Breaking Into Documentary Photography

How two brothers visited the world’s poorest countries and crowdfunded their debut photo book.

Dennis and Patrick Weinert - © Weinert Brothers

Dennis and Patrick Weinert – © Weinert Brothers

Dennis (22) and Patrick Weinert (20) are journalists, filmmakers and photographers from Germany with a background in advertising. After deciding to crowdfund and self-publish their first documentary photography book called “A World in Distress”, they now focus full-time on telling visual stories from around the globe that deal with poverty, human rights, conflict and culture. Their work has been featured on German national television and radio and appeared in numerous print and web publications.

“A World in Distress“ is a documentary photography and charity project that deals with the issue of poverty in a global context.

With exemplary anecdotes and photo essays from Burkina Faso, Nepal and Haiti Weinert brothers want to show the various facets of extreme poverty and shed light on the practical implications of the development aid system and advancing globalization.

The goal of their project is to raise awareness of the circumstances that inhibit progress and development in the poorest countries in the world, by using a crowdfunding campaign to finance the distribution of our photo book and to collect donations for local and sustainable aid organizations.

Weinert’s story is one we are honored to promote at PhotographyBlogger, we hope you take the time to read their story and help support their worthy cause.

Direct link to the campaign: igg.me/at/worldindistress
Website: worldindistress.com
Facebook: facebook.com/weinertbrothers

You can also view their 6 minute video at the end of this article.


 

Haitian refugees

Haitian refugees – © Weinert Brothers

After we finished our biggest video project so far, a web commercial for a multinational toothpaste company, we realized that we stood in front of a crossroads that would force us to choose a future career path for us as young artists. With some money in the bank and the last hurdle taken on our way from just being some amateurish kids with a camera to becoming professional commercial photographers and filmmakers, we realized it was now time to sit down and think thoroughly about our future strategy when it came to finding a market niche and our place in it. So far we had created product photography, corporate videos, web commercials and the occasional graphic or web design project for local companies – with a culmination in producing some content for a US ad agency.

When looking back at our track record and when considering the contacts we already had established over the last one and a half years, the most plausible outlook for our future would have been to keep working for local businesses, with the occasional chance to land a big shot via some of the international ad agencies we had registered with. But then we also had to take into consideration, if that was really what we wanted for our careers – and we both had a feeling that that was not the case.

Haitian kids greet a UN soldier in Cité Soleil

Haitian kids greet a UN soldier in Cité Soleil – © Weinert Brothers

In fact, there was this adventurous dream about traveling the world with a camera in the back of our heads since we first got interested in film and photography as then 12 and 10-year-olds. Over the years, whole book shelves were filled with the accounts and works of foreign correspondents, war reporters and documentary photographers, along with the more formal literature that helped us to pick up the skills required to start a photography and film making business.

But we also knew, that documentary photography was not especially an easy industry to break into and that it was certainly not the right option for some kids like us that were just barely out of high school and dreamed about a career behind the camera.

Old man eating

Old man eating – © Weinert Brothers

Nevertheless, as there was no project coming up straight-away after our toothpaste adventure, we took that downtime as a chance to explore options – including those that seemed a little beyond our limits – with the dramatic result that we both felt the urge to at least try ourselves at documentary photography once, before burying that dream forever.

So we sat down, got in front of our computers and after some weeks of research we had a rough plan in mind: Book a flight to the Philippines, spend three weeks in the mega-slums of the capital Manila, and come back knowing if documentary photography is for us or not.

Little girl working in Ulingan, Manila

Little girl working in Ulingan, Manila – © Weinert Brothers

Whilst doing our research we considered a handful of countries, but quickly came to the conclusion that the Philippines would be the ideal testing ground for us. Coming from an extremely developed and wealthy country like Germany, exploring the subject of poverty was very compelling to us – maybe because it felt so distant and unreal. We knew the mega-city Manila, which is home to more than 12 million people, would allow us to see the harsh contrasts between rich and poor from its various angles and in combination with the fact that most Filipinos speak at least some English we understood that this would be the ideal location for our self-experiment slash photojournalism boot camp.

What we experienced in those three weeks in the Philippines changed our conception of the world. The harsh conditions of working in the slums of Manila constantly pushed us to the maximum of our physical and emotional capacities – and we also have to admit that we had our doubts if this type of work was really the right thing for us. We saw children working on a trash dump instead of going to school. We spoke to fathers who sold their organs to feed their own families. And we met countless girls who offered their bodies to sex tourists, some voluntarily due to a lack of economic perspectives, but many not.

