I have found there is a common belief amongst photographers today, that a single picture is enough to provoke much needed change in this often unfair and inhuman world. I however believe that while a picture can certainly catapult horrific wrongdoings into the public eye, it has not enough power by itself anymore to also catalyse the world into action. It is my conviction that in order to achieve the desired effect of change, the photographer themselves has to get personally involved in the subject matter he is documenting. In the end, how can the eyewitness expect the viewers at home to act first?
With my pictures I do not only want to show the world’s problems and hardships people face, but I also want to play a small role in finding solutions and sources of comfort for those less fortunate. I have never been satisfied with being a simple voyeur of people living in utterly inhuman and undignified conditions. I want to bring about change, working as hard as it takes with my camera as my tool.
For me, the most effective way to achieve this is by focusing intensively on a topic or issue, thus gaining as much insight into the culture, mentality and problems of the region as possible, in order to find ways to help that will not create dependency but rather offer the possibility for independent growth for the people affected.
Early on I chose Haiti as my focus. The first time I visited was in 2007 and since then I have been to the country 9 times. In the wake of the devastating earthquake that happened last year, I founded and preside over the non-profit foundation “Viv Timoun”. The name literally means ‘live little child’ in Creole. We collect donations by selling my pictures as fine art prints and by showing my work on fundraising events. Amongst several projects, we support a local school that was destroyed in the earthquake, which by now has already been rebuilt. With the kind support of our donors and the Belgian government we are able to organize a 6 months long photography workshop this year, lasting from August 2011 to late January 2012, aimed at young adults living in and around Port-au-Prince. Our goal is to open a photo studio on site, thus creating the opportunity for the participants to receive assignments as portrait, wedding and documentary photographers, helping them gain financial independence and the strength to live and work without the risk of dependence on foreign aid or exploitation.
This is the very reason why I created my own foundation, rather than supporting existing ones and NGO’s full time. During the many months I have spent documenting the living conditions (in the largest sense of the term) in Haiti I have come to see that most NGO’s aid is very ineffective. More often than not they create dependence rather than nurturing independence in the developing countries and regions they are active in. Having my own foundation allows me the freedom to choose more freely which local organizations to support or partner with. One big criteria of my willingness to start something of my own is being capable of managing the funds of my organisation. I have first hand knowledge that often basic mistakes and oversights in this area lead to a lot of money never reaching the ones who need it most and, at the same time, creating a barrier of mistrust between the NGO’s and their target group. Another big freedom which results from having my own foundation is that I can put into practice ideas that mean a lot to me, like the photography workshop later this year.
In addition to my work in Haiti, you will often find me visiting schools and institutions in Belgium and Germany, where I hold presentations and/or give workshops using the pictures I take as mediums to educate the audience. I plan to expand this audience to include pupils studying in Haitian elite schools, creating awareness of how they can help the ones on the very poor side of their own country.
Call me an idealist and you are right. I consider myself a human rights activist who uses her photographs as a device to raise awareness to the human rights violations I witness. This is what drives me to grow as a photojournalist and what makes me want to become a better storyteller. I intend to travel to as many places in this world as possible, observing, learning and photographing. Having currently chosen Haiti as my primary focus, doesn’t mean I don’t want to discover what else this world has to offer and which other different stories can be told through my camera.
As I move forward in photography I want to keep on exploring what it really is that draws me to these places and people, while continually trying to convey the emotion that I feel as successfully as possible to the viewer. In my opinion a photograph should be clear and easy to read with the ability to teach the viewer about its subject, sending out a comprehensible message to everyone. Pictures are able to capture reality that people believe in and therefore I don’t share the new idea to mix photojournalism and modern art. Photojournalism is an art by itself as it is necessary for the photographer to understand the interaction of line, tone, shape, pattern, texture, light and shadow and how these elements work together to create something of inherent visual interest. I am a photo reporter in the classical sense and I also use the camera to explore new relationships, new chances and new beginnings - and most importantly new stories.
From the time when I assisted Philip Jones Griffiths one of his often repeated sentences is stuck in my head: “Let’s shoot real pictures for real people”. That is my conviction and my inspiration, when I am out taking pictures. I believe in the “decisive moment” to be the instant in which one captures the importance of a situation.
Currently I also dedicate a lot of work to improving my multimedia skills, because the combination of the written word with sound and pictures creates a bigger impact than the individual components alone. While the written word has the information, the picture, the sound and the spoken word contain the emotions. The interviews with their own voices make the stories and the people real, help to engage with the audience in their stories and feel with them. It is one of the many reasons I believe in the benefits of modern technology and why I intend to use it to the fullest of its advantages.
Now I want to go further in my work and maybe have a bigger influence and higher impact with my pictures. These photos together with talks about my experiences in places like Haiti will help me to transmit my knowledge. As an additional benefit it will make it easier to collect even more donations from individuals, companies and different governments. This in turn will help me work even closer with the Haitian people to improve their living situation by bringing out their pro-activism and strengthening their trust in their own force, rather than creating a debilitating dependency on outside funding and aid. And these improvements again I will capture with my camera.