Visions for a Better Tomorrow: When Photography Becomes Visual Peacemaking
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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