The Challenges of Storytelling: Arete Keeps People at the Heart of the Story

In a crisis, the unexpected can happen, as the current war in Ukraine shows only too well: security and political situations can suddenly deteriorate, public health constraints come into play, bureaucratic obstacles are often thrown up by regimes anxious to control access to the region.

Arete is the expert story-telling agency for NGOs, UN bodies and foundations. But, however much we pride ourselves on our track record of going into the most difficult situations – coming out with the stories that really shed light on what is going on, telling those stories with knowledge, courage and integrity – even the most carefully laid plans may need to change, or even be cancelled altogether.

As a situation evolves, it’s obviously important to react quickly, calmly and decisively. Plans may have to be changed, often at very short notice, inconveniencing or disappointing the interviewees. But it’s also important to work with tact and empathy. At Arete, the professionals we work with have years of experience in the field, and that helps us deal with these changes and how they affect the participants with understanding.

Here, with insights from an Arete journalist, we look at what that experience has taught us, and how we try and stay true to our values in the face of challenges.

Why it’s important to ensure people tell their own stories

People’s own stories have power and weight – they reach out directly to the viewer, the reader, humanising and cutting through the fog and distance created by barrages of statistics. And people who have experienced traumatic events are the best qualified to tell their own stories. Modern technology allows these people the opportunity to tell their stories in ways that could not even have been imagined a few decades ago. Enabling people to tell those stories can empower them – and give them back a sense of their own identity. It also helps get to the heart of a story, cutting through the bias, politicisation and inaccuracy which can come with third party spin.

“It is important for my voice to be heard, because I have been exposed to many challenges as a community leader, which many women are faced within our society. And I believe that my voice can add great impact on this subject since our challenges vary from area to area, and that makes the Foundation [Cherie Blair Foundation for Women] a source of empowerment for the world…”

  • Mercy (pictured below), a beneficiary of The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, which works to eliminate barriers to entrepreneurship for women across the world. Arete has worked with the foundation since 2016.



It is Arete’s role to act as a mouthpiece – using our network and technical skills to empower people to tell their own stories to the world. We have an obligation to do those stories justice, to bring them to the world. But it is also our responsibility to make sure that we consider the mental and physical health of those who are sharing their stories with us.

Often the people we interview, photograph and film are in chaotic, stressful or fast-moving situations. If circumstances change and it becomes impossible for us to carry out our planned interviews, or it’s no longer a good time for the person to talk to us, then we have to react. It’s important that we do all we can to work with the people whose stories we tell, re-scheduling for a better time, or exercising good judgement on when to disappoint people, by postponing or cancelling interviews.

Practical Considerations

Arete has developed various tactics which make dealing with this sort of situation easier.

At Arete, we mainly use local consultants. This allows us flexibility. We can reschedule visits more easily to a better time; we can easily return, if the initial visit does not go to plan. Using local consultants also generally leads to lower risk when operating in lawless and threatening environments. It also makes communication easier, as Arete’s photographers, journalists and videographers often have common languages and a cultural affinity with potential beneficiaries.

We always try to go and talk to someone in person, but if, for any reason, it becomes impossible to reach people as planned, modern technology has provided various alternatives. Where the interviewee has internet access, for example, we can talk on video, via Whatsapp, Zoom, Facetime etc. It’s not an ideal way to connect with people and it does require adapting the interview style, but it does help people living in areas that have become inaccessible for whatever reason – security, extreme weather etc – to share their stories that otherwise might remain untold.

The Art of Storytelling

Charlotte Eagar is an award-winning filmmaker, Arete journalist, theatre producer and communications consultant. Over a thirty-year career, Charlotte has worked as a foreign correspondent in, amongst other countries, Ukraine, war-torn Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and with North Korean refugees.

Charlotte Eagar at the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo in 1993

Photo: Paul Lowe


In 2013, using her experience of working with refugees in various conflict zones, Charlotte co-founded the Trojan Women Project (TWP), at the request of Oxfam to publicise the, then, very under reported Syrian refugee crisis.

TWP is an NGO which gives support and a voice to Syrian refugees through therapeutic drama and advocacy, creating both a process – workshops to help refugees overcome trauma and isolation - and a product – critically acclaimed plays in which the refugees work their stories into the text of Euripides’ great anti-war tragedy, The Trojan Women. TWP makes films of their plays as a multiplier of the project’s reach, as films can be seen anywhere by an infinite number of people, while theatre – while extraordinarily intimate and powerful - is confined to a stage and an auditorium. These films and plays produced by TWP with refugee actors and participants combine being of the highest possible artistic standard with a benefit to the refugee and host community participants. Its productions have received awards and praise from critics and viewers all over the world. TWP’s ability to invoke empathy in their audience is shown by the fact that their plays always have a standing ovation.

Rehearsal with Victoria Beesley at Platform Theatre Glasgow 2019


TWP’s projects have toured with the Young Vic, appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, received 5-star reviews and awards and been featured in the global media, from CNN, to Al Jazeera and La Repubblica. The project is studied at various US and UK universities.

Going into difficult situations and empowering people to tell their stores has been a central part of Charlotte’s life:

“Almost everything I have ever written has been around people. When you are working as a foreign correspondent, your job is to cover news, and give the stories behind the news. You hear about events; in order to make these events understandable –  empathetic – to the reader, you have to find the people to whom the event has happened personally. It is all about identification – helping the viewer or reader to empathise with the people at the heart of the story. A million people dead is a statistic, one person dead is a tragedy – you always have to personalise the story.

“Once you have the story, you need to tell it the right way – to do the story justice. In imagery, the person naturally remains at the heart of the story. In print you have to concentrate on an individual to draw the reader in, and not to use sweeping generalisations.

When I was working as a foreign correspondent, I would always initially focus on the individual to catch the readers’ attention, to make them empathise, then broaden the story out with general news coverage and analysis, then bring the story full circle by coming back to the individual once again.”

  • Charlotte Eagar

The Responsibility of a Journalist – “I have a scream I want the world to hear!”

“When someone tells you their story you have a responsibility to treat them with empathy and respect – they are giving you something that is incredibly personal to them.

“It can be quite traumatic for people to tell you these things. If you can - if they want - you should always offer to stay with people a little longer, beyond just getting the story you need.

“Sometimes people are desperate to talk to you. There was a Syrian woman in our first Trojan project in Jordan, a refugee, who said she had been desperate for journalists to come to her suburb of Damascus when she still lived there, so that she could tell them - and the world – what was going on. She said ‘I have a scream I want the world to hear’

“But sometimes, people are more reluctant. That can obviously be quite difficult. As a journalist, you can often feel that it is better for the person and for their cause, in the long term, if they do talk to you; you can reconcile that view with your need to tell their story by encouraging them to share. Once someone starts talking about something traumatic, however, it can sometimes be hard to get them to stop. In that case, you really have to let them talk as much as they want”.

  • Charlotte Eagar


Edinburgh Festival Pleasance EICC production of The Trojans 2019 –

Photo: Charlotte Ginsborg

The Trojan Women Project

“In the Trojan Women Project we allow people the time to tell their stories in a safe space - they get weeks if they want to - to share their stories with the group.

“They then go on stage and share their story with the public through the medium of theatre.”

“TWP was born out of a drama therapy project that we did for Arete in Kenya, nine years ago. Not only did we see the psycho-social benefits the project had on the participants, but also, because of the artistic power of the work they and we created, the project’s reach – the reach of the participants’ stories - was much broader than we could have imagined. That was what inspired us to set up TWP.”.

