By Jim Colton
One dollar; perhaps what many people would find in small change beneath their sofa cushions. But for over a billion people on our fragile planet, it constitutes what they have to live on…each day. The phrase “A dollar a day,” was first used by the World Bank in 1990 to establish the threshold of international poverty. In 2008, they increased it to a whopping $1.25 a day!
In their new book, “Living on a Dollar a Day,” author Thomas A. Nazario and photographer Renée C. Byer document this worldwide crisis with cautious words and stunning photography. It is, in this editor’s humble opinion, one of the most important books published this century.
It is finely structured into ten chapters, and at the end of each chapter, there is valuable information called “A Way to Help,” where the reader is presented with a list of opportunities to help; complete with organization names, addresses, phone numbers and websites.
There is also a foreword written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama where he states, “Living on a Dollar a Day shows images of women, children and families in our global community who suffer every day from the effects of extreme poverty. Their stories tell us that they have the same hopes and dreams for themselves and for their children as anyone else in the world.”
The photography is exquisite. Byer has not only managed to capture the essence of the crisis in her work but also invites you into the souls of her subjects through their eyes. Whether they are looking at you or into the distance, it is their eyes that tell the story...of their reality…but perhaps more important, of their hopes and dreams.
For this project, she traveled to four different continents for the San Francisco based nonprofit The Forgotten International (See link below) in an effort to bring light to the impoverished who struggle every day just to stay alive. This dedication and commitment to global issues is a trademark Byer quality, as well her generosity in giving back to the community…and…to her chosen profession.
She teaches at workshops worldwide and her lectures have included a TEDx Tokyo talk, “The Story Telling Power of Photography,” and an Iris Night lecture at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. (See links below) She has also served as a judge for the Alexia Foundation, Days Japan International and the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism contest.
Byer has been the recipient of many prestigious photography awards from the “World Understanding Award” from Pictures of the Year International to a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 2007 for “A Mother’s Journey,” which is now a permanent interactive exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, DC.
Byer has been a senior photojournalist at the Sacramento Bee since 2003, covering local, national and international news. Her work is syndicated through ZUMA Press resulting in dozens of pages being published worldwide in newspapers, magazines and online including Paris Match, The New York Times Lens Blog, Newsweek Asia and El Pais, to name a few.
In the afterword of the book, Byer says, “…I was humbled by the grace, generosity, fortitude and bravery of the hardworking men, women and children who allowed me into their lives, lives they did not choose and often cannot control. Through them my life was enriched. I hope you’ll look deeply into these photographs and let them change your life too.”
This week, the inaugural zPhotoJournal digs deeper into the mind and heart of the very passionate and very committed Renée C. Byer.
Jim Colton: How did you first get interested in photography? What was your first exposure to the medium and who or what were some of your earliest influences?
Renée C. Byer: My parents were my first influences in photography. My father loved photography as a hobby and had a darkroom in our apartment in the Bronx and I remember how magical it was watching the image appear in the developing tray! My mother gave me a Brownie Starmite II Kodak camera for my 8th birthday and I remember bringing it to the top of the Statue of Liberty and hanging over the edge to photograph the people below. I loved that perspective much more than making a picture of the Statue of Liberty itself although I also took that photo.
I’ve always had an innate curiosity that drove me beyond the obvious as I looked for different perspectives to photograph. And I’ve always been very social, so photographing people came naturally for me. I studied photography in high school and made pictures for the yearbook. I went on to study art and humanities at Ulster County Community College. My teacher brought a time exposure self-portrait I made to an art show in NYC and came back and encouraged me to study art photography.
After my Associate in Arts degree in Humanities I transferred to Bradley University in Peoria, IL and majored in art and mass communications. In my senior year I was lucky enough to land an internship at the Peoria Journal Star and they kept me on part-time for several years before hiring me full-time. John H. White and Pete Souza both Chicago Sun-Times photographers were great influences on me at that time.
I was determined to immerse myself in documentary photojournalism and was accepted to the Focus 81 workshop sponsored by the New School/Parsons in NYC. My mentor at the workshop was Pulitzer Prize winning photographer J. Ross Baughman who at the time was one of the founders of Visions photo agency. I credit him today for my ability to embed myself into people’s lives to tell their stories. It was a great experience and out of the five student stories that were awarded that year I won two. One for a strip-o-gram I discovered in the Village Voice and the other for a mime I approached in front of the NYC library. I had my first student show at the International Center of Photography with the mime photo story in 1982. That was a good start!
