An ongoing theme of my work and that of many of my colleagues in the photojournalism and documentary worlds, is how can our work make a difference? It’s not a new question, just an ongoing challenge in my view. And as social media continues to upend the traditional structures of media and offer new ways to reach broader, worldwide audiences, this question has never been more salient. One organization that has grown out of the world of photojournalism, PROOF: Social Media for Justice, offers some great examples of how to use visual reporting and storytelling to contribute to positive change, going beyond just raising awareness about issues. Whether through onsite exhibitions, workshops, books, online presentations, lectures and the use of social media, PROOF is taking photography to the places where the work was done and the challenges are most pressing to make direct contributions to the dialogue around issues such as child soldiers, genocide, the Darfur story, Rwanda, and the legacy of rape in wars around the world.
I have been fortunate and humbled over the years to see how my work could have a direct impact on the lives of my subjects. I want to share one such example here, as a reminder of what we can do as individuals as well as to acknowledge the power of organizations like PROOF.
If anyone doubts the power of still images to inspire action, I recently had a beautiful reaction to one of my images on the Niger Delta that appeared in the February 2007 issue of National Geographic. A woman named Betty, from upstate New York, was moved to action by my photograph of the boy carrying a smoking goat (see above). She has since sent him $500 and wants to send more so he will go to school permanently. The boy’s name is Paulinous Uko, 14, and he has 5 other siblings and lives in a very poor and rough slum of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. He works in the Trans Amadi Slaughter, the largest abattoir in the Niger Delta, where he helps move the burnt carcasses of goats and cows. It is a horrible job in a nightmarish place. Betty was inspired by the image to figure out how to help him. She contacted my studio to obtain a copy of the picture and then went about, through her local church group, finding him through local church groups in Port Harcourt. It’s quite an amazing story and one that reminds me of the importance of this work, the goodness of people and the power of photography to catalyze change. Below are two images of Paulinous, one with a local nun and the other with his family in Port Harcourt. Betty obtained these images during her correspondence with him.