Are We Addicted to Poverty Porn? (Part 4) By Hope Forti

For the fourth part of our series (to catch up, read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), we’re featuring another one of our alliance partners. Living Water International is an incredible leader in their field, as well as in implementing good photography strategies. We had the opportunity to interview Mark Retzloff, creative director at Living Water International, on how LWI approaches photography.

 

Ideally, what purpose should photography serve in the humanitarian world? In reality, what purpose do you see it serving (not just at LWI but in general)?

Photography is quite possibly the simplest way to tell our story. We can convey need, hope, challenges and solutions in a single photograph. It’s more than just an efficient story-telling device though. I think photographs speak to a certain part of our soul. We have a strong natural connection to the rest of humanity, and photography engages this connection.

Through this engagement the viewer is compelled to respond. Response can happen through a donation, a social share, story telling, etc.

Does LWI have a specific standard or ethical framework for taking photos during trips to the field?

Yes. We’re big about communicating hope and dignity. Do we use photos of kids drinking or gathering dirty water? Yes, but this is heavily counterweighted with shots of them drinking safe, clean water. We like to highlight real life and real people.

Most of our photography is shot on location with available light. We shoot what we see. Other shots are set up to capture a specific concept. In either case we never want to exaggerate or exploit our subject’s circumstances.

When we’re in the field we always ask permission before sticking a camera in someone’s face. People decline all the time, mostly because they’ve never seen a camera before. Sadly, in some cases, they think it’s a gun. So I’ll take a few selfies and then show them on the viewer of my camera. They light up at this and immediately get in line to have their picture taken. It’s a lot of fun.

markretzloff.com

Does LWI have a specific standard or ethical framework for using photography in advertising?

Our designers (my team) choose photos that communicate hope and dignity. We’re also very sensitive to understanding the story behind the photo. Is this photo true? Did this actually happen?

Do you feel like you walk a line between showing supporters and potential donors photos of desperation and photos of hope? Is there pressure to do either one?

We try to strike a balance between need and hope. There’s no more efficient way to tell the need story of our cause that a photo of people gathering dirty water. Likewise there’s no more efficient way to show how donors can engage than a photo of happy kids drinking clean water for the first time.

www.markretzloff.com

Do you think LWI is succeeding or failing in showing the dignity of humans in your use of photographs for marketing purposes (or other purposes)?

I feel like we’re leading the way on this actually. We shoot with this in mind. When I’m in the field it’s not uncommon to see me kneeling to take a shot. I do this to push my subjects head above the horizon line. This gives the subject a sense of dignity and the viewer a sense of hope. Ultimately our cause is not about water or sanitation, it’s about people and connection. We would be going against our cause to portray people any other way.

markretzloff.com

What do you want people to think, feel or do after looking at your photographs?

I want people to really connect with the rest of humanity. I want them to see themselves and the people they love in the photos. I want them to see real people, capable people and intelligent people.

Finally, any other insights or important notes? Reactions to ideas in the blog post?

I’ve heard horror stories of photographers exploiting situations to get a great shot. Overall though, I think this is a vast minority. If you talk to other photographers I think they will agree that their photos fall incredibly short of communicating what’s actually going on.

The people we serve live in a world that is vastly different from ours. It’s actually pretty easy to take a compelling portrait. It’s easy to find an interesting subject. What’s difficult is putting down the camera for a minute to connect with your subject—to tackle the language barrier, to learn their name, to hold their babies. These are the things you never really see photos of.

We’ve been given pineapples, chickens and even goats after a spending a day shooting in a village. I believe this is a sign that we have loved and been loved. I believe we’ve blessed them and that they’ve blessed us.

 

Come back for Part 5 of our “Are We Addicted to Poverty Porn?” series!

 

Mark SneedAbout Mark Sneed

Mark Sneed is the Vice President of Insurance Consultants International, a Christian organization specializing in international health & life insurance for missionaries and expatriates. He may be reached at 1-800-576-2674 or 1-719-573-9080.

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