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Photographers and There Passion

I still believe in the power of journalism and photojournalism to spark positive change — in a world where the pursuit of self-interest is prioritized by so many, its role speaking truth to power when all other avenues fail is unparalleled. And beyond the big-picture role of journalism, it can also be a revelation at the personal level. I’ve seen that from both sides of stories. For example, not long ago I was a story’s subject when my mother lost her life to medical malpractice in Florida hospitals; and, of course, I’ve been behind the camera interviewing hundreds of girls during my 15-year Too Young to Wed project. From both vantage points, I’ve learned how personally cathartic and validating it can be to share injustices suffered with a global community.

Why is photography important? Photography speaks. When I discovered and later understood photographic visual language, I saw that this language could inform, educate and move audiences worldwide without the need for a shared spoken language. A successful photo story, when well-authored and edited, is universally understood. I once presented a photo story in China in silence to a professional photography group where the audience smiled, laughed, and fell quiet in all the right places — without a word in Mandarin or English. After the last frame, we all just beamed at each other. It was so thrilling.

I believe in light. Photography is light. That light is often shined into the darkest of places by the world’s bravest and most talented photojournalists. I have been most honored to support and publish work by many of them. I intend to continue nurturing, encouraging, supporting, cajoling, helping, counseling, appreciating, celebrating, and paying for professional photojournalism for as long as I am able. I believe in its power.

Photographers will tell you it’s almost like a disease, an obsession, a condition that drives them to tell the story at any cost, suffer hardships, isolate themselves and take extraordinary risks, all in an effort to capture and convey the story they are passionate about.

I have been there, as a young photographer, and I understand that passion and drive — and now, as my career has taken me through so many levels and roles in our industry, I feel compelled to support and nurture those storytellers, to help them continue to produce important work and tell those stories, often uncomfortable ones, so that we can, sitting in the comfort of our homes, be made aware of the darker side of our world.

This art, this madness, this compulsion to convey a story we know as photojournalism will not die, storytelling will not die, it will change and evolve but it is human nature to want to learn, to be educated and to understand our world through narratives.

I think photojournalism and the skills required to become a photojournalist are an inherent trait, genetic, it’s built into the DNA, it’s a need to be first to tell a story or pass on knowledge visually, like storytellers through the ages, when storytelling was deemed to be a gift and an important way to educate, when memory was a key requirement for learning.

Early cave drawings were the beginning of the visual narrative, all that has changed really is the method to capture those images and now, with a mobile and digital world, the way we disseminate them, instead of access to a few in our inner social circles, now it’s to hundreds of millions of people within the blink of an eye.

I first became interested in photojournalism primarily out of an interest in history. One day, while studying the Industrial Revolution, I found myself very saddened by a photograph of a child in a factory. I remember realizing in that moment that both the child and photographer were likely no longer alive and I became fascinated by how the photograph could make me so upset for the hard life of someone who lived so many decades before me. In a way both of them became almost immortal through the photograph and there was something very compelling about that.

I believe it’s incredibly important for photographers to document everyday life and even sometimes the seemingly mundane, not just for a better understanding of our times, but for individuals in the future to be able to reflect on who they are and how they got there. A photograph is particularly powerful because it is accessible to most of humanity. There is no language barrier in photography. I pick stories and pursue the projects I do with the goal of documenting not only important issues of our time, but ones that will also be relevant or perhaps even more vital for our understanding of humanity in the future.

Twenty years ago, I took a formative road trip across the Southwestern states with my sister and my best friend. She was studying literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and he was a film school graduate who was just beginning to take his experiments with a still camera more seriously. We planned to cross the San Juan Skyway, then head West to Canyonlands and Monument Valley, looping through New Mexico and back across the Colorado border, but we ended up taking the circuitous route.

Every few miles my friend would point excitedly at the horizon or some mark on the map, and suddenly we’d be veering off-road, heading for some rock or mountain or strange sounding name. Soon we’d be crossing “no entry” signs into reservation land, or knocking at the door of some crazy who’d spent years on a diet of marijuana and aloe vera, building a five-story tower made from Budweiser cans, or detouring up the aptly-named Oh My Gawd Road, or into Cañon City, “Corrections Capital of the World.” At first frustrated by these diversions, my sister and I soon gave in to the adventure, and over the next two weeks let ourselves be led by our random guide, in search of Kodak Gold. I would stand next to my friend, and see what he saw. But somehow he captured something ethereal and profound that I hadn’t recognized. We came to see the world differently; not through some new point of view, but by giving in to our heightened sense of curiosity.

