Category Archives: NGO Work

The Power of Objects: The Gapminder Project

Trip Door

When I first started collaborating with the Gapminder Foundation some months ago, it was for a one-day assignment documenting the possessions of a single family in Phnom Penh. Since then, the project has evolved into an international photo-research project covering much of Asia. I recently returned from the Nepal leg of the journey and as I prepare to face the intimidating challenge of sifting through five thousand-odd images and forming them into a coherent collection, I finally had time to reflect on this unique experience.

I posted once already about the Gapminder Project after completing the Cambodian portion of the job, but my perspective on the concept has changed dramatically since that time. For those who have never heard of Gapminder before, I would encourage you to watch this TED Talk given by the organization’s founder, Hans Rosling. Its innovative approach to understanding global poverty, as well as Hans’ talents as a public speaker have made it one of the top fifteen most watched talks in TED history – no small feat when considering the plethora of fascinating  presentations that have been hosted over the years.

Gapminder, unlike most non-profit organizations I have worked with in the past, has no direct involvement in the traditional sense of development. They have no regional offices, no permanent field staff, and no branded SUVs crisscrossing the countryside. Instead, Gapminder focuses on the collection and analysis of data, which they then present in an easily understandable format so that even the most statistically challenged among us can grasp. Where I often get lost in the chart-heavy depth of year-end reports, Gapminder turns ingesting huge quantities of data into an engaging experience. Similarly, it is nearly impossible for me to explain the simplistic functionality of the Gapminder system in so many words, so do yourself a favour and watch the TED Talk to see what I mean.

Building on the runaway success of their initial effort to create the world’s first “fact-based world view” that everyone can understand, Gapminder decided to take the project one step further. Dispatching myself to cover Asia, American photojournalist Zoriah Miller to Africa, and a string of local photographers to fill in the rest, Gapminder is in the process of compiling a comprehensive visual database of living conditions around the world.

Trip Broom


When completed, viewers will be able to filter through thousands of photographs and video clips, sorting them by region, economic status, occupation, as well as other factors, to see for themselves what life might look like had they been born in a rural village in Nepal, or in an impoverished urban community in Uganda.Through hundreds of meticulously documented items  ranging from teeth to toothbrushes to toys, this platform, when completed, will provide a one-of-a-kind visual reference for anyone trying to better understand the world around them.

Since I’ve finally had a few free days after an extremely busy month, I decided to pull out a few of my favourite images and group them together so you can get a sense of how powerful these simple frames can be, especially when juxtaposed. As Gapminder spelled out clearly to me in the project brief, the point is not to take arty pictures of toilets but to highlight the similarities and differences between cultures and classes through the everyday objects that define our lives.

After a few months of much needed down time, shooting for the Gapminder project will continue in Bangladesh in early 2015.

Trip toys


Also posted in Blog, Cambodia, Nepal, Philippines Tagged , , , , , , , , , , |

Gapminder: A Fact-Based World View Everyone Can Understand

A man stands inside his home, where he squats with his twin children. After his wife passed away, he was forced to move into a run down and half-ruined apartment with no running water.

A man stands inside his home, where he squats with his twin children. After his wife passed away, he was forced to move into a run-down and half-ruined apartment with no running water in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Taking a break from political coverage, I’ve spent the last two weeks working on a series of nine assignments for Gapminder – a non-profit organization based in Sweden. Gapminder is a unique organization in the sense that their approach to development is not focused on field operations, but rather on gathering detailed information on global inequalities in wealth  – and presenting it in visually interesting and educational ways to encourage a better understanding of poverty around the world.

When Gapminder first reached out to me about working together, I have to say I initially found their project specifications unusual. Unlike a typical development-oriented job, the focus of these assignments is not on people, but on the objects they own. In fact, other than a single family portrait of each of the nine families, there are no human elements in the images whatsoever (In the material I submitted that is. These photos are just a behind the scenes look at the locations visited, not the finished product). For someone like me, whose work is almost exclusively focused on people, the idea was surprising.

A translator works with a vegetable farmer on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to gather information about his family's income.

A translator works with a vegetable farmer on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to gather information about his family’s income.

A woman near her home in Borei Keila, a neighbourhood heavily affected by land grabbing and the extensive development underway in Cambodia.

A woman near her home in Borei Keila, a neighbourhood heavily affected by land grabbing and the extensive development underway in Cambodia.


I was given a list of nine different types of households to find – some rural, some urban, some suburban – and a detailed shot list of items to be documented. But apart from these loose guidelines, Gapminder gave me total freedom in terms of people and locations – a rare and welcome opportunity. As long as the households in question met a few basic criteria, I was free to focus on anyone I wanted, anywhere in the country.

