Monday, October 21, 2019

Our family is moving



Lately we’ve been a little quiet on social media and that’s because we’ve been processing some big life decisions! Namely, our family is moving back to New Zealand this Christmas.

Why? Three reasons:

1) We found out earlier this year that our son, Maz, needs to have open heart surgery for multiple issues he has with his heart/lungs. This was a surprise for us and really hard to hear. We’ve been thinking lots, praying hard and weighing up the different options for months. Finally, we ended up landing on moving back to Auckland, New Zealand - indefinitely.


2) Both of our jobs recently offered us roles back in NZ starting Jan 2020. Tim has accepted an offer with Tutapona that will see him as the Vice President of Global Programs for Tutapona. He will be overseeing the Country Directors/Project managers in Uganda, Iraq and Lebanon as well as developing Tutapona’s Australasia funding base. I will be working part time at Tearfund leading their Creative Team and still doing humanitarian photography/storytelling.

3) All up, we’ve been living in Uganda for a total of 6 years. If we were to include Dubai, it’d be 7 years overseas. Not to mention that Tim and I both spent the majority of our childhood years overseas (him in Africa and me in the USA and Australia). Both of us noticed when we went home this Christmas that things were maybe starting to “shift” in us. Can I be really honest? The wear and tear of living apart from family and our community back in NZ was taxing us. The challenges of living in a developing country that was not our “home” were starting to show. Higher than healthy stress levels, irritations over little things and building frustration. Neither of us would ever want to leave Uganda bitter or resentful. So we accepted these promptings as little signposts that perhaps a change was coming. We want to leave how we feel now. Deeply grateful, in love with this country and her people but also excited for a new chapter. Not burnt-out or cynical. Just a feeling, backed up with many heartfelt prayers that our season here is coming to a close and the timing feels right.

How are we feeling?

Mixed. Really mixed. Sad to leave the country that has given us so much. Our babies, dream jobs, an unbelievably rich in friendship community. Our beautiful home, a fabulous school, a wonderful church and a lifestyle that means daily in-person chats with your besties is a given. Weather that delights us and a perspective on poverty that haunts us.

Also, super excited to have our families and close friends in NZ get to know our kids and to be able to make everyday memories together. Excited for good food, malls, and beaches. Excited for a change but grateful we get to keep the biggest part of our lives in Uganda – our work. Excited for the next chapter.

Tim will be back in Uganda twice a year and I’ll be back about once a year. That feels really good to have down on the internet in black and white.

Talk soon,
us

*Photos by Candice Lassey* 



Monday, September 9, 2019

7 FAQs about being a Humanitarian Photographer and Storyteller


Over the past few years I’ve been receiving a reasonable amount of messages from people that would like to know a bit more about humanitarian photography and storytelling as a career. I love hearing from you - what an honour! During this particular season of life though, it’s hard to reply to every single one in depth like I’d like to – so here goes! My attempt to answer the most frequently asked questions via blog. Please feel free to reach out if there is anything else I’ve forgotten!

1. How did you get into humanitarian photography/storytelling?
I remember having an interest in photography as young as 7 years of age. I used to feel like something couldn’t be fully remembered unless it was captured – frozen forever in time by the click of a finger. By the time I reached high school I’d had a few more of those, “have to grab it” moments and so decided to take photography as one of my options. It was there I learnt the art of using a film camera and developing my own images in the Darkroom. I graduated from university 14 years ago with a Bachelor of Communication Studies majoring in Public Relations and Advertising Creativity. At first, I did fashion, beauty and lifestyle PR for agencies and worked in both New Zealand and Dubai. Then, in 2010 my husband and I moved to Uganda and I worked “in-house” for the first time. I found the experience so rewarding and loved getting to know and focus on one brand.

During that season in Uganda, I met two people that changed the course of my life forever. Firstly, a former child soldier called Ivan, and secondly, my sponsor child Whilifred. When I got home to New Zealand I began volunteering with Tearfund/Compassion and a year later was offered the Media and Communications Manager role. Just before I started, I did two six week hobby courses on photography that were really significant in teaching me about the digital age of capturing images.  I had switched from fashion weeks to famines and am forever grateful I did.  

2. How did it all begin?
My first day on the job for Tearfund was 8 years ago in Kolkata, India. I was there to meet with some of the 2 million kids in our care through child sponsorship and to meet with an organisation doing undercover anti-trafficking work. The next week, my boss had a family emergency and had to race back to New Zealand. Before she left she looked me up and down and asked if I would be willing to go into Bangladesh to capture some stories and images for Tearfund’ s next campaign.  I said yes. The next day I found myself on a flight to Dakar where I landed into a country that was mid coup and swarming with UN peacekeeping troops before being driven 8 hours into the depths of the jungle.  In Bangladesh I showered with a cup and a bucket, slept in a house with no door at the entrance or to my bedroom and was the only white person some of our 30,000 micro enterprise beneficiaries had ever seen.

