Why Is There No Photo About This? Challenging the Comfortable with Photojournalism

What is it like to be a photojournalist, and why would a Christian choose journalistic photographic work over advocacy?

From Dec 27 – Jan 1, volunteers with our network of early career Christian academics are liveblogging seminars at the Urbana conference, a mission-focused student gathering of 16,000 Christians from across North America and the world.

Here at at the Urbana conference in St Louis, photo journalist Micah Albert (website) (blog) talks to us about the role of photojournalism in society. Micah covers news and produces feature stories all over the world including Africa. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, BBC World, Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Times, World Policy Journal, The Sacramento Bee, UNFPA, UNICEF, Runner’s World, The North Face among others. Micah has extensively covered Central and East Africa, notably DR Congo and Sudan. In 2013, Micah won a World Press Photo award for his photography of Dandora, Kenya, the largest dump in the world.

Why Is There No Photo About This?
Micah describes his reasons for doing photojournalism by telling us a story from 2002, when he opened a back section of the New York Times to read that 800,000 people had been displaced in the Congo. The article included two paragraphs, but there was no photo. In coverage of 9/11, the weight of words didn’t seem to match the importance of the event, Micah says. Most people know what happened in 1994 in Rwanda, when a volcano took out half of the city of Goma, including many people who were displaced a second time from their refugee camp. But it rocked Michah’s world that there was no photo.

To show us the kind of work he does, Micah shows us a series of his photos. He tells us about the experience of embedding with Algerian counter-terrorism forces working to prevent Al Qaeda from moving in from Mali. He shows us a scene from the world’s second longest refugee camp, found in Algeria (the longest is Palestinians living in Jordan from the war in 1972). It took him a year to get access (here’s the Foreign Policy story by David Conrad that featured his work). Micah talks about traveling illegally from Yemen to Somalia to follow the path of refugees. He talks about his work reporting on the food crisis in Yemen, as people move from Somalia (image below).

Kenya has been a second home for him — Micah spent years getting access to illegal breweries across the country (below). He also covered the post-election unrest in Kenya. At one point he became part of the news. After flying to Eldoret, he was attacked by a group of several hundred people. Knocked out after being hit in the head by a flaming two-by-four with nails, he was saved because the board was weakened by the flame. These days, Kenya is a second home for him, a place where he does laundry, catches up with friends, gets Internet access, and Skypes with his family.

Micah tends to work on stories with the same writer, David Conrad. Together, they focus on stories about under-reported people, which was what led them to take on a grant-funded story for the Pulitzer Center on Dandora, the world’s largest dump. It took weeks to find a driver to take them there, and a long time for them to negotiate with the cartel that runs it in order to develop the story.

Micah Albert (2013 Photo Contest) from World Press Photo on Vimeo.

Sometimes, access to stories comes through Micah’s wife, who specializes in women and children’s health. When she did work with rape victims in Eastern Congo, Micah was able to get access to tell stories through that.

“I’ve never done any of this with help.” Micah has no church or university helping him put feet in the field, it was always him picking up a phone or sticking himself on a plane, being naive, having gumption. He’d rather do that than talk about insurance rates with institutions. To get things published, editors need to know about your work. At this point, Micah says, “I don’t like to self-promote.” Over time, editors get to know your work if you do it well, so he focused on Sudan and tried to become the person who knew one thing well and deeply. Micah shows us a photo from his time with the rebel resistance during their independence movement (which was successful in 2011).

How is Photojournalism Different from Advocacy?

“I’ve walked with a lot of nonprofits. Hear me out, they’re important. I’ve consulted with tons of them. But I want to explain the difference. Photojournalism is not advocacy. It’s fundamental for you to understand the difference,” Micah says. Citing Bonita Neff, he says “Advocacy promotes something in order to win tangible support for it. Done well, it helps people feel good about buying into it. Journalism power functions as a mirror to a community, and it reflects back to them the failures that need to be addressed and corrected.”

