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Photographing Global Humanitarian Crises with Faith, Love, Excellence, and Integrity

An Interview with Photographer Gary Chapman

Professional humanitarian photographer, Gary S. Chapman. Author and Water Mission writer and copy editor, Cinelle Barnes, recently spoke with humanitarian photographer, Gary S. Chapman, on what it means to photograph global crises such as the coronavirus and the global water crisis. Gary recently returned from India where he was photographing doctors and nurses on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis. He has been on assignment in 75 countries for clients such as TOMS Shoes, Delta, World Vision, National Geographic publications, National Geographic TV, and Atlanta Mission. Here, he talks about how he started in the field, the role photography plays during crises, and how faith, love, excellence, and integrity guide his work.

Cinelle Barnes: Tell us a little bit about your own story as a photographer. How and why did you end up photographing for the humanitarian sector?

Gary Chapman: I covered human interest stories with my then-editor, now-wife, Vivian, for our college newspaper. We documented the life of one student who was in a program that allowed low-risk inmates (non-violent crimes) to study during the day and get a degree. That story helped bring a human face and voice to the program.

As I covered more stories, I began to see the impact photos could make. I knew this was the path I wanted to pursue. Newspaper photography was where I honed my craft, covering stories that focused on people and the power of their narratives.

After college, Vivian and I married. We got involved with global non-profit organizations through our church outreach ministry. Since Vivian is Puerto Rican-Mexican and we both spoke Spanish, we were drawn to assignments in Spanish-speaking countries.

CB: What role does visual media play in educating audiences and cultivating advocacy?

GC: Visual media plays an important role in helping educate audiences about a particular story. Photographs can transport people to the heart of a story and may even move them to take action.  Most recently while in central India covering health stories, the COVID-19 hit that region and I was able to document initial relief efforts of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. Other stories I have covered include education initiatives for children with special needs and projects that help communities get better medical services and that address the global water crisis. I’ve photographed for Water Mission to show how clean water empowers communities and builds health, which is critical for fighting outbreaks, like COVID-19. It’s a privilege to be able to help organizations create awareness, raise funds, and share their work with supporters through impacting visuals.

Every assignment brings an opportunity to observe, walk humbly, and listen carefully before I lift my camera. I’ve learned that no matter the culture or language, people can sense when they are loved and respected.

CB: Speaking of creating awareness, Water Mission is currently responding to the COVID-19 health crisis by providing nurses, doctors, and healthcare facilities with safe water that aids in their work and providing under-resourced communities with hygiene resources. As for you, how have you been supporting medical professionals and creating awareness about the needs in communities where they serve?

GC: In this time of global concern surrounding COVID-19, some of the unsung heroes are the healthcare workers on the frontlines. At the beginning of March, as the coronavirus pandemic was growing, I was documenting healthcare workers in a small village in Central India. Courage and tenacity have always been the hallmark of these frontline caregivers. In my most recent email newsletter, I highlighted these healthcare workers who dedicate their lives to bringing medical services to places where there are limited, if not non-existing, services.

A mother holds her sick child as a doctor check's the child's vital signs.

I also use my social media channels to direct attention to these and other frontline heroes, especially during this COVID-19 crisis. I encourage my audiences to financially support non-profits responding to the pandemic and to continually pray for those affected.

CB: I think that’s one way you align with Water Mission’s biblical values of love, excellence, and integrity. Can you identify three photographs you’ve taken for Water Mission that exemplify each of these values?

GC: Working with Water Mission, I’ve seen the genuine love that volunteers and staff have for the communities they serve. They care for people spiritually, in addition to providing sustainable safe water, sanitation, and hygiene, solutions.

Two men help perform a water baptism for a new brother in Christ.

It was a privilege to witness and photograph this baptism in Mexico, which, to me, exemplified love. Pictured here are two Water Mission staff members celebrating a new brother in Christ.

A worker installs pipe for a safe water treatment system.

Water Mission teams have an excellent work ethic, as exemplified in this photograph of a staff member carefully laying pipes for a new water system in Peru: one of several staff who impressed me with their hard work and dedication.

A smiling woman stands holding a glass of safe, clean water.

The woman pictured here is Consuelo Chavez. Her son’s sickness was the impetus for her search for a safe water solution for La Concordia, Mexico. Once she saw the difference that Water Mission’s safe water system was making, she wanted to offer clean water to others. She now helps distribute this water to the community and they can trust that this water is safe for consumption.

CB: Compared to your other assignments, what is unique about capturing the global water crisis and the solutions at hand?

GC: What’s different about capturing stories particular to the water crisis is that there are no “one size fits all” solutions. So, as a photographer, I need to be well-informed and respond to different circumstances. A community that needs a well will be different from a community that needs another type of safe water solution. I don’t presume anything or think that what I covered in one country will be the same as the next. In this field, you have to be agile and flexible and ready to adapt to how situations evolve.

CB: Can you give three tips for emerging photographers who may want to photograph global crises?

GC: Be curious, be empathetic, and truly love. Bring curiosity to every aspect of the story and the people you are photographing. Follow current recommendations that protect you and the people you are photographing. Try to “walk in their shoes” and empathize as you see their situation. Dig deep into the well of love in your heart and then let it flow out of you.

Water Mission is working to provide safe water and hygiene resources to under-resourced and vulnerable communities amid the COVID-19 outbreak. 

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