Guest Blog: Getting the picture with Adam Dickens
A photographer with a difference, who takes photos to change lives, and has flown one way to the moon. So what exactly is it that Adam Dickens does, how does he do it, and more importantly...why?
Adam Dickens is busy. So busy it seems a bit like he forgets to live his own life, because he’s too busy taking photos that change other people’s lives. His modus operandi is as unusual as it is effective, and he admits himself “It's a bit hard to describe what I do because I’m doing so many different things”. But, in his words, as an international development photographer, it goes something like this:
“I visit projects for different charities around East Asia and Africa. I take photographs and films, which I pay for using crowdfunding. Then I give photos to those charities to use exclusively for free. I basically document the work of charities abroad for their supporters and show them exactly what’s happening”.
Thing is, he doesn’t just take photographs. And that’s where the development bit comes in.
“The pictures come second in a lot of cases. It’s all about relationship building... I’ll be there as a representative for that charity. So with Deki, for example, I visit the local partners...and by being there and observing you get to see a lot more of the truth”.
Raising money and expectations
It's a clever idea, and a successful one too. Adam started out funding trips through any means and ways, but as he became involved with more charities, he needed to think of a new way to raise money.
“This is a little bit unusual for crowdfunding. Because it’s not a product as such, it's a person. And it helps if you know people...a lot of my supporters have said they wanted a formal way to help me because they’ve seen what I’ve been doing for years and think I’m mad, but they love what I do”.
He has to work for it though, these things don’t just happen: “You have to keep pestering people...you have to be proactive”.
So how exactly do you measure the success of a photograph?
Once Adam raises enough money, documents the work of his affiliate charities, acts as a two-way conduit of information for those he helps and the charities, takes and edits photos, and gives them back to the charities, how can he tell if his work has, well, worked?
“It’s down to the evidence of how those photos are being used. Deki said their microfinance lending had gone up by five times since they’ve been using my photos. And there’s another charity that used my photos in a big presentation and now they've received a grant for £200,000 for the next two years. That's partly down to the strength of the visuals.”
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Don’t say “cheese”
Adam’s style is reportage. But it can be hard to show the positive outcomes of charity work while being honest about the fact they have to be there in the first place.
“I need to show dignity in the people I’m photographing. We need to strike a balance between showing the positive side of a charity's work and the starving children shots. Otherwise people might look and think they don't need help”.
Another problem he faces is that he can't just turn up and start snapping. He says it’s all about letting people know that you’re on their side. Connecting with them. Local representatives and partners of the charities tell people who Adam is in advance, and reassure them that he’s there to help. And the growing prevalence of social media helps too: “Most people are now on WhatsApp or on Facebook. I’ll connect with them first, make them comfortable and let them get to know me, and then start photographing”.
With so much time spent away from his own home, social media has proved to be invaluable to Adam in other ways too. You have to wonder how his peripatetic projects affect his relationship with his own family.
“We rely on Skype and WhatsApp when I’m away. First trip we couldn’t speak really. Whereas now...for them life goes on...I'm under a tree in 40 degree heat in a remote part of Africa and I’ll get a message asking me what the password is for Netflix. They forget where I am. For me, I get used to it. I can live in both worlds when I’m abroad. I don't switch off at all – when I’m there or here”.
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To the moon and back
Adam’s work is changing his own life too. The statistics are overwhelming. In the last seven years he’s made 36 trips, visiting Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Rwanda, Zambia, Ghana, India and Sri Lanka. He’s flown the equivalent of 12 times round the world. Or to look at it differently, he’s flown one way to the moon. One. Way. To. The Moon. He’s spent over a year away from home since he started and has donated over 40,000 images to 13 charities. Adam says he’s used to it now: “I never get jetlag anymore; I’m just permanently exhausted”. Still though, all of this, unsurprisingly, takes its toll. Adam has a ‘real’ (as in pays the bills) job, which he struggles to maintain back in the UK. And while Adam documents the positive impact his charities have, the whole point is that they exist out of necessity. And he sees both sides of the story.
“It’s only when I get back that it really affects me. When I’m away I’m so busy photographing. When I get back I spend days just pouring through photos in a dark room, looking at the situations I’ve come back from. That’s when I see the faces...the people”.
So does he ever doubt what he’s doing?
“There are certain moments on trips, when you’re somewhere really remote...I don't really get homesick, I do sometimes think “Is this something I want to carry on doing?”, usually right at the end of a trip. But then I’ve only been back for a week and I can’t wait to start the next one”.
And on that note...what is the next one? It doesn't seem possible for Adam to carry on as he is for much longer. But he’s relentless. “I’ll still travel. I have to, because I can't stop”, but he’s also excited about his plans to expand and enhance what he does, and this involves getting other people onboard, from home and the countries he visits. “I want to grow Taking Pictures, Changing Lives so that it’s not me doing all the work but a network of photographers that can visit projects at a moment’s notice...it’s about being able to get other people involved in what I’m doing as well”.
A gentle suggestion to Adam that there’s always the possibility of sitting still once in a while is met with a mild nod of acceptance.
“I try not to get ill. I need a rest.” But then he continues.
“Actually I’m off to Sri Lanka next week...”
Note from Bryony Spooner, Deki’s Marketing and Communications Director...
When I first started working at Deki in September 2013 we were a tiny charity with only a tiny handful of pictures and were being held back as we couldn’t show the impact the work we were doing.
Since then Adam has been on five trips for Deki, four of which he has funded himself and he has provided us with literally thousands of incredible images. Because of Deki’s 100% model (whereby all money lent goes directly to the entrepreneur funded) we would never have been able to afford to work with a photographer of his calibre.
Adam’s work has been game changing for Deki. Thank you!