Tag Archives: Photo Essay

The Halls of Democracy: Places of Civic Responsibility

American citizensand those applying for the titlelearn early that they have two primary civic responsibilities: voting and jury duty. As voting booths are installed in our common areas across the nationin schools, gyms, firehouses, grocery stores and municipal buildingswe realize the true weight of our duties as citizens.

Michael Mergen, an assistant professor of photography at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., became particularly interested in votersand voting locationswhile working as a photojournalist during the 2004 presidential election. When he walked into a barbershop-turned-polling center in west Philadelphia, Mergen thought to himself, This has to be preserved.

In the years since, Mergen has photographed countless voting booths, jury rooms and naturalization facilities in his quest to document what he considers essential parts of being an American. After combing through thousands of polling sites on Excel spreadsheets, the photographer then chose stations located in private homes or unusual businesses; his journeys have taken him to pizza parlors, living rooms, garages, funeral homes and other eccentric spots scattered across Philadelphia. His eight years of work have yielded three revealing yet non-partisan series aptly titled, Vote,DeliberateandNaturalization, which collectively seek to underscore the importance of citizen-driven governance.

There are few instances in our lives where as an American you can say, I was a citizen today, Mergen says. calohealth.com . We are citizens everyday going about our business, but its rare when that becomes an actual tangible event.Its kind of amazing that casting a vote at Buds Tire in Murfreesboro, Tenn. actually [contributes to] President Obama or Governor Romney winning.

Michael Mergenis a Virginia-based photographer.

Alma: A Tale of Guatemala’s Violence

LightBox presents an exclusive look at an interactive, narrative documentary about gang violence in Guatemala told through the story of Alma, a young former gang member.

“In an isolated house, there was a girl older than me. Blond, begging to be spared…my whole body was telling me not to, but in the end I killed her. I knew I would get killed myself is I did not obey.” —Alma

Alma was only 15 years old the first time she took a life. As a member of one of the most violent gangs in Guatemala, the Mara 18, Alma spent eight years of her young life in a world ruled by violence. After a brutal beating caused her to suffer a miscarriage, Alma had enough, but her effort to leave the gang was met with an assassination attempt that left her a paraplegic. Today, at 26, Alma hopes to help stop the kind of violence that ruled her life for so long.

Gang violence is an enormous problem in Guatemala—a country of just 14 million people with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Alma’s story is indicative of a pattern that has affected a generation of disenfranchised youth in her country. She grew up in a cardboard and plastic shack in one of the most dangerous slums in Guatemala City. With a largely absent mother and an alcoholic father, gang life appealed to a 15-year-old girl looking for protection and comfort.

“I feel I have never received love from anyone,” Alma said. “I looked for another family in a gang, in which all members were like me, undergoing lack of love…for the first time in my life I felt loved and respected. ”

Miquel Dewever-Plana—Agence VU

At the age of 22, Alma told her “homies” (the members of her gang) that she wanted to leave. The retaliation came on the same day when two of them attempted to murder her. She survived, but is now paraplegic.

In 2008, Alma met photographer Miquel Dewever-Plana, who has been photographing the violence in Guatemala since 2007. Intrigued by Alma’s beauty and candor, amid such a cruel environment, Plana stayed in touch with the young woman, eventually realizing her story could be a powerful way-in to explain the larger tale of violence in Guatemala.

“I became convinced that her intelligence and forceful nature made her the icon I was looking for,” Plana said in an interview with Le Pelerin weekly’s Catherine Lalanne. “She was the key to understanding the most secretive twists and turns of the gang phenomenon.”

After a year-and-a-half of consideration, Alma agreed to collaborate with Plana and writer Isabelle Fougere. Her story is at the center of a new, multi-platform project centered around an interactive web documentary that presents Alma’s narration in a straight-forward confessional format. Plana’s photographs of her Guatemalan neighborhood and its gangs help to visualize the violent world in which she lived and powerful drawings by Hugues Micol illustrate troubling scenes from Alma’s life.