  • Charlotte Eagar

Learn more about TWP on the website:

TWP takes our philosophy at Arete to new heights. Just as the project literally gives people a platform, a stage, to tell their stories to the world, in very different circumstances and for different media, our work at Arete empowers people to narrate their own experiences.

The notebook of “El Informante” (pseudonym), a Venezuelan reporter, in which. he wrote his anonymous story. He wanted to remain anonymous due to the political situation in his country and the persecution he would face. This photograph was taken during a session about mobile story telling in Colombia, March 7, 2020.
Keoma Zec / GSMA / Arete

Our award-winning journalists, photographers and content specialists are eager to help you make a difference. Contact us to find out how we can tailor our expertise to meet your needs.



Emergency Appeals: Content That Moves to Action

Ghulam Reza Nazari is a 25-year-old Arete Photographer from Afghanistan. Just before Christmas, Ghulam braved an overnight bus journey in a blizzard to get to remote communities in the mountains of Daykundi Province to take photographs for Arete on behalf of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). His mission was to photograph families, men, women and children, who were at risk of starving to death this winter.

Ghulam is just one of the people who play a crucial role in Arete’s mission – to “Tell Stories that Make a Difference.”

At Arete, we are enormously proud of our track record of going into the most difficult situations. Arete has been central in gathering and presenting content for many emergency appeals, (prior to our current work with the DEC in Afghanistan) including work with the World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

In a crisis, the first priority is getting vital aid to those who need it, but it’s also critically important to get stories out. It’s those stories – well-told, well-illustrated – that hold people’s attention, engage the global community and move people to action. In the case of emergency appeals, like Afghanistan, engulfed in political turmoil – where DEC estimates a million children are at risk of dying of malnutrition this harsh winter, 8 million people on the edge of famine, and 95% of the population don’t have enough to eat – it is of paramount importance to respond as quickly and effectively as possible, to trigger the necessary response, so that the DEC can raise the money it needs to help the people of Afghanistan survive the winter.

Working with the DEC in Afghanistan is Arete’s most successful emergency appeal to date. So far, the appeal has raised over £30M.

At Arete, we think it is time to share some of the things we’ve learned and observed through the DEC Afghanistan emergency appeal, as well as our other recent emergency appeals.


Gaining Access to the Stories that Matter

Depending on the crisis, the obstacles to access differ. If it’s a natural disaster, particularly one affecting remote communities, the main obstacles are likely to be practical and logistical – how quickly can you physically get photographers on the ground in the worst affected areas?

A virtually submerged village in flooded rural Sindh, Pakistan. Arete collaborated with the World Food Programme on an emergency appeal in 2020, when floods devastated the region. Saiyna Bashir / WFP / Arete.

In conflict zones, security risks are obviously the most immediate consideration. Add to that, in Ghulam’s case, appalling weather and mountainous terrain. Additionally, one weapon warring factions often deploy is a bewildering increase in bureaucracy as a way to control access to people and the stories they can tell.

“Documenting things in Afghanistan is even harder today. We try to make it possible, but we must have a letter from the government giving us permission. Without it we will get in a lot of trouble.” – Ghulam Reza Nazari

The NGOs we work with are specialists in getting things done in the most complex situations – and that is Arete’s main advantage. After that, we’ve quickly found that local knowledge is one of our most valuable assets. In Afghanistan, we’ve exclusively used local consultants, like Ghulam Reza Nazari. This not only means Arete’s photographers can quickly gain access to affected areas but they understand the country and its people; as a result, it is much easier for them to communicate with potential beneficiaries. The only way to break through faceless statistics is by telling the stories of individuals, and how they and their families are suffering. It is those stories that move people to action, above anything else.

There is no point, however, in getting physical access to an affected community, if you can’t gain the trust of the people who live there. A photographer like Ghulam can connect with the people, explain to them why he has come, what he is trying to do to help relieve their suffering. That way he can learn and tell their stories in the most compelling way possible.

“People are not happy to have their photos taken, they are angry. They don’t want to be interviewed. But once we explain to them that these photos can help, they are happier to work with us” – Ghulam Reza, Arete Photographer
Nadia nurses her 2-month-old child, while the rest of her family look on, at home in Duykondi Province, Afghanistan. N’Deane Helajzen / Disasters Emergency Committee / Arete.

Using local photographers, incidentally, also builds capacity locally:  it puts money into the local communities, where it is needed, and helps local photographers build their careers, reputations and contacts.


Doing Justice to Those Stories

It’s also not enough to gain people’s trust, we have to make sure that we are doing right by those who have let us into their lives to witness to their most vulnerable moments. This takes tact and compassion, as well as technical skill – to take beautiful photographs that tell the story, while treating the subjects sensitively.

Whether it’s through photography, video, or the written word, Arete’s role is not to put a spin on events or individual accounts, but to use our skills to give people a voice that can reverberate around the world. 

“I feel bad seeing my country this way. This is the worst situation I have ever seen in Afghanistan. But I also feel happy with what I am doing, I can share my people’s problems with people who can help. It is the only way I can help, but it makes me happy that I can do this” – Ghulam Reza, Arete Photographer


The power of Photography and Video

Photo and video hold the real power, alongside a few well-chosen words. Arete always tries to let people tell their own stories, in their own words as much as possible: it is the best way to do them justice, and to preserve the authenticity that leads to a successful appeal.

Clara walks through standing water to her house while holding her one-year-old son Farnandine in Beira, Mozambique. Arete worked with the Disasters Emergency Committee in Mozambique in 2019 when Cyclone Idai destroyed most parts of Beira City. Karel Prinsloo / DEC / Arete.
Clara: “I woke up and the wind was blowing. I ran outside with my children. I have 5 children. My husband died a long time ago. We sought shelter. How will I live now? I used to sell bananas from a tree of mine. It is all gone. Who will help me now?”

 When you select the content for an appeal, it may not be what you initially expected – but it will almost always have an idiosyncratic quality, with individual details that stick in the mind, in a way that you could never recreate artificially. There’s never any need to sensationalise – the words, the pictures, the people speak for themselves.

The video below shows Istaahil, a woman living in Somaliland, telling her story. After her farm animals were killed by a drought in Somaliland in 2021, Istaahil’s livelihood was destroyed. The World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations collaborated with Arete on an emergency appeal. This video shows how the results of that appeal changed Istaahil’s life – and the lives of her children, forever.

You do need to use editorial skill in placing individual stories within the context of the wider emergency. At Arete, we try to blend contextual information, statistics and individual accounts, to give the appeal an authoritative factual base, alongside its call to human emotions.


Framing an Appeal – Showing its Success 

Collecting and presenting high-quality content does not in itself guarantee a successful appeal. Emergency appeals differ from some of our other projects, in that they are short-term drives with very tangible results. The desperate need for intervention is powerfully represented by quantifying the impact of each individual donation. This also serves to emphasise the relatively small contributions needed to have a significant impact. This is a very effective way to move people to action. Content needs to appeal both to the public’s hearts and to their heads. 


It’s very important to show the success of emergency appeals – not just the money raised, but where the money has been spent. Chronicling the impact by producing content before, during, and after an appeal, promotes transparency and trust. It also generally leads to future donations and ongoing support.

It’s too soon, as yet, to have the full reporting on DEC’S Afghanistan campaign but other campaigns have proven their success.

