Photographer Esther Havens found her path to success by wandering.
Perhaps she was influenced by the adventurous spirit of her mother, who met Esther’s father in Holland in the 1970’s and traveled by orange Volkswagon camper through the states before settling in Wisconsin, and then Texas. Or maybe the spirit of her great-grandfather, well-known Dutch painter Aris Knikker, is what sparked her travel bug. (She hopes to one day travel through Holland and photograph all the places he documented with paint so many years ago.)
Call it her legacy or just pure intuition but, in 2004, something told Esther college was not her true calling. She had years of darkroom experience and wanted to start assisting and learning from working photographers. So she packed all her belongings into her Honda Civic and moved from Dallas to Austin. She knew no one in Austin but an architecture photographer she had had lined up an internship with after they met at the Southwestern Photojournalism Conference. Yet, within a couple years, she had enough photography work to quit her barista job and freelance full-time.
Now, just seven years later, Esther is a humanitarian photographer who travels all over the world to document people in their surroundings and share their stories. She has worked in over fifty countries, most of them third world, for over a dozen non-profit organizations and companies, such as charity: water, TOMS Shoes, Warby Parker, A Glimmer of Hope, Food for the Hungry, and many more. Her work has been published in the The New York Times, L.A. Times, National Geographic, and Forbes, to name a few. And, when she’s not jetting across the globe on assignment or to teach photography workshops, she is invited to speak at conferences across America.
Citygram chatted with Esther about how she got to where she is today, and what she’s learned along the way.
For how long have you been practicing photography?
I’ve been in business since 2007, but I’ve always been shooting. I remember setting up my brothers and sisters and taking pictures of them with film in the 80s — I would do the same with my cats. Poor things! I’ve always loved capturing beauty.
How did you first become interested in humanitarianism and when did photography become your way of reaching out to the world?
I was first on a career path for myself. I wanted to be a photojournalist and travel the world. As I slowly began down that path I realized it was very self focused and I was using people living in poverty for my gain.
I’ve always loved capturing beauty.
I would be thinking about capturing a “great” photo of someone in a village for my portfolio. I was in a village in Congo shooting for an organization when it hit me all at once. I snapped the shutter on my camera and stared at the image before me on the LCD screen of my camera. I was excited about the shot I had just captured. It was a little child with his belly sticking out looking sad and lonely. I had no idea what the child’s name was or the story – I just knew the child was getting food at the feeding center we were nearby. It was that moment that changed the way I photographed. I stopped shooting for myself and began photographing for them. You see the definition of humanitarian is “concerned with or seeking to promote human welfare.” That is what I wanted to focus on.
What do you love most about photographing people in their environments?
What I love about photographing people is capturing beauty and hope. There are so many hard situations out there, but I always seem to be looking for the hope in people. What makes them keep going? What gives them joy? I love capturing stories of who they are. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a village and someone will say “You came all the way from America to photograph me?” Of course I did! It makes a person feel so valued. My goal in my work is to show that people are real. I don’t want to make up a scene that doesn’t exist and I think that cameras overseas have done that for too long.
So many times the photos that you see of people living in poverty is just their expressions reacting to a camera being in their face which is usually SHOCK. I mean, can you imagine what it would be like if this girl with blonde hair jumped out of a car and came up and started taking photos of you? I would probably have an angry expression on my face!
How do you connect with the people you photograph?
The interesting thing about connecting is there are many universal expressions that are understood around the globe and don’t need words. I try to make people feel comfortable and let them know why I’m there, what I’m doing, what the photos are for. They are wondering all the same things that you or I would. If they give me permission to take their photo, I work on being vulnerable with them and we bring trust to each other. That is when I am able to really capture who people are.
If I have only this one moment with this person, what am I going to do with it?
I make a lot of faces at people and act pretty silly most of them time. I’ve had some very serious women end up dancing with me by the end of my time with them. I always think of it this way…. If I have only this one moment with this person, what am I going to do with it? People are so much more valuable than a photo. I would rather walk away having brought joy to that woman’s life than having taken the best photo in the world. It’s about them each and every time. I try to create a trust for them to share their story with me.
Do you have a favorite story or experience from any of your trips?
In Murunji I met a little boy named Jean Bosco who was walking to a dirty hole in the ground for his water. It was so gross. I couldn’t even imagine drinking it. Yet this was all he had. charity: water had just funded a well in their village and I was able to rejoice with the community as we hit the aquifer and water spewed into the sky. The drilling team put a water pump on it and the village had clean water. It was beautiful to capture. I went home with that story and charity: water used it everywhere. People know Jean Bosco’s story and tell it to others. They tell his story and raise money for water wells. His story changed others’ stories by providing them with clean water.
I truly believe that stories have the power to do this. They have the power to change people’s perspective, connect and see the world differently. I’ve now traveled to over 50 countries and see so many programs and what I truly believe is making a difference in the lives of those living in poverty is jobs. I meet so many families who want to work. They want to pay their own bills and send their own children to school. They dream of owning a business that supports themselves. The more we focus on creating entrepreneurs in developing countries, the more we are going to see people rising out of poverty situations.
What is one thing you have learned from your travels to third world countries?
We are all the same. Women on the other side of the world talk about many of the same things that we talk about here. And that people all have struggles and they are all valid.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
Oh gosh, the people would be the part I enjoy the most. I love just sitting and talking with new friends. I get to walk alongside so many beautiful souls and tell their story to the world. I get to see people’s lives change for the better constantly. There is so much joy in that.
This article originally published in The Wander Issue of Citygram Austin Magazine.
Enjoy a special photo essay from Esther in the full issue here or by downloading the FREE mobile issue designed specifically for your iPhone or iPad in the App Store today.
Food & Beverage Columnist
Veronica Meewes is a freelance writer and photographer in Austin, TX.
Specializing in lifestyle, travel and food her work has appeared in several outlets including Forbes Travel Guide, Serious Eats, and The Today Show.
Veronica spent her childhood in New Jersey, and traveled around the country before deciding on the sunny capital of Texas.
Photography: Esther Havens