Friday, 11 May 2012

Birth of a Notion

First off, kudos to the headline writer for this headline, "Amid the poverty of West Africa, the birth of a notion."

These words lead off a Folio centre spread in The Globe and Mail about a new program of free healthcare for expecting mothers and mothers of young children. Geoffrey York, our African Bureau Chief wrote the piece and the images are mine. Designer extraordinaire David Pratt did the layout.

So much of our work in the media involves bringing light to problems and difficulties around the globe. It's critical that we continue to draw attention to areas that need it, but it felt great to be able to help tell a positive story, especially out of Africa, and specifically Sierra Leone, a country that has seen more than its share of suffering.

While there is much to be done in Sierra Leone there is no denying that this dramatic step is a very important one. The program in itself is not without problems, and the long-term sustainability of it in such a poor country will be a question for some time.

In Somalia last September Geoff  and I witnessed a lot of death and suffering. I photographed a 7-year old boy who had just died, and his grieving family. Those are images that I feel need to be made, and stories that need to be told.

But I have to say that being allowed to photograph a woman giving birth to a healthy baby boy, and coming through it herself without issue at Princess Christian Maternity Hospital in Freetown was a real privilege, and one that I will never forget.

Ruby Williams, Matron, Princess Christian Maternity Hospital

Likewise I won't ever forget the smile and the generosity of Ruby Williams, the Matron of the Hospital, who took a lot of time during her hectic day to shepherd me around her hospital and patiently waited while I made images. Thank you Ruby.

Geoffrey York's story and links to a photo gallery and audio slideshow can be found at globeandmail.com.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Monrovia: Charles Taylor Found Guilty

Only minutes after the special court at the Hague announced it’s verdict in the five-year trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor on April 26, 2012 a halo appeared around the sun as it hung almost directly above the crowds gathered in downtown Monrovia to listen and watch the news. Immediately people here began to speculate on the meaning of this strange, and rare, atmospheric phenomenon. If people were supportive or not of the former warlord seemed to determine whether they thought God was happy or unhappy with the court’s guilty verdict in the eleven counts against Mr. Taylor for crimes against humanity.

The day before the verdict the inside back page of The Globe and Mail – a coveted glossy paper space usually reserved for international news – featured an advance story by our African bureau chief, Geoffrey York, and two of my photographs. Yesterday we ran a double page spread of stories and images from the streets here as Liberians waited and reacted to the news.

Geoff’s thoughtful planning ensured we were here in Liberia’s capital for the moment that the Charles Taylor’s verdict would be read at the Hague. The piece in yesterday’s paper provided some background to Globe and Mail readers and spoke of the level of support the warlord still has here. There are many here who support Taylor. There are many here who do not.

I sent ten images for my photo editors and editors to choose from for Wednesday’s story, and in the end they chose as their main an image of a young man named Peter Tarr. When he was eleven years old Tarr was captured by Taylor’s forces and was soon carrying a weapon and fighting battles. His story is similar to other child soldiers during that bloody time in that he was later captured by opposing forces and then forced to fight against Taylor. Somehow he survived the war and became a member of President Taylor’s Liberian Army. It was during this time, while fighting some of Taylor’s opponents that he was injured twice; first by a bullet through his upper thigh, and later a gunshot wound to his right arm that required an amputation from just below the shoulder.

Tarr’s story is heartbreaking, but sadly, not uncommon in Liberia. Unemployed and disfigured, Tarr now spends his days, like many of this country’s child soldiers begging on Monrovia’s streets.

Remarkably Tarr has few angry words. He is unhappy that Taylor brought war to an otherwise peaceful nation, and that the years of war affected him, and so many others in such a negative way. And yet he seemed confident that justice would prevail. He was confident that if Taylor was guilty of war crimes he would be found guilty. If he was not, he would be found innocent.

In a country where many people seem to be judging Taylor based on the price of rice during his presidency (it was far cheaper then), this indifference by a grievously damaged young man like Tarr amazes me. Perhaps he is resigned after his ten-year struggle on Monrovia’s dirty streets and knows that neither decision in Taylor's case will change his fate.

Perhaps he is right.  Any damage that Charles Taylor, and men like him, could ever inflict upon Peter Tarr, and thousands like him, was done a long time ago.

But as several people expressed on Thursday, regardless of the verdict, Liberians may now finally be able to put this dark chapter in their lives behind them and move forward. 

[The complete articles and a gallery of images can be found on globeandmail.com]

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A Delicate Balance of Respect and Boundaries

(This entry was originally published at globeandmail.com on March 17, 2012. It accompanied stories by Globe and Mail writer Lisa Priest about hospice care in Ontario). The original piece can be found here with links to two image galleries.

