Capturing the world’s changemakers on camera

23 mar. 2019 |

If you think about the people most photographed today, a slew of Hollywood stars, president Donald Trump or the British Royals probably spring to mind.

But in 19th century America, one man was photographed more than any other – and it wasn’t an actor or the president. It was the former slave Frederick Douglass. From just after his escape from slavery in 1838, to his death in 1895, the abolitionist and suffragist was photographed at least 160 times (compared to Abraham Lincoln’s 126 known photos).

In decades past, the levers of change belonged almost exclusively to the elites. Through the act of sitting for these self-portraits, Douglass was expressing his belief that photographs had a “moral and social influence”, which, in his case, could break commonly held stereotypes and behaviours of the time.

Today, change is also welling up from new and unexpected sources. Previously marginalised groups – from farmers in the developing world living with the impact of climate change to girls fighting for the right to an education – have seen their voices amplified by technology.  

This year, the Varkey Foundation has teamed up with the non-profit organisation, The People’s Portfolio, to display images of some of these people.

The power of pictures  

Founded in 2013 by the British-Greek photographer Platon, The People’s Portfolio describes itself as the “external communications department” for global human rights’ defenders. It uses multimedia storytelling to show the human side of the world’s problems and those who are trying to solve them.

Through portrait photography and documentary filmmaking, it’s on a mission to “humanise statistics, promote compassion and advocate responsible citizenship and leadership among members of the global community”.

The theme of this year’s Global Education and Skills Forum is ‘Who is changing the world?’ – so what better way to answer the question than with a glimpse at just a few of The People’s Portfolio portraits that will be shared in Dubai over the two-days of the Forum.

From disability rights’ champions in Russia to journalists reporting on events in Myanmar, Platon’s camera is using media in a new way to define how our society understands itself. 

The Global Education and Skills Forum (an initiative of the Varkey Foundation) believes this is transformative because it enables ordinary people to have a huge impact, potentially giving power to everyone, everywhere.

Life-sized portraits of Platon’s changemakers are part of a permanent exhibition at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, where he serves as Creative Director at Large.

Thiri Htet San and Moe Zin – Broadcast Journalists


In May 2010, Platon and Human Rights Watch went to the Thai-Burma border to photograph former political prisoners, civil society leaders, ethnic minority group members, journalists and others in exile.

Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) broadcast journalists, Thiri Htet San and Moe Zin risk their lives to report and record events inside Myanmar, also known as Burma, and share them with the wider world. One of their colleagues was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 27 years in prison for filming interviews with monks.

Burmese children

Although efforts in the last decade have led to improvements in access to antiretroviral medication for those in Myanmar living with HIV, there continues to be a high incidence of new infections.

These children, who are HIV positive, were orphaned or sent by their parents to Social Action for Women’s safe house, the Children’s Crisis Center for treatment or protection. SAW provides shelter, education, and basic services for Burmese children including antiretroviral medication. The children wear traditional Burmese tanaka wood paste painted on their faces for protection and decoration.

Harn Lay 

Best-known for his satirical cartoons about Myanmar’s former military regime, for decades, Harn Lay used his drawings, published in The Irrawaddy magazine and website.

A graduate of the Rangoon School of Fine Arts Academy and former rebel soldier, who fled to Thailand following the 1988 protests and ensuing crackdown, last year he was breaking taboos again with an exhibition of paintings depicting the naked human form.

Kyaw Htet


A former motorcycle mechanic, Kyaw Htet left Myanmar to pursue his dream of being a musician.

At the time his photo was taken by Platon, he embodied the unstable future of youth in Burma whose opportunities and education were limited, especially if the family has any association with the political opposition.

Victor Bodunov and his mother, Valentina

Platon documented the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 2011 through a series of portraits capturing civil society in the post-communist era.

Victor, a trained print shop technician is active in Best Buddies Russia, a movement that connects people with and without disabilities. He is a fan of musical theatre and has starred in theatre productions designed to engage people with disabilities.

Yulia Averyanora

 Yulia runs sports programmes for the Russian NGO Perspektiva, a charity that is dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with disabilities.

The charity helps people acquire new skills and knowledge to become fully participating members of society and to gain equal access to inclusive education and employment. A sportswoman in her own right, Yulia also skis, ice skates and paraglides.

Antiracism campaigners

This trio have been tackling racism in Russia.

Jawad Nabulsi


In April 2011, Platon and Human Rights Watch created a portfolio of photographs from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which had been the epicentre of the ‘Arab Spring’.

Jawad was wounded in the eye with a lead pellet while protesting.

Gasser Abd El Razek with his son, Khalil Gasser Abd El Razek

 Gasser Abd El Razek is a human rights advocate, and Executive Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. 

“The first thing I took to Tahrir Square, which is a practical thing, was my satellite phone. The second thing I took, which is the most important, is my son who was 18 months old at the time,” he said.

“Even though he wouldn’t understand what was going on, I think it’s what shapes his future and I really wanted him to be there.”

Solomon Danjuma


Part of a series of portraits of Malaria Champions, Solomon was inspired by a university professor to teach and protect communities in Nigeria from the disease.

Malaria killed 435,000 people in 2017, according to the World Health Organisation, and 25% of those were in Nigeria. But the disease can be prevented through better education, sleeping under mosquito nets and indoor sprays.

For more than five years, Solomon has brought community members together for educational sessions in order to limit malaria’s deadly impact.  

Alma D. Isais Aguilar

The People’s Portfolio and Human Rights Watch have also collaborated on a project highlighting the impact of immigration laws in the United States.

Alma D. Isais Aguilar is a Catholic nun who works with the Kino Border Initiative, a humanitarian organisation that helps to provide food and shelter to migrants in the border town of Nogales, Mexico.

Sister Alma reports that, in the past, most migrants were people heading north for the first time, but she now increasingly sees long-term residents of the United States who have been deported and are trying to return to their families.

By sharing the stories of grassroots activists, philanthropists, campaigners and tech developers, the Global Education and Skills Forum (an initiative of the Varkey Foundation) is looking not just to our leaders but to our neighbours, to solve the problems of tomorrow’s generation – and change the lives of millions for the better.