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Renée BYER, Pulitzer Prize Winning Photojournalist, on ‘the story telling power of photography’

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Okay, in November 2007, I'd taken vacation days to volunteer mentor Asian students. in a free photography workshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia As I wandered the streets a small child approached with a baby in his arms He had piercing brown eyes, and a face that will never leave my mind as he pleaded for one dollar "Please, one dollar madam, please please please, for my baby" The relief organizations make clear, that such donations on the streets often lie in the pockets of of exploiters rather than put food in the mouths of the exploited. But my heart went out to the boy. I gave him the dollar and watched the smile split his face. That little face still haunts me. So does the face of Mohammed, a malnourished toddler I photographed for a few grains of rice in hand in Mali, West Africa, 3 years earlier. And so does the face of 10-year-old Derrick, who I photographed moving skeleton-like, through his home in California, as he battled neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer. The searing power of these faces and the emotions behind them, make me the documentary photojournalist that I am. Without these feeling, I could not record the intimate human emotions, and the stories I'm going to show you For me, photography isn't a profession It goes much, much deeper than that. I have an innate curiosity that drives me beyond the obvious My father was a police chief in a small town in upstate New York One Saturday when I was about 12 or 13, our home was shot at. Eight bullets were imbedded, in our cars, our house, and the trees outside our home. As the bullets were flying my father screamed "Hit the deck!" as he through open the door and ran outside to shoot back. Everyone hit the floor except me. I ran into the next room frantically found a pair of binoculars and started peering out the window. I was consumed with the desire to be an eyewitness. I had no fear. Now, as a professional eyewitness to the world I try to show a side of life that people may not have seen before. My creed is to do so with objectivity, credibility, compassion, and honesty. I'm passionate about photojournalism and the power of the enduring still image to inform and bring understanding to issues. In this fast-paced world, where the emphasis is upon immediacy a still photograph stops time. It gives the viewer a moment to think, to react, to feel. How better to inform the public than with documentary photojournalism on an intimate scale. It's immediate and compelling. But, to be done well, it also takes time. Time to connect, time to see, and time to become invisible. All these are the essence of compelling photojournalism. Through my pictures I would like to show you how documentary photojournalism can give back to society by engaging our compassion, empowering those without power or influence and inspiring us to be better by capturing the images of those who are. At its best, documentary photojournalism offers to the world a glimpse of life's deeper meanings. Many times after displaying the sometimes painfully personal but inspiring Pulitzer story "A Mother's Journey" I was asked how I could make the photographs. My answer was and is "How could I not?" I'd like to give you a brief introduction to my work to show you the diversity of emotions in still images and the story telling power of photojournalism. And this is the part where you all have to wake up because we're going to go through some pictures and I'm just gonna give you the title and I want you to think about how these photographs engage you. OK, The Birds. Shattered by Nasty Weather. Police Funeral Mardi Gras Riots in Seattle Parents Murdered Tibetan Monks Protest Olympic Torch Low Income Housing This is not a portrait, it`s an actual moment. None of these pictures are portraits. They are all real life moments. Disabled Parents Teenage Alcohol Silence and Abuse Migrant Farmers Beauty Think Outside the Box This always tells me you never know what to expect in life. And now this is Arnold celebrating Hanukkah Now I'm going to transition to longer term stories. Days after hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, thousands of evacuees filled the Astrodome in Houston, Texas and temporary motels in Shreveport, Louisiana all struggling to find loved ones and cope with the tragedy. FEMA did not want the media inside, but once I found a way inside, the people embraced me. They wanted their story told. And though they lost everything their spirit remained because they still had each other. I spent several months chronicling the lives of Thomas and his son Alexander. After his wife committed suicide from post-partum depression. Thomas gave up his restaurant business so he could dedicate every moment to his son making him gourmet meals and using a hair dry to dry him like his mother used to. Often he took Alexander to the park and meditated by his wife's favorite tree. Although he was devastated by her death I found inspiration in the relationship he forged with his son. "I felt I lost the love of my life, my soul mate, and my friend, and I look forward to Alexander for inspiration now" he said. "I`m so grateful I have him." I spent a year documenting American women soldiers at war. Going to war. New military recruits are told to show birthmarks, piercings, tattoos, and scars for identification in case of injury or death. Soldiers who just returned from Iraq struggle to assemble a gun after cleaning. A 19 year old army recruit holds bullets "I wouldn't hesitate to use my weapon. Do you wanna come home alive or in a casket?" In her final moments before deploying to Iraq, a soldier says goodbye