Esther Havens is a humanitarian photographer who has worked with some of the top and most inspiring social good brands of our times. TOMs Shoes, charity: water, Warby Parker, Invisible Children, Raven+Lily are few of the brands that have worked with Esther to help them tell their story through her photographs. Her work has taken her to over 50 countries, going from village to village, photographing people and capturing their stories. Her photographs are beautiful, inspiring, full of life and more importantly they help raise millions of dollars for poverty eradication work.
Alongside photography, Esther now has plans to make a bigger impact by helping create an army of humanitarian photographers that treat people with respect while telling their story. In this interview with Dutiee, Esther shares her journey so far and how she plans to continue using her camera and skills to make a dent in the world.
Though the social good space has recently realized the power in using positive imagery to inspire action, Esther has always focused on the positive aspects of the people she photographs for years now. I was instantly drawn to one of her photos that charity: water shared on their Instagram feed. Her work is absolutely stunning and powerful enough to inspire people to make a difference.
I recently had the privilege to connect with Esther as I was curious to learn more about the girl behind the pictures.
Deepa Chaudhary (DC): Tell me about yourself and your path to becoming a humanitarian photographer?
Esther Havens (EH): I always loved photography since I was a little girl. When I was in junior college I learned darkroom (black and white) photography. Then I went on a trip to India and I realized I wanted to become a photographer. I started of as a photojournalist and dreamt of becoming a National Geographic photographer. I did a lot of different jobs so as to pay my bills and then I would jump on any type of mission trips that came my way. I went to China, Tibet, I photographed for Invisible Children US events, I went to South Africa to photograph Toms Shoes first shoe drop. Trips came up all the time and I was always ready to go.
Initially my photography was all about myself, my career, building my portfolio. Then one day I decided I just didn’t want to capture news and build my portfolio. I wanted to do more, I wanted to change people’s stories. That breaking point happened to me in 2008. I stared in the back of my viewfinder at a photo of a child I took in Congo. I knew nothing about the child, he looked sad and malnourished. I was excited about the photo I took and how great it would look in my portfolio, I didn’t pay much attention to the child’s misery. I felt something terribly wrong about my attitude, with getting excited about a photo that looks so sad. From there on I wanted to change. I wanted to be the aid worker who had a camera in her hand. I wanted to make people come first and then the camera.
Shortly after Congo, I went on a trip to Rwanda where I witnessed first hand a well installation by charity:water and how that changed the life of people there. As the clean water started flowing in the village, I got to rejoice with everyone and photograph the celebrations. I later pitched that story to Scott Harrison, the founder of charity: water. The Jean Bosco story became a big story. Supporters told it over and over and I began to see how stories could change stories. Someone would tell his story at an event and raise money for a water project and that money would go to build a clean water well in another village and change someone else’s story. It was in that village in Rwanda that I realized that I could choose the story I want to tell. I can make it about sadness and pain or of hope and joy. I decided to see past people’s circumstances and sufferings and tell the story of people’s hope and strength. I also felt I needed to set myself apart and to make it really about the people I photograph.
DC: What are some of the social good brands you’ve worked for?
EH: In the past couple of years some of the larger ones that people would know are charity: water, Warby Parker, Toms Shoes, Malaria No More, Raven and Lily, Noonday, Collection and The Adventure Project. I love photographing for social good brands that are creating products like Raven and Lily and Noonday. I really believe that if we want to make an impact in poverty we need to be creating jobs. It’s really cool to work on stories of people who are able to pay for their children’s school fees and put dinner on their table.
DC: What kind of projects you do for them?
EH: There are a couple of different reasons why organizations come to me. In the case of nonprofits, it’s either for fundraising for campaigns or to prove to their donors the work they’ve done. When I work on stories I always think of pairing what is with what can be. I photograph the current situation, but usually don’t leave the story there. I capture what can be – water wells, schools, health programs, access to medicine, sponsored children etc. It gives hope to the story.
For brands like Raven and Lily and Noonday that makes products, I’ve photographed for lookbooks where we’ve shot with models. I also capture the stories of artisans who make their products. These days consumers want to know who has made the necklace that they are wearing – what’s her name, what’s her family, what’s her story. The purchasers want to feel connected with the makers, they want to know all about them and I love that.
DC: Your pictures are world apart from what people are used to seeing in this space. They are not of starvation, despair, hopelessness which is what you often see. You’ve already shared how you chose to tell a different story. Could you tell us more about your approach of bestowing dignity and pride in your pictures?
EH: If you go to Africa you are going to have flies, you are going to see kids with running noses and diseases. It’s upon the photographer to choose whether he wants to capture the child in this condition or when he is playing and smiling a few seconds later. You can show a picture of a starving child, or wait a little and photograph that child in its mothers arms, capturing her holding him with love, the connection and how badly she wants him to live, thats what I wait to capture. I understand how badly organizations want to raise money and how they believe that showing the sadness of extreme poverty can help them. But in the end it doesn’t give dignity to the people they are helping. I always try to think of it this way: How would those families want their child featured on a billboard across the country? Would they be ok if their child’s photo was printed all over a website? Do they know why the photo is even being taken? This is something that I feel so strongly about and often have to communicate with to a lot of nonprofits. I could photograph a child being miserable here in the states when they are throwing a tantrum in their sandbox. All across the world, kids are kids and no matter their situation they will act like kids.
