Bravo to my mentees! En route to success as NGO photographers

I want to send a hearty “congratulations!” out to the mentees on my pilot eMentoring scheme, Daylin Paul and Gitika Saksena, who are both – I’m very sure – on the road to great things. If you subscribe to my monthly newsletter, you may remember Daylin and his work with Thai mother Maw from my March issue. And if you were one of the lovely people who pledged your financial support following my plea for backers to help Daylin finish telling Maw’s story, a tremendous “thank you!” goes out to you. You’ll be very happy to see this:

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Well done Daylin! Click the image to read his note of appreciation.


From his e-mails, it was always abundantly clear to me that Daylin wanted more than anything to find a means of completing his work with a woman he felt a strong affinity for. Here’s an extract from his recent blog post on the subject:

For a while I really struggled to pin down why it is that I feel as strongly as I do for her, a woman I’ve only met on a handful of occasions but who has been graceful enough to allow my camera and I into her life. Being raised by a single mother who had to work hard her entire life to support my brother and I, I guess I feel a connection there. I saw what it was like for my own mother to survive and take care of us and I saw parallels with Maw’s own life.

But I think now, more than anything, it was Maw’s own willingness to share her life, her home and even her food with a stranger who could only communicate with her through body language, broken Thai and the help of a translator that really made me feel in a way I haven’t for a long time.


We humanitarian and development photographers are tremendously fortunate when we get to know such people while starting out on our careers. It takes time to tell a compelling story, which means they really need to let us into their lives in a significant manner. In their own humble way, they often give us far more than they realise could be possible. It would not be an exaggeration to say that they can really help us make our careers, in turn ensuring that many an organisation and the beneficiaries they support will gain from the funds our talents can open doors to. In that sense, they are unsung heroes.

Telling these important stories is a collaborative process between photographer and subject. Few photographers are sufficiently independently wealthy, especially when just setting out on their paths, to be able to pay the costs of this work alone. When people like those who have backed Daylin here pledge their support, they too become collaborators. Thanks to the magic of the Internet and crowd funding, this is today easier than ever. Yet times are hard, and we must make our cases more and more convincingly.

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A beautiful moment captured by another of my mentees, Gitika Saksena.


Non-profits are often the first to remind us that times are hard. One really has to demonstrate the ability to add value in unusual and special ways if one is to secure paid work ahead of an apparent army of aspiring NGO photographers willing to shoot pro bono. Having said that, the opportunities we get to shoot for free during the early days are our chances to shine, build our portfolios and gain credibility. I did that with organisations such as Save the Children in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in Kenya during the East African drought. And I never looked back.

A lot of people grumble about having to work for free in order to get a foot on the ladder. A lot of NGO photographers also grumble about those that work for free preventing them from getting paid work. When Gitika asked me whether or not she should do this, I explained why I thought she should. So she got on with it. She made contact with the India-based children’s NGO Child Rights and You (CRY) and worked conscientiously with them in order to produce The Children of Raichur.


Again, this was an act of collaboration. Collaboration between photographer and subjects, but also with enablers. While for Daylin these enablers were people like you who donated from a distance, for Gitika they were CRY and its local partner NGO, Sneha Jeevi Samsthe, who opened the door to one of their project areas and gave her easy access. Support from people a community trusts is worth more than its weight in gold, allowing humanitarian and development photographers to get up close and personal in far less time than could be possible while working alone.

The photo essay she’s since produced will in turn open further doors for Gitika. It’s already been picked up by The Alternative (the link will take you to where it features on the site of this online social development platform), and the former India Country Director of Oxfam GB Murray Culshaw has since commented on the piece, saying “Good writing linked to fine photographs. We need so much more of both and especially when combined to help communicate the work being done by so many fine organisations”. Gitika has since been in touch with Murray, now an independent communications for development consultant, directly. She’s on her way!

So as the title of this piece says, “Bravo to my mentees!”. Your hard work will pay off, of that I’m very certain.

From Hanoi with Love – A travel photo essay

This month, I teamed up once again with my favourite writer Meera Vijayann to bring you a slice of my recent travels in Vietnam. We’ve called this photo essay ‘From Hanoi with Love’ as a means of sharing some of the love I experienced while I was there. I’m not speaking of love for me, though my Vietnamese hosts were certainly wonderfully hospitable! I’m talking more of the passion they clearly have for their country, shared history and culture. Click below to see what I mean.

from hanoi with love link From Hanoi with Love   A travel photo essay

CLICK THE IMAGE to go to the photo essay.