But my biggest career influence didn’t come from a photographer but from Walter Payton, the famous running back referred to as “Sweetness” for the Chicago Bears. I was photographing him at a training camp in Wisconsin on a sweltering hot and humid day. All the players were headed inside as I watched in awe as he ran one extra lap around the field. It struck me to achieve success you have to run the extra mile. The very next day while I was working, Walter came up behind me and lifted me in the air as all my colleagues photographed me! When he placed me back down I was stunned. I blurted out, “I shot a photo story the day you broke Brown’s record!” He replied, “Send it to me!” I never did and I always regretted it. But his personality to engage with the fans, the media and his determination are something I’ve never forgotten. So I always try to run that extra mile myself.
JC: The Sacramento Bee has a long rich history with their visuals. How did you get hooked up with the paper and what has that journey been like considering all the changes that newspapers are going through these days.
RCB: Sacramento Bee Senior Editor for Visuals Mark Morris recruited my husband Paul Kitagaki, Jr. with me in 2003. We were both working for the Seattle Post Intelligencer and were shooting digital and sending photos back remotely via our computers and mobile phones. The Bee was just starting to make that transition so we were a bit ahead technically. I was working on a long-term story on postpartum depression that I wanted to complete before taking the Bee position. So I had to stall my start date. That story was a finalist for a DART award that year.
The Bee is my 8th newspaper that I’ve worked at and the one I’ve worked at the longest! I’ve never worked at a newspaper during their heyday and I’ve always had to be proactive and generate assignments as either an editor or a photographer. The Bee has a diverse staff of talented photographers and Mark encourages us to take risks and maintain our individual style. He has gone through a tremendous amount of change building up the department and then having to downsize it considerably. It’s been tough but throughout he has been resourceful and supportive of all of us.
It’s a challenge because technology has changed dramatically since I first got into photography…but juggling, learning and adaptability are important skills that come naturally to me. My primary focus is content with an emotional connection with my subjects and then utilizing different ways of approaching stories in a more narrative or cinematic style.
I focus on multimedia for more in-depth coverage and was one of the first on staff to adapt the skills in the multimedia piece I produced for “A Mother’s Journey,” that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. I believe in the power of the enduring still image because when done well, it gives the viewer the ability to think, to react and to feel. I strive for that documentary image first and then might add video and audio when it can complement a story.
For example, after I completed the still photo story, “A Grandfather’s Sorrow and Love,” that was a Pulitzer Finalist in 2013 (See link below), I co-produced with Sacramento Bee Multimedia Team Leader Sue Morrow, a multimedia piece to allow the very articulate voice of Don Hatfield, the grandfather to be heard. It was my time spent in the field gaining his trust and my understanding of his plight that generated the best audio which helped make it a compelling video. Time is another very important component to visual storytelling. Mark Morris believes in giving us the time to do important work.
JC: You mentioned that your husband Paul Kitagaki Jr., is also a photographer at the Sacramento Bee. How did you two meet and what’s that dynamic like?
RCB: Paul and I first met in Portland, Oregon and became friends. I’m from the east coast and Paul is from the west coast so we had a bit of a dilemma on where to get married. So I placed New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Maui in a hat and had him pick one. He picked Maui and we never looked back! I’m a big believer in fate.
I’ve always admired Paul’s ability to juggle so many diverse assignments. He truly is the ultimate photojournalist on so many levels and I feel very fortunate to have his support in my projects and his understanding of what it takes to do the in-depth stories that I produce. Mutually, we help and respect each other tremendously. He has a long-term story on Japanese Internment that he has been working on for the past nine years that inspires me every time I see it.
JC: Regarding your 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography story, "A Mother's Journey," (See link below) how did that story come about? How long did it take to complete and now, almost ten years later, what still resonates with you?
RCB: I was finishing up a project on the struggles of women in the US military (the photographs were awarded the McClatchy President’s Award) when I met Cyndie French on a daily assignment at the “Race for the Cure.” She was there volunteering and I had taken a picture of her and we struck up a conversation regarding her 10-year-old son Derek. She invited me to visit him at home where he was struggling with Neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer.
Because I was really busy editing the military story I didn’t get back to her for several weeks but she was always on my mind. During my initial visit I was concerned about creating more angst in their lives but after observing Derek and Cyndie I realized there was a special relationship between them that I wanted to document. As I focused on that relationship the story unfolded; billions of dollars are given to cancer research but very little to help families struggling financially and emotionally with childhood cancer. This story goes beyond a cancer story and is easily adaptable to all struggles families face dealing with terminal or catastrophic illnesses.
I worked on that story for a year, balancing it with daily assignments and my personal life, with the demands of my subject’s schedule that always came first. It’s impossible to do that kind of story without a considerable investment of your own time.
But for me, it was worth it because through that story, my life has been enriched and I was humbled by Cyndie and Derek, who invited me into their lives to tell their story. And I learned so much about the love and devotion that Cyndie and Derek shared as they faced his illness together.
