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Social Action Through Photography

Conservation photographer Daniel Beltrá was named the winner of The Prince’s Rainforests Project (PRP) Award on April 16 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’s work, usually for Greenpeace, has also garnered awards from World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International, National Press Photographers Association, and the Lucies — he calls his recent success “a snowball.” When we heard Daniel had won this prestigious award, including a 15,000-Euro prize, an Alpha 900 camera, a lens, and a laptop from Sony, plus a book and exhibitions, we asked him to tell us about the innovative way the PRP plans to use his images, creating a high-impact book that Prince Charles can hand-deliver as gifts to world leaders, persuading them to commit to working against tropical deforestation.
Soy fields near Belterra, Para State, Brazil, with isolated Brasilan nut trees (castanheira). ©Daniel Beltra

Soy fields near Belterra, Para State, Brazil, with isolated Brasilan nut trees. ©Daniel Beltra

Miki Johnson: Tell me about this award and how it will work.

Daniel Beltrá: For me, the most exciting part of this award is the book. We are working with Stuart Smith, who is one of the best book designers in the world. Amongst others, he does books for Eliot Erwitt and James Nachtwey. The idea is to create a very limited edition book of only 500 copies. Prince Charles is going to offer it to prominent people, and heads of state around the world. There’s a conference in November and he’s going to be giving this book to many presidents as a personal present from him. All this is to gear up the world and get them to commit to stop tropical deforestation as a way to tackle global warming.

Of course every photographer that makes a book hopes that it will have some impact, but I’ve never seen one used at this level before. They have very clear ideas of how they want the book made: They only want it to be 70 or 80 pages; they want big pictures; and they want to reach an equilibrium between the biodiversity, the indigenous populations, the impending destruction and sustainable solutions. This is a worldwide problem so they don’t want to point any fingers or blame anyone — it’s everybody’s responsibility. Tropical deforestation creates 20% of the CO2 released, which is more than the entire transport sector in the world. If you stopped all the trains and the planes and the cars and boats in the world, you still would manage to drop the CO2 level more if you just stopped tropical deforestation, so it’s a no-brainer really. So what Prince Charles and his Rainforests Project want to do is create a huge fund where the world would put money for these countries so they don’t cut further and further.

I haven’t done a book before, so I’m excited but it’s such short notice it feels like a sprint for six months. Luckily there are a lot of very capable and talented people around me and that’s going to help a lot. Sony for example is putting so much effort in because they are launching a new line to the professional market. And they have great technology. We’re going to be doing exhibitions and they have these big weatherproof screens that can be set up outdoors to show the images.

Purple flowers of the Jambo tree in Bellterra, Para State, Brazil. ©Daniel Beltra

Purple flowers of the Jambo tree in Bellterra, Para State, Brazil. ©Daniel Beltra

MJ: It sounds like you are on a pretty tight schedule. Is it hard working with NGOs sometimes that don’t have realistic expectations for how long photo projects take?

DB: I basically have three to four weeks per country to go to three places: the Brazilian Amazon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia, which is probably going to be Borneo and Sumatra. The shooting list they gave me originally was too wide, so we’re going to use some of my past photography, and that will help a lot. The portfolio I presented for this award was 30 of my best photographs. Those were images I made during nine years working in the Amazon. I’m not going to get the same thing in a few weeks. My personal idea was to have good photography drive the project and not a really specific shooting list, because there’s not really enough time for that. The Amazon is the size of the continental U.S. or Europe. You could spend weeks just trying to reach a particular spot. The distances are enormous and many of the places need to be reached by plane, so it’s a challenge. But I’m confident we’re going to produce a good piece.

MJ: It must have been interesting to find yourself sitting with the Prince of Wales, showing him your photographs.

DB: The commitment Prince Charles has made to this issue is really global. When we met in London and I was showing him my photos, he really knew a lot about the issues. He was saying, oh this is palm oil in Indonesia, I’ve been working with this and I went there last year. He’s very knowledgeable and he’s very passionate about the environment. There are so many people who are so high in the world, who could sit back and have a relaxed life, so it’s very humbling to see how committed he is.

Between Cuiaba and Manaus, Brazil. ©Daniel Beltra

Between Cuiaba and Manaus, Brazil. ©Daniel Beltra

It doesn’t make much sense. My career has been a complete snowball. I started in photography in 1988. And until 2005 I didn’t participate in a single competition. But in 2005, Tom Stoddart saw the story I did on the drought in the Amazon and he said, “You need to send this to the World Press.” And I was saying, “I don’t know.” And he said, “Daniel, please trust me, send this to the World Press.” And then a week before the deadline Tom called and said, “Did you send that to the World Press?” And I said no. He said, “Daniel, send it!” So I did — and I won an award.

