Kiwi photographer capturing a world in crisis

Helen Manson lives in Uganda with her husband, Tim, a trauma counsellor for refugees and her three children, Maz, 2, Hope, 5, and Eva, 3. Photo supplied. 

When Helen Manson started working as a humanitarian photographer, she found herself thinking the people she photographed were somehow fundamentally different from her.

The 33-year old has travelled to 35 countries to photograph post-war zones, refugee camps and areas stricken with famine and drought, capturing the faces of a world in crisis.

Painfully, she says, she has come to realise how wrong she was.

“I thought maybe they don’t feel things like I do… maybe they expect less, they care less, they hope for less, they want less or they need less,”  she says.

“I’ve seen that they are exactly like me and that what they endure is no easier for them just because they are poor.”

Manson, a former Macleans College student, lives in Kampala, Uganda, with her husband, a trauma counsellor for refugees, and three young children helping create campaigns for around 50 NGOs and charities.

Recently she was in Auckland as part of Tearfund’s Citizens of Humanity Tour to share her work with Kiwis.

Manson works on the front lines, witnessing the best and the worst parts of humanity.

Through her lens she has captured everything from former Isis wives and child soldiers to the gift of clean water and lives rebuilt through child sponsorship and trauma counselling.

In March she was tasked with photographing the work of Medical Teams International and Red Cross in hospitals in Tanzania.

She saw children fighting for their lives, battling malaria and pneumonia as their mothers wept by their bedside.

As she was leaving the hospital one day she spotted an eight-year-old girl hooked up to an oxygen tank.

She went home and prayed that these children would make it through the night.

The next day, while several of the children had improved, the eight-year-old girl had not.

“All of a sudden she started making a noise that I’ll never forget. The doctor put his hand on my back and said ‘it’s time to go’,” Manson says, holding back tears.

“I walked out into the sunlight and I completely lost it. Sobs came out from the deepest place they possibly could.

“You should never see an eight-year-old little girl take her dying breaths from simple stuff like pneumonia and malaria.”

Once she composed herself, she visited the mums in the maternity ward.

“Within minutes I watched newborn twins come into the world.”

Manson says wrestling with the tragedy of death and the celebration of new life within 10 minutes of each other was a significant moment for her.

“Just when this world seems ruined beyond repair, a baby is born.”

Manson says there is a rocket inside of her that burns fiercely for humanitarian work.

But it’s a job that takes its toll.

“When I interview people, more often than not I sit there with tears rolling down my cheeks and I feel sick. I start crying because it’s the only thing I know how to do,” she says.

“I encourage them for how brave they are to be sharing their story. Sometimes I say nothing because sometimes being there with them in silence is all I’ve got.”

Helen Manson travels to post war zones, refugee camps, and areas stricken by poverty to photograph and tell the stories of the people who live there. Photo supplied.

She says she then goes home to edit and write the best campaign she can to connect with people in the west and “prays like mad that people give”.

Her most recent assignment saw her follow the story of three Ugandan mothers from pregnancy until their child’s first birthday.

The series, which she named ‘The First Hello’, is part of Compassion International’s survival project and advocates for the importance of child sponsorship from pregnancy.

Manson captured these women’s most intimate moments as mothers and as a family.

“They are just like me, with hopes and dreams for their children just like I have,” she says.

Traditionally, child sponsorship would start at age five, but children weren’t making it to five Manson says.

A baby born in Uganda is 10 times more likely to die than a New Zealand baby.

If they do survive, she says, too many end up in one of Uganda’s 800 orphanages.

“Mothers abandon their babies every day in pillar trains, hospitals, toilets and trash cans – it’s not their fault, they see no other option.”

She says the survival project offers mothers the chance to give their babies the best start to life through antenatal visits, medical care and support through the first year of their baby’s life.

“It’s not about denying the story, but about denying the ending,” she says.

“There really is no difference in what we want for our children, only in what we can give them.”

Manson hoped that by the end of the week-long tour she would have helped get all 100 children in the survival project sponsored.

And today only one child is left unsponsored.

Manson says she wants people to feel encouraged that although there are many challenges facing our world; there has tremendous progress made through projects like child sponsorship.