The Globe and Mail was granted access to Kensington Hospice to observe care provided to those who come to die and to see how people live out their final days.
Why hospices? End of life care is an important health issue, one that given the aging population, will grow in importance. About 70 per cent of people die in hospital, even though most say they want to die at home. Hospices offer something between those two worlds: they provide a residential, home-like feel with doctors and nurses for those who can't die at home, but for whom a costly hospital bed isn't appropriate, either.

Mostly, they come to accept what we all must: death. Their willingness to allow journalists to document that journey is a gift.
– Lisa Priest

Basia Hoffman hugs Kensington Hospice Social Worker Maxxine Rattner during a visit with her mother, Andree Hoffman, a few short hours before she passed away on Feb. 9, 2012.

There are few phrases more painful than “It is with a heavy heart.”
After the death of a loved one, these words most often mark the earliest stage in the grieving process – an intimate and emotional moment when family and friends are coming to grips with their loss.
For journalists, even though many have heard these words repeated several times throughout their careers, the emotional charge never seems to fade.
These emotions – pain, sadness, confusion, loss – make covering death and dying one of the most challenging assignments for writers and photographers.
The best way for a photojournalist to approach this kind of assignment is to draw on personal experience – to put yourself as much as you can in your subjects' shoes. This means trying to remember what it feels like to touch a loved one for the last time, to have them look upon you for the last time, and to desperately want more. To realize there is no way to fully prepare for that final moment.
For a recent story about hospice care, I found myself drawing on this personal experience, as well as the many stories I've covered in my career, where strangers have granted me the privilege of witnessing some of life's most intimate moments.
These experiences help when trying to approach people and families in the most unobtrusive manner possible.
And this is the point. You cannot, and must not, endeavour to work on stories about one of the most challenging times in anyone's life if your presence will in any way make those moments more difficult.
Before I introduce a camera into any sensitive situation I always try to introduce myself first. Meeting people in person allows me to better understand their situation, but it serves the more important purpose of helping them to understand who I am, my goals and my methods. These meetings might be brief, or may take hours, days or months depending on the subject, but for everyone involved they are critical.
At Kensington Hospice in Toronto my involvement started with a meeting. My goal was to build on the trust earned by my colleague, reporter Lisa Priest, to gain permission to come and go as the story required, and to establish rules so I could work in a manner that fell within their guidelines, and with constant consideration for all of its residents, not just those I was documenting. Lisa had already laid much of the groundwork for me, and so this meeting was very straightforward. The next step was meeting the families involved.
You never simply ask if you can take photographs of someone. To do so is risking immediate refusal. Photographers understand that visual storytelling requires a more sophisticated approach and I have yet to speak to an individual who does not appreciate the difference.
I have never worked on a story of this nature without believing that I can do justice to the story, and that I can do so honestly while preserving the dignity of everyone involved. This is what I try to convey in trying to secure someone's trust to participate in a story.
This is what I concentrated on during my initial conversations with members of two families with loved ones at the hospice. While I would always prefer not to rush into any story, time did not allow a leisurely approach to this one. While Marianne Kupina and her husband, Andrew McCarthy, weren't quite sure what to expect from me, they readily accepted what I proposed in terms of photography. There would be no posed portraits, but only real moments as they arose. Andrew, a handsome man, who, at 55 was dying of cancer, seemed all too aware that time was of the essence. After only a short conversation he simply looked at me, smiled, and said, “Well. Go get your cameras.”
Marianne Kupina spends time with her husband, Andrew McCarthy, at Kensington Hospice in Toronto on Feb. 7, 2012. Mr. McCarthy passed away on Feb. 20, 2012.

