A career in photojournalism has rendered New Zealand native Robin Hammond a seasoned global traveler. Several projects have entailed extended travel in sub-Saharan Africa, and others have required stays in Europe and Asia. With a slate of philanthropic projects that showcase some of the world’s most flagrant and underreported human rights issues, Hammond’s dedication to his career reveals a refreshing sense of empathy and a genuine compassion for the betterment of humanity. The moments captured within each frame are vivid and sometimes haunting, but through this stark imagery, he turns any preconceived disparities between cultures inside out. The more you focus on the differences between yourself and the people in his photos, the more you can see how similar we all are—our smiles, our tears, our hopes, our struggles.
The reality of global inequality is irrefutable—a staggering portion of humanity is undernourished and lacks clean drinking water, and many more don’t have simple liberties such as a safe place to lay their head at night or the freedom to give and receive love. Broad gaps in access are pervasive, and they reach far beyond the borders of the developing world. Even so, it is too easy to take any level of affluence for granted, too easy to turn a blind eye to the global human rights violations that rear their ugly heads in plain sight. Hammond’s photos urge you not only to notice these atrocities, but to take action. The images demand that the observers not hide behind their privilege; injustice in any form, be it abject poverty or bigotry, will not disappear if we close our eyes. As Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel noted in his classic novel, Night, “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.” Robin Hammond’s work conveys the immediacy that Wiesel knew so well.
As a photojournalist the spotlight of Hammond’s work is in front of the lens. However, in his case, the adjacency of subject and artist poses an unequivocal metaphor of the artist’s intention. He has melded the role of activist with that of photographer in a precise formula to create an effective provision for positive change. Hammond has widened the lens of his work from photojournalist to activist and change maker. In June of 2015, he launched a not-for-profit organization called Witness Change, which advocates for and realizes tangible improvements in the lives of the people whose stories he’s been telling for the last 15 years. In the following interview, Robin shares details about a few of his projects and provides some behind-the-scenes insight into his career.
Krista Elvey: After years of documenting human rights abuse, you helped to start Witness Change, a nonprofit that uses storytelling as a vehicle to effect change through education, advocacy and policy reform. You said, “I realized that if making a difference is my goal, to witness and hope is not enough; change must be at the center of what I do.”
Robin Hammond: Witness Change is about documenting and recording stories from survivors of seldom-addressed human rights issues. I began working as a photographer to create positive change through my images, but it took me a long time to discover that raising awareness through a magazine or newspaper does not mean that change is sure to follow. Witness Change is a nonprofit that formed with a bunch of really dedicated volunteers who believe in the power of storytelling, but also recognize that a story is not enough—people need a way to take action. We address issues that the media doesn’t cover because we feel that we can have the greatest impact on underreported issues. Witness Change seeks to engage with people who have the power to make a significant difference on those issues.
KE: Where Love is Illegal began as a photo project, and has become a powerful campaign with a resounding message: “Human rights are universal; persecution based on sexuality or gender identity must end.” Can you share more about the evolution of the project?
RH: Despite some amazing progress, the majority of the world is still far behind on the issue of equal rights for all genders and sexualities. I work in Africa often, but I didn’t meet anyone who was openly gay for nearly 10 years. When I met a gay man in Northern Nigeria, he’d just been released from prison and was facing the death penalty for committing gay acts. When I heard his story, statistics of homophobia and transphobia became very real for me, very human. I saw the power in those personal stories to shift the narrative. The Nigerian man’s experience is the result of homophobic laws and beliefs, and the result of homophobia is—it’s killing people.
Many people grow up in societies where being gay is considered evil, unholy, abnormal or unnatural. When you’re completely surrounded by that message, you also believe it. Where Love is Illegal seeks to let people know that they’re not alone. Through the project, people from some of the most homophobic countries in the world are reaching out to share their story, demonstrating that people everywhere experience homophobia. So many people are reaching out to tell others that they aren’t alone.
When I was taking portraits for the project, I was averaging one per day. The rest of that day was sitting with people, explaining the project, hearing their story, working with them to tell that story, and then eventually taking a picture. I was always working with local grassroots LGBTI groups that helped me find the people, and gain trust from the people I was working with.
Many of the stories are about people who’ve been attacked, imprisoned, or tortured. The more insidious aspect is that in many parts of the world, people in the LGBTI community are desperately poor because they’re thrown out of school, lose their jobs, or are rejected by their families—they are forced to live on the margins of society.