Working with a team of designers at the French creative studio Upian, Plana and Fougere, say they intended to create a final product—with a sensitive and innovative approach to a narrative— that would be interactive and accessible. The final product, which took two years to develop, is incredibly in-depth—allowing its audience to explore the story through the innovative web piece, two books and a film, all available in four languages. Supplemental materials were also designed for classroom use.

“This combination of media communicates Alma’s reality in the most effective way,” Plana said. “The web documentary was designed to inform young people about the dangers of gang life. That was my ultimate goal.”

Plana and Fougere recognize the confusing emotions that came as their relationship with Alma developed. “I see Alma as a friend,” Plana said. “But I never forget what she did, and it is impossible for me to justify her deeds.”

Plana has worked and studied in Guatemala’s since 1995 and has documented the country’s gang violence since 2007. It was this experience—which included extensive interviews with mareros in prison—that prepared him to understand and contextualize Alma’s situation.

Despite the risk of exposure and the discomfort of reliving such painful experiences, for Alma, the project was an opportunity to bear witness to her past and to attempt to prevent other youth from choosing the same fate.

“It was very painful for Alma to talk without feeling judged, to empty her haunted conscience of all these gruesome memories and guilt,” Fougere said. “This web-documentary is her path to redemption.”

Watching Alma speak on screen, it is difficult to connect the words with the woman. Soft-spoken, with long black hair and soft features, Alma slowly describes in brutal detail taking the life of another woman and enduring beatings at the hands of her “homies.” But it is precisely in this disconnect that the power of this project lies—it emphasizes that Guatemala’s gang violence is not the result of a few crazed individuals, but a tragic consequence of social problems so endemic that they can turn a young girl into a brutal criminal.

“Alma’s extremely violent story seemed emblematic of the desperation of youths from shanty town, totally abandoned by a society rife with corruption and impunity,” said Fougere. “[she is] Both victim and perpetrator of this endemic violence.”

Today, Alma lives a quiet life. Confined to a wheelchair, she works as a gift-wrapper  in a shop and lives with her boyfriend, Wilson, in a rented room. Further retaliation from her former gang is a constant threat, but she focuses on her dream of going to college to study psychology.

“I hope that [one]day I have the means to help these young people fascinated by the world of gangs,” she said. “And to finally break this chain of violence which only leads to a certain death.”

Miquel Dewever-Plana is a photographer represented by VU’. See more of his work here.

Isabelle Fougere is a French journalist, writer and director focused on human rights.

Alma: A Tale of Violence was released on arte.tv on Oct. 25, 2012. It was produced by Upian, a French creative studio that has won numerous awards for their web documentaries including First Prize in World Press Photo 2011.

All quotes by Miquel Dewever-Plana and Isabelle Fougere are from an interview with Le Pelerin weekly’s Catherine Lalanne, which is a component of the Alma project.

Cédric Gerbehaye’s Belgium: A Country in Flux

Photographer Cédric Gerbehaye has spent the past nine years working on long-term documentary projects, often in underreported regions including South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A project in the latter country, which opened Gerbehaye’s eyes to the long and conflicted relationship the DRC has with its former colonial occupier, eventually led him to turn his lens back home, to Belgium.

In June 2010, Gerbehaye’s own country fell into turmoil and transition when the two leading political parties in the country – the New Flemish Alliance and the Socialist Party – were unable to reach a consensus on a coalition to form a new government. Belgium broke the record for being a nation without a government for a consecutive period of time, clocking in at 541 days before a new Prime Minister was appointed in December 2011. It was a period of immense political and social tension for the people of Belgium—a country comprised mainly of two distinct cultural groups.

“The idea of a separation of the country was more present than ever,” Gerbehaye said. “Belgium is a state assembling two people which initially have nothing in common—they speak different languages, they do not have the same economy and vote in opposite ways.”

The Flemish-speaking north and French-speaking south largely keep to their separate sides, differentiated by a linguistic border that slices the country from east to west.

Seeing the issues he had spent so many years exploring abroad bubble to the surface at home, Gerbehaye set out to document these two communities and the friction that is created from people who separate themselves as distinct groups that gather together under the same flag. The resulting series — simply titled Belgium — digs into the tensions inherent in the mixing of these communities and to the new identities that emerge from such co-mingling. The first chapter of the work, which was completed during this spring and summer, was produced for the International Festival Photoreporter in Saint Brieuc and will be on view from Oct. 19 to Nov. 11.

