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Like the endangered subjects they focus on, photojournalists survive in a digital world where television, computer and IMAX images dominate.

The power of photography may have been greatest in the pre-jet 1930s to 1950s when mass circulation photo driven magazines took readers to war zones, inner cities and natural habitats around the globe. Photographers such as Margaret Bourke White, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Gordon Parks showed the world’s soldiers, celebrities and its underbelly. Parks may have said it best, “The camera is my weapon against the things I dislike about the universe,” and that sentiment continues to motivate today’s photojournalists.

Since the death of mass circulation magazines Life and Look, a new cadre of fearless photographers has captured both the dark and bright side of the human condition. Their venues are primarily books along with art gallery and museum exhibitions.

Among the most compelling work being shot today is James Balog’s artistically frightening photos of melting glaciers in Greenland and Alaska. His time-lapse series  provides visual certainty that the ice is melting faster than many scientists predicted. Balog’s photos show gushing glacier melt water rushing into the sea, visual evidence that global warming is very real.

Urban street photographers are also lighting it up. Turkey’s Senol Zorlu’s photos of African children and Serbian photographer Boogie are among the new wave. Boogie’s work in Brooklyn and Belgrade captures street life in all its black/white drugged out grit.

Leader of the Pack

Brazil’s Sabastiao Salgado is today’s leader keeping photojournalism alive and vital. His monochromatic black and white photographs have transported antlike gold miners in Brazil and ghostlike people in the Sahel onto the walls of the world’s major art and natural history museums. His current photo essay, “Genesis” is in the midst of a seven month run at London’s Natural History Museum and tells the story of today’s environment. Salgado has invested part of his success into helping restore the rainforests of Brazil’s Atlantic coast.

Salgado’s images are at the end of that long roll of 35 mm film that stretches back to the photogravure plates taken at the turn of the 20th century by Edward S. Curtis. It was Curtis’ three decade pilgrimage to photograph North America’s native people that is a testament to the work and sacrifices photographers make to document their subjects. Few photojournalists get rich and many sacrifice their home life to be in the field. Some use their edgy work on the streets to build their portfolios and capture commercial and fashion photo gigs that pay for their world travel shooting the common folk.

Their work is both a historical record and valued art, allowing vicarious travelers to go to wild places to meet the people and see the wildlife. Because their work is often powerful it forces viewers to consider the plight of their subjects and ask themselves how we might become part of the solution to poverty, AIDs, poaching and environmental decay. Film/video can be that catalyst too, but a well framed powerful image on a gallery wall has a punch-in-the-gut effect in this age of electronic image overload and attention span deficit.   

Trigger men

Over the years I’ve been blessed traveling with photographers who made me a better writer. When I traveled through Brazil and Mexico with Southern California based Jan Jarecki his photographic eye made me see the light and be a keener observer of street life. His technical knowledge of cameras overflowed into fixing cars and almost everything else that breaks down on a long journey. He also posed questions that I didn’t think to ask. He helped flush out the stories.

Tusker founder Eddie Frank started his career as a teenage apprentice photographer. When he and I teamed on a magazine article about poaching in Kafue National Park his sense of the landscape and the people there allowed me to focus on the subject at hand.  While I tried to sort out a complex and dangerous subject he took care of everything else including lining up interview subjects who made our story. Eddie has that rare range; he can walk through 100 degree heat on the savanna with a gun in one hand and a camera in the other.  He opened the doors, kept me safe and also took great photos.

When I worked at a business newspaper in San Francisco, the staff photographer was Najib Joe Hakim. Joe was born in Lebanon and he wore his Palestinan roots on his sleeve.  He never lost an opportunity to present the Palestine perspective and I sensed his passion for the underdog would lead to some great photos.

In 2006 Joe went back to Beirut, 50 years after his father uprooted the family and put them on the Cleopatra and sailed for New York. Joe juxtaposed black and white photos taken by his dad of his young family upon embarkation and tied them together with new photos taken in the aftermath of the Isreal-Lebanon war. His photos of blasted buildings and the everyday people of Beirut (fishermen, cab drivers) were featured in several exhibitions in the U.S. and Jerusalem and led to his book, ”Born among Mirrors.” By adding sepia and saturated color he gave the images a sense of nostalgia. The work was artistic, journalistic and cathartic.

“My work is driven by politics and social issues but if I can do it in a beautiful way people will be more into it. It’s a seductive way and it’s not unlike a woman wearing make up.  Salgado does the same thing with his photos,” Hakim said. Hakim’s current grant backed project is tentatively called “Palestinans in America” and chronicles, “a group of people who really don’t want to be in this country.”

Economist in the field

Salgado’s journey from a small town in the once lush Atlantic rainforests of Brazil to over 100 countries is nearly as epic as the photos he has made. Now 69, Salgado, after receiving a masters in economics, traveled the world as an economist visiting World Bank projects. He borrowed his wife Lila’s camera on a trip to a tea plantation in Mozambique and soon realized he had chosen the wrong profession.

By 1977 his first long essay, “Other Americans” portrayed Indians and peasants in Latin America but his connection with France’s Doctors Without Borders led to his breakthrough documentary photo essay, “Sahel Man in Distress”  that chronicled Africa’s famine. The photos blended the stress of the people and the landscape and made his photos icons for the human condition. His follow-up project in 1993, “Workers” featured the gold pit miners in Brazil and showed the human and environmental degradation when 50,000 men reduce a mountain to a 600 foot deep gold pit. The work was shown in 60 museums and made a lot of people ask, “how are these working conditions still possible in today’s world?”

Many of the top photographers find it essential to become absorbed into the landscape, and Salgado has often risked his life to get the photo. He walked for 600 kilometers in North Ethiopia to shoot his “Africa” essay that was exhibited in 2007. For Genesis – a seven year shoot –  he spent ten days alone in Alaska’s backcountry shooting caribou. His passion for photography is outweighed by a drive to make the world a better place. He told Photographer’s Forum:  “What I want is the world to remember the problems and the people I photograph. To create a discussion about what is happening around the world and to provoke debate. Nothing more than this. I don’t want people to look at them and appreciate the light and the palate of tones. I want them to look inside and see what the pictures represent, and the kind of people I photograph.”   

Material World

Where Salgado has shown people with little or no possessions, Peter Menzel took a  different tact  showing man with all his possessions in his successful book, ”Material World.” Menzel went around the world convincing people to display the contents of their homes, and then pose with their families amidst their belongings. Average families from 30 countries were photographed and it’s an insight into consumerism, and the direction of societies. The most prized possession of his rural Chinese subjects was a television.

The contrasts between a family in Mali and Houston are startling. Soumana Natomo is photographed on the roof of his adobe dwelling with his two wives and eight kids. There are no beds or furniture but hand crafted water and food carriers and utensils. The Texans are shot in the cul de sac of their suburban home surrounded by the detritus of U.S. consumption, furniture and appliances that fill their 1,600 square foot home. The Skeens are deeply religious and they hold their most prized possession, a thick color plate bible. For this devoutly Baptist family, like some families around the world, it is a spiritual—rather than material—life that matters most.

And so it is with today’s photojournalists. It’s not about getting rich, becoming famous or even being happy. It’s about making their forgotten subjects stand out in a world that is increasingly self-absorbed the more affluent it becomes at the expense of the environment.