DEC’s Cyclone Idai Appeal for Mozambique – which benefited Clara, who tells her story in the above photograph and quotation – raised £43 million. Thanks to these donations, DEC’S member charities were able to make sure that 220,700 people received seeds, tools, fertiliser etc. to regrow crops in the first six months to provide food and a livelihood for their families; 57,400 people received food parcels in the first six months after the cyclone, to keep themselves and their families from starvation; 163,000 people were given access to basic health care; 135,800 people were given access to safe drinking water. DEC regards this as a very successful campaign, and it undoubtedly made an enormous difference to the lives of women like Clara. Arete is proud to have played its part.


Our award-winning journalists, photographers and content specialists are eager to help you make a difference. Contact us to find out how we can tailor our expertise to meet your needs.

2021 – a Year in Review: Small Changes with Big Impact

“A small change can make a big difference. You are the only one who can make our world a better place to inhabit. So, don’t be afraid to take a stand.”

- Ankita Singhal, Author

After another unpredictable year of negotiating obstacles, facing difficulties and sometimes learning to accept defeats, we highlight some of the little victories we have seen that have had resounding impacts on people’s lives.

Telling these stories highlights the incredible work of the charities and NGOs we work alongside. They are an antidote to the defeatism and apathy that are daily threats in a world where information flows like a relentless tide and the next set-back can often feel like it’s just around the corner.

Every individual life we touch is a success, every life changed for the better is a major achievement. Amongst vast statistics and global issues, it’s important to remember that every sweeping systemic change consists of thousands of smaller stages along the way. We continue to tell these important stories to remind us that everything we can do is worth doing and that small changes can have big impacts—sometimes far beyond our expectations…

Opportunity International – Roots of Change

Lisa Murray / Opportunity International / Arete. Chantal, 51, harvests Cassava Leaves on her farm in Kinshasa’s Kimwenza District.

Chantal is just one of thousands of women who have benefited from Opportunity International’s 3-year Roots of Change project. Roots of Change, which came to its conclusion in 2021, aimed to empower women in rural Ghana and DRC by improving their status in their communities, giving them access to modern farming techniques and resources, helping them to have more control over their assets and strengthening their leadership skills. The project exceeded its targets and trained more than 15,000 women, with over 12,000 opening savings accounts.

Lisa Murray / Opportunity International / Arete. Chantal, 51, harvests Aubergines on her farm in Kinshasa’s Kimwenza District.

“With this project, I’ve been able to pay for the school fees for my firstborn; she’s going on a trip to Cyprus soon to further her studies.”

Foundational skills and equipment have brought these small fruits of labour to Chantal, whose daughters have, in turn, been empowered to build their own skills and travel abroad—spreading the impacts of the project across generations. With access to education assured, the young women can build on their positions in their communities and further equip themselves to be the leaders of tomorrow.


FAO Project – Laasqoray

FAOSA / Arete / Isak Amin. Beneficiary Deeqa Osman’s son holds a lamb in Garabis village.
FAOSA / Arete / Isak Amin. Deeqa Osman, 40, mother of 8, in her home in Garabis village

The potentially devastating effects of drought have been softened for Deeqa and her son by integrated cash and precious agricultural training, supplies and activities from The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) who provide emergency support and training programmes for local communities in Somalia effected by drought.

“We thank God for this help as it is the only thing that enables us to buy everything we need… I am telling everyone who is in the programme to benefit from it and not to waste the opportunity. My plans for the future are to develop my farm with the money I receive and to work hard."

- Deeqa Osman

FAOSO / Arete / Isak Amin. Goats stand in a field at a farm near Badhan, Somalia.

These milk storage containers were donated by the FAO. Very small, simple pieces of equipment, that can have a critical impact; allowing communities to store and distribute more goat milk when it is available, keeping thirst at bay through periods of drought.


Open Government Partnership

Launched by the UN in 2011, The Open Government Partnership now has a membership of 79 countries and a growing number of local governments, representing more than two billion people, along with thousands of civil society organisations. It promotes accountable, responsive, inclusive governance.

Carina Bruwer / Open Government Partnership / Arete. Zukiswa works on her computer at Rhodes University in South Africa.

At Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, Zukiswa works on a user-friendly online platform to house national and provincial budgetary information, expenditures, and learning resources for citizens.

Using technology to link governments and their citizens can help build bonds of trust and empower normal people to make informed democratic decisions and perhaps bring about political changes which could have wider national and international ramifications.

“The idea behind this online budget data portal, is that it’s supposed to be really accessible to anyone, even people who aren’t economists or budget analysts. It’s intended to have lots of resources for learning, videos in different languages - 5 different languages. It also allows those who are more budget analysts to be able to access that kind of data and access that information to do their own analysis of public finance information. So it’s a wide range of users that we’ve targeted, but at the centre of it, it’s to make all budgets open and accessible for anyone, anyone at all.”

– Zoliswa Kota, Public Service Accountability Monitor, Makhanda, Eastern Cape


Jhpieigo – Malawi

Karel Prinsloo / Jhpiego / Arete. Queen holds her backpack, standing in front of a small group of schoolchildren in Malawi.

Queen receives school supplies from Jhpiego. She dropped out of school due to pregnancy while in Standard 8 / Grade 10 to take care of her child. She lost hope of having a brighter future for herself and child until the DREAMS programme established a Go Girls Club in her community. Queen has now completed the primary and secondary package of DREAMS and is pursuing a career in nursing.

Jhpiego responds to the HIV epidemic with innovative ways of supporting vulnerable populations. Investing in one school bag for someone like Queen can go some way towards making them feel worth investing in, it can help to reignite their hope for a better life—driving them towards fantastic achievements like Queen’s. By following a path of education, self-improvement and career, Queen provides a role model for others in similar situations. Promoting education has a key role to play in increasing the uptake and availability of preventative tools and treatments and ensuring the cultural/social changes needed to tackle the epidemic long-term.



Clair Macdougall / EM2030 / Arete. Wendyam gives a presentation on gender sensitivity training.

Equal Measures 2030 is an independent civil society and private sector-led partnership that envisions a world where gender equality is achieved, every girl and woman counts and is counted.

EM2030 have provided opportunities for people like Wendyam Micheline Kaboré, Executive Director of Initiative Pananetugri pour le Bien-être de la Femme, to conduct gender sensitivity training with male NGO heads in Burkina Faso, who will in turn train their staff.

Training the heads of NGOs in gender sensitivity begins a chain of dispersion, whereby gender considerations begin to drip down and eventually touch all parts of society.

EM2030 are mapping and compiling data relevant to the education of girls and women in the unstable context of Burkina Faso – where violence has disproportionately affected women and education for women has come under attack. With data outputs they are undertaking advocacy with key stakeholders on the critical role of data driven advocacy in driving change on girls’ education.

In partnership with EM2030, Initiative Pananetugri pour la Bien-être de la Femme (IPBF) (the Pananetugri Initiative for the Well-being of Women) focuses on developing female leadership and empowerment, especially among young women and girls.



Oktavia Ika Rahman, a 27 year old female entrepreneur, poses for a photo next to her business's poster at her home in North Jakarta, Indonesia.

Oktavia is a 27-year-old entrepreneur who sells homemade food from her home in Jakarta. She is just one of the hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries of the Youth Business International COVID Rapid Response and Recovery programme, funded by Google, which is supporting over 200,000 businesses in 32 countries. Thanks to YBI, Oktavita has been able to start selling food online. That way, she was able to work and take care of her children.

Arete / Yunaidi Joepoet / Youth Business International. Oktavia takes photos of her homemade food.

By providing the relatively small tools required to facilitate the transition of small businesses like Oktavia’s to the online space, the project softens the blow of the pandemic on the wider economy, also future proofing businesses for the post COVID world, accelerating their modernisation and making them more competitive.


