NASTY WOMAN: Danielle Da Silva (Founder & CEO, Photographers without Borders)
Updated: Mar 12
Danielle Da Silva knows a good photo opportunity (or many) when she sees one. As the Founder & CEO of Photographers without Borders (PwB), Danielle has established herself as a renowned international photographer whose focus on social impact has led her to establish an organization known for its ability to affect global change through a camera lens.
PwB is a hub for some of the world's best & brightest up-and-coming photographers, and I was fortunate enough to sit down with Danielle, over coffee, during one of her short stays in her hometown of Toronto (she's a 'gold star' collector of passport stamps, whose work takes her all over the planet).
NAME: Danielle Da Silva
LOCATION: Toronto, Canada
WHERE YOU KNOW HER FROM: Photographers without Borders
Danielle Da Silva
(Photo Credit: Patricia Recourt)
Describe yourself in three words.
Visual Storyteller. Conservationist. Activist.
Tell us about Photographers without Borders (PwB) and how it got started.
Photographers without Borders (PwB) is a community of storytellers, building capacity for communications for grassroots initiatives all over the world. Since 2012, we’ve worked with over 150 organizations, sending volunteer photographers to different regions and connecting them with projects globally, whereby the organizations can access free photography and video materials.
The idea was originally born in 2008, while I was studying sustainable development and working in some large development-focused institutions. I was in India on a volunteer trip, working with a community of Dalit people, and it was my first time being introduced to the concept of the caste system.
Dalits, often referred to as “untouchables” (I dislike all these terms, for the record — in my eyes they are simply people), are those who are of the lowest “caste" in a social hierarchy they are born into, and where there is little opportunity to advance economically or socially. Some people are even born into situations of bonded slavery. All of them are treated more poorly, than many of us can imagine, by the society-at-large and are expected to do only the dirtiest tasks (this is why they are considered “untouchable” and “unclean”). Until that time, I thought that the caste system had been abolished in India, as it is on paper; however, it has largely manifested, and continues to manifest itself, to the point where people have to indicate their caste on any basic document next to “name,” “date of birth” or “age.” It’s archaic and is only one facet of beautiful, incredible India, but it is in full force and to the benefit of the ruling castes.
During that time, I took a lot of photos and it dawned on me, once I came home, that it was really difficult to describe what I had been through, and the experiences I felt, but the photos said everything. The bigger lesson for me, however, was about how communications, and photography specifically, can help people around the world develop empathy and an understanding of situations and people who they’ve never met. With the help of the images, we managed to raise enough money to build nine schools for Dalit children. And, so, PWB was born…
What's been your most memorable experience with PwB, to date?
I know people would probably expect me to say something about one of my travels, and all of them have really impacted me. I could tell you so many stories about how every single place and person I’ve met has impacted me. But it’s really been about my team. I look forward to our weekly meetings and our semi-annual appraisals. I love hearing how PwB is the highlight of the team’s week, and how it has changed their life - made them more confident or more aware, or how an internship helped them land their dream job. Some of our staff and interns have told me that just being who I am has inspired them. To me, that’s priceless. I think that’s the ultimate lesson. It’s like, who you are is really the way of showing people a different way of being, that they can be brave, that they can stand up for themselves and others, and create space for others.
Tell us about a memorable encounter with someone you've worked with.
I am absolutely in love with an organization in India called Sambhali Trust. They work to help underprivileged women and girls to develop self-esteem, to unite and to be independent financially. In a place like conservative Jodhpur, India, I can’t stress enough the importance of the work they are doing.
My grandmother on my father’s side was born in Agra, India and was the daughter of a Muslim judge. Once the bloody divisions of the Partition began, it became unsafe for her to remain in Agra. So, at the age of 13, she became a child bride, married off quickly and into the hands of my grandfather, an older man from a poorer family who made up for his shortcomings by taking her to safety. Their destination: the newly forming Pakistan where she would be safer from the witch hunt for Muslims that was taking place in some parts of India. While I love both my grandparents who are now deceased, I was never blind to the abuse my grandmother endured. She, in turn, became abusive in her own way. And the cycle of abuse has a nasty way of continuing unless you choose to stop it.
Sambhali is founded by a man who, as a young boy, witnessed his mother become a widow. He watched her rise and fall in society. He watched his father abuse her. And what he has done with his life and his privilege and his experience should be a symbol to us all. Needless to say, my experience with Sambhali, and seeing the work they are doing and the impact they are having, as evidenced by the smiles of the women and girls they are supporting, has been life changing.
And, on my first visit, even more luck would have it that my favourite director, Deepa Mehta, visited Sambhali at the same time as me earlier this year. I have met many legends, but few are like her. She’s someone who is incredibly talented, humble and outspoken. She was so in love with the work of Sambhali that she became a Patron to the organization. They really deserve it.
Something that the founder of Sambhali Trust says in his interview in the episode that’s about to launch for our PWB TV web series premiere really resonates with me: “What I couldn’t do for my mother, I’m doing for these women and children now.”
It’s kind of how I feel about supporting this work, as in what I couldn’t do for my grandmother and mother then, I want to be able to do for others now. And it’s why I want to continue creating the type of work that moves and educates people, disturbs them in some way and helps them recognize their privilege. It’s so important that we see beyond ourselves.
As you just touched on, PwB has moved from photography into video. Tell us more about this web series you’ve been working on.
We realized early on that, in pursuing our goal, we couldn’t stop at photography because video is such a powerful communication tool. It was a natural ‘next step’ for us to start offering video to organizations. PwB TV, our web series, is a way for people to get a glimpse into what it looks like for a photographer going on these journeys, and to experience the worlds of these NGOs through photography. Throughout the episodes, you see the photographer’s still images alongside interviews and discussions with people from the organizations. They’re really beautiful pieces. We feature four to five episodes per season, and we launch Season 2 on October 28th.