If I am being honest I should say that after finishing the first of these projects in Phnom Penh, I didn’t really see the utility of these images. Photos of doors and brooms and plates of food aren’t things that I normally would think of as telling stories about people. But after doing several more (I’ve completed six of the nine), the beauty and simplicity of the idea has become obvious. By comparing these everyday items across a variety of socio-economic contexts, a much larger portrait of poverty emerges. Whereas a single photo of someone’s kitchen may not tell a strong story, viewing six side-by-side (or, even more impressively, the hundreds that Gapminder is collecting from countries around the world) is decidedly more powerful. From these comparisons, inanimate objects paint a vivid portrait of life and hardship in a country where nearly a quarter of the population lives below the global poverty line.

My experience with the Gapminder project has been more informative than I could ever have imagined. Even though I have worked extensively in developing regions and much of my work focuses on impoverished areas, these last few weeks have given me a more personal and intimate understanding of both Cambodia, and the effects poverty has on household life. I’m glad to be a part of Gapminder’s mission to “fight ignorance with a fact-based world view everyone can understand,” and I’m looking forward to the assignments to come.

A woman helps her husband with his mosquito net in their small shack in Phnom Penh. Though he normally works as a construction worker, recent illnesses have rendered him unemployed and the family does not have enough money to meet their daily needs.

A woman helps her husband with his mosquito net in their small shack in Phnom Penh. Though he normally works as a construction worker, recent illnesses have rendered him unemployed and the family does not have enough money to meet their daily needs.

A young boy eats lunch outside their home in Phnom Penh.

A young boy eats lunch outside his home in Phnom Penh.


Chicks being raised in an abandoned apartment in Phnom Penh. The owners do not have access to any agricultural land, so they must raise their animals indoors - creating potential sanitation and health issues for the family.

Chicks being raised in an abandoned apartment in Phnom Penh. The owners do not have access to any agricultural land, so they must raise their animals indoors – creating potential sanitation and health issues for the family.

*Note: These are not the photos for the official Gapminder project.

Also posted in Blog, Cambodia Tagged , , , , , , , |

Habitation for the Planet

Cats sit on the cloth and sheet metal roof tops of Seoul's Guryong shanty town.

I was recently contacted by Ruban Selvanayagam, a journalist and social enterprise activist based in Brazil, about using some of my images for an article on Habitation for The Planet’s web site. While I am happy to share my photos around the web, I was a little bit hesitant about emailing full resolution files to people who email me out of the blue. But after reading the article he has written on the lack of adequate housing for the poor in Korea, I am proud to be involved. Well written and thoroughly researched, this article is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the reasons why places like the Guryong Panjachon exist.

This is just an excerpt from his article. Read the full version here.

Now well reputed as an Asian economic success story, South Korea has made huge strides in terms of growth since the end of the war with the North – transforming from an aid recipient nation with an income per head on a par with the poorest parts of Africa to a member of the OECD development assistance committee (the so called “rich man’s club”).  When looking at the housing sector in its current form, however, progress has not been so exemplary with the familiar global story of poor living conditions mirroring rising disparate wealth distribution.  As outlined below, despite modern history demonstrating some impetus from the government to incentivise and regulate the social housing sector, much of what has been achieved has fallen short of what is necessary – evidently placing more priority on middle-upper class biased models.

Since the late 1980s, the government´s role in housing policy increased somewhat and, as Kim Dae Jung was ruled into power, it was acknowledged that past policies did not pay enough attention to the needs of the poor.  The notion that it was the South Koreans themselves that needed to develop their own communities broadly based on bringing a more balanced relationship between individuals, communities and the government was deemed as the most appropriate direction.  From the 1960s up until this point, the country – as with much of East Asia – adopted a guiding principle of social policy being immediately linked to economic growth and that rising incomes would assumedly lead to better standards of housing, fuelled largely by the private sector but supported by preferential interest rates / mortgage finance and delivery system improvements.  However, particularly due to rapid urban population growth, demand outpaced supply which not only led to rapidly inflated prices but also the growth of slum settlements, particularly in urban areas such as Seoul.   The growing conflict of interest was well demonstrated in the eviction of an estimated 700,000 people between 1985 and 1988 in the build up to the Seoul Olympic Games.

