I got into my present line of work by following two of my passions-- traveling to remote locations and photographing people. This combination of attractions has led me to photograph many indigenous groups around the world.
I love everything about the process—planning the trip, finding the guides, meeting and interacting with the people, and making their portraits. There is a unique beauty that comes from living close to the land. It’s a patina or maybe a wildness that attracts me. But it’s a look that seems to disappear as we begin to rely on others to gather and produce our food.
In the beginning of my career I was just trying to capture the beauty that I saw in the people I visited. However, it didn’t take me long to realize the unique challenges that these people face. To bring awareness to some of these issues, I began to combine personal stories with my portraits. I actually silkscreened biographical information about the subjects on the Plexiglas of my framed pieces in my exhibits. I could then highlight an issue (i.e. the human rights abuses in Tibet) through the eyes and words of individuals directly affected by the issue.
Today I look for partners, mostly not-for-profit organizations such as Amnesty International or CARE, that are addressing the same issues that I want to help bring attention to. These partners usually support the production by helping with access and travel expense. However the greatest benefit from the partnership for me is in getting the work distributed. If I’m doing a book, these partners will often pre-order books, making it easier to get a publisher. If I have an accompanying exhibit, which I usually do, they help find venues for the exhibit. By combining forces with organizations you believe in you can set up a win-win situation in which the organization gets exposure for its work.
When I started out in photography I had no idea I would be doing the humanitarian work I now find myself doing. As I look back I find the things that served me most were the projects I did out of an attraction for the subject or a sincere desire to help address an issue. The efforts that served me least were the times I tried to approach a market for my images or guess which images would sell.
Humaria is an 11-year-old street vendor (selling eggs) in Kabul, Afghanistan. She has never gone to school and like all but 12% of the young girls in Kabul is illiterate. I took this photo on top of a hill overlooking Kabul. She is part of the Women Empowered project that was supported by CARE and promoted by HP.
If you’ve ever thought about undertaking a personal documentary project, you have also probably pondered some of the challenges involved. The obstacle that usually comes immediately to mind is financing: Where am I going to get the money to pull this off? Although financing is an important reality, I believe something much more critical is often overlooked, especially in the beginning stages of a project.
Clearly defining what you want to say or what you want to accomplish is actually a much more important first step than how to get the resources. In fact, clarifying your vision and goals can actually lead you to the resources that can help make your project a reality.
Most of the photo projects that I have successfully completed have stemmed from knowing which global issues I wanted to call attention to. My concern over the Communist Chinese invasion and continued occupation of Tibet resulted in my book and exhibit Tibetan Portrait. I published the book The Gift to help the organization Interplast raise funds to send surgeons to remote corners of the world to treat children born with cleft palate and other facial deformities. With my most current book and exhibit Women Empowered I wanted to help bring attention to the gender discrimination that still exists in the developing world. I also wanted to celebrate the courageous women who are addressing this fundamental problem.
All of these projects were completed because I established partnerships with non-profit organizations who recognized that strong visuals that could help them achieve their own goals of attracting donations and volunteers.
Over the past 20 years, the number of not-for-profit organizations has exploded. Some of these groups are known as NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or 501c3s (for their tax-code identification), but the number of these groups has grown from one million to two million in the last seven years alone! Even better: This unprecedented trend of citizens stepping forward to tackle key social and environmental issues shows no signs of letting up.
As photographers, we can support this movement by supplying the visually powerful communication materials these organizations all need.
Once I have determined what issue I want to address in a photographic project, I seek organizations who share my concern. I then approach them and suggest forming a partnership. For Tibetan Portrait I partnered with the non-profit organization Tibetan Rights Campaign; for Women Empowered I formed a partnership with the international humanitarian organization CARE.
These partnerships help me move my projects along by allowing me to tap into resources that I could never afford otherwise.
Not all non-profits will be able to provide equal types of support. The small non-profit Tibetan Rights Campaign couldn’t fund my trips to India and Tibet. But they did provide me with a guide and interpreter. When I wanted to do a portrait of the Dalai Lama they scheduled the appointment. When I needed to get authors for the book they turned to their “Friends of Tibet” and lined up Elie Wiesel and Galen Rowell.
