“People are not their circumstance. I don’t want anyone to meet me and look at my circumstance and think that’s who I am.”
— Esther Havens
Humanitarian photographer Esther Havens knew a lot about light — how to shine a physical light on the focus point of her image and turn that perspective into art. How to use light in her photographs to highlight the unique features of her subjects, and transform them into concepts that would hit home for the viewer.
Esther Havens was ready to take on her true passion, to follow her dream wherever it took her. She wanted to travel the world and help people, so “humanitarian photographer” was the label she gave herself. The task? To help organizations and enterprises obtain photographs for campaigns that would aid the disenfranchised.
Along the way, she discovered how to shine her inner light on those around her — to highlight not just the features but the truth behind the faces.
It happened on a trip to Rwanda.
This is her journey — from physical to spiritual, across multiple landscapes, to find the woman who would alter her life and business.
A common image of Africa was stuck in Esther’s mind: poverty-stricken faces, malnourished children with distended bellies. A sad image. As an aspiring photojournalist, was this what she was supposed to capture?
She stood in one of the villages in Mozambique, on her very first trip to Africa, staring around at the huts and tiny homes and felt… hopeless.
“What am I supposed to do here?” she thought, holding her camera and skimming through the photos she’d taken. This was different from any country she’d ever been to. She didn’t see any solution to the poverty and disrepair.
Esther was plagued with a sense of disappointment, even when she returned to Africa for the second time, this time to the Congo to capture stories about people with HIV/AIDS. She began photographing a children’s program that the organization helped fund. Esther took the pictures, but the pervading sense of disappointment didn’t disappear. It loomed.
She kept her distance and just captured — photograph after photograph, distilling the sadness through her lens. “I captured the picture of Africa I’ve always seen.” A starving child with a distended belly and no expression.
In that moment, it hit her: she didn’t know the child’s name. She knew nothing about his story. She was excited about this photo for her website, not for the organization or the child.
She had reached a place where she felt as if she’d used others to achieve her goals. She had a complete disconnect from the people she worked with.
Esther returned to the States, bubbling with a sense of change. “This cannot be about me,” she thought. “How do I, as a photographer, not photograph just for my portfolio? How do I make it about the person that I’m capturing?”
These burning questions followed her on her next trip to Rwanda.
Esther’s eyes were open. She wanted to see things differently on this next trip to Rwanda. Two phrases began to stir inside her, over and over.
“Who we are is not our circumstance.”
“My light shines upon them.”
She didn’t want to focus her lens on just what her eyes saw, or tower above those who she saw as less fortunate.
“Who are these people?” she asked herself. “What do these people see themselves as?”
These perspectives led her to a meeting which would change her life. It happened in a small village in Rwanda. A woman met her in a field to be photographed. Esther pulled out her light and said to herself, “The light’s shining upon you.” She connected a long sync cord to her camera and attached the light. It was the first time she’d used a strobe off camera in the field.
The woman grasped a machete in one hand, a baby swaddled on her back. Gray and white clouds swirled overhead, and the light shone on the woman’s face highlighting her expression of pride, of power.
Esther got down in front of her, in the field, amidst the grass and dirt, and captured the photo. She was in awe of the result. It was the first time she’d gotten down below her subject.
“This woman is beautiful!” she thought. “She’s gorgeous!” Esther could’ve photographed her with flies and dirt in her face to highlight her circumstances, but that wasn’t who she was.
Esther asked the woman’s name and heard “Manwoondi.” Then she returned to the village and photographed many others in this same way, always shining her light on them as proud, powerful and beautiful.
Esther took the images from her trip back to New York and set up an exhibit called “My Light Shines Upon Them.” It was her first solo gallery in New York, and the image of Manwoondi made a huge impression. Much like Esther, people had a special connection with it and the woman depicted within.
Manwoondi wasn’t just the subject of a photo. She was the focus of the light.
Years later, Esther was at a conference when a woman approached her. She needed a cover photo for a book being published in conjunction with the organization Hope Through Healing Hands.
