ArtsInternational Development

Using Documentary Photography to Drive Change: An interview with Charlotte Kesl

In the small town of Gainesville, Florida, a place we call home, is a community of change makers, artists and general badasses that anyone would want to grab a drink with and talk shop. One of those residents is development and documentary photographer Charlotte Kesl.

Charlotte, a real life renaissance woman and globetrotter, engages in a number of projects. She is the Communications Manger for Project Cordillera, a social enterprise that offers expeditions in the Andes while supporting mountain communities. She is also an instructor for Momenta Workshops, a photography company that specializes in training photographers in documentary storytelling.

I first met Charlotte at a party, and as I got to know her my mouth dropped to the floor in awe of her work. I wanted to know more about her work and the role of photography in driving change. So, we caught up over coffee and talked about the importance of photography, particularly for social change organizations seeking to tell their stories and drive change.

 

Puertas de Toledo / ©2014 Charlotte Kesl Photography

Families of victims of extrajudicial killings in Colombia silently march during a demonstration in Bucaramanga, Colombia. Charlotte Kesl/Peace Brigades International, 2011.

 

A: Let’s start off by getting to know you. Tell us about your work.

C: I grew up in Gainesville and moved to Washington, DC, for my undergraduate studies. I moved abroad to Colombia in 2010, and since then I’ve worked and lived in Peru, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Spain and earned a Masters in Media, Communication and Development from the London School of Economics. I specialize in documentary photography and communications for development. I’ve photographed for projects ranging from international education and public health initiatives, to small community based organizations working with ex-combatants or disabled children and many things in-between.

A woman takes a rest while preparing dinner in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia. Charlotte Kesl/PBI, 2011.

A woman takes a rest while preparing dinner in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia. Charlotte Kesl/PBI, 2011.

A: Wow! Get it, girl! What is it that brought you to photography?

C: I always enjoyed photographing, but it wasn’t until I was hired as an assistant for photojournalist, Jamie Rose, in 2007, that I realized I could pursue photography as a career. I still work with Jamie to this day, who is the COO of Momenta. I was really fortunate to have incredible mentors and people who’ve pushed me. Every time I photograph in a community, I learn more about myself as a photographer and about how resilient the human spirit is, especially in post-conflict areas. Photography has allowed me to connect with so many different types of individuals, many whom I never would have met if I wasn’t photographing with a purpose.

 

Women knit as part of a women’s collective in the mountains outside of Huaraz, Peru. Charlotte Kesl/Project Cordillera, 2015

Women knit as part of a women’s collective in the mountains outside of Huaraz, Peru. Charlotte Kesl/Project Cordillera, 2015

A: So, what are you working on now?

C: Next week, I’ll be returning to Sierra Leone, a place I called home for the majority of 2013, as an instructor for Momenta Workshops. Our Project series matches each workshop attendee with a nonprofit assignment. With on-the-ground training, the photographer produces photo stories centered around humanitarian and social issues relevant to each nonprofit. The aim is to allow our nonprofit partners to see first hand the value and the power of strong visuals and for the photographers to improve their skillset.

I also recently returned from Peru, where we were gathering content for our new website for Project Cordillera. It just launched! After traveling a lot and seeing how tourism impacts communities around the world, it’s been really rewarding forming a social enterprise with a group of likeminded people who understand the importance of sustainable tourism.

 

A woman listens during a session with a mental health counselor in Lira, northern Uganda. Charlotte Kesl/African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET), 2012.

A woman listens during a session with a mental health counselor in Lira, northern Uganda. Charlotte Kesl/African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET), 2012.

A: In your experience, how can photography be used to drive social change?

C: Photography for social change is fundamental to storytelling and enables social change groups and organizations to show the impact of their projects. This might seem straightforward, but identifying photography as a crucial element in an organization’s communications strategy is something that should be at the top of the list. Hiring professional image-makers to produce strong imagery has the power to create an emotional connection to the organizations’ work, which can lead to an increase in funding and support. By working with a photographer who has spent time perfecting their craft, the organization is investing in someone who can capture beneficiaries with dignity and deliver their message.

 

A nurse in Kabala, Sierra Leone explains birth control options to a teenager. Charlotte Kesl/Marie Stopes International, 2013.

A nurse in Kabala, Sierra Leone explains birth control options to a teenager.
Charlotte Kesl/Marie Stopes International, 2013.

A: What it unique about photographing for social change organizations?

C: Photography is storytelling, and storytelling for social change organizations is more complex than showing how people’s lives have changed. For example, for NGOs, instead of focusing on how the group is improving the lives of their beneficiaries. I think it’s important to focus on the person, the beneficiary and explore how people have used the resources from the NGO. Positive storytelling and being creative with the approach to illustrate the success of an organization’s projects is the exciting challenge that documentarians are presented with.

 

Girls perform a dance outside of their school in Tonkolili District, Sierra Leone. Charlotte Kesl/One Girl, 2013.

Girls perform a dance outside of their school in Tonkolili District, Sierra Leone.
Charlotte Kesl/One Girl, 2013.

A: Can you talk about one of your favorite images?

C: My real passion is photographing people. I worked with Yoga Strength, a CBO (community based organization) that works with ex-combatants and teaches them yoga in Freetown, Sierra Leone. It’s an incredible group of young men (and some women,) and we went around to different parts of the city to stage photographs of different yoga poses. The photographs were used to fundraise money to build the first yoga studio in Sierra Leone (which was successfully completed in 2013!) Some of those images are probably my favorite.

 

A member of Yoga Strength practices boat pose on Lumley Beach, Freetown. Charlotte Kesl/Yoga Strength, 2013.

A member of Yoga Strength practices boat pose on Lumley Beach, Freetown. Charlotte Kesl/Yoga Strength, 2013.

A: How can change makers use photography to drive their messages?

C: Photography is a powerful medium to draw in and engage an audience. It’s really important to think about who your main audience is and what you want your message to be. Knowing why you’re telling a story will help create a narrative- which is how people make sense of the world around us.

 

A young girl walks through the river in the Cacarica River Basin, in remote northeastern Colombia. Charlotte Kesl/Peace Brigades International, 2010.

A teenager walks through a river in a remote part of the Cacarica River Basin in northwestern Colombia. Charlotte Kesl/Peace Brigades International, 2010.

 

Check out more of Charlotte’s work.

 

Posted on October 22, 2015

Annie Neimand
Annie Neimand is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology, Criminology & Law at the University of Florida, and Research Director and Executive Editor for frank.