“I have discovered that I can make a positive impact on the lives of others simply by using my gifts and doing what I normally do, which is taking pictures and engaging others.” – John Keatley
If you’ve been to Faded + Blurred before, you probably know we are fans of photographer John Keatley. We’ve featured him in one of our Spotlights, as well as interviewed him for an episode of our podcast. It’s not just his photography that resonates with us (though his photos are amazing), but rather why he does what he does and how he uses his talent behind the lens. We first became aware of how John uses photography as a tool for causes he believes in during our interview, when he spoke about his drinking water project in Liberia with Miir Bottles. When we heard about his trip to the Philippines with Arts Aftercare to raise awareness on the issue of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, we asked John if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions and giving a bit more back story to the narrative that wasn’t covered on his blog.
How did the Arts Aftercare project first come about? Is it something you sought out, or did they reach out to you?
My friends from college, Curtis and Grace Romjue are the co-founders of Arts Aftercare, and they approached me about this project. They were also the ones who educated me on the realities of human trafficking and exploitation several years ago, and over time, the topic is something I have become quite passionate about fighting. Mostly just through supporting International Justice Mission. For the past couple of years, I have been trying to connect with various organizations fighting human trafficking about doing some conceptual ads to help spread the message and raise awareness, but nothing had panned out. I’m not really sure if anyone at Arts Aftercare was aware of my efforts or interest, but thankfully they thought of me when they began planning this trip. Surprisingly enough, I actually turned down the assignment when they first approached me about it. Mostly because it didn’t sound like what I thought I wanted to do, and it also sounded like a really uncomfortable trip if I am being honest. After talking with my wife about it, she had some really great things to say, and really encouraged me to do it. So I called Arts Aftercare back, and it was on!
How do you go about gaining the trust of the people you were photographing? Was there a danger of them feeling exploited or were they able to see what you were trying to do?
That was one of the biggest questions going into this trip. We had several meetings before leaving for the Philippines to plan, and talk about how to approach this from a photography and video standpoint. We talked with people from several organizations who work and care for people caught in prostitution in the Philippines, and we tried to communicate in advance as much as possible with the organizations we would be working with when we arrived. We basically tried to gather as much information as possible about the culture, and situations we would be working in. Ultimately we prepared as best we could, but in the end, we just had to get there, and see what happened and respond.
The first few days in Manila, I felt somewhat restricted, and people seemed a bit cautious. Our group had a meeting with our hosts in Manila one night, and they told us a story about a photographer who had come through years before us, and basically ambushed people on the street as a paparazzi would. He really did a lot of damage in the community, and because he was loosely representing an organization that was supposed to be caring for exploited women, it caused a lot of confusion and mistrust. There are just so many issues and ramifications in a story like this. Even after being in Manila for a couple of days, there was a point where I thought I may not be able to photograph anyone’s face. Not to say something really beautiful couldn’t be created this way, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for.
On the 3rd or 4th day, my friend and filmmaker Eric Becker and I were introduced to a group of survivors and we had a chance to tell a bit of our story, and explain why we were there, and what we were hoping to accomplish. There were about 20 women in the group, and we were told that we could probably expect 2 of the women to let us photograph and film them. As I was setting up my equipment outside, one of the women came over to me, and asked where they should go for the pictures, and how I wanted to schedule it. I wasn’t sure what she meant by scheduling, but then she said that every woman in the group was so excited to be photographed.
I think because we had been with the women for several days, that certainly played a big roll in helping us build trust. It took a lot of patience, but it was a really good lesson for me. So often I only have 30 minutes to do an editorial photo shoot, but sometimes life can’t be scheduled or controlled so easy. In hindsight, I feel like waiting for several days was a good experience and it makes me appreciate the work and end result that much more.
It must have been difficult to focus on the technical aspects of the images, given the emotional content. Can you talk about how you were able to remain at least somewhat objective while making photographs?
I think it helped working with Becker. We totally submerged ourselves in this story for 10 days. Well more than that really if you count the days leading up to the trip and after we returned. But we were away from home, friends, family, and other distractions, so this is all we thought about. It helped to be able to process what we saw and experienced with each other. I also went into this project with a slightly different mindset in the sense that I wanted this to be a bit more documentary than my work in the past. I have been working quite a bit on looking at things differently, and focusing more on the emotion and content of what is in front of me, rather than the technical aspects of what can go into making an image. Responding to this story emotionally seemed like the best way to create something true, and powerful given the subject matter. From a technical standpoint, I shot a lot on a tripod, which helps slow things down, and I also used natural light quite a bit.
It’s been two months or so since you have returned and have had a chance to process what you saw and experienced. How have the experiences in Liberia and now the Philippines changed the trajectory of your life, both professionally as well as personally?
Things feel a little less intense now that I have been back for a couple of months, which honestly feels nice. It was a really heavy trip, and talking about all of it has felt like a burden at times, but I have to remind myself that I didn’t do this project to feel comfortable, or to take a vacation. There are many people in the world who are not able to make the kinds of choices I have the freedom to make, and I feel it’s important to step out and take action when a need or opportunity to help others is in front of you.
I think this project and the one I did in Liberia last year have opened my eyes to other people, and situations outside of my small comfortable life. I think more than anything, I have discovered that I can make a positive impact on the lives of others simply by using my gifts and doing what I normally do, which is taking pictures and engaging others in my community and various networks. These two trips have certainly given me a little shake, and I think that is a good thing. My hope is to do at least one humanitarian photography project a year, and hopefully I will continue to grow and learn through those opportunities. I’m excited to see what happens next!
We would like to thank John for taking the time to answer our questions. If you would like to read more about the work he is doing with Arts Aftercare, head over to his blog.