BasicNeeds in Ghana

February 11, 2011

By Barbara Goldman

© Nyani Quarmyne

A mentally ill patient who has run out of his medication and is confined for aggressive behavior.

Freelance photographer Nyani Quarmyne, currently living in Accra, Ghana and working in the region, has a particular interest in creating images that tell human stories. Quarmyne is of Ghanaian Filipino descent, was born in India and grew up in eastern and southern Africa before moving to Canada and Australia. He had a cushy consulting career in Australia, as he likes to describe it, far from the world of photography, ntil he acquired an entry-level DSLR kit in mid-2008 for a family vacation to the U.S. He started to teach himself how to shoot, and that was it for Quarmyne, he was hooked.


After investing in some equipment and taking a year out to study photography, and now with a renewed sense of purpose, he moved to Ghana where his roots are, and began to focus on the telling of stories that remind people of our shared humanity and our shared responsibility. Not long after he arrived in Ghana, a friend described the conditions faced by people suffering from mental illness and introduced him to Peter Yaro, Ghana Program Manager of BasicNeeds.


BasicNeeds is a mental-health advocacy NGO working in Ghana and several other African countries, as well as in Asia and Latin America. “We talked about the fact that advocacy work is often very literature-centric, and how this is problematic in places like Ghana where literacy rates are low,” explains Quarmyne. They discussed the power of photography as a means to communicate without the written word and began to explore the possibility of producing a series of images to support their advocacy work. They were successful in securing a small grant that enabled them to get started. Quarmyne started on the project and worked closely with Bernard Alando, BasicNeeds’ Knowledge and Communications Officer in Ghana.



Essentially he wanted to create a series of images that spoke to the mental and physical state of the people photographed and the conditions in which they live. He also wanted to pick up on such accompanying themes as family, isolation and poverty. Quarmyne travelled extensively within Ghana, shooting in poor urban environments, remote villages and in institutions. He used a mix of close portraits to create a sense of connection between subject and viewer, environmental portraits to convey a sense of place and close-ups to highlight the horrors of methods used for treatment and confinement. In one instance, a patient’s foot has been placed through a heavy length of wood and a metal bar driven across the hole in the log prevents him from withdrawing his leg. In this way he is prevented from wandering away or escaping, and others are at less risk from his aggressive outbursts.


Quarmyne’s biggest challenge was and still is funding for the project and the constraints on time and scope that it has imposed. Also, travel in northern Ghana is very difficult because of the inhospitable roads – in some areas they are all but impassable at times of the year – and the long distances he had to travel to capture images from a representative series of locations. His 70-200mm f/2.8 lens basically got vibrated to death during the course of the assignment. Quarmyne had very limited access to the country’s three public psychiatric institutions. Many times he could not show patients’ faces, at one institution he was allowed access only to a very small part of facility, and at another no entry was allowed at all making it difficult to paint a representative picture of conditions inside public mental health facilities.



With all the difficulties, Quarmyne did manage to capture a wealth of riveting images. They are being published in a simple photo book that BasicNeeds will use for further support of advocacy work from the grassroots level up. “Ultimately we’d like to do more with them, including expanding the scope of what we were able to shoot and producing a multimedia piece,” adds Quarmyne.


Although he has been working as a professional photographer for just over a year, Quarmyne has already shot for an impressive client base that includes AngloGold Ashanti, the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The African Women’s Development Fund, and BasicNeeds among others, and he is a contributor to the exclusive U.S. photo agency Aurora Photos, In 2009, he was a finalist for the Australian National Portrait Gallery’s National Photographic Portrait Prize.


“Nyani is undoubtedly a professional, well-informed and widely-read. His photographic skills and dexterity with the camera are unquestionable, and he has excellent creative abilities,” says  Basic Needs Communications Officer Alando.  Quarmyne’s images have been noticed and this recognition allows him greater opportunities to align with clients and their projects. He continues to tell stories that need to be seen by people worldwide and attention is now paid.


As Quarmyne says, “There is much to see… if you choose to look,” and we choose to see more of Nyani Quarmyne.  See more of his  latest  projects at