In the field: The experience of humanitarian photographers and storytellers
IPPF’s localized approach to humanitarian emergencies involves partnerships with local response teams and whenever possible, local photographers.
Like all our Member Associations, these content creators are present before, during, and after a humanitarian crisis. Here, IPPF speaks to seven photographers/filmmakers as they each share their experiences covering humanitarian crises while in the field with IPPF’s local partners.
It’s 27 degrees in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Raissa, a young woman from Bukavu, has entered a mobile health clinic organized by the Association Pour Le Bien-Etre Familial Et Naissance Desirables (ABEF-ND). She is there to film a young internally displaced mother receiving sexual and reproductive healthcare (SRH) following the Nyiragongo volcano eruption in May 2021. She describes her job as “rewarding” – similarly, each photographer would express the same sense of gratitude and fulfilment while in the field on an IPPF content gathering commission.
In 2021, IPPF responded to 15 crises across 10 countries, reaching a total of 683,136 beneficiaries. These responses, led by our Member Associations (MAs), were documented by local and international photographers and filmmakers. Within 24 months, Disha, Masada, Raissa, Emilie, Kalo, Hannah, and Kun Humanity have documented our responses in India, Fiji, Democratic Republic of Congo, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, and Indonesia. Candidly, each one of these artists share their testimonials of working with IPPF’s experienced MAs, discussing everything from the importance of localization to the perks and challenges of being a female photographer in humanitarian settings.
Disha has many years’ experience as a filmmaker. She recently completed an assignment for IPPF in India where she completely immersed herself with the local community, survivors of the Tropical Cyclone Amphan and beneficiaries of Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) sexual and reproductive healthcare services. Her stance on localization is pretty simple: “It is really important” – and here’s why: “Even after six months [following the disaster], the FPAI field workers were still going to the field delivering these lifesaving services.”
Understanding the local context – particularly being able to effectively communicate sensitive SRH issues including providing counselling to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) – is crucial. Fijian-born photographer Masada shares his experience working with the Reproductive and Family Health Association of Fiji (RFHAF). “The MA plays a huge and very important role. I witnessed as they broke it down and simplified everything to a point where people just understood it well, and the ability to do it in the local language that made it amazing! It’s a sensitive topic here but they are so experienced that they utilize their knowledge and their skill with the language to put it across in such a way where it’s like, wow!”
“I agree”, insists Disha, who retells a similar scenario on the job with FPAI. “One of the side effects of the development sector is we feel that solutions designed in the West could be implemented as it is in other parts of the world, which is where in my opinion we are lagging behind.” She explains, “Cyclone Amphan happened during the COVID-19 pandemic and so the impact was all the more critical on the population there. As soon as Amphan hit, the entire city was flooded. There was no public transportation or electricity. Team members from FPAI were out in the field because they knew that people from marginalized communities, sex workers in that region will not have access to any kind of SRH services. The MA spoke the language of the people and didn’t just bring foreign solutions to grassroot issues. As a result, the sex workers and marginalised communities were comfortable because they trust these people.”
For Kun Humanity, part of the Indonesian three-person production team who recently produced a film on IPPF’s response to Tropical Cyclone Seroja, stresses the importance of knowing the local dialect. “Sometimes when you try to bring the city lingo to these rural areas it feels distant, so we try to interact in the local dialect to try and explore their true feelings about the situation and the programme.”
“I’m a big believer in localization.” Kalo begins, “I think it’s important especially with such sensitive topics and issues that you’re dealing with.” During her field assignment documenting the Papua New Guinea Family Health Association (PNGFHA) COVID-19 response, she witnessed how passionate the health workers and volunteers are about helping people in their own communities.
For Kalo — whose grandfather is originally from PNG — community is everything. Having knowledge of the local area proved beneficial in the field. “When you talk about localization, I quickly remember myself and the women I was with driving up and down the village just to do a little talk survey. News travels quickly and every single person in the village knew what just happened. The locals were really upset, especially the women because this could impact the services coming into the village now.” The domino effect of that attack “impacts the community in quite a big way”, Kalo believes, and for her that was the saddest part about the whole ordeal.
Localization however goes beyond knowing the community and speaking the local language. On reflection, Disha dives deeper into the discourse of localization in the local context of India, which is home to 1.3 billion people who speak over 120 languages. “In India caste is also an important factor, and I belong to the dominant caste so that’s a huge privilege that I am aware of. So, when I am in the field, I question myself; how am I putting my subject in the story? How am I in the best position to tell their stories? What makes me equipped to tell these stories, besides the technical know-how. So that is a conflict, that I have certain privileges and that I have a certain lens with which I view the world, so I make sure that this isn’t reflected in the work that I do.”