Two decades later, this is still the Holy Grail. The photographers I most admire go out into the world with a sense of wonder and freedom and, yes, arrogance, challenging our apathy, making us see it afresh, for better or worse. Today, I am as willing and eager as ever to wade through the endless repeated themes and subjects to find those rare works that provoke, challenge and thrill me through their brave and insightful perspectives, or their sheer visual sublime.

Ahmad (center) tries to resist laughing while the rest of the ISOF medics joke around after a long day of treating the wounded during the battle for Mosul, Iraq, on April 18, 2017. Alex Potter

When I left Yemen in August 2015, the place where I learned to photograph, build a story, and really love a community, I felt very lost. For over a year I tried to seek out a new base, a new story and group of people that had meaning to me, for something I felt connected to, without success. By November I was asking myself that very question — why am I still trying to do this?

I arrived in Iraq in November 2016, looking for stories having nothing to do with Mosul, yet I felt with so many other journalists around, I needed to find meaning elsewhere. I’m a registered nurse, so I sought out a small group of foreign medics working with the Iraqi military medics to treat people wounded during the battle. Living with this tight knit group, I began photographing our surroundings, the Iraqi medics whose job was so morbid, but who were so jovial in our downtime.

By working side by side with them and photographing what we went through together, I was useful, needed, and passionate about something again: I felt the desire to photograph for the first time in over a year. For me, photography is something I’ll always come back to, having assignments or not, to process my reality, to document the world around me, and to remember small details in difficult times that may have otherwise been forgotten.

A favorite childhood memory is of my father driving us to a hobby store, purchasing a few packs of trading cards and me excitedly ripping them open to see what was inside. The bulk of what I’d find were mainstream releases, but what kept me tearing apart those cellophane wrappers week after week was the hope of unearthing something unique, something beautiful, something rare.

That same rush is what propels my belief in picture editing. In a time when our global awareness is under siege by an increasingly insular perspective, the responsibility of empowering photographers whose mission is to not just capture but to investigate, to enlighten, to excite, is one of the great privileges of our time.

Today there are more photographers producing more photographs and populating more platforms than have existed at any other point in our history. With that ubiquity has come an evolution in our audiences, which are more sophisticated and demanding than ever. What a thrilling time then to be tasked with looking through the mainstream releases in the hope of unearthing something unique, something beautiful, something rare.

Why is it important? Look at where we are right now. The world today scares me, frankly – people, cultures refusing to understand each other, and the results are frightening, and it’s to the benefit of the people at the top to keep it that way. So I have to believe in a more diverse and inclusive media (yes, to believe it’s dangerously problematic that the world has been predominantly visualized by people who look like me), and I have to believe in the innovations that allow for people to share their own stories with a wide audience. I care deeply about both investigative journalism and user-generated forms of storytelling, and I’m naive enough to believe that those two genres can coexist.

Everyday Africa recently had a big exhibition opening in Nairobi. It was wild, a full house. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A lot of the contributing photographers came in from across the continent, and we all met for the first time. You should have seen how the African photographers were treated – like celebrities! – by the fans who have been following them on social media for years. They’re seen as role models in the African art, photography and social-media circles because they’re black people imaging black people, and that’s Power. Anything I can do to continue supporting that – that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Is it odd to be a white American man saying all this? I don’t let it bother me. We all have to care about this.

I’ve been doing what I do for 40 years because I’ve always had the same gluttony to discover, among all the proposals I receive, the pure nugget, the young photographer whose photographs are a slap in the face, the young photographer that has that rare talent. Today, to see established photographers, recognized by everyone, whom I exhibited first – I’m beyond proud.

Even if it can be difficult, at times, to work with photographers, I love to reveal them, to help them edit, to build, with them, a story. After all these years, I have the same passion for this witnesses of what we’re living through. They are our eyes. They show us what’s happening. They astonish us. They move us. They make us smile, sometimes. Cry, as well.

I can’t imagine my life without all these encounters, so enriching, so surprising, so astonishing. Life!