Small Child living in Ulingan, Manila

Small Child living in Ulingan, Manila – © Weinert Brothers

On one of our last days we sat in a run-down fast-food restaurant and discussed our options. Going back to Germany and starting to work on the next web commercial or corporate video suddenly didn’t really seem like an attractive outlook anymore. Somehow this trip had turned our ambitions and plans upside down and gave us a completely new estimation of what was important in life and what not. Instead of finding answers, we now sat there with more questions. What does poverty really mean for people, in a global context? Who is responsible for these circumstances? And is there a way of eradicating poverty effectively? There was no turning back. The idea of creating a photo book project that would help us to find those answers was born. Although the title would come to us only months later, we decided in that very moment that we would dedicate more than a year of our lives to find out more about this “World in Distress”.

Young Burkinabé nomads near the border with Mali

Young Burkinabé nomads near the border with Mali – © Weinert Brothers

 

After we returned home, we locked ourselves in for weeks and tried to do as much research on the topic and on the best way to cover it as possible. Quite early on we understood that visiting a total of three countries would probably be the most suitable option for us. Sure, we wanted to cover this great subject called “Poverty” as representative as possible, but somehow we had to get around making our book feel like an encyclopedia of the world’s poorest countries. We realized that there was no real way of making an objective decision based on the facts and figures we had at our disposal, as there were so many personal circumstances to consider, especially when it came to security matters. For example, we would have neither gotten the time nor the money to cover as much as five different countries. Looking at three countries instead, was a far more achievable and realistic goal that would still leave us with enough room to tell our story and to find out more about the subject of poverty as a whole. The statistics we looked at, one of them being the UN’s Least Developed Country Index, would have definitely justified to only visit three African nations, but then again we had to keep in mind that we were about to produce a visual medium, which would definitely benefit from a more diverse look. So the final framework for our “A World in Distress” Project ended up to be focused on three of the world’s poorest countries, scattered over three different continents.

Childhood in Cité Soleil - Haitian child watches UN soldiers on their daily patrol

Childhood in Cité Soleil – Haitian child watches UN soldiers on their daily patrol – © Weinert Brothers

From visa formalities, over photography permits, to language requirements and of course security issues there were a lot of components to consider, when it came to choosing the final countries for each of the continents. Yemen, Somalia or the D.R. Congo seemed a little bit too unstable, and were therefore off limits. In Sudan, on the other hand, it would have gotten quite difficult to get the necessary permissions needed to do our work and to move around without hindrance. Burkina Faso however, one of West Africa’s nations that always ranks as one of the least developed countries on the UN’s LDC index, seemed to be an all around good choice. Concerning the other regions, we had similar considerations to take into account, before we finally decided on South Asia’s Nepal and the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished nation Haiti.

Nomad cattle herder near Oursi, Burkina Faso

Nomad cattle herder near Oursi, Burkina Faso – © Weinert Brothers

As our plan neared it’s date of completion, we slowly had to make up our mind on how to acquire the necessary funding for this project. Crowdfunding had always been in the back of our heads as a possible way of getting the money together, however we quickly had to realize that collecting a sum of about 20,000 € would be more than difficult as then 21 and 19-year-old no-names, without any solid documentary photography experience. So the only option we had left was to take the little money we had left from our last commercial job and to present our plan to our family with the hope of getting the rest of the money lent by them. A crowdfunding-campaign was then planned to follow-up once we had completed our travels, in order to at least fund the print and distribution of the book.

Buddhist funeral in rural Nepal

Buddhist funeral in rural Nepal – © Weinert Brothers

It took a while to convince our family to lend us this considerable amount of money. The fact that we were planning to visit some of the most impoverished places on earth with their funds was not exactly encouraging – but finally, with the right mix of appeasement and persistence we were able to convince them to support us.

With the necessary upfront funding in place, we booked all flights and got the necessary vaccinations for our travel destinations. From our experiences in the Philippines, we now also had quite a good guess of what extra technical equipment we would need to do our job professionally and to bring back the material we would need for our book and also the crowdfunding campaign video.

Nepalese prostitute dancing in a bar

Nepalese prostitute dancing in a bar – © Weinert Brothers

As our departure date moved closer, some doubts emerged. Would people be actually willing to let us be a part of their lives for a couple of weeks? Or would we be turned away, despised as slum tourists? And even if we would be successful during our travels – would there be actually someone interested in our work, after all?

The countless hours spent at airports and on flights would leave us with enough time to doubt our plans and abilities, but once we touched ground in Western Africa’s Burkina Faso, we managed to establish the necessary contacts very quickly and just a couple of days later we found ourselves in the sweltering heat of the artisanal gold mine’s of Bouda. Our approach to first spend some time with our subjects, before getting our cameras out was the key to our success. After all, we were interested in portraying poverty in its different facets, and that required to get close to our subjects so that they would eventually forget about us and our mission.

