Can a photograph change the world? A single image can touch or amaze us, and sometimes awaken us to something important. Such extraordinary photos may be the result of a lens in the right place at the right time, or one photographer’s passion to open people’s eyes. And although pictures alone won’t change the world, one thing’s certain-just taking up your camera and getting behind a cause, whether across the globe or close to home, can have a vital impact. To show you how, we tracked down three exceptional photographers who’ve made a big difference-and many little ones along the way.
“I realize that photographs cannot change the world in one fell swoop,” says Ed Kashi. “But they can change people’s minds, and isn’t that where change begins?”
The 52-year-old photojournalist has spent 30 years documenting conflict and civil war. And with his wife, Julie Winokur, Kashi now creates advocacy projects that include books, exhibits, and films.
From 2004−06, National Geographic assignments brought him to the Niger Delta to photograph the oil industry. The poverty of villages near the oil wells, toxicity of the environment, near-anarchy of government corruption-all in the world’s sixth-largest oil-producing nation- made him wonder how this was possible.
“In Port Harcourt, there’s billions of dollars in oil wealth and no paved roads,” Kashi says. “About 90 percent of Nigeria’s wealth is derived from oil, but this is the poorest part of the country. It’s one of the grossest examples of social injustice that I’ve seen.” He adds, “It’s something that affects everyone, not just Nigerians.”
Kashi documented the villages, oil wells, and activities of MEND, a local group that “shuts-in” wells in a campaign for local resource control. His images are beyond disturbing: women baking tapioca on oil flares, villagers cleaning up oil spills from neglected wellheads, their dwellings built around gated oil-company facilities.
Some of these made it into National Geo, but the full impact was published in Curse of the Black Gold (powerHouse, 2008; $45), a book he did with the help of scholar Michael Watts that includes essays and interviews by Nigerian writers. Now, he says, “universities are teaching the book, activists and NGOs are using it, legal teams are using the images as evidence against the oil companies. Oxfam has commissioned a [traveling] panel exhibition.” And the project has expanded into multimedia and video. (To see more, visit www.curseoftheblackgoldbook.com).
Kashi’s photos didn’t change things overnight for Nigeria, but they did for 14-year-old Paulinous Uko, shown here working in a field where animals are slaughtered, heaped in a pile, then roasted on toxic fires fueled by discarded rubber.
After this photo ran in National Geo in February 2007, Kashi got an e-mail from a woman in Smithtown, NY, who had been touched by it. So touched that she had her church group contact Nigerian churches to find out who and where the boy was. And she began sending him money to help him.
With her original donation of $500, the boy started attending school, and he and his benefactor in America have been in regular correspondence since.
“It’s one of the things about photography that rejuvenates me,” Kashi says. “You can have a singular experience, but it’s also a universal language. This is an example where it’s achieved both.”
Photographer Mona Reeder was finishing a story for the Dallas Morning News on homelessness when a social worker handed her a set of statistics from the state comptroller’s office: state-by-state rankings on such social issues as teen pregnancy and high-school dropout rates, voter apathy, and medical care.
With a career dedicated to socially concerned photography, she had already covered these topics individually. “But the impact comes when you see all of these things together, and see how low Texas ranks,” she says. “It’s a very wealthy state, so you wonder: How could this be?”
This was the birth of her photo essay, “The Bottom Line,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It was a long time in the making. Papers rarely take photographers seriously as journalists, Reeder says. “They feel that the ideas should only come from the newsroom. It took me three years just to get someone to buy into the concept.”
When an editor finally did give her the go-ahead, it was to work on the project on her own time-after her daytime assignments for the news desk, and without the assistance of writers. Her goal was huge: to go straight down that list of rankings and document all of them. Poverty in South Texas.
Children without medical insurance. Teen mothers. Teens in the juvenile justice system. Families suffering the effects of toxic emissions. The working poor.