That first trip was the beginning of what would be the adventure of a lifetime. Since then I have had almost every immunisation on the planet for every possible tropical disease. I’ve travelled to 37 countries and worked for over 50 incredible NGO’s, charities and non-profits both photographing and interviewing the people that benefit from those programmes. My work has taken me to some of the most challenging environments documenting famine, refugee settlements, post war environments, child sponsorship, micro-enterprise, trauma counselling and disaster zones. My job is to bring the amazing work of these organisations to life.

3.How did you jump from working in–house to going freelance?
After three years at Tearfund, Tim was offered a job back in Uganda. I was grateful to work out an arrangement where I would stay on with Tearfund/Compassion part time and work from the field. This is still my arrangement to this day. Being based in the field meant having a lot more opportunities to travel (cost effectively) thrown my way. It also caught the attention of the Integral Alliance (a network of 27 aid and development agencies). A couple of them started contacting me to see if I might have capacity to photograph/tell stories for them. I did! After working for about 10 different NGO’s I decided I should probably get a bit more professional and set up a website. Over the last six years living here in Uganda it’s been incredible to network with a huge range of incredible organisations – most of whom are looking for help to bring their work to living colour. Because I am someone with a Western eye that lives locally here in Uganda, the organisation doesn’t have to pay $1500-2000 in flights just to get me to the location. I mainly travel to Africa/Middle East and there is so much work to do that I take on about 1 in every 3 jobs offered.

4. What do you shoot with?
I own a Canon 5d and Canon 6d and shoot with both most trips.
I own a 24-105mm Canon lens, 50 mm Portrait Canon lens, 16-30mm Wide Angle Canon Lens and a 70-300 Tamron telephoto lens.

PLEASE KNOW, I am the most low-tech photographer you will ever meet. I don’t own a flash, reflector, ND filters or any fancy equipment
. I’ve used the same camera for almost 5 years and the last time I bought a new lens was 2 years ago. I do this for a reason. It’s because I want things to look as real as possible. I don’t want to manufacture or over compensate for what is naturally there.  I don’t want things to feel fake, overly posed or overly edited.  I want to fly under the radar wherever I go just a small backpack.

5.Advice for anyone wanting to get into this line of work?
  1. Hone your craft. I did two six-week night courses at a university for two nights a week and it was the best investment I ever made. My lecturer taught me how to solve the technical problems I’d been having and that honestly set me free when I first started out! Even to this day I am consciously trying to get better year on year and take active steps to do so.
  2. Study/Learn something wider than just photography. It would be a rare NGO/non-profit/charity that would be hiring a  full time “photographer” in-house. They would probably be hiring a Creative Manager or a Communications Specialist in which case photography might be one of the core competencies. Next to photography, I’d say that being a good writer would be top of the list for many of these organisations.
  3. If you only want to go freelance consider having a ‘core’ business ie:family photography and then doing humanitarian stuff on the side to relieve pressure.
  4. Give of your time. Find a local NGO in your community that might benefit from having a gift of some complimentary photography. Start there and if you like it, perhaps try offering that to a smaller NGO overseas that you have an existing relationship with.
  5. Consider living in a developing country – this has been huge for me. The cost of flying a Westerner from the USA or Australia to a developing nation is astronomical. It helps a lot to take that part out of the equation.

6. What’s it really like?
I’ve suffered near burnout, got pneumonia, gained weight, lost weight, got more wrinkles and grey hair than I should and had a lot of sun damage done to my face. I spend myself, but I do it for a cause I believe worth spending myself on. What keeps me doing this kind of work is primarily my faith in a God that asks us to be his hands and feet on the earth. A God that cares deeply for this heaving mess of humanity. I’ve never taken one photo or story for granted and I am in a constant state of prayer in the field as I try my hardest to bestow dignity whilst showing tremendous human need. am forever grateful to be used to raise awareness and much needed funds for those that truly need it. There’s nothing I would rather do. I am humbled beyond belief to be entrusted to do it.

7. Does it pay well?
No. If you want to get rich, this is not the field to do it. I work for charities that have to account for every single dollar that goes out the door. Not only that, but I WANT every single dollar possible to go to their beneficiaries who need it far more than me. I have tried really hard to find a personal balance for me where I feel like I’m being paid a fair wage for the work I’m doing (and it’s worth it to be away from my kids) whilst also feeling like I’m not ripping anybody off. But then, why settle for cash when joy is on the line.


