“There is a monotony about the injustices suffered by the poor that perhaps accounts for the lack of interest the rest of society shows them,” Dwight Macdonald wrote in his seminal 1963 essay Our Invisible Poor. “Everything seems to go wrong with them. They never win. it’s just boring.”
“As a humanitarian photographer, I strive to be a vehicle of illumination for those I photograph. Their stories, and the stories of those who work to change lives for the better, need to be heard.”
Photographer Wayne Rowe’s work with Outreach since 2009 is an ongoing rebuttal to this oversight. His work joyfully refuses to allow anyone to be diminished or forgotten, slipping into moments between extremes and affirming our connections to one another by seeing the bigger picture. From triumphant celebrations to dignified silence, the emotions and expressions captured are at once unique and universal, lifting everyone into the light.
Q: Can you share your approach to photographing Outreachs work?
As a humanitarian photographer, I strive to be a vehicle of illumination for those I photograph. Their stories, and the stories of those who work to change lives for the better, need to be heard.
I see my role as helping Outreach communicate, to a wider audience, the impact of your work. It would be easy to focus purely on suffering– many other organizations find that method an effective fundraising strategy. Thankfully, Outreach does not ascribe to this approach; rather, you want to convey the hope made possible through your unique solution to resolving chronic poverty.
Q: Were constantly amazed at how your subjects are so at ease in your photos. What’s your process?
Wherever possible, I will try to spend time talking with, and getting to know the people I’m photographing. I ask myself, “How would I feel if a stranger came into my house and started taking photographs of me and my surroundings? So I spend as long as possible with people, listening and asking questions about their circumstances.”
Another reason I feel I’m able to capture natural expressions is due to the relationship the Outreach teams have with their communities. I’m always amazed at how integrated and loved the teams are by the people with whom they work. Since those relationships are so trusting, community members feel comfortable with me, and even though I’m a stranger, they’re at ease, which creates a relaxed environment for me to take photos.
Q: What have you learned about people in your travels?
When I first spent time talking to those living in poverty, I realized that while our environment and circumstances were very different, we are ultimately similar in so many ways: We all possess hopes, dreams, dignity and pride. People want to work, to care for their family, to make life a little better. Even as someone living in a far more affluent country, I can relate to each of those attributes. For those living in extreme poverty, the strength needed to carry on is simply incredible.
Q: Have there ever been any instances where you’ve purposely not taken a photo of something?
This happens all the time! However, one specific circumstance comes to mind:
I was visiting a new Outreach-affiliated community in Zambia, and the level of poverty was probably the most extreme I had ever witnessed. I sat down inside the most basic of habitats you can imagine, to talk to a family about their hardship. At one point during our time together, a stream of light pierced through the rushes of the makeshift roof and shone upon the mother who was cradling her baby, which was crying from hunger. The mother was in tears as she spoke of their difficulties to survive. She explained how each day, they had to decide which family member would get to eat. As the light shone on her, I was struck how powerful an image it would make. I refused to take the shot, as I knew it would have trivialized the immensity of her story. The shot would have been perfect, but the dignity of that individual was far more important.
Q: Do you have a favorite photo?
It’s very difficult to answer this– it’s like asking a parent to choose a favorite child! I like some photos for their aesthetics and composition; others are not technically great, yet have huge importance because of the memories they conjure.
I do have one photo on my office wall that I particularly like. it’s a lovely portrait with perfect lighting, but it’s also a life lesson for me. I visited Haiti immediately following the earthquake in 2010. Amidst the pain and suffering, there was still a determination to continue with life as much normalcy as possible. Makeshift schools were being erected, and some of the children continued with their studies. The little boy in the photo told me that he had lost his parents in the earthquake, and was living on the streets with his sister. He told me, “I must get an education, though that is the only way for me to improve my life.” I was struck by his poise and insight. As I look up at the photo in my office, he is a constant reminder to me that no matter how tough life is, a resolve such as his can get us through it.
Not long ago, I visited a new Outreach-affiliated community, and noticed a disused water pump. Previously, I had spoken to the community leaders about their needs, and they explained how access to clean water was a major ongoing problem. When I mentioned the disused water pump, they said, “We were given that from another non-profit, but they no longer support us, and the pump broke. We have no way of repairing it, and it doesn’t actually belong to us.”
Later that day, I visited a village where Outreach had worked for years, and noticed that their water pumps were all in working order. When I asked if the pumps were a gift from a non-profit, a resident told me, “No, we had to negotiate with the local government to get these pumps. We are also trained on how to service the pumps, should they need repair.” I have experienced this scenario many times during my visits to Outreach communities; it acutely demonstrates that Outreach’s sustainable approach really works. Communities learn the skills necessary to tackle every problem they face, and are capable of tackling future issues without external assistance.
Q: What inspires you?
I’m constantly inspired by my surroundings, both people and the environment. As a photographer, I’ve learned to look deeper into things people often take at face value. There’s a Jonathon Swift quote that has always resonated with me, and serves as a goal for my work: “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”
*Technically, 1,113 words.
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