So today is Blog Action Day, an annual event aimed at getting people around the world talking online about a single issue. This year that chosen issue is ‘water’. Why water? Well, I’ll let Blog Action Day answer that one:
Right now, almost a billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water. That’s one in eight of us who are subject to preventable disease and even death because of something that many of us take for granted.
Access to clean water is not just a human rights issue. It’s an environmental issue. An animal welfare issue. A sustainability issue. Water is a global issue, and it affects all of us.
Can’t argue with that really, can you. Clean water, water management, call it what you will – it’s fundamental to development and eradicating poverty. But what’s photography got to do with it?
The photo above is of a youth group in southern KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, taken last week by Molly Bailey and posted on Flickr by the climate change campaign www.350.org. The group has the brilliant name of ‘Flowers of the Nation’. The caption with the photo tells us that the young people in this group have just written to their local politicians asking them to implement local climate change policies to make sure that people in rural areas have access to water.
The picture shows the group learning about drought-resistant indigenous plants. With the greatest respect to Molly, it’s not the most amazing photo ever. But it caught me eye as I browsed around Flickr looking for inspiration, looking for a hook for this post.
I could have chosen any number of images – of drought in western Chad, of people up to their necks in floods in Pakistan, or satellite imagery showing desertification in Nigeria from Nasa. My week has been spent looking at pictures for features on World Food Day, Global Handwashing Day and Global Poverty Eradication Day. I’ve looked at hundreds of pictures of human suffering and endurance. Some of them were truly distressing and I thought carefully about posting them. But for some reason, perhaps because it isn’t connected directly with any of the above, perhaps because 350.org had posted it under a Creative Commons license, this one made the cut.
Yes, perhaps you could argue it is slightly contrived, this idea of creating global ‘days’ of conversation around a topic as universal as water, food and sanitation. What after all do they achieve? The numbers of people referred to are also often the same – a billion people without access to clean, safe drinking water; a billion people without enough food to eat; a billion people without access to improved sanitation (that’s a toilet to you and me).
Many of those hundreds of millions of people will be the same people – without water, without enough food and without a toilet. In one way and another, water – be it clean, dirty, rain, flood, saline or spring – is at the root of all of these problems. But what has photography got to do with them?
Well, I think the arguments about photographs having lost their power to shock, to provoke a response are many and oft repeated, and no more valid today than they were 10, 20 or even 30 years ago. The technologies behind digital photography, social media and citizen journalism have changed the landscape beyond recognition – we can communicate visually now as never before.
Which is why photos such as the one above now have just as much power to effect change as any photojournalist’s carefully observed ‘decisive moment’. This power may less lie in their individual ability to shock and rather more in their collective ability to educate and inform – but it is none the less potent for that.
Online communities, campaigns and discussions like Blog Action Day have the potential to involve and inform millions of people on a global scale, and photos of grass roots youth groups, whether they’re in Natal or Northampton, can be just as important a part of these campaigns as those images of drought and flood that make onto the front pages of our daily news papers (not that these kind of images do make it onto the front pages very often more).
You may or may not agree with the position that water is a basic human right – what ‘right’ do we have to any of the earth’s natural resources after all? But, as the slogan on the water butt in the picture says, we can’t live without it…
Find out more about Blog Action Day here. And if you want to do something to help improve access to clean water for those who don’t have it, you couldn’t do much better than donating what you can to the charity Wateraid.