That really opened the world for me. I went to Amsterdam and I met all these other photographers and I thought, wow, I don’t feel any more like this crazy guy who works 90% of his time on environmental issues, because at that time conservation wasn’t such a hot topic. In 2007 I got another World Press award then last year I got the inaugural Global Vision Award from Picture of the Year International (POYi) and I’ve gotten 10 big awards in 4 years. Then, a couple years ago, I was invited to join the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). It was such an honor to be part of a group of dedicated photographers I had admired for so long. So it’s been a total rollercoaster for me.

So suddenly, you become a name in photography when a few years ago you were nobody. It doesn’t mean that much ultimately, and I don’t want it to go to my head. I want to have time to go and shoot. There are so many important stories that need to be told. But this publicity is also a great way to expose what’s happening to more people. So I am more and more open to doing exhibitions and giving talks, but it’s difficult to handle sometimes. And at the end of the day, I need to figure out how to make a better business decisions so I can hire help and have more time.

I remember until just a few years ago, when I would turn in a story to Greenpeace, who I work with a lot, I would just try to rest a little. Now it’s like I’m more busy when I come home than when I’m shooting. It’s almost a relaxation to go in the field. It’s like, no more email, no more phone, and whatever happens, I’ll deal with it when I’m back. Nobody is obliging me to do this, I am extremely lucky and can’t complain. But I want to make sure I’m maximizing the impact of my work and I also want to have a life.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Robert Glenn Ketchum has also written extensively about using photo books to persuade legistalors about conservation issues. Why do you think photo books can have such an impact on policy makers?

At RESOLVE, we believe that photography used the right way can create positive social change. L.A.-based celebrity photographer Amy Tierney believes that just the act of photojournalism itself can have a tremendous impact. She started the “I Dream To…” program three years ago, which teaches underserved teen girls photojournalism as a means to gain the social skills they need to become “confident, college-ready, and career-minded.” Tomorrow (May 2) is the 3rd Annual “I Dream To…” exhibition, where this year’s participants will exhibit their photographs at the Helms Bakery Complex in Culver City, California. We talked to Amy recently to find out more about the program.
Gertz HS student Gigi Rodas taking a picture of her mentor, Immigration Attorney Victoria Duong

Gertz HS student Gigi Rodas taking a picture of her mentor, Immigration Attorney Victoria Duong

Carmen Suen: Tell me about how the “I Dream To…” program works.

Amy Tierney: It is a semester long program where me and my co-instructor, photographer Emily Hart Roth, go to the participating schools every week for a one-and-a-half-hour class to teach the girls the skills that they need to be a photojournalist, including how to use a camera, how to use Lightroom to produce edits, how to conduct an interview, and so on. Each of them has to choose a woman who they want to do an interview with, usually someone in the career field of the student’s dream, or someone who inspires them.

Towards the end of the semester, they interview their subject, take pictures during the interview, and write up an article as their final projects. We then post these articles on the “I Dream To…” blog, so others can see their work. We also take the girls to a photography studio so they can see what a true working studio and a photographer’s daily work life is like.

But the highlight of the program is the exhibition. Not only do the girls get the chance to show family and friends their own work, but they can also be introduced to different people in the community. It’s a great way for them to practice their social skills.

LA Leadership student Narvy Vasquez, as photographed by her fellow student Jacky Rodriguez

LA Leadership student Narvy Vasquez, as photographed by her fellow student Jacky Rodriguez

CS: What is your role in this program?

AT: I am actually a founder and mentor of the “I Dream To…” program, which started in 2007. At the time, I was already involved with StepUp Women’s Network’s L.A. Chapter. One of the mission of StepUp is to inspire and empower high school girls in underserved communities to achieve their dreams. I believe art can help us understand the world around us. And so I decided to bring art to these high school girls. Because of my own background, photography seemed to be the obvious choice.

Through photography, photojournalism in particular, you get the opportunity to interact with a multitude of people. I think people skills is one of the most essential skills for one to succeed in life.

CS: Do you feel like the program is achieving its goals?

AT: I would say it’s very well received. Jamie Kogan, Step Up Women’s Network’s program manager really keeps us going.  This year is the third year, and the program has expanded from L.A. to Chicago and New York. We got so many hugs and thank-yous at the end of each semester. Some of the girls who have participated in the program have taken a serious interest in photojournalism and have decided to pursue it as a career. That’s a very big encouragement for us.

We also have to thank our sponsors for helping us financially. Our organization is non-profit and depends largely on financial assistance from our donors. We hope that they will continue to help make this program happen.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Have you seen other places where learning to make photographs has empowered people?

