Visions for a Better Tomorrow: When Photography Becomes Visual Peacemaking

Back in April, I shared the raw text from journalist Camille Bromley‘s interview with me on being a humanitarian and CSR photographer. On 18th June, the first of two resulting pieces was published by Catalysta (see here). Now, I have great pleasure in sharing the second piece, published by GALO Magazine (Global Art Laid Out) on 25th July. In case you want to read it on their site, click here. I am particularly thrilled to have been featured alongside Gary S. Chapman, a humanitarian photographer that I greatly admire.

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In 2009, the French photographer JR turned the favelas of Brazil and the slums of Nairobi, Kenya into public art galleries celebrating its female residents, pasting enormous photographs of winking eyes and toothy grins belonging to women in the community on tin-sheet rooftops, crumbling walls, and the sides of trains.The larger-than-life portraits of these women smiling and pulling faces showed the humor and strength present in individuals that have been overwhelmingly represented in international media as pitiful, miserable, and hopeless.

The power of a single image sometimes reaches farther than we realize. A compelling photo can instantly affect us on the deepest emotional levels, while the most ebullient text leaves us uninspired and indifferent. For humanitarian organizations, whose work depends on the continuation of public involvement and support, visual representations of the urgency of their causes and the positive effects of their efforts are essential. As the breadth of social media increases and Internet images proliferate among a widening audience, creative professionals are invested with new opportunities to use their talents and make significant contributions to causes they believe are worth addressing. The most direct impact comes from the small but growing field of humanitarian photography.

Actually, “humanitarian photography” can hardly be called a field, at least not yet. Although there are many talented photographers with accomplished bodies of work covering social justice crises and humanitarian concerns, it is difficult to pin down the work these professionals do under one encompassing term. After all, what we might call humanitarian interests can stretch far and wide, including anything from racial persecution to government oppression to environmental catastrophe. Photojournalists — the public’s major suppliers of visual information on important issues currently unfolding around the world — certainly have a place in this category. As opposed to photojournalists, however, humanitarian photographers work for the interests of development organizations, NGOs, or non-profits. And while the term photojournalism may conjure images of a single child’s shoe photographed against scorched rubble, many humanitarian photographers choose instead to communicate hope, progress, and positivism through their images.

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Robin Wyatt, a self-described “visual peacemaker,” is one such artist dedicated to making the world a better place. Increasingly dissatisfied and disillusioned with his previous occupation as a social researcher, Wyatt says that he was looking for a career change when “the retrospectively obvious finally hit me like a ton of pleasant-feeling bricks.” It was at a 10-day intensive Vipassana meditation course in India that he realized that he could combine his travel experience, academic background in development, and photographic talent to directly impact the lives of others in a positive way. Since this hard-hitting epiphany, he hasn’t looked back. “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.”

Splitting a home base between India and England, Wyatt has worked for well-established development organizations such as Save the Children, USAID, and the Peace Corps. He shoots around two major themes: people and places affected by social and humanitarian issues, and the human impact of environmental issues, such as climate change. The connections between creative talent and development work may not at first seem evident, but Wyatt’s photography is valuable to humanitarian organizations in many specific ways. In his work, Wyatt says, he is “commissioned to create images that are powerful and compelling, with the intention that they should ‘speak’ to those viewing them and provoke them to act in a certain way.” His images might encourage philanthropists to make a large donation to a foundation, for example, or convince a bilateral donor to renew a grant. Photographic images are also highly effective as a means of communicating hygienic or medical measures to an organization’s beneficiaries, like showing people the importance of washing hands before meals or using a mosquito net to prevent malaria. In addition, KONY 2012, last March’s humanitarian advocacy video-gone-viral, taught all of us the massive potential of creating and maintaining an online media presence, and small organizations are increasingly reliant on creative professionals like Wyatt to contribute to a visual profile of their mission.

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Somali boys swinging from a tree in Wajir, Kenya. Photo credit: © Robin Wyatt 2011.

Wyatt’s favorite subjects to photograph are children, because they hold few inhibitions and an innocent fascination with the camera. In one of Wyatt’s photos, a group of seven Somali boys swing from a tree branch, mouths stretched as far as their arms in wide smiles. The photo was taken on assignment in Wajir, an arid northeastern province of Kenya, for a small NGO that runs projects in education, food relief, and farming. It was September 2011, well into a severe drought in the Horn of Africa. Sitting under a tree, outside a school, Wyatt caught the curious eyes of these boys. Shy at first, they quickly warmed up to Wyatt and his camera and climbed onto the tree branch together. “I needed to use my flash, as the sun was close to its zenith, casting harsh shadows over everyone’s face,” Wyatt says.  “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.”

