Currently, many of us are obsessed with our travel plans for the summer. When the plan to “keep calm and carry on” in life backfires and amounts to piles of chaos, one of the first strategies for respite is travel. We come to this place of genuine desperation from a multitude of experiences. Most of these can be summed up with the term “adulting.”
Whatever the reason, we need a break. We need rest. We need relaxation. We need to disconnect.
For most of us, the ability to disconnect while traveling is essential. Yet, there are some who travel seeking opportunities to connect.
This is the case for one Fort Worth local, Brandon Cunningham. For Brandon, the travel spark was ignited as a child. He recalls, “I think my adventurous travels started young. My dad always made sure we took a 2-week vacation every summer, and no matter where we were headed, it always seemed that we went through Colorado first. My guess is that he chose this route because of the scenery. It is what I remember the most.”
Fast-forward decades later, and Brandon is now working as a photographer. Like many others in the industry, he maintained a steady income stream with senior portraits and family sessions. While he enjoyed this work, he found it necessary to steal away and create on his own work from time to time. “I wanted to take my art to a deeper level and find a greater connection with my craft.”
It was not long until an opportunity to take his art to a deeper level arose. Brandon was asked to join a medical mission team traveling to Kenya to document the experiences of their work. The travel spark was re-ignited.
After landing in Nairobi, the team began to organize their equipment and luggage for the two-hour trip to Kajiado. Brandon recalls, “I knew as a non-medical member of the mission team my focus would differ from most of those around me, but my dedication and passion would be the same.” Equipped with his camera, he engaged with his work and his fellow travelers, head-on, in earnest.
His lens revealed a human experience that stood in stark contrast to his own. He remembers, “It wasn’t the difference of the living conditions or the lack of technology that stood out to me. What resonated with me on this trip was the openness within the community. I felt that an element of the human connection that I was looking for powerfully existed there.”
It was not long before the medical mission itself, and not just his role in documenting it, began to weave itself into his purpose for being there. “As we would travel from village to village, searching for those in need of medical assistance and intervention, I found that I became a fervent participant in this process. When the team identified a particular child that needed assistance and the monetary backing was not available, I called my wife, and together, we came up with the funds to provide for this child’s medical needs. We became her sponsor.”
A select group from this team were chosen to travel further into Kenya, to the county of Turkana. The conditions were more primitive, and not every member of this team could physically make the trek into this environment, but Brandon was chosen to make this trip. After their arrival, he remembers thinking “I am at the root of civilization.”
He was. This region has produced some of the oldest human remains discovered to date. Surrounded by dry earth and a village filled with huts with thatched roofs, the team set up their quarters. They slept simply on hard floors surrounded by bug nets and ate the native food. He learned of the politics of the village, heavily influenced by the religious preferences of the people: a rough split between Christianity and Islam.
Brandon took to journaling as a way to channel his thoughts and gain greater perspective on his experiences. In an excerpt from his journal, Brandon writes:
“A group of boys and I exchanged questions and answers. Questions started with “had I ever seen a tiger,” and ended with “do I know Rihanna and Chris Brown?” Pop culture knows no boundaries! They shared their dreams of becoming a doctor, architect and engineer. These kids have dreams and my goal as a father is to help my children live theirs. The boys sit together, arms across each other’s shoulders without any hesitation of being teased for affection. The girls gather to tell stories with younger children in their laps. It is so refreshing to see children with so much compassion, free of judgement. We have lots to learn.”
Upon reflecting on his time in Turkana, he states, “I felt that the connection between humans was stronger there.” He describes the communication between strangers as more natural than it would be at home in the US. “If a random stranger approached me at home, I would be cautious. Somehow in this environment, people have found a way to remain open and not closed off in their communities”.
Masterfully disconnected during this trip with limited access to the internet and cellphones, Brandon recounts that it was the human connection, in its greater context, and the depth of that experience that ultimately lead to a more relaxed state of mind and respite from the stress of his world. In another journal entry he writes:
“We made our way back to the bus, surrounded by children who were happy to spend the day with us and little did they know, we got so such more from them. We need to care more for each other, be patient with one another, share our time with each other, be present when present. Hold each other tightly. My heart is larger. Thank you!”
You can follow Brandon’s travels on Instagram @snapjudgementphoto. Since returning from Kenya, he solely focuses on international humanitarian photography.
This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Madeworthy.
Danika Franks is an extroverted introvert, and super chatty conversationalist that loves to move right past the superficial into a meaningful and vulnerable conversation expeditiously (brace yourself). Danika finished the 23rd grade and landed a career as an emergency medicine physician. She recently transitioned into an administrative role within medical education. Her career interests include physician well-being and resilience as well as physician coaching. Danika’s left and right brain are in constant competition as her inner- scientist/clinician competes with her inner-interior designer. In addition to her own spaces, you will frequently find her collaborating with friends and sometimes complete strangers (on a Target run) in designing their spaces. She is exploring a way to appease both sides of her brain by looking at how intentional interior design can improve both the medical training learning environment and the patient experience in hospitals and clinics. Danika is a new Fort-Worthian who lives with her husband, Chauncey, and three munchkins, Eli, Eden and Elle. Somehow, despite being seasoned parents, Chauncey and Danika recently agreed to get two English bulldog puppies, Ferdinand and Bleu.