Let’s say you’ve created an amazing documentary photo project about an important issue. You have the photos, maybe some audio and video — then what happens? You could do a book or an exhibition that a few thousand people will see, but will those be the people most likely to create the kind of change you envisioned when you first picked up your camera? If you are the recipient of the Open Society Institute’s Distribution Grant, you can answer that question with a confident “Yes.”

Launched in 2005 under the Documentary Photography Project, the $5,000-$30,000 grant pushes photographers to explore innovative ways to present and disseminate photography, asking them to partner with organizations that can help their work have a meaningful impact on social justice and human rights issues.

The submission deadline for the 2009 grant is June 19, 2009. We know photographers are busy and tend to submit last minute, but since the grant requires applicants to have established a relationship with an NGO, advocacy organization, or other entity, we’re encouraging you to get started on this one right away. To help you understand what the Open Society Institute (OSI) is looking for, we talked to Yukiko Yamagata, Program Officer and Exhibition Manager for the Documentary Photography Project. Guidelines from OSI here.

Paul Krolowitz, 53, says goodbye to his friend Richard "Grasshopper" Liggett, 55, who is fighting advanced liver and lung cancers. Krolowitz and Liggett worked for many years together in the Angola State Penitentiary carpentry workshop. Liggett spent the last months of his under the care of the Angola Hospice program. Krolowitz came to see Liggett just hours before he was released from prison on a work release program.

Paul Krolowitz, 53, says goodbye to his friend Richard "Grasshopper" Liggett, 55, who is fighting advanced liver and lung cancers. Krolowitz and Liggett worked for many years together in the Angola State Penitentiary carpentry workshop. Liggett spent the last months of his life under the care of the Angola Hospice program.© Lori Waselchuk/Courtesy OSI

Carmen Suen: What is the most important thing for photographers to note when applying for this grant?

Yukiko Yamagata: It’s important that photographers identify what impact they hope to have on a given issue, and to explore the best ways they can reach the goals they establish. It’s also helpful for them to do a lot of research on what efforts already exist in social justice and human rights efforts, so they are not reinventing the wheel. That way they can build on what’s already been done, identify obstacles other people have faced, and understand how the use of photography can help to overcome these obstacles.

We encourage photographers to look outside the field of photography and to become familiar with what’s happening in other fields that employ visual means for advocacy, civic engagement, community organizing, or public education. For example, reading case studies and critical analysis of public and community-based art could really inform photographers about methodologies and best practices for partnering with organizations, working with a community, and engaging the community in the actual development and implementation of the project. The Community Arts Network, Animating Democracy, and the Walker Art Center Education and Community Programs Department are just a few examples of organizations that provide helpful resources for developing art-specific engagement projects.

CS: What are some of the things to consider when looking for a partner for this grant?

YY: Find a partner organization that has a successful track record, and is already engaged in that issue or the distribution mechanism you’re proposing. You also want to engage with partners that bring in new areas of expertise rather than duplicating your own skill set.

In certain cases, you may want to have more than one partner organization. For example, if you’re thinking about creating educational curricula for high schools in the U.S., you could have a partner who is advocating on the issue and understands the community you’re trying to reach, and another whose expertise is in developing and distributing educational curricula.

CS: Are there any common mistakes that applicants should avoid?

YY: We often get projects that talk about “educating the public” or “raising awareness” in a very general way. It’s important to go beyond that and think about what audience is best positioned to create change on the issue you’re addressing. Is it policy makers? Or is it community advocates? Or perhaps the community itself? Once you figured out who your audience is, the next step is to find out what venues or outlets would reach that audience most effectively.

Often you have this beautiful photography exhibition that is incredibly powerful and moving, but by the time the audience members go home, you’ve lost them.

Another important element is the mechanism used to engage your target audience. Often what happens is you have this beautiful photography exhibition that is incredibly powerful and moving, but by the time the audience members go home, you’ve lost them. You need to show us some of the ways that you will incorporate programming and follow-up activity to mobilize the people who see your photographs and inspire them to take action.

In terms of the actual writing of the proposal, we encourage applicants to present their project in a very clear and concise way and to avoid jargon. Definitely be clear about the goals of the project, the partner(s), the target audience, and why you chose a particular venue.

CS: Are there a few recipients who were especially able to use the grant to create positive change in communities they documented?

YY: We funded a project by Lori Waselchuk last year that just launched last week where she is working to encourage the integration of hospice programs into prison health care. She is collaborating with the Louisiana-Mississippi Hospice & Palliative Care Organization to mount a photography exhibit at Angola Prison and she plans to tour it to correctional facilities in Mississippi and Louisiana.

