Have you ever wanted to travel the world? See sights that you can only imagine. Experience communities your friends can never comprehend. Meet people around the world and share stories of life, love and adventure. I have. But the question that we all face when setting out to work for the betterment of humanity is how will we remember our experience. How will we record our memories or what will be our creative outlet when faced with human suffering.

For many in the humanitarian relief and development field there is a natural inclination to express ourselves through photography. And it is not to exploit populations we serve. It is not to expose injustice. But rather to appreciate culture, affirm diversity, and show the equality of humanity across the globe.

You will find development workers shooting with a range of equipment from a film camera that has been passed down across generations, to a cell phone camera meant for discretion in dangerous areas. But what makes the photos stand out is the purposeful intent of equipment, medium, and framing.

The ability to see the world through the lens of another is a skill necessary for this work and inherent to creating a photo. You tell a story. If you take a photo you are telling a story. You make a conscious decision of what to frame in order to elicit a desired response from a viewer. If you visit a field site you will tell their story. You will note what you see and experience for a report or brief for a specific audience. We interpret our experience then communicate it for the purpose of changing another’s perspective. Our work, our hope, is to change another’s worldview to be more caring, compassionate, and aware.

Arielle Azoulay wrote a text, The Civil Contract of Photography, which talks about the role of photography and society in conflict areas. And this is where we can begin to see the true purpose of our art and work. It is not about us as the development worker to change ourselves, but rather to encourage our audience “to take part…to take responsibility” for our fellow human beings. (p. 169)

I began my adult life as an artist. I moved to New York City to work as a photographer. I had no plan or reason other than I wanted to explore world’s unseen and push the limits of my understanding with new experiences. Having worked as a professional photographer for eight years I began questioning, is there another career that is more stable long-term, but provides me with the satisfaction and love that I feel when photographing a scene.

For me the logical leap was to human rights and social ethics. I knew that photography was my way to experience cultures, understand communities, and fly to the ends of the earth. Working in humanitarian relief and development provides me with these same experiences. And while I could have worked in this field without an artistic outlet or interest in photo, I believe this skill specifically has made me a better development worker – as is common amongst many of my peers. It forces you to challenge yourself and truly understand a context in order to portray it correctly.


Jason Riffe, MA, M.Div is a development director working in Port-au-Prince, Haiti


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