UNICEF – Somalia

UNICEF / Arete / Ismail Taxta. 9-year-old Hani holds up a learning aid in a classroom in Somalia.

Hani is one of the beneficiaries of a recent project by UNICEF and WFP, investing in the improvement of school facilities and the provision of school meals in the Banadir region. This project has been supported by a generous contribution from the German government, which has enabled UNICEF and WFP to provide safer, healthier schooling environments, more conducive to learning.

A healthy contribution from the German government makes a big difference and it’s important to remember the small instances where it is spent.

The ingredients for a safe, effective classroom environment are taken for granted by so many children around the world. They are incredibly simple, but equally, they are of vital importance. Access to simple resources can ensure education for the next generation in Somalia, and the students of today will grow up to be the decision-makers of tomorrow – equipping and empowering them could be the key to a hopeful future in the region.


Costa Foundation – Zambia

Arete / Karel Prinsloo / Costa Foundation. Eunice Chowa (18) in the dormitory at the Peas Kabuta Secondary School supported by the Costa foundation in Kabuta.

“My favourite teacher is Madame Musonda because she always encourages me to work hard so that I can achieve my goals. She teaches civic education. I also do computer training here, we all learn how to type… My dream for the future is to become an accountant, I want a nice house, and also to be a peace maker. I feel bad when I find people quarrelling about different things.”

- Eunice Chowa, Student at Peas Kabuta Secondary School, 18

The Costa foundation supports schools in coffee-growing communities in remote areas of Zambia—providing inclusive, accessible, quality education.

Arete / Karel Prinsloo / Costa Foundation. Pupils attend an ICT class at the Peas Kampinda Secondary School supported by the Costa Foundation in Kasama.

Computers hold boundless potential for students in the most remote places in the world, narrowing the obstacles of long-distance and national borders to open up a world of possibilities. Every computer can ignite an interest that could lead to a lifetime of success.


UWS Cambodia

WFP / Arete / Cesar Lopez. Chea, 10, goes to school near his home in Kompong Songkae village, Preah Vhear Province, Cambodia.

Most rural, ethnic-minority communities in Cambodia do not have access to the national education system as the national curriculum does not cater for minority languages. United World Schools works with local communities to provide access to an inclusive, accessible, quality education in children’s mother tongues.

The project begins to close the gap between minorities in isolated rural populations in Cambodia and those in urban areas. In the long term, it could contribute to altering the balance of society towards a system where a high-quality education isn’t reserved for people from certain places speaking certain languages.


For charities and NGOs, currently facing so many obstacles to their daily work, telling the stories of the little changes that make big differences to people’s lives has never been so important.

Our award-winning journalists, photographers and content specialists are eager to help you make a difference. Contact us to find out how we can tailor our expertise to meet your needs.

World AIDS DAY 2021: History by the headlines

World Aids Day was first observed on December 1, 1988.

The intention was to bring greater awareness to HIV – the virus behind AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome)  and honour all those affected by the killer disease.

This annual event has now become the longest-running disease awareness initiative in the history of public health.

Over its 34-year life span representations of HIV/AIDS and those suffering from it have morphed almost unrecognisably.

Since it first emerged, AIDs has been controversial – surrounded by scientific inaccuracy, social stigma and moral panic. This article tracks changes in public discourse in the west through a sample of headlines in the mainstream US and UK media from 1981 – when AIDS first appeared in US news reports – to the frenetic alarmism of the British tabloids in the mid-80s – to the emergence of some positive representation in the 90’s – through to the more global, factual, solutions journalism witnessed in the new millennium.

Photo: Kate Holt/ Jphiego/ Guardian/ Arete. Matwsie Serati who is HIV positive and taking ARV's sits on her bed looking through photographs of her brothers and sisters who have died in Maseuru, Lesotho. Matwsie had five brothers and sisters who have died, three from TB and one from confirmed HIV who left four children behind. Lesotho has the second highest HIV prevalence rate in the world with twenty six percent of adults being HIV positive and nearly 5000 people dying last year from AIDs. Poverty, lack of education and alcohol abuse are contributing factors. Jhpiego is supporting many initiatives to combat this including project to encourage people to use PrEP.

This account highlights the progress made through the years while facing up to shameful misinformation and prejudice spread by the media. If we are to address the present and future of the global AIDS situation, we need to understand the nature of the narrative that has gone before.

As early as 1983 – even while the virus was far from understood - it was clear AIDS was a global issue. Studies had shown that the virus was present in Africa long before its emergence in the West and that it was largely transmitted through heterosexual sex. Despite this, for years narratives became dominated by homophobia, victim-blaming and racism.

There have been myths about its origins in bestiality, misinformation about transmission, even beliefs that AIDS is somehow God’s punishment for sin, and on top of that flat-out denialism!

Sufferers were turned into modern-day lepers.

As we move through this timeline, it is clear to see the progression in how stories around HIV/AIDS are reported.



2 Mysterious Diseases Killing Homosexuals

  • The Washington Post

‘It may be that both are piggybacking on the severe breakdown of the immune system in these men... But why only men? Why only homosexuals? And why in healthy men who had no apparent challenges to their immune systems?’



 US Gay Blood Plague Kills Three in Britain

  • The Sun


April 1984

New U.S Report Names Virus That May Cause AIDS

  • The New York Times

‘…the finding led the American researchers to express the hope that a vaccine would be developed and ready for testing 'in about two years.’


October 1984

AIDS Studies Hint Saliva May Transmit Infection

  • The New York Times

‘…researchers said in interviews yesterday that they are convinced the studies raise real public health concerns.’


January 1985

Britain Threatened by gay virus plague

  • The Mail on Sunday


February 1985

It’s spreading like wildfire.

  • The Sun


July 1985

Hudson has AIDS, spokesman says

  • The New York Times

[Actor Rock Hudson becomes first major public figure to announce he has AIDS – he died in October later that year]

 ‘Asked how the actor acquired the disease, which most frequently strikes homosexuals, intravenous drug users and recipients of blood transfusions, Miss. Collart said, ''He doesn't have any idea now how he contracted AIDS. Nobody around him has AIDS.''’



“I’d shoot my son if he had AIDS”, says Vicar

- The Sun

‘…to make his point, the Rev Robert Simpson climbed a hill behind his church and aimed a shotgun at his 18-year-old son Chris.’



Don’t Die of Ignorance

[UK AIDS Awareness Campaign featuring actor John Hurt airs in cinemas and on television]

While still alarmist, this campaign is said to have been a turning point in acknowledging the fact that “anyone can get it”, rather than blaming the homosexual population.



[1st World AIDS Day to bring awareness to HIV, as well as to commemorate those affected by the disease]


Diana opens Landmark Aids Centre

  • BBC

‘The Princess of Wales has opened a new Aids centre in south-east London.

She gave director Jonathan Grimshaw - diagnosed HIV positive five years ago - a firm handshake before going inside the Landmark Centre in Tulse Hill for a private tour.

This was the first attempt to de-stigmatise the condition by a high-profile member of the Royal Family’



Ryan White dies of AIDS at 18; his struggle helped pierce myths

  • The New York Times

 ‘Ryan, a haemophiliac who contracted the virus through a blood transfusion, died of complications of AIDS… publicity helped pierce myths about AIDS, helping health experts and educators emphasise that it is not transmitted by casual contact, that it affects people from many walks of life and that although always fatal, the infection leaves many people able to continue normal lives for years.

Ryan White became a household name in 1985, when as a 14-year-old he began his successful fight to attend the public school in Kokomo that had banned him amid a clamor of fearful students and their parents.’



