‘Toilets are no joke’: Elena Heatherwick on the life-saving power of the loo
For ‘Toilet Stories’, commissioned by WaterAid, photographer Elena Heatherwick travelled to communities in Rwanda and Madagascar to document the lives transformed by the humble toilet, and those affected by a lack of access to one
It’s something we all do, yet how often do we really consider where we go? About two billion people live without access to a basic, private toilet – that is one in four of the world’s population. To live without a decent toilet is to live with a higher risk of disease, and to be without safety and dignity, particularly for women and children.
Over 18 months, photographer Elena Heatherwick and journalist Sally Williams travelled to remote communities in Rwanda and Madagascar for ‘Toilet Stories’ in partnership with WaterAid and supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. The resulting online exhibition presents intimate tales of everyday health and happiness, and the moving stories of those fighting for better sanitation across the globe.
W*: Can you tell us the story of how ‘Toilet Stories’ began? It would be great to hear about all you had to consider when preparing for such a series of work. How much could be pre-planned, and how much was left to chance?
EH: In 2018 I was in Haiti documenting the life-changing work of midwives. I was in my element, having just witnessed a healthy baby girl being born when I started talking to a man who told me that he too had had a busy day. He explained he’d spent the day looking at toilets. I laughed, thinking he was joking. But as we continued chatting I came to realise that toilets are no joke.
I felt so silly for having never considered the fact that so many people around the world don’t have access to toilets and, in turn, the horrifying consequences this has on people’s health.
Looking through his phone at the photos and videos he’d taken both of the toilets and the people who had built them I was struck by two things: the pride shown on their faces and the beauty of the structures they’d built. I couldn’t get that conversation out of my head, the idea that part of the reason governments and NGO’s struggle to raise funds for this issue is because it’s not considered to be a ‘visual’ subject. That was the point where I became a bit obsessed with finding a way for it to become something beautiful, something that would not continue to be overlooked. It took about a year of research and reaching out to all sorts of people before Neil Wissink the creative content lead at Wateraid agreed to meet and talk through ideas. I then asked journalist Sally Williams if she’d get on board as the interviews and stories are key to this project and she is an absolute master at what she does. And so this slightly mad idea was born:
By isolating the structures from their surroundings, we hoped to showcase their designs, to make people look differently at an everyday thing and to celebrate the heroes of the movement pushing for better sanitation across the world.
W*: Emotionally, this is a very powerful topic for its essentialness, but also its privateness. How would you describe the experience of this project for all involved?
EH: I can’t speak for other people. I know the communities we worked with were initially quite surprised when we spoke to them about our idea. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of eagerness to help build the backdrop. Building the backdrop stands and photographing the sanitation structures was such a joyful experience and that’s not something we’d imagined when planning a project about a serious issue like this. It was so lovely. Huge groups of children would gather around wanting to help. In Madagascar, I ended up teaching them a French song (‘Frère Jacques’) – we’d march around the whole village singing it and that way Sally was left in peace to interview the people who built the toilets. Those conversations were incredibly moving. Sally summarised it really well:
‘We get to talk about some quite profound things when we talk about toilets. For this project, we wanted to put people at the heart of the experience; to show people’s personalities and their hopes and dreams, rather than treating them as a sanitation issue. We realised each toilet is unique, shaped by the personality of its owner. It was a privilege to meet so many fascinating people who shared some profound moments in their lives with us. If you want to know what it’s like to be at peace about dying, to yearn for a baby you’ve lost, to get divorced, to grow plants, you can find it here, in these stories of people and their toilets.’
W*: After working on such a moving project about something wealthier countries blindly take for granted, what’s your opinion and experience of photography’s potential to be a force for change?
EH: I’m fully aware that I’m no expert, I feel like I’m just sort of starting out. But I really hope I have an answer to this question in 30 years!
W*: Online exhibitions are really coming into their own as people respond to current circumstances in inventive ways. Was ‘Toilet Stories’ initially planned as a physical exhibition or was the website always the plan?
EH: Shaz Madani is the mastermind behind the website. She is incredible. When we started this project we’d hoped to work in various other countries around the world, we were supposed to go to Ethiopia and then Colombia but then came Covid. So we did have to rethink the whole project; it could not be an exhibition as we’d initially planned. It could not be a space where workshops would happen; an exhibition that provided a home for learning about an issue most of us know so little about. I hope that one day we will be able to make this happen. Shaz has already drafted up some amazing ideas for if/when that day comes!
W*: We’d love to hear a little bit on your practice as a whole. Throughout your career, who have been your biggest influences (in photography and elsewhere)?
EH: I admire people who approach projects in ways where no stone is left unturned. The results are bodies of work that feel respectful, thought-provoking and useful resources to learn from. Etinosa Yvonne’s project ‘It’s All in My Head’, Mohamed Bourouissa’s ‘Peripherique’ and other works of his, Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s project ‘Ponte City’, ‘Ville de Calais’ by Henk Wildschut all embody this ethos. They feel like such important and interesting ways to record the experiences of communities and wider issues that are complex and difficult to understand, but incredibly important for positive changes to happen in the world.
W*: How do you approach shooting in such varied circumstances?
EH: In all honesty, I don’t feel like I do anything clever or technical. First and foremost I want people to feel as comfortable as possible with me being with them. Each encounter is an opportunity to learn something from them, to exchange ideas; it’s a total privilege. Conversations are at the heart of how I approach photography. After that, I guess I rely a lot on what the light is doing that day! This is the first project I’ve worked on which had a sort of ‘concept/formula’ in terms of the way the structures are photographed. But when it came to the portraits, I worked in the same way I always do. §