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Natascha Libbert X Marie-Stella-Maris Foundation

Photographer Natascha Libbert on visiting our clean drinking water project ‘Water for Mweteni’ in Tanzania.



In September 2016, we travelled to Mweteni in Tanzania to visit two drinking water projects that were supported by the Marie-Stella-Maris Foundation. Photographer Natascha Libbert, in collaboration with GUP, captured the local community and its surroundings. In this interview, Natascha reveals her sources of inspiration and what kind of impact the trip had on her.

About Natascha Libbert

During her childhood Natascha lived in countries such as Spain, the US, UK, Ghana and Saudi Arabia. After working as an account manager for a large ad agency in the Netherlands, she decided to apply for the Academy of Arts in The Hague, where she graduated in 2009. “How does man relate to his surroundings?” was a question that she continuously asked herself partly due to her roaming youth and as a result of travelling a lot for work. Her photographs can either show abstract landscapes or zoom in on details, but are always in relation to humans and their perception of reality of their surroundings. When working on assignments or free work, an idea evolves during research, writing, photographing. Natascha has had several exhibitions, nominations and awards to her name. 

What made you decide to accept the invitation of the Marie-Stella-Maris Foundation?

I’m currently working on a nautical project involving the North Sea Canal and the shipping industry, which continuously puts me in contact with water and its influence and characteristics. Also in relation to land and earth. When I was invited by the Foundation to travel to Tanzania, I thought it would be interesting to find out how I could approach the water theme there. Plus, I love waking up in countries like Tanzania, sitting on the floor in the morning while drinking a cup of filter coffee, reflecting on the situation and environment in which I find myself. I think that manoeuvring myself in locations like that is my biggest motivation to travel. I wouldn’t easily photograph a place for my work that doesn’t evoke any questions.



Can you tell us more about your photo series?

Water was fairly invisible in the area where we stayed, but it was definitely present in the way it manifests itself in the lifestyle of the people in the villages. Water makes the land valuable so I found myself looking to the ground and studying the structure of soils. The deep red colours were visually very attractive and seductive – it reminded me of 15 years ago, when I went to Australia solely based on one picture I saw of red earth.

We stayed in a mountain area where its inhabitants were pretty isolated: self-sufficient, but very well organised. Based on geophilosophy, one studies people by looking at the source of their environment: their “land”. Compared to life in the city, there was little external influence here hence the relationship between people, water and earth was more direct, more visible. I thought it was an appropriate focus for my project, to look at the texture of the land to understand its people but also as a way to concentrate on the theme of water because they were interrelated. 


What is your favourite image?

To me, the picture of the “ribbon” of cactus is the most characteristic. It is related to the structure of water; I could also have called it the red river. I also think the image has something affectionate, that’s why I called it My Dear. It is a term of endearment which I found appropriate and it is also a gesture to someone I spoke to about Swahili and the role of language in relation to people and land.

"Water was fairly invisible in the area where we stayed, but it was definitely present in the way it manifests itself in the lifestyle of the people in the villages."

What does water mean to you? 

I drink ridiculous amounts of water! Apart from that, I’ve often lived in countries with a lack of water or clean drinking water, which makes me very aware of the comfort of our western lives when it comes to that – especially when standing in the shower. I have also looked a lot at water for another project. I have travelled with scuba divers and cargo ships and spoke to people who live and work with the sea, and I find it such a special phenomenon. Water is the greatest good; if we use it the right way it brings us welfare. But is also has a destructive tendency. Currents and patterns emerge and break down. At sea, I watched and photographed the water for countless hours.


What inspired you the most during your visit to our project in Tanzania?

It was inspiring to see that there was a group of women who were so well organised and by joining forces they actually initiated this project. They have their own banking system, which they apply to save money and thoughtfully deal with the environment and the future. This actually gives them a stronger position compared to the men because they are in charge.

"I have travelled with scuba divers and cargo ships and spoke to people who live and work with the sea, and I find it such a special phenomenon. Water is the greatest good; if we use it the right way it brings us welfare."

How did you experience the clean drinking water project up close? 

I have to say it was surprising, since I didn’t really have positive experiences with “charity” projects. I’ve been to places where the tap of the water well could easily have been stolen within a week or where you could question the benefits or consequences of the project. I think it’s a tough point of discussion, when Westerners introduce projects with their own standards and values and perhaps expectations in foreign countries. Nonetheless I was encouraged by Marie-Stella-Maris to be critical, and we did have some discussions about it, which was interesting and beneficial. I think the success factor of these projects is that they are initiated on a local level and the funds for maintenance and expansion are incorporated in yearly savings. Also, quite some direct effects were visible due to the new water facilities. When I drove through the area on a motorcycle I saw the growth of fresh fruits and vegetables - evidence of farming practices that showed care and experience.

"When I drove through the area on a motorcycle I saw the growth of fresh fruits and vegetables - evidence of farming practices that showed care and experience."

Did you go to Mweneti with certain expectations? Were these consistent with what you actually saw? 

I had no expectations apart from the idea that I would be sleeping in the corner of some unfinished house without any water facilities whatsoever, and apparently I wasn’t the only one. So we were pleasantly surprised when this wasn’t the case. Anyway, I have learned that having expectations upfront isn’t of any use: it’s much more fun to undergo everything during a bumpy car ride on your way there. 


Is there anything else you want to share with us?

The landscape images I have shared here are all related to the construction of homes by soil and stone, which is facilitated now by the wells. It is a nice thought that when houses are built with only natural materials, they will become part of the landscape once again when no longer in use.


Documentary duo Strictua also travelled with us, watch the video here.