WELD Artist of the Week: Esther Havens

Career: Humanitarian Photographer
Website: estherhavens.com
Mantra: Be who you are and LOVE people.
Interview by: Kristin Read

Those that know you love the “Esther face” . . . What started that sweet side grin/pucker of yours?

Didn’t Obama start making that face recently? So fun. I actually got braces in my early twenties and hated showing them off. So I started doing this side smirk that has stuck with me years later. I think it’s funny that people know me for it.

Out of the countless images you’ve captured around the globe, which one has stuck with you? Do you go back and look at the image often?

There’s one image I captured in Congo that literally changed me as a photographer. I remember capturing this photo of a sad, lonely, malnourished child . . . and being excited about adding the image to my portfolio. I quickly realized that even though I cared about the boy I was photographing, I didn’t even know his name, or his story—I was just excited about capturing his portrait and the response it would get. I remember being so upset with myself for letting my heart go there. I regularly go back and look at that photo as a reminder that I’m not shooting stories of people living in poverty for my gain, but for their gain—for their story to be known, and their lives changed for the better.

What is your life-long dream project?

Looking back over the last two years, I realize that I’ve achieved all of my heart's desires. So I’m not sure what my next dream project is just yet. And I’m okay with that . . . I’m working on creating new ones. Even though I’m not a writer, a personal project I’m really looking forward to is writing a book. I’d like to share my story over the last ten years—the organizations I’ve worked with, the stories I’ve encountered, how I believe we see ourselves, and learning to see people in a different way.


I think that creatively you can copy technique, but you can never copy vision, as vision is unique to each individual . . . As someone who teaches workshops, how have you trained others to capture images like you do?

Even with technique, I’ve never asked another artist how they achieved a certain look or style. I would instead ask the tool they used, and attempt something different. All too often we’re schooled to Look at this piece of work and mimic it. And the students I work with today are no different. They ask me, How can I be you? . . . I tell them, No, you don’t want to be me. You want to be you. You have a calling that’s different than mine. I think that’s the first thing that has to change with young photographers. They must come to the realization that they are called to be something unique, that they are special—they should focus on what they alone can offer, because no two journeys will ever be the same.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given professionally?

I was an intern shooting with the photographer that gave me my first digital camera, when I turned to him and said I can’t do that. He immediately told me to never say that again—that I had all the resources I needed, and that it was up to me to figure it out. And that’s always stuck with me. I never face something and tell myself I can’t do it—I just figure it out. Whether that’s navigating through a country or learning to use a new light—I remind myself, I can do that.

What do you believe should drive every artist?

Passion. If you’re an artist without passion, your work never moves. Other artists may answer differently, but one of the many things I’ve had to learn about myself, is that I cannot work on a project that I’m not personally passionate about. If I work with organizations I don’t believe in, my work reflects that. So I have to know that I would willingly financially support an organization before I can accept paid work from them. I think it’s a question all artists should ask of themselves: Am I really passionate about this project? Is this something I truly believe in or want to be a part of? If it’s not, you need to step back, look at what you’re doing, and ask yourself what you should really be a part of.


Name a trick of the trade that has proven to work for you in the field.  

I love capturing the laughter of others in photos. So I’m always trying to make people laugh. And many times, I’ll go to a new village and notice people are scared out of their minds when this huge camera is pointed at their face. (I can’t blame them!) So I’m always trying to figure out the quickest way to warm people up, and the fastest way around the language barrier is laughter. I used to mimic the sounds and faces of a pterodactyl, which made people laugh most of the time, but it occasionally scared them. Now if that happens, I’ll just act like a clown and burst into various forms of laughter (grandma laughs, dog laughs, etcetera) to make others comfortable. Because laughter is the universal language.

What’s next? Are you considering other areas of service aside from photography?

I’ve never put a specific life plan in order; I’ve just welcomed life to happen. I chase after what God puts in front of me wholeheartedly, and heading in that direction has been the most rewarding. I keep going as the doors keep opening, and I stop when a door is shut in front of me . . . Coming back from my last trip overseas, I recognized that I need a greater vision for my work—I need to think bigger. To do that I can’t just keep going—I have to stop, pull back, and evaluate what I’m doing before moving forward. And that’s where I am now. While I love the impact that my photos have had on others, and the stories I’ve had the privilege to share, I don’t think it’s enough. One area for greater immediate and long-term impact of those living in poverty is job creation. I’ve met so many that want to sustain their families, but lack the education or skills to do so. Or the opposite, there are many educated and skilled parents without work. When we have the chance to come along side those in poverty to help connect them to job opportunities, we will see transformation—self-esteem rises, they have a sense of pride in their work. There is something very special and unique about that, and I want to be a part of it. I have no idea what it will look like yet, but I’m dreaming and I feel like that’s a good place to be.


Keep up with Esther and her work via Twitter & Instagram.

Doug Klembara