Following the death of his father, Alvaro Kalancha Quispe, nine, helps his family survive by herding. He opens the gate to the stone pen that holds the family’s alpacas and llamas each morning so they can graze across the hillside during the day. He then heads off to school, but must round them up again in the evening. They live in the Akamani mountain range of Bolivia approximately 13,000 feet above sea level. Their home has no insulation, no electricity, and no beds. Their water comes from streams that run off the snow-covered mountains.
If we cannot connect, cannot imagine, cannot see, we can never hope to change.
While a photograph can capture a moment, how might that image change things for the better? It has become a cliché to say that we live in an image-saturated world, hardened to even the most abject depiction of suffering. Perhaps it is less the plethora of images than the neoliberal emphasis on individualism, of every person for themselves, that is dulling the incisiveness of such imagery. But it is also perhaps a want of depth and complexity. An image that stands alone can be no more than itself, an image. But an image that is linked to the network of relationships and experiences that we share with others stands not alone but in relation to the viewer. We relate not so much to images per se as to narratives that draw us into an imaginative resonance with the depicted. For eons, human beings have shared their sense of connectedness through storytelling. It is deep in our psychological hardwiring.
For the Pulitzer-prize-winning photojournalist Renée C Byer, it is the journalistic ability to connect photographs with storytelling that has proved the most effective way not only to affect the viewer but also to effect change. Based in California, where she is a senior photographer at The Sacramento Bee newspaper, her projects have taken her to many of the poorest regions of the world. But she has also turned her camera to deprivation much closer to home, in one of the richest states in the world’s richest country. Here, it is distance travelled not in miles but across the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor. By linking images that distil the essence of a situation with the story that enriches its context, Renée C Byer’s work seeks a catalytic effect: to harness ideas and emotions to motivate action, that we might strive to make the world a more equitable place.
Was your interest always journalistic, to be a witness?
My father was a police chief in a small town in upstate New York. One Saturday when I was a teenager our house was shot at. My father yelled: “Hit the deck!” As the bullets were flying, he threw open the door and ran outside to shoot back. Everyone hit the floor except me. I ran into the next room, found a pair of binoculars, and peered out of the window. I had no fear. I was consumed with the desire to be an eyewitness. And that was the catalyst for me wanting to be a photojournalist: to show people a side of life that they may never have seen before.
In 2007 you we awarded a Pulitzer Prize for your project called ‘A Mother’s Journey’. How did that project begin?
I met Cyndie French when I was covering a charity event for breast cancer survivors where she was volunteering. I made a picture of her with her daughter, and we struck up a conversation. She told me about her ten-year-old son Derek, who was struggling with a rare form of childhood cancer called neuroblastoma. She invited me to their home to meet him.
[Left] © Renée C Byer ‘Embrace’ 2005 from the series ‘A Mother’s Journey’
Cyndie French embraces her son, Derek, after learning he needs surgery to remove a cancerous tumour in his abdomen. “How can anyone maintain a nine-to-five job and do this?” she says.
[Right] © Renée C Byer ‘I’m Done’ 2006 from the series ‘A Mother’s Journey’
Derek is tearful as Cyndie tries to reason with him. She and Dr. William Hall argue that Derek should have a series of radiation treatments to shrink the tumours spreading throughout his body, which will alleviate his pain. “Derek, you might not make it if you don’t do this,” Cyndie tells her son. Derek fires back: “I don’t care! …Take me home. … I’m done, Mom! Are you listening to me? I’m done!”
During my initial visit I was concerned not to create more angst in their lives but, after observing Derek and Cyndie together, I realised there was a special relationship between them that I wanted to document. As I focused on that relationship, the theme of the story began to unfold. Billions of dollars are given to cancer research every year, but very little goes to help families struggling financially and emotionally with childhood cancer. Through the eyes of Cyndie and Derek, we can see that this kind of support could have been the most precious gift at a vital moment.
How do you go about establishing this level of trust and openness with those you photograph?
It came through the extraordinary amount of time I spent with them. I was working full-time as a staff photographer, so I had to weave their story into my daily work schedule. It was very difficult as I would get calls from Cyndie at all hours of the day and night and have to decide when to go and when to ask to skip a daily assignment. Once, I remember calling the office to say I just can’t photograph President Bush today because there is something more important going on with Cyndie and Derek.
[Left] © Renée C Byer ‘Silly String’ 2006 from the series ‘A Mother’s Journey’
Cyndie tries to have something at hand to take the sting out of Derek’s doctor appointments. Here, they make the most of a can of Silly String after he has undergone radiation treatment. Cyndie then meticulously cleans up every bit of the stuff from the ground.
[Right] © Renée C Byer ‘Emotional Toll’ 2010 from the series ‘A Mother’s Journey’
After days of almost no sleep while caring for Derek, Cyndie confronts ‘grandpa’ Patrick Degnan, a long-time family friend, about whether he’ll be able to help with rent and funeral expenses. Derek is caught in the middle.
