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Miki Johnson: Tell me about the book you just released with Ruthann Richter, Face to Face: Children of the AIDS Crisis in Africa. What was the impetus of this project and what were you hoping to achieve with it?
Karen Ande: This book represents the culmination of seven years of work. The project began in 2002 when I was traveling in Kenya with my husband and friends. Our tour guide asked me if I’d like to visit an orphanage she had opened in the town of Naivasha and photograph the children, whose parents had died of AIDS.
I agreed to do it, thinking it would be a one-time visit that might result in a few shots she could use for fundraising. I did not realize that the children would charm me and that their survival hung in such a delicate balance. The orphanage ran out of rice the day I was there.
We left them with some money for food and I eventually went home and began to print the photographs. When I saw the images emerge in the developing tray I realized that I had an opportunity and a decision to make. I could choose to become involved in this issue or not. I chose to get involved, to reach out to nonprofits who were already supporting projects, to make multiple trips to document this issue. It has taken an enormous amount of time and personal finances, but I have never looked back.
I am driven by this issue — 12 million children have been orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. There is little infrastructure to care for the children, but many local people whom I have met through NGO’s have creative viable projects that make a difference in these children’s lives. I hope this book will convince people to take a close look at the children I’ve met and begin to care enough to try to help them.
MJ: You’ve said that when you started photographing it was important to you to focus on the positive, things are getting better and people who are making a difference. Why was this so important to you?
KA: People do not hang around to be depressed. The media overexposes us to images of suffering I think, consistently giving us two messages: 1) there is really nothing one person can do to affect these overwhelming problems, and 2) money donated to Africa will be diverted by corrupt governments and aid agencies and never get to the people who need it.
In fact there is a great deal one person can do if they know how. If you donate to organizations working with in-country activists who know and understand their communities’ needs, the money is not wasted. In fact it is often the best way to help, as these projects are generally successful and sustainable. We list many NGO’s in our book that support these types of projects.
Ultimately I would like my photography to make a difference to the people and organizations I have worked with. While I certainly photograph heartbreaking situations—I do not try to misrepresent the situation by providing an artificially cheery picture—I learned that people in desperate circumstances also have dreams, hopes and goals for themselves. Not many photographers document them.
MJ: How have you connected and worked with NGOs? Have you ever found it hard to find or tell the positive story in a situation?
KA: Connecting with NGO’s has generally been easy for me. The first organization I volunteered for was Firelight Foundation of Santa Cruz, California. I simply called them up and told them about photos I’d taken at an orphanage in Kenya, that I intended to go back, and that I’d noticed they sponsored some projects near where I planned to be. Would they like me to take photographs for them? I made an appointment with the staff and went in with a portfolio under my arm.
They agreed to connect me to some of their grantee partners and I began what became a seven-year saga of visiting grassroots projects piloted by local activists responding to AIDS in their communities. These projects included micro-enterprises, schools, home-based care, HIV education projects, and more.
My working arrangements with NGO’s have varied. I ask to be reimbursed for my on-the-ground expenses while I work with the agencies’ partners. I was reimbursed once for airfare, but that was unusual. The great advantage for me working with NGO’s is that I have been given access to people I would never otherwise meet — child-headed families in Kibera or HIV-positive parents and children, for example.
You asked if I sometimes have problems connecting to the positive in a situation. Of course I do. I once met a family that included a dying mother, a 13-year old girl named Esther taking care of her plus her three younger brothers. They lived in a 10’x10’ tin shack, with sunlight pouring in the window, an open door, and all of the holes in the walls. The mother had TB and was to die several weeks after I took this photograph (left) of her with her youngest son.
One of the things that I see in this photograph is love. We devote a chapter in our book to this family. We managed to stay involved, arranging the children to be placed together in an orphanage. We followed them there and this boy is now in boarding school. Esther trained to be become a seamstress and now is able to support herself.
MJ: Do you find that viewers of your images react differently than they do to other “social documentary” images that tend to focus on the horror and pain of a situation?
KA: People feel more empowered by images of solutions than of pain. I don’t ignore pain in my images. I think it is very easy to focus on pain because the images themselves are so compelling and they affect you emotionally. But the stories I photograph are bigger than that. Yes people are seriously ill, yes children are orphaned. But those orphans play games, and the seriously ill people sit in the sun and talk with their friends. The people are engaged in living. Pain is not the entire picture.
MJ: How are you using your images and this book to continue making a positive impact on the people you have documented?
KA: We have partnered with many of the NGO’s whose projects we feature to use the book for fundraising — as gifts for major donors, for example. As the authors, we are donating the profits of the book to these organizations and others that help African children.