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Water is Key staff report

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Former Los Angeles prosecutor photographs the hope clean water brings to West Africa

The three teens should have been in school. Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti watched them in frustration. Instead of learning to read and write, the girls filled five-gallon water containers.

Then, carefully balancing the heavy jugs on their heads, they and a younger girl, probably no more than 11, hiked the dusty route from pond to village, vigilantly bearing their precious burden.

The scene Garcetti photographed in 2006 is repeated daily throughout much of West Africa. Girls and young women sacrifice education to haul enormous loads of water, day-after-day.

Their villages depend on them. Without their labor, there would be no drinking water or water for cooking.

And that stark fact is the centerpiece of the former prosecutor’s latest book, Water is Key, striking photographs that combine art, grace and simple humanity in an effort to tell the story of water.

Sixty-two of Garcetti’s images go on display today (Sept. 9) at UCLA’s Fowler Museum in an exhibit titled “Women, Water and Wells: Photographs of West Africa by Gil Garcetti.” The exhibit runs through Nov. 25, 2007.

From prosecutor to photographer

Photography is a life-long sideline for Garcetti, who was elected Los Angeles County’s chief prosecutor in 1992 but lost his bid for a third term in November, 2000.

After 32 years with the District Attorney’s office, he said he entered 2001 with no firm plans for his future. Instead, he went to West Africa.

“In that first trip …, I learned one fact, that over 70% of the people in the countries I was visiting, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana, didn’t have safe water,” he said. “And I knew the natural consequence of that would be there was probably a lot of sickness, early deaths, diarrhea.

“But the thing that moved me the most was the fact that because of the unsafe water, girls and young women were not educated and didn’t have an opportunity to contribute to their community the way that I know that women can, when they’re given the opportunity.”

Garcetti took pictures but didn’t know what to do with them.

“I (was) still recuperating from being kicked out of office,” he joked, “and you know, it was great therapy. I took, I thought, some compelling images but I wasn’t planning on a photographic career or anything.”

Eight months later came September 11th.

And not long after that, Garcetti said the lessons he learned from extensive travels over the years to many parts of the world came together with his years of political experience.

“It hit me. I said ‘morally, ethically, the right thing for us to do in the industrialized world is to share what we have with people in West Africa and other impoverished nations.’

“Putting my political hat on, I realized politically the smart thing to do is to be involved because we must be seen, especially in the Muslim world as caring about others.”

“And the image of the girls carrying these incredibly heavy vehicles of water on their head and carrying a brother or a sister on their back at the same time, and them not being able to go to school, that was to me, I just felt was the most compelling reason for me combined to go forward with this undertaking.”

Garcetti said he is frequently asked why donors should contribute to help those in other nations when there are homeless, mentally ill and others in need in the United States.

His answer?

“Yes, absolutely, we need to take care of our own people,” he says emphatically, “but we have enough wealth and resources in the industrialized world, not just focused in on the United States, but in the industrialized world that we can greatly enhance the quality of life for individuals.

And, he adds, “if you need a practical reason, I think it enhances our security at home if we’re viewed as caring and sharing appropriately with people in other countries.

“One young girl told me ‘we just want to be able to drink the same water that you drink.’ That’s a simple but very powerful statement. It’s not asking for much.”

Practical Problems

Garcetti teamed with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the Pacific Institute to use his book and speaking engagements to raise money for safe water projects in West Africa. To succeed, he's had to convince potential donors their money will be well-spent in an area of the world famous for its corruption.

He decided to tackle the corruption issue head-on, laying out his plan to a group of conservative businessmen nearly four years ago and repeating it in his speeches today.

 “I knew what I considered to be the chief focus (of potential financial supporters): ’We don’t trust these governments in West Africa or in Africa period,” he said. “So I just hit it straight on. I said, let me tell you where the money is going. The money, first, is not going to any government or government official in West Africa. The money is going to NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are based in the United States or in Europe or Japan. These are NGOs that we can pretty much vouch for.”

The Carter Center, founded by former President Jimmy Carter to advance human rights and alleviate human suffering, is an example of the organizations that will receive income from Garcetti’s project.

“My guarantee is that to the extent humanly possible,” Garcetti said he told that first group of businessmen, “I can guarantee that your dollar is going where you expect it to go. It’s not going to go to Switzerland in a secret bank account.”

