I’ve put together a reel featuring some of my work from the US, Uganda, Iceland and India. If you’ve got a couple of minutes to spare, I hope you’ll take a look.
If you like the reel, please share and check out a selection of my video stories here.
Dooley is a grass-roots activist who chanllenges the way conservatives think about the environment. Most environmentalists preach to the liberal choir. But when Dooley talks about sustainable-energy, libertarian free-marketeers, Christian conservatives and the Republican voter-base sit up and listen.
Initially inspired by a Bill McKibben story I had read in the New Yorker that detailed efforts to advance solar in Vermont and Arizona, I became increasingly aware that solar-power expansion in the US was being thwarted by a determined and very wealthy cartel of fossil fuel interests. Dooley’s name quickly emerged as an unlikely figure among those pro-solar activists who have responded to this powerful lobby.
Dooley is co-founder of the Tea Party and sits on the board of directors of the national Tea Party Patriots. She argues that promoting solar energy is entirely consistent with conservatism. She says that solar introduces competition into the energy market, allows consumers to exercise their free market choice and challenges the monopoly of energy companies that are subsidised by the government. Dooley also insists that the threat of a terrorist attack makes it imperative that the country move to a more decentralised energy-grid.
Dooley has a successful record of forging unlikely partnerships to promote sustainable energy and this year shared a stage with Al Gore. In 2013, she joined forces with the Sierra Club to successfully defeat an effort by Georgia Power to impose large fees on customers with rooftop solar systems.
Dooley is now a leading figure in an alliance called Floridians for Solar Choice. This broad coalition of conservative free-marketeers like Conservatives for Energy Freedom and liberal-minded environmentalists including The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, have come together to challenge the monopoly of Florida’s big private power utilities.
To sustain their unity while maximising their appeal to Florida’s notoriously divided electorate, Floridians for Solar Choice have made a strategic decision not to mention climate change (even as Florida’s largest city, Miami suffers from the effects of sea-level rise).
Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is one of Dooley’s liberal-partners fighting to promote solar energy in Florida. A still image from my video. Tallahasse, Florida. USA. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015
Floridians for Solar Choice are collecting signatures as part of a ballot initiative to amend the state’s constitution (for an excellent explainer, listen to Susan Glickman on WMNF’s Oct 19th show here.) This amendment will allow solar installation companies to offer financing for Florida residents interested in rooftop solar panels in much the same way a car-dealership might offer monthly payment-plans for those looking to purchase a new vehicle. The amendment will also allow those who have installed rooftop solar to sell the power that they generate directly to their neighbours. Current law permits only utility companies to sell electricity.
The Solar Choice initiative is on a mission to collect 683,000 signatures by February 2016. If the ballot initiative is successful, all Floridians will be able to vote on the measure in November 2016 and decide whether they want to see rooftop solar compete for energy production with the giant private utility monopolies.
The battle for solar in Florida offers a revealing insight into the blatant means by which democracy in America can be subverted. Florida’s big energy utilities along with the Koch Brothers have responded to the Solar Choice ballot by ploughing $1.9m into conservative front-groups. These groups have in-turn pushed an alternative ballot amendment called Floridians for Smart Solar. With such a positive name, it is difficult to imagine that this fossil-fuel backed amendment in fact amounts to nothing more than a ruse to shore up the existing utilities’ exclusive right to sell solar power. The Smart Solar amendment does not seek to promote solar power but to undermine it. This duplicitous strategy is intended to confuse the the electorate and threaten the success of Floridians for Solar Choice.
If efforts to promote solar in Florida stumble, it will be testament yet again to the ability of those with money to influence public policy and undermine efforts to reduce America’s reliance on fossil fuel.
The cover of Oxfam’s latest Annual Report features a photograph I took last year in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. I have photographed and filmed for Oxfam on many occasions in south Asia and Africa. This work then appears in Oxfam campaigns and reports.
For this particular trip I spent two weeks in Bangladesh, documenting the lives of women whose lives are affected by climate change. Bangladesh is situated on a river delta and is already suffering the consequences of rising sea-levels. Frequent flooding makes farming in some areas unsustainable. In turn, rural populations migrate look for a better life in the cities.
Urban infrastructure that was inadequate at the best of times becomes completely overwhelmed by the influx of new arrivals. Sewers overflow, congested roads pollute the air and the increased demand on power lines presents a fire-hazard.
On this particular trip, I visited the northern district of Gaibandha where rural communities live a tenuous life farming alongside rivers that pose a constant flood-risk. I then travelled to the congested town of Mymensingh where these photographs were taken. Here I spent time with a minority Dalit (untouchable) community who must endure both physical hardship and the psychological burden imposed on them by caste-discrimination; though a majority-Muslim country, caste-hierarchy endures in Bangladeshi society.
