"This is me": capturing the journey to clean water

12 January 2018

If you had never used a camera before, what's the first thing you'd photograph? As part of our Untapped appeal we gave cameras to people in Tombohuaun village, Sierra Leone, so they could tell their own story, in their own way. Neil Wissink, Photography Manager at WaterAid UK, takes us inside this very special participatory photography project.

Right from the beginning of our planning around our appeal, we wanted to give the community at the heart of Untapped the space to represent themselves. Through his Tombohuaun studio, Joey Lawrence had created some beautiful portraits, with the sitters choosing how they would like to be photographed. Putting these same people behind the camera has given a whole new perspective on village life, and reveals a new side to their story of transformation.

When we held the first photography workshop, everyone said it was their first time holding a camera – right from 80-year-old Hawa Joe, down to 8-year-old Kokoyeh. Here's one of Kokoyeh's shots:

We wanted to learn from a good cross-section of the community, so we chose a range of people from different age groups and with different perspectives. In the end, most participants shared the use of their cameras with friends and families anyway – that’s just what Tombohuaun is like! So no-one seemed to feel left out. 

Usually, when we run participatory photo projects like these, we give a theme to the group. But this time, I just asked them to take pictures of what they're interested in. And at first, we deliberately gave the bare minimum of technical know-how. We didn’t want to superimpose our own preconceived ideas of what makes a good or pleasing photo onto them, but rather allow them to show us the world through their own eyes, in the way that they wanted to. 

For practical help and support, we worked with an organisation called WAYout Arts, based in the capital, Freetown, who visit Tombohuaun every two weeks to support the photographers. 

Watch a short film about this project:


The themes that emerged painted a wonderful picture of life in this rural Sierra Leonean village.

Tailu took some really beautiful nature photography shots and talked about the importance of seeing the connection to nature in his young son bringing him ‘green things.’ There was a surprising sensitivity that emerged from him which was beautiful to see. He can be a bit of a gruff character on the surface, I loved discovering that more tender side of him. 

It was touching and sad at the same time to see how many people said that they were taking pictures of loved ones, so they could remember them when they’re gone. Most people In Tombohuaun didn’t have any photos of themselves or their families. And because there is a lot of premature mortality (often due to water-related illnesses), as well as a lot of movement in and out of the community, a photographic record was incredibly precious to people like Haja

We made prints to help people edit their own images at the beginning, and then we put on an exhibition in the court barrie (their town hall). People loved having the photos – the permanence of them seemed to really matter to people. People in rural Sierra Leone don’t live in an image-saturated world like we do in the UK, so every photographic image has so much value. This adorable shot was taken by Matu:

In all of the portraits, you can see the warmth of their relationships reflected in the expressions of the people looking back at them. In Matu's photo of her granddaughter, you can just tell that this little baby is looking at her grandma, rather than at a photographer. 

There were a lot of things that moved me. It was an amazing experience to do this with a community that I’d come to know well and have great affection for. I felt that I really could see people’s personalities emerge in the photos they took – their composition, their choices of subject. 

Kempah, as a youth leader, was the person who wanted to organise everyone for his shots, and get people to stand neatly in line, holding flowers. 

It was also special to get an insight into life in a jungle village. Fatmata brought her camera to the farm on an early morning and took some beautiful pictures of the misty hills. She also had a lot of fun pictures of her friends. Young people, just messing around and having a good time, as we do too. 

Jeneba was quite nervous at first, but after a while, began to really enjoy it. She took her camera to school in the nearby village, and took photos of her school friends, as well as taking casual photos of her family, which show a lot about the history of Tombohuaun, and how they have made progress. Jeneba's photo of her uncle wearing a yellow rain-suit to harvest cocoa pods, shows how the protective clothing from the Ebola crisis now has a second life as a rain mac. 

The break out star of the project was definitely Kokoyeh. Right from the beginning he was taking really interesting, thoughtful, and hilarious photos of his buddies and his family. It was also really lovely to see the community encouraging him. He took it so seriously, and they got such a kick out of having a mini-photographer walking around the village and were just so supportive. It was beautiful to see. 

Fishing is so important to this community - even the name of the village relates to a fishing story. And you can see this in the many photos of fish, fishing and making fishing-traps out of palm leaves.

It was very important to us that the community understood that we’d be sharing their images with people around the world who were interested in learning more about them and their lives. So each time we visit, we show them examples of how their photos have reached many, many people, and with it, their story.

We’re so grateful for the funding and support from Players of People’s Postcode Lottery, which have made this very special project possible.

Discover the full photo sets from Tombohuaun's photographers through our Instagram Stories archive >