Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Using Photography to Change the World: An Interview with Paola Gianturco

"[T]hose of us who take pictures, even for our own personal trips, and share those pictures with friends, because we have that skill, also have an obligation to help people understand each other more completely. By sharing our photographs, by sharing our experiences, we alter the way people everywhere understand each other, and we might as well do it consciously and well."
Last month I posted about one of my favorite books this year, Women Who Light the Dark, by photojournalist, Paola Gianturco.

I had an opportunity to interview Paola for the Big Vision Podcast, and wanted to share the transcript with you. She is donating 100 percent of the royalties from the book to the Global Fund for Women.

Paola Gianturco: My name is Paola Gianturco. I am a photojournalist and have just published my fourth book, Women Who Light The Dark. I've now documented women's lives in 40 countries, over the past 10 or 12 years, and everywhere I went, I found women who were helping each other, local women. These are grassroots organizations, and they were helping each other with the most intractable problems that face women everywhere: domestic violence, sex trafficking, disease, discrimination.

Many of them had almost nothing by way of material resources, but they had imagination, and if you have imagination, you can, it turns out, light the dark with all kinds of creative arts. They were using music, dance, poetry, and storytelling, and they were succeeding.

I first began meeting them when I was photographing other things, but they were so present everywhere that I began thinking abut doing a book about them. I thought, in a world so full of bad news, maybe it would be heartening to have good news like this. And, at a time when the international women's movement is facing challenges, it would be great to have a reminder that good news is going on, that good work is being done, that progress is happening.

And, of course, because women's organizations always have too little money, I thought maybe a book would inspire other people to help. In 2001, I began photographing. I went to 15 countries on five continents, and interviewed and photographed 129 women.

Britt Bravo: In so many of the groups you profiled, the women were using the arts for education, empowerment, or healing. Can you talk a little bit about why they used arts, and why it was an effective tool?

PG: I actually didn't realize until I finished writing the book that that was a consistent thread throughout. I'll tell you a story about one instance in which the women were using poetry, actually. In this case, the girls were using poetry. A high school English teacher in Zimbabwe, whose name is Betty Makoni, began hearing stories from her students after school, that they had been raped.

That was happening as a result of a pernicious rumor, which is floated, essentially, by the traditional healers there, and in other places. I've also heard this rumor in Asia, that HIV positive men will be cured if they have sex with virgins. Betty and six of her high school English students founded an organization called the Girl Child Network.

Today, it includes some 20,000 girls - half of whom, she estimates, have been raped. Half. The children are ages 6-16, and they're making huge strides by leading a national movement against child rape in Zimbabwe. And, their weapon is poetry. Poetry! The little girls are part of a culture, the Shona culture in Zimbabwe, as maybe you know, uses poetry. People write poems, and stand and recite them in public meetings. And the little girls do exactly that.

They write poems about their experiences, and when they recite them in community meetings, their neighbors are outraged, and mobilized immediately to action. There are no men in Zimbabwe who are immune to these girls' attention. They have had arrested some very, very prominent people. The leader, for example, of a religious movement. They are making progress. They are gaining support from people in government, and politicians, and academicians, and business people, men, boys, women, girls.

BB: Why do you think the arts is such a powerful tool?

PG: In these different cultures, the women seem to know, in ways that outsiders might not, what can be effective. For example, this idea of using poetry, as the girls are in Zimbabwe, would probably not work in other cultures that don't have that predisposition towards poetry. The women are using those forms that are the most effective in their cultures.

BB: You've captured so many amazing images and stories in this book, what is the image that stands out the most for you?

PG: I think that the one that comes to mind first is a wonderful picture of women in Kenya who are growing corn. The reason that photograph seems to me to represent the spirit of the women in the book is that they are singing, and dancing, essentially, as they are hoeing the corn in their corn field. That seems to represent the indomitability of the spirit of these women for whom singing is a real celebration, on the one hand, and they told me, on the other hand, it helps them forget their troubles, which are huge.

BB: Can you talk a little bit about what path brought you to this work?

PG: Some 12 years ago, or so, I made a career change at then, age 55. I started a second career without even having planned to. I had spent some almost 35 years in advertising and marketing, and corporate communications, and public relations. Right at the end of that period, I also was teaching. I co-developed and co-taught a series of summer executive institutes at Stanford about women and leadership.

I taught that same workshop inside of large corporations, and at the end of having taught that 12 times, I had two affects. One was I had earned two years worth of money in one year. I thought, "My God, I've just bought myself a year!" And second, I was exhausted from having continued to do consulting and teaching at the same time. I thought, I have friends in academia who are taking sabbaticals, why can't I? I decided to spend, what I thought would be one year, doing only those things I loved most and wanted to learn next. For me, that meant photography, which I have done since I was eight, and traveling, which I love. What I wanted to learn next, because I had lived my working life inside of large corporations, was about woman entrepreneurs.