This project is great because, number one, the partner organization is just as committed as she is to the project and it’s really taking the lead to place the exhibit to other correctional facilities. The venue that she has chosen targets people who are in the position to make decisions about prison health care, and she presents the materials directly to them. By placing the exhibit at the prison, she is able to bring the public to the place where these decisions are being felt.

We also funded a project by Nina Berman in which she documented American soldiers wounded in Iraq. She toured the exhibition to 10 high schools throughout the U.S. that were targeted by military recruiters. By bringing the exhibit to these schools and organizing lectures with a soldier from her photographs, she is able to bring attention, in a very personal way, to the impact the war has on soldiers’ lives. She was very strategic in her thinking in terms of the venue and the audience, and how the photographs would help high school students not only learn about this issue, but also provide an alternative narrative to what the recruiters had been telling them about the benefits of enlisting.

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 explains the special importance of Afghan women being able to report their own stories. Don’t miss his earlier posts about his experiences as a photojournalist in war-torn countries and how journalists can heal war wounds.
Afganistan seen through a woman's burka, by Aina-trained photojournalist Farzana Wahidy.

Afganistan seen through a woman's burka, by Aina-trained photojournalist Farzana Wahidy.

As a photojournalist I have observed an important thing, that most coverage of world events — especially in places like Afghanistan –- is done by white men between 30 and 40 year old. All those male journalists do interviews with Afghan men but have no access to the lives of the other 50% of the Afghan population. What about Afghan women’s stories? Who can tell them? Even if you have one or two women journalists there, the minute they have their own male interpreter and bodyguards, they cannot go inside the houses. They may be able to go inside some open-minded families’ houses, but they are are only talking to a tiny percentage of Afghan women. So who is the best to cover Afghan women? The Afghan women themselves.

This was how we started the Aina video project for Afghan women, asking them to make documentaries. The first ever documentary like this was called Afghanistan Unveiled. We trained seven Afghan women to hold a  camera for the first time, and nine months later their film was shown on PBS, the National Geographic channel, more than 20 international channels, at festivals…everywhere. In 2005 it was nominated for an Emmy award as one of four best foreign documentaries. It was because the story was totally different from what we’d heard before. The women knew where to go and who to talk to and how to express themselves. We also had one of Aina’s former student, Farzana Wahidy, who got the National Geographic All Roads honor. She was the first Afghan female photojournalist to receive this award.

“Who can tell Afghan women’s stories? The Afghan women themselves.”

In these ways we continued to develop the idea that Aina was founded on. Then one day the UN came to us saying, Reza, what would be the best tool to send out messages to the maximum number of people in the villages and cities? Obviously, as a visual person, I came up with this idea, which was used before in many countries a long time ago, of the mobile cinema project. We have mobile units going from village to village, school to school, with big screens and nice projectors. And Aina students make films that are informative and educational. It connected the population immediately and the whole cycle became local.

We also created a children’s magazine designed to provide both children and their families with important  information. It’s not an entertainment magazine; it’s about understanding each other and the whole world, which is especially important in this part of the world. so little-by-little this children’s magazine and women’s radio have become our main projects.

I think that the 21st century needs a new humanitarian organization, and for me this is Aina. I call it a “third-generation” humanitarian organization. It’s not giving people bread; it’s helping them to make their own bread. The big difference between all the existing NGOs and what we are doing is that we want to train local people, help them to become independent completely, to take their countries in their own hands — and then we leave.

“Aina has trained 1,000 Afghans, three to four hundred of whom are women.”

So today, after almost nine years in existence, here are some very brief figures: Aina has trained 1,000 Afghans, three to four hundred of whom are women. The first Afghan independent media, called Kabul Weekly, is still going on, and it’s highly respected. We launched an Afghan women’s radio station; we launched a kids’ magazine; we have this production unit making films. And we created the first Afghan photo agency, AINA Photo Agency. It’s an independent photo agency, whose shareholders are the photographers that we trained. They are the owners of their own agency. Kabul Weekly is 100-percent independent media that seldom needs outside help.

By creating a national messaging system, we’ve created all the tools now to replace these psychologists we would need to help people in war-torn countries heal. But the biggest result will be long term. When you start educating women and girls, you are educating the next generation of mothers to educate their children. And we not only trained 1,000 people who then found fantastic jobs, we also created jobs.That’s why Aina, as the first of this kind of organization in the world, has such a positive outcome. That’s why in 2009, with the help of the National Geographic Mission Program and for which they named me a fellow of the National Geographic society, I’m going to launch an international organization to bring the most important aspects of Aina to other countries.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Do you think there is a noticeable difference between the images men versus women make of other women? What about people from the same culture versus a different one?


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