Basketball; Magic Johnson Ends His Career, Saying He Has AIDS Infection

  • The New York Times

‘Magic Johnson, one of the most popular and accomplished players in basketball history, said today that he had been infected by the virus that causes AIDS and that he would retire immediately from the Los Angeles Lakers…’

[Johnson made his announcement live on CNN, and specifically said he did not have AIDS, but had contracted the HIV virus – despite this the press still widely reported the former to be true. Notwithstanding, HIV now had a high-profile heterosexual African American spokesperson who would prove to do positive work to change perceptions about the virus. Two weeks later Freddie Mercury announced he had contracted the virus and the next day became the first high profile British figure to die from AIDS related illness]



Healthy, Gay, Guilt-Stricken: AIDS’ Toll on the Virus-Free

  • The New York Times 

‘At age 40, Jaffe Cohen says he feels "older than everybody else." After stalking his circle of friends for more than a decade, AIDS has snatched and killed dozens of his contemporaries and left him with such a backlog of grief that sometimes when he is listening to music or relaxing under a hot shower he startles himself by letting out a sob.’



[The Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) was established to advocate for global action on the epidemic and coordinate the response to HIV and AIDS across the UN]

February 12, 1996 cover of Time




Clinton Declares Crisis Among Minorities

  • USA Today

‘SWAT teams of public health experts, AIDS specialists, epidemiologists and other federal health officials will design and implement education, outreach and treatment programs in minority communities with a high incidence of HIV or AIDS. One third of the funding will go toward substance abuse programs and protease inhibitors while the remainder will go to developing new strategies for preventing the spread of AIDS.’



Drugs firms withdraw from Aids case

  • BBC

‘The world's biggest pharmaceutical companies have backed out of a landmark court battle over cheap, non-branded anti-Aids drugs.

The 39 firms had brought legal action to fight legislation which would allow generic versions of their patented drugs being made in or imported to South Africa… However, the South African Government argued that it desperately needed cheap medication to help the 4.7 million South Africans infected with HIV or Aids.’


Flirting with Death: the UK’s First AIDS ‘Cluster’

  • The Independent

‘After 20 years of public-health campaigns about Aids, it seems that complacency is setting in. And nowhere more so than among heterosexuals, many of whom still believe that Aids is something that should concern gays, drug-users and Africans, but not them. They are wrong. In 1999, heterosexually acquired, new cases of HIV overtook homosexually acquired infection for the first time in the UK.’


June 2004

Bush Backs Condom Use to Prevent Spread of AIDS

-      The New York Times

‘President Bush said on Wednesday for the first time that the United States should ''learn from the experience'' of countries like Uganda in fighting AIDS and embraced the use of condoms to prevent its spread, a sensitive issue among conservative groups that have fought the adoption of any strategy that does not focus on abstinence.’

September 2004

Europe Unites for New Aids Battle

  • BBC

‘The conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, heard calls for European leaders to do more to fight Aids, described by one as "the silent plague of our times".’



'Out of Control: AIDS in Black America'

– abc news.

‘As the world marked the 25th anniversary of the first reported cases of AIDS this summer, one important story was mostly ignored: AIDS is an epidemic in the African American community and it's spreading fast.’



Circumcision cuts by half the risk of Aids

  • The Times

‘Circumcising adult men may cut by half their risk of getting the HIV-Aids virus through heterosexual intercourse, the US Government announced yesterday as it concluded two studies in Africa testing the link.’



Britons may be more vulnerable to Aids due to Roman invasion

-      The Telegraph

‘Researchers found that people who live in lands conquered by the Roman army have less protection against HIV than those in countries they never reached

They say a gene which helps make people less susceptible to HIV occurs in greater frequency in areas of Europe that the Roman Empire did not stretch to.’


September 2009

AIDS vaccine “important step” against disease

– Reuters

‘An experimental AIDS vaccine made from two failed products has protected people for the first time, reducing the rate of infection by about 30 percent, researchers said on Thursday.’


December 2009

Killer Syndrome: The Aids Denialists

– The Independent

‘In the first week of November, a record number of Aids denialists from 28 countries, including Britain, attended the Rethinking Aids conference in Oakland, California.’



Vatican shifts ground on condoms, HIV, conception

  • NBC news

‘In a seismic shift on one of the most profound — and profoundly contentious — Roman Catholic teachings, the Vatican said that condoms are the lesser of two evils when used to curb the spread of AIDS, even if their use prevents a pregnancy.’



World Aids Day: Victory is within reach, but cuts could spoil it all

  • The Independent

‘Just as Obama announces 'the beginning of the end' for Aids, funding is being slashed.’



End of AIDS a worthy legacy for Obama

  • USA Today 

‘In his State of the Union Address, President Obama stated with confidence that the promise of an AIDS-free generation is within our reach. Scientists and HIV/AIDS experts agree…’


July 2014

Aids epidemic under control by 2030 'is possible'


‘There is a chance the Aids epidemic can be brought under control by 2030, according to a report by the United Nations Aids agency.’

July 2014

Decriminalise sex work to help control Aids pandemic, scientists demand

-      The Guardian

Photo: Kate Holt/ Jphiego/ Guardian/ Arete. Makananelo Mochasane, who is a sex worker, walks along the side of the road at night to get customers in Maseuru Lesotho. Makananelo is HIV positive and taking ARV's. Lesotho has the second highest HIV prevalence rate in the world with twenty six percent of adults being HIV positive. Jhpiego is supporting many initiatives to combat this including a project to encourage people to use PrEP.


Gay or Bisexual Black Men Have 50 Percent Risk of HIV

  • NBC News

‘The average American has just a 1 percent risk of ever being infected with the AIDS virus, but gay and bisexual black men have a 50 percent risk.’



HIV hairdresser Daryll Rowe handed life sentence

  • Sky News

‘Daryll Rowe faces life in jail for 'deliberate campaign' to infect men he met on the gay dating app Grindr.’



UK ‘on course’ to be HIV-free nation by 2030 – as rates fall to lowest level in two decades

  • The Sun

‘New diagnoses fell by just over a quarter from 6,721 in 2015 to 4,484 last year, Public Health England said.’


In This Pandemic, Personal Echoes of the AIDS Crisis

  • The New York Times

‘Are the parallels in the nature of the viruses, or just an old story about America that had never changed?’



Women Living with HIV share their stories

–     Daily Mail

‘Women reveal what it's REALLY like to live with HIV including missing out on having children and hiding it for years due to shame - but say they're 'left out of the narrative' because it's seen as a “gay man's disease”’


Unravelling the history of the western media’s complex relationship with AIDS can be disturbing. But this World AIDS Day, UNAIDS is highlighting uncomfortable economic, social, cultural and legal inequalities which must be ended urgently if we are to end HIV transmissions by 2030.

This stark reminder of the social and cultural obstacles activism has already overcome, of the inequalities that led to the marginalisation of people affected by the virus, and clear evidence of how changed perceptions changed headlines offers hope. IF we keep telling stories in a thoughtful and positive way, we can effect real change in attitudes toward HIV/AIDS.

Photo: Quinn Mattingly/ Frontline AIDS/ Arete. A close-up shows a thank you note to Doan Thanh Tung (31), Lighthouse Executive Director, adorns a shelf at their clinic in Hanoi, Vietnam. Frontline AIDS, in partnership with the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF), has provided emergency COVID-19 grants to community-based organisations such as Lighthouse, a Vietnam-based community organisation that helps individuals most affected by HIV.

This article may have illustrated some progress around reporting and understanding of HIV/AIDS in some parts of the world. However, there is still some way to go in many other areas around the globe.


