Colouring the future
Though access to clean water is a basic human right, many Egyptian homes still lack it, prompting photojournalist Ahmed Hayman to find a way of providing water through art, writes Sarah Eissa
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Clockwise from top right: one of the residents, Moha, at her house before having access to water; the digging process; preparing the tiny houses; Moha's husband on the way to his house; waiting for the project to end; thumbs up from Moha and her husband celebrating water in their home
A photojournalist, Ahmed Hayman meets people from all over the country, and he has been inspired by many of the people he meets. One person he photographed led him to search for practical solutions for those having no home access to clean water.
Currently a photographer at the newspaper Al-Masry-Al-Yom in Cairo, Hayman remembers photographing an event for an Islamic relief organisation based in the UK and offering aid to poorer Muslims in many areas around the world. Aside from providing food parcels during Ramadan, the organisation did a survey of families in Al-Ayat district, discovering families without home access to clean water or toilets.
"We found girls saying that if they needed to use the toilet they had to go to a neighbour's house, or wait until they went to work. They felt humiliated asking neighbours to use the facilities in their houses," Hayman remembers, adding that when he discovered this situation he went home depressed, wondering how it was possible, in 2010, that some Egyptian citizens could be without either clean water or toilet facilities.
Despite his tiredness from his trip, he immediately uploaded the photographs he had taken onto Facebook and wrote about what he had seen. People were enthusiastic to help, and in just four days, Hayman had raised LE6,000 from his friends and friends of friends to help him provide water connections for one of the houses.
Hayman contacted the company responsible for water and wastewater in the area, took the ID of one of the householders, signed a contract with the company and handed over the money. "If you have money, you can have water," Hayman says, so he paid and now the family is connected to the mains.
As the water was being connected to her house, the householder was almost hysterical with happiness. "Her kids will now be able to take a shower at home, like everyone else does, and no one now will need to go to bed without a shower," Hayman said. "After a period, I went back to the house and could see the difference on the family's faces. Clean clothes were hanging up. I felt that we had contributed our bit to the country's development then and there."
Being connected to the mains is expensive, Hayman says, the cost depending on the distance from the main water pipe. However, the price of connection is rarely less than LE3,000. The company providing water in the area is a private-sector concern, something that shocks Hayman, who half-seriously says that "the Nile is being privatised". Even now he has doubts about the cleanliness of the water that comes out of the taps in Al-Ayat, though he says that it is undoubtedly much better than drinking water directly from the irrigation canals, as some residents had previously done.
Hayman's philanthropic activities, though important to him, are not really part of his job as a photographer and photojournalist. His aim in his work is to try to convey people's problems and suffering through pictures. People are moved by such pictures, he says, so it occurred to him that a good way of helping others would be to do so through his pictures and then suggest ways in which viewers could help the subjects of them.
He prefers black and white when taking photographs, the contrast of the two colours revealing the "true colours" of life in his opinion. "There are other colours in life, of course, but they are decreasing. People are becoming more selfish, and they do not respect each other. Everyone is running after his or her own benefit, while neglecting others."
It was in the light of this belief that he set up an organisation called Mustaqbal bil-Alwan (Colourful Future), which would, in Hayman's words, bring colour into people's lives to replace the ambient black and white.
"I take black-and-white photographs during field work, displaying these in order to stimulate people's emotions. Then, when work starts as a result of the donations I raise with the pictures, I start to take photographs in colour, for example when workers start to dig water pipes using the funds we have raised. Finally, I take an official colour photo with a victory sign when the system is all up and running."
"Our slogan is a 'picture can change things, and we picture the change'," he said.
Hayman does not work alone. Though he takes all the photographs himself, he is supported by a large team. Gamal Diab is responsible for writing letters and data, and Jamila Rifky is responsible for editing and publishing photos on CDs. "All of us are doing something we are good at," Hayman says, referring to the talents of other team members.
To finance his projects, Hayman also takes photographs for a fee, sometimes in various locations around Cairo. "We held a session in the Alef Bookstore," he notes, "and people were happy to pay far more than the cost of the pictures. One person paid LE3,000 for his picture, knowing that the money would be used for good purposes. I don't know where people get their trust in me from: maybe they've seen my 'before' and 'after' pictures, or maybe they have read a description of our projects."
"We also take pictures for people in malls and social clubs. These are professional-quality photographs on CDs and the money we raise goes to the organisation's projects. It's a win-win situation. I practise taking photos, meet new people and obtain better skills in dealing with them. For those whom I photograph, they have the satisfaction of owning a professional photo and helping people living with no water in their houses."
The origin of his idea for the Mustaqbal bil-Alwan organisation lies with a non-profit foundation concerned with local, self-organised events that bring people together called TEDx Events (Technology, Entertainment, Design). At this foundation's first event in Egypt, Hayman presented his idea for the team, and the foundation liked it, giving him opportunities to take photographs such that he could present his idea and apply it at the same time.
Hayman went on to explain his idea in 17 minutes in front of 300 spectators -- "the most important 17 minutes in my life," he exclaims.
Then he had 30 minutes to photograph all the members of the audience, all 300 of whom wanted to be photographed. "It was a great load on me, but I managed to photograph 120 of them," Hayman says, 100 of them later adding Hayman as a friend on their Facebook accounts. These people then changed their profile picture on the same day, all writing about the project on their page and helping to spread news about it.
Up to now, Hayman and his team have been targeting Al-Ayat, connecting seven households to the water mains and helping each of these households' eight residents. He is looking forward to connecting the entire district to the mains, though he admits that this will need a large budget and time. One of the most important challenges he faces is the lack of time, because of team working hours and overlaps. This may delay things a bit, he says.
Regarding the organisation's plans for the future, Hayman explains that he hopes to officially register it and to help rebuild houses as well as linking them to the water mains. "Some of these houses are not suitable for living in at all," he adds, saying that rebuilding work would be carried out with the aid of the residents themselves.
"We will demolish and rebuild. The residents would act as workers, and we would finance the work in the same way as for the water mains. In this way, we will be able to build homes that have all proper facilities and that are built out of modern building materials and not out of mud."
He recalls one woman for whom the organisation has been able to construct not only a proper toilet, but also a whole house. "We found that her house was going to collapse, and in any case it was more of a subterranean room than a house. We demolished the original structure and built her a room with a wooden ceiling and fan, together with an outside toilet." The woman could almost not believe she was finally living in a house.
Despite these successes, things are not always easy, and Hayman explains that one of the troubles they face comes from the local water company, which has not always been cooperative in minimising pipe distances to save money. However, Colourful Future also welcomes volunteers, and the organisation is now constructing a page on Facebook under its name. This will be updated with news, and it will recruit new photographers, chosen on the basis of "quality not quantity", Hayman explains.
As a final comment, Hayman says that everyone with talent should not only look at himself, but should also look at the less fortunate and see how they are living.
"Every person has an aim in life, not only to wake up, to go to sleep or to work. Yes, this kind of routine is important, but people are not only created for routine. They are in this world because they can also benefit and help others. People are not living only for themselves. I believe that they are born to add something to the world, not just to come into it and then exit it again without any reason."
"History should talk about ideas that have been put into practice. We are not geniuses. We are a normal team using what we are good at to achieve something."
Colourful Future's Facebook page can be accessed at: http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/pages/Colourful-Fut ure-mstqbl-balalwan/112680992103640?v=info&ref=ts