A collaborative online community that brings together photographers and creative professionals of every kind to find ways to keep photography relevant, respected, and profitable.

Have an idea for a post?

Want us to find an answer to your question? Interested in becoming a contributor?Email us

‹ Home

Social Action Through Photography

Joseph Rodriguez launched his extensive career as a documentary photographer with East Side Stories, a project examining the cultures of violence in East Los Angeles. He returned to L.A. recently to document the importance and difficulty of helping people re-enter society after incarceration. I spoke with Joe about his first foray into multimedia, and how he applied his still photography skills to a new medium.

Miki Johnson: Tell me a little about the re-entry project, how you got interested in it, and why you wanted to tell the story.

Joe Rodriguez: I’m going to be very honest with you. This is a very personal story. It started when I was a young child. I watched my stepfather come in and out of prison over the years, about a decade or more, and a few of my uncles did the same thing. Then he was also an addict, so we had to watch this whole process, this up-and-down roller coaster ride with the family. And there wasn’t really much support for addicts back then in terms of re-entering society.

My stepdad died many years ago, and as a young boy growing up into a photographer, that story has always stayed with me. So this project was a personal journey. When I was working in Spanish Harlem and all around the country doing socially impacting stories, I started to see that this issue of incarceration was affecting many families. So I’ve been watching this growth of incarceration throughout the United States of America for some time. You know, I watched it go to 1 million, then 2 million over the years.

Then last year the Pew Research Center did a study called “One out of a hundred people in prison.” That was kind of the spark to seriously revisit this story and see what I could do about telling it in a different way. I did not want to repeat myself, and I didn’t want to repeat what other photographers have already done with work inside prisons. I wanted to challenge that story somewhat, because I think when you come out of prison, you’re still doing time in many different respects. You may be on parole, you may be an addict, you may have problems getting employment, and you can’t vote — all those different issues that affect many ex-offenders.

I thought it could be interesting to look at a non-profit organization like Walden House, which has been dealing with people coming from prison, specifically addicts, and working very intensely on changing their behavior. So a couple of years ago, in 2007, I connected with the people at Walden House. And a whole year went by talking about this possibility of working together or me coming to work inside some of their facilities in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And then last year they gave me a green light; I visited three of the facilities. One was dealing with mothers and children, one was dealing with just women, and one was just with men.

It was overwhelming and daunting because I profiled 40 to 45 people. And out of the 40 to 45 people, I focused on about 5 who we did these multimedia pieces on. I am hoping to reach a larger audience, because of the Internet and its long reach. I also just wanted to create a historical document of these people. And to be very honest, I don’t know what more I could do right now. I would love for it to change things, but I’m not that gullible.

“I wanted to create a historical document of these people — I don’t know what more I could do right now.”

MJ: Tell me about that decision to make this into a multimedia piece and, especially, to gather audio?

JR: The first trip was completely on my own, but I received a grant from the USC Annenburg Institute for Justice and Journalism for the second trip. That was specifically to do multimedia stories. The reason I wanted to do audio was because I can’t always get down everything the subjects are saying in a written interview. So the audio became a way to tell a more concise story and also to bring the audience in, in an emotional way. I want to grab the audience so hopefully they can feel Tracey’s story and Darlene’s story and John Vaughn’s.

MJ: And also they can’t ignore the words, right? I think a lot of people never get around to reading text with photos.

JR: We’re living in the age of interruption. I’m starting to look around and watch people when they’re reading on the web. It seems to be tricky for them to stay focused for pages and pages of text. I think audio really helps get the story in their head much faster. And then if they really want to learn more, they’ll be hungry enough to read. I think it’s a way to pull people in, not just into your immediate story, but to hopefully give them something more where they can go further with the issue or with this person’s life.

MJ: And when you were actually doing these interviews, how did you make the creative decisions, when to record and when to make images and how those work together?

JR: I just tried to keep myself calm knowing that what this person is saying while I’m photographing, I’m gonna hopefully be able to revisit in audio. One guy, Marko, was working in a bakery and I wanted to take pictures of him there. I photographed him working behind the counter, dealing with the public. Then the pictures slowed down and while I was waiting for him to go in the back with the ovens, I did some ambient audio of the store.

Then I knew I needed to do a portrait. I went into it thinking that if I could make a very engaging portrait, and I have a pretty engaging interview, I was gonna be happy with that. If I got anything extra, more reportage-type stuff, that would just help it even more. So I was actually multitasking with that particular interview. It really just depends on the subject and what’s happening.

What I like about the way I work is that it’s slow, so it enables me to revisit the person. And the more I revisit, the better story I get, either in audio or pictures. But I try, really, really earnestly to separate them — if I’m taking pictures, it’s gonna be about pictures. I try not to start thinking about what they’re saying or what’s going on, because then that just fractures me even more.