Under the pressure and watchful eye of increasingly present NGO and other housing campaigning activity, the government was seen stepping up its efforts towards the end of the 1980s.  Yet whilst the 1989 launch of the “Two Million Housing Construction Plan” was deemed successful from a broader market perspective, it left the low income market relatively untouched.  Indeed, by 1995 the Korea National Housing Corporation (KNHC) demonstrated that 13 percent of urban households were using one room for the whole family; 34 percent of national stock did not meet national minimum standards and 49,370 households were living in squatter settlements (a figure that had doubled by the year 2000 as a result of the Asian financial crisis).  The early 1990s saw private rented housing being given more permanent status – however due to the very small size of the units; the distant locations from where residents worked and complicated financial management which limited access to those in the low income groups, real demand remained low.  The government subsequently continued to remain largely criticised for not addressing the issue of poor housing standards in contrast to the bullish growth of urbanisation and real estate development for the privileged economic groups……read the rest of the article here.

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Same World Same Chance

A piece of promotional material I made for Same World Same Chance. Shot in Kibombomene

A while ago I wrote and article for Groove magazine to try and raise awareness for Same World Same Chance, a community development program in Kibombomene, Zambia. I spent 6 weeks at the project site last year and was truly inspired by  the work they are doing. I wanted to repost this here because SWSC is an amazing organization and deserves all the support it can get. Get involved – volunteer, fundraise, donate.


In 2006, two university graduates from Canada landed in Africa with vague notions of making a difference in the world. Kim Hurley and Marissa Izma had no clear idea of how they would do this, but after several months they found themselves in the small community of Kibombomene, Zambia.

“We just wanted to be rural because the media portrayed such a negative image of Africa and we just needed to see it for ourselves,” says Izma. From this, Same World Same Chance was born – an independent, education based, community development organization.

Four years later, Izma still lives in Zambia while Mrs. Hurley has returned to Canada to raise funds. On the project site, a two-room schoolhouse, a library, staff housing, and an organic farm now stand where before there was only a diamond shaped plot of wild brush land.

In a time when people are becoming increasingly mistrustful of how NGOs spend their funding, Same World Same Chance is a prime example of how the compassion and drive of individuals is still the most effective force for social change.

“I have personally seen some NGOs running in Zambia that are misusing funds, [and] it makes me angry because SWSC strives on making our priority that every cent gets spent in the best way possible,” Izma states, though she makes it clear that she has also seen a lot of money being used effectively.

According to Izma, “The biggest challenge has been integrating into a rural community and into a culture that is so different from my own. It has been important though, because we knew that we had to immerse ourselves within the community to discover who the notable members were. We needed to know who could trust us, and who we could trust so that we could work together. Without the community of Kibombomene, the project is nothing.”

Education in Zambia, especially in rural areas, is sub-standard to say the least. While there was an existing primary school in the village before the arrival of SWSC, the reliability of teachers was a daily question. If and when they did show up, their effectiveness (and often their sobriety) was dubious. Local children would attend this school for years under the impression that they were receiving an education that would help them further their lives. But when it came time to write the national exams, many found that they were unable to read the questions.

Izma and Hurley hope that the free secondary education program offered by SWSC can be part of a solution. “We want people to graduate from here and move into the world and create more positive change.”

But SWSC also believes in helping Kibombomene help itself. Their goal is not simply to help students graduate so they can get a job in the nearest city, but rather give local residents the skills and education they need to so the village can thrive independently. Besides paying the salaries of two local teachers and funding an organic farming project, SWSC has established a local manufacturing industry which now makes tailored bags and blankets that are sold internationally. All proceeds from this initiative are put back into the project and, by extension, the community.

A health committee has been created to give free medical services to the village residents. Led by Candace Ngungu (a Canadian nurse who came to the project as a volunteer and ended up marrying a local man), the fledgling clinic will be invaluable for Kibombomene’s people, who have no real access to a hospital. In a country where AIDS and malaria are ongoing threats, having free professional medical assistance could mean the difference between life and death.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of SWSC is how ambitious it is in the scope of its long-term vision. When it reaches maturity, the project site will be home to six classrooms, a nursery, a trade school for continuing education, a boarding house for up to 200 students, a full health center, a community assembly hall, and eventually even roadside restaurants and shops, so that the operation can be truly self sustaining. Staff numbers are steadily increasing, with volunteers expected from Canada, the US, Germany, and Japan.

Though the future looks bright for SWSC, this project remains an intense labour of love, and it would not exist without the persistence and dedication of its leaders. “This isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t perfect,” says Izma, “but I never have to force myself out of bed in order to do it. That makes it all worthwhile.”

SWSC cannot exist without independent support. To get involved, consider a modest donation, buying some locally produced goods, or exploring the various volunteering opportunities available. Visit for more information.

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