On the blog

Monday, 6 January 2014


Photographer Richard Hanson talks about his obsession with photographing toilets, and his recent assignment in Ethiopia for Toilet Twinning:
Toilet Twinning's advertisement as it appeared in National Geographic magazine

Working all over the UK as a freelance photographer, I’ve noticed hundreds of public toilets have been closed over the past 20 years. I started taking photos of these tiny, quirky monuments to civic pride and convenience. I’ve pulled over at the side of busy dual carriageways and even turned the car around while on a tight deadline just so I don’t miss some gem.

But there’s a tension between my strange obsession with photographing semi-derelict public toilets, and the seriousness of some of the things I’ve seen while I’ve been working overseas.

The first time I really realised how crucial the lack of a good toilet can be was when I travelled to the refugee camps in Goma (then in Zaire, but now known as Democratic Republic of Congo) during the genocide in Rwanda, in 1994. Because the camps were being built on solidified lava fields, no one could dig pit latrines, and in the first week or ten days of the refugees’ arrival, more than 30,000 people died of cholera caused by the appallingly insanitary conditions.

On a recent trip to Ethiopia for Toilet Twinning, my brief was to get a spectacular shot of a toilet in a rural setting. It had to be something that would be good enough to run as a Toilet Twinning advertisement in the National Geographic magazine.

On the first day we found a rather nice latrine near a group of houses, with a view across to the other side of the valley. We agreed that it was worth coming back to catch the latrine in the golden rays of glorious dawn light.  So, stretching the good will of our hosts to the limit, we set off at 5am the next morning, and hiked a mile across the (rather steep) valley.  

We set up the photographic kit in a field with a lovely clear view of the latrine, but instead of the stunning mist-cresting dawn of my dreams, we had an almost English murky greyness. Just the flattest light you can imagine. But we’d come a long way, and this was a shot we’d put a lot of planning into, so we all just waited.  And waited.  And hunkered down against what was in fact a rather damp and cold morning, hoping that the farmer whose field we were in was going to be understanding when he got there, praying a little that the light would change.

I made us wait for over two hours, and finally the sun broke through for around 60 seconds.  It was a beautiful moment but, unfortunately, not one that ever really worked on camera.  The pictures were very lovely landscape shots, nice views of village life in the early morning, but there was nothing that made them clearly ‘toilet’ shots, to tell the story.

So, back to the drawing board. Thankfully, there was a plan B.  Back home I’d been practising shooting a friend’s shed, in the snow at night, to see if I could make something a bit special happen with an old lighting trick.  It had seemed to work in Sheffield, but would it work in Hossana, Ethiopia?

The original photo (c) Richard Hanson/Toilet Twinning

I’ve been photographing and reporting on development issues for over twenty years now, covering tragedies such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the civil war in Sudan, through to wonderfully uplifting stories of hope in Bolivia and Cambodia. But I’ve never had so many emails, texts and Facebook messages as I received about the Toilet Twinning photo taken in Ethiopia. People got in touch saying they’d seen the picture on the door of a portable toilet at the New Wine festival, or at a motorway service station, and thousands more will have seen the advertisement in National Geographic.   
So now, finally, I am famous in my own little world, not for one of the world-changing news events I’ve covered, but for my picture of a toilet. And really, I think I can live with that.

You can read more about how Richard Hanson set up the shot at his blog
You can see his photographic project on public toilets here