A long walk to Langtang

In April 1999 I spent a month trekking in Nepal, from Kathmandu up into the Langtang Valley. It was a beautiful, extraordinary time. Nepal was just about to hold its first democratic elections in over 50 years, and people in the foothills of the Himalayas were gathered around radios, listening to the latest news, or walking en masse as communities, sometimes for several days, to cast their votes in the nearest polling station.

The country was still technically in the middle of a civil war, but it was strangely relatively safe – even though you could often see groups of Maoist rebels and then, sometimes just a short while later, Nepalese army patrols on the same trekking trails on the same day, there was no direct threat to tourists. I remember it very fondly. After 2 weeks trekking we reached the village of Langtang, high in the valley, and surrounded by glaciers, beyond which lay the border with China. It was a very special, spiritual place.

16 years later, on 25 April 2016 – a year ago today – central Nepal was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, which killed over 8,500 people. Kathmandu escaped relatively lightly, but smaller rural communities across the country were devastated. Langtang, at an altitude of 11,000 feet, and where I’d spent a happy week resting after the long walk up the valley, was completely buried in a horrendous landslide and avalanche. Over 200 people died there alone. A second earthquake on 12 May caused more deaths and destruction, adding to the misery.

I went back to Nepal last year with DFID, a few days after the first earthquake, as part of the UK’s humanitarian response team. You can see some of my photos from that mission here. I didn’t make it back to Langtang, but being back in the country again brought back all those memories from 1999. I’d always wanted to go to Nepal again, but never thought it would be under such dreadful circumstances.

As we remember the first earthquake, a year ago already, I’m posting these images now from my archive, of happier times in Langtang and in memoriam for those who lost their lives – and to try and raise some money for the earthquake relief appeal.

These images – and more that can be seen here – are for sale as 10x8in archival inkjet prints, at £100 each. Please get in touch if you’d like to buy one. I’m still figuring out exactly how this will work, but all proceeds from any prints sold will go to the DEC appeal or to local organisations who are helping in Langtang.

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A thousand words on the photographs of Aylan Kurdi

It is truly extraordinary how the tragic photos of the death of the 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi have transformed the debate around refugees in Europe over the past week.

However awful those pictures were though, at least – at last – around the world, people and the media are now talking about the huge issues that underlie them. European and UK government policies have changed (to varying degrees), hundreds of thousands of pounds have been raised (very welcome), and tons of clothes, shoes and other items have been donated (though many of those items aren’t actually needed, or at least aren’t needed in Calais, where lots of people are trying to take them).

Sadly though, the numbers of people in need still far exceed even all of the extra support now being offered. Over 4 million (!) Syrian people have been forced to become refugees in the last 4 years, on top of hundreds of thousands more who have fled from other conflict affected countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali and Libya. The vast majority of them are fleeing conflict or persecution, not just unemployment or poverty. These people are, in the main, refugees – as opposed to economic migrants – and as such they are entitled to protection under international humanitarian law. To understand why this distinction between the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ is important, and why those differences matter, it’s worth reading this article by UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency.

The photographs of Aylan Kurdi also raised important questions around dignity and ethics. They weren’t especially ‘graphic’ images, in a conventional sense – even though they clearly depict a dead child. The mainstream media has long shied away from using extremely graphic photographs of dead people, often preferring instead to tell us that such images exist, but that they are ‘too distressing to broadcast or show’.

But the images of Aylan were (still are) graphic, just in a tragically different sense. They had already been circulated widely and quickly on social media, and seen by many people before mainstream media organisations decided to run them on their websites, TV channels and newspaper front pages over the following days.

Despite the influence of social media – which may well have influenced editors’ decisions to use them – had the mainstream media not also run the images, it is arguable that we wouldn’t have seen governments across Europe being forced to react in the way that they have over the past few days. So in this sense, they are images that are not only iconic of a human tragedy; they are images that have actually changed both the political mood and public perception.

Perception is a key word here. Many people who have been forced to flee from their homes often leave with little more in the way of belongings than the clothes they were wearing and what they could carry in their arms. Besides that, one of the few things that they still possess in a less physical sense is their dignity – and this is something that can all too easily be stripped away by how they are depicted – and thus perceived – by others.

The scenes across Europe over the past few weeks have lent themselves to dramatic news coverage, with boats full of people landing on Mediterranean beaches, crowds being held at railway stations and scuffling with police. Comparatively little media space has been given to more considered photography of individual people and their stories.

I write this with two hats on. I’ve been working on the Syria crisis for much of the last 3 years, in my role at the Department for International Development. I’ve been to Jordan and Lebanon numerous times and met many Syrian refugees in the formal and informal camps and settlements in both places.

