Interview by Molly Fincher, World Ark writer
It is our privilege to count Geoff Oliver Bugbee among the many talented photographers who travel to Heifer projects around the world to document the lives of our project participants. Our aim is to convey not only the adversity faced by the families with whom we work, but also their strength and dignity.
Bugbee has covered Heifer International projects for World Ark and Heifer’s direct mail division in Rwanda, Uganda, Cameroon, Zambia, Haiti, Nepal, Honduras, Sierra Leone, Bolivia, Albania, Kosovo, Poland, Slovakia and India – including the photos from India featured in this issue. Here, he shares with us his expertise on the unique challenges of humanitarian photography, some of his most rewarding experiences and advice for photographers who would follow in his footsteps.
WORLD ARK: Why have you chosen to focus so much of your career on humanitarian photography?
GEOFF OLIVER BUGBEE: I’m drawn to the common thread that runs through all people, the essence of what unites us. When I was really young, I spent a lot of time looking at pictures made by the socially concerned photographers of the 1940s and ’50s, particularly the work of Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks and W. Eugene Smith.
As I delved further into Smith’s extensive photo essays for LIFE — especially “Country Doctor,” mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan, and Albert Schweitzer’s leprosy work in French Equatorial Africa – I was hooked on the medium and the role photography could fulfill as witness. Smith’simages conveyed so much strength, yet exhibited an undercurrent of real human vulnerability. His pictures were the first to connect to my heart, and I wanted to understand why.
Over time, I grew to understand the camera’s potential as a proactive tool — an instrument to express one’s voice and also confront perceived truths.Thechallenge to craft multi-image stories as one single body of work strongly appealed to me. The dots really started to connect during a months-long passage through India. That was sort of the road test for me, when I heard the calling within to follow in the tradition of social documentary photography. Twenty years later, I’m still walking down that road.
How do you go about capturing photos that convey both the need and the dignity of your subjects?
It’s hard to put that into words. A photograph can illustrate so many different things, depending on who’s doing the looking. In terms of the process of making pictures, from my own experience people usually reveal themselves if I stay present and genuinely connect with them. People often need time to adjust to your presence and understand who you are. Eye contact usually engenders an understanding of what I’m there to do. Then comes the ineffable territory of composing frames, reacting to expression, capturing gesture as it naturally unfolds. The aim is torespond to what’s happening in the moment rather than directly influence it. Somewhere in that zone, the telling images can be found.
What is the biggest challenge when you take on projects like this? What is the most rewarding aspect?
The universal paradox is that you must be very patient, but there is never enough time.Moments reveal themselves when you stick around and develop relationships, when a place really gets into your bones. It’ll show in your photographs. My work in the international humanitarian world is usually on-the-fly because of budget constraints or deadlines for visual output.
As the photographer, you have to spot opportunities quickly, know what you need to capture, and be able turn on a dime and respond. When all goes according to plan, the visual story unfolds andyou find what you’re after. Even so, most rewarding of all are the pictures that resonate and have lasting visual impact or appeal, yet I haveonly a faint recollection of how, or even why, I made them. Those are the images I consider profound gifts.
What is your favorite photo you’ve taken for Heifer, and why?
Choosing one frame, not so easy. While reporting for a World Ark story on llama and alpaca projects in Bolivia, we pursued a sidebar on health, nutrition and proper nourishment for children. In a schoolyard teeming with children at play, I roamed into the middle of a lively volleyball match and captured a moment of action just before the ball hit me squarely in the lens.
A woman walks through trellised rows of bean plants in a former refugee camp in Port Loko, Sierra Leone. Marie Kabba was a widow and member of the Kamuyu Women’s Development Organization gardening collective.Heifer had pinpointed this location to improve livelihood conditionsand establish animal projects. In the local Krio language, kamuyu means perseverance — an apropos name considering the scores of women in the region who had lost their husbands and were victimized by the war. By banding together as a group, they were able to realize higher yields in their food production and gain vocational skills. After taking notes for the article, I followed in Marie’s footsteps for a while and made this image. It tells its own story throughsymmetry and vibrance. It has a quiet strength to it.
From a cover story on women’s empowerment in rural Nepal: Ganga holds up one of her favorite goats while beaming a smile worth a thousand words. After enduring years of abuse and ostracism from her own husband and immediate family, Ganga took the opportunity afforded by a Heifer project and turned the tables — and her life — around in a dramatic way. She went on to inspire like-minded women in her village and soon became the leading breadwinner in her family. When I took this picture, she was excitedly telling us all about her homespun entrepreneurial efforts. Her proudest accomplishment? Being able to finally afford to send her daughters to school.
What advice do you have for aspiring photographers, or anyone who travels in developing countries, when it comes to documenting the experience?
Worry less about your gear, travel lighter than you think you should, trust your instincts and enjoy the experience. It’s an absolute privilege to be given the opportunity to travel halfway around the globe. More so, to be counted on to bring back visuals that try to depict the intimate moments of other people’slives: how they cope with hardship, endure and even thrive in the face of adversity. Once the recognition hits home that we are indeed one human family, it will show in your photographs.