Photography and Development – An interview with EveryDay Mumbai

I’m off to Mumbai next week to speak at a Conference on Social Media for Development, Innovation and Freedom. During my research I came across Everyday Mumbai and spent hours looking at some of the wonderful images that creator Chirag Wakaskar has curated. So I contacted Chirag to ask him a few questions:

What inspired you to start @everydaymumbai

Back when I started this project (6th July 2014) there were probably very few working photographers from India on it and the pictures on the medium were mostly the typical oversaturated fluff of sunsets, mountains, beaches etc but there were a few western photojournalists on the medium sharing some interesting work and while I was on it with moderate success perhaps because photojournalism based content is not as popular in India as something that provides a much more departure from daily dreary lives such as a beautiful sunset or your favourite celebrity having fun is (I guess). I loved what @everydayafrica was doing and thought of having something on similar lines but since there weren’t really a lot of photographers around that I knew personally I decided on a curated platform rather than a collaboration. There was also a thought in the back of my mind of seeing the city through local eyes, which included a lot of non professional photographers who also contribute to the project.

How do you select which images to curate? Are there certain issues that you deliberately focus on e.g. I noticed that there are many images documenting the LGBT community in Mumbai and also on pollution. What is the motivation for highlighting certain issues?

I generally look at photographs which have something to say beyond the visual. I often feel many times images of such issues are sidelined in mainstream media in India which is more focused around political news, celebrities and sports coverage. Even Instagram is primarily dominated by Bollywood & vanity. I hope to make space for highlighting various issues and making a strong case for photographers who document such issues.

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Do you think that @everydaymumbai can be used as a tool for development? If so, how?

I would like to think it can be used as a ‘model’ because it reaches an audience through a medium that is easily accessible to them so that they can understand or know a little more than they usually would. I would love to see communities self documenting to better understand for themselves as well as others. I’ve actually written a guide and put it up on the website so that someone who wants to start off a project like this would know how to go about it. It can be found here – http://www.everydaymumbai.com/how-to-start-your-own-everyday-project-on-instagram-by-chirag-wakaskar/

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Have you ever been contacted by local government or NGOs about your work?

I have never been contacted by government. A couple of times NGO’s have reached out to share something. Though I have often proactively shared something I think would help share a good message or help someone out.

You mostly provide quite detailed supporting text – how long does this take?

The credit is all to the photographers. I will often egg them on to write more in terms of either jouralistic captions or even what they may think about what they have photographed. I also share with them resources such as  caption methodology such as AP or NPR so that they can get an idea as well or even some photography resources that I have found helpful. I maintain a small database of articles Ive liked – http://www.everydaymumbai.com/resources/

You receive lots of comments on the images that you curate. How long does it take for you to maintain the Instagram account?

I share just one photograph a day after looking at the hashtag and usually will message the photographer if I need to have any more details included. I have notifications off except for comments so that something inappropriate doesnt pass through. I’m generaly quite liberal in terms of comments and even with negative feedback but never outright for any hatred, lewdity, violence, etc

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Do you know if any of the photographers that work you curate have received photography commissions as a result?

This is a difficult one for me to quantify, but I do share the work of lot of young photographers with the hope that journalists, editors, curators who follow the project will commision them work or perhaps write articles about them particularly when they have some projects, exhibits, books & so on.

What is next for @everydayMumbai

I’m currently working on creating an offline exhibit in public spaces so that a wider audience can reached, particularly those who may not be on social media or even the internet. I’m also looking to reach out to mariganlized communities to help train them to document themselves and create social media based projects like these for their communities so more people can know about them.

Thank you Chirag for such an interesting and inspirational interview. I can’t wait to see some of the projects working with marginalised communities.

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Fadhili Ibrahim, Ismael Suleiman, fish sellers, Msambweni, Kwale, Kenya 2018

UNDP Kenya – Development Photography Project

I stumbled across the following tweet from UNDP Kenya back in March which alerted me to their fantastic new photography initiative.

Intrigued as to why they had commissioned three photographers to document their work I contacted Ngele Ali, their Head of Communications.