So I can honestly say – because I’ve seen it – just how much incredible work is being done by colleagues in DFID and across the UK government, by the Lebanese and Jordanian governments and the citizens of those countries, by UNHCR, WFP and international aid agencies like Save the Children and International Rescue Committee, to try and help support and protect people who just want to go home – except they can’t because of the brutal conflict.

I’ve also seen the extraordinarily harsh conditions in which these people are somehow managing to survive – in the deserts of northern Jordan, and in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. So I can understand why many of them now feel that they need to seek refuge in Europe instead.

With my second hat on, I’m one of PhotoVoice’s trustees. PhotoVoice has a proven track record in working with refugees and displaced people to help them represent themselves through participatory photography projects, from working with partners supporting Syrian refugees in Jordan, to others helping African women who had been trafficked from Ethiopia and Eritrea before finding sanctuary in Israel.

Participatory photography projects like these can have a transformative, empowering effect on many of the people who’ve participated in them. They might not be the most immediate projects needed, but as displaced people become increasingly at risk and increasingly disadvantaged if they are displaced over a prolonged period of time, participatory projects arguably become even more valuable than might at first be apparent.

But in the here and now, how best to help people that we’re seeing more and more in our newspapers, on our mobile phones and our TV screens? Unfortunately there are no easy solutions. One simple answer though is to donate cash – if you can, whatever you can afford to. Donate to UNHCR, UNICEF, Save the Children or any other recognised charity. In the short term they really are best placed to translate your cash into what people actually need.

Of course, PhotoVoice welcomes donations too, and will channel any support received into delivering more participatory photography projects to help people represent themselves. We work with trusted partners to deliver those projects with refugee communities if we collectively believe that such projects will be of benefit to them.

And finally, keep looking out for and sharing photos like those of Aylan Kurdi.

Hard as these kinds of images are to look at, just for a moment it feels like the world is actually looking, and listening too. Perhaps if we had seen more images like them over the past few years, a lot of people would not be in quite the same desperate situation that they are now.

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No more ‘flies in their eyes’: How do photos used by NGOs affect perceptions of global development?

British schoolteacher Keith Coughlin shows photos on an ipad to Syrian refugee children in the Za'atari camp, Jordan, March 2015. Picture: Russell Watkins/DFID

British schoolteacher Keith Coughlin shows photos on an ipad to Syrian refugee children in the Za’atari camp, Jordan, March 2015. Picture: Russell Watkins/DFID

The Overseas Development Institute recently hosted a thought provoking ‘twitter chat’ on the theme of #devpix – or, to give it its full title, ‘No more flies in their eyes: the do’s and don’ts of development photography’. They kindly asked me to participate in it. This blog post represents an attempt to collect and collate my thoughts on it.

Organised by Claire Bracegirdle, the hour-long online debate brought together a virtual panel of ‘experts’ – commentators, NGOs and development communicators, photographers, writers and picture editors. You can see the full list of contributors here.

What ensued was a fascinating exchange of views and ideas from a wide range of people around the world, all of whom clearly care about photography and how international development organisations are using it to visually represent the people they claim to be helping. Claire has put together an excellent round up of the event and other people’s thoughts on it. For what it’s worth, these are mine.

Representation is an issue that’s at the heart of development communications, largely because it presents an inherent tension – between the desire to somehow show progress (and demonstrate that ‘development works’, that extreme poverty can be eradicated), and the inarguable fact that extreme poverty and need still persists – that there are still large numbers of people around the world who remain excluded from the jobs, opportunities and services that many of us take for granted.

Broadly speaking, international NGOs need to show the ‘need’ that the organisations aim to be addressing, in order to persuade people to continue to donate money to help them. Conversely, international donors – governments – mainly want to demonstrate that the public money they spend on tackling the same issues as the NGOs is actually having the desired effect.

These objectives aren’t mutually exclusive of course; there’s lots of overlap between them. Progress is being made in some areas; in others not so much. But by engaging in this activity in terms of photography, NGOs, governments, civil society, media organisations – and even ordinary civilians – are all seeking to present different versions of the realities faced by millions of the world’s poorest people – people who have, historically, been given little say, or agency, in how they are represented.

It is often said that the hard-hitting images showing children in distress are the ones that the public respond to, the ones that make people put their hands in their pockets and donate. In times of extreme crisis and emergency that may be true – but even then, this can be done with sensitivity and care, as the Disaster’s Emergency Committee appeals try to do. And there is some evidence emerging to suggest that public audiences in ‘the west’ do increasingly want to see more positive imagery from NGOs and the media – they want to be reassured that something is being done, that aid can and does get through and reach the people it is intended for.