We’re having a screening and cultural event that night in Toronto called “Sambhali: Daughters of the Blue City.” Yep, you guessed it! The first episode is about Sambhali Trust.
That’s so exciting, and I’m sure it will be a fantastic event. How do you choose what content to document for the web series?
For each season, we do about 60 projects, but we’ll only film five of them. We base it on the organizations, and we try to get a varied set of locations and issues to present. It’s very difficult to choose, actually. A lot of the time, we have a variety of locations or projects to select from, and we’ll make our selection based on the photographer’s willingness to be on camera and their charisma.
Who's your favourite photographer?
All of the PwB photographers, of course! I feel like I’m a mother to all of them. They’re amazing.
What’s been your favourite photograph from your own portfolio?
I don’t know what it is about the girls who live at the Sambhali boarding home, but I took some portraits recently that I am continually drawn to. I’ve included one here. These girls have had such tough backgrounds, and it comes across in their badass personalities. They live in one of Sambhali’s boarding homes for girls who need a clean and safe place to stay while they complete their studies. Some of them are orphans; some of their mothers are widows (widows are traditionally cast out of society and family circles unless they have a son old enough and wealthy enough to support her); some of the girls’ parents live on the streets, are engaging in prostitution and drug addiction, or are generally unable to care for them. Despite that, these girls are so warm and welcoming, funny and entertaining. Someone once told me that behind every genuinely warm smile is someone who has lived through some very tough times, and has still chosen to smile at the world. I think there is something so profound in the smiles of these young girls.
It sounds like you've really found your 'calling' with the work you're doing. What did you aspire to be and do when you were younger?
I wanted to be an actress when I was really little. I loved the idea of storytelling, and I think that’s why I love being behind the camera now, and why I like writing screenplays and short films. I can put myself in the position of the character in the story. I also feel like acting is a beautiful way of storytelling and empathizing with others. I think, when you’re really empathetic, acting is something that comes naturally… same with comedy.
What took you, then, from wanting to be in front of the camera to wanting to be behind it?
To be honest, that was when I was really young. I had a neighbour who was an actor, and I was jealous. I was like, “Why can’t you put me in TV shows?” But my parents didn’t really encourage that interest so, I think, at some point, it just changed naturally, with it not being fed and encouraged. Who knows? Maybe, if it was fed and encouraged, it would have changed anyway. But I did get to do some high school theatre – plays, musicals and whatnot. I think, over time, I got a taste of everything, and I chose to go a different route. I’m more of someone who can make things manifest, and I would get frustrated if I were an actor, waiting for things to come to fruition. I would want to create my own production and then act in it… or… something like that.
What is the greatest business challenge you've faced?
It’s been gaining an understanding of myself and my relationships, and how I want to function as a leader. It’s involved a great deal of soul searching, knowing who I am and who I want to be in the world, how I want to show up in the world, what kind of space I want to create for others, and overcoming personal challenges. Maybe part of it was my upbringing, unlearning the things I had been taught, especially to play more of a masculine role, rather than embracing my femininity. A lot of the challenges were very personal to me, and they all reflect on my business life.
What is the greatest personal challenge you've faced?
Getting myself out of the way. Not to make this a platitude, but understanding my own trans-generational trauma, understanding what’s mine and what’s not, and honing my intuition. I wouldn’t say it’s been my greatest challenge, but it’s led to the greatest things, to the greatest abundance, really cultivating and trusting my intuition. And it now acts as a very quick litmus test, and it allows me to make decisions at the drop of a hat.
What is your greatest fear?
Life has taught me that anything can be overcome except bodily death, and death is nothing to be afraid of.
Looking back, what is the. one thing you would have done differently?
Experience is the best teacher and, although my life path has been rife with difficulty, I’m so glad I was given enough of a challenge to develop the skills to help others. If I said that I wish I had known what I know now when I was younger, then I wouldn’t actually know it, because you have to go through the experience to really know what to do.
What’s the best piece of advice you can offer someone just beginning her entrepreneurial journey?
Be authentic. Hone your intuition. Silence is violence, so be proactive. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re probably part of the problem. Become comfortable with discomfort and change. Don’t be afraid to disturb peoples’ consciousness.
What do you do to unwind and decompress?
Meditation and yoga and painting and signing and dancing.
What’s the #1 item on your bucket list?
Learning sign language. I also really want to master Arabic.
Tell us about a woman who inspires you.
My sister, because she is very different from me, and she’s always challenged me. We share the same drive and value for authenticity. At the same time, being challenged by someone who is that close to you is a healthy practice that I don’t think I appreciated enough when I was younger. She’s incredibly brilliant, accomplished, ambitious, hard-working and driven. She’s not someone who ever asks anybody for handouts. She’s very principled, and is always completely honest (which is why she makes an incredible journalist). She commits.
What is your professional mantra?
Help others be their best selves.
Where can we learn more about PwB?
You can visit our website to learn more about our work and opportunities. If you live in Toronto, know anyone who does, or if you’ll be in the city on October 28th, I’m personally extending an invitation to our web series premiere screening. Tickets are limited and available here.
What advice do you wish you'd given your 20-year-old self?
Trust your intuition.
What do you know for sure?
This experience will end at some point.
What have you learned?
We’re here to help each other.
What will you never learn?
To stop shaking things up.
Best piece of advice?
Wake up and smell the flowers.
Did it work?
The moment that changed everything?
Seeing a 13-year-old in a coffin.
My two little Chihuahua puppies snuggling with me.
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