Turning the World ‘Inside Out’ in Malawi

July 24, 2013


Before starting Inside Out, artist JR launched the biggest illegal art exhibition, called Face to Face, at the Israel border along Tel Aviv, Haifa, Bethlehem and Ramallah. He and his crew interviewed and took photos of Israel and Palestinian people with the same occupation and placed the photos side by side in eight Palestinian and Israeli cities. When the passing crowds inevitably made negative comments about the project, JR asked, “Can you tell which one is Israeli and which one is Palestinian?” Most could not.

After award winning ‘curator’ and filmmaker JR won the TED Prize in 2011 he launched a participatory global art project called Inside Out. Through Inside Out, he has worked in over 15 countries including India, Africa, Brazil, Cambodia and Israel.

Image on left: Woman in Malawi. Photo Credit Ellen Doherty.


Lake Malawi is an African Great Lake and the southernmost lake in the East African Rift system, located between Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. Led by photographer and journalist Ellen Doherty, the Inside Out project went to Malawi to exhibit the lives of Malawi fisherman and bring attention to a local crisis – a perfect storm of overpopulation, climate change and deforestation. Fish are the main food source for many Malawians and at least 300,000 people rely specifically on fish from Lake Malawi. Lloyd Phiri, a local fisherman from Senga Bay, claimed that, “Years ago, it was the norm to catch about 5,000 fish a day,” and now he is lucky to bring in 300. The loss of income from fishing has made it near impossible for fishermen to pay for their homes, family needs and children’s school fees.

To bring voice to these struggles, Ellen Doherty took photos of the fishermen and displayed them on boats, drawing attention to the people that depend on the Lake to survive. See image below. Photo credit Ellen Doherty.

“A community is not just geographical; it is about a sense of belonging… It could be a group of people, a music scene, a certain sport, a particular vibe or a place. Please take the time, to grab a camera and share your perspective of the communities you belong to.” – Ellen Doherty, photo-journalist

Aims and Outcomes

  • To reveal the faces and stories of the people working on the front line in Malawi’s food and fishing economies.
  • To highlight and discuss the challenges faced by these workers and families.
  • To create a bridge between minorities and media. The photo projects catch the attention of people in power. For example, JR’s illegal street art in Brazil drew authorities into conversations with the women in the photos in their efforts to track down who conducted the project. This simple act built a bridge of dialogue between the women and families in the favela and the media capable of raising awareness in the country at large.


Both The Hunger Project and Inside Out project are opening a space for discussions about social change, whether through art or epicenter mobilization. When talking about the Epicenter Strategy, Mr. Rowlands Kaotcha, Country Director of The Hunger Project-Malawi, says that epicenters should be a “tool to mobilize people together to empower them to break the cycle to end hunger and poverty…” While epicenters are a direct method of empowerment, projects like Inside Out create public identities for communities and empower people within them to make statements about what they stand for. Reflecting on art and social change, JR states that “…the fact that art cannot change things makes it a neutral place for discussions and then people can change the world.”

The issues that Malawians face first caught my attention when I saw an Inside Out picture on Facebook. Since then, I have been inspired to learn about ecosystems in the lake, migration within Malawi, the trade market, the diet of Malawians and the pressures of climate change, as well as Malawian government plans to exploit minerals. My discovery of this project on a social media platform demonstrates how these projects can spread awareness and create a larger dialogue for world development issues.

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