For his current project, German photographer Alexander von Wiedenbeck teamed up with aid organization Children in Need. An established fashion and commercial photographer for many years, von Wiedenbeck was moved to work on something of global social consequence — the upcoming photobook Hope is the culmination of their joint efforts centering on homeless children of the Philippines. Making the work, von Wiedenbeck was struck by the living conditions of communities nestled beside cemeteries and dumpsites, and aimed to contrast the grim environment with the seemingly carefree antics of the resident children.
Emily von Hoffmann: You began this project with a trip to the Philippines to work with an aid organization — can you describe the situation surrounding the trip?
Alexander von Wiedenbeck: Yes, that is correct. At the beginning, there was the idea to make a contribution to the society, or to the world. After all the advertising productions, the fashion editorials and the portraits around the globe, I’ve met a lot of inspiring people and have seen magical places. The world has given me much goodness and now it was time to give something back.
In 2014, we got in contact with more than ten aid organizations to offer them my idea and much more than that, my vision of a pioneer project about social responsibility communicated with the photography. We had asked them to present their projects to us and after comparing the proposals, it was the terms of “dumpsite children,” “cemetery children,” and “sexual abuse of little girls” that motivated me to begin here.
So the first step was done, but what’s next? Should I prepare myself for the trip, physically with vaccinations? Or the much bigger question, of preparing mentally? Especially when you hear about the children’s living situations on dump sites or cemeteries, you expect of course a lot of horrible scenes. In the run-up for sure I watched and read some documentaries about the situation in the Philippines.
But, when you stand in the middle of a swamp of garbage, rats, emaciated and diseased dogs and then in a shed, just 2x2 meters you see a girl crying and surrounded by flies … how could you prepare yourself for this? How could you ever presume to prepare for something like this?
And yet, I had my mission — as the photographer, the voyeur who realizes the moment and captures it without interacting, without changing — and therefore had to perform my function. What can you — saying to a crying child, “Say cheese for the camera, here comes the birdie” — change? The moment was there, in its full and merciless hardness, unadorned … so I kept it and pressed the shutter.
It can be said in one sentence that this was the most horrible, but at the same time the most beautiful journey I’ve ever made in my life. Terrible on the one hand, because of the catastrophic and even surreal living circumstances of the children; on the other hand, the children opened my heart much more than I would have expected. The hope, the faith, and the love of these children is much greater than the world in which they live.
EvH: Can you please describe the scene and their circumstances more for us? How will your project help them?
AvW: The living conditions of the children are really difficult to imagine; they sleep in graves on a cemetery. When they wake in the morning, there’s no bathroom or anything else to wash or to brush their teeth. At the dump sites, the day starts and ends with working, foraging for something among the trash they can use to earn money. They collect plastic items to sell. For 1kg plastic, which is really a lot, they get not even 3 cents — could you imagine how much plastic they need to collect to get something to eat for a one or two dollars?
Between all of this, the action group Children in Need built up some schools close to the dump sites to educate the children for a better future, and to prepare them to go to high school or get vocational training.
The children themselves and their parents are so hospitable and lovely, they welcomed us with open arms and the kids took me immediately to hand and wanted to show me their “homes.” This not to show how bad it is, quite the opposite, they are proud of what they have and want to show. Also on the whole trip, really no one asked me for money, which surprised me a little; conversely, the parents offered even something to eat. They don’t have much, but what they have, they wanted to share with us, which shows their great cordiality.
Even the kids are extremely devout Christians, and hold the belief in a better future and the need to carry on. The kids always laughed, played and were pleased and proud that we were there to visit them. At some point in between, one single child was brave, walked to me and took my hand and placed it to her forehead. This made the child concentrate and become very thoughtful, and as the one child began, it had become absolutely quiet and all the kids came after and did the same. I asked, what does this mean, and they told me that the children believed that they were blessed by it. These were really moving moments and it affected me to see this faith, this unwavering hope in the eyes of children.
So now, I will use my photography to generate as much possible income by selling the photobook and the prints of the exhibition, and I want to take all the money and put it inside the projects in the Philippines. The projects themselves are different — they have schools and hospitals there, where the kids get some free education and health care.
They have a project where they build up some little houses for the families at the dump sites and cemeteries. The costs for one house a really low in the Philippines, one house cost about 4.000 Euro and there can live up to two families. This is incredible, because in Germany the simple permission to build a house costs more than this.
EvH: Ultimately you were welcomed by everyone, but in the beginning was it difficult to approach the children for a photo without seeming threatening?
AvW: Of course it is not that simple to know someone better in a short time like we had in each project. But besides that fact, the kids are very emotional like I am, so we were able to get a deeper connection in that short time. After all, through the whole trip, I was able to experience their culture.
