Back in Nations Journal Volume 2, we chatted with renowned humanitarian photographer Esther Havens about photography that honors the God-given identity and dignity of its subject. Havens is an exemplar in the industry as she continues to take captivating photos that exude the inherent strength and beauty of a person regardless of their circumstances. Over the last decade she has traveled to over 60 nations on a mission “to see that every person on the planet has access to education, clean drinking water and a job to provide for their families.”
Why do you call yourself a “humanitarian photographer,” and what does this term mean to you?
I used to call myself a photojournalist. For a long time this is what I dreamt of becoming. As I worked hard to build a portfolio of my best shots around the world, I was very detached from the people I photographed. I tried to be invisible and not get involved with what I saw in front of me. Around the time of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, I really began to ponder about what the word “humanitarian” meant. As I had been taking pictures for organizations across the globe, my mission as a photographer began to change. Before, my focus was, honestly, myself. As my perspective began to shift, my heart began to be focused on the needs of the people I was photographing. When I was in Haiti, I saw photographers who cared more about their shot than helping the people who were desperately hurt by the earthquake. “Humanitarian” means to be concerned with or seeking to promote human welfare. Now, my aim isn’t just to capture an amazing photograph. My goal is to see lives changed through photographic storytelling. This starts with the relationship I strive to build with the person I’m photographing. I listen and try to not to assume anything about them or their lives. I have to build trust first. I capture their beauty and dignity with respect for who they are. Every human in the world deserves to be respected no matter what their circumstance is. They come first. My photos come second. I will always sacrifice a “good photo” if it’s going to hurt someone. The person standing in front of me is way more valuable than my photographic result. I think this is what makes humanitarian photography unique. I am always trying to think about ways I can use humanitarian storytelling to improve the lives of the people I’m photographing. It’s a tool for change to help bring people out of poverty.
What do you believe makes a compelling photograph?
There are three components that you learn about in photography class that create a great photograph: lighting, composition and moment. I definitely think that those are essential in creating a compelling photograph. My mind is always thinking through these as I’m clicking my shutter. I love to play with light to make images that are unique and stand out. I also look for personality in people. Sometimes it takes a little while for a person to warm up, but when they feel comfortable, oh, what beauty you can capture. You will know when I think an image is compelling because I start saying the ooooooo’s and ahhhhhhh’s and jumping around like a kid who’s just had five sodas. I get so giddy. I still sometimes can’t believe I get to capture moments that make time stand still. It is such a gift. The way that light bounces around and the sky filled with magical colors. It all makes me so happy. I love capturing God’s beauty. So many times I think that we photograph people in poverty and they look stunned or shocked — perhaps this is their reaction to the camera in front of them and most likely, it’s not the real them. This is where I think the relationship we build is so important. If you get to know the people you are photographing, you will capture so much more than just the surface. Many times I will pray and ask God to show me how He sees the person standing before me. I kid you not. Those images have been some of the most compelling photographs I’ve ever taken.
How do you capture so much life, joy, and dignity in your subjects?
I never look at someone and see them below me. Every person I meet is interesting and beautiful. I think making people feel comfortable is crucial. I explain why I am there and why I’m photographing. I ask God to show me what He sees rather than what my eyes might see. And this leads to joy, life and dignity that I capture. I always search for the hope in someone’s story because it always exists. When a woman walks six hours for water everyday, I am in awe. I mean could you walk for six hours a day for water? She is someone I can walk with, learn from and honor. Learning some of the language is really helpful in connecting. I always love to learn little phrases that get people to laugh.
How do you avoid exploitative photography in places of pain and poverty?
Oh man, this is what that gets me fired up. We can really really hurt the people we are photographing if we do this wrong. We capture what we “think” is happening in a place when that is not the reality. If you saw any child in a muddy area, they’re going to get dirty and then possibly have flies and mosquitos all over them. That isn’t something that is necessarily bad. If I were to just photograph that, it is probably not an accurate or complete story. Wait till evening and the mama comes and washes her child outside of their hut and prepares dinner for them. We photographers have a responsibility to be accurate and truthful. Sometimes our eyes sees things in a negative way because we’ve never seen what’s not familiar to us. We assume that people need the life we have because we know that as normal to us. I invite you all to press in a little further to that story. Imagine yourself as them. How would you want your photo captured? Would you want it shared with the world? Would you be okay with someone posting photos of your children? Ask these questions. Just because someone lives in poverty doesn’t mean we treat them any differently than you would your friends in your home country.
Havens suggests four specific ways to avoid exploitative photography, AKA “Poverty Porn”:
1. Ask lots of questions to really understand the story of the person you’re photographing rather than assuming.
2. Imagine if you were them—how would you want to be photographed and presented to the world? Treat others are you would want to be treated.
3. Show them the images you take and see if they are proud of it.
4. Have the people you are photographing sign release forms to give you permission to use their image. I do this a lot these days—especially for big campaigns.