Weaving together images of workers on the brink of losing their jobs with countrymen engaged in religious traditions, Gerbehaye sought to convey the social and political dynamics within the small nation’s borders. But Belgium also serves as an exploration of physical space, and the photographer zig-zagged the country in order to document steelworkers in the French-speaking region and fishermen in the Flemish-speaking north. For work grappling with what it means to be Belgian, viewing the country from its outer limits was key.  “For the fishermen, it was a way of speaking of a job that is disappearing now, but it’s also a way to give some limits to the work, to give a border,” Gerbehaye said. “They are in the sea, at the border of the country, on the coast of the country.”

Gerbehaye does not attempt to make a definitive comparison of his country’s two linguistic regions. Rather, he seeks through his photos of Catholic devotees, night revelers, and farmers — ordinary Belgians living their everyday lives — to create a “partial and personal inventory of the human territory.”

 Cédric Gerbehaye is a photographer with VU. LightBox previously featured Gerbehaye’s photographs of Birth and Death in Sudan.

Wheelchair Bodybuilders Muscle Their Way to the Top

When he was 16, Nick Scott was in a near-fatal car accident. He was left paralyzed from the waist down. Nonetheless, Scott, now 30, is also known in certain circles—namely, the wheelchair bodybuilding world, a universe in which his is perhaps the most recognizable face—as “The Beast.” The Beast isn’t sure of his bench press limit, only because he hasn’t yet stopped reaching for more weight. The metaphor’s an obvious one, but true: ”If you want something bad enough, nothings gonna stop you from not getting it,” he has said.

And The Beast wants to spread the word: he was instrumental in the creation of the first-ever competition for certified International Federation of BodyBuilders (IFBB) Pro Wheelchair Bodybuilders, which was held last fall. The 2012 IFBB Pro Wheelchair championships took place Oct. 13 in Houston, an event open only to Scott and the dozen other men who have qualified as pros. Harold Kelley was named the winner in 2011 and 2012.

Photographer Lauren Fleishman has been documenting the sport for over a year, including that first competition. She first heard about wheelchair bodybuilding via a phone call from her cousin, who works in a hotel where a bodybuilding event took place. “I got so excited that I hung up the phone and began researching the sport,” she says.

Fleishman says that when she first began exploring the topic, she noticed that almost all of the photographs of bodybuilders, at least the ones that she could find, portrayed the participants in an almost grotesque manner. She wanted to avoid that look. “In showing a different side to it, it’s a way of connecting people, a way of changing their perceptions about the sport.”

Wheelchair bodybuilding competitions date back about 15 years, and both amateurs and professionals compete in worldwide events throughout the year. After following the participants for months, Fleishman says that, besides the normal suspense that comes with any competitive event, there’s another layer to it. “Seeing what being on stage does for them, they really, really shine,” she says. “You have a whole range of reasons why they compete, but the dedication and perseverance is really inspiring.” And it’s not just on stage: last May, in a Wal-mart in Texas, Fleishman accompanied Scott—the de facto spokesman for the sport—when he went to purchase batteries for his wheelchair, which is rigged to light up when he performs. Outside the store, a teenage boy, also in a wheelchair, approached Scott to say that he hoped one day to be like him. “You can obviously see that Nick has muscles,” says Fleishman. “The kid was impressed. It was a really nice moment to see that.”

But there has been one drawback to immersion in the wheelchair bodybuilding community during her year of photographing the project—and, as the work continues, it may only get worse. “It’s really hard,” Fleishman says, “because you want them all to win.”

Lauren Fleishman is an award-winning photographer based in New York City and Paris. See more of her work here and or on LightBox here.

Notes From the Campaign Trail with Paul Ryan

Photographer Peter Bohler reflects on his first time out on the campaign trail with Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan.

