Climate change and the image I accidentally loved

When I first saw this photograph while reading The Guardian over breakfast, I thought “wow, how beautiful”. The landscape seemed ethereal and mysterious. The darker patches of water give the image perspective. They lead the eye of the viewer towards the vanishing point on the horizon perfectly. And then I saw the article’s headline, and realised what this actually was.

 Climate change and the image I accidentally loved

Image: University of Washington / North Pole Environmental Observatory / NOAA.

Arctic sea ice levels to reach record low within days”, it said. Again, “wow”. But for altogether different reasons. This stunning image had become something altogether terrible. It had been captured by a webcam stationed at the North Pole. I knew that man-made climate change was resulting in faster summer ice melts than ever before, but I didn’t realise that the ice was melting all the way to the very centre of the Arctic. This means that less solar radiation can be reflected back into the atmosphere by the white surface, prompting a feedback mechanism that will bring even faster temperature rises and further melting.

The effects on effects on weather systems in Northern latitudes have the potential to be catastrophic. “Every one of the 56,000 Inuits in Greenland have had to adapt to the retreat of the ice,” the paper quoted Carl-Christian Olsen, President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Greenland, as saying. “The permafrost is melting and this is jeopardising roads and buildings. The coastline is changing, there is more erosion and storms, and there are fewer mammals like polar bears”. As a humanitarian and environment photographer with a sincere interest in the effects of climate change on people’s lived realities and efforts being made to help them adapt to these changes, this is something that concerns me greatly.

Today’s news brought more in a similar vein: “Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warn scientists“. With the world’s population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, it’s clear that big changes will be necessary if we’re all to be able to sustain ourselves. We’re already heading towards the world’s second global food crisis in five years. Last year, I covered the East African food crisis from Kenya (see Building Hope in the Face of Drought), and then headed to Senegal in West Africa, where all the UN and international non-governmental organisations I met warned that the Sahel region was about to fall into food crisis. Reports from people I met who’d just travelled through Mauritania were testimony to that country already having hit crisis. Nine months later and the situation has worsened considerably. Yet having become saturated with images of hunger and despair, recession-hit consumers of media in the West are becoming harder to stir.

So my mission continues: to tell the positive story of what we can do in the face of all this bad news to make this world a better place for all of its inhabitants.

Follow your passion – Don’t just take it from me!

I do what I do because I took the decision a couple of years back to follow my passion. I was unhappy with what I was doing in my professional life before that, so threw my hat over the wall and trusted that I would be able to do what it would take to make a success out of something I knew I’d find far more fulfilling. Today, I’d like to introduce you to someone else who’s following his passion. Not only that, but he’s made it his business to encourage others to do the same. He’s also a dear friend of mine. Ladies and gentlemen: Mr Abhishek Kumar.

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If there’s one thing that Abhishek’s serious about, it’s the importance of following one’s passion. He recently recited a verse by Firaq Gorakhpuri to me which, translated from Urdu into English, goes something like this: “Oh my friend, you have indeed achieved a remarkable feat. You did your schooling, you went to college, you worked, you got your pension and you died”. When he first read this about a decade and a half back, he says he experienced the ‘wow, I get it’ feeling that changed his life for the better. That was the moment when Abhishek resolved to look beyond the path that had been laid out for him by his family and wider society, and to look deeper, inside himself, for purpose and fulfilment. What he found was that he derived an immense amount of satisfaction from helping people to learn and grow, so he embarked on a career as a trainer.


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Fast forward a few years, and Ripples Learning Services was born. In partnership with his brother Animesh, Abhishek put his heart and soul into Ripples. With grit and determination, they steered their new startup through the recession that came in the wake of the global financial crisis, a time when most Indian businesses slashed their training and development budgets. Though he heard numerous voices saying “throw in the towel, get a regular job”, he stuck with his passion. Ripples emerged at the other side and continued to grow. About a year ago, it moved into its own four-storey building, which employee Anna Royan is welcoming you to above with the traditional Indian ‘namaste’ greeting! A couple of weeks back, Ripples celebrated its fifth birthday.


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It is not so much running a successful business that gives Abhishek a buzz as it is training itself. He is in his element while designing novel programmes and while on his feet in front of a group of participants. In fact, it goes beyond even this. He is driven by the simple desire to touch people’s lives and make a difference. To do this takes more than imparting one’s wisdom: it means really engaging them.


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I’ll allow these images to speak for themselves on his ability to do that! Yes, a sharp sense of humour and the ability to entertain are very helpful. But I feel that a trainer is most empowered to have a strong impact when s/he is fired by his or her own passion. This is how Abhishek is able to, as his company’s catchphrase puts it, create ‘ripples of change’.