Why did you decide to document development in Kenya using photography? What informed the decision to commission this work was that, while we were telling our story and reporting about the impact of our work, the country office lacked compelling images of Kenya and Kenyans that could enrich our narrative. Our main aim was to document the breadth of development with authentic imagery that form part of our photography library. We deliberately went out to photograph and get stories informed by the SDGs, while exploring thematic areas aligned to UNDP work in Kenya such as: inclusivity, gender equality and youth empowerment, climate change, devolved governance, technology for development among others. We therefore went out in search of empowering stories and images of ordinary Kenyans at grassroots level who were doing remarkable work of transforming their lives and lifting themselves out of poverty; with the hope of giving the term development a face and to demystify the concept of leaving no one behind. We leveraged photography as a tool for storytelling, to capture everyday lives of people, their personal perspective and achievements, that sometimes words don’t do justice. With images gathered from this mission we hope to build a library that is rich with a wide spectrum of powerful images encompassing of genuine human interest stories that may inform how we perceive and communicate on development matters and help shape our future interventions and interactions with Kenyan communities.  

How long did the project take and how did you choose the locations?

This was a month-long mission where three Kenyan professional photographers were commission to work with the country team comprising of staff drawn from programme and communications departments. To capitalize on the time available, and to ensure we had images back in good time for various activities that were in the pipeline, the teams went out to the field simultaneously covering all the counties including those where UNDP has project on the ground. The idea of this project was to inclusively cover Kenya as wide as possible beyond our project areas as a forward-looking opportunity to scope for possible areas of future engagement and to ensure that we have a good collection of images that represent the face of Kenya in consideration to the fact that UNDP works with state and non-state institutions at national and sub-national levels.

Tell us why you chose the three photographers you commissioned?

The three were shortlisted from a competitive process that had invited photographers working in Kenya to submit their portfolios and proposed costs to undertake the assignment. The three were shortlisted from a pool of photographers following a rigorous review of portfolios based on experience of working on similar projects; demonstrated understanding of what was required of the assignment and knowledge of the terrain; and samples of work submitted.

How many photographs were taken?

Approximately 2000 final photos were submitted.

What is your favourite photograph and why?

Each photo has a unique story behind it but I particularly love photos from the marginalised communities as they are not the usual photos of abject poverty. The images that we got back paint a picture of hope, abundance and highlighting communities and people making a difference in a dignified and positive way. They are images that authentically celebrates Kenyan communities and their way of being.

What kind of supporting information did you capture for case study and caption material? Did this take a long time?

Information gathered was contextualised based on personal accounts and covered issues of livelihoods, family, future ambition, employment, state of being among others, which helped to frame each photograph in a unique way. This process was rigorous as it also included getting consent of the people we were photographing; The conversations were either written or recorded and later transcribed. Upon return to work it took at least another roughly four weeks for colleagues to complete captioning after the photographers made their final submissions. UNDP teams also submitted detailed back to work reports which is a standard requirement.

How will you be sharing the photographs with the people in the pictures?

We had release forms where we recorded details of the people being photographed. For those who expressed that they would like us to share with them the photos we will make necessary arrangements to do so – either directly or through our partner organisations working in those locations. Majority of those photographed were happy and satisfied to view their photos on screen after the sessions before we departed from location.

How do you plan to use the photographs?

The photos taken form part of the UNDP country office library; we intend to use these photos to support our conversations with regards to the development agenda in Kenya. This will be in our programmatic reports, annual report, factsheets, website, among others. None of the photos will be used for commercial purposes. The photos are also available for other UNDP/UN offices, development partners and donors upon request as long as they are credited accordingly.

Will you be using social media to share these images? If so, on what platforms?

Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Exposure

What kind of problems did you encounter on the project?

Getting instant buy in to participate. Our teams spent a lot of time explaining what we were doing in some cases the people we encountered were not as friendly while others demanded payment for their participation. It took a while for members of the public to warm up to us and we only worked with people who were willing to participate freely. Working with local contacts helped in breaking the ice and gaining trust.

Language barrier – while Kiswahili is widely spoken across Kenya, in some remote areas, language was a hindrance and we heavily relied on local translators.  The distances between locations could be gruesome and exhausting especially in remote areas where the road network is not so good.

Are there any recommendations for other development organisations who might want to do something similar?