How did Derek respond to being photographed?
At one point I was sitting on the couch with Derek, and he turned to me and said, “You really get it, don’t you?” I think he trusted me because he saw me as someone who was documenting his perspective and I had a deep level of compassion for his struggle with cancer.
For you, what are the principal ethical considerations in making such intense work?
I made images as they unfolded, never changing or recreating moments. This meant checking in with Cyndie every day, sometimes several times a day, so I could adjust my work schedule accordingly. There were times that were emotionally intense when I stepped out of the room because I didn’t want to disturb them while making any of their important life decisions. I missed a lot of pictures that way, but respecting the dignity of my subjects has always been paramount to me as a photojournalist.
Before I published the images, I showed them all to Cyndie because I didn’t want to cause her any more emotional pain than she was already experiencing. I wanted to make sure she understood the depth of the story that would be published. And, after publication, I made a portfolio of images for her to keep, which I know she treasures.
An important part of your practice is that the photographs are a means not an end. What benefits flowed on from this work?
We had more response to that story than any other published in the history of The Sacramento Bee. It went on to be published in almost every major magazine worldwide, and I exhibited the work and lectured on it for more than a year afterward, sometimes with Cyndie, ensuring educational benefits for both journalists and medical professionals.
Meanwhile, money poured in to support Cyndie with her medical expenses and there was enough for her to start her own non-profit, Derek’s Wish, a charity established to financially assist families fighting cancer.
And how did making the series affect you?
My life has been enriched. I was humbled by Cyndie and Derek, who invited me into their lives to tell their story. Now, fifteen years later, I have a renewed admiration for what I see in those images. I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m thankfully going to be okay, but the gamut of emotions I had documented while shooting that story resonated with me. I kept thinking: I’m an adult trying to navigate this difficult healthcare system and diagnosis, but it must have been amplified ten-fold for Derek, who was just a child when I photographed him and his mother.
What I’m realising now is that this story is just as important today as it was in 2007. ‘A Mother’s Journey’ is about more than just one family’s struggle with cancer. It is relevant to all families struggling emotionally and financially with serious illness or terminal healthcare issues.
[Left] © Renée C Byer ‘Polluted Playground’ 2010 ‘Living on a Dollar a Day’
Outside Phnom Penh Cambodia, Panha Sak, two, runs alongside the polluted waterways of his home. This area also doubles as his playground. More than one billion of the world’s people lack adequate access to clean drinking water, and an estimated 400 million of these are children. Illness from unclean water causes children to miss roughly 443 million school days every year.
[Right] © Renée C Byer ‘Seeds of Doubt’ 2004
Mohamed Ag Ahmedou, two, eats a few grains of rice for dinner in a village near the city of Léré in Mali, Africa. Scientists at University of California, Davis have cloned a blight-resistant gene from Malian wild rice, but the Bela people have yet to benefit. Ahmedou worked a full day helping his mother in the burning coals to earn his right to eat. Those that don’t work don’t eat, said the chief in the village.
‘Living on a Dollar a Day’ was a major international project. How did this begin?
In 2003, I travelled to Mali, West Africa, on a story about genetically modified food. While there I was emotionally stirred seeing a toddler working alongside his mother burning wood to make charcoal in insufferable heat. I followed them back to their village and, when I got there, the village chief announced: “Those that don’t work, don’t eat”. I was mortified. I thought: how can this be, that this child would have been denied food? As I photographed the malnourished toddler with a few grains of rice in his hand [above right], the searing power of his face stayed with me. That’s when I realised that I needed to document more stories about child labour and women’s rights.
Six years later, Tom Nazario, the founder of a non-profit in San Francisco called The Forgotten International, was searching for a photographer to work on a book to raise awareness of extreme poverty issues in the run-up to the review of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals in 2015. The purpose of the project was to put a human face to the staggering statistic that globally one in every six people live on a dollar a day.
From start to finish, the project was to span five years, and ten countries across four continents. I contributed the images and text for all the stories, and Tom wrote the main text for the book.
You have said that you were thankful that The Forgotten International hired a photojournalist and not a photographer to work on this book. What did you mean by this?
I’m passionate about photojournalism and the enduring nature of the still image to inform and bring understanding to issues. In this fast-paced world where the emphasis is on 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 it takes time to do well. Time to connect, time to see, and time to become invisible. I feel when images are combined with sensitive storytelling captions you go beyond photography to a deeper understanding of the subject. That helps build a stronger connection to the issues. I don’t think the project would have been as powerful without my journalistic ability to research and record the personal and emotional stories that accompany the images.