“The book is called ‘The Mother and Child Project,’” the woman said.
Esther went home and forwarded her a handful of images of mothers and daughters, and she came back with her selection: the picture of Manwoondi, which had touched so many lives, Esther’s included. Esther looked at the picture of Manwoondi in the field again and was reminded of the powerful beauty she portrayed that day in the field. Esther wanted to treat her with the dignity that she deserved.
“I think I can license it to you,” Esther said, but she had a gut feeling that she’d have to ask Manwoondi first. She wanted to treat everyone equally, and if it’d been someone in her home country, she would’ve absolutely asked them. So why wouldn’t she ask the woman she’d photographed in a Rwandan village?
Esther printed out Manwoondi’s photo and searched for her in Rwanda, six years after she’d originally photographed her. She didn’t know where she lived; all she had was the woman’s first name and her photograph.
Esther drove down the road filled with potholes and bumps, the land of a thousand hills rising in the background, in hues of green, brown and blue. She spotted a person walking on the side of the road, stopped the van and asked, “Have you ever seen this woman? Do you know her?”
It was an old picture; she could’ve looked different; she might’ve moved. Indeed, the person shook their head. They didn’t know Manwoondi.
Esther and her friends continued down the road and spotted someone else — a woman with a baby on her back, two children walking next to her. Esther pulled up, rolled down the window and asked again, “Do you know this woman?”
“Oh yes!” The woman exclaimed. “Mpendubundi!”
“What?” Esther asked, “What was her name? I’ve been saying it wrong all these years!” She smiled and continued, “Yes, you know her. Can you show us where she lives?”
The woman agreed and climbed into the van with her children. They drove to the top of a hill, parked and walked all the way to the village. Esther tingled with excitement — in a few minutes, she hoped to be reunited with the woman who had taught her so much.
The village was a collection of mud huts. Esther walked between them and finally reached Mpendubundi’s home. It was empty. Mpendubundi wasn’t home. She’d just have to wait for her to return.
Esther looked around at the children in the street and caught the eye of a little girl, who was seven or eight. Then, her eyes widened. “Oh my goodness, I have to meet her, it looks like her,” Esther said. It was the baby from the photo!
Esther walked over to meet Kevine, Mpendubundi’s daughter, and then went to sit with a friend next door.
After about an hour, Mpendubundi arrived home after working in a potato field all day. The woman ran through the village towards her, kicking up dirt with her shoes. She hurried into the hut and hugged Esther.
Esther was overcome with joy. She sat with Mpendubundi in her hut and took out the photo. Mpendubundi admired it, beaming, overflowing with joy.
Esther asked Mpendubundi about her life, desperate to soak up the details. But her story wasn’t as happy as it could’ve been. As a single mother, Mpendubundi struggled to pay her rent and farmed for various people each day. Still, she couldn’t afford to educate her four kids.
Esther showed Mpendubundi the release form for the book and told her about what would happen with the book and her photo. “Can they use it?” she asked.
“Yes!” Mpendubundi said.
But Esther didn’t tell her about the licensing deal, just yet. “What are your needs?” Esther asked, instead.
Then she went to a few of the local Rwandans, her friends, and asked, “What do you think should happen? If I have some money for her, what’s the best? Should she have a house? What do you think is the best?”
Her friend replied, “I think they need to go to school. The kids need to go to school.”
After all, Mpendubundi’s daughter was almost eight and hadn’t been educated at all — there wasn’t money for school fees.
Luckily, Esther’s friends in Rwanda had a child sponsorship program called Africa New Life with 7,000 kids in it.
“Can we possibly enroll her in school?” Esther asked. “And put her in the Africa New Life program?”
A few days later, Esther returned to Mpendubundi’s house with Kevine’s new school uniform in her hands. Esther handed it over to the girl, and Kevine beamed from ear-to-ear. She was so excited to learn. And the licensing money from the single book cover would just about cover the costs to keep Kevine in school until she was 18.