Logistics and planning is critical prior to the start of the project to ensure that your teams are well prepared and any concerns and questions are covered before departure to the field as helps in ensuring that all are working from the same perspective for desired results. We planned for this mission for at least 3 weeks before teams left the Nairobi office.

Always seek consent of the people you want to involve in your project. Taking a few minutes to explain the purpose of your mission and how you intend to use their images helps with members of the public feeling valued and the result is more enriching.
Work with professional photographers – professional photographers are a major asset for this type of assignment engage and work with them as part of your team. Let them understand your approach prior to the start of the project as this ensures that they understand what is expected of them and can deliver better results.

Give people an opportunity to tell and share their stories without influencing their thoughts. People feel appreciated and respected when allowed to tell their stories without the pressure to skew the narrative to suit your perspective.
Always take time to clarify any information provided and ensure it is as factual as possible. Request to use a voice recorder which you can play back when transcribing for clarity and ask the local fixer/contact for further clarification when in doubt.

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How can we use Instagram more to support development?

I’m afraid this is a genuine question that I don’t know the answer to – so please help me answer it. How can we use Instagram more to help development?

Earlier today I met with a youth group in Alexandra, Johannesburg to talk to them about the use of images in NGO fundraising campaigns. After the discussion I noticed several of them get their mobile phones out to check for “updates”. I had already taken up a lot of their time, so quickly asked if they used social media on their phones. “Of course we do” one of them said. I asked which social media channels they use the most and it was a unanimous response of “Instagram”. What about Facebook and Twitter I asked, “We use Facebook, but not Twitter, Instagram is much better.” So I asked if they thought Instagram could be used for development. “Definitely – Instagram is a great way of finding out what’s going on in the world and for learning about different things – it’s so easy to share information with friends too.”

I was so intrigued by this response, but really didn’t want to take up more of their time. I’ve seen several semi-successful campaigns by NGOs, one of which I mention in my blog post earlier today. I’ve also written about Instagram accounts such as Barbie Saviour and Everyday Africa, but I’d love to learn more about grass roots initiatives on Instagram that have been successful for development.

Please share any examples you have found.

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New Research seeks to improve imagery in NGO campaigns

Critics have often accused NGOs of using pity in their fundraising campaigns. Negative images used in campaigns to evoke empathy and guilt have been labelled as poverty porn, others accuse positive campaigns of stereotyping, oversimplification of stories or failing to highlight structural causes. Sometimes it seems as though NGOs can’t do right for want of trying.

With NGOs under constant scrutiny from organisations such as Radi-Aid, which seeks to minimise stereotyping in fundraising adverts there has been a gradual shift in narratives in recent years. Save the Children have recently released an informative piece of research called The People in the Pictures. This research is the first time that “contributors” or the protagonists of NGO imagery and stories have been asked about the process of image making and their portrayal in the communications.

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The research included 39 interviews and 21 focus groups across four countries: UK, Jordan, Bangladesh and Niger. In total there were 202 research participants. Findings are grouped into three main areas: motivations, process and portrayal.

Informed Consent

I found the section on informed consent particularly interesting, especially that contributors in Jordan, Bangladesh and Niger “only had a vague idea of the purpose” of the photo shoot. Having commissioned photography for a large part of my career I sympathise to some extent, but it worries me that large INGOs who have established country offices and local partners are still unable to successfully implement informed consent.

Is it a language / translation issue or are the people in the pictures simply unaware of the myriad of communications that INGOs are using the imagery for? I was pleased to see in the recommendations that Save the Children are reviewing their guidelines. Surely a simple solution is for photographers to take examples of previous campaigns and for these to be translated so local communities can understand how their images might be used?

The reasons for not contributing were social stigma, fear of reprisal, the permanence of the portrayal, lack of confidence or self-esteem and lack of direct benefits. All of these reasons confirm why stringent implementation of informed consent is fundamental.

Local Photographers

Some of the problems associated with informed consent include the photographer not speaking the language of the contributors and the lack of media literacy. The problems with hiring local photographers is a recurrent theme when I talk with communication professionals in the sector. I have recently encountered similar problems myself. This is one of the reasons I am an advocate of WaterAid’s Voices from the Field initiative which I have witnessed first-hand in both Madagascar and Nepal. I know that other NGOs have considered this approach to gathering images and case studies, so why hasn’t it happened? I can’t imagine that cost is the issue.

