By Jim Colton
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Giving a voice to the voiceless is perhaps the greatest gift that a photographer can give. Photographs can speak volumes, shedding light on unreported or under-reported stories. They can also affect change…especially in stories about issues that are often swept under the rug.
It takes commitment, compassion and a greater sense of purpose to take on these stories. Few in our industry have done that as well as Mary F. Calvert.
Calvert is currently a freelance photographer whose work is represented by ZUMA Press. Prior to her freelance career, she was a staff photographer for 11 years at the Washington Times where she was twice named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; in 2007 for her work, “Ethiopia’s Trail of Tears,” a story about women in Africa affected by obstetric fistula and in 2010 for her courageous work, “Congo’s War on Women: Rape as a Tool of War.”
In 2008, Calvert was the recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for her project, “Lost Daughters: Sex Selection in India,” which documented the practice of doctors performing abortions on “un-preferred” female fetuses.
In 2013 Calvert was the recipient of the Canon Female Photojournalist Award for her project, “The War Within: Sexual Violence in America’s Military,” which also won the Cliff Edom “New America Award” from the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Best of Photojournalism Contest for 2015. Calvert is also the 2014 Women’s Initiative grantee from the Alexia Foundation where she will be documenting homeless female veterans.
Her work has appeared in hundreds of newspaper and magazines worldwide and she continues to give back to the industry as faculty at the Eddie Adams Workshop, the Western Kentucky University Mountain Workshops, the NPPA’s Flying Short Course, and the Momenta Workshops. She has been faculty for the Department of Defense Worldwide Military Photographers Workshop for the last seventeen years.
On her website, she describes herself as someone with a “Photographic calling for documenting the under-reported humanitarian struggle of women and children worldwide.” This week, zPhotojournal has a conversation with the compassionate, dedicated and generous Mary F. Calvert.
Jim Colton: Tell us a little about your early years. What was your first exposure to photography? Who or what were some of your early influences? When did you know that photography was going to be your calling?
Mary Calvert: I grew up in San Francisco, Honolulu and Arlington, Virginia. It was a turbulent time in America with the civil rights movement, the war in Viet Nam, the assassinations of Bobby and Jack Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., so I was very interested in social issues. From an early age I was artistic and spent a lot of time drawing, painting and sculpting.
My Dad exposed me to photography when I was about 11 years old and taught me how to develop film in the kitchen sink. After high school, I traveled around with a rock band in the mid-west while trying to figure out what to do with my life. From there I followed a winding path to my career in journalism.
After the rock band adventure, I enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College as a Liberal Arts major. Liberal Arts led to Travel and Tourism, which was detoured into Mental Health studies, which was followed by a rerouting into Fine Art Photography, followed by a side road leading to Studio Photography, which finally merged back into Fine Art Photography. It seemed I was following a road to nowhere.
Then President Ronald Reagan was shot. Hearing the sirens crisscrossing Washington, DC, I grabbed my camera gear and found myself surrounded by the photojournalists gathered in front of George Washington Hospital. Four hours later I had found my life’s work, one for which all those seeming detours and dead ends had helped prepare me.
Photojournalism was the best parts of each one of my majors rolled into one. I never looked back and earned my Associate of Arts degree in Fine Art Photography, before enrolling in the Journalism program at San Francisco State University where I earned a Bachelor's degree in Journalism. My early photographic influences were the Farm Security Administration photographers, including Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans; plus Robert Frank, Susan Meiselas and W. Eugene Smith.
JC: You were a student at the 3rd Eddie Adams Workshop (Barnstorm III) in 1990. What do you recall from that experience?
MC: I was on Team Orange lead by photographer Joe McNally and photo editor Michelle McNally. I was assigned to shoot a beauty school and a team of baton twirlers. I slept about six hours in the four days and can honestly say the workshop kicked my ass. At the time it was not necessarily fun and I felt that I had barely survived the experience. But in the subsequent days, the lessons flooded in to my psyche; lessons that have carried me throughout my career. Everything from learning to withstand difficult critique…pushing myself and never accepting anything less than my best effort… to knowing when NOT to do a keg stand!