When he tells stories like this one, Wyatt’s tone turns joyous, and achieving personal fulfillment at one’s job begins to seem like the simplest thing in the world. But, as is tragically familiar to virtually all working stiffs trying to get through the day, passion does not alone a living make. In the fractured field of humanitarian photography, making a living is a serious concern, frequently discussed among practicing photographers; almost no one currently working in the field is able to support themselves exclusively from humanitarian assignments. “I don’t know a single other photographer who makes a living shooting ‘humanitarian’ and nothing but,” Wyatt says.

The reasons for this are not hard to see. Cobbling a livable salary together out of any work in the development sector is difficult, and photographers on assignment for tight-budgeted non-profits would be very unlikely exceptions. NGOs, by and large, simply do not have funds to match going rates in the lucrative private sector, such as in commercial, fashion, or wedding photography. These gigs pay five to ten times the rate that an NGO might, Wyatt notes. To support families, homes, and livelihoods in Western countries, many humanitarian photographers choose to supplement their incomes by shooting commercial assignments, teaching, leading photography tours, or other side jobs.

Wyatt, however, sees this as an unnecessary compromise, at least in his own case. “I know it might be tough, but I disagree with the notion that one must live as a pauper as a humanitarian photographer or else find other ways to earn [money] that take time away from shooting for good causes,” he says. He’s invented various ways to keep his costs down, and with no family and a base in India, he’s more flexible than other photographers supporting first-world lifestyles. “In order to sustain oneself, there’s a very clear need to innovate and do something that few others are doing,” he says. “Admittedly, that’s becoming harder and harder to do as the field becomes increasingly saturated. Perhaps, it means plunking oneself in a part of the world where others are not doing something one is able to do. There is always a way.”

Wyatt has indeed decided to do what few other photographers of his kind are doing. He has reshaped his clientele base to include corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments, which build policies into a company’s business plan that embrace humanitarian standards and laws, and take responsibility to make a positive impact on the environment, employees, or consumers through ethical business practices. This is a move with a potentially big impact. Though NGOs and aid organizations have always been indispensable to development efforts, new partnerships with corporations are making powerful new players available on the funding scene. This holds long-term benefits for companies as well as the non-profits they sponsor. High-profile international companies have been for years pushed by popular pressure to increase the transparency of their operations (the damaging press awarded to Nike in the 1990s for its notorious sweatshop factories is a case in point; more recently, Apple has come under fire for appalling working conditions in its Chinese factories). To this effect, setting up partnerships with humanitarian organizations satisfies an increasingly savvy consumer base. On the other side, companies are attracted by the benefits of establishing a reputation for caring about and contributing positively to social and environmental issues. For instance, TOMS Shoes’ generous policy of donating one pair of shoes for each pair purchased and subsequent success (named in the Top Ten Most Innovative Retail Companies by FastCompany) shows how effective this strategy can be.

Wyatt is optimistic about the possible contributions of CSR departments to the development sector. “I think it’s certainly possible for for-profits to make an even greater impact [than non-profits],” he says. No less important, he might have found a way to make humanitarian photography a self-supporting profession.

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Gary S. Chapman is another photographer for humanitarian causes facing very different challenges. While Wyatt, only a few years into the field, tries to work out a viable career path for himself, Chapman’s work demonstrates the ethical and spiritual dilemmas that come up after years of intimate contact with subjects in situations of hardship.

Chapman, now well-established in the field, came to humanitarian photography in a more roundabout way than Wyatt. Chapman had been a professional photojournalist and stock photographer for many years as well as a frequent overseas volunteer with his family for various development groups, but it didn’t occur to him to do photography for non-profit clients until his wife attended a slideshow of a missionary’s work abroad. “After the presentation, she went up to him and told him [that] his photos were really bad and that he needed to get me to help [him out],” Chapman says. Over the next several years, he shot pro bono for groups he traveled with. But with the 2005 Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, Chapman changed his business focus to devote his resources to what had before been mostly a side occupation: “In covering the aftermath of Katrina, I became convinced humanitarian photojournalism was needed to tell the story of those needing help and those called to help.”

Chapman generally works for smaller groups that aren’t able to hire quality photographers, such as Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee and Strategic World Impact. Looking at the vast spread of world problems, he sometimes wonders how much of a dent he can actually make, but at the same time he reminds himself that helping even one person is enough. He muses that his motto should be, “Take Photos, Do Good”— simplifying the overwhelming complexity of humanitarian issues into one catchphrase is helpful for a tireless photographer like Chapman to keep a strong grip on his role in all of it.

