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In pictures: The beauty of toilets

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The dream for photographer Elena Heatherwick was to work for non-governmental organisations (NGOs), documenting lives and seeing the pictures she had made being used to effect change.

A recent commission from Water Aid gave her the opportunity to do just that, photographing remote communities in Rwanda and Madagascar, in the company of journalist Sally Williams.

image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionTheresia's toilet, complete with corrugated iron roof, was built for her by the community and her daughter.
image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionTheresia, 80, is a widow with three children, who lives in Gitwa, Rwanda. "When you die, people gather in your home. They walk around you, and one by one, they say goodbye. Dying in a place that you like, means a lot."

But commissions like this did not come overnight.

After completing her studies in photojournalism, she became a mother and put the notion of foreign travel on hold, turning her lens instead on culinary creations for the Guardian food pages.

But persistence pays off, and she was eventually commissioned by the United Nations to photograph midwives in Haiti. The call came after the picture editor remembered her work from a competition the UN ran, asking people to submit a photo of someone they admired.

Heatherwick's photograph was of her mother, a doula, and though that image was one of many on an Instagram story, it was enough to clinch the commission.

image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionDomitria bought the mud bricks, her neighbours dug the hole and donated wood for the floor and metal sheeting for the roof.
image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionDomitria, 54, lives alone but the community in Gitwa came together to renovate her home and construct her toilet. She says: "It's really good. I take care of it by keeping it clean. Defecating in open spaces is ugly."

While in Haiti she met one of Water Aid's staff and was immediately struck by the scale of the issue, that two billion people around the world did not have access to even a basic private toilet.

Heatherwick started to plan how she could take pictures that best represented the problem. She was fascinated by pictures of the toilet structures themselves, and soon decided this was what she wanted to photograph, alongside the communities.

Heatherwick and Williams had initially planned to travel to a number of countries, but Covid stopped them in their tracks, so they made it only as far as Rwanda and Madagascar.

image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionJean-Pierre's toilet showcases his commitment to hygiene: it has a cement, rather than wooden, floor, which is easier to keep clean, and it has a board over the top to keep flies out when not in use.
image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionJean-Pierre, lives with his wife, Pierrette, and their son in Ambatoantrano, Madagascar. When his son became critically ill with diarrhoea seven years ago, Jean-Pierre resolved to change things and build a toilet for his family. "I needed to protect people's health," he said. "Unlike most of the buildings in the village, which face west, away from the wind, I designed my toilet with the door facing east, into the wind."

In Madagascar, 90% of the population - more than 22 million people - do not have a decent toilet, and a third of Rwandans - four million people - are in a similar situation.

However, Heatherwick and Williams set out to visit two villages where things are much improved.

In Ambatoantrano, a remote village in the central highlands of Madagascar, and the village of Gitwa, in the mountains of southern Rwanda, nearly all households now have their own facilities.

As they arrived at each village they bought wood, hired carpenters and prepared a large white backdrop against which the toilets would be photographed.

Heatherwick wanted to treat the structures in the same way that an architectural photographer would document the latest high-rise building in a modern city.

image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionNoely's toilet has a squash vine growing over it. She's pleased it's flowering and laughs "It's the first time I've grown a squash on the toilet."
image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionNoely, 42, is a farmer in Ambatoantrano. She's divorced and has five daughters and a grandson. "My neighbour's five ducks have fallen down the toilet and I worry my tiny grandson could do the same. I don't have enough money to make it smart, but to me, the most important thing the toilet represents is health."

"By isolating the structures from their surroundings, we hoped to showcase their designs, to make people look differently at an everyday object and to celebrate the heroes pushing for better sanitation across the world," says Heatherwick.

In addition, she wanted to make sure each one was photographed in a way that would highlight its beauty.

"When buildings are finished the photographer always shoots in the most epic light - so I wanted to apply that same reverence to these structures."

In reality of course, there were storms and cloudy days, so Heatherwick shot in black and white, allowing her to focus attention on the form, shape and their beauty. It also gives the work a uniform feel.

image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionMarie Lydia's toilet was built when almost everyone else in the village already had one. Marie said: "We paid for our first ever toilet by ploughing other people's land."
image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionMarie Lydia lives with her husband and four-year-old daughter in Ambatoantrano. She says that having their own toilet has transformed her pregnancy, a time when the need to go is more frequent. She still has her chamber pot for when it's dark, though. "I won't go outside at night - there are zebus [cattle] rustlers."

"Through talking to people in the communities it is clear that a solution for one is not something you can apply to the whole country, or the world," says Heatherwick.

However, in both countries Heatherwick and Williams found people were proud of the toilets they had built. Some were constructed by the whole village; others made their own.

But for Heatherwick, "it is the stories behind the toilets, the people, who have or don't have one, that is important".

image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionAthanasia, 58, a widow with eight children, is disabled and has spent some time in hospital. She says: "Toilets for sitting on are for sick people."
image copyright Elena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionAthanasia's toilet, constructed under a eucalyptus tree, was built for her by the community. It has a view of Gitwa below, sandy paths and steeply terraced vegetable gardens.
image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionWhen Agnes (above, with her granddaughter, Diane) was a child, only around one in 10 families had a toilet in Gitwa. "Everyone used to go anywhere and it caused flies to go on our vegetables. Diseases would attack the families. At one point, up to five children were dying a month."
image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionAgnes said: "I am very happy because I don't have to collect grass every morning to put on top of the roof."
image copyrightElena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionMarie-Pierrette, 38, lives with her brother in Ambatoantrano, Madagascar and has suffered much loss though three miscarriages.
image copyright Elena Heatherwick / WaterAid
image captionMarie-Pierrette's toilet offers an opportunity for her to express herself, and every aspect is considered carefully. "I am most proud of its shape - it's quite small. I wash and clean it every day. I try to do my best."

The plan had been to show the work in a gallery, but for now you can see it online.

All photographs courtesy Elena Heatherwick / WaterAid / People's Postcode Lottery

Related Topics

  • Documentary photography
  • Rwanda
  • Photography
  • Toilets
  • Madagascar