Hi, my name is John Keatley. I am going to be kicking off the MiiR Liberia blog series by talking about my experience on Day One of our recent trip to Liberia. You may be wondering who I am. I am a celebrity photographer and friend of Bryan Papé, founder of MiiR Bottles. Over the past year, Bryan and I have been talking a lot about business and the idea of caring for others through business. I remember talking to him after he first launched MiiR and feeling so excited about the idea of working on something that could have a great impact on the lives of others. About six months ago, I shot an ad campaign for MiiR. At the shoot, one of the models mentioned that her brother-in-law runs an organization called Well Done Organization, whose mission is to build clean water wells in Liberia. One thing led to another, and a few weeks later, I was talking with Bryan about going to Africa to photograph the building of the first MiiR-funded well projects in partnership with Well Done.
From a photography standpoint, this assignment was about as good of a job as you can find. There were some clear goals in terms of specific photographs which were needed, but beyond that I was told to just photograph whatever interested me the most and get some awesome shots. Along with one pair of pants and a few pairs of underwear, I packed my Hasselblad digital medium format camera for portraits and my Canon DSLR for the documentary work. On a typical shoot, I use a lot of strobe lighting, and I decided I would take a couple of my battery powered lights with me to make some portraits that would feel like the work I am known for. Strobe lighting in a place like Africa is also not something that is seen very often, so I knew it was a chance to do something really different in that respect also. It was impossible not to get mobbed by children asking to have their picture taken whenever a camera was in hand. But if a camera drew a crowd, my lights drew out the village. It took several people to help direct everyone and keep certain areas clear while taking portraits of the children. I got some awesome pictures throughout the week, and documenting the process of building clean water wells was really fulfilling. But for me, nothing beat taking portraits of the kids.
I can’t say I experienced any immediate culture shock when we arrived in Liberia. It was very different from what I am used to, but I think I expected that. It wasn’t until our first full day in Buchanan, Liberia that I really felt the full impact of the quality of life Liberians are faced with. In America, we have so many options. Our lives are full of choices. Do I want to drink water, juice, soda, beer… Do I want to drink it in a glass, out of the bottle… These are decisions we make on a daily basis without even thinking about it. One of the few decisions the people of Dark Forest have to make is which contaminated well to drink from. The one with the dead rodents, or the one close to the bathroom. And honestly they don’t even really think about that. They just go to the well closest to where they live because drinking contaminated water has become routine for them.
We stayed in the town of Buchanan right across from a village called the Dark Forest. This is where the first MiiR well was being constructed, and the first village we went to. Our Liberian host, Pastor Prince Kondoh, gave us a tour of the Dark Forest and showed us seven or eight wells nearby where people get their water. There is not a shortage of wells, or even water, in Liberia. That is not the problem at all. The problem is the shortage of clean water sources. There are possibly hundreds of wells in the Dark Forest and all of them are contaminated in the worst kinds of ways. The well openings are not sealed, so when it rains, everything on the ground is washed into the well. Rats, bugs, and animals fall into the wells and die. Bathrooms are often just ten feet away from a well, which means human waste seeps into the same water source people are drinking from.
While walking through the village and seeing these wells, my inner dialogue ended up grabbing my attention and bringing me to the reality of the situation I was in. I tried to place myself in the shoes of the villagers we were with, but the dominating thoughts which kept leaping into my mind were, “I just wouldn’t drink this water. I would move to a new place. I would rise up from this place and find a better place to live.” Finally, I realized this type of situation was so foreign to me. I wasn’t able to fully comprehend the idea of not having options. Where I live, I always have an option, or a choice to make, that would take me in a different direction if I ever came to an obstacle. Not in the Dark Forest, though. These people don’t have transportation to go get clean water from somewhere else. And they don’t have money to buy bottled water. They have to drink from contaminated wells, and I would too if I lived there. That was a hard pill to swallow, but it really put things into perspective for me. It allowed me to understand just a little bit more why working to provide clean water to people who don’t have access to it is so important.