Dalhousie Foyer (University of Dundee)
10 December - 28 February
Women, Water & Wells by Gil Garcetti is a collection of photographs taken in West Africa. Garcetti’s project highlights issues of water scarcity and the prevalence of waterborne disease that arises from the lack of safe drinking water. These photographs are also included in Water is key, a book that documents the work of NGOs to provide portable water, and whose profits go towards funding projects in countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali and Niger.
There are 800 million people who lack access to safe drinking water, 340 million of whom live on the African continent. In a time of climate change and environmental threats, the exhibition illustrates how water access impacts on the lives of millions, especially women. Garcetti’s photographs expose realities far from our everyday experience. For most, access to water is as easy as turning on the tap. But for others, finding safe water is not so simple.
Garcetti, formerly a District Attorney and criminal prosecutor for 32 years, is well placed to ask serious questions. In his introductory lecture, Garcetti remarked that his background influenced his work as a professional photographer, campaigner and artist; this makes his work as a photographer quite different from other more artistic approaches. Women, Water & Wells is representative of his aesthetic and campaigning preoccupations.
The nexus of the exhibition is women and water, and the pivotal role that women play in supplying water to their communities. Women, Water & Wells comprises only black and white photographs. Some pictures document the epic journeys through deserts or other harsh terrains that women undertake to find water and faraway wells. There is a certain stoicism about the way they go about these necessary daily tasks. The photographs create a storyboard showing the role of water and its relation to daily life: young women being mentored in how to balance heavy buckets of water on their heads; communities working together; children at play, notably an image of youths with a plastic water bottle as a toy and another showing joy at water gushing from an open water borehole pipe. The photographs in this exhibition also show us how women are central water management in these communities; they are the ones fetching, carrying, cooking, cleaning and planting.
In his introduction, Garcetti explained the decision to use black and white photography as strategic: to focus the observer’s attention on the story of each photo and the lives of the individuals they document. The choice was motivated by a desire not to distract the viewer with the vivid and exotic colours of the African cultural landscape, which might have diverted from the story at hand. If the black and white photography sometimes delivers an over-aestheticised image, (for example, the picture of women walking through a terrible haramttan sandstorm can easily be taken to be a scenic picture of women walking in early morning mists), the accompanying text reminds us of the context of such work, and of the harsh terrain that these communities call home.
There are few images of distress caused by drought and water deprivation, even though some images remind us of the effects of water-borne diseases; Such choices are prompted, in part, by a desire not to show stereotypical images of poverty and suffering in Africa, and also to the campaigning purpose of his photographic enterprise, aimed as they are at eliciting funds from the affluent: readers of the book should not be put off turning the pages. At times, images of joyful communities receiving water-aid and their accompanying uplifting texts echo, in troubling ways, the social-mission rhetoric and imagery of another, more imperialistic age. Yet despite the politics of image-making, and the problems associated with representing Africa in the developed world, it is hard not to feel that Women, water and wells, the images and their stories, is worthy project.
Ana Daza Vargas