The challenge therefore, for all of us who create photography or visual communications material about some of these issues, is to find ways of doing this as ethically, sensitively, and collaboratively as possible, to ensure that the people whose lives we depict, whose stories we mediate, share and publish, are portrayed with as much dignity and agency as possible.

Gemma Taylor, publishing manager of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance put it most succinctly in her blog for PhotoVoice on the subject:

“It’s obvious that we can’t keep creating images that contribute to a damaging vision of one, homogenous Africa or generic person in need. […] You can’t stand for the rights and dignity of people and then show people in an undignified way for the purpose of shocking audiences or raising funds. The person whose story and life it is should have more agency over how they are represented than the person clicking the shutter.”


Schoolgirls in Ethiopia. Education is the strongest predictor of marriage age so staying in school is key for Bayush (far left) and her friends. In partnership with the Government of Ethiopia, the DFID-funded Finote Hiwot programme is helping at least 37,500 adolescent girls to avoid child marriage. Picture: Jessica Lea/DFID

We continuously strive to do this in DFID’s use of visual communications, whether they are about achievements in the efforts to support girls and women around the world, ending child marriage and female genital mutilation in Burkina Faso and Zambia, to demonstrating economic growth and social innovation in Ethiopia or Nigeria. These issues are at the core of DFID’s work. At the very centre of them are real people with real stories who are the ultimate recipients of successful British support. People whose lives  and life opportunities have been improved or even transformed. We make every effort to tell these stories in an informed, dignified, consensual, empowered and accurate way.

This is especially important, and difficult, we report on Britain’s humanitarian aid being delivered in emergency contexts, such as natural disasters or mass human displacement caused by conflict.

From the earthquakes that have struck Haiti and Nepal in recent years, to the conflicts in Sri Lanka, South Sudan and Syria, UK aid is helping people in their hour of need around the world at almost any given moment. These are the moments when people are often at their most vulnerable, when they may have lost their homes, livelihoods or even their families. We take as much care as we can when profiling anybody who has been caught up in these kinds of situations, to be absolutely certain that we are not going to expose anyone to any further suffering, risk or vulnerability as a result of them appearing in any of our communications. Where necessary, names are changed, exact locations not given; protection is paramount.

We almost certainly don’t always get it right. We could probably do a lot better. But we are trying.

In the age of Instagram, ever-cheaper smartphones and ever-widening access to the internet and mobile data networks, these arguments and issues will only become increasingly blurred, possibly even redundant. The people that NGOs, donors and the media have historically had almost exclusive access to, and ‘ownership’ of, in terms of representing them visually, are increasingly doing it themselves. Possibly. In recent weeks, the hashtag #theAfricathemedianevershowsyou has attracted tens of thousands of images – many of which may or may not be from or of places in Africa at all, and just in the last few days an Instagram account has emerged purporting to be the visual diary of a migrant Senegalese man trying to travel to Europe – although all might not be what it at first seems here either.

Whatever the case, the future of development communications is inextricably linked with photography and technology. How we collectively respond to that fact – as photographers, editors, publishers –  will define our collective credibility and, ultimately, the credibility and very existence of the organisations that we work for.


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Survival and shelter in Nepal


Parvita and her grandsons stand in the ruins of their home, which was badly damaged in the earthquake which struck Nepal’s Sindhupalchowk district on 25 April 2015. Picture: Russell Watkins/DFID

I’ve just recently returned from a deployment for DFID to Nepal, in the aftermath of the earthquake which struck the country on 25 April.

It’s hard to know what to say about such a destructive heart-breaking event. I spent 3 months in Nepal back in 1999, and had always hoped to return one day. I didn’t ever imagine that I would do so under such awful circumstances. Back then, I’d spent a few weeks trekking to and staying in the beautiful village of Langtang, which has been so tragically completely destroyed. But then as now, the hospitality and resilience of the Nepalese people is absolutely extraordinary –  as exemplified by Parvita, the woman in the photo above – who was just one of many people I met whilst there a few weeks ago.

Like so many others, Parvita had lost her home in the earthquake, and was living under a make-shift shelter with her family and livestock, a few metres away from the remains of her house. I met her in the queue for a distribution of shelter materials a couple of miles down the valley in the district of Bhotechaur, Sindhupalchowk – one of the worst affected areas, a few hours drive east of Kathmandu. She kindly agreed to talk to me and be interviewed about her experience – which, with help of the Swiss NGO MedAir, I’ve put together as a multimedia piece over on Storehouse – please take a look.