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At Arete we source and manage local experts in photography, video, digital and written content from around the world to help you tell stories that make a difference.

Contact us to find out how we can help you make an impact through exceptional storytelling and targeted communications strategies

Smartphone photography – Is a Smartphone all you need?

As the well-used photographer aphorism goes: “The best camera is the one you have with you”. Yet, if you had a choice, is a smartphone all you need?

Photography is at the heart of every story we tell here at Arete. We tell stories with the intent to evoke emotion, to invoke action. Therefore how an image is perceived is paramount.

Without a doubt, the quality of the camera on the average smartphone has increased hugely in recent years; however, if you are a storyteller, be it an NGO, business or photojournalist, is there a time and place for smartphone photography or does the DSLR camera still reign supreme?

In this month’s Arete’s Stories, we broached this subject with two photographers who work in the field, Ishaq Ali Anis, and Anthony Upton:

Ishaq Ali Anis

Born in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan, Ishaq spent a number of years living as a refugee in Pakistan, before returning to Kabul in Afghanistan in 2012 to pursue higher education, enrolling at Kabul University to study photography. 

Since graduation in 2016, Ishaq has worked with a variety of organisations as a photographer, such as the Afghanistan Photographers Association. Ishaq is an award-winning photographer, taking first prize in the Silk Road Photo Competition in Korea and Kazakhstan, and selected among the top 30 photos in the UNESCO Biennial Photos Competition and Photo Exhibition.

More recently, Ishaq documented his escape from Afghanistan to France following the Taliban takeover, which you can read in our From the Photographer blog here:


Ishaq, what do you tend to use for photography, a smartphone or a DSLR?

“The most recent story I documented was the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Whereas I would usually opt for my d600 NIKON DSLR camera, I chose to use only my smartphone on this occasion, as my camera is quite large and obvious.

Photo: Ishaq Ali Anis. Taken with a DSLR. Ziarat-e Sakhi is one of the landmarks of Kabul and every year, people on the first day of the year come together to celebrate the new year in this mosque. 2016 Kabul, Afghanistan

It was a very chaotic time in Afghanistan, and things were getting worse by the day. I wanted to capture the story, but I also feared for my life. In public, people in Afghanistan would not react well to a camera, so instead, I used my smartphone to take photos more discreetly.

For me, it was important this situation was recorded; I knew these photos would be a part of our history. Everything is changing.

I witnessed many journalists being targeted, and I heard many reports too. But, everyone has a smartphone these days, so I knew it wouldn’t create much suspicion if a young man is seen with a smartphone.

In Afghanistan, most people do not consider that someone with just a smartphone could be a photographer, so it helped me capture the story covertly.” 

Photo: Ishaq Ali Anis. Taken with a DSLR. An old man working in the old Kabul City “Murad Khani” Kabul, Afghanistan 2015

So would you choose to use a smartphone in the future over a DSLR?

“To be honest, I do like using a smartphone. It is very easy and very handy, and because you are connected to the internet, once you take a photo, you can immediately start editing it, captioning it, and send it to the cloud.

When I was in Afghanistan, a lot of my friends were photographers for different agencies. They would often solely use smartphones, particularly for news. A DSLR doesn’t compare for immediate and urgent online news stories. You can send the photos or videos from the scene immediately. So I would say smartphone photography has improved journalism in this way.

Photo: Ishaq Ali Anis. Taken with a smartphone. Portrait of Mehrad, 2, an Afghan boy. Kabul, Afghanistan. 2020

However, what can be very disappointing, is lacking the versatility to take  the diferent shots that a DSLR gives you. You can’t use a photo lens, which means you can’t zoom without using digital zoom and digital zoom destroys the quality.

It is important if I want to sell or exhibit my photos that they are captured in the best possible way. So for me, I like to use a mixture of both my smartphone and my DSLR camera, using each for the advantages they provide. A smartphone really doesn’t compare quality-wise. But it did allow me to at least capture something versus maybe nothing.

Photo: Ishaq Ali Anis. Taken with a smartphone. Children play in a back street in Hazara Town area in Quetta, Pakistan 2021

In the future, I hope for smartphones to improve in camera quality. It would be so useful and handy to be able to use something so small and discreet when documenting stories!”

Anthony Upton

Anthony has been an editorial photographer since 1990, starting in local papers and within a year graduating to British national newspapers, working for seven years at The Times of London before setting up a photo agency concentrating on sports marketing.

After seven successful years, Anthony returned to his editorial roots, freelancing for The Daily Telegraph and NGOs such as the UNICEF, TRUK and the British Red Cross, while maintaining a strong roster of corporate clients and thinktanks who require photos destined for publication in the media.

During this time, Anthony has volunteered as an Emergency Responder for the British Red Cross and worked in the logistics cell for UNWRA.


Can a good photographer make up for a poor quality camera?

“An experienced photographer brings so much more than their knowledge about how to use a camera to a photographic commission. For one, they’ll have a range of technical solutions to suit the different environments in which they work.

However, their greatest asset is their ability to see storytelling moments within each situation. Everybody is looking at the same event, and most won’t see what the photographer sees; it is the photographer’s job to distil from the multiple possible vignettes, the ones which convey the message to tell the story of the event. 

Photo: Anthony Upton. General Views of the Cisco; Intel and Cohesity evening event in Barcelona.

Gone are the days when a photographer needed to capture everything in one photo, however even with online galleries, every photo needs to support the others and tell the viewer the story behind the photos – to explain the narrative.

Sometimes the photographer will welcome the greater creative options available with a dedicated camera, and sometimes the small size and immediacy of the smartphone will be the correct tool for the job.

It is part of the photographer’s pre-job planning to understand which will serve them better, alongside dealing with the logistical problems associated with the job.

And of course, the most important part of being a photographer is the ability to connect with the subject and treat them with dignity no matter the subject’s circumstances.”


And how about purely from a technical perspective?

“A DSLR Wide and Long Lens give creative options and low light capabilities that a smartphone simply cannot do. ISO agnostic sensors mean that more detail is available in both highlight and shadow areas of the image. This level of quality is what a professional is expected to provide.

There are further advantages to using a DSLR, such as using an off-camera flash rather than relying on low powered internal flashes.

Photo: Anthony Upton. The London Ballet Company performs 'Poppy' at the Bridewell Theatre in central London. The ballet commemorates the soldiers who fought in WW1 and the subsequent wars ahead of Remembrance Sunday.

The advanced sensors in a DSLR allow for better colour grading in post-production, which leads to photographs with huge file sizes when they are uploaded to a digital device, but an unrivalled level of detail and quality.

Using a viewfinder in bright light is far easier than a phone screen, and it provides three points of contact for greater stability.

What the smartphone lacks in technical prowess, it makes up for in discreetness. People see a smartphone as non-threatening as they are much more used to seeing them. In the analogue film days, we would carry a little point and shoot pocket camera to carry out this job. The smartphone has replaced this, so it will always have a place in the camera bag.”

For more views and opinions, straight from the source, sent directly to your inbox, sign up to our monthly newsletter here:

At Arete we source and manage local experts in photography, video, digital and written content from around the world to help you tell stories that make a difference.

Contact us to find out how we can help you make an impact through exceptional storytelling and targeted communications strategies

"Confidence and trust" - My approach

Nafkot Gebeyehu is a 26 year old photographer from Ethiopia. She recently went on assignment with Arete to the Wolaita Sodo region in Southern Ethiopia on behalf of one of Arete’s clients- Tearfund. In this blog she discusses how her training in journalism influences her work; helping her obtain pictures with ease and integrity.