To create Christian community that is modeling what the kingdom can look like, we need guidance from pastors, laypeople. We also need a journalistic mirror that asks how are we doing? Micah argues that “I don’t think we’re doing very well. I’m really optimistic, and it pains me to say that. I don’t mean that the effort that’s happening isn’t valiant and worthwhile, [especially in] places that are very churched, and the path is wide and established– but when you go to very dark places…. ”

Photojournalists who cover risky stories often trade stories about the challenges of being a photojournalist, and Micah has plenty to share: “I’ve had dark moments under extreme physical and spiritual duress (I’ve had every disease you can think of). I got a brain parasite in congo, a snail that hatches in your spinal fluid and gives you concussion symptoms for 3 months. I’ve been physically beat up, but the worst is to feel spiritually beat up in the field. I can’t work with an entourage and an entourage is 3 or more.”

“The bottom line is that photojournalism takes a bigger risk than advocacy does,” says Micah. Photojournalism “shows the overall and leaving the viewer to figure out how to deal with it. Photojournalism is a search for truth, and as Christians, we should dig for it. In the Church, hardcore, meaningful journalism isn’t given the credit it’s due because journalists aren’t waving a Christian banner as they do it. I love Jesus, but I’m not wearing the shirt in the field,” says Micah. Sometimes journalists are criticized for being too negative, but Micah points out that “we can’t tell redemptive stories while leaving out the negative– we’ll only minimize the relevance of the positive. If sin and death didn’t need defeating, Jesus probably needed better things to do than be on the cross.”

Christians also need to develop visual literacy, Micah says. We’re inundated with lots of average photos. Our generation is seeing so many images we’re not asking the bigger questions: what is in the photo, what is not in the photo. Most importantly: why is there not a photo? People are taking tremendous risks to create those images, from the journalists to the fixers who help them out. As a person with a blue passport and green eyes, he also gets to leave. He doesn’t know what to do with that — “I don’t know what to do with half of the things I see. All I know is to go, and push a button.”

It can be discouraging to seem like the only Christian in very dark places, Micah says, but that doesn’t demoralize him fully.

Take my story and run with it, says Micah. It’s going to look different for you than it did for him in 2002. Back then, it seemed important to have camera bags with “PRESS” on them, but that now makes you a target. “I’m tired of being shot at, I’m tired of the disease. James Foley was a friend of mine, killed in Syria, he says. Chris Hondros was a friend of mine, killed in Libya, Micah continues. I hope my story helps, in that I didn’t have a path. There’s no website, there’s no online application. I have no clue what I’m doing half of the time, but I wake up with a sense of urgency of untold stories happening everywhere.

Questions

How do you do evangelism as a photo journalist? Micah responds that most of his work is about building relationships rather than photos. What I do is to be me in the moment in someone’s home.

How do you handle you being faraway in dangerous places It’s getting more difficult as the kids grow up, says Micah. Their goal originally was to be living in Damascus full time, but it’s kinda hard now.

What helped you first get into the field? My grandfather was a pro. He taught me a ton, and when I was in college, I was not very driven. All I cared about was surfing in Mexico and climbing. But I was doing both of those things with pros, and I was taking photos for Patagonia and Surfing magazine, and it was money for extra trips. The adults in my life said you couldn’t make a living doing what you love, so it took me a while to figure out that I could.

How do you overcome language barriers? Fixers are everything, but you can do so much even with a language barrier. In general, the more uncomfortable I am, the better my work is. Apply that to everything, says Micah.

What makes a good photo? Story. So you’ve made a nice photo of a kid. Wake up in the morning with that kid, walk with her to school, walk home with her, engage with her, learn her story, and then tell me that — the story will come out in the photos.

Christians are often less sensitive than non-Christians to his needs and experiences, or to the stories he tells. For a time, Micah had concluded that maybe he should just focus on non-Christian audiences. He thanks the Urbana audience for giving him the chance to rethink the possibility that Christians might be interested.

How do you find out about unreported stories? You do a lot of research. Read a lot of things from a bunch of crazy places, and develop relationships with people who can help you find stories.

(images used with permission from Micah Albert)

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J. Nathan Matias

J. Nathan Matias (@natematias), who recently completed a PhD at the MIT Media Lab and Center for Civic Media, researches factors that contribute to flourishing participation online, developing tested ideas for safe, fair, creative, and effective societies. Starting in September 2017, Nathan will be a post-doctoral researcher at the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy, as well as the departments of psychology and sociology department Nathan has a background in technology startups and charities focused on creative learning, journalism, and civic life. He was a Davies-Jackson Scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2006-2008.

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