They still write to each other to this day.
“I am so excited to continue growing our relationship,” Esther says, shining with inner light, her voice filled with anticipation. “I’m going to see them again in just a couple of weeks.”
The personal relationship with Mpendubundi and Kevine has shaped Esther into the thriving humanitarian photographer that she is today. Her personal life has deepened, her product is stronger and her working life has become a mutual exchange filled with joy, love and respect. The relationships and daily interactions we make during our work around the world are capable of doing just the same.
Am I shining the light on others, or are my actions and interactions driven by my own gain?
Is there anyone I’m working with who I see only by their circumstance?
How can I shine the light on them as a dignified person who is free of circumstance?
During Rank & File’s chat with Esther, it was clear that she takes her responsibility seriously. She doesn’t just travel to capture reality, she captures lives that are worth knowing and investing in.
As organizations share their missions and products with their markets, photographers will need to be sourced to transmit the company’s values and vision back to the consumer. These partnerships are extremely important. They go beyond branding. Photographs connect people to people.
How will you choose to connect? What will those photos say?
Rank & File got Esther’s suggestions on how to hire the right photographer and how to ensure you effectively and respectfully capture the right story.
Why are you doing this?
How are the people benefitting from the images captured?
A lot of people want to be humanitarian photographers. What is that? What does that mean to them? Many people don’t even know why they are there beyond their portfolios. This attitude will affect the photograph.
“My camera is my tool to help people. People come first. And many times in disaster situations, specifically after Haiti, I really did not like the way photographers were treating people. They were not treating people with dignity. They cared about the image more than helping the person that was hurt. That is not okay. That is so dehumanizing.” — Esther Havens
Imagine if you were the person living in poverty or had just experienced an earthquake. Imagine for a moment you’re a person in a village and somebody comes and takes your photo. How do you want that interaction to be?
Esther says, “There’s a way to document things with respect that still honors that person.”
Remember to have deep discussions with your photographer regarding their personal goals, values and outlook on working in your field. Partner with the photographer who is willing to understand your mission and your purpose above their own gain. Most of all, partner with someone who will have positive interactions with others while photographing on your behalf.
“The biggest thing that enterprises need to start with, is they need to figure out what they want to tell a story about and why,” Esther says. “Some organizations tell me they don’t even know the stories that they have to tell. So that’s where I would start. With that conversation. Even prior to finding a photographer that suits their needs, it’s finding out what their story is and why. Ask questions and get to know the people you are working with. Every person has a story!”
What is your story? What kind of photographs will help you tell that story? How could photographs hinder that story if done incorrectly? Have these discussions on a deep level with your photographer so you can visually communicate your values, impact and human connections in the field.
Esther shares, “So, many times organizations want me to photograph and they don’t have a plan for what they want to do with those images.
“They’re just like, ‘We just need photos and we want you to come take them.’ I don’t want to photograph for an organization if they don’t have a plan for what they want to do with the images. I’d rather have them spend their money elsewhere.”
Where is that story going to be housed? Is it for web material, for advertising? Share the end goal with your photographer to come up with a plan.
Esther says that she has a list of amazing videographers and photographers that she hires who she knows “can land on the ground and not be in shock. That will tell an accurate story, that will respect the people that they are there to meet with. Who can get a story quickly, within a day, so that they’re not wasting the organization’s funding.”
Remember: “Storytelling is one of the most valuable things that an organization can invest in. Essentially it’s collecting data about whether or not projects are successful. Invest in someone who knows what they’re doing and knows how to photograph a story that will help raise funds.”
Esther Havens is a humanitarian photographer focused on capturing stories that transcend a person’s circumstances. She has worked on campaigns with organizations such as charity: water, TOMS Shoes and Warby Parker. Esther has traveled to over 60 nations over the course of the last 10 years, and she’ll “keep going until she sees that every person on the planet has access to education, clean drinking water and a job to provide for their families!” When not traveling, Esther calls Dallas home.