A camera in the hands of Danielle Khan Da Silva is more than a device to merely capture the moment. Like a passport, it is a licence to travel and explore and, in the process, tell the stories of extraordinary efforts people around the world make to solve challenges. It is also a powerful tool for change.
A simple photograph, she says, can induce a thousand emotions. As founder and Chief Executive Officer of Photographers Without Borders – a Non-Governmental Organisation – Danielle knows this from experience. She describes her work as a “cross between photojournalism and fine art.”
Danielle was born in Toronto, Canada, on November 25, 1986, to an Indian father and Portuguese mother, who were both immigrants. She is one of two siblings – her younger sister, Chantal, a newspaper editor, lives and works in the United Kingdom.
Danielle wears many hats – she is an activist, writer, public speaker, conservationist and advocate for sexual assault survivors – but she affirms that photography is her passion. Having studied sustainable development, conservation biology and psychology at post-graduate level at the prestigious London School of Economics, her main focus is finding the best ways of communicating the extraordinary efforts of people around the world.
It all began from a young age.
“Photography came to me by accident,” she tells Lifestyle on a recent visit to Kenya – her second to the country.
As a young child, Danielle loved to paint but, as she grew older, she found it harder to dedicate or find the time to paint.
“When my dad gave me an old camera, it allowed me the freedom to capture moments and create art in an instant,” says Danielle who, as a young girl, carried her camera everywhere.
But it wasn’t until 2008 when she realised what a huge impact photography could make.
She travelled to India and was working on a project that involved “low-caste” members of society often referred to as “tribals” or “untouchables.”
“India was a life-changing experience for me because I was able to learn things that weren’t taught to me in textbooks and at the same time, foster a deep sense of my identity as I traced my roots as well,” she says.
She was working with an organisation which had a medical unit and was helping to cure and identify people who suffered from sickle cell anaemia.
“As I was working with the medical team, I noticed that on paperwork and medical files, alongside the names of patients and age, were the caste and it was then when I realised how systematic the caste system was – deeply ingrained socially and internally,” she says.
It appalled her that this discrimination was taking place on such a large scale to the point where people were being shunned, raped, beaten, set afire, and denied medical care and education because of their social standing.
Danielle wanted to do more after leaving the project, so she asked the doctors how she could assist. They said they needed proper shelters for schools and so she decided to help raise funds for buildings. But she still thought she could do more.
“It was a matter of deciding what to do next, in terms of creating an impact,” she says.
Danielle turned to the power of the camera. It occurred to her that she could use this power to amplify other people’s narratives, especially the voiceless. It was then, at the age of 21, that she founded Photographers Without Borders.
“For me, planting seeds of inspiration in others is one of my larger goals,” Danielle says
She also decided to further her studies.
“I wanted to have an informed perspective,” she says of her decision to return to school.
“I wanted to have an anti-oppressive and international framework as a basis for my philanthropic work in telling other people’s stories; being true to the story teller, in every possible way,” she says.
Danielle explains that she does not like perpetuating victim narratives or “poverty porn”. Photographers Without Borders, she says, is a community of storytellers that empower grassroots narratives and everyday heroes. Danielle views ordinary people as potential agents of change and strongly asserts the importance of adapting what she describes as “an anti-oppressive and intersectional framework” in the work that she does.
“It is not about giving anybody a voice, it is about amplifying voices. I am very much aware of the risks taken while telling stories and it is unfortunate that so many stories that are unhelpful or untrue get perpetuated in a way that paints a singular picture of places and people,” she says.
That is why, she tells Lifestyle, Photographers Without Borders focuses on grassroots organisations and social enterprises as they are community-led responses to problems at a local level.
“That knowledge and those kinds of networks are priceless in terms of creating change on a sustainable level,” she says.
She gives the example of a human trafficking story she is currently working on with HAART – an NGO dedicated to ending modern-day slavery in East Africa – that she says she has to handle with the sensitivity such a subject deserves.
She further explains that in the work the organisation does, they choose to work with grassroots organisations because of the human aspect of working directly with people and establishing trust. For Danielle, human trafficking is an issue that is very close to her heart as she works closely with sexual assault survivors at home as co-chair of the Dandelion Initiative. Many people that have been in human trafficking situations, she says, are also exposed to sexual assault.
On her visit to Kenya, Danielle explains that every year she and her team do five episodes for their web series which follows a photographer on their journey and shows their viewer the process of documenting through the photographer’s lens. “A project on human trafficking caught my attention and there are a lot of cases which involve sexual exploitation and abuse. People are not aware that this happens every day in their own backyards and I thought that this issue just had to be in my web series,” she says. HAART requested Photographers Without Borders to document the web series. “For me, as I said earlier, it is a very personal issue and I believe it is also important to empower survivors, and help people tell their stories while helping them heal as well,” she says.
