Dallas, Texas, wedding and portrait photographer Allison Davis has always been a witness to people’s lives. In high school she served on the yearbook staff, later as a journalist, then a church staff photographer, and for the past six years as a wedding and portrait photographer.
Davis recently returned from a two-month project working for Thirst Relief International in Uganda, documenting the dramatic changes a clean water source can have on people’s lives—and how it can uplift an entire community. She shares some of her personal insights and observations with us . . .
“I’ve always been the friend documenting social gatherings and celebrations. Most of my photographs elicit emotions: my weddings and engagement portraits stir up happiness and joy in the viewers. But the images I captured for Thirst Relief in Uganda for two months are meant to inspire people to act, to encourage them to be generous, loving, giving and sympathetic to the basic needs of their fellow humans,” says Davis.
Moved to Give
Her involvement with Thirst Relief began in 2011 when she bid on and won a mentor auction with Dallas photographer Kevin Jairaj. All the money was donated to water projects. In 2014, she attended a shoot-out hosted by Thirst Relief at WPPI, where she met the nonprofit’s leaders and promptly joined their $10 monthly donation campaign. The following month, for World Water Day, she held a print sale for her clients. All profits—$900—were donated to Thirst Relief to help bring clean water to more people.
Months later, Davis attended a sermon at a young adult event in Dallas called “The Porch.” Attendees were encouraged to think of ways they could use their single years—after eight years of marriage she was single again—because they have maximum flexibility, time, money and the talents to serve others. She decided to take off two months from her business to offer her photography skills and donate her time and service to an organization or ministry.
“The next day, I chatted with Adam McKibben and Matt Shepperd of Thirst Relief about how I could serve their organization,” recalls Davis. “They put me in touch with their partner in Uganda, who helped me start to develop a plan.”
Plan of Action
Davis had work and money matters to attend to before heading to Uganda. First, she wrapped up most of her 2014 assignments. There would be solar-powered Internet access and electricity a few hours a day, giving her only a limited window for e-mail interaction with clients.
Then there was the matter of finances. “I was going to fund the trip on my own, but friends encouraged me to get my community and church involved in supporting me and the work I was going to do,” she explains. “So I made information packets, mailed fundraising letters, designed and sold T-shirts and offered mini-portrait sessions to raise money for my trip and the projects we would do there. Within three weeks, I had raised $6,500; during the next few months, I raised an additional $1,000 for the biosand filters that clean water.”
Meeting & Exceeding Goals
With the primary objective to supply Thirst Relief with photographs and stories to help with their marketing and fundraising initiatives, Davis uncovered stories about the hardships created by the nation’s water crisis. Stories of local labor teams building the biosand filters that are transforming their communities . . . stories about the ways Thirst Relief was helping people and changing their lives thanks to those biosand water filters.
She also raised funds to build a community rainwater harvest tank, a more tangible contribution to the community than her photography. The tank was built adjoining a school so it would supply clean water to the 1,100 people in the village. This safer, closer water source meant the children didn’t have to fetch water during school. “The community was overjoyed to have a safe water source closer to their homes and to receive filters to give some of the widows in their community,” says Davis.
She was also able to fund training and education for three members of the community who would teach their neighbors about water, sanitation and hygiene. These leaders would help maintain the rainwater harvest tank and the biosand filters to assure their proper operation.
The Pivotal Role of Photography
To the well-worn adage “A picture is worth a thousand words,” Allison Davis adds that photography has the power to heighten our awareness of problems. “I’ve seen many charts and infographics that try to tell the story of the world water crisis. But I believe one photograph can illustrate it even more vividly, more powerfully. From my first day in Uganda, I sought to give a fair representation of the people and the problems they endure. I didn’t know what to expect: did previous photographers seek out the most horrible situations to document for fundraising propaganda? Or were the images I’d seen a true representation of the life-threatening conditions in this nation? On my first day of shooting there, I learned that the water problem was as bad as I had imagined. Through my photography, I was determined to be a true and honest witness.”
While in Uganda, Davis shared some of her photographs with her community back home via Facebook. But she reserved most of the images for the Thirst Relief team, who post the photos on their Facebook and Instagram accounts, their website, and use them for other promotional and fundraising projects.
Spreading the Word
How can others become involved with Thirst Relief in Uganda or elsewhere? Davis suggests several ways:
1. Sign up for a monthly recurring $10 donation. While a “drop in the bucket” for many in the U.S., together we can make a big difference in the world.
2. Make donations of any size to fund projects whenever you wish. All donations are tax deductible.
3. Approach Thirst Relief, or other nonprofit organizations, offering your photography services. Some nonprofits have budgets for photographers, but many do not. I appreciate that 100% of Thirst Relief’s donations go to projects on the ground, not to overhead. Talk to them; find out what they need.
4. The photo industry may support Thirst Relief through donations or by becoming involved in photography-related fundraisers, such as shoot-outs at WPPI or the parties they host at WPPI.
“It was wonderful to work alongside such a great team in Uganda. I worked with Ugandans, Kenyans and one man from Congo,” says Davis. “They all have big hearts and work hard on the construction projects and filter builds. They are the ones making a lasting impact on their community, because they have a passion and see the potential for transformation through clean water. It was beautiful to see them gain knowledge and skills through seminars and training to be the solution to their own people’s problems.”
One man, named Moses, took an interest in photography. During Davis’s last two weeks there, she taught him the basics and how to shoot in manual mode. “He picked it up very quickly and took the initiative in trying to tell stories and photograph the water problems around us,” she explains. “I was so proud of him and wish I could have equipped him to be a photographer there, but the setup in a village is difficult. It was awesome to see Moses take an interest in something for fun! Most East Africans don’t have hobbies because they’re living in a general survival mode and there isn’t time for fun or additional educational opportunities.”
Allison Davis concludes, “It will take time to see how my work helps Thirst Relief and how the fundraising helps these communities. I am hopeful my photographs of people and telling their stories about receiving clean water will lead to more support for the organization, so more communities will be transformed and more lives will be saved.”