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She goes beyond the edge of politics

April 27, 2000|By KATE COLEMAN

There have been times when Benita Keller's photography has taken her beyond the edge of politics. As she waited to go through customs leaving Nigeria in 1989, the first of her international excursions, she realized that the armed guards were confiscating the film of the people in her group. "Can they do that?" she asked the airline representative.

"They can do anything they want. They have machine guns," was her answer.

She had 60 rolls of film she didn't want to lose. She asked for help, and the pilot smuggled it out in his luggage.

She had a closer call in Russia in 1996, when she landed in jail. She was in a little town outside Moscow during elections. The polling booth was like a polling booth in Big Pool, Keller recalls with a laugh. She thought it would be a shame to be in Russia during an election and not get some election photographs. Russian authorities didn't agree and arrested her.

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She tried to appear nonchalant, filing her nails, recalling the deodorant commercial that advises, "Never let them see you sweat." Her Russian friends intervened, and she was released after a few hours.

Keller was on the humanitarian edge of politics in 1990 when she went to Vietnam. She was with a group of veterans building a health-care center in a village near Hanoi that had been heavily bombed during the Vietnam War. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the end of that war. It was "so easy" to take photographs in Vietnam, Keller says. The people's lives are on the street, and she shot everything she wanted during her two-month stay.

Keller compares being in Cuba this past February and March to her experience in Vietnam. Life also is on the street in Cuba, she says.

She lived with a family that shared a courtyard with four other families. All the sounds of the little community blended together - music, kids crying, people talking. Keller would hear them as she woke from sleeping, not knowing if the sounds were real or a dream.

She describes the Cuban people as intelligent and hardworking. "They have this wonderful spirit about them," she says.

People are just waiting for the trade embargo to end, Keller believes. She was invited to the home of a man who works as a waiter, although his education is in telecommunications. His father is ashamed of his job, but he told Keller that he does it because the pay is better. He does it for his children.

While Keller was in Cuba, there were government-organized demonstrations of school kids in support of Elian Gonzalez's return to his father - flag waving, singing and poetry readings. People asked her what she thought. Although she spoke virtually no Spanish, Keller says it was easy to communicate that she thought he should be in Cuba with his father.

Having been to Cuba, she still believes it - perhaps even more. She saw kids everywhere, and they were very happy. Kids playing baseball - not with fancy equipment, but with a stick and a can.

Keller came away with a sense that family is very important there. She was amazed to see 12-year-old boys walking on the street, holding hands with their "mamas" and "papas." At parties, the kids are not with a baby sitter; they are with the adults - part of the dancing, part of everything, she says.

She wants to return to Cuba next spring and hopes to take a group of Shepherd College photography students with her.

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