Photographers Without Borders is registered in Canada and the USA and includes both paid and volunteer staff.
“We have so far worked with about 100 organisations in more than 30 countries in just over four years, and we provide them with free high quality photographic and video content, so that they can reach their own goals.”
The organisation does not entirely rely on typical funding models.
“We are very sustainable and fund our projects through workshops, magazine sales and programmes we offer”.
She is proud that all the money made goes back to the Photographers Without Borders system.
“We are slowly growing, organically and for me it is very important to have and create a sustainable source of income,” she says.
Danielle encourages NGOs to follow suit and not only rely on donor funding. She says having a business background, and a father who is a businessman, has strongly influenced her thinking.
Danielle’s passion to work with communities across the world demands dedication.
“Growing up, I used to think that I needed to have masculine traits to be successful. I can honestly say I worked to cultivate those traits within myself but now I am working hard to undo that training,” she says.
Danielle says she is now consciously trying to be “more of myself and have more fun”.
“Sadly, too many people feel like they need to be a certain way to succeed. As a woman, I feel that it is my duty to demonstrate to women that they can and should always be themselves!” she says strongly.
However, says Danielle, it has not been easy.
“Obviously it is challenging to work in certain cultures and, even though I have been blessed to work with such amazing people all over the world, there are certain instances here and there where I become aware that I am a woman, but I just take it as it comes, and I just have to adapt to the change,” she says.
Danielle strongly believes in photography as a powerful tool for change.
“It is evidence and it changes people’s perception. It is the evidence of potentially unimagined realities. Suddenly people become aware of a story or an issue and things change when people are showed something new using a photograph; it invokes emotions, it makes people experience something within them. It is about stirring people’s spirits and emotions and creating epiphanies that can possibly alter deeper motivations, attitudes and behaviours,” she says.
As an inspiration to young women all over the world, she does not hesitate to give advice.
“Women have special gifts and there are so many things that we are capable of doing. Being a woman is not a limitation; in fact, it is a great strength and you have to cherish your gift to reach your full potential,” she says.
She adds: “You are not alone, many women have walked this path before us so that we can fly higher and higher, and women should be allies to one another and help each other out.”
So does she consider herself a feminist? “Of course I am! If someone doesn’t consider oneself a feminist then they either hate women or don’t know what they’re talking about! Basically, a feminist is just someone who believes in equality of all genders.”
Danielle says she draws her strength and inspiration from her parents.
“My parents inspire me the most as they are both relatively uneducated (my father finished school at grade 10 and my mother finished one year of psychology in university) and are both Canadian immigrants. They worked really hard not only to provide for me and my sister, but also to fulfill their own dreams,” she says.
She believes her parents have demonstrated that people can change. Danielle, for example, explains that her parents have tried their best to learn through her and her sister and through books.
“ This has shown me that anything can be achieved and people have the potential to grow and develop at any age,” she says.
Danielle says that with the growth of social media, disruption is normal. It is, however, important to compete in the internet space where there is so much information and so many causes. If there is no great visual information, she explains, then people doubt credibility.
“ It is a major challenge to stay relevant in the age of selfies, social media and smart phones,” she says, but her organisation tries to drive high quality content that is also engaging and uplifting.
“In this age where people are being bombarded with never-ending information and misinformation, there are a lot of people suffering from burnout—and it is easy for them to turn away other than helping to make change,” she says.
In the future, Danielle says that she would love to work with more grassroots groups and hopefully with bigger organisations in order to amplify voices further. She is happy that the United Nations is moving towards the direction of helping organisations and people working in the grassroots.
“I want to build a sense of community amongst people on a local and global level, especially in this capitalist day and age where the sense of community is becoming lost,” she says.
She also wishes to learn more through her travels and have millions of views on Photographers Without Borders videos as well as have more people join the community.
VISIT TO KENYA
Danielle Khan Da Silva was in Kenya for three weeks in the month of May. A human trafficking story caught her attention and other case involving sexual exploitation and abuse.
The HAART organisation requested Photography Without Boarders to document the web series and also needed photographs to be taken as well.
She conducted interviews in Canada, of over 100 photographers to accompany her on her visit to Kenya and finally selected Matilde Simas, a mother of two from the United States to accompany her on her visit.
Matilde accompanied Danielle everywhere, taking photos as well as writing out small captions for each photo as well as taking notes behind the scenes.
She met with HAART Kenya Project Officer, Winnie Mutevu, in Ngong as well as other staff of the organisation.
She also met several human trafficking and sexual assault survivors and actors who she documented in her series.