MJ: When you were planning the actual multimedia pieces, how did you think about how you wanted to put them together?JR: The first thing that was very important for us was just to listen to the audio. For an hour’s worth of audio, we could use maybe 5 or 10 minutes of workable audio from that. And after listening to the audio — and saying, is that important, that could be good, that could be good — then we laid out the proofs.

We feel that proofs are a more concise way for us to edit than on the monitor, because we can leave them down on the floor or leave them up on the wall and revisit them. That was the thing that we learned, the importance of revisiting. It took actually two or three months just to do the first multimedia piece. Now we know how to do it. I have to give major props to Benjamin Jarosch, our studio manager, who had never done this before, just like myself.

Revisiting is key because some days you think you’ve got it, and then you go back and you see it differently that time. Not to the point that you’re gonna pick it apart to death, but just making sure everything makes sense. When we laid the pictures out and looked at it with the audio, we’d say, ah that doesn’t really work there. Do we have a photo that kind of relates to this or can be a metaphor for this? Or can give us some atmosphere?

In the Darlene piece, she talks about her father passing away, and there is an image of a cemetery. That cemetery is not far from where she grew up, although that image was not taken at the same time the interview was. Because I know this culture so well, some of my images from other projects, even from East Side Stories, came into that story. And I would not have been able to do that if I didn’t allow myself the time to look and listen and then leave it alone and come back and revisit.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: What role does “revisiting” play in your work?

Multimedia — it seems to be on everyone’s mind. Should you be doing it? Just audio, or video too? Can you make money from it? Does it detract or add to the still photograph? Former BBC radio producer Benjamin Chesterton and photojournalist David White formed the multimedia production team duckrabbit with the intention of answering some of these questions, as well as using multimedia to prompt social change. Together they create multimedia pieces, provide insights on their blog, and help photographers through multimedia training sessions (sign up now for the next one, in Bristol, UK, July 10 to 12). Once a month (or more when they have time), Ben and David will highlight and explain a multimedia piece on RESOLVE that breaks a “rule,” uses a new technique, or creatively solves a common problem. As an introduction, they wanted to talk about a piece created together, Innocence, that proves how powerful a multimedia piece can be, even with only 10 photos.

David White: Innocence, duckrabbit’s feature about child soldiers in Sri Lanka, just sort of emerged organically. I shot the photographs a few years ago now, whilst there was still a ceasefire. It was a very difficult and at times dangerous job, but one that I desperately hoped might make a tiny difference.

Recently I was sitting up very early in the morning when I saw a report on the news about the escalation of the war in Sri Lanka. I just started to write about how that made me feel. For once I was not worried about how other people would interpret and dissect my thoughts — I just needed to get my feelings out.

I posted my thoughts on the duckrabbit blog, and from there Benjamin picked up the baton, unbeknown to me.

Benjamin Chesterton: David is someone whose photographs have always moved me. His great big generous heart comes across in all his work and never more so than in the beautiful pictures he took in Sri Lanka. I’ve long wanted to turn them into a piece of multimedia, but what can you do with just 10 photos?

I got up one morning to find that David had posted about that experience on the duckrabbit blog. He captured the artist’s predicament in a really simple and powerful way. The desire to make a difference because some cause has embedded itself so deep into you. The feeling that if you don’t do something, it will suffocate you from the inside out.

Pretty much all I did was take his words, grab some screenshots off news sites on the web, use a song that never fails to move me, and mix it all up with his original photo’s. I didn’t tell David I was doing this. Just banged out a rough copy in a day, sent him the link and held my breath.

David: I have scanned, printed, and reproduced those Sri Lanka photos many times. I like them, I think they’re strong, but they’re not new. The words were a few lines I hammered out when I should have been sleeping. Yet, when I saw the finished piece, I cried, as did my wife, Jane.

Since then, that has been the many people’s reaction.

It still amazes me that such simple content can be reworked into something so strong. I could never imagine those stills in a magazine story having the same effect. Imagine going back to a set of pictures you have taken a while ago, that you know intimately, and having them move you to tears. That intrigues and excites me. That’s why I think multimedia offers amazing opportunities for photographers, to get their work out to new audiences, and to use it to reveal the world in new light.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: If you are working in multimedia, how do you approach that creative process differently? Have you had similar experiences where adding audio for a slideshow has dramatically changed the impact of your images?

