Documenting Optimism

Photographer Chris Michel on visiting and documenting Asili in the Democratic Republic of Congo

When our design team went back to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for our second engagement working on Asili, we took along a deep relationship with our partners at American Refugee Committee (ARC) and San Francisco-based photographer Chris Michel. We’d never worked with Chris before—or brought a pro to the field to document our design process—but as fans of his work, we were thrilled to have him along. In his week in the field, Chris captured the stunning images of life and work in South Kivu. And he also brought a new perspective to our work, to how we solve problems, and to the nature of our partnership with ARC.

A day on the the streets of South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Before we jump into photography, what did you make of Asili, Chris?

I think one of the non-obvious benefits of Asili—and yes, of course it’s helping people with water, health, and agriculture—but the most interesting thing to me, as an outsider, was team Asili itself. The American Refugee Committee and IDEO.org have built an organization that employs a lot of people, and from what I saw, the people who work at Asili have a lot of pride in what they do, they’re well led, and they move with confidence. When organizations like Asili proliferate, they add stability to the region, and they serve as role models. I believe in the power of entrepreneurs to transform nations.

Did you spend a lot of time with the Asili staff?

I took a lot of portraits of the Asili staff and my sense is that people are really engaged in what they do. And they’ve got a great leader in Abraham Leno. To me one of the big questions in tackling global poverty is how do you create a thousand Abrahams, because with a thousand people like him you’ll get ten thousand Asilis. Asili invests in leadership as well as great services.

What did you expect to find on your visit to the DRC?

Frankly, I thought that I’d go there and photograph the three prongs of the Asili business: clean water, agriculture, and a health clinic. Before I arrived in country, I received a “photographic brief” by IDEO.org–the kinds of images and points of view the organization was looking to capture. You know, I don’t usually go shooting with a brief like the one that you guys at IDEO.org gave me. And what struck me is that you guys have a real point of view about optimism and portraying optimism in tough situations. As a photojournalist, I’m often looking to tell impactful stories by capturing powerful emotions. And in the developing world, there is sadly no shortage of heart-wrenching moments. So I found it uniquely beneficial to approach each shot with a view toward optimism, hope, and accomplishment. And, frankly, they weren’t hard to find.

That optimism that you bring to the work really informed my mindset as a photographer. And what surprised me was that your mission to capture optimism and positivity had a real impact on my own personal optimism and positivity. There’s just so much joy out there if you’re looking for it, and if I’d gone to the DRC on my own, I don’t know that I would have found quite as much. So, in a sense, the “photo brief” changed my perspective on the entire experience.

Did you grow or change at all as a photographer while working with the team? 

I had the best photographic moment of my life on this trip.

You took the best photo of your life?

No, not exactly. I took some good photos, but it was more this moment that I got really caught up in. The team visited the church for research purposes. So we go, and it’s really a big Catholic church, maybe two or three thousand people on a Sunday. And they do two services a day. I sat for the first service in the back pew of the Church, trying (unsuccessfully) not to stand out. 
After the first service we talked with the priest and I asked him if I could take pictures and he said we’d be welcome. So in the second service, I was moving around, taking photos, and connecting with the parishioners. The dancing, the music, the sermon, the energy–all off the charts. It was so uplifting.

Anything surprise you about how we work at IDEO.org?

I hadn’t expected such personal access into the lives of so many Congolese.  We visited countless homes and interacted in a very deep way with many families. Because of IDEO.org’s people-first approach, we’d quickly get to a position of unique trust and connection. My sense is that people in the community let us in because they felt like they were contributing to making their lives and communities better.

Designers Jen Rose and John Collery make a home visit while researching how to grow demand for Asili products.

It’s a special part of how we work.

Look, I was in strategy consulting for about a year, and the traditional lens is client versus consultant. So before I left for this trip, I thought that IDEO.org was a consultant to ARC. But what I saw really was true partnership. And that’s how everyone talked about it too. It was one team.

I didn’t see clean lines of division between the two organizations. What I saw was a mutual effort toward continued assessment and improvement. I was surprised at the level of trust, the directness, and the desire to get better. That’s rare to see two organizations taking on such a hard problem and have them both remain so open to asking hard questions and then figuring it out.

IDEO.org’s superpower is getting to the truth, developing trust, and using that foundation to build products and services that make a real difference in people’s lives. Team Asili, IDEO.org, and ARC weren’t just smart and skilled–they were all-in. All-in to help make a difference in the DRC. IDEO.org talks about human-centered design–but that’s only a part of it. It’s really just a human-centered approach to relationships, communications, and each other. And with that approach, it’s amazing what can be accomplished.

Even when he's the subject of the shot, photographer Chris Michel is behind the camera.

Check out more of Chris Michel’s photos at www.christophermichel.com or on Instagram at @Chris_Michel.

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