I sallied forth, not being a professional photographer, not being a professional writer. I had written many business reports, nothing else. And it didn't take a year, it took five to finish that first project, which combined those elements that I had hoped to pursue. It was a book called In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World. It was about woman entrepreneurs who were sending their children to school with the money they earned, even though they were living themselves on a dollar a day. I just saw them as heroic.

I could have told that story through many different kinds of work, but the women whom I interviewed were all making crafts, traditional and tourist crafts, new crafts, modern crafts, but they all had in common the fact that they were selling their crafts to send their kids to school.

BB: And you just kept going after completing that book?

PG: Well, yes. I never went back to doing purely communications consulting. I did only enough of it to continue to fund this new addiction that I had, and also to keep up my frequent flier miles. I had almost a million, and my husband has now almost two million. Because he is wonderfully supportive of these projects, he shares those with me. But each of these books came about as a result of the previous book.

As I was traveling to 12 countries to interview women artisans, a woman in India said, "Come back in the fall and we'll teach you how to dance the dances that we perform all night to honor the mother god, Durga." And indeed I did go back and documented the Durga festival, and the Kali festival, and many other festivals all over the world that honored women for their spiritual lives, and accomplishments, and roles, and rights of passage. There had never been a book about festivals that honored women. Celebrating Women was book number two.

The third book I did was about the indomitable people in Guatemala [¡Viva Colores!]. I took the photographs for that book, but my husband wrote that book, his name is David Hill. We did it together.

The new book, of course, is the fourth book which came about as a result of all of those travels, and my observation that women, and organizations of women, are making a big difference all over the world.

BB: What do you enjoy the most about your work?

PG: Oh, easily the most interesting for me, and most compelling, and the reason I keep doing more, is an opportunity to talk with people all over the world who I may otherwise never meet. And also, I think I am driven by a compulsion to share those experiences because I am so conscious that other people don't have them. I really want to try to give those experiences to other people.

BB: What is the biggest challenge in your work?

PG: It depends on what day you ask me. When I first began doing this, of course, I knew nothing. This was the steepest learning curve in the world, possibly. I had to learn how to take pictures. I had to join a writing group to learn how to write. I never thought I was going to write a book. I thought I was going to do a picture book with maybe captions.

In order to get a book published, I was told I had to have a museum exhibit. I wasn't a photographer; I had never needed to have an exhibit of my work, ever. Fortunately, the Field Museum in Chicago mounted an exhibit of the photographs for In Her Hands. At each step, I have been learning. I felt as if I had just jumped into the swimming pool, with no water in there, with no expectation that I couldn't do all this, and in fact as it turned out I could. It, however, took every experience and every friend I have been able to gather in all of my life to do these projects.

BB: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between the Global Fund for Women and this book?

PG: I began photographing, Women Who Light the Dark, in the year 2001, and I continued to work on that project and photograph organizations that I had identified in my research. By 2005, I had my eye on a little handful of organizations that I knew were grantees of the Global Fund for Women. I have long been a supporter of that organization, I think for the last 12 years or so.

I went to see Kavita Ramdas, who is the CEO and President, and asked if she would introduce me to these four or five groups that I knew I wanted to visit. She said, "Paola, we were to about to call you. Our 20th anniversary is in the year 2007, " this was 2005, and she said, "Do you think you could finish this book by 2007, and do you think that you would be willing to consider doing all the rest of the chapters on our grantees?" And I said, for reasons that you will understand, "Let me get back to you," because I couldn't be beholden to any single organization, I really needed to be able to write what was true and what I observed.

I did get back to her, and I said that I would consider doing the other chapters about their grantees with two stipulations. One was that I choose the grantees, and the other was that I would write the manuscript and give it to the publisher before anyone from the Global Fund read it. And because she is wise, and understood why I needed that kind of latitude, she agreed to that. I read hundreds of grantee profiles, and tried to balance the book according to the issues and the geographies that I wanted. Their staff was wonderful about helping to make the introductions, as I had hoped.

But I will tell you something, I need not have hedged my bets that completely because when I got into these organizations, and I stayed with each of them for at least a week, what I saw was really beautiful work, and so it wasn't necessary to be as critical as I thought I might need to be.

BB: What advice do you have for artists who want to use their art for social change?

PG: Actually, I was invited to teach a little course about exactly this at Book Passage Travel Writers Workshop. As I was thinking about what I wanted to say to people who used their photographs, it occurred to me that in fact those of us who take pictures, even for our own personal trips, and share those pictures with friends, because we have that skill, also have an obligation to help people understand each other more completely. By sharing our photographs, by sharing our experiences, we alter the way people everywhere understand each other, and we might as well do it consciously and well. That's one thing, be aware that every photograph you take and share has a real impact.

Another thing that I have tried very hard to do is to make my books, not mine, but the result of real collaboration with the people whom I am photographing, and whose work I am documenting. For example, before I go, I email ahead to my interpreters a very specific description of what I am hoping to do, of the kinds of benefits that I hope the groups might, in this case, receive. I tell them that I have negotiated with the publisher to give them each a copy of the book, that the book will list their contact information, that the project website will list their contact information, that my intention is to make their work more visible to potential donors, and to people who might support them in various ways.

