Andrea Bruce


Sanitation and open defecation, of course, are sensitive topics. They’re things most people don't want to talk about, let alone let someone document them. And this is the reason the problem is so big. No one talks about it.

Stories to be Told

An Uncomfortable Word: Sanitation

In our overpopulated world, poor sanitation contaminates water and food supplies, making it one of the deadliest issues that humans face. But words like open defecation – which exposes women and girls to the risk of rape – and faeces are uncomfortable words, making sanitation an issue that politicians will rarely champion. India is trying to change that, following in the footsteps of Vietnam, to change the health of their workforce and children.

Q: What inspired you to take on this project?

National Geographic approached me with the topic of open defecation, which was a bit of a shock at first. Right away I was wondering how to represent this in a relatively non-graphic way – with beauty, respect and honesty. I like a challenge, so I accepted the assignment. 

Q: How did you choose the countries you visited and what preparations did you make for the shoot?

I did a lot of research on sanitation worldwide, and I talked on the phone to researchers and scholars. I narrowed it down to six countries, but we only had a budget for three. We chose India because it has one of the most monumental problems – with their high population – and because improving sanitation is now a major focus for the Indian government. Haiti was relevant because of their relatively recent natural disasters, which added to the sanitation problems that already existed in the country. And Vietnam is a success story. Over ten years ago they made a big push to end open defecation, and it has had a hugely positive effect on the health of their citizens. 

Q: Did you know how much of a social issue sanitation was for women before you went? 

Yes. I have spent a lot of time in India and you can see groups of women walking to the fields or railroad tracks at sunrise or sunset to use the bathroom. I knew they went in groups for this safety reason – and that this is when many rapes occur. I didn’t know that so many countries across the globe have open defecation issues.

Q: What surprised you most about what you discovered on your shoot?

Traveling to these countries and others, you can quickly see how much of an issue this is, worldwide. The world's growing population – the populations that governments can't keep up with – has made it the biggest issue facing humans today. Without proper sanitation, clean water is hard to find. And the problems fall hardest on the poorest. It was heart-breaking to see so many communities that basically live in piles of faeces. Dealing with that contamination has become their daily life. 

Q: You travelled to Vietnam, India and Haiti. How long were you on the road for and what were your biggest challenges in documenting the story?

Altogether I was on the road for about two months. The biggest challenges were access and danger. Sanitation and open defecation, of course, are sensitive topics. They’re things most people don't want to talk about, let alone let someone document them. And this is the reason the problem is so big. No one talks about it. But in Haiti, I covered the cholera outbreak just after Hurricane Matthew. There was dangerous flooding and the disease was still everywhere. We had to be very careful.

Q: How did you choose your locations and subjects? Was it difficult to gain trust with the communities to get access?

In India I returned to some communities where I have worked before and where I knew people practiced open defecation. Trust is important. These communities knew me. We focused on three regions where the government and other institutions were doing their best to fix this problem. 

Q: What’s the image that stands out for you in this story?

For me, though it might seem the least shocking of all of the images, the photos I took of Indians tip-toeing around the railroad tracks to find a place to go to the bathroom is what stands out most to me. That daily ritual can be so hard on how someone sees themselves, let alone their health. In their daily life even going to the bathroom is a struggle. It’s a basic human need. 

Q: Which camera and lenses did you take with you?

I took a Nikon D850 and a D800 because they are relatively small, light-weight, and sturdy. I used a zoom lens, the AF Zoom-Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8D ED , for landscapes and images that show a sense of place. I mostly used fixed lenses though: the AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G, AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G, and AF-S NIKKOR 28mm f/1.8G.

Q: What’s the key realisation that you want people to come away with from this story?

Even if you live an area without sanitation issues, the world is smaller than we think. Everything effects everyone eventually. People need to pay attention to issues like sanitation and help to find or create affordable ways of dealing with them. 

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