Sahelian Nomads in Burkina Faso

Sahelian Nomads in Burkina Faso – © Weinert Brothers

Whether it were the miners that offered us their huts to sleep in, themselves moving their “beds” outside, or the Sahelian nomads that cooked sweet black tea and invited us to dinner – the overwhelming majority of the people we encountered made us feel welcome even if we arrived in the middle of the night and they treated us as if we were a part of their community.

We always spent one month in the respective countries, before returning to Germany to get some rest and to get some administrative matters sorted. Initially, we planned to keep our breaks back home as short as two weeks, but that turned out to be impossible, as a month of contaminated food and water and horrendous physical work definitely left a mark on us.

A Haitian refugee receives his daily ration

A Haitian refugee receives his daily ration – © Weinert Brothers

In our quest to get as close as possible to the subject matter of poverty and to the protagonists we were ought to portray, we spent weeks sleeping under the open sky and in makeshift huts, only had sporadic access to running water or electricity and we mostly ate and drank what the locals had to offer. This in turn led to all sorts of health problems, such as amoebic dysentery, skin rashes or fungal infections.

To stay within our budget, we had to make sure to use local transportation methods, such as rusty buses, crammed and overladen Bush Taxis and of course the occasional donkey cart. In Nepal we spent countless hours dragging our gear up the Himalayas and got in contact with Kathmandu’s human traffickers and sex slaves, whereas in Haiti we accompanied UN peacekeepers on their patrols through Port-au-Prince’s most notorious slum Cité Soleil and focused on the massive issue of child servitude.

Young prostitute in one of Kathmandu's underground brothels

Young prostitute in one of Kathmandu’s underground brothels – © Weinert Brothers

The experiences we made over the course of the production phase of “A World in Distress” had a drastic impact on us, that would also alter our outlook on our own future. After we returned from Haiti in September 2014, we decided to include three aid projects into our crowdfunding-campaign that we met along our way and which are directly connected to the topics we covered during our time in the respective countries. Those projects, we decided, should receive 20% of all the proceeds from our crowdfunding campaign and the subsequent book sales. As a micro-print-run of about 500 copies seemed most realistic, the remaining 80% were essential to accomplish printing, distribution and marketing of the book.

Ibrahim Tall Burkina Faso

Ibrahim Tall Burkina Faso – © Weinert Brothers

After a launch event in our hometown announced the beginning of our campaign, we managed to acquire enough publicity to already raise well over 10,000€ (and counting) , starting with smaller local newspapers and evolving to full-grown national television and radio coverage in Germany. During all of those arduous months, persistence seemed to be the key. There was not a single day that we didn’t spend communicating with newspaper editors, enhancing our Facebook and web-presence or giving talks, interviews and presentations to whoever would listen to us.

Gold mines of Bouda, Burkina Faso

Gold mines of Bouda, Burkina Faso – © Weinert Brothers

So what was the outcome of this project? What did we actually learn – and how will what we saw shape our future? Over the course of this year we exchanged our childish naivety and also to some extent or idealism for a better understanding of how this world works that we are living in. We experienced first-hand how decisions that were made on an international level, such as free-trade agreements, privatization of whole economic sectors or military interventions, were having a drastic impact on people living thousands of kilometers away from the courts, parliaments and offices where those decisions were actually being made. We slowly understood that the capacities and resources to eradicate poverty are actually available, but that our unsustainable economic and political decisions work to the detriment of achieving this.

Restavek Girl in Haitian Countryside

Restavek Girl in Haitian Countryside – © Weinert Brothers

Personally, this project has shaped us in more ways than we could have imagined. We are now more keen than ever to keep telling the stories of the impoverished and the oppressed. As we are writing this, we are already scattered across the planet preparing our next documentary projects. Seeing what our work has achieved already, without the book even being published yet, gives us the confidence to keep digging deep and to take a risk, because that was what made this project possible. Because if we have learned one thing from “A World in Distress”, it is that if you are really willing to put your heart into it, good things will happen.


You can also watch a 6 minute video presentation here:

Please help Dennis and Patrick Weinert’s cause by supporting their “A World in Distress“ documentary and book. You can also check out their sites here:

Direct link to the campaign: igg.me/at/worldindistress
Website: worldindistress.com
Facebook: facebook.com/weinertbrothers




Leave a Reply

2 Comments on "Breaking Into Documentary Photography"

Notify of
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Yolanda Villarreal
Guest

Thank-you for sharing this.

Jay Long
Guest

Very powerful and necessary. It’s disturbing and important to recognize how polarized the World’s classes are. Such excess on one hand, yet such poverty and suffering on another. Great, eye-opening piece.

wpDiscuz
Back To Top