When I get there, I show them my other books, so that they know the context and the kind of work I do. And then I tell them, "This is not my book, this is ours." I invite them to tell me where they would like to be photographed, and what kinds of photographs they think would best represent their story. I do lots more than that, but I always do that. I start by photographing them the way they would like to have their pictures taken. And I invite them to tell me things that I might not have thought to ask.

My last question is always, "What would you like to ask me?" I don't believe in doing interviews as the Spanish Inquisition. I really do hope that my interviews can be more like conversations, and in fact sometimes they tell me things I would never have dreamed of asking. Muslim women; for example, tell me about birth control methods that they are using. I would never ask that question. Often, the stories are very much enriched beyond what I would have known to ask as a result of this kind of collaboration.

BB: You said earlier that each book comes from another book, what book are you working on now?

PG: This has been so consuming, this project. It is easily the most difficult of the books that I have done. It is very different to interview sex workers who have been trafficked in Phnom Penh, than to interview women who are doing knitting in Bolivia. I have just been consumed by this project, and I always have a file with little notes to myself with ideas for the next project, but I probably won't open that file until the middle of next year, after I have recovered some energy.

BB: I know you have been doing a lot of interviews to promote this book, what is the question you wish you were asked, or the thing you would like to talk about that you don't often get to talk about?

PG: My website! It is a very rich website called It has not only the usual chapter excerpts, but a section that was almost like writing another book called, Shine Your Light. My dream about this book is that it will help readers understand each other more completely, and then, using that understanding, take action. So this Shine Your Light section on the website is divided into exactly those two kinds of segments.

One section is all about understanding women all over the world through their own creative work, their music, their movies, their books, their fashion, their food. It is a very rich portion of the site.

The other half of that section is all about what kind of action you can take to support women around the world. That is also a very rich section that ranges from ideas about how to take a volunteer vacation, to how to donate money to the Global Fund for Women, and other organizations that are working and doing effective work all over the world.

BB: Is there anything else that you would like to add that you didn't get to talk about?

PG: I want to talk a little bit about the Global Fund for Women. They are now the largest organization that gives money exclusively to women-run, grassroots organizations that are working on human rights. In the last 20 years, they have given grants in the amount of almost $60 million to women in 164 countries. But they are not resting on their laurels.

I mean, you would think that being that big, and that effective, that you would kind of sit back, and they are not. They are doing something that I like very much, which is to start seeding local and regional funds so that grassroots women can help each other locally. I like the idea of local philanthropy because women really can help each other if they have a mechanism that helps them do it.

There are other things about how the Global Fund behaves that I like, and I will just tell you quickly, a couple of other things. One is that women can apply for grants by writing a letter, one page, in their own language, in their own handwriting. I mean, what a wonderful idea. I have been, I am sure you have been, on nonprofit boards, and it never occurred to me that it should be the responsibility of the funding organization to vet the applicants; that people in other countries who don't speak our language should not be put through the trial by fire that is constituted by the kind of bureaucratic red tape applications that usually exist. A one page letter in a woman's handwriting in her own language is all you need to apply to the Global Fund.

The other thing is that they genuinely treat people as equals. In a just world, that is what it would look like, in my view. I heard a wonderful story about a woman from Bangladesh who just scrimped to save a dollar to contribute to them. Her name was listed in alphabetical order in the same size, and type, exactly as women in this country who had donated thousands and thousands of dollars. People on their staff, their executives, their donors, their beneficiaries, their grantees are always treated as equals. It is a wonderful way to experience the world.

BB: Is there any message for listeners that you would like to close with?

PG: I think it will take all of us working together; surely it will take all of us working together, to create hope and possibility for this world.

Interested in using photography to change the world? Check out these resources:

The Occasional Photo Blog recommends the photobloggers list on Lightstalkers: a social network for journalists, photographers, and other professional travelers.

50 Crows: Social Change Photography

Beth's Blog and Thriving Too recommend Collective Lens: Promoting Social Change Through Photography

Earth and Economy recommends Blue Earth Alliance: Photography Inspiring Social Change

Ghana Make You Move recommends Photovoice: Social Change Through Photography

The Exposure Project recommends Daylight Magazine. "Daylight Magazine is the biannual printed publication of Daylight Community Arts Foundation (DCAF), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the use of photography as a tool for effecting social change."

June Cohen, on the TED blog
, posts about the TED Talk by James Nachtwey, a war photographer, who won a TED prize in 2007. She writes,
"A slideshow of his photos, beginning in 1981 in Northern Ireland, reveals two parallel themes in his work. First, as he says: "The frontlines of contemporary wars are right where people live." Street violence, famine, disease: he has photographed all these modern WMDs. Second, when a photo catches the world's attention, it can truly drive action and change."


  1. Britt, you're a gem! I just featured this post on my blog. I love not only this book but Paola Gianturco's responses to your questions. Also enjoyed looking into powerHouse Books. All great stuff! Many thank! K.

  2. Thanks for helping to spread the word about Paola's good work and for your continued support of Have Fun * Do Good!

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