Part of the challenge of covering events like the Nepal earthquake is to demonstrate that aid does get through to people in need. The day I met Parvita was 10 days after the quake, and 2 days after her village had been reached and assessed for its needs by aid agencies. Yes, that’s over a week that they had to wait before outside help started to arrive. But almost any country in the world would be almost overwhelmed when faced with such a widespread, destructive natural disaster such as this. Criticism and media reporting that aid isn’t getting through is quick to appear, but these are complex, chaotic situations, and there are many sides to the story.

Kathmandu has a relatively small international airport, and it was almost inevitable that there would be some congestion there in terms of getting aid in. But in fact lots of aid materials, shelter and sanitation kits etc – had in fact been pre-positioned across the Kathmandu valley in anticipation of precisely this kind of event. And, as luck would have it, just 3 weeks before the earthquake, the World Food Programme had opened a specially designed humanitarian aid staging area just outside Kathmandu airport – designed to expedite the transit of aid that would need to be flown in if an earthquake struck. I visited it on the day that I arrived there, and saw pallets of tents and plastic sheeting literally being cleared through Nepali customs, loaded onto aid agency trucks and being dispatched with a couple of hours of being unloaded from planes. That part of the system seemed to me to be working almost exactly as it was designed to do.


It was by following one of these consignments of aid that I met Parvita. From plane to truck to village to people in need in the space of little more than a day – and ultimately onto Parvita’s head, as she carried the heavy bale of plastic sheeting, ropes, and basic household essentials such as plastic buckets and soap on her back for the couple of mile walk up a steep mountain trail from the road to her house.

It was a truly humbling experience to be back in Nepal. This beautiful country is going to need a huge amount of international help to recover from the earthquakes. Luckily, it has lots of people like Parvita who I know will help it prevail – but they do need our help. Please donate if you can to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.

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Could this image really mark a turning point in the Syrian conflict?

Refugees queue to receive food supplies in the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Syria, 31 January 2014. Picture: UNRWA Archive

Most of you will by now have seen this picture. That fact alone makes it remarkable, as if the image itself isn’t remarkable enough. And of course it truly is a ‘remarkable’ picture; an enormous crowd of people crushed together surrounded by destroyed buildings in a devastated, apocalyptic scene. It is, as we all know now, the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, near Damascus in Syria. We know now that Yarmouk is a place of almost unimaginable suffering – 20,000 people virtually cut off from the rest of world for two years, under siege and bombardment. A place of horror.

But we’ve known this for a while. The UN and aid agencies have been trying to get into Yarmouk for months. They knew it was bad there. They have got in a few times. Some aid – some, but nowhere near enough – has gotten through. And this picture was taken almost a month ago, during one of those occasions. But the image only came out into the public domain a couple of days ago, released by UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. And now it’s gone around the world, on the wires and in the media, thanks in part to the power of social media. In the space of a few hours, it has become an iconic image of the Syrian conflict. And maybe, just maybe, it could become one of those images that does actually influence the course of events.

Last Saturday, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council finally agreed and passed a resolution requiring all sides in the Syrian conflict to provide unrestricted humanitarian access to civilians affected by the fighting. On Monday, the BBC ran a harrowing report from inside Yarmouk, having been able to gain access with UNRWA. The challenge now is to for all parties to implement the UN resolution swiftly so that aid can reach the people of Yarmouk (and numerous other places inside Syria) properly, and get them the food, water and medical assistance they so desperately need.

Distressing and powerful as it is, the UNRWA image from Yarmouk is by no means the most gruesome or graphic image to emerge from the Syrian conflict – so it’s in some way surprising that it might become an image that really does mark a turning point. But perhaps it is one of those pictures that does finally make enough people sit up and say, ‘enough is enough, this cannot be allowed to continue any longer’.

In a couple of weeks time, the 15th of March will mark the 3rd anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict. For the sake of all of the people of Syria, this picture, and what it represents, must become an image that brings about the beginning of the end of the conflict. We’ve gasped at it, shared it, zoomed into it in our millions. Surely we owe it to the people in it now to finally do something about it?

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2013: My DFID photos of the year

A business that's no small beerBringing into focusMeasuring for malnutrition in Madhya PradeshRed Cross helping landmine victims in South SudanA long walk home with clean waterTattoos mark moving up the ranks
Building resilience: how one Nigerien village avoided malnutrition despite a droughtCommunity health worker in the Korail slum, Dhaka, BangladeshSnow arrives in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, December 2013A Syrian girl waves from the balcony of an unfinished apartment block in northern LebanonLifesaving British aid reaches remote Philippines islandsSupplying food aid inside Syria

In the spirit of looking back at the end of another year, here’s my selection of the best images I’ve been fortunate enough to see, take or select in the course of my work for DFID this year.