I was deeply impacted by a young man who we called B. He eventually died because bigotry made him too poor to access medical care when he needed it. Our intervention came too late to save him. People must know that inaction means that stories like B’s will happen every day. If we believe in a global human community, then we have to take responsibility for one another. We have to take responsibility for what happened to B. I really feel that because I met him, and my work is about connecting people so they can see others like B, read their stories and see him the way that I saw him. B’s friend asked, “There’s not much left to remember B by. Please tell his story so that we have something to remember him, even if it’s a sad memory.”
KE: What was your first human rights project, and how did that experience influence your career?
RH: I covered a story in Turkana, Kenya, about some of the first people impacted by climate change, people who have been scant of resources for hundreds of years, and now will be the ones who are the most impacted. Documenting underreported injustices has always given me purpose in my work; the sense of outrage really motivates me, and also serves as a reminder. When I’m out there on the ground, the little things that many of us worry about disappear. I know every morning why I’m getting up and what I’m doing, and that feels good.
KE: Could you share an anecdote of the day in the life of a photojournalist?
RH: The most important point to make is that there isn’t a typical day. Our world is so diverse. I work a lot in Africa, and a lot of people treat Africa as a single country and a single race of people. Africa contains 54 countries; the continent is hugely diverse. I like working there partly for that reason, but I never ever think that I know a place. I’m there to learn from the people. I come with my prejudices and my stereotypes, but it’s really important for me to stay there for long enough to challenge those ideas.
In general, when I go to a country I will set up meetings with field experts in advance, and spend the first couple of days talking to people and trying to understand the scenario. I’ll start shooting pretty quickly because photographs are a photojournalist’s notebook. It’s crucial to meet the experts, or the people who have the interest in these fields. If I’m documenting human rights issues, I’ll meet with the people who are the survivors of that abuse. It’s also vital that I see the situation for myself because people have good intentions, but often they have their own agendas, too, in terms of how they want their cause to be perceived by the outside world.
There are logistical issues—getting around, translating—but it always depends on the place and what I’m doing. I almost always begin working before sunrise. The best light is usually in the morning, and that’s often the safest time to be shooting as well. When I was in Eastern Ukraine a couple months ago, I was working very closely with Doctors Without Borders. Movement was restricted because they were shelling at different times of the day. It was quite structured, actually; they began shelling promptly at 5:00 p.m. We had to be outside when it was very restricted, and we had to make sure that we weren’t putting anyone at risk.
I spent three weeks working on the Condemned project in Nigeria, and photographed for maybe two hours in total because I was trying either to gain access to certain facilities or to find people who were imprisoned because of their mental illness. In two cases (at least), I was there without the permission from the authorities because they wouldn’t let me photograph. I was able to shoot these so-called psychiatric hospitals, which were effectively prisons. I was in and out within 10 minutes. To have hardly any time to cover an issue is always a struggle because the camera is my notebook, and the more notes taken, the more information absorbed, and the better I can tell the story.
RH: I saw mentally ill people who were incarcerated or left outside chained to a tree for months, in the countries where it can be really cold at night and there are mosquitos and torrential downpours. I was outraged— if they were in prison because of their religion or political stance, there would be an international outcry. But because they have a mental illness, somehow it was justified. However, you have to take this in the context of the place. The project is called Condemned Mental Health in African Countries in Crisis. I went to refugee camps and places that were post-conflict, where there was mass displacement or corruption.
Condemned unofficially began in South Sudan, but I didn’t go there to document mental health. In fact, I went there to work on the South Sudanese referendum for independence. I went into a prison where people with mental health problems were chained to the floor or locked in small cells. I was horrified.
There came a turning point where I was photographing people who were in very vulnerable place, whose rights were denied by the prison and by society. Some of them couldn’t give me their consent to take their picture because they didn’t have the capacity to communicate with me. My first thought was, “This is human rights abuse. I’m here to gather evidence, and it’s the most important thing. That’s why I’m here, and why I must document this.”
I recognized that these are individuals whose rights were already egregiously denied. Was I further denying their rights by taking a photograph? If they were my relative, father, brother, or son, would I be okay with their image appearing on the front page of a newspaper? I came to the conclusion that the only way that the images were justifiable is if they were taken to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people like them.
That was a big shift for me. I went from covering 30 to 40 stories a year for newspapers and magazines to covering one issue—mental health. At that point, I’d been working in Africa for five years and I hadn’t seen this issue, even after working with a number of aid agencies. I realized that I could either say, “It’s not my job…I’m a photographer, not an aid worker or a politician,” or I could say, “I have to take responsibility for being a decent human, and do whatever I can with my abilities.”
