In the News: Interview with Ariane Kirtley

Photographer focuses lens on water shortage
by L.J. Anderson for the Palo Alto Daily News, December 15, 2007

Photographs have a way of immediately connecting a person with the object in the photograph. Photographer and public health researcher Ariane Kirtley wants that connection to result in water for the poorest people in the poorest country of the world. Through her powerful photographs of the West African people of Azawak in Niger, she is keeping a promise that she made to tell the world about their plight. Kirtley is founder of Amman Imman, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing clean, available and sustainable sources of water for the Azawak people. Her photography can be seen at

Q: How important was photography in your household growing up?
Ariane: Photography was extremely important and determined how I was raised and my future life choices. My parents were freelance photojournalists for National Geographic, Geo, Time and other. Their expertise was West Africa, and I crossed the Sahara Desert of Niger for the first time when I was 6 months old — in a basket tied to the back seat of the family Land Cruiser Until I turned 10, my home was in North and West Africa as I accompanied my parents everywhere they worked. I grew up among the nomadic Bozo fishermen in Mali, the Ibadite Muslims of central Algeria, animist Guere “panther men” of western Ivory Coast, and the Inadan Tuareg artisans of Niger’s Aïr Mountains in th Sahara Desert.
Q: When did you start to view photography as a way to improve people’s health?
Ariane: I wanted to return to Africa with skills to help the people whom I considered my family. I obtained a master’s (degree) in public health from Yale in 2004, and then returned to Africa as a Fulbright Scholar to conduct a public health study among different ethnic groups in rural Niger. Having grown up with parents who used photography to tell stories of people and cultures, it was natural for me to do the same. I quickly realized it would be an essential tool for me to share the lives, as well as both the beauty plight, of the people I wanted to help.
Q: Why were you drawn to the people of Azawak, and what were the conditions there?
Ariane: In September of 2005, I traveled to Niger’s most remote region, Azawak, a pastoral region with 500,000 people and covering 80,000 square miles (approximately the size of Florida). I had never been to an area with so few resources, where one out of every two children dies before the age of 5, where people have to ride a donkey for two days to get health care, and where people are dying of dehydration because water is not available. At the same time, I encountered among the most generous people I have ever met. I went to the to collect public health data. I went into 700 households, and every single person I met begged me, “Please help bring us water to stop our children from dying.” As a researcher, it wasn’t my role — but I promised to serve as witness to their water plight to the rest of the world. I tried to garner help from large international development organizations, and learned that they were not going to provide it anytime soon. In February of 2006, I founded Amman Imman (which translates into Water is Life in the local language, Tamachek) to build permanent and sustainable water sources — called boreholes — especially adapted to the difficult hydrogeological conditions in the area.
Q: What has changed in the region since your involvement?
Ariane: This year Amman Imman accomplished its first success story by building its first borehole, a tube or narrow shaft that is drilled deep into the ground. Our borehole was drilled 200 meters (600 feet) deep and feeds water into a water tank that contains 20,000 liters (5,300 gallons) of water. Not only are the people healthier because they have more water to drink, cook and wash with, but the water is clean and therefore not causing additional sickness. The livestock herds have increased and are providing more milk. They have growing sustenance crops, and have time for smallscale, revenue-generating activities. The communities have also built a school for themselves.

Q: What would you like people to know about the need in that area of the world?
Ariane: This is one of the few regions where people are literally dying of thirst because water is inaccessible — unlike most places where mortality is caused by lack of access to clean water. Despite their dire living conditions, no large-scale organization or government agencies work to improve their lives. These people have less than 1.5 gallons of water per day/per person to drink, cook with, bathe with and wash their clothes with. The typical American uses an average of 70 gallons of water per day and the World Health Organization states that, at the very minimum, an individual must have at least 6.5 gallons of water just to survive. The survival of the people of the Azawak depends on how much rain falls. This year, the rainy season (which is only 15 minutes to an hour of rain maximum per day) only lasted one month and a half. The people of the Azawak have a saying, “Amman Imman, Arr Issudarr” which means Water is Life, Milk is Hope. Before the children of the Azawak can have hope, they need water. Before they can have hope, they need life.
LJ Anderson writes on health matters every Tuesday.


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