WaterAid, a UK based NGO has some interesting ways to raise public awareness for the issues surrounding water – in particular, they have done some great exhibitions recently with both photographers Mustafah Abdulaziz and Malin Fezehai. We at Vignette Interactive were interested to know how these projects came about. Here is our Q&A with Neil Wissink, WaterAid’s photography director.
Tara Todras-Whitehill: Thanks so much for talking with me Neil. So I wanted to know more about how the exhibitions for Water Stories with Mustafah and Noori Tales with Malin came about, and what were the goals for each project?
Neil Wissink: In each case they were quite different really. So Water Stories started sooner, and that developed out of a relationship with Mustafah. Mustafah contacted us first. He had already commenced his Water project which has basically become his singular focus for 15 years. He started that project and was looking for obvious partners to align and support different aspects of it. He got in touch and introduced his work and we quite liked it and could see the potential to do something with him especially something that might sit slightly outside the traditional fundraising models that we have to kind of operate within to some extent. It was more around awareness raising around the issues and would touch people on a kind of different level. So the first shoot we commissioned from Mustafah was purely speculative and we didn’t have particular output in mind for it, we just thought it was worth seeing what came out of it really. So we were quite lucky to have the opportunity to do an open ended experimental approach to a commission which is not something we had done much of before, but because Mustafah’s focus on water, it was relatively low risk and made sense to do that in that case.
TTW: So you actually commissioned part of his long term project?
NW: Yeah, so at that stage his Water project was already going and we said, well, great, I’m sure there we can do together so we commissioned his to go to Ethiopia to look at our work there, and follow up to a previous shoot. So that was the initial premise to test the waters working with a different kind of photographer who has a different purpose. And it went quite well. The images he brought back were really interesting and really good. We next had an opportunity to work together because we had work happening in Pakistan which we hadn’t had any documentation of at all over the past ten years, and at that point we had resources to do that because HSBC, who is one of our big corporate partners through the HSBC Water Program, had money available and wanted documentation of their projects. They were relatively open minded about what that could be. So when we proposed using a different kind of photographer and doing something a little more creative/editorial, they were fine with that. So that was the germination of Water Stories, when he came back with these images that were really powerful and remained as some of the iconic images from the show and exhibition.
Through the HSBC Water Program there are three charity partners that are supported by them: WaterAid, WWF and Earth Watch. And they were looking for some way for the charities to come together on a communications project of some sort. Around the same time Mustafah and WaterAid were talking about potentially working on an exhibition together and we brought it to HSBC and developed it with them and with the other partners, and that’s how it came about. It would have been difficult for us to do something on that kind of scale on our own and by having someone like HSBC on board, there was no fundraising cause the money was already allocated, but there was a communication need. So we were able to make that happen.
TTW: And in terms of the exhibition, that was not idea from the beginning? It just grew organically?
NW: It came about as a result of what we were already doing, and the images especially from Pakistan just really obviously lent themselves to that big format, as does his style and even the fact he shoots on film, it felt like a natural progression for it.
TTW: And what was the goal of the exhibition once you decided to go forward with it? Was it awareness raising or fundraising?
NW: It was really just awareness raising. Fundraising didn’t come into it at all because it was funded by the HSBC program, so there was no requirement on that. Which weirdly viewers seemed to be disappointed by. People who got really engaged by it wanted to find ways to support it in the end, and so it was definitely about awareness raising. HSBC was relatively relaxed about branding for themselves and were really more concerned about raising awareness for the issue and the charity partners. We were really lucky that we didn’t have a corporation that wanted their stamp all over it, and make it more about them.
TTW: I think for a lot of NGOs it’s hard to for them to expand on the model of them being the focus of the story, and to understand you can raise awareness for your org without being in the photo or video. I think that’s a struggle a lot of NGOs are grappling with, and one we address a lot at Vignette. This photo exhibit a great example of raising awareness for an issue without you being in the photos, but at the same time I now see WaterAid’s name everywhere.
NW: Yeah, that’s good to hear. That was really important to us and has been a bit of a struggle. It hasn’t always been easy, but sometimes the way around it is these special projects that become a sub-brand of their own. Water Stories became a brand, if you like, and that was just about awareness raising. You’re right, people see a charity logo and immediately shut off, and the story becomes about the NGO. It doesn’t end up helping our cause.
TTW: And how Malin’s project? Can you tell me about that cause you said it came about in a different way?
NW: Yeah, [Noori Tales] was a bit different. So that was funded by the H&M Foundation. It was another corporate sponsorship where they had made a big donation for WaterAid and a certain percentage had to go to a communications budget and they were interested in doing an exhibition. So that was a case where we started with a premise of doing an exhibition and finding people to work with on it, and we also wanted to add the element of participatory photography to this project. There was also the added challenge of having to make it distinct from Water Stories. The work that the H&M Foundation was funding through us was schools’ WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) programs. They are building taps and toilets in schools which is good, but it’s much more limited in scope and almost more difficult to find a way in for an exhibition. Originally I approached Malin because the first country we thought we would be working in was Ethiopia and we knew she had a connection to that country and had done work there. And she’s half Swedish/half Eritrean and had an interest in going back there. In terms of her style it looked like it was all aligning nicely with H&M Foundation – she has a style that translates to a slightly more commercial look but at the same time is a serious photojournalist, deals with serious issues and takes great shots as well. And because she was half Swedish, and H&M is Swedish, and we knew the main exhibition was going to be in Sweden, it was kind of a perfect fit. We spoke to her and she was really interested and really engaged and we ended up commissioning her. But for various reasons it wasn’t possible to shoot in Ethiopia, so we then moved it to Pakistan which had always been on the radar for someone else, but Malin was very interested in going to Pakistan. She had done some work for the Malala Fund and so we decided to go ahead just with Pakistan and keep Malin onboard.
TTW: Can you tell me a little bit more about the participatory photography part of this project?
NW: Partially because this project was done about school children we thought bringing a photographer in is great, but we should bring in other elements, and give something back, so we wanted to do a participatory project with some of the people featured in Malin’s images. The original idea was to do it all at the same time, but it worked out that she met some people and identified them while she was there but we had to do the workshops at a later date. Some of our comms people facilitated the workshops where they spent a couple of weeks working with the children with a fairly standard model of participatory photography — encouraging them to explore water issues in their community, a lot of which were affected by climate change and variability and that became the main focus of what they did. They were in a school that had benefited from the H&M Foundation work so they were sensitized to the issues already, but the community in general was facing some fairly extreme issues around water accessibility and this was all changing quite quickly. It started to bring in an advocacy element to that side where at the end of the workshop they did an exhibition at the community and got a lot of local politicians and influential people to come down and look at the work. And the children, a lot of teenagers, spoke about the issues and met some of these influential people. So that was the idea that through this kind of process of bringing water and sanitation to the school could potentially trigger people to become agents of change and to equip them with skills that they can use the rest of their lives, even if they have to leave those communities due to climatic impact.
TTW: So are the kids photos going to be another exhibition?
It’s not going to be exhibited in a physical space. We are doing a press release and sending it out to media, and it’s going online on the Noori Tales website where Malin’s pictures are, to go live in conjunction with the COP22 climate change conference in Morocco, starting today November 7th.
Here are a few of the images that the children made:
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.