It is a Privilege: Photographing For an International NGO

In June we highlighted Deborah Espinosa in an Alumni Friday post. Her photography with an international NGO touched us and we asked her to write more about her experiences for the blog. Enjoy.

Always the same answer to the question, “What is it like to photograph for an international NGO (non-governmental organization)?”  It is a privilege.  But if it weren’t for RMSP Summer Intensive, I wouldn’t be enjoying such a privilege.

I haven’t always been comfortable photographing people.  Although I always knew that people were my favorite subject, it was also the hardest for me.  (Don’t some say that the right thing to do is often the hardest?)  But at RMSP, with the support of then instructor Marcy James and my photog friends, that summer I found the courage to approach people.  It was a huge breakthrough for me that Anais Nin captured in words:  “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”  Five years later, it is hard to believe that at one time it was even an issue.

For me, photography is a tool for global advocacy.  I work – as both a lawyer and a photographer – for Landesa, an international NGO that works in developing countries to secure land rights for the world’s poorest.  Our goal is to alleviate extreme poverty.

With my photographs, I try to capture the dignity and humanity of the rural poor in developing countries; to capture their story and thereby personalize Landesa’s work.  It is my hope that through stories and portraits of our beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries, Landesa supporters will understand that by helping the poorest obtain rights to land, they are helping to provide a hand up, rather than a hand out.  So while my job is a privilege, it is also a responsibility.

Landowners in India earn not only income from their land, but also respect from their communities.

A typical day in the field consists of getting up bright and early, driving on really bad roads for sometimes hours, arriving in a village where kids are waving madly at our vehicle and often yelling, “mzungu, mzungu!” – Swahili for a white person, European, or foreigner.

I’m usually there to conduct interviews with rural people about the challenges they face in accessing and owning land.  You see, in the developing world, most of the world’s poor live in rural areas relying exclusively on a small parcel of land to support their families.  Land is also the source of status in a village and security in old age.  During the interviews, women and men, chiefs and elders, widows and orphans, share details of their lives with me and the importance of even a land plot the size of a tennis court.  The farmer might share that the moneylenders charge 36% to loan money to cover the purchase of this season’s inputs.  A widow might share that, after her husband died, to stay on the land, she had to either marry her brother-in-law or leave without her children.  An elder might share his decision to send a wife back to her husband after the husband beat her for objecting to the sale of a cow.

This woman is one of more than 60 million poor and landless Indians. She and her neighbors came to a Landesa meeting to request financial assistance to buy small plots of land that they could farm to feed their family and climb out of extreme poverty.

Following the interviews, with their permission I’ll photograph them.  So while I have access, I still have to gain and maintain their trust.  My subjects grant us a brief glimpse into their lives, the importance of land to their families, the obstacles they face, and their hopes for their children.  They invite me into their homes, introduce me to their relatives, and often open their hearts.  In return, I treat them, their story, and their likeness with utmost respect.

Sometimes my subjects are hesitant, warming up as we go along; warming up as they realize I am genuine in my curiosity to understand who they are.  The circumstances of their lives matter to me.

And sometimes they are just bursting to share their story.

One such person who wanted to share is Berthe in northern Rwanda, a widow and mother of eight.  She was one of several women whom I interviewed to understand the importance of land in their community and the prevalence of disputes related to land.  Berthe shared that the title to her land is so precious to her, that she carries it around with her every day in the pocket of her skirt.

Berthe of northern Rwanda, a 55-year-old widow and mother of eight, says the title to her land is so precious, she always carries it with her – in a pocket sewn into her cotton skirt. Berthe is one of millions of men and women who are benefiting as Rwanda formalizes land rights for the first time in the history of the country, providing greater tenure security and allowing farmers to start investing in their future.

So what is it like to photograph for an international NGO?  A privilege, a responsibility, and a dream come true.

3 thoughts on “It is a Privilege: Photographing For an International NGO

Carol Stephenson

Debbie – You NEVER cease to amaze me! Beautifully written article and again, the photographs are priceless. I feel like I am there. You certainly have found your calling. You have achieved and you have arrived!

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Steve Russell

Wonderful environmental portraits Debbie! Thanks for sharing more of your work…

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Barry Grivett

Bravo! Thanks for caring so much & sharing too.

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