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“There are two questions you must ask yourself about any potential job”, Abhishek recently told a gathering of around 1,000 fresh graduates from Christ University in Bangalore. “The first one is, ‘will it prove interesting to me and give me joy?’; the second one is, ‘will it help me make a difference and lead to positive change in the world?’. The first is about ensuring happiness in your life. The second is about creating your legacy, which is what people will one day write in your obituary”.


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As I was after deciding to become a humanitarian photographer, Abhishek has clearly been able to place ticks in both boxes with his chosen career, and he remains eager to help more and more people do the same. Fuelled by this passion, Ripples continues to grow; here, Anna counsels a prospective student on the range of options that the company can offer her. And earlier this month, Ripples launched its latest training programme, a ‘train the trainer’ certification course for learning and development professionals who aspire to be facilitators. Through this, it will surely be possible for Abhishek and Ripples to multiply the passion as it prepares and equips many more trainers to go out into the world!


Saving lives and building HOPE for Delhi’s mothers and children

The following is a small selection of images from HOPE foundation’s work on maternal and child health in New Delhi, accompanied by commentary that features quotes from my time with the individuals photographed. For this assignment, I was asked to tell the stories of Chotton ki Asha (meaning ‘hope for little ones’), a programme established in Sonia Vihar in 2006, one of Delhi’s most deprived slums at that time, and also Sanjha Pahel (which translates as ‘combined initiative’), now being implemented in Seemapuri building on the lessons learned from Chotton ki Asha.

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This is Mark Templer, who is American-born but has lived India for more than twenty years. He is the former CEO of HOPE foundation, and was at the helm of the organisation during the time that Chotton ki Asha was conceived and implemented. He told me that in approaching this programme, HOPE’s vision was twofold: “one part of it was to actually make a difference and save lives; the other was to create a model that could to some degree influence the government, in a sustainable fashion, to do things that would help people everywhere”. Mark told me that HOPE and its partners learned how to do the former by teaching people. “We really mobilised a lot of volunteers”, he said, proudly. You’ll hear about the programme’s ‘anganwadi workers’ below, for example. So what was the impact? “When we evaluated Chotton ki Asha, the data told us that thousands of lives really were saved”, Mark explained. “In an area that had no healthcare facilities, multiple facilities were established. In every location, they’re still running. This community of 200,000 now has more healthcare and a real understanding of what it means to be healthy. These women are telling their children they need to wash their hands, etc. And that’s how middle class society developed! We’ve made a sustainable impact, and we see the government’s approach evolving elsewhere based on what it’s learned from working with us. And around the world, our NGO knows better as a result of this”.


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On the left is Dr [name removed], who is Medical Officer-in-Charge at POC Sonia Vihar Zero Pusta. I grabbed a few minutes of his time before he needed to attend to Shiv Kumari, pictured on the right. He was able to give me an on-the-ground view of what the programme looked like. “Our main aims were to implement 100% hospital delivery and to ensure that immunisations for children under five became routine”, he explained. “At that time, I would see more than 300 patients every day. Yet the basic difficulty I faced wasn’t this”, he told me with a smile. “It was that the lanes in the area were so terribly muddy. Vehicles were not able to pass inside, including ambulances. After my first day in the job, I thought I’d be handing in my resignation the very next day! However, once I was inside HOPE foundation‘s building, I found that everything was well maintained. The patients were lined up and the Community Health Promoters were counselling them. Further help was given to them by posters, TV and leaflets. When I got inside my cabin, I felt that I was safe and everything was alright”.


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This is one of the men that Dr [name removed] has to thank for the improvements to Sonia Vihar’s roads. His name is Sanjay Sharma, and he’s the Vice President of a Local Area Committee. “Before HOPE foundation came here, we were not confident in approaching government officials”, he said. “They guided us in taking our proposals to the right people and our work got done. For example, the road I’m standing on here used to be mud and potholes”. Confirming what Dr [name removed] told me, he said that “this meant that women in labour found it very difficult to get to hospital. Road work was essential. HOPE foundation worked with our committee to draw up a compelling application, and I then followed up with councillors repeatedly until our application was accepted”.


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Mark Templer spoke of the volunteers that HOPE foundation and its partners managed to recruit. Here are some of them, known as ‘anganwadi workers’ (‘anganwadi’ means ‘courtyard shelter’ in Hindi), in action. On the left, two of them are checking a child’s weight. When Chotton ki Asha commenced, almost 32% of children were undernourished. HOPE successfully instilled a wide understanding of the importance of growth monitoring over the years that followed. On the right, another anganwadi worker is demonstrating hand washing to children. Important in the control of diarrhoeal disease, HOPE’s research showed this increased from 0% to 15% over the project period.


