How three very different photographers use their cameras to make a difference
-- and how you can do so, too.
It can be a pretty decent hobby and a reasonably rewarding career. But photography has a remarkable ability to be more than that -- to be a force that moves people.
The history of photography from its earliest days is filled with photographers who have used that power to spark reform in urban slums or to save endangered creatures and their habitats. Think of Jacob Riis, whose 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, led to the closure of police-run poorhouses in New York City. Or William Henry Jackson, whose pioneering landscape photographs helped spark the creation of the world's first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872.
This tradition is stronger than ever today. We talked with three photographers who take very different kinds of pictures and champion very different causes. What they have in common: an ability to use their cameras to heal the world. Their work and stories are on the pages that follow. And for some ideas about what you can do, turn to page 110.
Like many Americans, photographer Stephen Wilkes was riveted to the news in August 2005 as the disaster of Hurricane Katrina unfolded. But unlike many people, he continued to track developments in the months afterward. "I never stopped following the story," says Wilkes, whose photos often make the covers of major news magazines. "And at the six-month point, when general media had moved on to the next crisis, that's when I felt like it was a really good time to go down" to the Gulf Coast.
It was an appropriate place for Westport, CT-based Wilkes, who's "drawn to places that have been forgotten." He's probably best known for his five-year project photographing the abandoned hospital wards of Ellis Island. His photos helped lead Congress to appropriate $6.5 million to preserve the buildings.
So last March, Wilkes headed for New Orleans. At a town meeting of survivors -- those who remained -- he found something unexpected: "There was a thread throughout all the people I met, one of hope," he says. "They had an unflinching sense of hope that they could rebuild their lives against all odds. I decided to take portraits of these people in the context of their homes and of what they were experiencing."
He spent the rest of that five-day trip with an assistant in an SUV packed with photo gear, crisscrossing New Orleans' devastated Lower 9th Ward and Holy Cross neighborhood. He met people who were surrounded by ruin but smiled at what had been spared.
By the time he returned in July, he had used photos from the first excursion to win backing and an exhibit from the World Monuments Fund. That group also suggested he include Bay St. Louis in Mississippi, where Katrina's storm surge had wiped out all but six of 500 waterside homes.
On both trips, he listened to the survivors; their stories often led to the photos. Melanie Mitchell, in Bay St. Louis, told of coming back to a home obliterated except for its fireplace and chimney. But she looked up and rejoiced -- because the storm had left her wedding gown draped in a neighbor's tree. Wilkes photographed Mitchell in the remains of her home, holding the dress.
By fall the exhibition was up at the World Monuments Fund in New York, with hopes for it to travel and be posted on the web. Marty Hylton, WMF's initiatives manager, says visitors call Wilkes' work "compelling" and may be moved to action.
Wilkes believes his photos will build support for restoring and rebuilding. And there's another message, put forth by one of his subjects, Mark Houan: "In every disaster there's a bit of grace, if you can find it."