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Finding light in the darkness

Danielle Da Silva, BSc’10, is inspiring hope and change one image at a time

by Stephen Ledgley, BA'99 | January 23, 2017

dasilve with her camera
Danielle Da Silva, BSc’10, is inspiring hope and change one image at a time through her organization Photographers Without Borders. (PHOTO BY KRISTI ODUM)

Danielle Da Silva, BSc’10, used to find herself pulled in different directions. With a passion for travel, conservation, photography and learning, she’s taken a long journey to find her place in the world. But now, as founder and CEO of Photographers Without Borders, her world has come into focus.

“Recently, I’ve started to prioritize a lot more,” Da Silva said. “Photographers Without Borders is growing and requires more of my attention. And I’m happy to give it because I love everything it stands for and the work I do.”

Photographers Without Borders connects photographers with grassroots NGOs around the world free of charge to capture and share their work with others so they may advance their causes and inspire social change. Founded in 2009, the organization now includes more than 500 photographers and has documented more than 60 projects in 25 countries.

Da Silva’s evolution as a global citizen began as a child, travelling with her family to Europe and the Caribbean.

“My parents loved travel, so I was lucky to travel with them. My father is Indian-Pakistani and my mother is Portuguese, so there was always this natural curiosity in different cultures and different religions since I was very young.

orangutang in tree
Mina, the Sumatran orangutan, was rescued, rehabilitated and has been thriving in the wild. (PHOTO BY DANIELLE DA SILVA)

“The year before I went to Western, I went to Central America on my first trip by myself. It was a service trip where I helped dig trenches for a water pipe and helped out at an orphanage. I was really young, but it really changed my life. It opened up my mind that the world isn’t just a playground or a place to vacation in. It’s also got so many stories and things happening. I then wanted to trace my roots, so I went to India and I went to Portugal and I travelled all over Europe. That was a big spark.”

It was her travels in India and her experiences with the Dalit community, who experience discrimination based on caste, class and gender, that opened her eyes to the power of photography to tell stories and inspire change.

“I had been taught that the caste system had been abolished in India,” she said. But the reality she found was much different; their plight affected her deeply. She captured what she saw with her camera and when she returned to Canada she began working to raise awareness of the problem.

“My friends didn’t care about world issues, but I wanted to find a way to spark their interest. The photos were really helpful. It’s such an accessible format that everyone can relate to. You’re seeing a photo of a child that looks like any other child, but has no rights. That story juxtaposed with those images was really powerful.

“Together with my friends, we raised money to help build nine schools in India. That was really the moment where I saw the impact of photography in telling stories that are hard to tell or that people haven’t cared about.”

While completing her fourth year at Western, Da Silva founded Photographers Without Borders and registered the organization as a not-for-profit. After completing her degree in Biology, Psychology and Global Studies, she was then accepted to the London School of Economics where she graduated with a Master of Science in Environment and Development.

“I wanted to be very educated on sustainable development issues so that we weren’t promoting any narratives that were harmful. There are a lot of narratives promoted every day that are harmful. People just don’t think about the little nuances,” she said.

For the past seven years, Photographers Without Borders has grown at an extraordinary pace as Da Silva assembled a team of dedicated volunteers.

“We had some really amazing individuals come on for free. We didn’t have a paid position in this organization until this year. For seven years, we were running on volunteers and, for the most part, we still are – aside from three part-time, minimum wage salaries.

“It’s not necessarily money that gets people out of bed, it’s having something that they really look forward to. I think that’s missing in a lot of workplaces – creating a place where people really feel like they are making an impact.”

In addition to her duties as CEO, Da Silva still works as an active Photographers Without Borders photographer.

“My position requires that I maintain my skillset and it also requires that I continue learning, experiencing, travelling and documenting.”

Her approach to photographing these causes eschews the concepts of pity and fear in favour of fostering hopeful human connections. She sees more potential in positivity.

child with colorful tunic
Da Silva found a sense of joy and hope among the Maasai in Tanzania. (PHOTO BY DANIELLE DA SILVA)

“There’s this constant narrative of African countries being poor and sad. But when I was in Tanzania – yes, I saw poverty and I was working with people who were living with HIV and AIDS – but, there wasn’t a sense of despair or pity. I felt like if I were to include that narrative in my work it would be dishonest.

“What troubles me most in the world is apathy, and that comes from being bombarded with a lot of negativity and images that leave people feeling helpless. I try to focus my attention on beauty and the people who are embodying beauty, and against all odds, are making the world a better place. I think that’s inspiring to the average individual.”

In 2015, Da Silva went on a two-week assignment to Sumatra, Indonesia, to work with and capture life at the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), an organization that rescues orangutans in conflict situations, reforests reclaimed palm oil plantations and educates the population about saving the rainforest.

This trip would prove to be another turning point in her life. She connected with the people, the land and most of all, the orangutans.

“There’s something about animals that is so similar to humans that help us reflect on our own human nature and that experience just rocked me. So, we started this organization called the Sumatran Wildlife Sanctuary to purchase existing palm oil plantations or private land that might be converted to plantations to turn it over to OIC so that no one can encroach on it.

“The more money we can raise, the more land we can buy. It’s one of those issues that’s crucial to do now. At the rate they’re going, the whole rainforest in Sumatra could be gone in 20 years.”

da silva with elephants
Da Silva photographs a group of playful Sumatran Elephants. (PHOTO BY KRISTI ODUM)

Da Silva looks back on her time at Western as a key factor in developing her global outlook.

“Western was so accommodating to my everchanging interests. It was a really wonderful experience. I connected with a lot of different communities and cultures at Western. Clubs and extracurriculars were some of the most influential experiences in my life. I don’t think there are many communities like Western that foster that extracurricular community atmosphere.

“Western allowed me the freedom and opportunities to explore who I was. I got to earn a credit by going to Vietnam to study biodiversity. That was a huge thing that sparked my love of travel and fostered my love and deep appreciation of the rainforest and its inhabitants.”

As she continues in her work, Da Silva has carved out some very simple, but ambitious goals: Grow Photographers Without Borders and inspire more people to improve their world, to raise money to save the rain forest and the orangutans in Sumatra, and to continue her own personal growth.

“I want to learn more, experience more and become a better filmmaker and photographer and make more friends in the world. That’s the most inspiring thing for me. Once you meet people from all over the world, you begin to see it in a different way. You begin to see humanity in a different way. And nothing can really compare to those experiences. No book I’ve read can match it.”

This article appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of Alumni Gazette
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