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Now meet microentrepreneur Pradeep, a beneficiary of HOPE’s microcredit scheme that provides loans at 0% interest for those who want to start up small businesses. He told me, “I want to give a message of thanks to HOPE foundation’s donors. Because of them, I was able to borrow Rs. 6,000 to start a business selling ladies’ and kids’ undergarments. Now, thanks to this, my family and I are doing well. And I’m proud to say that I’ve been able to return all the money”.


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Pictured here is a young lady named Rajni. She attended a computing course that HOPE helped to establish in her area. She is so grateful for the support provided that she even penned a message of thanks on the model release she gave me for this image! “There are several institutes offering tuition in the basics of computing here in our area, but they all charge too much”, she told me. “HOPE foundation‘s course is far more affordable: it costs Rs. 200 per month. Outside, it costs Rs. 400 per month and there’s no guarantee on whether or not the student will get taught”. Now that Rajni has been able to complete this course, she has gone far. “The knowledge I gained has given me the confidence to do all my work (presentations, etc.) by myself. I’m studying Geography Honours from Miranda House, Delhi University, and within this I’m able to pursue a special interest in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) thanks to my computing skills”.


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Much was learned from the success story of Chotton ki Asha that could be used in designing and implementing HOPE foundation‘s project ‘Sanjha Pahel’, in Seemapuri. The maternity home in the above image plays a crucial role in Sanjha Pahel’s referral system. Under this, primary urban health centres have been linked to maternity homes like this one, and then to secondary and tertiary hospitals, and healthcare workers help to distribute patients to under-utilised but well-equipped centres. “All around us are slum areas, and the people who come here are from poor families”, Staff Nurse Madhu Bala (pictured here) told me. “They have virtually no money. The majority of the community prefer to deliver at home with the help of a dhai, the traditional form of health worker. Their lack of sound medical knowledge makes this very risky. HOPE foundation‘s arrival has meant that community facilitators are now going out and explaining the need to give birth somewhere that has the right facilities. We offer this for around a third of what a dhai charges, and while the demand’s risen, HOPE has also helped us to start offering a 24-hour emergency service”.


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And here is one of the beneficiaries of this programme. Now aged 24, Poonam delivered her first three children with a dhai’s assistance at home, before getting convinced that she should go to the hospital for her fourth delivery. “The experience in the hospital was good, better than at home”, Poonam recounted to me while sitting on the single bed her growing family shares in a space no wider than the width of the bed itself. “It gets messy when done at home, but in hospital I got rest and it was clean and hygienic. It was also peaceful for my child. Doctors visited me and kept a watch on my baby. When I got a sudden pain, they gave me medicines which eased it. At home, the dhai just leaves after taking the money. She doesn’t give any medicines, we have to purchase our own”.


Bringing HOPE to the children of rural Karnataka

This small collection of images comes from work I conducted for HOPE foundation in rural Karnataka, Southern India. Part of the HOPE worldwide family, which operates in close to 80 countries around the globe, HOPE foundation has a large portfolio of education projects in India. The children you will meet below attend a small school that it administers near the town of Chennapatna. This school currently admits children for the first four years of schooling, and HOPE is keen to expand it. They commissioned me to help them reach out to potential donors to support them with this.

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Children from rural Karnataka say, “we’re ready to learn, please help build our school!”. These kids are attending a small English medium school that HOPE foundation administers. So far, its doors are open for Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd Standard pupils. Close by lies an empty plot of land that the organisation would like to develop in order to offer schooling for local children up to 12th Standard (the last year of secondary education in India). To help make the point to potential donors, I thought it would be fun to hold an actual class out there on the vacant land, under the palm trees, and of course the children thought it would be a hoot as well! I shot this image while their teacher was still setting up her whiteboard, after which she launched into a full session on vegetable spellings.


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I’ve long felt that the most immaculately dressed people in India are its schoolchildren: the boys with their starched, gleaming white shirts and neatly knotted ties, the girls with their pinafores that always remind me of Victorian England. Some of the girls at this school even had pretty little flowers prominently positioned in their hair.


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I also spent time with the parents and grandparents of the children, talking about what this school and its proposed expansion means for them and the difference that affordable English medium education up to 12th Standard will make in the locality. Like this gentleman, for example, while his grandson played on the swings in the school playground.


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The mother of these two siblings invited me home, where I captured them diligently completing their homework while she supervised.


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Meet Geetha, one of the school’s teachers. As you can see from her beaming smile, she’s a joy to talk with and it’s no wonder that her students love her. She told me that what makes HOPE foundation different is that it takes the time to listen to the school’s teachers and integrate their suggestions as they manage the school.


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Finally, meet Randy S Jordan, the CEO of HOPE worldwide. Following on from what Geetha told me, he emphasised that “I believe in a values-based serving. Sometimes we might call it ‘Service Plus’. The ‘plus’ is that if one of our teachers teaches you, she also takes an interest in you as a person”. I got that sense very strongly from my time at the HOPE school in Karnataka.