand. However, when I got to Jordan I had begun to hear terrible stories of the family I was going to stay with from those telling me it was good idea to come in the first place. The more I heard, the less I wanted to go. So I began my two day travel down south with the thought that I would say “yes” to any opportunity that arose along the way. Ten minutes into hitching a ride to the family I was Couch Surfing with in Petra area, I was offered to stay with another family and complete the work I wanted to do. So, I stayed.
What were some of your experiences learning from and living with this community?
Every time I travel, I realize more and more how similar we all are. I think I was going to Jordan to see how different another place is from my life I was living in Chicago. However, it is so similar socially and even culturally. People travel to the nearby village to watch their favorite Saudi Arabian television show and have both Facebook & cell phones. I think the extremity is just different. We had to climb a mountain for cell service and wire a car engine for light so we didn’t have to waste expensive candles. I tried to remove myself, and found out even the nomads watch YouTube videos. However, I did learn that truly hard work is constant. There are no days off in their lives. If you decide not to collect firewood, you don’t eat or stay warm that evening. If you decide not to fix the tent or door on the cave, a sandstorm will wipe out your entire home. I always considered myself a hard worker, when in reality, compared to them, I am the laziest human alive.
What would you say is your funniest memory from your trip?
Besides my film camera breaking in a sandstorm on my third day, leaving me with two gallon-sized bags of film to cart around? (It wasn't funny-- more ironic, but I laughed). Perhaps a trip we took to Aqaba, on the Red Sea. I was going on vacation to the West Bank and the guy who I was staying with took me to the border two hours south. After two months, one shower, and a lot of meals consisting of goat and mutton, all I wanted was to swim and eat ice cream. He decided I needed a “real American” meal, since I had been eating so much Bedouin food and took me to McDonald’s. Worse than I had ever remembering it to be, I took a bite and dashed back to the counter for my beloved ice cream. I got three cones dipped in chocolate, one for each of us. Grin on my face, I returned with arms full of ice cream only to see horrified looks on their faces. They were so appalled by the ice cream, screaming that it was too cold and they just couldn’t eat it. So I ate all three cones. And when I crossed the border into Israel/Palestine, I ate ice cream with every meal.
Did you have any expectations or preconceived notions about the culture you would be exposed to? How did they differ from the way the culture actually was?
I feel like I had no real opinion prior to going. I had heard good things about the nomads and the region. It wasn’t until I was already a single white female living in a cave in the Middle East with people I found on the Internet that I realized maybe I should reevaluate my decision making skills. But, I felt safe and didn’t have any problems, so I continued to do what I was doing.
What recommendations can you share for future travelers interested in visiting the region?
Tour the ancient sites, spend days in Petra, take aimless wanders through Wadi Rum, play in the sand dunes of Wadi Araba, and snorkel in the Red Sea. Trying new things has become a moto in my travel recently. Cities are wonderful to see, but some of my favorite moments have been finding the hikes and staying in villages as opposed to cities. If you are afraid of creating these adventures for yourself, find a tour group or outdoor guide that can facilitate it. It will be better than wandering around a two mile radius of your hotel.
Of all the images you captured during your trip, which one would you say was your favorite? Why?
This image (see image below) was from one of my first days with the Bedouins. I was introduced to this family, living in traditional tents, during a horrible storm. Wind, snow, and rain blew through the desert, tearing their home apart as the storm collapsed their shelter. Those I was staying with heard of the crisis happening in the next valley over, and so we took off over the pass and down to their home. The men repaired the tent and the young girls and I were sent out to round up the animals. I never thought I would see snow that trip, but it surely snowed that day. We were so cold collecting the animals and fixing their home. So much tea was made and we spent a significant amount of time after sitting around a tiny fire as their property flooded trying to warm up. Those girls became some of my favorite people. They did not speak a word of English, and they giggled at my Arabic, but we played and laughed every time I crossed that pass to see them.
What surprised you the most about your experience?
How much hard work went into every single day. I brought books, journals, my camera, and hardly touched the first two. Even my camera was a struggle to get out many days. I spent so much time collecting firewood. Half of my day was comprised of digging up ancient roots to use for wood since there were no large trees. Even for a cup of tea it was a consuming process. Add in fixing anything damaged by constant foul weather, going into the village for goods, and tending any animals and the whole day is already gone.
What would you like people to know about your experience within the country that is little known?
Don’t be afraid. The King of Jordan married a Palestinian woman and his previous wife was American, his mother British. Don’t be afraid that you will be the only foreigner there or treated poorly. The world is small, even the seemingly conservative countries have forward thinking individuals and open arms.
What’s next for you? Any final words of advice?
Go! Despite all the horrible things you hear, go! The Gaza Strip is beautiful, West Bank was one of the most hospitable regions I have ever been in, and Jordan was spectacular all the way around! Forget what you hear in the news, get out of your comfort shell, and go and talk to people. People are incredible. That region will never be perfect, but I feel as if the more of us that go, the better view we will have and the more understanding we will have of their culture. For me, I have the Caucuses lined up next... I am beginning to run out of scary sounding places to go to alone.
Images Courtesy of Christine Armbruster