These sort of assignments can be a logistical challenge. The trip was commissioned by Luke Henrion of the Oxfam communications unit in Oxford, I was here in New York and Oxfam’s Bangladesh media team, led by Abdul Quayyum, were of course in Dhaka.
Taking on photography work almost always involves some compromise between the photographer and the commissioning client. Ahead of a trip I’m usually in the position of managing expectations or at least shaping a schedule so that it better accommodates my demands while making sure that the client gets what they need.
I usually insist that I stay in accommodation close to the location in which I am photographing/filming. As well as avoiding wasted time on (often bumpy) roads, this means that I am much more likely to be able to work during the hours of dusk and dawn when the light is at its softest.
I also insist that I am accompanied by a person who has a relationship of trust with the community I am photographing. What is nice about working for development agencies like Oxfam is that this connection is often easy to establish – either directly through local Oxfam field-staff or via a partner-organisation. Not only does this help open doors for me but it is more respectful to those in front of the camera.
I also like to be able to spend as much time as possible with those I am filming or photographing. Again, this affords the subject proper respect and usually allows people to relax in front of the camera. Sufficient time also opens up the potential for defining – and often serendipitous – moments that can make a photograph special.
Confronting human climate change requires action on many fronts. Photography can play a small role by illustrating the lives of those already affected by climate change and helping to humanise an issue that otherwise might appear remote to those who are in a position to take action.
Unfortunately powerful institutions and governments have demonstrated little interest in the very-real threat climate change presents to the future of our planet. As well being incredibly short-sighted, this ultimately represents a snub to people like those I photographed in Bangladesh.
As diplomats gear up for the COP21 summit in Paris next month, lets hope that the lives of ordinary people in places like Mymensingh take precedence over the short-term interests of corporations and their friends in government.
When Brooklyn-based advertising creatives Doug Cameron and Tommy Noonan discovered that their local convenience store was facing closure, they began a campaign to help save it. My video – above – examining Cameron and Noonan’s satirical campaign in the context of gentrification in New York City was recently published by the Guardian here.
Jesse’s store, run by Palestinian-American Jesse Itayim, has been an institution in Boerum Hill for over 26 years. Itayim has worked in the area for even longer. In 1986, long before Boerum Hill became the salubrious neighbourhood it is today, Itayim caught the headlines by foiling the attempted robbery of one of his neighbours.
The staff at Jesse’s store offer a valuable service to residents. They walk the elderly home with their produce, accept deliveries on behalf of neighbours and remain open during the worst of New York’s weather. But like many other small businesses, Jesse’s has no negotiating power when it comes to agreeing a reasonable rent with the landlady. Legislation to protect commercial tenants is now slowly working its way through the New York City council. But there will be strong resistance from the real-estate and building lobbies should any of its provisions look likely to pass.
By launching a satirical “rent-hike sale” with posters advertising artisanal products in-line with the rent-increase, Cameron and Noonan have used humour to help expose the vulnerability of small business tenants like Itayim. And a complimentary social media campaign (#BillDeBodega) broadens the campaign-reach, building awareness of tenants rights among those who might be unaware just how vulnerable New York’s small businesses are.
Cameron and Noonan have now launched the second phase of their campaign to save Jesse’s store. You can read details here.
I have been managing a climate-change video project for the Guardian and recently travelled with my cameras to New Mexico and Iceland. Here I found scientists exposing the catastrophic effect climate-change will wreak on the natural world.
On the Westman Islands of Iceland, I met Erpur Hansen who leads a team trying to understand the reason puffins why have experienced what he calls, “complete reproductive failure.”
Puffins abstain from breeding in lean years when the supply of fish is low, so avoiding the necessary-burden of raising chicks. For these long-lived birds, skipping a single breeding season has little impact on population levels. But when puffins must skip multiple, consecutive breeding seasons, the very survival of the population is threatened. And, as I discovered, this is exactly what is happening on the Westman Islands today.
Hansen has tracked the puffins’ demise since 2007. It appears that the warming of sub-Arctic seas has caused a collapse in the puffin’s main prey, the sand eel. It has not been established if this current warming-phenomenon is the result of human-induced climate-change or because of a 70-year oscillation in surface sea-temperature called AMO (Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation), or both. Whatever the explanation, global warming caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions will only accelerate the puffin’s demise.
In Los Alamos, New Mexico, I filmed Nate McDowell who spends most of his time “torturing” trees to identify the threshold of their mortality. By denying trees water and exposing them to increased temperatures, McDowell mimics projected climate conditions in northern New Mexico.