Xo
Helen



Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The work day I'll never forget

Recently, I challenged myself to try and think of the three humanitarian photography assignments I've done that have impacted me the most. The ones I could never forget. The ones I want you to know about too.  Here’s one of them.
In March this year I was invited by Medical Teams International to photograph their work with the Red Cross in the hospitals within the refugee camps of Tanzania on the borders of Congo and Burundi.


On one of the days I 
spotted through my lens a little boy and his mother in line waiting to see the Doctor. They stood out to me because of the beautiful way the Mum was holding his lifeless little body. She had such a tenderness to her. Through an interview we found out that her three year old son was very ill, unable to walk and struggling to breathe. After seeing the doctor and being admitted to the wards, we later found out he had severe malaria and pneumonia and his treatment began. 




We moved through to the Women’s Ward and I saw 9-year-old Kentia. She was lying on a hospital bed while her mother wept over her frail body. She shook rapidly, her eyelids barely opened and when they did her eyes would roll back into her head. My colleague Angela later wrote, I found myself desperately praying that the medicine entering her veins through the IV drip would work faster — no child should suffer this way, and no mother should have to watch it.” We learned from the nurse that she had been struck by a severe case of malaria.

Later that same afternoon as we were leaving I noticed another very sick little girl about 8 years old on an oxygen tank. As we left the camp that night, I was scared not knowing if these children would make it through the night. In the morning, I could hardly wait to get back to the hospital to check on them all.

As I walked into the paediatric ward the first thing I noticed was that the 3 year old boy from yesterday was now sitting up! Later that day I even saw him outside drinking water from a soda bottle all by himself. The 9-year-old girl whose mother had been weeping over her was now sitting up too, her recovery was slower, but progress was being made. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.



And then I looked to my left and there lay the other sweet little girl from yesterday. She now had her eyes closed and her mother and her Aunty were trying to feed her whatever they could. She was attached to oxygen and it wasn’t looking good. All of a sudden, she started making a noise I’ll never forget and the next thing I knew the Dr placed his hand gently on my back and whispered it was time to go.  I held myself together until I walked out into the sunlight and then I completely lost it. Sobs came up from the deepest place they possibly could. I’ll never forget that moment.

Once I had composed myself, we decided to go check in on some of the mothers that we had spoken to in labour the day prior. I walked in the door, was given a pair of gumboots and told to head into the labour room.  And within minutes I watched twins come into the world.



The twins were a surprise. The mother had no idea. I took two short iPhone videos while I was there. One shows the twins a few hours after they were born and one shows the traditional way a Mother leaves the hospital with her newborn baby.



It’s hard to wrestle with both the tragedy of death and the celebration of new life within 10 minutes of each other, but I guess that’s the business end of hospitals. Just when this world seems ruined beyond repair, a baby is born.

Before this hospital and the many others now in the camps were there, lives that could have been saved were lost for stupid reasons like medication for malaria wasn’t available. Now, that is not the case. If someone gets a treatable illness like malaria or pneumonia, they have a good chance of survival and the drugs to help them. The good news is that incidences of malaria have dropped by 30% globally. In addition, the number of under-fives dying from pneumonia has decreased by 47 percent. This is thanks in part to the incredible work of organisations like Medical Teams International and the generous support of people like you!








Tuesday, June 18, 2019

An open letter to my neighbor - the 3 things you've taught me



I remember the day we first met. You and I were both Mum’s of new-borns. You walked into a playgroup I was attending and we hit it off. You mentioned you were looking for a place to live. My neighbour’s house was available. You moved in within the week. And life’s never been quite the same again. You’ve taught me so much about what healthy community can look like.  You live it.

Before I came to Uganda I had a wonderful circle of friends in New Zealand. I had a close-knit family and felt deeply attached to both. Then I came here and all of that was stripped away as we flew mile after mile to the other side of the earth to start a whole new life.

Shortly after I arrived, I remember expats (foreigners like me living in Uganda) talking about the importance of community here. I remember rolling my eyes imagining their weird little commune life. They used words like “fellowship.” I just wanted to be someone’s friend like a NORMAL person.

You were the same. Normal. Nice. And we both needed each other and appreciated the friendship. At first it was for dinners as a couple, then dinners as a family and other such "official" invites. Fast forward 3.5 years  there's not been an official invite since. In fact, I think your kids were at my house every single day this past week – at least once. Usually twice. Did we arrange it  - unlikely? Were they welcome – absolutely!