JC: You now do a lot of workshops including the Eddie Adams Workshop, the Western Kentucky University Mountain Workshop and the Department of Defense Worldwide Military Photographers Workshop. How important are these to you?
MC: Working with students at these workshops means so much to me. I think it is important to give back to young photographers and give them a hand up during their photographic journey. I remember the more experienced photographers who helped me when I was starting out. Most were very kind and generous with their knowledge. I’m a pretty demanding teacher but I never ask my students to do anything I don’t do myself. I try to get them excited about the story they are covering. I want them to push themselves and put their heart and soul into it.
JC: You spent 11 years as a staff photographer for the Washington Times. What were some of your favorite stories you covered during your time there?
MC: In Washington DC, local news is national news and I covered the White House and Capitol Hill. I arrived in DC the summer of Monica Lewinsky and learned the art of the DC stakeout. My favorite things to cover at first were the front row seat on history type assignments, campaigns, inaugurations and big protests. A few years later I began to do international trips where I worked on projects in Africa, the Middle East, India, etc.
JC: In 2008, your body of work, “Lost Daughters: Sex Selection in India,” was acknowledged with a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. Please tell us a little about that story.
MC: That story was fascinating and heartbreaking. Women are an endangered species in India. "Raising a daughter", said an old Punjabi saying, "is like watering your neighbor's garden." In the last 20 years India has lost about 10 million girls to sex selection. Due to the devaluation of women and expensive dowries required by the groom's family, women are holding out for boy children. Sons are preferred in India because boys will be more prosperous and take care of their aging parents. They carry on the family name and are the ones to inherit family wealth. Girls are seen as a drain on family resources.
Many women rely on illegal ultrasounds to determine sex, leading to the aborting of girl fetuses. The world's largest democracy is experiencing a shift in the ratio of men to women, as more girls are lost. The long-term effects are coming to fruition; I photographed orphanages filled with girls, schools filled with boys and villages with a shortage of brides.
JC: You’ve been a finalist twice for a Pulitzer. Which stories were they?
MC: My first nomination was for a story I called “Ethiopia’s Trail of Tears,” that was about childbirth injury known as obstetric fistula. Fistula is a debilitating condition in which women injured in childbirth uncontrollably leak a trail of urine or feces. While a delivery by caesarian section prevents obstetric fistula, in sub-Saharan Africa such medical procedures and prenatal care rarely exist. As many as three million women, many in Ethiopia, suffer the devastating effects of this injury, while being shunned by the patriarchal society of their clans and villages.
My foreign editor at the Washington Times had sent a reporter and me to cover the Palestinian elections and then tacked on a trip to Ethiopia to do a political story. I didn’t think his story was very visual so I looked for something extra that I could work on. I threw my research net out into the Internet and read about obstetric fistula and its devastating effects on women of all ages.
I traveled to Bahar Dar in Northern Ethiopia to a small hospital that took care of women suffering from the condition. I had never done a story that meant so much to the people that I was covering. There was also a tangible solution that viewers could really identify with: just a $400 donation would fund a surgery that could cure the patient. I had discovered my photographic calling; telling under-reported or neglected, gender-based human rights stories.
My other nomination was for “Congo’s War on Women: Rape as a Tool of War.” The story had called to me for months. I came across the issue while researching a project. Each time I read about the epidemic of gang rape, it was as if I could hear those women screaming from the bottom of a very deep well. I knew I had to tell their stories. My editors thought the story was compelling but had no money to send me to Congo so I applied for the White House News Photographers Association Photography Grant. I was awarded the grant and felt like the dog that caught the car! Now I had to go to Congo. It was an amazing, terrifying trip. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the women I met there.
JC: Your work, “The War Within: Sexual Violence in America’s Military,” was recognized with the Canon Female Photojournalist Award in 2013 as well as awards from many top photojournalism contests. Tell us a little about that story. How it came about, how long it took to complete and how did you gain the access and the confidence of your subjects?
