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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.