Because I was there with the aid organization, at the beginning of each project, it was not that easy to be there without interacting, because for sure it has been a great highlight to the kids that we were there. But after a short time, I took myself out of the welcome ceremony and walked through the cemeteries or dump sites by my own. After a while it worked well for me to act like a silent observer, the voyeur behind the scenes, and therefore I was able to make my shots without threatening. At the end, all photographs from the exhibition are real and authentic, but of course sometimes the kids were posing for the camera.
But all of this came out from themselves, I hadn’t told them what they should do at anytime, which was the most important thing for me to do a an authentic reportage. For example the photograph with the boy in the foreground who is posing like a bodybuilder… this was so awesome, I just walked along a cemetery and then he stood in front of me with that pose, and without saying anything, other kids came by and were posing in a similar way. They wanted to show me that they are strong and it shows me as well, that they are not shy to do just what they want. In my opinion that is the right attitude for getting a better future, to go for what your heart claims.
EvH: How did this project differ from your other work? Did you encounter any challenges that were surprising or unique compared to past projects?
AvW: “Same same but different!” My way to work is generally always the same, even at a portrait production or fashion editorial. I try to create a situation and then I take a step beside and try to capture the moments as they come along. The big difference here in the Philippines was my feeling. All my photographs came out from my emotions, from a combination of heart, brain and gut feeling and at all my productions before, this was always a positive emotion.
I love what I do and in that way I always fell a little in love with my subject. Here in the Philippines, it was totally confusing for me, because on the one hand, the kids gave me such a great positive feeling because of the lovely and open-hearted way they treated me, but on the other hand the horrible circumstances shaped me in a way that made it hard not to cry at any time.
There have been a lot of situations where I wasn’t sure whether I should take the photograph, because it was so sad. I had to keep myself focused on the reportage and doing my job, even when I had sad feelings about it, and that was totally new for me, pushing the shutter without having a good emotion.
EvH: Can you tell us about one or two of your favorite images from the project, and the situation surrounding them?
AvW: One of my favorites was the cover image of the exhibition and of the photo book (below).
This photo was taken out of the car while we left a dump site. I drove the car myself and one of the people from the aid organization was on the passenger seat. And as we drove through the dump site I looked to my left and saw a mother with a little boy walking on a hill of trash, the camera was still on my lap and I screamed to my passenger, “take the steering wheel!” And I took my hands off to take the camera and I shot just two photographs of them while we passed with the car. At that moment I thought it couldn’t be a good photograph, taken out of the car while we passed the situation.
Later, when I saw the picture on screen, I knew this could be a great cover for the exhibition. The mother from the back was still walking in direction of the dump site and the little boy looked back to me and it looked a little like he wanted to go back, away from the dump site to a … yes, maybe to a better future.
Another photograph I love, is the one with the two boys who hug each other (above). It was really a moment of great luck to capture this. I stood beside a huge welcome ceremony for us on a cemetery and I always looked to all the people in front of me. Don’t ask me why, but I got a feeling to look around a little and right behind me, just two meters away, the boys were standing there. I had just a few seconds to take the photograph and I just got one shot of them, but this is one of my favorites. It was such a lovely and thoughtful moment to see them, beside the happiness of the welcome ceremony, hugging themselves, standing together, no matter what.
Finally, a photograph which left its mark on me, was that of the little girl on the graves (above). We were done at a cemetery and we started to leave. On the way back to the car, I saw a hundred meters away a little girl running on this really big wall of graves. The wall was at least 4–5 meters high and a hundred meters wide. It shocked me totally to see a little human, not even 4–5 years old, running dangerously on that wall. So I ran to the wall to photograph her, or at least to catch her in case she’s falling. I could just even take a couple of photographs in a row before she started leaving, but this moment touched me in a way I’d never felt before and it was one of the moments I said to myself that we have to do as much as we can, to support these children.
I didn’t see it there, because it all happened so fast and we had to leave right after that, but back at my studio, I saw it… the graves the little girl was standing on, all of them were graves of children. Not even one of them became older than 2 years and as I mentioned before, the wall was at least a hundred meters wide.
EvH: Do you expect to continue on in this vein with future work? Can you share any plans for future work that excites you right now?
AvW: Yes, of course, I will continue. Already during my flight back to Germany, I had the idea of building up a non-profit foundation, which should create projects like this one. Creative projects in the range of photography or film which will take social responsibility and will benefit the people who will be the subject of the project. And this not just for my own ideas, later the foundation should also support other artists around the world, who want to take social responsibility with their art.
I also started a second project last year, which continues this year with an exhibition in Vienna, Austria. It was a portrait series of strong women in Nepal and Uganda for a project from an aid organization for the empowerment of women. It’s really also a nice project and I will keep you updated.