This rapid progression from introduction to working is certainly not the norm, and yet it did repeat itself the following day. Basia Hoffman, who had travelled from California to be with her mother, Andrée Hoffman, during her final moments, did not hesitate to allow me to be present in their lives. I think she was pleased that I hoped to find beauty in some of the moments that would be so sad. Where there is sadness in death, there is also love and tenderness.
While both families agreed to the presence of me and Lisa, it was still critical to have a frank and honest conversation. Not every acceptance comes so readily, but regardless, the initial conversations are when you lay it all on the line. This is when you try to understand the comfort level of each individual, improve it if you can, or at least determine how their comfort level might change over time. I try to establish a starting point with an understanding that the rules might evolve.
I would never photograph, or use images from a moment, that in anyway betrays the trust that people grant me. Only by being present, aware, flexible and sensitive, are you able to make photographs of those tender moments that will enhance the readers' understanding of your subjects' true experience. It is this trust that you hope for, and this trust that will allow you to be present when it really matters.
But you also need to know when to draw the line. You need to know when to back off, when to get close, and when to stop shooting. There may be moments when you are unsure of how to proceed. Anticipate this and discuss the possibilities openly before they arise. I simply let people know that if ever they find a situation where my presence is too much they only need give me a “look,” and I'll understand. They need to trust that they are in control, that they are making the rules, and that their comfort level and their lives are most important. And you need to understand that it is not your story that is paramount, but their lives.
You need to judge which moments are needed to tell the story and when an image is perhaps not worth the discomfort it might cause. This is a constant challenge, but one of which to be keenly aware. It will challenge your sensitivity as a human being and your skills as a visual storyteller.
This method has never failed me. I have certainly missed some moments over the years, but I have never walked away from a story feeling that I did more harm than good.
Stories of this nature can be emotionally draining, but it helps, at least for me, if you can take away some of the positive from the experience.
Mrs. Hoffman passed away during the night, with her daughters, Basia and Tatiana at her side, only hours after I had the pleasure of first meeting them. During the evening I was able to photograph some beautiful moments and before I left for the night I whispered a few words to her in her native French that included goodnight and thank you.
Andrew McCarthy, who had been a resident at Kensington Hospice for nearly six months, passed away on the afternoon of Feb. 20, 2012 with Marianne at his side. He was only 55 years old. Theirs was a love story, and one that I was privileged to see. On a Sunday, a week before he died, Marianne poured Andrew and I each a wee dram of Irish whisky. I was the last to have a drink with him and feel honoured to have done so.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Hugs for Free!

I've never been a huge fan of Valentines Day.

That's not to say I'm not a fan of love, and romance, a nice meal, flowers, soft music. Kathleen and I are on the same page when it comes to allowing this extremely commercial day to come and go without much fanfare at all.

I stood in the rain on Valentines Day, while taking a break from another story I'm working on, to get a photo of a young woman and man giving away free hugs. I thought it was very refreshing to see this, and was pleased to learn that there were absolutely no strings attached. It was just a nice gesture by two people trying to pass along a kind act.

Stephanie Mulhall, 23, right, and Fernando Brava, 22, behind, braved the cold rain to stand on the corner of Yonge and Dundas Streets in Toronto to offer free hugs and valentines to passers-by on Feb. 14, 2012.(Photo by Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
While I'm happy not to participate in the mad dash for flowers and chocolates, I have to admit that I am still of two minds about the whole thing.

I don't think we need a special day to tell those most dear to us how we feel about them, or to do something romantic. However, as a society that seems to be getting busier and busier, with each passing day, if it is necessary to have a special day to kick-start some lazy lovers then I guess that can't be all bad.

Friday, 10 February 2012

"Maybe Next Year!" and mean it!

Every year I say, "Maybe next year," and this year is no different.

Today the results of the World Press Photo contest were released and I have to say that the winning images are seriously impressive. Congratulations to the winners!

While we don't, or shouldn't, work as photojournalists to win awards, it is nice to have your work recognized. WPP is the worlds largest photo contest and a prize in it isn't exactly bad news to wake up to.

But as I've said in the past, a person can't sit on any single contest prize and hope to be successful on bragging rights alone. Photographers who are successful over time, and some time and time again, repeatedly use their skill, their motivation, their creativity, and their opportunities to make images like many that are included as winners in this year's WPP.

Success at anything is about continuing to work hard to improve yourself and your craft. It's about not being happy with the status quo, and about thinking outside of the box. It's about never giving up and finding inspiration in the work of others around you.

Finding the proper and most efficient ways to do this is more than half the battle.

What strikes me often about many winning images I look at from contests, beyond the memorable images of course, is the access that photographers were able to secure, for one reason or another. Access takes forethought. It takes planning. It takes organization. And it takes vision. It takes patience. And it takes persistence.

There will always be award winning images that come from a photographer "just being there," but in my opinion these are the exception.

Beyond the stellar images produced this past year - and not just those that placed - I want to congratulate those photographers and photo editors that see the value of time spent planning, envisioning, and working to create those rare situations where compelling photographs are made.

The starting point for great photojournalism is foresight and fortitude.

I think we all have the potential to make stunning images, and to tell compelling stories, but you have to be there, and getting there is where the difference is made.

So, again this year, I'm doing my best with the opportunities I have, and trying to reach beyond what's immediately obvious, or available. We should all do this. And in doing so we can hope for great images and stories to develop from it.

And then we can say, with conviction, and not hollow words, "Maybe next year!"