When photographer Nick Brandt returned to Amboseli National Park in Kenya in 2010, he was devastated by what he saw. The elephants he had approached without difficulty two years earlier were unexpectedly skittish. Some of them, like 49 year-old Igor and the herd’s matriarch, Marianna, were nowhere to be found, having been killed for their tusks. Over the following weeks, the death list grew: Winston, Goliath, Sheik Zahad, Keyhole and Magna all fell at the hands of poachers.
Brandt tried to turn to the authorities, the Kenya Wildlife Service, but their lack of resources prevented them from intervening. Similar reasons made the efforts of the few NGOs in the region look futile. “I was angry. And, since it’s no use to be angry and passive, I had to act,” he says.
Putting his repute at the service of the cause he held so dear, he partnered up with experienced Kenyan conservationist Richard Bonham and together with the help of local communities mapped out the duties of a new foundation, called Big Life. To raise the capital needed, he reached out to the collectors who had purchased some of his prints. One couple pledge a million dollars over two years and many others came through. “Had I not been a photographer, or even, had I been an anonymous photographer, Big Life wouldn’t have gone off the ground,“ he acknowledges. Five years later, the initiative employs nearly 300 rangers that are equipped to look out for the wildlife dispersed over 2 million acres of land in East Africa. They have made 1862 arrests since 2011.
“Photography is a powerful tool because it is how we see the world and therefore how we interact with it,” says photographer Robin Hammond from New Zealand. “However, as a community, we are very timid when it comes to harnessing the strength of our images. There’s this consensus that we should act as journalists, not activists.”
Accordingly, while producing Condemned, an in-depth look at how the mentally ill people are treated in several African nations, Hammond believed that the mere act of making their condition visible would suffice to inspire his readers to enact change. After the fundamental shifts he had hoped for failed to materialize, he was left with three options: “I could infer that photography is powerless and thus abandon it, accept the fact that I was only a storyteller and yield the power photography holds to someone else or recognize that I have a moral obligation to do everything I can to help others. I concluded that if the transformations I desired didn’t come about, it was because I didn’t try hard enough,” he says.
Hence, upon the release of his following project Where Love is Illegal, which shares the stories of persecuted LGBTI individuals across the world, he made sure there was a way to capitalize on the otherwise fleeting emotional engagement. “Up until then, I had just been showing readers that some things were wrong and leaving them to deal with that knowledge on their own. More often then not, they lose interest,” he says. With the help of a Getty Grant for Good, he launched an awareness campaign coupled with an organization, Witness Change, where viewers can act in three ways: spread the word, donate or volunteer their skills.
Since its start in June, the initiative has gained steadily in popularity, garnering over 85.000 followers on Instagram. Turning the likes, and the countless emails of encouragement, into more impactful deeds remains the main challenge. “I’m in unchartered territory so I have no idea how it will pan out,” admits the New Zealander. The first test: a campaign to raise the money needed to get four young Nigerian men charged with the “crime” of sodomy out of jail. Less than 24 hours after the appeal was posted on social media, he had collected enough to get them out on bail, hire a lawyer, and rent out a a place for them to stay until the trial, as well as relocate them once and if the case is dropped.
Having mounted a successful online presence and touring exhibition campaign, Stephanie Sinclair, who is behind the long-term project Too Young to Wed, is grateful for the attention child marriage has been getting, especially from policy makers. For over a decade, she’s been photographing young brides, and sometimes grooms, forced to enter into wedlock across the world. In 2009, her images from Afghanistan were featured in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report. Meetings she had with American politicians prompted them to include child marriage as a foreign policy concern. And, last year, an exhibition of her work at the United Nations in Geneva, helped inspire the U.N. General Assembly to adopt its first resolution on child, early and forced marriage. “Nevertheless, it takes some time for these promises to translate into measures that reach the victims living in isolated and rural areas,” she says.
That gap prompted her to register Too Young to Wed as a charity able to collect donations under a 501(c)3 status. The funds are then redistributed to small local organizations, who otherwise would not be able to tap into that wealth. “For the first part of my career, I was a news photographer and I still place large value on that line of work,” she says. “But, this project became a lot more personal. I’ve built deep relationship with these girls over the course of several years. So what happens to them matters to me. I couldn’t just walk away from it.” Case in point: she keeps pictures of them in her wallet as well as her walls. “I live with them, and they live with me.” And, on September 10, she hopes to persuade her followers to do the same. 8×10-inch prints will be up for sale for 100$. The money raised will support the work of regional associations providing education and safe haven to girls fleeing their homes.
“Starting a nonprofit is a life choice, and it’s not for everyone. It requires a lot of energy, and takes up many hours,” she says. “My goal is to end child marriage and protect girls’ rights using every skill I have – from telling these girls’ stories to providing for them on the ground when needed”.
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