Rebuilding post-tsunami Nagapattinam with HOPE

The following photo essay is drawn from the images I captured for HOPE foundation in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Like many other NGOs and countless kind-hearted Indian citizens, HOPE responded to the news of the 2004 tsunami instantly, and members of its staff were on the ground within hours. In the years that have followed, they have formed working alliances wisamth a range of big companies’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives and various foundations in order to not only help the local community get back on its feet but also equip its members with the skills and finances to go much further than they may have hoped to even before the tsunami.


hope foundation tamil nadu tranquebar photo essay 21958 Rebuilding post tsunami Nagapattinam with HOPE

This is historic Tharangambadi, formerly known as Tranquebar. From 1620 to 1845 it was a Danish colony (except for a brief interlude under British control from 1808 to 1814), and the Danes have clearly left their mark on the town’s architecture, as you can see in the image above.


hope foundation tamil nadu fish market photo essay 22684 Rebuilding post tsunami Nagapattinam with HOPE

Fishing has long been at the heart of Tharangambadi’s local economy. This image is of the town’s Sunday fish market. Tharangambadi was one of the fishing communities worst hit by the tsunami, which claimed over 250 lives here. Of those fishermen who escaped with their lives, many suffered the destruction of, or heavy damage to, their fishing boats and other fishing assets. Many more were deeply impacted in a psychological sense, and found it impossible to return to the seas.


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Fisherman S Ravi is pictured here with his son Aditya, who’s attending a school established and managed by HOPE foundation at Tharangambadi. “It was a miracle that I survived the tsunami”, Ravi recalls. “It came at around 8:30 am, when I’d just reached the seashore after fishing. I saw the boats and water coming towards me, and I ran. I reached a concrete temple, and when the water reached there it filled it up to the roof. I started to swim, and thankfully, because I’m a strong swimmer, I was able to swim to safety”. His house was damaged and his small catamaran was destroyed. He also lost the engine for his main fishing boat. Ravi is extremely grateful to HOPE, as they donated the boat you see here, helping him and his family to reestablish themselves. He’s also thankful that Aditya has the opportunity to gain a good education. “HOPE has provided me with a boat and with education for my son”, he says. “I feel that they’ve done much for our community, giving a complete package of support from livelihood to education to jobs. Their assistance means that we no longer have to depend on fishing alone”.


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This little girl is studying at another of HOPE’s schools in the nearby village of Chinnangudi. They’ve called it the Samsung School of HOPE in honour of a Samsung CSR initiative that paved the way for the school’s construction. Within the first few weeks following the tsunami, around 137,000 Samsung employees came together to raise US$ 2 million for the United Way South Asia Tsunami Response Fund, and specifically requested that the money be used to construct and rebuild schools. United Way International pledged their support here for 15 years, and thanks to this it is possible for the school to offer an English medium education for just Rs. 100 per month. Compare this to the Rs. 30,000 charged per year by the next nearest English medium school in the area!


hope foundation tamil nadu education literacy photo essay 22427 Rebuilding post tsunami Nagapattinam with HOPE

This is Niveda, hard at work. She’s just entering the Seventh Standard at the Samsung School of HOPE. Niveda’s headmaster, Mr Suresh, describes Niveda as one of the school’s greatest improvers. “She answers quickly, she shows eagerness towards her studies and she shows involvement in class. If you teach a topic today, she’ll be the first to answer when you ask the class questions on it tomorrow”. Hearing her headmaster speak of her in these terms makes Niveda feel happy and proud, she says, adding that school is where she enjoys being the most! Asked what her favourite subject is, she replies, “Science. I know about the people who’ve discovered things, and I’m excited about their discoveries. Plant and animal life also interests me. I want to know more about these things, and my aim is to become a scientist. I’d like to become the kind of scientist that does good for human society”.


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Here, a little girl participates in a drawing competition at HOPE’s school in Tharangambadi. And she has so many colours to choose from! According to A Balasundari, an MSc graduate who teaches Science, English and History at the school, ”the children here are not from educated families, but we’ve been successful in bringing out their natural talents”. She believes that a large part of this success stems from the extracurricular activities, such as drawing and quiz competitions, that thrive at the school. “Few children elsewhere have access to playgrounds, lab and computer facilities,” she adds. “Even yoga classes are conducted here”.


hope foundation tamil nadu school playground teacher photo essay 22522 Rebuilding post tsunami Nagapattinam with HOPE

One of the HOPE schools’ greatest assets is clearly its staff. Samuel Thomas, pictured here, is both jovial and devoted. He and his wife Lizzy run the Tharangambadi school. “Our teachers are well-qualified; they all have at least B.Eds”, says Samuel, something that’s quite unusual in village schools. “Still, we have to train them in what we expect of them”, Lizzy adds. “In HOPE schools, we expect out teachers to give love and compassion to our children”.