to her children at home She wears a fake wedding ring to ward off sexual harassment from male soldiers. Her bunk at Fort Lewis, Washington is filled with reminders of her children and is a little messier than the mens' barracks. I love the contrast of her dainty shoes. After returning from Iraq, soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder losing her house, and her truck. A photo of her when she was named outstanding non-commissioned officer of the year is too painful for her to display. On the one year anniversary of her death in Iraq, family members grieve the last female in their family line. The soldier had confided to her mother that she was frightened in Iraq. She definitely said it was the toughest thing she had ever gone through. Capulapan, Mexico is a small town, two hours of switch-backed roads in the verdant mountains north of Juahaca. Here scientists from UC Berkeley, California had discovered the imprint of bio-technology on the hillside farm of Alberto Cortes and his wife Alga in 2000. The challenge was to put a human face on a science story. I found that corn was more than the main staple of food, but a way of life. Farmers were upset that their centuries old native strain had been tainted with genetically modified corn, possibly from their government store where they accepted food aid from the USA to feed the rural poor. 'We don't want it." Alga said. "We don't know the consequences." In 1996, the University of California at Davis began an effort to help the West African nation of Mali using the promising new tool of agriculture bio-technology. With money earned from cloning and patenting a gene made from a hardy species of wild rice native to Mali, UC Davis hoped it would be able to give something back. First, scholarships for Mali students, and later disease resistant rice to help feed the impoverished country. When I made the trip to Mali 8 years later in 2004 Mali's people, the Bella specifically, had not reaped any reward from the cloned rice. Poverty was extreme, malaria and child mortality were high with medical supplies and clinics scarce. Children didn't go to school because they were needed to work making coal, bricks, and herding animals. "Those who don't work, don't eat," said a village chief with an axe in hand. The closest school was an hour away by donkey. It had no supplies, and its lone teacher taught 2 classes simultaneously. Billions of dollars are devoted to cancer research but very little is given to help families with the emotional and financial challenges they face to spend time with their dying children. Single mom Cindy French and Derrick Madson opened a window into that world. Their story was one of a family tragedy but also of a mother's boundless determination and love. Derrick and Cindy taught us that dying is hard enough. Our society should make living through it easier. I spent one year documenting this story. Cindy breaks the rules at the hospital and races her son down the hallways to avoid one of his meltdowns. She is determined to make every moment count. Here she gets news he needs surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. Cindy breaks down after learning one of Derrick`s medical appointments has been rescheduled. She has given up her business at a loss to care for her son. This is a turning point where Derrick is actually trying to comfort her. She says she can't even imagine not having this photograph. After hearing she needs to pull hospice she allows Derrick to drive her car because she knows he will never have that opportunity. And this was a horrific scene. Derick is tearful as he shouts at his mother. I can hear his voice echoing in the halls "I'm done , mom." He refuses radiation to shrink his growing tumor. His mother and doctor sink to the floor. They can't convince him. Cindy feeling the financial strain has a car wash to try and earn money to pay the bills. She brings the jug of money home to try and cheer Derrick up. "Maybe we can buy a PlayStation 2 with the money," she says. "No mom, I think we need to pay the rent." Cindy surprises Derrick with a can of silly string she bought at the Dollar Store after a doctor's appointment. She then meticulously picks it all up off the ground. Cindy throws herself on the floor in his room in despair after placing a flower near his head. At this point his tumors extended his stomach at made it difficult for him to sit. Hospice was scarce and Cindy was spending 24 hours a day trying to care for her son. For me, this was the culmination of the entire series. Here the family is having a fight about how they are going to pay the bills, the rent, the funeral costs. And Derrick is caught in the middle. And no family ever should have to struggle in this kind of situation. Cindy takes Derrick for his last walk outside. For days she never leaves the house for fear she won't be there with him in his last moments. She tearfully rocks her dying son Derrick, 11, at the song "Because We Believe". Cindy sings along with Andre Paccelli in a whispery voice "Once in every life, there comes a time... we walk out all alone, and into the light." At the funeral she was determined to carry Derrick throughout this whole journey and remind people of their time and compassion to give back to other families so they would have to struggle as much as they did. Thank you.

Video Details

Duration: 13 minutes and 18 seconds
Country: Japan
Language: English
License: Dotsub - Standard License
Genre: None
Producer: Virgin Earth & Ansur Pictures
Director: Andrew Malana
Views: 2,759
Posted by: tedxvideo on Dec 3, 2009

A talk given in Session 3 "How Can We Use Finite Resources To Propel Ourselves In The Future?" of TEDxTokyo 2009, held on May 22 at National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.

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