I did not know photography was going to be my career. I grew up with people’s stories all around me because my dad is a writer. I thought I would be one too.

Before university, I studied to be an engineer. In Ethiopia if you have high grades they automatically make you a science student. So I was placed in an engineering school. I hated it. I didn’t know what to do – I knew I loved working with people and telling people’s stories.  Eventually I dropped out of the course and took things from there.

During Covid-19 I was a freelance photographer. I was also employed as a communication and marketing officer. I had a lot of shoots that involved travel and all of these were cancelled. But it ended up being a good time for me. I could work out what I really wanted to do.

When I first started taking photos, my interest was centred around telling ‘people’ stories. I had mentors that worked for NGOs and they taught me the skills involved and I would put them into practise whenever I could. I would stop people in public spaces, and introduce myself as a photographer, and ask them if they would mind telling me their story and if I could take their photograph.

While at university I started a series called AAU stories (Addis Ababa University). The university was a hard space to navigate. Its infrastructure was very undeveloped; this led to a lot of problems with students, so a friend and I started to document this.

After university, I ended up working in fashion as I was surrounded by people working in that industry. I didn’t think I was going to go in that direction, but this was a nice challenge for me. In fashion you must portray the story the designer wants to tell. It is a very specific subject and a very controlled environment. This taught me a lot of skills that I apply in my work today.

Meti models for a shoot for the fashion designer Yonael Merga in his collection 'chereka/moon' showcasing native Ethiopian hair styles and fabrics, Ethiopia.

When photographing someone the first thing I try to do is make them feel comfortable. They can be intimidated when there is a big camera in front of them, so I establish trust with them first. The first thing I do is compliment them on what they are wearing and tell them they look great. Then, I take a couple of candid shots when they are not looking which I then show them. Once the trust is established it takes me about two to three minutes to get the shots I need.

While on assignment for Tearfund, Nigist Meckonnen was initially hesitant, and her daughter and her daughter were particularly camera shy. I managed to capture a few shots. When I showed them to her, she instantly became more receptive and relaxed.

Nigist Meckonnen (50), a beneficiary of Tearfund Canada’s agricultural training programmes, implemented by Terepeza Development Association, cleans her compound in Farecho village of Sodo, Ethiopia.
Nigist Meckonnen (50), a beneficiary of Tearfund Canada’s agricultural training programmes, implemented by Terepeza Development Association, poses for a photo in Abala Farecho Village in Wolaita Sodo, Ethiopia.

On the shoot I particularly remember Lebso Lemena’s story. Lebso was a farmer from Abala Farecho village. You could tell the family was extremely close. He explained to me that when Covid happened he could no longer send his children to school. This hurt him most of all.

With the help of Tearfund’s agriculture training he was able to increase his income and pay for their fees again. He was smiling and laughing when he told me this and I knew that this was what I wanted to capture. So, I kept telling him to recall this moment when I was taking his photos.

Lebso Lemena (50) and his wife Amenech Asale (45) pose for a photo with their family (left to right), Cherenet Lennao (18), Lemlem Lenao (15), Sintayehu lebso (6), Kidist Lebso (12) and Yonas Lenso (24) in their front yard in Abala Farecho village, Sodo, Ethiopia.
Lebso Lemena (50), a beneficiary of Tearfund Canada’s climate change programme, implemented by Terepeza Development Association, poses for a portrait on his farm in Abala farecho village, Ethiopia.

The key to photography is knowing how to communicate with someone. My journalist training has taught me to be in tune with a subject’s consciousness. When someone hasn’t had this training – this is where you can see the ethical imbalance. Their focus may be more about the technical skills; how to take it, the focus, the right light – so the human element gets lost. Training helps with treating people more than a photo but as a human being.

Tamarat Ganta (22), a beneficiary of Tearfund Canada’s Church based community programme, implemented by Terepeza Development Association, poses for a portrait at the backyard of Abala Farecho Kalehiwot church, in Sodo, Ethiopia.
Ukume Waltena (32), a beneficiary of Tearfund Canada’s Church based community programme, implemented by Terepeza Development Association, poses for a portrait at the backyard of Abala Farecho Kalehiwot church, Ethiopia.
Bizunesh Mandedo (40), a member of the Kalehiwot church that is a part of Tearfund Canada’s Church based communities programme, implemented by Terepeza Development Association, poses for a portrait in the backyard of Abala Farecho Kalehiwot church, in Sodo, Ethiopia.

The best advice I could give to someone starting their career is get a mentor. Shadowing someone was where I did the majority of my learning. I could ask questions on the job and learn by following their guidance. Secondly, start with a personal project, use you family, someone you can read well, then try to learn how to build that relationship with a stranger.

At the moment I am working on a personal project with my dad. He is a wildly acknowledged writer but is suffering from Alzheimer’s and recently has started forgetting his whole career, so I have started documenting his life’s work.

I would like to thank Tearfund and Arete for this shoot and their clear guidance, making my life easier. It is really rare to find clients like you and I am grateful to have worked with you.


Photos by Nafkot Gebeyehu
Text by Izzy Morshead

Arete’s Stories: Documenting a changing world; how reporting on the climate crisis impacts journalists’ mental health with Siegfried Modola & Aaron Palabyab

COP26 is coming to Glasgow on the 31st of October, and with it, the eyes of the world as the UN brings together world leaders to discuss and align on climate change action.

Around the world, storms, floods and wildfires are intensifying. Air pollution is affecting the health of tens of millions of people and unpredictable weather Is causing untold damage to homes and livelihoods.

In the lead up to the 26th Conference of the Parties, we sat down with two of our photographers that have spent years documenting natural disasters. We sought to discuss how, as environmentalists, they handle the personal and emotional weight of photographing worsening climate events year after year, how they justify what they do in light of climate grief and journalistic burnout, and more.

We start with Siegfried Modola…


Siegfried Modola is a Kenya raised independent Italian/British photojournalist and documentary photographer focusing on social, humanitarian and geopolitical events worldwide. He is based between Nairobi and Paris.

Siegfried has reported in over a dozen countries across Africa and worked in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South America, and regularly contributes to news agencies such as Reuters and humanitarian organisations such as UNICEF, UNHCR and others via Arete. His photographs have appeared in some of the most prominent international publications such as Time, the New York Times, L’Express, Le Monde, Liberation, Figaro, Paris Match, Geo, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Siegfried is currently working on a long-term personal project on the impact of air pollution on marginalised communities around the world. You can read Siegfried’s piece on air pollution in Afghanistan here:


Siegfried, can you tell us a little about the environmental disasters or events that you have covered over the years?

“Much of my work over the years has involved climate change-induced events. Being based in East Africa for a while meant that I have covered a lot of droughts. These are not new, but in recent years they have been reoccurring at a higher frequency and with more intensity.

Events that really stick in my mind are the major drought in Somalia in 2011, where thousands and thousands of people died, and the work I did covering the fleeing Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Rohingya refugees shield from the rain in Balukhali, Camp 10, part of the refugee camp sheltering over 800,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Bangladesh suffers intense cyclonic storms and some of the heaviest monsoon rains on earth.

This event in Bangladesh, in particular, is where you witness that climate change isn’t necessarily caused solely by industry or the burning of fossil fuels. covered one of the largest refugee camps in the world on the Bangladesh border with Myanmar, which housed almost 1 million people.