I wanted Women Empowered to highlight women around the world who were breaking through cultural conventions to empower themselves and their communities. Since CARE is a much larger organization than the Tibetan Rights Campaign, they had the budget to send me to 12 countries in Africa, Asia and South America to complete the project. To find the women I wanted to profile, I relied on CARE’s country directors to lead me to them. CARE’s pre-purchase of 2500 books was critical in landing a contract with a publisher. CARE’s relationship with Borders Books allowed me to do a national book tour. The publicity efforts conducted in conjunction with my book tour resulted in publication of some of my images in O Magazine, More, and many other publications.
Hewlett Packard supports CARE’s work and they agreed to print and frame the exhibit of my images that opened at the United Nations lobby in New York on International Women’s Day.
Determining what it is you want to say with your project usually takes work. Your concept may start off as a page of written text. But try to condense your idea to a paragraph, a sentence, or better yet, a few words. Not only will this give you a good title for your project, but you’ll also have a Google Search term that might lead you to that special NGO that could make the ideal partner for your work.
Because my partners on the Women Empowered project had the resources to back a national book tour, my image of Howa was published in O: The Oprah Magazine, which is read by more than 2.7 million women.
Howa is an 8-year-old Afar girl living in the desert of northeastern Ethiopia. Thanks to the advocacy work of Howa’s mother Abay, Howa will be the first girl in her family’s history not to undergo the centuries-old tradition of female circumcision. With CARE’s help, Abay also has opened a school that Howa attends. She will be one of the first in her family to be able to read and write.
I’m often asked how I gain permission from people in the developing world to photograph them.
Actually, it’s not that difficult. Whether the person you approach is on the streets of New York or from a remote tribe in Irian Jaya, what matters most is your own mental attitude.
For instance, you’re immediately at a disadvantage if you approach someone with the intent of taking something (i.e. a photo) because then you have to convince them to give you something.
Whenever I approach someone, I truly believe that I am about to give them something. For one thing, I’m going to compliment them by letting them know they interest me and I think they’re special. I also know that I’m about to give them an experience they don’t get everyday.
With the right mental attitude, you don’t even have to be able to speak to the person. When you’re thinking positive thoughts, others can read it in your body language. They can perceive whether you hope to make their day or if you are just trying to get something out of them.
When I first enter a tribe or village, I almost always start by interacting with the kids. Kids are the most open and curious about new experiences. I unpack my photographic equipment and take a few photos of them, which I then give to them. It is my little magic show.
Before digital cameras, I shot Polaroids. Today I show them the LCD on the back of my camera and also carry a small battery-operated HP 325 digital printer so I can hand out prints. During my stay in the village these prints quickly make it to their parents’ huts and I find myself being invited into their homes and being asked to take photos of everyone. At this point the problem becomes how to take photos of everyone. I only carry a finite amount of Polaroids and ink cartridges. So, I find myself taking many group photos.
When I’m working in locations such as Kenya (shown here), the kids are often so fascinated that they offer to be part of the production crew.
Even though I first approach people without an interpreter so they can get a sense of me through my body language, I always have someone available who can serve as a translator. I want to be able to tell them what I intend to do with the photos, especially when I’m working on exhibits or books about certain issues they’re facing such as human rights violations, poverty or environmental degradation.
I often notice tourists taking photos of people in markets and villages without any meaningful interaction with the people they are photographing. Many times these tourists get a negative reaction. That doesn’t surprise me. Just imagine how you would feel if someone came into your backyard and started taking pictures of you and your family without making a connection with you.
Photography can be a great icebreaker that will allow you to have wonderful cross-cultural experiences. Strangers will be happy to allow you to photograph them if you approach them with the sincere belief that you are giving, not taking.
Phil will be talking more about his ideas and experiences during workshops in Los Angeles, South Africa and Guatemala. Visit his website for more details.
Here’s an image of a young girl in Mongolia who agreed to let me photograph her.
