Best in Show – Amateur
“Cries of Malaria”
Best in Show – Professional
“Black Hills Storm Rise”
Photographers have a knack for storytelling. Mobilize enough of them around a common story, and the capacity to do good in this world is limitless.
That is the premise behind Ken Chang’s dream and the ultimate success of the River to Well photography competition. Ken witnessed a deep need for clean water, realized a solution was possible and rallied other photographers and humanitarians. Four years later, the result is a spectacular collection of photographs and an array of artists – only connected by a shared love of pictures and people – that is just as stunning. Not to mention an ever-expanding grassroots operation and many more African families who now have access to clean-water wells.
The inspiration, naturally, came through the lens of a camera. Ken traveled to Ndhambi, South Africa in late 2008 to help establish connections for possible mission work there. He played with the village kids, shared meals with their families and snapped thousands of photos. In the springtime heat, the water crisis became real to him. “How do these people get water?”
The people he had come to know and admire were part of 1 billion globally without access to potable water. A permanent part of daily life in Ndhambi involved walking to a nearby river to gather and transport enough water to supply the drinking, cooking and bathing needs of each family. It is a taxing, widespread chore that could be eradicated with a relatively simple freshwater well.
Ken took the story home to Kansas in photographs and laid the groundwork to assemble artists around the cause. The plan was simple: hold a photo competition and use 100 percent of the proceeds to fund the construction and maintenance of a well in Ndhambi. Spread the word and repeat each year until every person on Earth has access to clean water. (A dream is not worth dreaming if you sell yourself short.)
In 2009, a small team of friends in Lawrence, Kan. gathered support from local businesses, accepted more than 270 photo entries from eight countries and hosted a small exhibit on the sidewalk of the bustling downtown. That fall, River to Well raised more than $5,000 – easily enough to fund the first well. Ken called upon a South African missionary contact to assist with the construction, sanitation education and well maintenance. Local ownership is key to sustainability.
The momentum carried River to Well into 2010 and brought even greater awareness, increased entries and a true gallery event. As the contest gained prestige and increasingly desirable prizes, feedback from entrants confirmed that the biggest motivator was to be part of a cause greater than themselves. Each photographer submitted a glimpse of his or her own narrative, and the stories of those lacking clean water could be heard more and more clearly, by more and more ears. In the third year, the winning professional, amateur and student photos traveled to exhibits in Lawrence, Denver and Houston.
To ensure proceeds continue to go directly to those who need it most, River to Well joined forces with Vox United, a Michigan-based nonprofit already hard at work digging and repairing wells in sub-Saharan Africa. In a reflection of the effort’s unifying force, the partnership has bonded the teams and created a personal friendship. With River to Well’s focus now solely on Mozambique, each team depends on the other and offers support, accountability and a clear view of exactly who works on and who benefits from each new well – often in the form of photos.
What began as one photographer’s story now includes hundreds of artists, bloggers, gallery-goers, volunteers, sponsors and donors. There is still much work to be done in the fight for clean water, but as long as there are stories to tell, photographers will be around to capture them.
Contribute your story and join in the fight. Go to www.rivertowell.com.