The Visual Advocate Blog


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If they could only meet Alaa

For the last seven Fridays I have been posting interviews of Humanitarian Photographers. Though I have more I want to post, I am taking a break this Friday. Instead, I want to talk briefly about four different conversations I have had in the last two days. The first was with an Iraqi man named Alaa on Wednesday. I had met him before, but today he had a hat on that caught my attention and he just happened to have some time to talk at work. His hat had the words “God is Great” in Arabic on it along with the Iraqi flag. I approached Alaa and asked what his flag said, and he told me. We went on to talk about his family and what he is doing in America. As we shared wonderful Iraqi tea I asked him if I could do a photo story on a day in his life, which will be coming soon. It was simply another wonderful conversation with wonderful person who happens to be Muslim.

Alaa with his "God is Great" hat on with the Iraqi flag.

Alaa making some Iraqui tea for us to share. It was excellent!

The other three conversations I had were with Americans. Though each of these couples were from very different walks of life, all of our conversations were centered around how we must strive to move beyond what the major media tells us about Muslims in the world, and for that matter other peoples. I told stories of my time with Muslims in India, experiencing some of the most incredible hospitality and friendship. There were questions that came up like “Aren’t you afraid” and I could honestly tell them know because I have always felt very safe when I have been with my Muslim friends in their countries.

I could go on and on but here is the point. We as visual peacemakers, or peacemakers of other kinds, have our work cut out for us. There are crazy stereotypes about whole blocs of peoples that make up so many different geographical regions, languages and cultures that are being perpetuated. We must keep creating stories and telling stories that bit by bit move people away from fear and prejudice.

Remember it is always too early to give up!


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Interview with Humanitarian Photographer Heber Vega

One of the best parts of being a photographer for me is getting to know other great folks that are living their dreams to make great images and be a blessing. Photographer Heber Vega is one of these people who are living their dreams and changing lives in the process.

Originally from Chile, Heber has been working and living in Northern Iraq since 2003. As an NGO worker, he’s been part of a wide variety of developmental programs and has an excellent understanding of humanitarian work. He has committed his life to assisting the Iraqis in the reconstruction of their country. His main photographic fields are NGO/Humanitarian and Cultural photography.

Enjoy!

Iraqi family seating at Sulaimaniyah Hospital waiting for a heart check up. Images done for Preemptive Love Coalition during their Remedy Mission 2010

1. When and how did you get your start in photography?

I think this question has two sides. One is about the time first time in my life when I felt passionate about using a camera and the other is about the moment when I realized I wanted to get more serious about this passion and think in ways about even making some bucks out of it because I couldn’t imagine NOT working on this.

I think the first memory that comes to my mind of using a camera; of feeling that way, and wanting to shoot something more than a simple snapshot, was in 1999, while I was on vacation in one of the most beautiful places in earth, the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. Later on that year, I was asked for some of those photographs to be used in a travel agency.

It was in 2006 that I decided to step up with my first DSLR. Since then, I’ve been photographing in the humanitarian field, but it was only last year that I decided to work as photographer for other non-profits.

American surgeon doing a heart screen at Remedy Mission 2010, Iraq

2. When and how did you first become involved in using your photography to advocate on behalf of humanitarian issues, peoples and cultures?

Because of my work as a humanitarian worker in Iraq, I started to photograph people and their culture. That just put me on the track that I’m working at the moment. It was not something that I pursued, but something that found me. I did it because I needed it.

Since then, I’ve been trying to communicate what I witness everyday in Iraq, and also promote the initiatives that I think are worth being known by the world.

The antique cleaner. One of the last people in Iraq performing this kind of job

3. What are the humanitarian issues you are most passionate about, photographically speaking and why?

Well, I think in 2010 there were two main issues that I spent time photographing. The first is women that are studying or working hard in order to provide an income for their own families, something difficult to see in the past in Iraq due to social and cultural restrictions. Secondly, children living in marginal situations.

We have several humanitarian needs among the children in Iraq. We have more the 3.5 million orphans, and 500.000 kids living on the streets, to name a few things affecting children. We can add health and educational/vocational problems as well.

I’ve been working on ways to show/talk/spread the news and also make a difference with my own family. One of the projects that I’m going to be working a lot this year is call ONE-SHOT. You can find more about this at http://www.theoneshotproject.com

Iraqi entrepreneurs who make candles to sustain their families. Work done for Prosperity Candle

4. How have you seen your visual advocacy bring real change to the peoples or issues you are passionate about capturing photographically?

Well, in 2010 I worked mainly for three non profits in Iraq, and the three of them saw an increase in people supporting their cause and helping financially with their needs. I think part of that success was due to the images that I shot for them.

A blacksmith shop found at the oldest part of Sulaimaniyah bazaar in Iraq

5. What are some future humanitarian photography projects you are excited about and why?

Well as I said previously, I’m really excited about ONE-SHOT, and the things that we’ll find out through this project. I’m sure we’ll find other issues among these children that will spark our creativity and passion to work even harder.

One of the most talented entrepreneur working for Prosperity Candle in Iraq

6. What is the most challenging part of using your photography to tell visual stories about humanitarian issues around the world?

Well, with visual stories, the main challenge is to find a way to portray the story so that it can captivate people and represent the situation to the world. It’s always a challenge to try to understand the “real” story behind these actions. People might think that finding the story is the easiest part, but I think there’s always something deeper than what we see at first, and that’s what can really affect our audience.

Anyway, the way that I’m carrying out with these visual stories (multimedia), is a challenge in itself. I believe when you work on a multimedia production, the photographs are not the single most important part, but a complement to the whole story.