Garcetti also turned to Carter for help with the book, along with former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Ghana, Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland and others.

Each wrote a short piece to help underscore the importance of safe water.

So, how do you photograph safe water?

A glass of clean water or a newly-dug well isn’t exactly photographic high drama. News photographers tend to focus on disease, starvation and other readily-understandable images when shooting stories about human tragedy. How did Garcetti use photographs to tell his story?

“There were some powerful images of either poor, or sickly or even blind children or adults,” he recalled, “but how many photographs will people look at of such images before closing the book and saying, ‘Okay, feel horrible. Now that’s a guilt trip, I’m moving on.’”

He took a different route. “I tried to make it art. I didn’t want it to be too documentary. Some of the images are strictly documentary but I really wanted people to feel they were looking at art. I want them to feel the compelling nature of the issue but I want them to smile more than grimace.”

Smile like the girl he photographed washing her eyes at a recently installed clean water pump. She and others now have a way to combat River Blindness, a parasitic disease transmitted by the bites of flies that breed along some rivers. Twice a day since the pump was installed she rinses her eyes.

Grimace as in the photo of a boy with legs deformed by drinking the locally available water, which never was tested and turned out to have unsafe levels of naturally-occurring fluoride.

“My idea was a call to action,” said Garcetti. “I want people to get involved. They can get involved financially, they can get involved directly with NGOs, they can help raise the issue of safe water.

“If I was going to use a photo book as the vehicle to energize people and to give me the base to make presentations around the country, maybe around the world, then it had to be a book that people would want to look at every page and read everything that’s in it,” he said, slowly leafing through the captivating black and white images.

“So that’s when I decided, I have to take photographs of what I see really is the beauty and hope that is there and the transformation forever that safe water brings to people,” he said. “I have to show the consequences of unsafe water. But the focus should really be on the beauty of the people of the landscape, the positive feelings they have for life when they see an opportunity they may be getting safe water.”

Which brings up the title of the book: Water is Key.

Garcetti was in northern Ghana in March 2006 and was invited to photograph the final drilling of a borehole well. Would the drill pierce through to water? If the answer was yes, it not only meant that area girls could put down their heavy water jugs and go to school, but health and sanitation in general would improve, livestock could be healthier and bring in more income and lives would get better overall.

Or would the borehole be a dud, a deep hole with no water at the bottom?

“Everyone was keeping their fingers crossed that they would hit water because they were at the depth that they expected and they were waiting for us to show up,” he said. “I had been at one where they were hoping and nothing happened.”

In anticipation of a celebration, those gathered around the well carried handmade signs that read “We thank all organizations for the good they have done. Water is life.” And “Water is key to everything.”

And, said Garcetti, when the drilling was completed, “they hit water.”

You have water, now what

“When you bring water in, you have to provide to take it out too,” said Garcetti. “So how do you do that? You have to build latrines. You have to build sanitation. You want to (teach) how to use water for home gardens, small agricultural purposes.”

Don’t forget schools. Plus micro-credit programs to help start small businesses, generally run by women doing anything from making soap to weaving, baking or designing and dyeing batiks.

In other words, says Garcetti, safe water means hope for the future.

And of all the photos, his favorite captures that hope. In a village in Niger he met the chief, an impressive, clearly respected leader. “This was a man who was loved.”

When Garcetti sought permission to photograph him, the chief picked up one of his grandsons and sat the toddler in front of him, the man’s old hands gently cradling the baby’s feet.

“And when I saw him with his hands like that I said ‘that’s the photograph. THAT’s the photograph.’”

To Garcetti, that single photograph showed hope and optimism “in the tenderness I think that you can see and feel, the hands, the feet.”

And it captured the difficulties of life without enough water: “The difficulties when you see how dry the (grandfather’s) skin is but also how dry the baby’s feet are already. It was a moving moment for me. That’s what this is all about. It’s about hope. It’s about beauty and about sharing what we have."

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Women, Water and Wells:
Photographs of West Africa by Gil Garcetti
September 9, 2007 to November 25, 2007

Fowler Museum


Los Angeles, California





Water is Key: A Better Future for Africa

Purchase Gil Garcetti's book and support the Water in West Africa campaign.


Gil Garcetti Water is Key no photos






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