You’ve showed me that community means doing every-day life together with people that want to do every-day life with me back. It means being vulnerable to share about all the aspects of yourself from your love life to your work life to your failures as a parent and your hopes for the future. It means engaging wholeheartedly with each other to the point where you celebrate their success and deeply feel their losses. It means stopping what you’re doing to rush to the aid of a friend who needs support. I call it the Red Cross effect. Us girls can mobilize anywhere in three minutes. It means surprise birthday parties and endless inside jokes. It means fire pit dance parties and dropping off meals.

Do you know what you’ve taught me Courtney?

  1. My house doesn’t have to be perfect. I clearly remember when you first started coming over I felt like I had to make sure the house was in tip-top shape. I fluffed the cushions and lit the candles even if it was for a casual playdate. That stopped on about week 4 of our friendship when I couldn’t keep up anymore and you clearly couldn’t care less. I put my hand on my heart and promise I’ve never cleaned up for you since. Last week you helped me kill a rat in here while our kids ran buck wild and the house looked like a jaguar was on the loose pulling everything from the shelves.
  2. People are lonely.  Take a risk, invite them in. I had no idea what I was missing. 
  3. Community gives space when needed and comes around when the time is right. It is respectful. Thank you for modelling that. And for having a supernaturally high capacity for interaction with your neighbour.
PS: I still don’t like the word fellowship. But community…. Now that I like very much. 








Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Denizen Magazine - Heroes Edition

It's not everyday I get published in Denizen Magazine. Ok, it's never happened before. But this month, I was honored to partner with them for their Heroes issue and do a beautiful story together on 5 heroes I've met. 

The people you’re about to read about haven’t solved a medical mystery. They haven’t discovered a new planet or paid for a hundred heart operations in India. They’ve just survived. Despite all odds and beyond all common sense or knowledge. Their resilience is inspiring. Their resolve breath-taking. Let me take you to the front lines of some of our planet’s most challenging places. There’s some heroes there I'd love you to meet.



Thursday, June 6, 2019

The reason I'm choosing to go 40 hours without food


Six months ago I met a girl I’ll never forget. Her name was Edna. And what she told me is precisely why I’m choosing to go 40 hours without food.

“I was 8 years old and at school in South Sudan when the soldiers began to shoot bullets. People were running. I remember seeing many people had died. There was lots of blood. People were floating in the river. I kept asking myself, why do people do things like this? My older sister, brother and I ran home to try find our parents and three younger siblings. They were not there. We had to run. After three days we reached Uganda and were registered as refugees. My legs were swollen. My parents weren’t there either.  We were all alone, we didn’t know anyone. There was no one that could build for us a house. Our parents loved us so much and had taught us how important school was. Soon after we sold our food rations to pay for school fees. One day we introduced ourselves to World Vision. They registered us and gave us food. By this time I had gone four days without food. I wanted to die at that time. World Vision then built for us a house. We now also have a foster mother who keeps an eye on us. I don’t know where my parents are.  The war has separated us. I do not know whether they are alive or dead. I like playing in the playground (installed by World Vision) near to my house. I like learning about maths and science. When I grow up I want to be a pilot.”


When Edna told me she wanted to be a pilot I asked her if she wanted to go play with me. That day she’d been wearing a blanket and so went out into the field behind her house and shot these.





I think her story stuck with me so much because she reminded me of my own daughter. She even looked like her a little bit. My Mama arms just wanted to wrap around her and hold her so tight. I wanted to buy her new clothes and cook her healthy food. I wanted to read her a bedtime story and sing to her as she went to sleep. She told me with such despair in her voice about how they have to eat the same thing every single day. She cried telling me about how her Mum used to give her meat and fish and vegetables and she has not had that since.  Her Mum and Dad love Edna and her siblings so much - I could tell by the way they held themselves and the way they spoke.

I hope and pray that Edna and her siblings will one day reunite with their Mum, Dad and three younger siblings.  And while they wait, be encouraged that there are some really wonderful organisations like our friends over at World Vision trying their best to help unaccompanied children like Edna find their feet. 

On a much wider note, I want you to encourage you that step by step, year by year our world is improving. In the last 20 years alone there has beenhuge decline in the share of the world’s population living on less than $2 a day. It used to be 35 percent in 1987 and now it’s under 10 per cent. Though our planet still faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress.
It is the least I can do to go 40 hours without food this weekend and support the Youth Ambassadors and World Vision staff I worked alongside to bring this story to life through this years 40 hour famine.