Web Feature Posted October 11, 2013
Jon Warren, World Vision Director of Photography, Reflects on His Adventures, Art, and Advocacy
Jon Warren has been the photo director for World Vision since 2004. He freelanced for the organization several years before that, as well.
Interview by Jeffrey Overstreet (firstname.lastname@example.org) | Photos by Jon Warren
In a Mozambique forest, as a community silently buries a malaria victim, he moves inconspicuously, finger on his camera trigger. Click. Among starving Rwandan refugees, their bodies scarred by machetes — click. Click, says his camera again, as Malawi churchgoers reconcile with an HIV-positive woman they had once rejected.
In moments like these, World Vision Photography Director Jon Warren thinks, “Of the tens of millions of people who could care about this, I’m the one who is here, seeing it. It’s my job to make sure I’m an effective advocate for these people.”
Warren, who is dad to three SPU graduates — Rachel ’09, Ben ’06, and Danny ’02 — has documented the development work of World Vision in dozens of countries.
As he selected some favorite images of global health for the Autumn 2013 issue of Response and for an online gallery, he reflected on the blessings, challenges, and unforgettable adventures of his remarkable career, and on his relationship with Seattle Pacific University.
Your life sounds like it was an international adventure from the beginning.
I was born in India and grew up a missionary kid. All except for two years, during grade school and high school, I was in India. I came to the states for kindergarten, and for seventh grade.
When did you first pick up a camera?
I took a couple pictures with a little pocket camera and took them down to the local photo lab. The guy who worked there would normally give back little square prints. But I came in and he gave me a huge enlargement of one of my pictures. He said, “This is really good and I’m not going to charge you. I just liked the picture, so I printed it big.” So I thought this is kind of cool.
I had no idea how good he was. I now know that he was a world-class photographer who’s done a bunch of books and been published widely internationally.
My mom had an old Rolleiflex — one of those twin-lens cameras. Everything’s manual on it. You have to hold it at waist-level and look down into it, so it gives you this weird perspective. The whole world looked different. It was this magical moment. I’m not good at drawing, and I don’t think I’m really super-creative, but I love to see things. The first couple of times I got pictures back from that camera, it was so magical. I didn’t have to sculpt anything. I didn’t have to be really good with my pen. I could just see something and push a little button and it was there.
Are the photographs you take for World Vision influenced by the fact that you grew up in India?
I thought I was going to be a nature photographer. But I ended up photographing people a lot, and that’s what everyone else responded to. I just photographed friends and people I liked. I didn’t think of it as trying to say anything.
“... often the reaction to a photograph is about the viewer’s heart.”
But then when I got to college, I found that people had a very small worldview. My friends’ idea of India was like was a caricature. It was starving masses, people riding elephants, and living in little village huts. Their view of India wasn’t about people — it was about statistics and stereotypes. With my photographs, I wanted to show them, “No. This is who India really is. These are the people I care about.” Photography became a way for me to express, “I want you to meet people I care about from another place … especially people who are poor.”
Are you ever surprised by the responses to your photographs?
Initially, I thought that if people respond to a photograph it’s because of the photographer’s attitude, motivation, or relationship with the subject. It was all about the photographer.
But here at work one day, a colleague — a well-educated Zambian man who has been a country director in Africa — came up to me and said, “Man, that picture you had from that flood in the Dominican Republic — it moved me. I’m deeply touched by it.” He waxed eloquent about this photograph and all of the things that it did.
I hardly even remember taking that photograph. There had been a flash flood. It had killed 300 people. I happened to be in the town when it happened. And I wasn’t even thinking. I was just seeing all the stuff happening around me, and I shot one frame and moved on. I wasn’t thinking deep thoughts.
It made me realize that often the reaction to a photograph is about the viewer’s heart. It’s not how brilliant the photographer is. My job, if I’m doing it well, is to get the viewer, the reader, to think only about what they’re seeing and what’s in that scene and not even consider the photographer.
When you’re in a situation where you’re surrounded by a lot of need or a lot of trouble, what do you feel is your responsibility to the subject? When is it appropriate to photograph horror, or suffering, or grief, and when is it appropriate to put away the camera?
