Tag Archives: gapminder

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

TripTools

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

TripDecoration

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Nepal, NGO Work, Philippines Also 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.

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, NGO Work Also tagged , , , , , , |