Indeed, defining his role is not always easy — Chapman has found that the effects of his presence on the scene during a conflict can be hard to anticipate, such as with his ongoing work on the persecution of northern Pakistan’s Christian minority. Chapman’s interest in this issue began with a trip to photograph relief efforts following the 2005 Pakistan earthquake that resulted in over 80,000 deaths. Trailing the food, construction, and medical aid deliveries of Strategic World Impact in northern Pakistan and working with Christian interpreters, Chapman started hearing about terrible treatment of Christians in the region. There were stories of forced marriages, rape, and job and education discrimination. “[There were] even stories of torture for drinking out of the wrong water spigot or cup — reminiscent of pre-civil rights USA,” Chapman says.

Over the next several years, Chapman began to photograph the victims of this religious persecution. One series of black and white photographs shows the aftermath of a 2009 looting and torching incident of the Christian communities Gojra and Korian by thousands of Muslim extremists, where targeted Christians were shot or burned to death and houses were destroyed. In Chapman’s photographs, solitary men and women are posed in grief and isolation among the rubble, their faces shadowed or hidden. Chapman spent time in the ruins, speaking to the victims and recording their stories. “This Christian minority, as many minorities around the world, experiences a lifestyle of endurance, a lifetime of patient subjection to authority determined to crush them,” he says. “In Korian, I photographed a father and his malnourished five-month old child in the charred ruins of his home. The man asked me what he will do now with no home, no income, no food and no access to water.”

During his missions, Chapman has sometimes had to put himself in personal danger, but he worries more about the effect his presence has on those he photographs. “I have close friends in Pakistan now. I don’t want any harm to come to them by my presence in the country or by the publication of their images,” he says. “Working in Pakistan as an American is difficult, but even more difficult for me is trying to photograph this story and confer a sense of anonymity to the subjects that might be placed in danger by the photos. For that reason, where necessary, I have chosen to photograph the subjects without showing their faces.”

Once, Chapman photographed a Christian woman housing several children who were made orphans by the earthquake. After his departure, the home was burned by an arsonist. No one was harmed, but Chapman has often wondered if the attack was not incited by his presence. He has had to ask himself how to be more cautious to avoid problems for his subjects. It hasn’t been an easy problem to reconcile, he says, “I have never been more frustrated on a story by the simple fact that I have had to leave many photos untaken. Many wonderful moments have gone unrecorded when it was too dangerous to take photos.” A central issue of photographing such sensitive situations is the question of just how much a photographer should get involved, and what possible damages this inference can carry with it. South African photojournalist Kevin Carter’s infamous 1993 Pulitzer-winning shot of an enfeebled Sudanese child menaced by a vulture is a case in point. It has been disputed in the media that the member of the Bang-Bang Club took his own life due to not only the horrific and strenuous extremes of his job, but the constant attacks that remained in his mind on what he could have done for those less fortunate than himself while on the job.

Chapman believes that even with the ambiguities implicit in getting involved, his photography ultimately helps the people he befriends. “Non-profit work has allowed me to enter the lives of people going through great distress,” he says. “I don’t take this privilege and responsibility lightly. It is an honor to be their voice and hopefully move [other] people to help.” Once in a while he wonders, though, if looking through a camera is enough. “I am sensing the need [and] desire to be more than just a photographer,” he says. “We aren’t necessarily called to rescue the entire world or all of the whales in the Atlantic, but we can sure assist people we meet that need help or get involved with issues that resonate with us.”

Despite the difficulties, Wyatt and Chapman both find their work extremely rewarding. Humanitarian photography requires, among other skills, the ability to connect on an intimate level with the people one photographs. Wyatt finds that his experience in social research has helped him build up a rapport with the people he photographs, and he loves swapping jokes, playing with pets, and accepting invitations to home-cooked meals. This intimacy translates in palpable ways through the camera: an expression of familiarity, perhaps, or permission to peek into secretly meaningful spaces. The most talented subject photographers know that everybody has a story, and the trick lies in finding it and shaping it.

“Photography is an open door into places and people’s lives,” Chapman says. “Without the camera, I would not have that access.”

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The visual image is an incredibly potent advocacy tool. Photojournalism has an unparalleled ability to instantly communicate the realities of life for people whose faces we typically don’t see and voices we can’t hear. More than that, a well-constructed image never fails to trigger an emotional reaction in even the most world-weary among us. While cynics tire of statistics and shrug off news stories, it’s difficult to ignore the reality of another human face. Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Nicholas D. Kristof has made a career out of putting faces onto previously overlooked issues; as he knows well, when we are able to make a problem visible, to see portraits of the people affected, it produces tangible results — we tell our friends, we donate, we vote. Likewise, Chapman says, “The truth and honesty of photos touch something in our core and almost demand a response.”