Conservation photographer Daniel Beltrá was named the winner of The Prince’s Rainforests Project (PRP) Award at this year’s Sony World Photography Awards Gala ceremony in Cannes, France. The award includes a three-month expedition to document threatened tropical rainforests in the Amazon, Africa, and Indonesia, all fully funded by Sony Eco. Daniel has turned his passion for nature and his frequent work for Greenpeace into an award-winning career, including World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International, National Press Photographers Association, and Lucies awards — he calls his recent success “a snowball.” We couldn’t help but ask what got the snowball rolling in the first place.
Big river boat trapped on a sand bank East of Barreirinha, Brazil, during one of the worst droughts ever recorded in the Amazon. ©Daniel Beltra

Big river boat trapped on a sand bank East of Barreirinha, Brazil, during one of the worst droughts ever recorded in the Amazon. ©Daniel Beltra

Miki Johnson: You are obviously very passionate about nature and conservation issues. Where does that passion come from?

Daniel Beltra: Really since I was a kid I was passionate about nature and photography. I was interested at first in being an agency photojournalist, and I managed to get a staff position with EFE — the Spanish national agency. I was shooting all kinds of stories, but still with a taste for nature. I never finished college but I did a couple years of forestry engineering and four years of biology. Then I got tired of the normal day-to-day photographic work –- from the press conference to the basketball match to a demonstration. I wanted to do stories more in depth. I ended up quitting my job and I started working for Gamma, which allowed me to shoot stories that I selected and to give them more time.

At the same time I started shooting for Greenpeace, which opened this whole world to me as a photographer. That was really an incredible opportunity. All of a sudden I found myself traveling to Polynesia or the Antarctic or to Patagonia. So I was really on the frontier where many of these environmental issues were happening.

I got started with Greenpeace when I was a staff photographer in Spain. I talked to their local branch and they said, we do a lot with the media, so if something is going on in your area we’ll let you know. They called me one day and said they were doing a mammal survey on the Mediterranean. So I talked with my boss at EFE and he said, “Yeah right. What’s the news? And you want to take two weeks to do it?” I ended up convincing him to let me go on my own holiday time. I went with the agreement that if the story was good enough, the agency would distribute it. I was willing to go on my holiday because I was really passionate about it and I saw that it was a great opportunity.

Shooting for Greenpeace opened up this whole world to me.

I had a great time, they ended up distributing the story, and Greenpeace really liked it too. They came back to me and said, if you want to work with us, we’d be really happy to have you. But I was a staff photographer and I couldn’t. Then in 1992 I quit my job and started working with Greenpeace in Spain and also Greenpeace International, which is based in Holland. Since then I’ve been really involved with them. From 1992 until I moved to the United States in 2001 I was the Spain correspondent for Gamma. And often Gamma would say, “Are you working for Greenpeace or are you working for us?” Because I always wanted to go on the Greenpeace assignments. Of course Gamma had interesting assignments, but it’s very hard to compete with someone saying, “Do you want to go on a survey of the Arctic for three months on an icebreaker?” That was a no-brainer for me.

Greenpeace is my main client by far. They don’t employ any staff photographers; they work only with freelancers. I think they are clever the way they always want to have names in the industry that are recognized. So there’s a bit of a separation between the activism and the professional journalist that comes in. And in my case I try to keep that line separated, but deep in my soul I am very loyal to Greenpeace. But they don’t tell me what to shoot or anything. Of course they tell me they want a story about the Amazon, but once I’m there they don’t say show this, don’t show that.

Things are really changing with non-profits. I get the feeling that some non-profits can afford to pay regular market fees now. Maybe not 100%, but 75%. I think Greenpeace is very clever…they decided what are the best means to reach the public and inform the most people. And good photography or good video is a great tool. So to put someone that can do a great job in a situation that is very interesting and then they expose that in the media, it tends to work very well.

I feel that my work has more impact now than when I was a photojournalist. Not because I am better, but because of the situations I’m working in. I’m not only documenting what’s happening, but there’s a really strong will to change the situation. Greenpeace has pioneered that.

In 2001, world-renowned photojournalist Reza Deghati (known simply as Reza by most) founded Aina, an international non-profit organization based in Afghanistan that cultivates a well-trained independent media in order to promote democracy and to help heal post-conflict societies. In this post he outlines the organization’s successes and ways photographers can help it grow. Don’t miss his earlier posts about his experiences as a photojournalist in war-torn countries and how journalists can heal war wounds.

Image courtesy Aina.

Miki Johnson: Did Aina meet with any resistance at first?

Reza Deghati: To give you an image, in 2002 we announced we were going to have a photography courses. There was no telephone, no electricity, no satellite, no running water. I said, it doesn’t matter, we can do it. Two days after we announced the courses, we had 500 people who signed up. We gave them a paper to write their resume on, told them what that was, and how to write it. We spent a few weeks reading the resumes, sorting out 55 students for interviews and we posted that list. The next Wednesday we had 700 people show up. Everybody said, “I didn’t see my name, I thought maybe there was a mistake.” The people in Afghanistan are like a dry sponge. They need every single drop. You cannot imagine how fast-learning they are.

