The girl in the photograph

The original image from December 10, 2003. The girl, whose name was not known at the time, waits for private water vendors to unlock a tap. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)


By Marco Longari

JOHANNESBURG, May 15, 2014 -– It was December 2003 and I was on assignment in the Kibera neighborhood of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, looking for ways to illustrate people’s struggles with water shortages there, and the general problem faced by millions the world over: access to clean water.

As I was wandering around the muddy streets, where leaky plastic pipes are strewn across the ground, sucking in dirt and germs as they snake their way around the slum, I noticed this young girl sitting next to a wall by a locked-up tap. She was waiting for someone to open the padlock so she could get water.

It was a fantastic photograph. There was no time to talk; I hurried to take this image, as I felt that it could have been an important illustration for our story. And for that brief moment, as in every picture, our eyes were in the same line of sight. This happens a lot as a photographer -- you are in that very same line with your subject for a split second. Your life and the one of your subject cross for that one instant, and then you’re forced to move on.

Children fill jerrycans with water they purchase from a private water vendor in the Kibera slum, December 10, 2013. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

Children fill jerrycans with water they purchase from a private water vendor in the Kibera slum, December 10, 2013. 

(AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

A week later, I got an email from a complete stranger, Duncan Goose. He said he had seen my picture in the Guardian newspaper and it had inspired him to get into humanitarian work, and that he wanted to do something focusing on clean water access. He was really struck by that particular image: I asked our Paris headquarters if he could use it in his work, and they agreed.

Duncan had been working as a business development director for a communications firm in London and had recently spent a couple of years motorcycling around the world, so setting up a philanthropic business was quite a change for him. He emailed me again a couple of years later to tell me about the organisation he’d started -- One -- a brand of bottled water that gives all of its profits away to help people in African nations get better access to clean water.

We’ve stayed in touch a few times since then, and I got another message last year saying it had been almost a decade since the picture was taken and that he’d managed to raise over £10 million (12.2 million euros, $16.8 million), which had helped change the lives of millions.

And, he said, they’d found the girl in the picture.

Ann Njeri at her boarding school in Embu, Kenya, March 14, 2014. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

Ann Nyjeri at her boarding school in Embu, Kenya, March 14, 2014. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

I couldn’t believe it. The story about how they found Ann Njeri, now 15, was fascinating. Duncan and the filmmaker Toby Richards had crisscrossed the Kibera slum, showing anyone and everyone the picture of the girl. After several false leads, they finally found her in the rural Enbu area about three hours from Nairobi.

Duncan and his team had even hired a facial mapping and recognition expert, who was able to say that Ann was indeed the same girl as the youngster crouched by the wall in the photo.

I was able to travel to the region in March this year to meet with Duncan and his team -- and to meet with Ann.

Of course, I was extremely happy to see her, but her story was not a happy one. Both her parents had died and, though she’d been adopted by an aunt and uncle (who had already adopted two other children from other family members who’d passed away), her siblings were still living in an orphanage. And on a personal level, it felt kind of terrifying to look into someone else’s life like this. As a photographer you engage with someone else’s life for that brief moment, and although you may be deeply involved and committed with the plight of the people you are photographing, there is only one thing you can do to actually give voice to their predicaments: take that picture. Then you have to move on.

The person you photograph, you see them only once and then you never really think about seeing them again. This isn’t because you don’t care, but because that’s the way it is. You don’t have time, you move on.

But when this experience happened, it was like an epiphany for me, a gift from the sky. The folks at the One Foundation and myself will follow Ann’s progress over the years and a trust has been set up to make sure she is well provided for in the future. They have already raised over £20,000 for the family to help bring the children back together, pay for their education and a bigger house than the two-roomed home they had. If people are inspired to contribute, they can do so via

Marco Longari is a Johannesburg-based photographer for AFP.

Marco Longari (L), Ann Nyjeri, Duncan Goose. (Photo: Toby Richards)

Marco Longari (L), Ann Nyjeri, Duncan Goose. (Photo: Toby Richards)