2013 has been an extraordinary year, in which I’ve been lucky enough (if that’s the right phrase) to travel to India, Jordan, Lebanon and the Philippines in the course of my work. I’ve met some extraordinary people in those places, living in some extraordinary conditions, from the baking heat of the deserts of Zaatari and Madhya Pradesh, to the exposed plateau of the Bekaa Valley and the humid devastation of Tacloban. I haven’t written about this as much as I might have liked – as evidenced by the only sporadic posts on this blog. And I might not have have published as many of the pictures I’ve taken as I’d have liked either. Hopefully some of them will come out in 2014 instead.

But these are some of the pictures taken by others that we’ve published on DFID’s Flickr stream and that have stood out for me – some of them taken by colleagues, some of them by NGOs or UN agency staff, and some of them by fantastic photojournalists.  Oh, and one of my own (is that allowed!?)

All of them illustrate an aspect of the many people, countries and global issues that British aid plays a part in, and that helps to improve lives around the world. I hope you agree that they’re worth sharing. Please take a look at my development photos of the year 2013, a gallery on Flickr.

And happy new year – here’s to more fantastic photos in 2014!

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Photos in the age of the app: launching DFID on Instagram

Mixing it up - a worker mixes cement for the foundations of a new housing block in Addis Ababa #Ethiopia #EverydayAfrica. Picture: Simon Davis/DFID - See more at: http://blogs.dfid.gov.uk/2013/07/developing-pictures-in-an-instant-launching-dfid-on-instagram/#sthash.3eVlqjY5.dpuf

Mixing it up – a worker mixes cement for the foundations of a new housing block in Addis Ababa #Ethiopia #EverydayAfrica. Picture: Simon Davis/DFID

Part of my job as the picture editor for DFID is to always be looking out for creative ways to tell our story in images. From reports and publications to humanitarian emergencies and ministerial visits overseas, I think DFID has amazing stories to tell, and, increasingly, sharing our photography online is a big part of that. To this end, I set up DFID on the photo-sharing website Flickr back in 2008. Since then we’ve created an archive of nearly 3,000 photographs about development issues and some of the many people whose lives have been changed by British development aid.

My colleague Marisol has written more about Flickr and how we use it in another blog for this series. I love Flickr, but it was conceived and designed in the early days of what used to be called Web 2.0 – sometime around 2005/6, roughly when Facebook and YouTube also came into existence. People were just starting to talk about creative commons, open source, APIs and, yes, social media.

Then, in 2007, the iPhone came along, and everything changed. The internet became mobile, mobile phones became smart and the age of the app was born. Suddenly you could own a mobile phone that included a pretty good digital camera that was always connected to the internet. People started sharing photos taken on their phones in extraordinary numbers.

Screen grab of DFID on Instagram

Screen grab of DFID on Instagram

Fast-forward to 2011 and the Instagram app was launched for the iPhone. A piece of software that would apply a retro-style filter to your digital photos (basically making them look like a 1970s-era polaroid photo) and let you upload them to the web directly from your phone.

People went crazy for it in a way arguably not seen in photography since Kodak launched the Brownie camera at the start of the 20th century. In little more than 2 years, Instagram has amassed more than 130 million users worldwide, who between them are uploading some 40 million images every single day.

And now DFID is one of those 130 million users – take a look at http://instagram.com/dfid_uk. Why? Well, for us, telling our story has always been about going to where people are spending their time online and putting our stories there. We’re doing it with Facebook, with Twitter and YouTube, and now we’re going to try doing it with Instagram too. We just felt that Instagram has reached a tipping point in the last few months.

For me this realisation came during a visit to Lagos last October, when I met and tried to photograph some of Nigeria’s tech entrepreneurs. After a day or so of trying – and failing! – to make interesting images via my digital SLR, I realised all of the people I was trying to photograph were comfortable taking pictures of themselves and each other on their mobile phones. So I decided to do the same, and posted them to Instagram. You can see the results here.

It isn’t just about numbers though – it’s about the tool, the way people are using it, and the potential for how it might help show where UK taxpayers’ money is going. Many of our staff are based around the world in the countries that we work in. Many of them have smart phones, and many of them take pictures on them of the people and places that the UK is helping when they’re out and about monitoring and evaluating the work that we do.

So I’m interested to see if we can harness some of those photos, as instantly as possible. Can we get some of our staff to upload what they’re seeing directly from the field? And as those smart phones and mobile internet access become more widely available to the people in the countries we work in, can we use Instagram as a way to see what they see, from their perspective?

This post originally appeared on DFID Bloggers, on 29 July 2013.

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