I think the ideal is to have a story that can transcend even without images, and that’s really hard to make. For me, audio is the key, and photographs can help to identify that story with the rest of us.

An Iraqi mom holding her baby before going into a lifesaving surgery

7. How have you seen your photography help change the way your viewers see the world and the different peoples and cultures you have encountered and photographed?

Well, honestly I think it’s too early to see this happening, as I’ve been working only for a year in a more purposeful way. But I think that I can perceive a change when I hear the comments of people from the west, saying that they never thought about Muslims living the way I portray them. They like what they see and that’s a contribution to decreasing the tension between these two worlds.

A muslim praying while waiting for his nephew, who was having surgery at that moment

8. In your opinion what are the most important skills and equipment one needs to be effective in advocating on behalf of peoples and cultures?

Skills… well I think it’s important to be patient, and be eager to learn from other cultures (curiosity), to understand their whys; their worldview. Be flexible and don’t rush! If you learn how to listen, then you will be able to speak on behalf of those who have had confidence in you and have somehow opened their lives to you and your camera.

Equipment… besides a camera, it’s important to know how to manage your audio and recording of audio. Learn about storytelling and software that can help you to put all that together.

A Kurdish shepherd working in the outskirts of Sulaimaniyah city, Iraq

9. What is that drives you personally to use photography to advocate on behalf of others?

Well, I think photography makes me feel alive. I somehow breath with it. I feel connected to this world and its people, but I also feel creative and that’s important for an artist. In my experience, art is a connection with God, so in my case I can’t picture a better way to advocate on behalf of others.

A former Kurdish warrior who was part of the resistant during Saddam Hussein's regime

10. What advice would you give to others who want to begin to visually advocate on behalf of the peoples and cultures of the world?

Well, examine yourself. See if this really feels like your passion. Then just immerse yourself in this with all what you’ve got. Not half, but all. Practice, practice and practice until you feel tired. Then listen, stop, breath, and listen… the stories will haunt you.


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Interview with Humanitarian Photographer Matt Powell

I wish I could say the reason for me posting this interview late was because I was in some far-flung exotic place with no internet access but alas that would be a lie! The reality is that between kids, work, family and the craziness of life, some things get pushed back, and this interview was one of those things.

Nevertheless, I am excited to post this short interview with Humanitarian Photographer Matt Powell. As a Photographer and Multimedia Producer for Samaritan’s Purse, Matt has traveled on assignment to over 40 different countries documenting relief & development work among communities in need and in transition. His images raise private, charitable donations worldwide.

In addition to his work with Samaritan’s Purse, Matt is also a guild member with The International Guild of Visual Peacemakers and will be leading an exciting photo workshop with Matt Brandon in Turkey soon, you won’t want to miss this!

Before you check out this interview, make sure to check out Matt’s stunning portfolio!

I hope you enjoy what Matt has to say!

When and how did you get your start in photography?

High school art class was when I got my 1st SLR & took it seriously as an art form.  It grew from there into a serious hobby, part-time income, to full-time staff job.

When and how did you first become involved in using your photography to advocate on behalf of humanitarian issues, peoples and cultures?

I traveled to some remote corners of northern Vietnam back in 2000.  While there we visited some of the minority hill tribes who were being severely persecuted by the govt.  Much of what we did was capture & tell their story.

What are the humanitarian issues you are most passionate about, photographically speaking and why?

Through my work, whatever the subject may be, I’m simply interested in helping foster & facilitate a global humanitarian ethos. I want to reveal the beauty of mankind with my photographs, & in doing so inspire others who see my work to care for others & help make the world a better place in whatever form that takes.  On a personal level this comes as a natural extension to my christian faith. I happen to believe that we were all created in the image of a loving god & that every life is sacred.  I want my work to spread that notion.

How have you seen your visual advocacy bring real change to the peoples or issues you are passionate about capturing photographically?

I see it every day in the form of donations raised to further our relief & development projects.  Not to mention that the organization I work for partners with the church in every location possible, it’s great to see the church strengthened & coming together all over the world to do good works & be a true example of love & compassion.

What are some future humanitarian photography projects you are excited about and why?

I’m hoping to visit Congo this Spring to document the work of Samaritan’s Purse.  I’m excited because I’ve never been to Congo.  It has a very trouble past, plus a difficult situation currently due to increased instability from the Lord’s Resistance Army.  By working there I hope to shine a little light & love on a very dark situation.  Plus, I just love Africa!

What is the most challenging part of using your photography to tell visual stories about humanitarian issues around the world?

It can be difficult photographing people in need.  Which is one reason why I choose to focus on & glorify the beauty truth & goodness of every person & situation.  As opposed to the evil & hopelessness.

How have you seen your photography help change the way your viewers see the world and the different peoples and cultures you have encountered and photographed?

I can’t say I’ve seen people change as a result of my pictures since I’ve never met most of the people who view my work but I have heard back from people in the past about how an image they saw perhaps in some of our promotional materials truly grabbed their heart & caused them to want to give.  I also hear from many photographers who’ve encountered my website & are moved by my work & inspired to do something similar.  That is what it’s all about for me inspiring people to do something on their own. Art is great because it spreads.

In your opinion what are the most important skills and equipment one needs to be effective in advocating on behalf of peoples and cultures?

Passion, commitment & love for others.  And perhaps a good DSLR & a computer.

What is that drives you personally to use photography to advocate on behalf of others?

My faith.  The love & motivation that has been given to me by god to do what I can to make the world a better place.

What advice would you give to others who want to begin to visually advocate on behalf of the peoples and cultures of the world?

Start where you are now & just do it.