Behind the backdrop

“The idea of photographing people’s toilets in front of a sheet might seem like an odd one to many”, Elena admits. “But 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.”

Equipped with a camera, a backdrop and a notebook, photographer Elena Heatherwick and journalist Sally Williams set out to capture the structures and stories surrounding an everyday object: the toilet. Along the way, they discovered that toilets go far beyond practical matters, reflecting the life stories of their owners.

Finding inspiration in sanitation

In 2018, Elena was in Haiti documenting the life-changing work of midwives. A chance conversation with a local toilet builder gave her a new perspective on the humble toilet. For people building their own, toilets are a matter of huge pride.

“People in their homes have stacks of photos but there’s only some photos that they choose to frame and put on their wall and those are the really special ones – so I thought, let’s do the same thing with toilets,” said Elena.

Elena teamed up with journalist Sally Williams and WaterAid, and Toilet Stories was born.

Turning the vision into reality

Working with designer Ashley Watson to create the huge, white backdrop, was just the first step. Next there was the small matter of getting it to Rwanda and Madagascar.

“The waxed cotton backdrop was much taller than us. We worried about the logistics of transporting it on a flight; getting the wooden support built in each village; of finding the right toilets - which, in our case, meant with space enough to position a backdrop behind.

“And none of us had any idea about local realities – how rain in Rwanda would turn the only road to the village into a quagmire,” says Sally.

The communities Elena and Sally met helped to build the backdrop and shared their stories, too.

Behind every toilet there’s a story

“We get to talk about some quite profound things when we talk about toilets. For this project, we wanted to put people at the heart of the experience; to show people’s personalities and their hopes and dreams, rather than treating them as a sanitation issue,” Sally added.

“We realised each toilet is unique, shaped by the personality of its owner. It was a privilege to meet so many fascinating people who shared some profound moments in their lives with us. If you want to know what it’s like to be at peace about dying, to yearn for a baby you’ve lost, to get divorced, to grow plants, you can find it here, in these stories of people and their toilets.”

Meet the team

Elena is a freelance photographer based in London specialising in portrait and documentary photography. Her understanding of light and shadow and her sharp eye for the smallest detail convey meaning in her photos. Creating images that make you stop and think.

Her work has featured in numerous magazines and newspapers including the New York Times and the Guardian. She has worked around the world collaborating with the UN, the International Rescue Committee and many others.

Sally is a London-based feature writer. Her work has taken her across the world, and into the heart of people’s lives – from Peshmerga fighters in Iraq to surrogate mothers in Ukraine to fishermen in Mozambique. Storytelling is not a job, it is a way of life.

Sally left the obituaries desk at The Independent to pursue stories that matter, and her work has since appeared in Guardian Weekend, the Telegraph and the Times magazines to name just a few.

Shaz runs an award-winning independent design practice in London. Her studio works across identities, publications, packaging, spatial and digital design for individuals and large cultural institutions. She’s previously worked with the V&A, MoMA, Thames & Husdson, Giles Duley, and the Wellcome Trust.

Shaz is also the creative director of Riposte, a magazine profiling and celebrating women working in design, art, politics, science and music

WaterAid is an international not-for-profit, determined to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation.

This online exhibition explores the lives of those who are deeply affected by a lack of decent toilets – 1 in 4 people globally - and those whose lives have been transformed by them.

Special thanks to Ernest Randriarimalala for his help co-ordinating our shoots in Madagascar; our translator in Madagascar, Adrienne Irma Rabemanantsoa; our two translators in Rwanda, Nadia Musoni and Marcellin Muyizere. Thanks also to Ashley Watson for designing the backdrop and Dinamo for allowing the use of their font Favourit.