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CSR support from ManpowerGroup enabled HOPE foundation to establish two vocational training centres in the district of Nagapattinam. Since fishing ceased to be an option for many after the tsunami, these centres have helped the local population develop alternative skills. In eight years, over 8,000 people have been trained, including many young women, most of whom would previously have been expected to remain at home to help manage their households. Of the many courses available to them, tailoring (pictured here) has proven especially popular.


hope foundation tamil nadu vocational training computing photo essay 22793 Rebuilding post tsunami Nagapattinam with HOPE

The skills taught depend on local demand. Another of the most popular is computing. Classes include Corel Draw, Pagemaker, Photoshop, C++, Tally, animation, web design and hardware maintenance. Teacher D Selvam has an MBA in Systems Administration and has been working here since 2006. “I get great satisfaction from working with computers”, he says. “I also feel happy when I’m able to help people. They trust my service. They come to me either to develop their skills or because they need to find work. So I’m able to help change lives. It makes me feel really good to see people grow”. He adds that helping young women, like A Kathija Beeve (above, foreground) and G Subhasri (behind), is an especially important task. “Not many companies are used to employing them, as few come out of the house to work and they worry about their safety. When I’m able to match young women with reputable employers, it feels especially good”.


hope foundation tamil nadu toe painting photo essay 21995 Rebuilding post tsunami Nagapattinam with HOPE

These are the talented toes of Pughazhenthi V. Born without arms, he is nevertheless an artist. A ‘toe painter’, to be precise, though his skilful feet create beautiful handicrafts as well. He is part of a small group of people who earlier benefited from skills training at HOPE’s vocational training centre in Tharangambadi. They since came together and, with the assistance of interest-free loans from HOPE’s microfinance scheme and the use of some of the space at the training centre, have formed a small enterprise. ”When we introduced interest-free loans, people were in tears!”, says A M John Babu, HOPE’s Microfinance Programme Director. “Now we have around 2,500 people who’ve taken loans from us. Some of these went from having nothing to being lakhaires [Rs. 100,000]. So this has made a major impact here”. 0% interest means that virtually everyone can repay, and this has made them credit-worthy in the eyes of banks, paving the way to longer term financial security. “If this scheme is implemented across wider swathes of India then we’ll definitely see improved economic growth”, John asserts. “There is so much need around our country, and this scheme is great for economic development”.


hope foundation tamil nadu microcredit carpenters photo essay 22038 Rebuilding post tsunami Nagapattinam with HOPE

G Ramesh (not pictured), the owner of this carpentry business, used to be a fisherman. The tsunami put an end to this, so he approached HOPE foundation for a Rs. 25,000 loan from its microfinance scheme, so as to build the shed you see here. In addition to this, he was given some equipment free of cost, because it was clear that his business was useful to the community and that he was employing local people. “As well as serving fishermen’s needs for their boats, I make household furniture such as cupboards, beds and dining tables”, Ramesh says. “This is hard work. But my income is now steady and good, as compared with what I got in fishing. This has given me confidence. I’m able to meet my family’s needs, and I’m able to send my two daughters (aged 7 and 12) to a private school. Had I remained a fisherman, I might only have been able to fund one of these girls’ education”. His main aspiration now is to expand his business, and to convert his wooden shed into a more solid, safe and good-looking workshop.


hope foundation tamil nadu schoolboy climbing frame photo essay 22557 Rebuilding post tsunami Nagapattinam with HOPE

HOPE foundation aims to provide support from cradle to career. With low cost schooling, affordable vocational skills training and interest-free loans to help budding entrepreneurs get established, the people of Nagapattinam District really can – like this young man – climb high!

‘Visual Peacemaking’ by Camille Bromley

Regular readers of these pages will recall that a couple of months ago, journalist Camille Bromley interviewed me on being a humanitarian and CSR photographer. On 18th June, the first of two resulting pieces was published by Catalysta. You’ll find the article here on their site, but for your convenience I’m copying it below.

humanitarian photographer + CSR 09 IMG 8526 Visual Peacemaking by Camille Bromley

Visual Peacemaking


Any marketing professional knows that a single compelling image speaks louder and truer to the rushed and information-bombarded public than a thousand descriptive phrases. Visual imagery is powerful in its ability to persuade, create emotions, and change behavior—and this is just as true of organizations devoted to the common good as it is for product advertising. NGOs, non-profits, and charities need professionals who can visually communicate their mission and the results of their efforts. In response, a small but growing field of “humanitarian photographers,” as they are often called, dedicates their creative talents to the interests of the development sector.

Humanitarian photography is anything but a strictly defined field. The backgrounds and skills of these freelancers are diverse, as are their clients and locations. Robin Wyatt is one such self-invented photographer, having worked extensively in India but also in Egypt, Kenya, and Senegal for organizations including Save the Children, Mercy Corps, USAID, and the United Nations Development Programme. His work covers humanitarian and social issues, environmental and climate change, and travel and culture. “What I’m about is hope, and showing the difference organisations and corporate responsibility initiatives can make,” Wyatt says. “I’m keen to show people’s dignity in difficult situations, and also our common humanity . . . What this all boils down to is using photography to contribute to processes of change for the better.”

