Together with Welthungerhilfe e.V. and the Stern Foundation, Jonas Wresch has embarked on a photographic project, spanning several years: to document the struggles of a village in Kenya in the face of increasing drought. Even though the project is far from complete, it has already given rise to a significant amount of donations, which have a direct impact on the daily lives of people in Kenya. The German photographer spoke with us about what he experienced in the Kitua region; how to overcome cliché-style imagery; and why honey is a valuable currency in that part of the world.
What motivated you to produce a series about the drought in Kenya?
My wish to start this project came about half a year after the beginning of the Corona lockdown. On the whole, I got through that period well, though it was difficult or even traumatic for many people around the world. My family and I were healthy; we had time for new hobbies and good food. When the first headlines appeared, declaring that hunger in the world was increasing dramatically, it was such a contrast to my own life that I absolutely wanted to produce a work about it.
Who are the protagonists in your pictures, and how did you meet them?
The people in my pictures are the inhabitants of Kinakoni, a village of around 5,000 people in south eastern Kenya. Most of them are farmers, and are suffering because of the increasing drought in the country. In general, I’m delighted to photograph stories about villages and small communities. I arrive without knowing anyone, and know little about the people’s daily lives. Then I begin my work: I explore the place a bit more with each picture, photograph simple farmers and village elders, school children and mothers, and gradually gain the people’s trust. They open up their doors for me and let me take part in their lives.
How much time did the project require?
Up until now, I have worked on the project for about a month, and I’ve visited the region twice. Furthermore. I work on these projects with the Stern Foundation and Welthungerhilfe e.V.. We’ve been dealing with the village of Kinakoni for three years, and have been collecting donations during that time; in the first year, over half a million euros came together from readers and foundations. Water tanks were built, community gardens were created, and villagers are being trained to farm the land in a more efficient manner. Anyone looking for more details, or wishing to donate, is welcome to do so at the website of the project.
You concentrated on a beekeeper, in particular. Can you explain a bit more about the significance of that profession in relation to the drought?
There’s a long tradition of beekeeping in the region, and 20 families in Kinakoni are currently working with bees. Peter Mulwa is a beekeeper of the very traditional kind: he hangs the beehives high in the trees and collects the honey at night, with a torch which he uses to scare the bees away. It’s quite a dangerous job, but it ensures a good income for the family. Even during the drought, they are hardly affected, financially, by the loss of harvest. For them, honey is like a savings account; it stands in the house and when bills have to be paid, or there’s a shortage of food, Peter Mulwa sells a twenty litre bucket of honey to the cooperative. Many more families could live healthier and better lives in this manner because, according to studies, the province has the potential to produce 400 tons of honey a year.
What do you think about the future of the region where you photographed?
Kitui is a region with great potential; beekeeping is a good example of that. Even though the hardship is considerable for many months, it is not one of the driest regions in Kenya; but that’s precisely what makes it interesting for our project. In the north of Kenya, I’ve seen what drought looks like at its most extreme. There are parts of these regions where it hasn’t rained for four years; in these places, only emergency aid is possible. This means that you give people food, water and even cash, so that they can survive. A self-determining life and a better future fade into the distance, as it has simply become too dry for sustainable projects.
Which were the biggest photographic challenges with this project?
For sure, one challenge was to break away from the traditional imagery related to drought and hunger, which we all carry in our mind’s eye. In the case of the portraits, for example, I often worked with a studio background, to separate the people from the harsh environment surrounding them. What we as viewers see in a mud hut, or a dry field, is mostly not what the people themselves see. We might see it as a symbol of failure or poverty. For them, it is much more a sign of their hard work, despite the adverse circumstances; or simply the home that they have been able to build for themselves and their children. I also work with details of withering plants that have been growing in the region for generations, but that hardly yield anything now, because of the drought and climate change.
Which camera did you use and how did it impact your workflow?
I used an SL2 for this project and, despite the heat and sandy conditions, it was very dependable and robust. It was also important to me to be able to switch between photo and video – and it was very practical to have full connectors for an external microphone and headphones.
What did the project teach you, personally?
I’ve been working with NGOs and international organisations for many years, documenting their work in developmental collaborations around the world. In doing so, I visit the projects – but mostly once they’ve been completed. It’s very interesting for me to experience, right from the beginning, how such a project, aiming to improve the lives of thousands of people, comes about; and I learn a lot about how the community is included, and how it’s possible to bring about sustainable improvements.
Is the project complete, or will you continue to visit the region in the future?
The next trip to Kinakoni is planned for autumn; and the subject of hunger in the world will continue to occupy me, way beyond that.
Jonas Wresch was born in Bad Dürkheim in 1988. After graduating from high school in 2007, he completed a six month internship as a photographer at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (newspaper). In 2015, he completed studies of Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at college in Hanover. In 2016, he received the Freelens Award. He was a Stern grant holder from July, 2016 to June, 2017; and, since then, he has been photographing numerous reportages, around the world, for the magazine. Wresch is a member of Agentur Focus. More about his photographic work can be found on his website and Instagram profile.