Through a photodocumentary and a non-profit, Cameras4Change, Cate Cameron employs photography as a means of empowerment
by Chael Needle
“Is there something about photography—?” I don’t finish the question that I’ve prepared for Cate Cameron, a Vancouver-based TV and film set-still photographer and also a humanitarian photographer, who has exhibited her series, “Ghosts & Dreams: Water, Women & HIV,” at the XIX International AIDS Conference, among other venues. The photos that make up the series are portraits of women she met and interacted with in Africa, India, and Haiti, a visual moment in their dialogue about their lives—the work it takes to care for themselves and others and how that work is impacted by HIV, directly or indirectly, and by access to water.
Cate Cameron is also the founder of Cameras4Change (C4C), a not-for-profit that seeks to engage the youth of underserved communities around the world in the project of their own lives, teaching creative and critical thinking skills through digital photography workshops.
She knows what I mean to ask. Is there something about photography that lends itself to connectivity and empowerment?
“Yes!” she kindly answers, her smile transmitting across the digital phone line. We are both at our computers, talking through the images on our screens. For me, it’s a photo of a rainswept clear-plastic tarp that keeps rows of corner-store tulips protected in their buckets. For her, it’s a photo she took when she was working as an on-set assistant to Kimberley French, a unit photographer on a commercial—a behind-the-scenes shot of a Paris street with special-effects rain towers and extras under umbrellas.
There is something about photography. Something beyond the fact that, as a photographer, she would feel strongly about the medium. Something that starts with photography’s power to invite us to become a part of a visual community.
“It’s taken me a while to literalize this, but I have realized that photography is super-important in our lives, now, at this point in our cultures, especially,” Cate explains. “You and I, living in North America, know how much imagery we have before our faces all the time and how much we use imagery in our lives, on Facebook, etc.”
Her own childhood: hours and hours spent looking at her favorite magazines—Life or National Geographic—and poring over
family photo albums. “For me, [photography] was a part of my life and it gave me a sense of where I am in the world, who I am in the world, where I’ve come from—and I think when you have a good sense of that it helps you in determining going forward in your life.”
Photography as a GPS for self-determination exists everywhere, no matter how plentiful or how scarce one’s access is to the medium.
“When you visit places in Haiti, in Africa, or India, literally sometimes you’re going into a mud hut that’s maybe six-by-ten, but I’ll tell you, if they’ve ever had a photograph [taken], it’s got a place of pride on their wall. It might be water-stained, dog-eared, ten years-old, but it’s there.”
She references a documentary codirected by her friend, Jeff Topham, that articulates how photography helps us in determining going forward. Liberia ’77 traces how a chunk of the nation’s historical memory was excised when rebel soldiers sought out and killed people who had in their possession photos of healthy, happy families. Some hid their photos; many destroyed them. Cameras were thrown away. It was as if these passports of where they had been and where they might go in their lives were revoked. The cost of preserving their lives—disorientation.
The violence of the soldiers echoes perhaps a wider violence, one that often recruits the politics of representation: there are those who want others to become mired in the struggle to live, or at least imagine that they are stuck there, never striving, never surpassing the challenges they face every day.
But they do strive. They do surpass.
That’s part of what Cameron learned through her work on “Ghosts & Dreams.”
About six years ago, Cameron took a step in a new direction. She had always been attracted to “working with people who have been marginalized for whatever reasons, be it mental health, economics,” and so on, and barely two weeks had passed between giving voice to her intent to increasingly “work with meaning” and reconnecting with a woman who was now working with a water and sanitation non-profit that needed photography done.
Skills honed as a set-still photographer, which requires her to work with and relate to a diverse set of people from all walks of life in order to “showcase the story” and capture the “drama of the moment,” all on the fly, as she explains, transferred easily to humanitarian photography. She has worked with well-established organizations as well as emerging grass-roots NGOs and international charities.
“Sometimes I’m working for organizations that may have an engineering quality, for example,someone who makes water filters. But just taking pictures of their product—that’s not really going to connect people,” Cate notes. “So what I need to do is find the human element there. Who do these water filters affect and in what way do they affect them? We get the human stories. That’s really what it’s all about—getting great images that showcase human beings and their lives, and what their lives are like.”
After partnering with the non-profit CAWST (Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology) and securing funding from both the Rotary Club and the Canadian International Development Agency for her photodocumentary project, she set out on a two-month odyssey with talented writer Melanie Jones that would bring her first to India and Zambia, and eventually to Kenya and Haiti as well.
“I couldn’t figure out at first whether I had any business being there—because it just seemed that there needed to be so much work done in the communities,” she says about her culture shock in the midst of hard-hit regions.