Participatory Photography

It is encouraging to see Save the Children have utilised participatory photography in their portfolio of image making. Participatory photography projects are becoming more popular and this is to be applauded, but how successful are these projects in reality? The dissemination of these images is not particularly widespread. Take for example the Inside Zataari project, which has just over 1600 followers on Instagram. In fairness it has received some very positive media coverage which is a different indicator of success. I do wonder which INGO will be brave enough to use images taken during a participatory photography project and use then in a national or international advertising campaign rather than using them on an Instagram account with a relatively insignificant audience?

Recommendations

The recommendations in the report are commendable but how many will be implemented in reality? Giving copies of the images to the contributors is relatively simple with portable printers, but it is not very practical. Who will be accountable for this? The UK office? The Country Office? The Photographer? More importantly how will the process be managed and at what cost? It would be more appropriate to provide the contributor with the image used in its final state e.g. adverts, poster, video. This is even less practical, and whilst I’d love to see this happen I’m not holding my breath.

I’m really intrigued about the proposal to develop location and language specific resources to communicate image use more effectively. This is an excellent idea and something that could be developed collaboratively across the sector. I’ll be bold – is this something that DFID or DEC could facilitate?

In publishing the People in the Pictures and inviting a range of guest from across the sector to a formal launch, Save the Children have reinvigorated a discussion that is often buried in the to-do list of well meaning communications directors. Please don’t let this important discussion fade away – use this research as a catalyst to further improve NGO communications and dignified representations of distant others.

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How can NGOs use Immersive Storytelling to further their cause

Last week I attended the Orama Festival in London, which explored the future of immersive journalism and storytelling. Several NGOs were in attendance and there was a panel discussion on Immersive Journalism content for Social Impact with Charlotte Mikkelborg, Peter Speller, Mary Matheson and Marisol Grandon. There were also content demonstrations of WaterAid’s Aftershock, Plan International’s Mamie’s Dream and Born Into Exile.

A lot of the discussions were based around the technical issues of filming in 360; where do you place the camera? how do you use sounds to prompt the viewer to turn around;  lighting issues; flow of action; proximity and the ethical dilemmas of not knowing what’s behind you when filming or the fact that many people are unaware of what a 360 camera looks like. There were also a lot of discussions around distribution outlets – how do you get people to watch your films once they have been made?

Producing 360 films is getting cheaper, but I did overhear someone say they produced a film for around $35,000 which is cheap. Is it cheap? What is the return on investment? Maybe it’s more to do with training opportunity cost as I genuinely don’t believe that NGOs will recoup the costs of producing a 360 film with donations. One of the panellists claimed that VR increases the conversion rate for NGOs by 100%, another panellist estimated 80%. I didn’t challenge this or ask what they meant by conversion rate – I should have done. Are they talking about donations? Are we due to see an army of street fundraisers armed with VR headsets in the future? Scary thought. Marisol Grandon from Unfold Stories highlighted the impact of VR as an advocacy tool. I expect she was referring to the apparent success of Clouds Over Sidra and it’s launch at DAVOS.

Apparently the VR headset market was worth $5.2 billion in 2016 and will rise to £162 billion in 2020. There was discussion around whether there will be VR fatigue in the not too distant future, but it was agreed that is is extremely unlikely. As technology improves and the cost of headsets fall, 360 video and VR is likely to grow and grow. One speaker said that  “360 video enables us to step into the facts and engage with them” – I’m sorry but I really do not agree with this and it scares me somewhat. There is a great academic paper which debates the ethics of immersive journalism, which is a must read for all journalists/NGOs experimenting with 360/VR. I worry about people describing VR as “transportive”, “emotional” and “evoking empathy” – the stories we receive as viewers are very much down to the orchestration of the director/producer.

At the moment VR is a solitary rather than a community experience, although in China there are already hundreds of VR arcades. One participant at the conference asked whether VR is a backlash to the “light touch” aspects of social media. Very possible – or is it a ethical timebomb just waiting to explode.

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