During the past 30 years that I have been observing and photographing indigenous people in the developing world, I have noticed entrenched discrimination against females in many of the communities I have visited. Gender inequality is truly a universal phenomenon. But for a long time, I felt I would be a ‘cultural imperialist’ if I created a book or exhibit that addressed the subject of gender discrimination. Who was I to pass judgment on what roles women should or should not play in foreign cultures?
My attitude started to change in 1998 after I partnered with Amnesty International and created a book and exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The rights articulated in the UDHR include the right to education, the right to own property, and the right to have a voice in community affairs. It was hard for me to ignore the fact that these rights are often not available to many women in the developing world.
Soon after I had decided to create a photo project around gender discrimination, the humanitarian organization CARE contacted me and asked if I would consider doing some photography for them. It turned out to be a serendipitous inquiry that ultimately led us to partner in the creation of the book and exhibit Women Empowered.
I had always known CARE as the relief organization that sent ‘CARE packages’ to disaster zones around the world. But I wasn’t aware of how much their mission had evolved. CARE’s photo editor Valenda Campbell explained to me that CARE now concentrates on economic development and that the cornerstone of their work was the empowerment of women. CARE believes the most efficient way to lift a community out of poverty is to allow girls to get an education and empower the women with micro loans.
Whenever I create a photo project that addresses disturbing issues such as poverty and inequality, I look for positive stories that will bring the issues to life in a powerful and uplifting way. In the case of Women Empowered, my inspiration came from a 91-year-old woman named Transito, who was living alone in the Ecuadorian Andes. Because of her lifelong struggle to bring respect and human rights to indigenous people she was known as the Rosa Parks of Ecuador.
I met Transito by chance when I was working on a film project for the Discovery Channel. After meeting her I decided to approach the Women Empowered project by portraying women who have broken through barriers of convention and oppression to improve not only their own lives, but also the well-being of their communities.
Transito, of Cayumbe, Ecaudor, is often referred to as the “Rosa Parks of Ecuador” for speaking out about the plight of indigenous Ecuadorians and gaining greater respect for indigenous peoples in Ecuadorian politics and in society at large.
The photographs and stories of the 16 women featured in the Women Empowered exhibit shed light on specific gender issues worldwide and the struggles of women in developing countries to achieve gender equality. Their triumphs speak to the universal themes of courage, empowerment, and human rights.
We kicked off the Women Empowered project on International Women’s Day March 8 with an exhibition of thirty 60 x 33-in. prints in the lobby of the United Nations building in New York.
Although I’ve put together more than 20 exhibits since the 1990s, this was the first exhibit that I had not created in the darkroom. I had struggled for years with digital output but couldn’t get a print that didn’t shift color in the neutrals under different light sources. Since my images have a lot of neutrals, this phenomenon known as metamerism had been a big problem.
But HP has addressed and resolved that problem. When my images for the UN exhibit were output on 310 gsm Hahnemühle Photo Rag fine-art paper on the HP Designjet Z3100 printer, the prints looked fabulous. The blacks were deep and rich and there were no color shifts in the neutrals. That’s because with fine-art papers the Z3100 uses 4 neutral inks--both photo black and matte black inks as well as grey and light grey. Having four blacks eliminated the color shifts in the neutrals that had plagued my former digital prints.
I don’t matt my prints. Instead, I float them in a shadowbox frame. We found we had to use extra large taped hinges to float the large 60 x 33 in. prints. We had trouble with the prints coming loose during shipping. The Hahnemühle Photo Rag has a surface that pulls away from the linen tape more easily than other papers. Unfortunately, we had to reframe the entire show, but we considered it a lesson learned the hard way. The exhibit is now re-taped and ready to begin its national and international tour.
The exhibit schedule and a preview of the book Women Empowered can be found on my website www.philborges.com
As the first female chief of the village of Dekoto Junction in Ghana, Nana Gyeutah (also known as Mama Koko) has vigorously defended the rights of the villagers, whose cocoa trees were being destroyed by the timber industry.