Photographing a candidate is a constant struggle for access, between the Secret Service and the Campaign Press Office, there were a myriad of unspoken rules that I was constantly trying to understand and follow. article writing submission . Often, I would set up for a great shot, only to be pulled away just as Congressman Ryan got close enough to photograph. Rarely would I be given a straight answer, or told what to expect.

Once I was ‘in the bubble’ as part of the traveling press, life on the road was seamless. We were shepherded swiftly from bus to tarmac to airplane and back again, with meals provided at every juncture. The photography would have been straightforward, had I been content to settle for the situations and angles that the press office arranged for us. Ryan’s speeches became routine, and his words would echo in my ears just before he said them. I learned to anticipate the resolute pursing of his lips and the humble look downward that would precede an impassioned defense of his American ideals.

On the last day of the shoot, the Campaign Press Contact grabbed me by the arm and pulled me away from the media pack and onto the Campaign bus. I hadn’t been told when I might get access to the bus, but I knew that if it happened it would happen suddenly, and I was ready. On the bus I was in a different world it was the calm in the eye of the storm.Though we were in the center of the motorcade, it was easy to forget about the scores of police cars, the Secret Service, and the swarm of media that surrounded us.

The Ryan’s were surrounded by their family and friends, and laughed and talked easily. 7-year-old Sam crawled up and down the aisle of the bus his favorite pass time. Soon Paul Ryan and I were talking about climbing mountains in Colorado. He was friendly, warm, curious and accommodating.No matter what you think of his politics, he possesses a compelling magnetism.

Peter Bohler is a Los Angeles-based documentary photographer and a recent contributor to TIME.

The Street Gangs of Caracas

“There has never been a shortage of bereaved mothers in the sprawling, violent Caracas barrio known as Catia,” writes correspondent Tim Padgett in last week’s issue of TIME International. Caracas, he notes, usually suffers some 50 homicides a week, making it one of the world’s deadliest capitals. As many as a third of them occur in Catia, where gunmen even use hillside garbage chutes to more efficiently dispose of corpses. Few of the killers are ever prosecuted.

The black-and-white photographs of Oscar B. Castillo, a Caracas-based photojournalist, accompany Padgett’s bleak dispatch. Documenting the violence of the barrio put Castillo at immense risk—from both gang members and the police.

“I felt safer when I was with the gangs than when I hung around the city by myself,” he told TIME. Although never far from the shadow of gratuitous violence, Castillo acknowledges that codes of respect and solidarity run deeply through the community.

“The people took care of me and protected me in risky situations,” he said. “When I told one of the guys involved in gang violence about the story, he told me to talk about their bad situation…to tell the kids that inside gang life, there’s no life at all.”

Castillo began photographing the street gangs of Caracas almost three years ago. Since then, he’s endeavored to use his photography as a way to explain to outsiders the complex layers of life in Catia.

“I would like to share a more complete and sincere vision of this moment in Venezuelan history. I am focused on this because it is my hometown, my country, my family—it is my people that are wounding and killing each other.”

Oscar B. Castillo is a member of the Fractures Photo Collective. View more of his work on FracturesPhoto.com.

Photographing the Clashes in Cairo

Last week, as protests once again raged in the streets of Cairo, Magnum photographer Moises Saman was there. Over three days, he documented the ongoing street battles near his residence in the Garden City area—right around the corner from the American Embassy and Tahrir Square.

With rocks and tear-gas canisters flying through the air, Saman understood that he only had a small window of time to work.

“If you’re putting yourself right in the middle, eventually you’ll get hit,” he said. “You have to work fast.”

Taking cover behind a burnt car, Saman photographed protestors in the streets early on the morning of Sept. 14th. It was there that he shot the photograph featured as the opening Worldview spread in this week’s issue of TIME. Police and protestors had clashed throughout the night, following a string of unrest earlier in the day that had resulted in the attack of the American Embassy. Arriving at the protests, Saman found a varied scene.

“It was around 7 or 8 am,” he told TIME, “and the mood was tense. There were not many photographers around—I was one of the only foreigners.”

The street gleamed with pools of water from police water cannons, reflecting men standing defiantly in the street. Improvised tools of outrage littered the roadway: stones, chunks of concrete, burned-out vehicles and broken tree branches.

