“What is poverty?“ was the big question that we came with when we jumped into the deep end of documentary photography, while visiting the slums of Manila in late 2013. Now, we want to share our experiences and our photographic work, which we compiled over the course of a year in some of the world’s poorest countries, in our debut photo book.
With exemplary anecdotes and photo essays from Burkina Faso, Nepal and Haiti, we illustrate the various facets of extreme poverty and shed light on the practical implications of the development aid system and advancing globalization.
The limited edition of 500 copies of our “A World in Distress” Photo Book was published on 24th June 2015.
This is the prologue of our book which reveals our intentions and motivations behind the “A World in Distress” photo book project.
“Where do you want to go?”, asks the small man behind the steering wheel of the cab. “Just down the road”, is my answer, because I am pretty sure that he will refuse to drive us to our actual destination. We enter the vehicle. I put the grocery store plastic bags, in which we’re hiding our cameras, between my feet. While I’m riding shotgun, my brother Patrick sits down on the back seat of the spacious car. We’re following the road up North and with each kilometre that we’re passing, the tension on our driver’s face rises. He’s not stupid, he knows the area – but for now, I decide to remain silent. If I would tell him that we’re actually on our way to the Mega-slum called Tondo, he would probably stop the car, turn around and kick us out. And that’s a risk we don’t want to take.
As we are crossing the bridge over the garbage-filled Pasig-River, I slowly start to get nervous. “What are we doing here?”, I ask myself in another fit of self-doubt, which already lingers in the back of my head since our arrival in the capital Manila.
Instead of palm-lined boulevards, we are now facing conglomerates of cardboard, corrugated iron and plywood as we drive down the road. Suddenly, the whole idea behind our trip seems outright crazy to me. How could we possibly think that this self-imposed boot camp – because that’s what it is, a leap into the deep end of documentary photography – would be a success?
In the comfort of our home office, our initial plan of spending three weeks in the Slums of Manila actually sounded like a clever idea. We thought it would be a meaningful way of investing the profits from our last commercial video project. But now, at close range, poverty, crime and misery suddenly feel far more menacing than expected.
For us as millennials, who grew up in Germany’s upper middle class and enjoyed absolute abundance, poverty has always been an unknown variable in our equation of the world that we somehow had to explore – and spending a couple of weeks among the poorest of the poor seemed to be an appropriate means to achieve this. But now on the ground, the look on Patrick’s face tells me that it’s not only me who’s running scared. “What are you looking for in this area? We’re in the middle of the slums!”, shouts our driver nervously, who has obviously smelled the rat. I start to explain to him that we’re heading towards the Tondo-slum in order to visit the informal charcoal factory called Ulingan, which also happens to be a trash dump.
He laughs hysterically. It’s obvious that he doesn’t quite realise that we’re serious about our endeavour. To convince him, I show him the camera equipment that we stowed away in the grocery bags between our feet. “We are photographers.” “You’ve got to be careful, for God’s sake! Take your watches off and leave your cameras in the bags as long as you can”, he mutters, as he slows down and switches to the left lane. “I’ll give you my number. If you don’t report back to me within the next three hours, I’ll call the cops, okay?” His well-meant offer troubles me. Suddenly, I start to realise the full potential of the threat that we’re about to face. A forced “ok, thank you” is all I reply before the cab stops. Our driver points to a huge mountain of waste that lies behind a jumble of tin shacks and mud roads. “That’s where you need to go. God bless you!” are the last words we hear, before we step out onto the dirty concrete, right into a world full of heat, dust and stench. Another look at my brother and then we slowly start to trudge towards the huge pile of rubbish.
Two and a half weeks later, we are sitting in an over-chilled fast-food restaurant in Pasay City and review what we’ve learned over the course of our stay. We talk about the absurd horrors that have been so omnipresent during the last days and weeks. The countless children who have to toil in the inferno of the Ulingan charcoal factory, day in day out. The father, whose huge scar on his belly testifies that he has sold his kidney to buy rice for a few months. And the legions of young girls, barely out of their infancy, who have to sell their bodies to sex tourists to earn themselves a hot bowl of soup.
Our discussion shows unmistakably that it’s not only me who’s been changed forever by our adventure in the Philippines. “So that’s it? We’re gonna go back to filming commercials?”, asks Patrick with a troubled look on his face. I know exactly what he’s feeling, but I just nod and sit silently for a while. This trip has turned our entire value system upside down. The initial overwhelming fear of the unknown and the doubts regarding our own abilities have suddenly given way to a new self-image – a self-image that’s continuously telling us: “You’re not finished, yet!”
“What is poverty?” was the big question that we came with. And although we have seen, touched and smelled poverty in all its ugly facets, the answer is still far from clear. To make things even worse, there are now a dozen more pressing questions, the most important of them being: “Who is responsible for this huge mess?” and “what the hell can we do?”
Long after the plates have been cleared away, we’re still sitting on our uncomfortable chairs, both of us keeping our thoughts to ourselves. Only when the waitress already brings the bill without being asked, I realize that it’s not only time to go, but also to come to a decision. Just as I want to express my thoughts, Patrick gets ahead of me and says: “We’re going to make a book.” He turns towards me and substantiates his proposal: “A photo book about global poverty. That’s the least we could do for all these people.” At first, I don’t dare to answer. It is just too big of an idea. Superb in a way, yes, but maybe also out of our league. The looks we exchange, however, say it all – we’ve come to a decision. I put a few crumpled bills on the table and a moment later we get up and leave the restaurant.
And we realize that this is just the beginning of our greatest adventure.
DIN A4 Hardcover
Signed and numbered
Limited edition of 500 copies
More than 100 photos from Burkina Faso, Nepal, Haiti and the Philippines
More than 80 pages of bilingual travel accounts and anecdotes (German and English)
Published on 24th June 2015 in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck, Germany
Available as limited printed edition (50€) or PDF-ebook version (20€)
Print, distribution and three charity projects have been financed with the help of a crowdfunding campaign. Amount raised: 15.000 €
This is the crowdfunding video that helped us to raise enough money to print and distribute the “A World in Distress” photo book.