In which city in the U.S. can you bring in seven girls who have never touched anything like a camera, train them, and in nine months they can make a documentary that is nominated for an Emmy award? These are the people who can change their own country much more than we can. And the enthusiasm of those people…You have to be there to see the eyes of the women who listen to the radio. Or when we distribute the magazine, see the whole village come to thank us.

During the first ever Afghan presidential election, everyone was saying, it’s going to be very tough. People won’t show up. And to the astonishment of the whole world community, it was the smoothest election. When all the world’s communities were astonished, Afghanistan’s foreign minister in a press conference said, “One of the reason our country understands democracy, is thanks to AINA.” These are the impact the organization is having now. But for me, the real outcome is 20 to 30 years from now.

Image courtesy Aina

MJ: What has been the biggest challenge Aina has faced?

RD: The real challenge and real problem is how to get funding for this project. Because when you are a pioneer, and you have a new idea, many people don’t understand the idea, or they think it’s not matching their organization’s mandate.

So I thought, “Well Reza, look in the mirror, you are a photographer, see what you can bring in.” I made a big auction in 2002 of 50 of my prints and two cameras I used to have with me in conflict zones, a Leica and a Canon. I was trying to send a message to all my colleagues saying that we need to be more involved. We are in contact with this population and we know how they are suffering and we have to give back to them. So from that moment some of our projects started attracting donations. But there were times when some projects, or the whole organization, were not getting funding. So then I started putting in all my income. When that wasn’t enough, I put in 100% of my savings, and did more auctions — three auctions up until now.

The reason I was doing this was that I believed this would be one of the big things the world needs in the 21st century. I believe training these local journalists will help create the big change. The main challenge was helping people understand that giving educational tools to children is more important than just building  schools. But every time I found myself explaining this to someone and another NGO was talking about building a school, at the end they were writing checks to the people building schools, not building minds.

We have done 12 issues of our children’s magazine. Every time we have money, we print 40,000 copies and distribute them free everywhere. This costs 50,000 Euros, about $60,000. Think of 60,000 dollars in front of one day of U.S. military operational cost — and then think about what the result of these 40,000 magazines could bring.

Another challenge for me is explaining the importance of what we are doing to people in other countries. They say, “Our children have bookshelves that are full of books and magazines. They don’t mean anything.” So when I tell people about these children’s magazines we print, it’s hard to imagine what their importance is. But we’re talking about our magazine being the first ever printed color material ever seen in the whole village. Once we brought a single copy of the magazine to a whole village. When I went back after three weeks, 150 people had gone through that magazine. Fifty children had learned by heart some of the stories. That’s one of my challenges, how to explain to people how important these projects are. Or how many children’s lives do we save with one radio by helping women understand what the causes of child mortality are.

Photo courtesy Aina

So how do we deal with funding? The National Geographic mission program is one way. But who is the second? National Geographic is not for profit. It’s not a foundation with deep pockets. This year they have to cut millions of dollars out of their budget. And we want to expand to other countries, also. The whole project is like a toolbox. When we go to a country and see a government that doesn’t like one of our projects, we can have a tool that is matching every country in the world, because of our concept of a toolbox. We can go to Cuba, Syria, Burma and be accepted by the government. That’s the whole concept. And by working and living in those countries, I’ve come to realize how you can get through those problems.

MJ: What can photographers and photo industry professionals  do to help?

RD: We have launched Aina photo agency. If all the magazines in the world would look first at Aina Photo’s website when they are looking for pictures from Afghanistan, or if we can find a way to promote Aina Photo’s website, it will help its operation. So I’m talking to photo buyers first. If we sold one picture per day, at say $200, it would help the whole agency to run. If we can bring magazines in the world to understand that if you buy pictures from them, you are helping, because we are training more photographers now. You just helped train more photographers. And editors don’t take money out of their pockets, they get good pictures. If you give one assignment to an Aina photographer, instead of sending one person from Paris, you save hotel, interpreter, guide, and security fee. You save a lot of money. You gain by saying : I got better pictures, the pictures I wanted. But also in other parts you have a better conscience.

If editors bought one picture per day, it would help the whole agency run.

For photographers to help, when I launch this whole international organization, I will need membership. I’m going to ask all my colleagues if they want to help this project by becoming a member. This is a new form of social networking internationally. Many photographers are passing through Afghanistan, so I invite them to come to Kabul and give a lecture. In return they’ll get a lot of help. One of the projects I’m thinking of launching will be an international worldwide auctioning of prints by famous photographers who want to help this project. Like I did.


Learn how to engage your audience and
build brand recognition across social
channels. Learn more...

Free eBook

Search Resolve



Pick your package. Pick your design.
No credit card required.

Start 14-day Free Trial
Compare packages