“We live in a moment right now when divides between people are sharp, and growing,” Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of the nonprofit venture capital fund Acumen, which invests philanthropic capital to support business growth in the developing world. But, she adds, if you pause and look more closely at people, those divides start to blur, then fall away entirely.
On October 17, International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Acumen launched a campaign with the photographer Martin Schoeller, whose close-up, vividly personal images testify to a sense of common humanity. For the collaboration with Acumen, Schoeller photographed around 50 of the nearly 230 million people touched by the 102 businesses across Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and the United States that Acumen has funded.
Throughout his career, Schoeller has photographed the likes of Barack Obama, Cate Blanchett, and George Clooney. Most recently, he has been photographing homeless people he meets on the streets, and posting their images along with their stories to his Instagram account. What you notice, when scrolling through his feed, is the celebrities are indistinguishable from the homeless. “I photograph everyone in the same way,” Schoeller tells Fast Company. “Same lighting, same blank background, same framing, same camera, with the idea of treating everyone the same, no matter who they are or where they come from, and to just invite comparisons between faces.”
The people Schoeller photographed for Acumen are all living on less than $5 a day. In the developed world, they fall far below the poverty line. But alongside their portraits, they describe the work they are doing in their countries and communities, and how startups funded by Acumen are improving their quality of life and that in the communities around them. Twenty-six-year-old Nashon Omusula grew up in the Nakuru slums in Kenya; he’s now working as a field officer with the sanitation startup Sanergy and educating his community about hygiene and sanitation. Maria Joseph Mulu, who has eight children of her own and works for a community organization that aims to help the neediest children around her village in Kenya, describes how the solar company D.Light, which provides low-cost solar-powered products, has enabled her to better provide for all the children in her care.
Schoeller’s photographs and the accompanying stories will flood Acumen’s website and social channels on October 17. The photographs will also appear as a huge installation in Times Square in New York City, and populate smaller public spaces like bus stop shelters and newsstands. The campaign will run through November 28, during which time Novogratz is hopeful that it will change people’s perception of poverty and the people affected by it. “This is the moment when we really need to start seeing each other,” she says. Schoeller’s clear-eyed photographs make that vision feel possible. “When you take people out of the slum, out of context, and photograph them just as they are, against a clean background, they don’t look poor,” Schoeller says. “You focus on the details of their faces, and really see their humanity come through, and you see that we’re all the same.”