March 20, 2017

Agent of Change: Photographing the African Water Crisis

Words + Photos : Patrick Kolts

Outlets of Lake Victoria are dangerously contaminated. Still, in places like Buvuma Island, women wade through waist-deep mud to go collect water. Men load their goods and motorcycles into rowboats to cross the water. Fishermen are scattered about, trying for dinner. Somehow people make do; it’s the only water source they have.

Standing on shore, I am overwhelmed — thinking not only of these people, but of Aleppo, of South Sudan, of all the hurt in the world. I think of growing isolationist sentiment in the US — the desire of some to turn away those in need. And I grip my camera tightly. This is the only way I know how to help.




As a crisis photographer, I have been documenting the international water crisis for over two years. I know that “Western” culture is strongly shaped by the content it consumes and that photography is a powerful tool for influencing public opinion. So I believe documenting the work being done by non-profits like @ThirstProject will pay off. People need to see the nitty-gritty work of providing safe drinking water.

That said, crisis is a tricky subject to approach as a photographer. It’s obviously challenging to capture the essence of people and places you don’t know, in a culturally sensitive way. The conventional approach to documenting crisis situations is to focus on the shock factors, but I strongly feel that centering your photos on the negative aspects devalues the people affected by the crisis.




If journalists and photographers are constantly pushing a negative image forward, sometimes what happens is the audience starts feeling like the situation is too bad, too hopeless to fix. Instead of inspiring people to action, it has the reverse effect. That’s obviously the opposite of what I want. When I’m photographing people, villages or countries that need help, I want the viewer to see the value and the humanity behind supporting others lives. I want them to be inspired by a respectful and positive view of the change that is happening.



In my work, I specifically aim to depict the individuals in a more heroic light to emphasize the importance of their lives so that others will feel drawn to them and into action. Using perspective I attempt to communicate one of three messages:

1.) When I am looking up at the subject, it makes the person stand taller than the viewer , creating a strong, noble or heroic viewpoint.

2.) When I’m eye to eye, I am causing the viewer to face this person and identify with their situation and with them as a human.

3.) When I am photographing from above, it causes the viewer to be the overseer. This method helps show the viewer that they are more powerful than the situation. They can make a difference.

These three perspectives help me to approach different scenarios in the way I think will be most effectively communicate how the story translates.





It’s easy to create an image that portrays an individual as helpless, but I encourage and challenge photographers to work harder to present sensitive topics more effectively and respectfully to the audience. It’s our responsibility as content creators to tell a story that promotes change instead of guilt and pity.

We must find an alternative to the narrow views of the mainstream — those uninspired stories of despair that typically illustrate humanitarian causes. And to do that, we must first recognize the humanity in the people we have the priviledge to photograph.



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