KE: What are some effective first steps that we could all take to address the global lack of mental health care?
RH: There are many reasons for the lack of empathy, but it comes down to the stigma surrounding mental health. The stigma is not restricted to Africa—this is a global problem. The stigma is the biggest barrier to care. The stigma also removes the ability for people with mental health problems to advocate for their own rights. It’s not that they aren’t capable of advocating for their rights, it’s because when they do, they’re dismissed as “crazy.”
Aid agencies often don’t receive funding to support mental health issues. It’s much easier to receive funding for work around other issues like HIV, tuberculosis, malaria—they’re all really important, but funders want to know if they put in $100,000 that they’ll have x result by x time. With many other diseases, it’s easier to show progress quickly, but it’s not as simple with mental health. Beyond funders, mental health is simply not a sexy topic. Government assistance for people with mental health problems is infrequent. Family members are often the primary caretakers, but they usually don’t have a clear understanding their relative’s illness.
One in four people in the world, 25%, will have some kind of mental health issue in their lifetime. Mental health is the biggest disabling factor in the world. It takes more years off of lives than cardiac disease or cancer. People don’t recognize the reality because it’s complicated, and people think it’s happening to someone else. And when it’s happening to them, they feel alone; that’s a part of my job, and a part of the media’s job—to contribute to how the world is seen, which often dictates how people interact with it. There needs to be a lot more coverage around mental health in the media. We need to create a larger conversation.
KE: Do you often or ever feel paralyzed by the scale of human rights issues that exist today? And if so, how do you deal with those emotions?
RH: I’m an optimist. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing this work. I would fall into a depression if I thought that nothing could be done. When I share my work, I see that people are connected to the people in my stories. That gives me hope. We don’t have to passively watch disasters unfold in front of us. A big part of my job is to remove barriers of distance, race, religion and gender. Personal stories and photographs have that ability to break down barriers, even if it’s only for a fraction of a second. Humans have the capacity for great empathy.
In my opinion, helping others who are less fortunate is a moral obligation. I’ll give you an analogy; If you saw a child drowning in a swimming pool, and you were the only one there, you would jump in and save them. If there were other people standing around and nobody jumped in, you would still feel a moral obligation to jump in and save them. Now, if you were wearing a gold watch and it would cost $500 because it’s an expensive watch, you’d still jump in and save them. It’s not a matter of money. Now, what’s the difference between if that child is in front of you or 1,000 miles away? There is no difference. But because we can’t see it, we don’t act. My job is to have people see it.
If you’re a morally upstanding person, you don’t have another choice but to try to help people less fortunate than you. And there’s millions of different ways that we can do that. If everyone did something, the world could change overnight. We all have to actually stand up. None of these atrocities and abuses need to
happen. We absolutely have the resources to stop them if we wanted to. But, people need to want to.
KE: Oil Rich, Dirt Poor shows stark disparity of extreme wealth and abject poverty in Angola. Can you provide some commentary on that project?
RH: We live in a terribly unequal world. It’s really easy to illustrate in countries [like Angola] that are resource rich but the government feels very little obligation to support all people through social policies. Inequality is one of the greatest injustices.
There are people obviously out there who have immense wealth, way more than they need, and people who are desperately poor. People die because of that.
But this is a global problem as well; it’s really clear to see it even in [the United States]. There have been many studies to show that more equal societies are happier, and their economies are more prosperous, and they have less crime. But, you have to convince the people at the top that they have to give something up, and that can be a tough argument to have because those people are, not by coincidence, the people with the power.
KE: As an optimist, do you think it’s possible to achieve basic human rights for everyone on earth, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? And if so, how do we begin?
RH: There has to be recognition that we’re all in this together—none of us are truly free until we’re all free. That dream may be unlikely, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive for equality. I really believe that storytelling can contribute toward bringing us closer together if we feel like we know and understand people, and if we started looking for what connects us rather than what divides us.
I’ve had the great fortune of seeing the connections all of the time when I travel. You go to a new place assuming that it will be different, but then you realize that the important things are the same. People speak different languages and enjoy different foods, but they have love for family, a desire for companionship and friendship. Do we pray on Friday or a Sunday, or do we have a beard or wear a skullcap? Those are small differences. The basic human elements are way more common than our separations.
All photos courtesy of Robin Hammond | All photo captions and sidebar content courtesy of robinhammond.co.uk and whereloveisillegal.com