I have a lot of people asking me for stock photos and I’m like people are not stock who live in poverty, they have names, they have families, they are people. I work really hard on getting to know the people I photograph. If I’m shooting with them for the first time, I try to keep my camera on my side and I simply talk to them so they could get to know me and trust me. I feel that’s really important. Sometimes when I have just grab a shot because it’s a beautiful photo, I always try to go back to let them know what it’s for. I push myself to finding the names of people I photograph. I work really hard with my team to let the people I’m photographing know the organization we are shooting for and the purpose for why we are taking photos. If I know a story is going to be a big story I make the families sign a model release, I ask them if they’ll be ok with having their child’s picture on a billboard.
DC: Where all does your work take you?
EH: I’ve traveled to over 50 countries. All over Africa, Asia, South and Central America. For me at this point, it’s not about seeing places anymore, it used to be in my early 20s, I wanted to see the world. But now I want to go where the work needs to be done, where I could capture stories that would be helpful.
DC: You also run the Light The World photography Workshops. Could you tell us more about it?
EH: The Light the World workshops are aimed at photographers (with intermediate to advanced experience) to teach them how to use their talent for a purpose. I started this workshop with travel photographer Austin Mann who also photographs for non-profits around the world. Austin and I have worked on some projects together and we both use to get the same type of emails from photographers wanting to travel the world, work for non-profits and asking us questions like, How do I get there?, What do I do next?. I saw that the photographers were ready to jump on any plane they could get on. I wanted them to not make the same mistakes that I made when I started and the only way I could do that was by teaching them. Photographers who go overseas with no experience are probably going to do more harm than good. I wanted to teach them all that I have learned in my 10 years of experience working in the field. So Austin and I decided to put together an intensive week-long workshop for photographers wanting to work on development projects. We designed the workshop to cover a wide range of topics, everything from how to pack, create campaigns for organizations, photographing with dignity, working with clients, editing photos and more.
Our first workshop was almost three years ago, we did it in Ethiopia. We worked with one of my clients at the time who built a campaign to build schools. We took applications online and chose 8 photographers one of them being a local photographer. On the first day of the workshop none of the photographers were allowed to take any photos, they had to spend the entire day getting to know the people and building relationships with them. The workshop was really transformative for the photographers. They realized that being a humanitarian photographer is not about them but about the people they are working with.
The second workshop we did was in India, Fall of 2013. We worked with an organization called JOYN. They are restoring lives of marginalized people by creating jobs. We took 8 photographers to India and did a campaign for JOYN which they launched last December. We actually build the campaign from scratch which was an amazing experience for the students.
During the workshop we try to focus on building relationships with the people, getting to know them and treating them with respect. All these things make a big difference in this line of work, towards imparting dignity to the people you are photographing. Our hope with Light The World is that students will leave the week wanting to use their unique creative talent for a purpose greater than themselves.
DC: Are any of the photographers you’ve trained continuing on this path?
EH: Many of them are. Some of them are wedding photographers, that’s their bread and butter but they are all pursuing working for nonprofits. That’s their goal. I just ran into one of the photographers from the Ethiopia workshop in the airport. She was headed to photograph in Eastern Africa for an organization. One of our India photographers is in the Middle East right now and another is headed to Africa later this month. I stay in touch with almost everyone and just had a group of alumni meet together in Nashville last week to catch up and continue some of the conversations we had in India. I want to see them succeed. I can really identify with how hard it is for them as women to do this job. But I also know how much they are needed with the training they have had in treating people right and capturing a good story.
DC: There is a growing demand for your kind of photography. You must be getting a lot of work offers. How do you decide what project to take and who to work with?
EH: Yes I do get a lot of work offers but I wouldn’t work with all of them. I believe in working for people I believe in and working for organizations I would give my own money to.
A lot of time my work involves consulting with nonprofits about stories. People want to tell stories but they don’t know how. Through spending time in villages and seeing how people respond to story here, I understand the field and that’s what I really work hard with organizations.
DC: There are so many social good brands who would like to have photos of your calibre but may not get the chance to work with you. Any simple tips/ advice for them?
EH: I would encourage organizations to create a media budget. A lot of them don’t have that, they don’t invest in things that raises money. Also the reason why their photography for campaigns are not on par of where it should be is because they take volunteers to do the job who don’t know what they are doing. I highly recommend social good brands to invest in creating good media whether it be having a creative team or investing in good design or a videographer who delivers an excellent product and see the difference it makes. I have several clients who have realized stories are super important and are willing to invest in it. They come back to me later and say, “We saw how much support that investment raises, let’s do it again”.
I also suggest that nonprofits should stop copying each other. The organizations that are going to do well are the ones who set themselves apart, doing things that nobody else is doing and taking risks creatively. Whether it’s the lookbook, events or the website, we all need to be developing new strategies and trying new ways of fundraising constantly.
DC: In such a short span, you’ve achieved so much – worked with the best, seen the world. What’s next for you now?
EH: Haha. Thanks! I’m working on a couple of personal projects right now, a book and some exciting story trips. Honestly, I don’t know what’s next in the big picture of things. Light The World is something that I really love and I would love to be able to invest in photographers more. This job requires constant traveling which is not meant for everyone. I would probably say my dream down the road will be to invest in the next generation of photographers that are open to travel and have amazing talent and their heart is in the right place. I want to train them and equip them so they are able to travel successfully. I see myself slowing down a bit and pushing others forward.