“I spent weeks and weeks doing research and getting access to prisons, for example,” she says. “I made countless phone calls. I’d contact all kinds of advocacy groups, activists, and outreach groups. It took 3 or 4 weeks just to get to ride with Meals on Wheels,” where she eventually found a family willing to open up to her as a subject. The vast scope of her project helped open the door. With such institutions as the Texas Youth Commission, “I had to talk about the project in its entirety to make them understand it was about the state rather than just them, so that they realized that they weren’t under the gun and going to be targeted,” she recalls.
And to convince her actual subjects-the families she found through various organizations- to take part, she had to convey the importance of her project.
She worked nearly every waking hour from January 2007 until right before her photo essay ran in the paper on December 23. She wrote all the captions and even created audio for a multimedia project posted on the newspaper’s website (see it at www.dallasnews.com/s/dws/photography/2007/bottomline/).
Although the effects are hard to measure, her photos brought attention to the groups she featured. Says Lynn Sipiora, director of a Collins County homeless shelter Reeder depicted, “Anytime we get press coverage, we’re able to raise public awareness, which always increases community support”- contributions and volunteers.
But Reeder hopes for greater changes. She sent copies of the story to Texas officials, including the governor, state senators, mayors of every major city-and also to the presidential candidates and the White House. Now the Morning News plans to print a special edition for the Texas legislature.
Reeder’s grueling experience has only motivated her more. “One thing the project taught me,” she says, “was that I could accomplish almost anything if I was honest and sincere about it.”
“I didn’t go into it with a big political idea,” says Subhankar Banerjee, 42. “People think of the Arctic as this very cold and lifeless place-I wanted to show them differently.”
Still, the photographer found his work at the center of a political storm when, during a 2003 debate in the U.S. Senate on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, California’s Barbara Boxer whipped out his wildlife photos to refute Alaska Senator Ted Stevens’ claim that the refuge had no wildlife to protect.
This was far more attention than the India-born Banerjee had ever expected when he quit his job at Boeing in 2001 to pursue his passion for photography.
Dreaming of creating a major photo project, Banerjee was drawn to Blue Earth (www.blueearth.org), a nonprofit that supports and funds socially concerned photography. Under the guidance of one of its founders, Natalie Fobes, who had shot in the Arctic, he studied the region’s wildlife and immersed himself in what he’d planned as a 14-month project. Eight years later, he’s still at it.
His first night in the Arctic, the thermometer dropped to 90 below, and for an instant Banerjee thought about giving up. But having survived the night, there was no turning back. He spent more than a year traveling throughout the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, capturing the colors of the landscape, the migration patterns of caribou and whales, and the Inuit societies that have subsisted in this ecosystem for hundreds of years.
Upon his return, he published his photos, with the help of Blue Earth, as Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land (Mountaineers Books, 2003; $40) and landed an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History. This may be how Boxer got wind of his work-which was moved from its designated spot in a main-floor rotunda to a much smaller space in the basement after the infamous Senate dust-up. While partly thrilled by the publicity, Banerjee says he was “a nervous wreck. I had depleted all of my savings on the Arctic trip and, at the time, I was not yet officially a U.S. citizen.”
But the experience pushed Banerjee into advocacy. “From 2003 to 2006 I was on the road all the time, giving lectures and exhibiting the work,” he says.
Then he went back to his first love: Photographing at 90 below. Now he travels not just the North American Arctic but Siberia, lugging medium-format film cameras that don’t have batteries that might freeze (though the film sometimes does): a Mamiya 6×7, Fujifilm 6×9, and two Fuji GSW 690s.
Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains a political hot-potato, but it hasn’t happened yet. And Banerjee hopes that his work will help show why this unique and beautiful habitat must remain untouched. “It’s aesthetic as well as journalistic,” he says. “I don’t want to show people in a strict photojournalistic way and make it all about information. If you give people just information, they forget it. I want people to imagine the Arctic otherwise.”