From Hanoi with love

In the short time I recently spent in Vietnam’s capital city Hanoi, I was struck by a handful of things its residents had a very clear passion for. One was for the man who led them to independence from the French, Hồ Chí Minh. ‘Uncle Ho’, who famously taught his people to “love other human beings as you would love yourself”, was known for his simplicity and integrity on the one hand and his fierce commitment to Vietnamese nationalism on the other. Another passion was for their food. The young people who took me under their wings during my stay felt duty bound to introduce me to as many of the country’s speciality dishes as possible, no matter how weird and wonderful my palette found some of the ingredients to be (in truth, pretty much everything was delicious). Perhaps the overriding passion is for their country in general, as expressed so beautifully through the traditional art of water puppetry. The performance I went to see was entitled, So Sacred is the Word ‘Compatriots’, a sentiment I sensed echoing all around me, far beyond the theatre. It’s no wonder to me that the Americans met their match here during the Vietnam War.

The words for this photo essay were written by Meera Vijayann.

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Say hello to Uncle Ho: Hanoi is no stranger to revolution. The Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum, looming above Ba Đình Square, fills you with a sense of otherness. Guards in white uniform stand outside the door in muted respect for Uncle Ho (Hồ Chí Minh), modern-day Vietnam’s first president, whose embalmed body is preserved here.


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Changing times: You’ll find honour guards outside the Mausoleum all around the clock. Around midday, visitors hurry to witness the change of guard before they head to town. Amid excited chatter and hushed whispers, Hanoi seems to show you two sides of the city at once.


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Soul food and longing: Soo, a young Vietnamese man, enjoys a bowl of bún chả. Bún chả, a lightly grilled pork noodle soup, is a Hanoi favourite. On a visit to the capital in 1959, celebrated Vietnamese food writer Vu Bang described it as a “town transfixed by bún chả”.


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Horn of plenty: Every dish leaves the outsider guessing. In restaurants around town and outside on the pavements, it is common to see locals communally enjoying a Vietnamese Hotpot, a warming dinner dish. Slow cooked in a cauldron by the diners themselves, it has curious little additions that range from duck foetuses to baby crabs that may be eaten whole.


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A class apart: You’re never far from deep-rooted culture in Vietnam. The magnificent 11th Century tradition of water puppetry, which first originated in villages along the Red River, is kept alive by skilled artisans even today. Puppeteers stand behind a screen in a waist-deep pool, controlling puppets with bamboo rods from a distance. Every detail during the performance will render you wide-eyed in wonder.


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Leap of love: Patriotic folktales, delicious food, shared triumphs through history and a deep sense of national pride combine to keep Vietnamese people feeling rooted here. Its capital is a city that will welcome you with open arms, and make you want to know it intimately.


Postcard from Patnem Beach, Goa

Welcome to my office! I’m only partly kidding. I’m back in Goa, which seems to exert a kind of gravitational pull on me (you may remember this postcard, which I shared with you last November). This time I’m here on what started as an enforced holiday after my client told me it would have to delay the start of an assignment I was en route to. Now I’m working away at my laptop, while facing this gorgeous beach and the ocean beyond it, sipping alternately on beers and espressos. I love my new office!

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Postcard of a fishing boat on Patnem Beach in the Indian state of Goa.


Patnem Beach is simply idyllic. After too many visits to increasingly congested beaches, particularly in the centre and North of Goa, I’m finding it quite heavenly here. I first came to Patnem’s nearby cousin Palolem back in 2003, around the time it was getting ‘discovered’. A decade on, Palolem is pretty much in the mainstream, with restaurants, accommodation, canoe hire and so on from end to end (though it’s still very pleasant). Patnem, on the other hand, still seems to be relatively unknown. It surely won’t be long before this changes, as it’s clean, peaceful, has superb shallow waters for swimming and more than enough delicious food to indulge in.

I’m not the only one who seems to have made this a work base: I’ve spotted at least a couple of others with their laptops and cellphones, quietly enjoying the best office in the world!