That’s a really good question. My first thought, a lot of times, is, “I’m the person who’s here. I’m the witness who’s here of the tens of thousands of millions of people who could care about this, I’m the one person who’s here seeing it and my job is to make sure that I am an effective advocate for these people.” And so it’s a huge sense of responsibility.
If I’m in a hospital in Congo, in a remote area, then the chances of someone else getting in there and sharing that story are really small. And if those people in that setting have opened up themselves to me, they’ve said, in a sense, “You’re our voice.”
What kinds of things need to be in an image for you to feel like it’s more than just a shock to provoke an emotional reaction? What makes it a truthful, helpful, informative picture?
Maybe this is a matter of being a Christian and a person of faith, but I’m often amazed at how strong people are in a situation, or how loving a parent is. When so much disaster is happening around them, this parent still is caring deeply for their child. Or it’s a famine situation, and this father is desperately trying to do something for his kids. I see a lot of good things happening, people helping other people.
I did a story with Kari Costanza, a writer I work with a lot, where we wanted to answer the question, for ourselves at least, “What happens after food distribution? When you hand that person a big sack of wheat and a can of oil and some sugar, and they go marching off, what happens? Where do they go, and what’s it like to actually live on that food?”
So we went to northern Kenya and followed a family back from a food distribution in [what was kind of like] an Eastern Washington desert, a volcanic desert area. We lived with the family for five days and ate what they ate over those five days.
When you eat one little cup of gruel a day, by the third or fourth day you’re not very good at your job anymore. When I look back at the pictures, I made so many mistakes with my camera. Normally, I wouldn’t just sit there and wait for a picture to happen in front of me. But on the fourth day, I’m just sitting there waiting for something to happen.
This family had been given 30 days of rations, and yet they gave food to every single person who came to their house. They were out of food in seven days, and it was because they were sharing.
What have been the most difficult situations you’ve found yourself in as a photographer?
The worst situation for me, by far, was covering the Rwanda genocide.
I’ve covered the Haiti earthquake, for example. I’ve covered big famines, and those are things where people are suffering horribly and terrible things have happened to people. Or the tsunami. In just seconds, total destruction. But that’s not about someone being terrible to someone else. It’s nature happening.
During the Rwandan crisis, I remember one of the first days I was there, two or three million refugees had flooded out of the country. Right on the border, I was standing in the middle of a bunch of refugees. They were sitting on the ground cooking, and I realized that the woman next to me was dead, and her family was just ignoring the fact that she was dead. People were dying all around. I bumped into people that had huge machete cuts, big gaping wounds. There was a lot of absolute awfulness.
Then I drove to the edge of the camp, and these young soldiers were there — the guys who had been the killers — and they were sitting, roasting whole cows on spits.
Meanwhile, I had just come from a camp with a million people, and many of them were starving to death, and there was cholera going through the camp. Rwanda was a mostly Christian country, a large Catholic population, and there were Quaker groups. They were supposed to be a Christian country, and yet this was people doing it to other people. I just could not understand it.
I did my initial assignment, flew back to Nairobi and you had to hitch rides on airplanes. It was crazy. It was just chaos. There were planes that would come in with relief supplies. As a freelancer, I would go out to the air strip and wait for a plane to be empty and say, ‘Are you flying back? Can I get a ride with you?’
So, I get back to Nairobi — this was pre-email — and a fax was waiting for me from my wife, saying, “This other client wants you to go back into Rwanda.” And I can’t do it. I called her, and she said, “These people really need this. I think you should do it.” So I went back in, came back out, and there was another message from another group saying, “We want you to go back in.” And finally I just thought, “I don’t want to see this. I can’t face this. This is beyond anything I can understand.” That was probably the hardest thing I’ve covered. I couldn’t understand why it was happening.
“I want you, when you look at that picture, to care about that person. I want you to see them as a three dimensional, complex human being that God loves.”
I saw a lot of good happening in it. I met people who were helping — refugees helping other refugees. There were women who had given birth on the road as they were fleeing, and all these other people went around them to help them. There were people giving up supplies for other people. There were a lot of good things happening with people helping other people.