On her first day, in Zambia, she was confronted by huge trucks full of people rolling past. “I was asking, ‘What’s that?’ They said, ‘Oh that’s another funeral.’ We saw two, three times a day these huge trucks heading out to cemeteries, full of people. It was a huge piece for me to sort of take in and really understand what I was dealing with. And what their lives were like.
“Initially I remember in the first few days feeling completely hopeless and asking myself: What’s the point of me even being here? I felt foolish, almost, taking photographs,” she says, even though she wasn’t a complete outsider looking in. Thanks to the relationships nurtured by her non-profit partner, they had been welcomed into the community and into people’s homes and other sites in the community to talk at length. She took care, too, to not take shots that might compromise someone in any way, or if she felt someone was inhibited.
Within the first month, the should-I-be-here? attitude dissolved. Says Cate about a flashbulb moment: “I started seeing that even though lives are very challenged, the humanity was huge. The diversification within people and their ability to survive—the creativity that they brought toward that, the hope that they had to infuse into that to keep going—was huge.”
It was almost if she were seeing “life and death in one minute, all the aspects good and bad of humanity in one globe. It was
really invigorating in a lot of ways, too. And although I met some people who were completely hopeless, sad and beaten, I also saw people on the other side of that who were really trying to strive very hard to live and use everything they could bring to the table, despite their situations, to make their lives better and to have beauty in their lives. And that’s what I started to become attracted to.”
Later in our conversation, she sums up her photographic ethos, which is embodied in “Ghosts & Dreams”: “I do try to show a balance because I did see so much beauty and so much dignity and so much creativity and striving for better in all of the places that I’ve worked in. I think that I always try to show that, yes, there’s a lot of challenge, there’s a lot of difficulty in many, many places, and a lot of suffering, but there’s also so much beauty in these places as well and in these lives and in these people.”
Toward the end of her trip, in India, the connections between HIV, water, and women started to crystallize. All of the communities that she had been working with were not only impacted by poverty and unemployment, but high rates of HIV, up to twenty-eight percent in some places. Everyone was affected by HIV, directly or indirectly. But HIV means more work. And that work is taken on by women, who are already doing most of the physical day-to-day work to support their loved ones. If water access is an issue, women often travel away from families, anywhere from three to thirty kilometers to obtain water. Even if a well is nearby, there’s still the work to make the water safe. Women often spend between three and six hours a day on water-related work.
And in the case of an HIV-affected family, women become caregivers for those in the family who are HIV-positive or the children of those relatives who have died of AIDS. In this situation, the water-related work saturates their time and energy even more.
“We saw that over and over. If a woman herself or a family member is HIV-positive, clean water has an even more important place in their lives because, even if they’re lucky enough to be on ARVs, if they don’t have clean water then they’re more susceptible to diarrhea, etc., and getting small infections,” she says, adding that sickness then compounds the situation by making the assimilation of their medications less likely.
One of Cameron’s photographic notes explains that it took one woman twenty-four buckets of water to clean sheets that have been stained by HIV-related diarrhea.
“To magnify the depth of that, too: Oftentimes these women are getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning, which isn’t really that uncommon in places like Africa and Haiti, to get fire going and to walk out and get water and bring it back so they can make breakfast. And there’s other things that come into play: They’re also at risk and in danger of rape and violence. If you just think
of the sheer number of hours that they are away, walking for water, it could be three or four hours a day that they’re away from their family, that they’re away from their young children, and sometimes there’s no one really looking after the young children other than young children, and [so then] they’re at risk.”
In this economic context, which is deeply informed by gender inequity, the workload for women and girls increases and the time to go to school or work outside of the home to earn an income shrinks. The risk of contracting HIV for women and girls increases, as well. Marriage can bring economic stability but also possibly exposure to HIV, if a male spouse refuses to engage in safer-sex practices. Some girls defer education for the sex trade and its possibility for income.
As Cameron started reflecting on the lives of these women, and especially the relationships of water and HIV to their roles as caregivers, as nurses, as physical laborers, she realized that there was really nothing for them “to help build them up and give something back to them and instill something for them that will help them in terms of burnout and all of those things.”
She hopes “Ghosts & Dreams” can showcase the opportunity to provide support to those involved in this work of care. And she hopes viewers might empathize with their challenges, perhaps be inspired by these women and find some way to give back to the world, close to or far from home.
It’s impossible of course for any one photographer to document everything, so why not click with others? With Cameras4Change, the perspectives are multiplied as are the options for individuals to further empower themselves and become change agents within their communities. The non-profit, where Cameron works alongside Gillian Harrow, Thea Grivakes, and Barb Briggs, envisions “a world where everyone has the opportunity to empower, engage, encourage, connect and catalyze others globally by creating a voice through visual media.” Creativity becomes an engine for positive transformation, drawing on its power to educate, heal, and propel individuals toward self-determination and connection with others. C4C hopes to create sustainable programs, ones that will build from its arts-based educational workshops, which aim to instill creativity as a lifelong skill. Toward this end, cameras and other equipment are always left behind so that the workshop participants can continue to use them.