McDowell has discovered that trees, when exposed to dryer, hotter weather, close tiny surface pores on their leaves called stomata. This strategy reduces dehydration but significantly, it also prevents the tree from absorbing CO2, required for photosynthesis. This natural response is sustainable for short periods but, during long hot droughts, the strategy is doomed. Unable to photosynthesise, trees effectively starve to death.
Both Hansen and McDowell concluded their interviews with depressing prognoses for the planet. Both are frustrated by the failure of governments to challenge powerful business interests and to properly confront the very grave threat global warming presents to the ecosystems in which they work.
Sabrina Jonson commutes to work. My short video on the Fight for $15 campaign among low-paid workers.
In the United States, wages for some workers are so low that they must work 70 hours a week just to pay the bills. That is the reality of life for Edith Figueroa, a grandmother from Boston whom I met while making a video for The Guardian on the Fight for $15, a campaign among fast food workers for union rights and a living wage.
The Fight for $15 is part of a wider labour-movement that is developing across the United States where the number of unionised workers has tumbled since the 1970s. In New York City, workers are building confidence under the banner of groups like the Laundry Workers Center (LWC). The LWC challenge businesses that use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to criminalise legitimate protest. And in Seattle, legislators are responding to worker-demands by increasing the minimum wage to $15.
The struggle by America’s fast food workers is an important chapter in the movement to challenge US income inequality which stands at an all time high. Incensed by the injustice of corporate chief executives earning 300 times the average worker, Sabrina Johnson, who also features in my video, is motivated by the bond she shares with fellow low-paid workers, many of whom, like her, are black women. So, while despair might be a feature of their daily routine, Johnson and Figueroa, both expressed optimism that their fight for a decent wage can be won.
I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in Havana, Cuba last year. I was there to make a short film – about which I will write more soon – but was able to take a little time out to photograph too.
My visit took place just a few months before President Obama announced that his administration would begin talks to end the US’ economic blockade of Cuba. The 50 year-old blockade is still in place and continues despite condemnation by all but two countries (the US and Israel) at the UN.
The coming years will be a test for Cuba as money begins to favour particular parts of the economy over others. Many taxi drivers in Havana already earn more than doctors and such disparities are only likely to increase pressure on Cuba’s socialist economy.
It would be nice to think that a thawing in Washington’s attitude towards Havana might signal a period of bonhomie. Cubans, for example, could learn a lot from US technological expertise and in return provide Americans advice on building an exemplary healthcare system. Such hopes will likely seem naive given recent history but ordinary Cubans will take some comfort from a recent poll that shows almost two-thirds of American voters support a lifting of the blockade.
It is difficult to believe that it is already ten years since the Boxing Day tsunami destroyed thousands of lives across coastal south and south east Asia. Indonesia bore the brunt of the waves but many lives were also lost in Sri Lanka and south India.
I was living in New Delhi at the time and arrived on the Sri Lankan coast 24 hours after the first waves hit the shore. It was difficult for anyone to comprehend the scale of the disaster and it took many months and years for those affected to recover. While the destructive force of the tsunami itself generated significant international interest, it was the slower process of rehabilitation that provided insight into just how individuals and institutions cope with and respond to calamity and grief.
Vijyashree & Vijita Viswanathan with their mathernal grandmother Govindamma at her home in the Pudhupattinam tsunami temporary relief camp, six moths after the tsunami. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2005
Working initially with The Times Magazine in London and later with UNICEF, I followed the lives of children from south India who lost parents in the tsunami. My photographs, taken over a period of four years focussed on the lives of two families of children from Tamil Nadu state who lost at least one of their parents to the tsunami.
Anjalakshi Krishnamurthy, age 9, (in red) visits a temple in Pudupettai with relatives during the Hindu festival of Diwali. Anjalakshi lost her mother to the tsunami. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2007
Each child had to adapt to changed circumstances and cope with emotions no one in their family could have possibly anticipated. The younger children seemed to adjust more quickly than their older siblings. And, while grief rendered some silent, in others it provoked a real sense of anger. Some children became withdrawn while others craved attention and resorted to disruptive behaviour. For all of the children, the experience of losing a parent seemed to strengthen the bond they shared with their brothers and sisters.
Vijyashree Viswanathan, age 10, cares for her brother at home in Thalanguda. Vijyashree lost her mother and first brother to the Tsunami. Since then her father has remarried and now has two children by his second wife. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2007
The loss of a parent meant that some children I photographed inherited responsibilities that provided distraction from their own painful emotions. Sivaranjini Krishnamurthy lost her mother to the tsunami. She and her four younger sisters were then placed in an orphanage by their father. At twelve years old, Sivaranjini took on the role of a mother to her younger sisters. Though she continued to attend school and received the support of orphanage staff, she sacrificed much of her own childhood to take care of her siblings.