MC: I was between projects and my husband and photojournalist Joseph M. Eddins, Jr. alerted me to the epidemic of rape in America’s military. So I sat down and did a lot of research and was shocked at the high numbers of sexual assaults. I first met subjects at a couple of military sexual assault hearings on Capitol Hill in DC. I kept in contact with them and visited them at their homes.
After getting to know them a little bit and gaining their trust, they recommended me to more survivors. I worked on the first part for a year and a half and covered the story the same way a young medical resident works 24 hour shifts at a hospital. Their objective is to study the progression of an illness or injury; mine was to document the progression of their trauma.
JC: What advice can you give to photographers who are attempting to do documentary-style photojournalism…especially on sensitive subjects?
MC: Research is very, very important when working on projects about sensitive issues. I read everything I can about a subject: what is the problem? Who does it affect? Why is it happening? Who are doing the hurting and the helping? I try to leave my preconceived notions at the door and keep a very open mind. Always approach future subjects with respect and compassion.
JC: You were recently awarded the 2014 Alexia Foundation’s Women’s Initiative Grant for your project, “Missing in Action: Homeless Female Veterans.” How is that coming along?
MC: The project had a slow start and access has been a huge hurdle…but I am making headway.
JC: On your website, it states that you have a “Photographic calling for documenting the under-reported humanitarian struggle of women and children worldwide.” Tell us a little about that. Why are you so drawn to this specifically?
MC: We used to call this type of work “women’s Issues.” I prefer to think of them as our issues. You cannot marginalize half the world’s population without it being a problem for all of us. The only difference between “us” and “them” is that they were born there and we were born here. I became a photojournalist so I could tell the stories of those with no voice and to provide a mirror for society to examine itself. Everyone should know what is going on in his or her world and it is my job to make them care.
JC: As our industry changes from print based to more on-line based, how do you go about looking for possible avenues for assignments or even commitments just to publish your work? What are some of the challenges you face now that you have gone freelance? What would you like to see being done differently in today’s publishing world?
MC: I have come to realize that there are tons of opportunities to present my work. The problem is that so many people/organizations want pictures for free, often offering only “exposure.” I cannot pay my mortgage with “exposure.” It is heartbreaking to witness the devaluation of photojournalism.
I was at a dinner party enjoying a lively conversation about where people get their news. A couple of younger folks at the table boasted that they refuse to pay for their news. Journalists put their lives on the line everyday to bring back the news. I want people to respect and support the work so many journalists do, especially in countries where it is a crime to be a journalist.
JC: What’s on the horizon for Mary Calvert? Are there any projects that you are at liberty to talk about at this time?
MC: I always have a project in the works but right now I’m just concentrating on finishing “Missing in Action: Homeless Female Veterans.”
JC: What advice can you offer to the young photojournalist contemplating a career in our industry today?
MC: You have to love this business of being a photojournalist and you’ll have to work very, very hard. You’ll never get rich but it will be an interesting life. And remember that it takes years to become a fine, qualified journalist. Take the time to learn your craft, hone your skills at home before you run off to Syria. There are so many stories to be told in your own backyard.
JC: Any last thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
MC: The late American photographer Walker Evans, who documented impoverished Americans during the Great Depression, once said: "Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. It's a way to educate your eyes. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”
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Mary Calvert website: http://maryfcalvert.com/
Ethiopia’s Trail of Tears: http://www.zreportage.com/zReportage.html?num=zrep198
Congo’s War on Women: Rape as a Tool of War: http://www.zreportage.com/zReportage.html?num=zrep327
India’s Lost Daughters: http://www.zreportage.com/zReportage.html?num=zrep215
The War Within: http://www.zreportage.com/zReportage.html?num=zrep490
The War Within: The Survivors: http://www.zreportage.com/zReportage.html?num=zrep542
Alexia Foundation Grantee: http://www.alexiafoundation.org/blog/2015/04/23/mary-f-calvert-receives-cliff-edoms-new-america-award/
Twitter & Instagram: @maryfcalvert
DO YOU HAVE A STORY YOU THINK IS A GOOD CANDIDATE FOR ZPHOTOJOURNAL? EMAIL YOUR SUGGESTION TO: JIM.COLTON@ZUMAPRESS.COM