Gorm. El Cerrito, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

It was scorching hot in Saint Louis, Senegal when my travel partner Allyson and I met Gorm in July of 1996. He was sitting with Mauve at one of the tables in the veranda overlooking Point Faidherbe Bridge at Hotel dela Poste. We were wandering aimlessly that afternoon and happened to walk inside the hotel, probably looking lost and confused. He invited us over for a beer. He just finished working with a local organization as part of his masters degree program in health services. We told him we were students photographing in the area for a school documentary project. During our conversation, we asked if he could share a few tips since we were staying for a month and half in the city.

"You know, there is this American who comes by every day around 6:00pm and uses the phone in the lobby. I don't know her at all but you might want to come by tomorrow and see if she's there. She may be able to show you around," he replied.

He left for the States the next day. We took his advice and met and became friends with Lisa F, a peace corps volunteer stationed in Saint Louis for two years. She spoke the local language and was able to help us with translations. She gave us tips on how to navigate around the city and dished out common sense advice on handling various situations. We also hung out together when she was available.

After I got back to Santa Barbara, I sent Gorm a thank you note and included two matted polaroid transfer prints that I took in Saint Louis. He was thrilled to receive the photographs. I thought that was the last time I would hear from him but he sent an email four years later in 2000. By this time, I had settled in the Bay Area. He told me he had relocated to Sydney with his partner and he was in town visiting his parents who lived in the East Bay. He brought along his mom and briefly stopped by the office I used to rent at a photo studio in SOMA. 

Fast forward to June 2011. I received an email from him via my website and he commissioned me to take portraits of his family. As I drove to his parents' home on the day of the shoot, I thought how amazing it was that we met in such a remote part of the world and he had stayed in touch all these years.

"You must come and visit me in Australia!" he said. A cousin of mine moved to Sydney several years ago and it has been on my list of places to visit. I hope to take him up on his offer in the near future.


Saint Louis

August 1996. Saint Louis, Senegal

At dawn each morning, we were awakened by prayers blaring from the megaphones atop the mosque located across the missionary where we were staying. We would lie in silence for several minutes until we recovered from the sudden interruption. We changed to our travel clothes, carried our camera gear and headed to the fishing village of Guet Ndar to photograph the men and women engaged in their trade. Sometimes, we varied our routine. We walked the narrow streets and watched the sunrise along the river until the morning light basked the decaying French colonial architecture of the city. One day, I decided to set one of my lenses to infinity. I wanted to do something other than street or documentary photography. When I looked through my viewfinder, I had the experience of seeing the city as paintings.