But mostly it was just horror and it was this horror — people were going and collecting water at the lake. There were dead bodies floating next to where they were getting their water. It was just – it was beyond anything I could imagine. It was stuff that people had done to other people — people who often claimed that they were Christians.
In those moments, do you stop and think, “Where is the line between my responsibility to do my job and my responsibility to my family and community back home?”
But most of what I’m doing is not dangerous. I’m not a war correspondent or something like that.
And at World Vision, the staff look out for you. You listen to them. They tell you, ‘You can’t go there, and you can’t go there.’ We all have to go through security training — what to do if you’re kidnapped, what to do if you’re in an ambush.
But the biggest danger is a car accident. More relief workers are killed in car accidents than anything else.
I suspect that there are many photographers who approach their work thinking, “I’m going to stay in my world, but I’m willing to take pictures of their world.” But you seem to enter into the world of the people that you’re photographing, which gives you more opportunities and intimacy.
Yeah. I try to do that. I’m there with cameras that cost more than they earn in many years. And I also have a ticket out of there. But I do try as much as I can to cut down any barrier, and not to erect new barriers between me and people.
I want you, when you look at that picture, to care about that person. I want you to see them as a three dimensional, complex human being that God loves. And so, if I present that person to you as a one dimensional caricature, or a stereotype, you’re not going to care about that person, and you’re not going to relate to them. I want to try to find something in me that relates to that person.
I’m looking for moments of interaction between people, of tenderness, of open emotion, genuine emotion.
What do you remember about taking pictures for SPU?
When I was freelancing for SPU, I got to sit in on lots of classes, lots of activities. When the new business center, the MBA center, opened up, they wanted photographs of that. They wanted pictures of faculty. The best way for me to do that was just to go to those classes. Some of those classes were great, so I would come back and say, “I really need to shoot that class again. I’ve got to attend a couple more sessions.” I really fell in love with the school.
And now, three of your children are SPU graduates. Do you see your work influencing what your children do with their lives?
Rachel graduated in 2009. She spent a year overseas. My son Benjamin graduated three years before her, and my son Danny graduated three years before Ben.
All three of my kids, the year after they left SPU, spent a year overseas volunteering. Danny went to Indonesia. Ben went to Bolivia. Rachael went to Tanzania.
I really credit SPU on this too. I think a lot of the kids that come out of SPU’s program come out with a much bigger international awareness. My kids had that already, because a lot of my family, a lot of our relatives, do international work and are involved locally. But I see that a lot of their friends have a lot of concern about what happens around the world, and they see themselves as global citizens.
The whole huge push on college campuses for HIV and AIDS work came out of SPU. It was Seattle Pacific students that started it. Then they volunteered and became staff members here at World Vision. And now, that U.S. effort has actually spread globally. Now we have universities all around the world starting to pick up that program. Some of those SPU students are now working at World Vision International, helping spread that system around the world.
Today, Ben’s working in wind power. Danny’s working in fisheries. But they still have a lot of international empathy and concern.
The only one who’s closely involved in international work is my daughter, Rachel. She just got her master’s degree in international development. Right now she’s working for a non-profit credit union here in Seattle that works with people who are outside the banking system. Some of her work is with immigrants who have never had banking. But a lot of it’s with poor people who have been trapped in the payday lender system. She’s bringing them in to the banking system and saying “You can get loans this way. You can save your money.”
So my kids are very conscious of how what they do affects other people. They have lots of global connections.
If someone looks at your work and says ‘I want to do this,’ what do they need to know?
I have struggled with how to answer that question. I get that question almost every day. I have people contacting me saying ‘I’ll volunteer. I’ll do it. You don’t have to pay me.’ The hard reality is that everyone has a camera. And everyone has cell phones. And it’s quite expensive to have people go somewhere. Even if they’re not being paid, it costs a lot because they’ve got to have people on the other side to take care of them. Then there’s airfare, and staff time dealing with people.
What I’m doing is a huge privilege. And it’s very rewarding. But there are a lot of tough moments in it, and there are very few opportunities.
I’ve devoted a ton of my time to working with World Vision’s staff. We have staff in India, in Congo, in Kenya — and a lot of them are nationals. I’m trying to work with them to develop their skills and help them tell stories locally. A lot of my efforts are in trying to help other people do my job.