In the background, lines of men fanned out, some with arms crossed, others recording the spectacle with their cell phones. Taking advantage of a brief lull, several sat on the curb, nursing their exhaustion from a long night of clashes and tear-gas.

Moving quickly, Saman photographed young men as they scavenged for stones. Working in the no man’s land between the groups, the photographer needed to turn his back to police in order to capture the action in front of him. Although security forces weren’t firing live ammunition, the risk of injury was still high: “Getting hit with a rock will ruin your day,” he jokes.

Living in Cairo for the past year has taught Saman that he can’t afford the luxury of hanging around a scene waiting for the best light and peak action. It’s often when one lingers too long that problems can arise.

“You need to work quickly,” he said. “You need to work with purpose.”

Moises Saman, a Magnum photographer based in Cairo, was previously featured on LightBox for his work from Libya.

The Mohawk Ironworkers: Rebuilding the Iconic Skyline of New York

For more than a century, ironworkers descended from the Mohawk Indians of Quebec have helped create New York City’s iconic skyline, guiding ribbons of metal into the steel skeletons that form the backbone of the city. In the tradition of their fathers and grandfathers, a new generation of Mohawk iron workers now descend upon the World Trade Center site, helping shape the most distinct feature of Lower Manhattan—the same iconic structure their fathers and grandfathers helped erect 40 years ago and later dismantled after it was destroyed in 2001.

Driving some 360 miles south to New York from the Kahnawake reserve near Quebec, these men work—just as their fathers did—in the city during the week and spend time with their families on the weekends.

One year ago, around the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, photographer Melissa Cacciola began documenting some of these workers—not an easy task given that the roughly 200 Mohawks (of more than 2,000 iron workers on site) are working at a frantic pace, helping One World Trade Center to rise a floor a week.

Cacciola, a photographer with a background in chemistry and historic preservation, is one of few photographers who work exclusively with tintypes, images recorded by a large-format camera on sheets of tin coated with photosensitive chemicals. Having previously photographed members of the armed-forces for her War and Peace series, Cacciola looked to document those continuing to help the city move past the shadow of tragedy.

“It seemed like a real New York thing,” she told TIME. “And it made sense as the next chapter in the post-9/11 landscape. Rebuilding is part of that story.”

Just as towers like the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center mark the height of America’s skyscraper architecture, tintype photographs are inherently American. Tintype developed in the 1850s as early American photographers looked for alternatives to the expensive and finicky glass-plate processes popular in Europe. Recycled tin was a readily available resource in the new nation—less than 100 years old—and so the tintype grew in popularity, earning its place in American photographic identity. Even Abraham Lincoln’s campaign pins contained an inlaid tintype portrait of the candidate.

“You don’t find tintypes on other continents,” Cacciola said.

Slightly blurry and sepia-toned, Cacciola’s portraits feel timeless, save for the occasional modern stickers on her subjects’ hardhats. Each portrait focuses tightly on the men’s strong facial features.

The 30 tintypes in the series are each made from bulk sheets of tin, although Cacciola has also used recycled biscuit jars in prior tintype projects. Coated first with a black lacquer and then a layer of collodion emulsion to make them light sensitive, the plates are dipped in a silver bath immediately before exposure to form silver iodide—a step that bonds actual particles of silver to the emulsion. Nothing could be more fitting for men working with steel to be photographed on metal.

In the tradition of 19th-century photography, Cacciola’s process is slower than today’s digital systems. But the finished plates are more than simple portraits; rather, they hold their own weight as tangible objects. Just as histories often reflect the blemishes of times past, Cacciola’s tintypes are fragile, containing marks and slight imperfect artifacts that reflect the medium’s limitations. Working by hand rather than machine, each portrait records the artist’s intentions as much as her subject’s.

“These tintypes are so much a part of me,” she says. “Like the fact that you get partial fingerprints or artifacts from the way I’m pouring collodion on the plate—it’s all human. The way silver and light interact in this chemical reaction is a testament to the Mohawk iron workers and this early [photographic] process—it’s unparalleled in terms of portraiture.”

Melissa Cacciola is a New York-based tintype photographer.