There was one moment that has always stuck with me; after I had spent most of the day with them and I was trying to leave to celebrate Paul’s birthday. Derek was not doing well and was motionless and nonverbal in his bed. I was concerned about him but Cyndie thought he would be okay and encouraged me to leave but suggested I say good-bye to him before departing. I didn’t think he would acknowledge my presence but decided to try. “I’ve got to go it’s my husband’s birthday,” I explained. With that Derek who hadn’t said a word all day said in a very weak voice, “Birthday? Does he like Jamba juice?” I replied, “Yes,” relieved he had replied. He then frantically started searching for his wallet around the covers of his bed. I found it under the bed for him. He rummaged through it and pulled out a Jamba Juice card and said, “Give this to him and tell him happy birthday.” My heart melted and my eyes filled with tears as this little boy on the brink of death was giving Paul a gift.
JC: You have a new book out called "Living on a Dollar a Day." (See link below) How did you get involved with that project? What drew you into the story and of all the situations and people you photographed, are there one or two that particularly moved you?
RCB: The Forgotten International, a San Francisco non-profit that works to alleviate global poverty worldwide was seeking a photojournalist to work on a book that would put a human face on global poverty and I applied. I’d been hoping to work on this issue since my first trip to Mali, Africa in 2003. Back then I was traveling the globe working on a project to put a human face on genetically modified food. That story “Seeds of Doubt”, (See link below) was awarded the Harry Chapin Media Award for World Hunger in 2005. I discovered a small 2-year-old boy who was helping his mother burn wood to make coal in the insufferable heat, barely able to breathe. I followed them back to their encampment where a village chief was proclaiming, “Those that don’t work, don’t eat,” as I captured a photograph of this child with huge brown eyes holding a few grains of rice in his hand. I can still visualize that child’s face and that man’s voice. That was a turning point for me on the issue of child labor and extreme poverty.
Several years later while I was teaching a free photography workshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a boy approached me with an emaciated child in his arms as he begged me for one dollar. “One dollar madam, please, one dollar, just for my baby, please, please, please.” I can still hear his tiny pleas echoing in my mind. My heart went out to the boy as I gave him the one-dollar. Later I found out the relief organizations make clear that such donations on the street often line the pockets of exploiters rather than put food into the mouths of the exploited.
Both those children’s faces haunted me, so when I had this opportunity to apply for this book project I knew it was the right thing to do. I started researching and secured a three-month leave of absence from the Sacramento Bee to work on it. That wasn’t enough time so I used my vacation and comp time over the past few years to complete it. I’m eternally grateful for David Griffin whose expertise and guidance were crucial in the layout and design of this book. I approached him while he was Director of Photography at National Geographic and his collaboration over the past few years has been instrumental in the powerful presentation of these images.
When you realize that one out of every six people on earth live in extreme poverty, the number is staggering. And then when you learn that 19,000 children a day are dying from preventable causes it’s unimaginable. My challenge was to take those statistics and tell stories to engage the reader though the eyes of my subjects to facilitate a deeper understanding of the issues and faces of extreme poverty. It’s not easy to do but my focus is to capture the human spirit and emotion so that people can imagine themselves in these subject’s shoes as if they were there…and this was their reality. And every single story in this book is heartbreaking on some level but there is also hope and resources on how to help.
JC: You've covered so many stories close to home. This one had you traveling the world over. Is there a different mindset when doing this?
RCB: The biggest factor in travel is that you have to rely on interpreters, social workers, drivers and support in the field and it’s harder to get that intimate connection with your subject as you would in the USA. Also, I’m a workaholic and can easily go 12 plus hours with a few granola bars but the crew was not used to working long hours so that was a huge adjustment for me to sort out. I would bring food and water for everyone to avoid meltdowns in the field! I would land in a country and call a meeting with the team and show them previous work I’d completed so they understood the level of photography and storytelling quality that I was hoping to achieve. And what it would take to get it.
Before travel, I would always research as much information as I could from other photographers who had worked in those countries and do whatever research I could about the culture to prepare. And of course no matter how much you prepare before you arrive everything that can go wrong…will, so you have to be extremely adaptable and be able to change your entire plan. I had to do that over and over again with this project. Finding stories comes naturally to me as a journalist and I was thankful they had hired a journalist and not a photographer to work on this book. Many of the stories in this book I found from walking the streets and interviewing people.
I’m extremely focused on allowing stories to unfold and not interrupting people’s everyday patterns in life. It took hours and sometimes days to get the images in this book because almost every image is the reality of life and not posed or a portrait. My mind-set is very similar whether I work in or out of the states: focus on real moments of everyday life so people everywhere can relate… even if we are worlds apart.
JC: When you shoot these in-depth stories, what's on your wish list to accomplish? Do you have a "method" or set a goal in your mind or is every situation different?
