The Akvo partner heroes project began in March 2013 and will continue throughout 2014. The aim of the project is to create a series of photographs and case stories that highlight and celebrate teams of professional people around the world who are doing really great work to reduce poverty and improve living standards – and using Akvo tools to help them do it. These are the Akvo partner heroes.
This is consciously and deliberately different to most of the photography associated with international development programmes which nearly always focuses on the beneficiaries of aid programmes, particularly children. We’ve turned the camera lens in a different direction, to focus on the professional teams who are creating positive changes on the ground. Each picture frames these people in the context in which they usually work.
We are featuring the images prominently on the homepage of our website, linking to online information about that team. They’re also being used on- and offline in other materials. Together, they form a composite set which grows over time and which shows the range of diverse environments in which Akvo’s partners work.
In April last year we published a brief for photographers for this project. We recently updated the brief as we’ve learnt quite a lot from the shoots that have since happened. Here’s the new brief for photographers (not to be confused with the old brief from last April.)
Each photograph uses a white backdrop – usually associated with a photographic studio – to frame a small team of people in an outdoor setting. As well as looking incongruous and adding interest to the images, the backdrop serves as a device to put emphasis on both the partner heroes and their surroundings simultaneously. It also links all the images in the partner heroes project, so they are instantly recognisable as part of a series. Furthermore, when viewed together, the contrasts – and the similarities – between each environment and each team photographed become somehow magically thrown into relief by the presence of the white cloth.
The environment in which each photo shoot takes place is almost as important as the partner hero participants because it shows the context in which they work. We also strive to give each image a distinct sense of place, region or country. The viewer should be able to tell roughly where in the world the picture was taken.
The story so far Up until now, all the partners we’ve approached about participating in a partner hero photo shoot have been eager and willing to take part and very pleased to be asked. As all the pictures are published under a creative commons license, the partner heroes themselves and their organisations (and anyone else) are free and welcome to use them all for their own purposes. In each country, someone at the partner organisation has worked really hard to help us make the photo shoot happen, from identifying the right locations to organising transport, securing necessary permissions from local authorities and co-ordinating the diaries of everyone involved.
At the time of writing, seven photo shoots have taken place in seven countries on four different continents, including an initial test shoot in the UK. Another is in the pipeline in Nepal next month. We always use a local photographer in each location if we can. So far it has always been possible (although I have yet to find someone suitable in Liberia.) Flying someone in is costly and goes against our ethos of supporting local talent, but finding good local photographers with sound commercial experience and artistic sensibilities is difficult and time-consuming. The places where our partners operate are often extremely remote, and the kind of photographers we want to work with tend to be found only in major cities. In addition, when I’ve finally found someone whose work I really like, getting them to take notice of me and believe that I’m not a scammer or a time-waster can be tricky. Emails, tweets and facebook messages are frequently ignored, and I have to resort to calling photographers on their mobiles (if I can find a number for them) to make contact. But with persistence, and thanks to one or two great contacts from colleagues in different countries, to date I have managed to find professionals who were more than up to the task, and we’ve been really happy with the results.
As with any project of this nature, things rarely work out as planned. The photographers and participants frequently have to think on their feet and adapt rapidly to unexpected events. We have learnt to have at least one Plan B in place for each photo shoot. At the Open UN-Habitat photo shoot at the at United Nations headquarters complex in Nairobi, plans to photograph the heroes in front of a corridor of flagpoles were thwarted when it turned out all the flags had been removed for cleaning that day. That was one eventuality we did not foresee!
The Red Tic photo shoot in Bolivia featured two women from local field partner PROINPA who’s role, as well as being farmers themselves, is to improve agricultural practices in nearby communities by running workshops for other farmers involving puppets and pop-up cinemas, among other things. We decided to try out capturing some images inside a community cinema, using the movie screen as the white backdrop framing the heroes, with a film playing across their faces. In the event, roadworks caused delays and the man who had the key to the cinema was nowhere to be found when the group arrived so the pictures ended up being taken in one of the women’s own backyard. The results were rather fantastic.
Top: members of the Aguayuda team that use Akvo FLOW for their work within the Millennium Water Alliance (MWA), being photographed by Harold Lozada at Riohacha, northern Colombia. 1 February 2014. Photo by Simón Zimmer of Aguayuda. Above: goats enter the frame at the MWA photo shoot. Photo by Simón Zimmer. Below: the SSDC (Sundarban Social Development Centre) Akvo FLOW local monitoring team, working on behalf of Water For People, photographed outside the Dakshin Mahendrapur Shibaprasad Bhagbat Chandra High School, Ramganga, India. 21 January 2014. Photo by Bivas Bhattacharjee
Local customs and expectations also have to be taken into account and can have an impact on how a photo shoot plays out. At the Water For People photo shoot at a school in West Bengal, for example, school officials invited the group to take tea when they arrived on site. Politeness dictated that this pleasantry could not be avoided or rushed, so despite leaving Calcutta at 5.00am for a five hour drive, the team weren’t able to start shooting until the middle of the day, in the fierce heat and hard light of hottest part of the day. Additionally, the school itself was being rebuilt and was largely a building site, so the pictures ended up being taken in a field opposite the school gate.
As with any out door activity, the weather has the power to make or break the event. Wind can be a particular challenge because of the backdrop, which starts to behave like a sale in gusty conditions. Fortunately it didn’t spoil things on this MWA photo shoot on a windy beach in northern Colombia.
The logistics of each photo shoot are also rarely straightforward. The nature of the work our partners do means that frontline staff are frequently spread over very large areas in remote locations. When teams do gather together for meetings or training it’s usually in a major city, away from the places they’re carrying out their work on the ground. So, it’s often the case that there’s a choice to made between having all the right people together but in the wrong location, or finding a perfect location but it being prohibitively far from where most of the team members live and work.
Above: members of the Aguayuda team working on behalf of the Millennium Water Alliance in northern Colombia. Riohacha, 1 February 2014. Photograph by Harold Lozada
Language is also an issue in many cases of course, too. It can be tricky to brief photographers and liaise with partners who speak no English when I also don’t speak their language. Google translate certainly has its limitations, and I have learnt to become more aware of the type of language I use. Contractions such as “shoot” in place of “photo shoot” for example, can read very differently once translated. Often no one from Akvo is present at the photo shoots, so good communication beforehand is paramount. But now that we are half way through the project, there are a lot of visual references to help people get their heads round what it is we’re doing, and the pictures just seem to be getting better and better.
Jo Pratt is communications manager at Akvo, based in the UK.