Photography in third world countries

Esther Havens is a photographer who works in various countries around the world, doing story-telling photography for non-profit organizations. She began her career as a photojournalist, complete with the standard belief that photographers are not supposed to get involved in the lives of the people they are photographing.

The first time she traveled to Africa, her aim was to get that perfect ‘pitiful’ National Geographic picture. You know, the sad waif with flies on his face. When she finally got just the picture she wanted, she was elated.

But when she pulled the photo up on her computer screen, instead of elation, she felt shame. She realized she hadn’t done anything to improve this child’s life. She hadn’t even learned his name. She began to doubt her purpose as a photographer. What good were her photos if they didn’t help the people she photographed?

The next time she went to Rwanda, she felt God speak to her: “My light shines upon them.” She approached her next photo subject with those words still buzzing in her head. It was a beautiful woman with a baby on her back.  Before Esther began to take pictures, she stopped to talk to her, to find out about her life. And in the process of making time for a relationship with this woman, she also ended up with a stunningly radiant, light-filled portrait. A portrait of a woman filled with strength and beauty. A portrait that showed the woman as God saw her. When the woman saw the picture she cried. “I am beautiful,” she said, as if realizing it for the first time in her life.

And in Esther’s ear again whispered the voice, My light shines upon them. And she knew that honoring these people was right.

Esther tells of a time in Ethiopia, when she asked a girl drawing water if she could take her picture. The girl giggled, embarrassed, and said, “Oh no, I’m in my pajamas. Let me go get dressed first.” Esther went to the girl’s house with her, and ended up with a beautiful, pride-filled picture of the girl dressed in her best, with her whole family around her.

These days Esther’s aim is to tell stories about people in a way that shows the need and moves others to help, while still preserving the dignity of those in need. Esther works extensively with a beautiful organization called charity: water.  For her birthday this year she asked friends and family instead of giving her a gift to donate money for a water well. To her delight, enough money was raised, and then she got the privilege of taking beautiful pictures of that well going in, and showed the difference it made for the people in that community.

Isn’t it amazing that photography has such life-changing power?  Would you like to give Esther’s photographic storytelling more power?

Go to the Esther’s Watoto Orphan Project photo page and:
1. Read a story
2. Buy a print
3. Change a nation

PS- You can also Twitter about her!


  1. Susan B-A says:

    HI Mary,
    The link to Esther’s project doesn’t seem to go anywhere for me. Can you maybe share he url? Thanks! (Great piece BTW and love last week’s posts!)

  2. Mary, thanks for fixing the link. I love the photograph of the little boy pretending to be a doctor. Just priceless. I am going to buy the tree for my husband for Christmas, as he loves photographs like that, but never wants to spend the money.

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

    Also, I loved the posts from over the weekend. I hope that you enjoyed the conference. I learned a great deal from your posts and they have given my husband and I things to think about as we pray about adopting to add to our family. Thank you!!!

    Also thank you again, for the science spa kit. It is just awesome. My niece is going to LOVE it!

  3. Our friends just announced that they applied to adopt a little girl from Ethiopia. I bought one of the photos to frame and give as a gift as a visual reminder of what to pray for during this long wait.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi, Mary,
    My family recently moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Husband works for International Justice Mission and I’ve been trying to find a way to use my photography for good here… Would it be ok if I linked a future blog post to this story? I also will link Esther’s site. Thank you for this beautiful story! Kim


  1. […] October when I learned through Esther Haven about charity:water, I’ve been thinking about the many mothers in the world unable to give […]