RCB: Again, it’s all about allowing stories to unfold and to capture a range of emotion naturally. If you stick with a story long enough, I find you can achieve that range and also that people will go on with their lives and open their hearts to you. Most of the time, I start with a conversation to gain the trust of my subjects. I basically explain that I want to record their daily lives, whatever that takes. I ask for a list of their daily activities and I assure them even if I have to get up at 5am to photograph them, it’s okay.
I try not to pre visualize anything in my mind. I used to do that but I find there are a lot of elements of surprise that you can’t anticipate. For instance when I was photographing a little boy sifting through trash in India I had no idea I would wind up in his small structured house with him as he and his brothers played joyfully on their bed. It was one of those spontaneous moments that I could not have predicted but was essential to humanize him so people could relate to him as if he were their child.
JC: I've always admired that you bring a sense of "hope" to your photography, even when dealing with the harshest of realities. Do you think this is a cognitive trait in your personality and work?
RCB: In the book I suggested a chapter on children at play and hope. I found that in spending time with my subjects, that the human spirit transcends even the worst deprivation. I stopped the crew in India to photograph a little blind girl who was in a wheel chair begging to support her brother and her mother. Most of the people just passed her by as if she didn’t exist. I photographed her daily life and never imagined the last photo would be of her and her brother clapping, grinning and singing me a song. Again, this family that had virtually nothing…was bringing me joy.
Another photograph I made in India was of a little boy looking up hopefully as rice was being passed out in a tent school run by the Tong Len charitable trust. Here they are trying to break the cycle of poverty by providing food, basic education, a mobile health clinic and showers to all the children in the slum. It’s a great example of help for the future of these children as they work within their community with the resources that are there. If you donate to this trust I can assure the children will get help.
JC: What words of encouragement or advice would you offer to a young photojournalist who is interested in pursuing a career in today's market? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the state of our industry?
RCB: My philosophy is not to wait for an assignment but to generate your own ideas. Find a story that is important to you and work on it. If you can generate ideas and are adaptable to change, editors are going to hire you. Our industry is evolving and I don’t think anyone has a crystal ball but I believe that people relate to pictures that are storytelling, heartfelt and evoke emotion.
I think there is a lot of hope for meaningful work. The challenge will be what platform your work will be published? Content is crucial because even if you learn all the technology, the end result won’t hold up without it. I think if you have good content, master all the tools and are determined, you can succeed as a photojournalist. But I also think teamwork is the key to the future of multimedia and you have to be able to have a good working relationship with your coworkers. I’m optimistic for the future!
JC: Years down the road, when someone looks at your body of work, what would you like them to most remember?
RCB: That she was the ultimate storyteller, connecting with her subjects on a personal level with sensitivity and compassion, producing a body of work representing some of the most poignant issues of our time. Through that heartfelt connection, her photographs were a catalyst for change.
JC: Lastly, what's on the horizon for Renée C. Byer? Are there any projects that you are at liberty to talk about? Do you have any parting thoughts that you’d like to share with our readers?
RCB: At the moment I’m searching for funding for exhibitions with this collection of work from this book “Living on a Dollar a Day: The Lives and Faces of the World’s Poor,” to get these images in the best forum to motivate change. I’m also focused on developing a website. I don’t think people realize the enormous amount of work it takes after pictures are made to elevate the public’s understanding and get them in front of the policy makers and people who can help make a difference.
We all have a responsibility to our subjects to follow through because it’s not enough to make the photograph. My hope is to have these images displayed in a traveling exhibition and represented online where they can educate and have an impact worldwide to eradicate human suffering. The Dalai Lama who wrote the forward to this book says it best, “Unfairness in the human condition can only be remedied when people everywhere care.”
The Forgotten International: http://www.theforgottenintl.org/
Tedx Tokyo Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3CDOS4GNdQ
Iris Night; Annenberg: http://www.annenbergspaceforphotography.org/events/iris-nights/poy-2010/56
2013 Pulitzer Finalist work: http://www.pulitzer.org/2013_feature_photography_finalist_2
zReportage: "Picking Up the Pieces" at ZUMA Press: http://www.zreportage.com/zReportage.html?num=zrep422
2007 Pulitzer Winning work: http://www.pulitzer.org/works/2007-Feature-Photography
zReportage: "A Mother's Journey" at ZUMA Press: http://www.zreportage.com/zReportage.html?num=zrep160
Living on a Dollar a Day: Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Living-Dollar-Day-Worlds-Edition/dp/1593720564
zReportage "Seeds of Doubt" at ZUMA Press: http://www.zreportage.com/zReportage.html?num=zrep042
The Sacramento Bee: http://www.sacbee.com/2014/03/30/6271405/why-must-this-misery-continue.html