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Human Eye

Capturing hope in the world’s hunger hot spots

Story by World Food Programme December 19th, 2016

Sometimes, a picture is worth much more than a thousand words. Photography can create human connections and a sense of shared humanity. When photos shed light on humanitarian crises, they can help bring change to people's lives. To mark the end of 2016, humanitarian photographer Rein Skullerud, head of the Photography Unit at the World Food Programme (WFP), shares his reflections on his work in areas hit hard by hunger, conflict and natural disasters.

"Being a humanitarian photographer is about supporting people by telling their stories." Photo:WFP/Daouda Guirou
Building trust and an understanding of what we do is all-important. Photo: WFP/Rose Ogola

Photographs of despair and hopelessness are often used to advocate for an aid organization or charity's causes, but they are not necessarily the best choice.

Sometimes there may be a need to strike viewers with images that "tell it like it is". However, the grainy, edgy images of many photojournalists often provoke adverse reactions, making people want to forget what they have just seen.

Images that are beautiful, inspiring, and full of life can – on the contrary – motivate people to do something to make a difference.

This Rwandan little girl's parents have increased their potato crops with WFP support and are able to sell some. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud
We can choose the story we want to tell.

We can make it about sadness and pain, or about hope and joy. Although both sides of the coin are needed, I feel that – wherever possible – we should tell the story of people’s hope and strength. For example, this photo (below) from Uganda shows a mother's pride at being able to take care of her three daughters. Thanks to her work through the World Food Programme's Purchase for Progress initiative, Coloth can not only put food on the table, but also pay for the girls' school fees and brand new uniforms, investing in their future. "I left school at year three, but I want my daughters to complete their education," she told me.

With WFP's support, Coloth has expanded her crops to include new vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplant. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

As a photographer, you can choose whether to show a picture of a gravely thin child surrounded by flies, or choose to photograph the same child in his mother’s arms a few moments later, capturing the love, the connection, and how badly she wants him to live. That is what we should convey. I don’t believe that emphasizing the sadness and extreme poverty of the people we serve helps them.

I met Zenaba Abakar, the mother of severely-malnourished two-year-old Shermia, in the therapeutic feeding centre at Abeche General Hospital in Chad. Zenaba had four children. Her husband had left four years before to look for work and had not returned since. She said that she was very grateful to WFP for the additional food that she could send back to her mother in the village for her other children while she was staying in the hospital with Shermia.

I always ask myself: how would that mother want to see her child featured on billboards across the country?

How would she feel about this photo being posted all over the web? Does she know why the photo is being taken, how it will be used? This is something that I feel strongly about and that I explain to the people who agree to me taking their photo.

In Mali, WFP provides ready-to-use supplementary food to mothers of children under three. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud
Keeping school children focused on lessons with a nutritious lunch in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud
Zenaba and her daughter Shermia at the Abeche hospital therapeutic nutrition centre, Chad. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud
In Bangladesh, WFP helps the poorest of the poor to lift themselves out of food insecurity. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud
Angelique walked for three days from DRC to Rwanda, where she now receives WFP fortified food for her daughter. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud
As aid workers who carry a camera, we have the responsibility to make people come first – the camera can wait.

When people open their homes and their hearts to us, telling us their stories, we should take the time to talk to them so that they get to know us a bit, get comfortable with us being there and ultimately feel they can trust us. It is really important to build this understanding of our presence, especially when times are hard. Being a humanitarian photographer is not about shooting the best image, but about supporting people by telling their stories.

Sarah at home after her monthly visit to a clinic in Moroto, Uganda, where she receives health advice and food. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud
This man takes home his family's monthly WFP food parcel of cereal, pulses, oil and salt in Mali. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud
Pakistan: locally-produced, chickpea-based food supplement is used to treat malnutrition in chuildren under five. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud
Bangladesh: Villagers reconstruct roads and embankments in flood-prone areas in exchange for food and cash. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

Sometimes, you just have to grab a shot to capture a moment that will not come around again – like the smile on this baby's face (below) at a government maternal and child healthcare clinic in Niger's capital, Niamey. Usually children are not happy to be measured and weighed – but this little angel was really enjoying the ride.

In that kind of situation, I go back to the people, show them the photo and let them know what it is for.

In Niger, WFP is helping combat high malnutrition rates by providing nutritious food. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

Whether our images are going to be used for awareness or fundraising campaigns, or to show our donors what we do, it is satisfying to me to be able to document the change WFP's work is bringing about.

Improving people's lives, nourishing their bodies and feeding their hopes and dreams is what our work is all about.
This Ugandan grandmother helps dig a reservoir to cut down on the time it takes to fetch water. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud
In Uganda, WFP is supporting the development of local agriculture and markets. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud
Syrian refugees Sami, Sahar and three of their 10 children share a meal in Zaatari camp, Jordan. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud
Growing up healthy with fortified foods at a home for orphaned children  (Democratic People's Republic of Korea).  Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

The World Food Programme (WFP) relies exclusively on voluntary contributions. Everyone can be a lifeline and help children and their families in 80 countries across the globe have access to nutritious food and realize their full potential.

Footnote: Photos and text by Rein Skullerud, humanitarian photographer and Head of the World Food Programme Photography Unit.