Leslie Thomas is one example of a woman who responded — albeit in an exceptional way. Thomas was a busy architect and mother in Chicago when she read an article about the brutal ongoing violence in Darfur. What held her attention was an accompanying photo showing a child with a brutalized face, targeted because of his ethnicity. Moved profoundly by the tragedy contained in this one image, she was compelled to take action and founded Art Work Projects, a visual advocacy organization aiming to produce action on human rights crises by mounting public photo exhibitions. “When we see the faces of those who have been most affected by human rights injustices, it offers an unparalleled level of insight into their struggle. A little boy becomes our son, brother, nephew; an older woman becomes our sister, mother, aunt,” says Tess Landon, Art Works Project’s program coordinator.

Art Works Projects is focused specifically on rousing individuals to action from the grassroots level in order to create support for the most severe human rights crises of our time and effectuate policy change. Thomas, Landon, and a team of directors, consultants, and collaborating photographers create media installations in exhibitions and public spaces around the world, including New York, Paris, Lisbon, Oslo, and Slovenia. Their goal is not to shock, but they believe a profound emotional reaction is the most effective way to produce action. “The most important thing to us is that they [the public] have a reaction — be it anger, sadness, confusion, enlightenment, empowerment, or awe,” Landon says.

The success of Art Works Projects all depends, of course, on how well the photographs tell a story to a not expectant public. Images from BLOOD/STONES, about the trade in Burmese rubies and the political oppression it finances in Myanmar, communicate the widespread poverty of Myanmar’s citizens, the indifference of international gem dealers indirectly supporting human rights violations, and finally, the courage of Burmese citizens in public protests against exploitative government measures. In CONGO/WOMEN the photos show the isolation of victims of gender violence, the devastation of disease, and also the resolution of these women to provide for their children and families and their grace in the face of overwhelming difficulties.

Many of these photos are painful to see — they should be. In them is evidence of the disasters that humans have caused; they reveal our failings. But Art Works Projects, along with humanitarian photographers in the field like Wyatt and Chapman, believes that art can and does play an important role in processes of change for the better.

“What I’m about is hope,” Wyatt says, “and showing the difference organizations and corporate responsibility initiatives can make. I’m keen to show people’s dignity in difficult situations, and also our common humanity.”

Robin Wyatt is currently expanding his development work to shoot assignments for corporate social responsibility departments while establishing a firm presence in South Asia.

Gary S. Chapman and his wife are currently working on projects in Pakistan about education and the persecution of the Christian minority, some of which has been featured on CNN: http://cnnphotos.blogs.cnn.com/category/gary-s-chapman/

Art Works Projects is trying to bring “BLOOD/STONES: Burmese Rubies” to Washington, DC this summer as conversations continue about the constantly changing political climate in Burma/Myanmar. Also underway is a project on the Arab Spring.

The perils of staging

You have to have your wits about you as a photographer. There are a lot of small but significant decisions to be made for every shot. With an assistant, it can be somewhat easier, as s/he can pay attention to many of the little things, leaving you to concentrate on the story you want to tell. As a one man band, as I tend to be, you can’t only be thinking of your composition and camera settings. You are the director, lighting technician, set designer, prop master and sometimes several other roles (especially, in my case, comedian!), all rolled into one. With so many hats on, it’s easy for something to go wrong. It might seem that this is less likely when staging your scene, as this should give you more control; but that’s not necessarily so. You might so easily miss a priceless expression while fiddling with the aperture or shutter speed. Sometimes, while thinking of ten other things at once, you might make sillier mistakes. Can you see one such mistake in the image below?

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Oops! See how long it takes you to spot the blunder in this image. Clue: the girl is standing on scales, so that her weight can be checked.

 

This was one of hundreds of images I shot a couple of months back in Delhi for HOPE foundation. I was telling the story of the anganwadi workers, responsible for child and maternal health, that the organisation had trained in the slum area of Sonia Vihar. Because I needed to capture the full range of the work they did in the few short hours I had with them, it was necessary to stage various of the scenes. So we gathered several mothers and children and got down to work.

Here, they were recording children’s weight. We got the children to line up and I captured images of them stepping onto the scales, one by one. As this little girl stepped forward, I pressed my shutter button without even noticing that she had an infant in her arms. It seems the three anganwadi workers never realised, either. Their attention was on the fact that they were being photographed, not on the job of weighing the child, which was being done for the camera and not for the sake of her health. As the girl walked away, the penny dropped. After realising our blunder, I asked for a re-take.

Thankfully, I spotted the mistake at the time and could shoot again. I also had several other decent enough shots of other children being weighed, so it would not have been a disaster if I’d not realised. I know I would have been kicking myself pretty hard had that not been the case and I’d noticed only during post-processing. It just goes to show that as a photographer, one has to keep one’s wits about oneself while in the field. Especially when staging a scene!