A better term for his profession, Wyatt suggests, is “visual peacemaker,” citing the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers (IGVP) as a major inspiration. He chose to become a photographer after becoming frustrated with a career in social research. An epiphany hit him like “a tonne of pleasant-feeling bricks” during an intensive vipassana meditation: he could combine his background in social research in India and knowledge of development with a love for travel and photography. “I fervently believe in following one’s passion,” he says. “I cannot understate the personal benefits I’ve reaped since finding a means of doing this. Not a day goes by when I don’t see and hear of people in dead-end or unfulfilling jobs, drudging through from nine to five and constantly counting the days till the weekend or the next holiday. Surely life’s too short for this?“ He immediately dedicated all his resources, time, and efforts to photography and began coming up with initiatives and pitches to contacts at NGOs.

However, in a pattern familiar to those who dedicate their careers to ethical causes, Wyatt found that vision alone cannot pay the bills. According to Wyatt, weddings, fashion shoots, or corporate gigs are far more lucrative, paying five or even ten times the rate that a non-profit can afford. Development organizations function on tight budgets, and often money can simply not be allotted to non-essential creative communications, however beneficial it might be to the organization’s image and support network (Wyatt’s photographs serve his clients in many ways, from procuring donations and grants to communicating messages to people about hand-washing or malaria prevention).

Many professional humanitarian and travel photographers, finding it impossible to support themselves exclusively with assignments that follow their specialization, turn to more mundane work, teach, or lead photo tours to supplement their income and allow them to continue what drives them. Wyatt, however, is hesitant to take time away from the work that really matters. To find a solution to this division between his personal and professional visions, he carved out a new niche for himself in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) photography.

Currently, Wyatt says, most CSR departments in for-profit companies and corporations commission photographers from creative agencies that may have little experience on the field in developing countries. He is prepared to offer his services to those who are in line with his values, “companies that really are serious about being good corporate citizens, not those that just want to pay lip service to this idea because consumers are increasingly demanding it.”

Wyatt also sees big potential impact in the scope and reach of CSR activities, as companies are becoming increasingly aware that genuine actions for social justice and environmental sustainability will be appreciated by consumers. These companies could become major actors on the development scene. Wyatt says, “I know that I for one would prefer to buy from those companies that are putting something back, as opposed to those that are doing more harm to the world than good, and I see my role in such cases as feeding into informative advertising.”

What is heartening beyond the superb creative talents of Wyatt and other visual peacemakers is Wyatt’s insistence on a full commitment to his ethical goals, to doing and continuing to do work that makes a difference in the world. He has proven that it is possible to achieve professional success as a photographer while staying true to a personal creative vision: “In order to sustain oneself, there’s a very clear need to innovate and do something that few others are doing . . . There is always a way.“

The story behind the image

Journalist Camille Bromley recently contacted me again (see my earlier interview with her), as she was interested in learning the story behind the scenes one of my images. Which image was up to me. She just wanted to know a little about how it came into being. Here’s the one I selected, and what I told her follows:

humanitarian photographer + CSR 02 IMG14146 e1340799977583 The story behind the image

A beautiful image, no doubt. But how did it come into being? What’s the story behind the image?


I had been asked by a small Kenyan non-profit to tell some visual stories based on the work they were doing in Wajir in the country’s drought-stricken North Eastern Province. This remote, arid area lies two days’ drive from Nairobi and feels a world away from the capital city and its temperate climate. It’s primarily populated by Somalis, most of whom have been living here for generations. The organisation concerned has been working here for several years, running education, food relief and arid lands irrigation and farming projects.

At the time (September 2011), the Horn of Africa drought was in full force. So on that day, I was at the school run by the organisation, waiting for a distribution of relief food to begin. While I sat quietly under a tree, checking that all was in order with my equipment, three small Somali boys came to see what I was up to. They sat at a safe distance, saying nothing. They just gazed at me, full of curiosity. Children are my favourite photography subjects, as they invariably have few inhibitions about engaging with the camera. So I thought I would play with them.

I was surprised that they were at first quite hesitant, as by now I’d become a known face at the school. It occurred to me that they may not actually have been pupils there. But when I showed them how they looked on the camera’s LCD screen, they were thrilled! Shy, covered faces turned to intrigued faces, turned to smiling faces, turned to laughter and delight. Then another boy came, and then another. They all crowded onto the wooden bench where the first three had been sitting, and eventually, with all their excitable wriggling around, the bench collapsed on one side!

So one of them had the bright idea of swinging from the branch of the tree I’d been sitting under, and they all clambered on. I needed to use my flash, as the sun was close to its zenith, casting harsh shadows over everyone’s face. So every time the bulb went off, all the boys dropped down and clambered around the LCD screen, laughing with great pleasure. And then, just as quickly as they’d rushed to see the image, they’d dash back to the branch to pose again.

Here you have one of the fruits of this beautiful experience!