Inspired by the U.N.’s support of children’s rights, including freedom of expression, and the Millennium Development Goals, which are supportive of gender equity, education, women’s health, and water, among other issues, C4C partners with other non-profits, NGOs, and anyone else with similar objectives.
Cameras4Change, which started a little over a year ago, evolved out of Cameron’s earlier work in Haiti, where she was working with an agency devoted to improving sanitation and clean water access. Asked by the agency to develop and lead a workshop for youth, teaching digital camera skills and incorporating an educational component, she jumped at the chance—wholeheartedly.
The medium of photography has proven popular. “When we work in communities where people maybe don’t have that [much] access to cameras and imagery, [photography] takes on an even more special meaning for them.…Not everybody wants be involved in photography to the same extent, but, for the most part, with youth, [excitement is generated] because they’re at that stage in their life where it’s about self-expression and defining yourself. Photography becomes a tool for that.”
For over ten days, Cameron and colleague Melanie Jones worked with two different groups of youth, ranging in age from fourteen to nineteen (most were sixteen). Structured photographic assignments, including reflective creative writing, were
balanced with chances to seek and find shots without prompting. Participants were encouraged to visually express their different perspectives on how water was used in their lives and what they could do to make things better in their economically depressed communities, which, after the 2010 earthquake, were even more hard-pressed from an influx of displaced families.
As Cameron and Jones did in Haiti, C4C works with partners to embed the assignments with particular learning outcomes about the issues, “but we [also] plant the seeds and let them run with it,” says Cate. In Haiti, one student followed the route his sister and mother took to collect water. Another shot a stop-motion process of cleaning up the street and around the water well. One student created a sort of diary out of still pictures and another created portraits of people in their lives who were making a difference with water and sanitation. A collage emerged—how water was used, how it was stored, where water was unsafe and why.
The empowering aspect of the workshops really hit home toward the end, when the workshop participants organized a street exhibit, a novel experience for them. Participants were allowed to select their two most favorite photographs. The shots were printed small, 5-by-7, due to limited resources and a lack of electricity, and hung with the novice photographer’s portrait and a written piece on a clothesline. They had a party.
“It gave them such a sense of pride. They were really excited to have their family come and have their work on display. It was a real chance for celebration. So I thought, this is so valuable. This builds in so many key concepts for youth, including leadership, sense of pride, creativity, and possibility, and all those things, and I thought, this is something that’s needed.” In the C4C workshops that came after this, the exhibit became a tradition.
“I saw all of these things develop as we were doing [the workshop], just in terms of their outlook, what they thought was possible, both within themselves [and within their community]; starting to use creativity as a tool to tell stories in different ways and to share their experiences and then also using those same stories to engage with their community and to advocate.”
With its on-line component, C4C also wants to offer participants the chance to share their stories with both local and global communities on the Web. The media has expanded to include digital media, videography, creative writing, journaling, blogging, storytelling, reportage, and sharing.
C4C workshops have been held most recently in Kenya, where Cameron and her partners ran two “very successful” digital camera workshops with Heshima Kenya and The Maasai Girls Education Fund.
“With Heshima Kenya we worked with an amazing group of girls from all over East Africa affected by war, conflict, dislocation, rape, HIV/AIDS, etc., and, with The Maasai Girls Education Fund, we worked with a group of girls rescued from early child marriage and affected by female genital mutilation,” says Cate. The workshops touched on some of the same issues brought up by water, women, and HIV, as girls are also at-risk—more susceptible to HIV through polygamy, early marriage, and the different cultural practices that are taking place there, Cate shares. So sensitive was the subject matter that she included Sol Garcia, an L.A.-based social worker and director of Project X Impact whom Cate has partnered with on previous trips to Kenya and Mexico.
C4C also filmed the workshops and interviews for a documentary it is producing.
“No matter where we are in the world we’re always going to have challenges in our lives, right? I just think if you start thinking outside of the box. If you’re doing that in one area of your life you can bring that to other areas in your life” says Cate about how everyone can tap into creativity. “There are ten ways to get into something; it’s not just the front value that we all conceive—there’s the back door, the side door…! And the more creative you are in your life and the more you’re thinking in different, various ways, you’re going to see something happening; if it’s not going to happen this way, then it’s going to happen [in this other] way.” The key to orienting ourselves so that we are moving forward? “To not give up,” Cate says. To strive. To surpass the challenges we face every day.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.