This sprawling camp led to complete destruction of the local environment in a country where climate change and rising sea levels have already had a devastating effect. There are no natural barriers left to halt the floodwater, and the refugees have no way to defend themselves; they aren’t even allowed to build any form of concrete structure to protect them from the rising sea levels and flooding.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. A mother gestures in grief as others stand close to the beds of their children suffering from lung infections at a government-run hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. Doctor Farid Ahmad Andishmond, a paediatrician at the hospital, believes that the spike of cases of pneumonia and other lung infections among children is directly linked to the increase of pollution in the capital and other cities in Afghanistan. Many families in the city cannot afford electricity. Instead, they are left with no other choice but to burn whatever they can find to keep their homes warm, he explains while doing the rounds through the room, between the beds of sick children.

In more recent years, I have been working on a personal project to understand, through photography, how the issues of air pollution are affecting the world’s most marginalised communities. It is often one of the impacts of climate change that can fly under the radar, as it is much more difficult to visualise versus something as dramatic as a flood or hurricane.”


How contributary do you think climate change is to these environmental disasters you have witnessed?

“Certainly, with something like air pollution, it is clear that the burning of fossil fuels and dirty fuel is the cause, and causing an impact, on the climate as a whole. We cannot argue this anymore; we can see world events getting worse every year.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Coal merchants wait for customers in Kabul, Afghanistan. The capital Kabul, a city of some 6 million, ranks as one of the most polluted cities in the world — contesting amongst other polluted capitals such as India’s New Delhi or China’s Beijing. Many cannot afford electricity and so burn coal, garbage, plastic and rubber in their homes to keep warm during the cold winter months. Old vehicles and generators that run on poor quality fuel release vast amounts of toxins into the city’s air.

In my opinion, the climate has definitely shifted, it has become more violent, and it is the poorest communities around the world that are suffering the most. In East Africa, where I have lived and grown-up, the droughts are getting worse and worse. Crops might not grow because of the lack of rain, and it is the people who depend on these crops to survive who are dying.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Women herd goats towards one of the few water points in the drought-stricken region of northern Kenya. Malnutrition among children is peaking at dangerous levels, and herders fear that it is a matter of weeks before their cattle start to die.

As a photojournalist it is clear that the climate is changing, I see it everywhere I go.”


How does it make you feel, witnessing these events year on year, while in some places around the world, climate change is touted as a myth?

“I am not a scientist or an expert. I prefer to be a visual narrator. I use the photos and stories I capture to help raise awareness of these issues, to show the world there is a problem, there is an issue — and let them build their own opinion.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Sadi, starts to prepare food in her kitchen’s home in Malkoruqua village, northeastern Kenya.

I find it hard not to be a pessimist in all this when you know that during the course of the world’s history that the industrialisation of society has led to a huge amount of fossil fuels being removed from the earth and spewed into the atmosphere.

I feel obligated to cover the effects of climate change, despite how much these stories weigh on my conscience. To approach a story, you need to dive deep into people’s lives. You realise how vital the local climate is to them; when the next rain falls, how their homes would be washed away if a flood were to hit.

On the one hand, it is upsetting covering these stories. You feel that you are always chasing your own tail. Going around covering the same issues, with the same root cause and not enough real action being implemented.

On the other side, I can see that awareness is rising, particularly in the younger generations. We are moving in the right direction. It might still take years, but do we have those years?

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Women and children wait to be registered prior to a food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Thonyor, Leer County, South Sudan

If it is too late, what will this mean? How many more people will I document being affected by these issues? How many more people will die? Now we are witnessing that it doesn’t just affect the farmer in India; it affects almost everyone in their homes, cities in Europe, and America. I am hopeful that this will act as a catalyst for the world to act collectively and make a change for good.”

Next, we spoke with Aaron Palabyab…

Aaron shooting in Dinapigue, Isabela, an isolated coastal town in northeastern Philippines.

Aaron Palabyab is a filmmaker and a photographer specialising in travel-oriented content. He also works as a cameraman/videographer around the Philippines and the world.

Based in Metro Manila, in the Philippines, Aaron has won multiple awards for his film and photography and works for organisations including Fujifilm Philippines, Uniqlo, DHL International, the United Nations World Food Programme, GRID Magazine, UNESCO, Arete, and more.


Can you start by telling us a little about the environmental disasters or events that you have covered over the years?

“Living in the Philippines, I have mainly covered the aftermath of typhoons and a volcanic eruption. In the last four years, I have covered at least seven typhoons. Ketsana was the one that really sticks in my memory.

Photo: Aaron Palabyab. Marisa during clean-up operations in her subdivision, which was deluged with mud during major floods during Typhoon Ketsana in 2009.

The eastern side of the Philippines is more affected by severe weather, and the capital Manila is usually insulated from the worst of the weather. But typhoon Ketsana ripped through the capital city. Non-stop driving rain for days, areas of the city buried in mud, and a complete breakdown of social structure — people stuck on roofs, looting, etc. It was an unprecedented disaster, and it has been a very long time since a typhoon of this intensity has affected the capital city.”


How contributary do you think climate change is to these environmental disasters you have witnessed?

“There can be no doubt that the climate has changed dramatically in the Philippines since I was growing up. I remember a strong typhoon in 2009, and even then, it felt like it was a warning; it felt like it was a taste of things to come — and many of us felt that way.

In the Philippines, we have felt for a while it is not a question of if a huge disaster will hit Manila, but when. With each and every Typhoon that hits, you hear that it is record-breaking, more severe than the last. I don’t think it is a coincidence that as issues of climate change are becoming more pronounced, typhoons in my home country are getting more & more intense.”

Photo: Aaron Palabyab. A house by the coast destroyed during Typhoon Kammuri in Pilar, Sorsogon.

How does it make you feel, witnessing these events year on year, while elsewhere in the world, bad practices are continuing?

“In a place like the Philippines, a regard for the environment is just part of your everyday thinking for the most part. We are kind of on the front lines of climate change, next to the Pacific Islands. It is not just typhoons but also extremely hot summers and droughts.

I feel if we don’t all take care of this, if we are not all environmentalists, then we are not taking care of ourselves. In a developing country, priorities can be more about economics than the environment so it is difficult, and I understand that. But at what cost?

We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing to believe in environmentalism. Climate change isn’t a political debate here. There aren’t people saying this isn’t real. But it is definitely something that can be more emphasised.

It is upsetting when you see people arguing climate change isn’t real. When you see the debates happening around the world about whether it is worth attention. I do get angry; it is a matter of privilege to not be impacted by this.

I think that is why the work we do as photographers is so important because we need to do what we can to make it feel as real as possible to people who have the luxury of being insulated from all of this. It is very frustrating to feel that this can still be a political debate when it is so real.

Photo: Aaron Palabyab. Villagers calmly wait under cover as a thunderstorm passes in Surigao province in the Philippines

When I go out to the provinces to document the after-effects of the typhoons, it is a wake-up call. In Manila, we are quite insulated, but when I see the devastating effects first-hand, it is unimaginable what people are going through.

It really prompts a lot of reflection and gives a lot of perspective. It prompts you to be extremely humble to have not been touched, but also a huge sense of compassion, I know I am just a photographer, but I want to do what I can to help, to contribute to the solution.

I have discovered on recent assignments, particularly with Arete, when the people you have travelled to help and document see you and see you with a camera. It means a lot to them; they want you to tell their story; they believe it will help them get the support they need.

So if my photos and stories can help get assistance for people, if my photos can make a difference. Then that helps me feel like I have made an impact and certainly helps balance out the sadness and stress of documenting these climate change events year on year.”

Photo: Aaron Palabyab. Aerial view of Taal Volcano in June 2021. The volcano is the most active in the country and one of the most active in the world.

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