For Sivaranjini and the other children whose experiences I photographed, the tsunami of 2004 was a defining event in their lives and the terrible personal upheaval they suffered shaped all of their futures. I will be thinking of them today.
The British Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) are working with The School for International Development at UEA to conduct a survey on the ethics of photographing development issues. I’d been directed to this survey by Duckrabbit who frequently discuss such issues on their blog.
If you are a photographer and/or filmmaker, please consider offering your thoughts too. It should not require too much time to answer the nine questions – though I certainly spent more than the five minutes Duckrabbit suggested it would take!
I’ve listed my lightly-edited response to the main questions in the survey below. My answers are not intended to be all-encompassing but they do summarise my thoughts, particularly on the subject of consent about which I’ve written before.
Vasanti Shinde provided me written consent to photograph her at home with her daughters. Shinde works for an HIV-positive network called the Save Foundation and is open about her HIV-positive status. Maharashtra, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2008
What are the ways you collect consent for ethical usage of images ? e.g. written, audio, video, other. Explain. If I am photographing a sensitive subject like HIV/AIDS I will get written consent (as with the photograph above). If I am photographing any other situation that involves me going into someone’s private space, I will ask for consent but this is almost always aural and I rarely record this consent. If people decline then of course I do not photograph them.
While it is incredibly important to respect the people you photograph I have worked extensively in India and I sometimes wonder what value a consent form has when presented to an illiterate person who has little understanding of the world beyond their village. In India (and perhaps other countries too), there is a reluctance to sign your name to anything. Many families have lost land or relinquished rights because they have signed their name on a piece of paper. In this context, the logical response to someone holding out a consent form is to ask: what do they want to take from me?
This man knew I was photographing him. He was in a public space so I did not consider that I required more formal consent. A market trader and busy traffic during evening rush hour in Dhaka. Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014
If I am in a public area, I do not seek the consent of everyone who is depicted in the photograph because this is just not practical. I look at photographs, past and present, that have real historical or cultural value. I think it unlikely that all but a very few (whether in the Developed or Developing world) were taken with explicit consent. Yet these photographs can be incredibly valuable in expressing empathy and contributing to our understanding of each other and of the past. Some of these photographs record significant historical events. Photography that is authentic and true to a subject must be encouraged when so many photographs that do involve consent (advertising, selfies etc) are concocted images of reality.
How do you capture an ethical representation of your subject to avoid issues like cultural or stereotypical misrepresentations? When photographing, I hope to influence my subjects as little as possible. This is of course never completely achievable but by remaining an observer, reducing my input into a scene and revealing as little of my own feelings as possible, I try to capture activity as authentically as possible. For example – without being rude – I do not respond when children play to the camera. Capturing photographs of children doing what children do when there is no camera is the outcome I seek. I also think respecting the dignity of a subject is fundamental. I ask myself: would I be happy to be photographed in this way?
If you are given a brief which is different to your working process or may conflict with your ethical practices; how would you handle this? I would make my feelings known. I like to think people assign me because of my approach and the experience I can bring to a project and will therefor respect my opinion when planning for an assignment. There are times when I have photographed events which I’m not entirely comfortable with. For example a British celebrity in the home of a bewildered rural Indian family. I certainly would not want to photograph these situations every day (and do so rarely) but I do not consider this sufficient a conflict in my mind to warrant me declining the work.
Do you think people should be paid for being photographed? (e.g. cash, food, transport, given copies of photos). Consider your answer in relation to context and cultural norms. ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and please explain why. I would say no but if someone has taken a day off work to be photographed then I would compensate them for their time. I almost never pay people for being photographed or filmed. I worked in Uganda recently and the only way to film people in a particular village (see video above) was to pay the head of the village. But paying almost always influences the relationship between a photographer and a subject. Subjects are more likely to perform for the camera. They might walk to into a public street and be photographed alongside a dozen others who may also want to be paid and resent it when they are not. It is much better to arrange for copies of photos to be given as compensation.
What advice would you give to an inexperienced photographer about collecting consent? Make sure people understand why you are photographing them. If they raise an objection, walk away. It is wrong to photograph in such a situation (unless in the public interest: for example a public official failing to fulfil their duty as in the photograph above) and you rarely end up with decent photographs anyway.
CNN International just interviewed me about my experience of photographing in India as part of their series Parting Shots. Its a short segment in which I discuss the privilege of working in India over the past fifteen years and my thoughts on issues around the recent national election.