Wednesday, June 4, 2008

An Antidote to Cynicism

--Feature: "The Humanitarian Brief w/Need Magazine"--

In a world of growing poverty it is easy to become cynical about efforts to help. In three years as a photographer serving the international humanitarian community I have often been asked whether the organizations I shoot for are doing the good work they claim to. I am by nature cynical and when I started this career I feared the work would only fuel that tendency. There are days on the field when it resurfaces, when the lack of resources and the over-worked field-staff make me angry at the world and cynical about a great many things, but it’s been a constant surprise to me that my work for groups like World Vision has been the antidote to my cynicism, and a source of hope to me.

My primary work for World Vision Canada is the Christmas Gift Catalogue. Responsible for raising millions of dollars each year, this catalogue has sent me to Malawi twice, Uganda twice, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and most recently Mongolia. The images we gather for this project are a long way from the distended bellies and flies around the eyes that were the mainstay of fundraising images several years ago; instead they reflect the hope and dignity of the children and families we work with, and the joy they experience when given a step up. These assignments are the highlights of my year.

I have no desire to romanticize the poverty against which we’re fighting. There is nothing redeeming about the struggle to survive or watching one’s family succumb to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. But within that struggle the children and families I photograph remain human; they hang on to their strength, dignity, hope, joy and beauty. Their poverty makes them no less human, and I suspect that if the so-called First World truly saw this they’d be much more inclined to see philanthropy as an issue of justice and not merely one of charity.

The children strike me the most and every trip I’ve gone to bed and stared at the ceiling as tears run down my face and pool in my ears. I cry for the situations they struggle in, and for the incredible strength of character they have. They humble me. There isn’t one I don’t wish I could take home with me.


In Mongolia we met a little boy about six years old—a bundle of energy with a remarkably short attention span. I photographed him in short sessions and then let him loose to burn off his energy. We ran around the family ger (yurt), me chasing him, him chasing me, the beleaguered dog running after us. And as we ran and played, laughed, and babbled at each other in languages neither of us understood, I began to feel the hope he had.


Because of the World Vision Area Development Program this little guy would go to school, as would his sisters. He had access to clean water and a pit latrine. His parents had access to vocational training. His neighbors had access to micro-enterprise loans. The community had a support system, advocates, and a growing hope for their own future.

On my last trip to Malawi I asked a man who’d received a dairy cow through the Gift Catalogue project what difference the cow had made. I expected the diplomatic answer, that yes, it had made a big difference, thank you. Instead he said, “Look at my children—they are healthy. My wife is healthy. We’ve been able to buy more cows, and now the village grows healthier. I am able to employ others to work with me. The cow has made every difference.”

Each time I hear these stories, and they are re-told everywhere I go, my hope grows and my cynicism recedes a little further. Each time I feel guilty that I am not doing enough, giving enough, I meet a sponsor-child who tells me their life has changed. Each time I feel like giving up I meet a graceful woman living with AIDS with dignity or a community leader facing staggering odds with laughter and resolve. There’s a great deal of struggle, pain, and darkness out there, but it’s hope that pushes it back, and these people feed that hope.

World Vision Canada
1 World Drive
Mississauga, Ontario
L5T 2Y4
1-866-595-5550

(Note: David duChemin, a photographer based in Vancouver, submitted this story, which was original published on the Need Magazine Humanitarian Blog).


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