While in the field, Disha recalls a moment that will stay with her forever. “I saw a traditionally dressed Hindu woman sitting there with young girls and she’s teaching them about how to use condoms, what is an IUD [intra-uterine device], and it was so immaculate and that was absolutely unexpected and delightful to witness. This is a conversation that even I will not have with my family as openly as she was having with these girls. She used household utensils to demonstrate the shape and how to use contraception. It was an overwhelmingly beautiful experience as a storyteller and photographer.”
On being a documentary photographer
Disha, who describes herself as a “feminist storyteller”, believes in the importance of impactful storytelling and finds it both “very inspiring and meaningful, because these are stories which will otherwise not get told if IPPF doesn’t tell them.” For Masada it’s the “love for the chance that you might capture meaningful story — that’s basically why I do it.” Masada, who is also a voiceover actor, admits with a huge smile on his face that if photography was no longer on the table, he’ll go back to being a member of the cabin crew for Fiji Airways. For Emilie, who recently shot a film in Cameroon, Togo and Burkina Faso, capturing the outstanding work of our MAs in the three countries, the best part about her job is meeting a wide variety of people everyday who she’d likely never meet or get access to. A job she describes as “very rewarding on a personal level.”
Being a female photographer working in some of the most fragile humanitarian settings comes with its challenges. However, Disha, Raissa and Emilie reflect on the advantages. “One of the advantages of being a woman doing all these field projects, is that you know I am one woman with my camera what can I do? And I am short in height, so I come across as a harmless to people, and I’ve used that as an advantage” explains Disha.
In DRC, Raissa’s experience has led her to believe that “women and even men are more comfortable with female photographers. They often say that women are more understanding.” Like Disha, Emilie also agrees that being a woman is actually “an asset in most places.” She continues, “In very patriarchal societies, sure it can get a bit frustrating when men would not reply to you directly and will rather go through your male colleague. On the other hand, travelling in those places, I find that women videographers are not taken as seriously and therefore not seen as much as a threat so to speak. Also, as a woman you get access to women circles a lot more easily than men.”
Having access to these women circles paved the way for both Kalo and Hannah to capture a special moment where beneficiaries in Papua New Guinea and Kiribati received SRH services for the first time. During her content trip in Kiribati to capture the effects of the climate crisis, Hannah shared a moment with a female sex worker. “She had her first cervical screening (aka smear test) provided by the Kiribati Family Health Association (KFHA) — she allowed me to be in there and document what was going on, which is an extremely personal situation. The photo has since won lots of awards and raised awareness.” Kalo’s experience is very similar. An 18-year-old mother with young children came to the clinic to receive her first implant, a decision she made so she can return to school having dropped out after the birth of her first child. “She smiled after it was done and there was a real sense of relief.”
Having immersed themselves in sexual and reproductive healthcare service delivery, it’s safe to conclude that these photographers have become SRHR advocates. For Disha, the FPAI response to Cyclone Amphan was an eye opener: “I realized that when such a calamity happens, family planning becomes as important as medicine and food in that perspective. If in such a situation there is an unwanted pregnancy it could be harder for women living in the aftermath of a natural disaster coupled with COVID-19.”
“So that was a very important realization for me. I feel that along with medicine you also need to invest in SRH services. There is no time when these services are not important but in these hard times they are beyond critical. They should be part of every country’s response to a natural disaster, from a policymaking perspective.”
To Disha’s point, Masada adds: “SRH should be part of the educational curriculum, and not just in a humanitarian crisis. I think that by preparing prior to these natural disasters, everyone would better know what to do. Sometimes after a natural disaster people don’t want to talk about sexual and reproductive healthcare until other basic needs are met. I think it should be implemented in schools at high school level so when these things happen, they are well prepared.”
Emilie witnessed first-hand the significant impact of SRH services to the most marginalized women in Burkina Faso.” Tao, a beneficiary, had run away from her home with her family after a terrorist attack. She panned gold to try to make ends meet so she took us to an open-air mine. There were hundreds of people — male on one side and women on the other — sifting gold under the scorching sun, all day long. Back-breaking work that didn’t yet pay enough to feed her family or cover healthcare. She was a beneficiary of IPPF’s program and explained how much these services had helped her and her family.”
Emilie also recalls a heart-warming moment when a beneficiary from an IDP camp in Eastern Cameroon said IPPF’s services had “helped her so much” that she decided to become a volunteer spreading the word about IPPF’s services in the camp.
It’s clear that humanitarian photographers capture moments in unsettling situations often before the mainstream media due to their close connection with local communities. Their bravery, dedication and passion is evident in the work they produce. Without these vital storytellers, the impact of disasters around the world, and the role aid providers play in alleviating their suffering, would not be possible. With 274 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in 2022, a localized approach is needed now more than ever.
Illustrations by Aimee Capstick