[Left] © Renée C Byer ‘Working to Survive’ 2010 from the series ‘Living on a Dollar a Day’
In an e-waste dump that kills nearly everything that it touches in Ghana, West Africa, Fati, eight, works with other children searching through hazardous waste in hopes of finding whatever she can to exchange for pennies in order to survive. While balancing a bucket on her head with the little metal she has found, tears stream down her face as the result of the pain that comes with the malaria she contracted some years ago. This is work she must do to survive.
[Right] © Renée C Byer ‘Happy in School’ 2015 from the series ‘Living on a Dollar a Day’
Fati in 2015, at the age of thirteen, is now a very engaged student in Accra, Ghana. She is getting good grades and is learning English and French, maths, science and taking worship classes. “I like school, I like to learn, I want to be a doctor,” she said.
The image I first saw from this body of work – one that stays with me today – is of a girl called Fati scavenging metal from an e-waste dump [above left].
Nobody can prepare you for a scene like this. What used to be the pristine waters of the Korle Lagoon in the city of Accra, Ghana, is now an electronics dump that is so toxic that neither fish nor worms can survive, but impoverished children work there. I was stopped in my tracks when I came across eight-year-old Fati with tears streaming down her face from effects of malaria and a splitting headache. On her head she balanced a bucket containing what little metal she had found and which she needed to sell to survive. I was afraid to lift my camera and not be able to adequately capture her plight. I made the image and followed her back to her encampment where I found her mother and asked permission to use her picture in the book. I then went up north to work on another story, but I could not get Fati out of my mind, so I cut that trip short to return and find her at the dump.
Somehow, out of a sea of children, I found her, and I stayed with her all day and made more images. As a result of me publishing her story and that one emotionally gripping image many people were motivated to help Fati. A donor contacted The Forgotten International to support Fati, along with another girl and a little boy, to attend school. I went back and visited with Fati in 2015 and I am continuing to document her and will hopefully return when she graduates high school where she is learning English and French. I receive updates and calls from her, and the interpreter–fixer I worked with, who still watches over her.
It can be hard to represent suffering without it becoming abject spectacle. How do you avoid this while building an emotional connection with the viewer?
When I was a little girl I would imagine myself escaping into a frame of a wonderful impressionist painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Later, when I witnessed the harsh realities of life, I challenged myself to make images that people could immerse themselves in, as if it were their own reality. It’s a hard reality to face, never mind try to fix. But if we cannot connect, cannot imagine, cannot see, we can never hope to change.
Can you give an example of an image that connects the viewer’s imagination to a humanitarian tragedy in a way that helps to change that situation?
The most harrowing scene I photographed was of a mother in India who was starving her child on purpose so that she could solicit funds to feed her other children [above]. Her deprivation was so severe that this was all she could think to do: sacrifice one child for the others. This child was two years old and only weighed nine pounds. I was afraid that when people saw this picture they would turn away because it was so foreign and uncomfortable, rather than seeing their own child in this child’s eyes. As a result of me discovering her and making her photo, Sangreeta was taken away a few days later to live with Buddhist monks that were overseeing programs to help lift the slum out of poverty by feeding and educating the children. She is now doing well and attending grade school.
Everywhere I published or presented the picture I received many inquiries from people who wanted to help her. But Sangreeta is just one example of a terrible statistic. As of 2020, 15,000 children under the age of five die each day from preventable causes. That is the equivalent of twenty-four jumbo jet crashes, with only children on board, every single day. Unfortunately, this is not how our minds – or our media – work. What we focus our attention on are either the spectacular tragedies (natural disasters, terrorist attacks, crime, and now the Ukraine war), not the mortality rate of children who never make the headlines. Pictures matter.
You developed an app to accompany the exhibition. How did this come about, and what does it do?
Reading the comments book after the first showing of the exhibition it was clear there was an outpouring of support, but people didn’t know how they could help. I wanted to turn that empathy into action. I worked with an interdisciplinary design collective called A Fourth Act to develop an audience-engagement app. The app is built around ten goals: to fight e-waste and ensure environmental sustainability; to curb climate change and ensure agricultural sustainability; to promote sustainable cities and communities; to ensure access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation; to achieve healthcare and wellbeing for all; to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment; to achieve universal education; to end extreme hunger and achieve food security; to guarantee human rights for all and raise hope.
Each of the goals is linked to one of ten images in the exhibition. Each image is accompanied by a QR code that the viewer can use to open links on their mobile device. Here they can access educational content to gain better understanding of issues behind a story. They can hear me speak about the context of making each image. They can learn how to take action for change in a variety of ways and how to share the call to action through their social media networks. And, importantly, they can pledge or donate to a range of charities that work directly to alleviate extreme poverty and inequity – effectively turning the empathy felt while viewing the exhibition into action there and then, before the motivation fades. They can also support the exhibition through my non-profit Positive Change Can Happen.
It has proved a very effective tool for engagement, education, and action.
While ‘Living on a Dollar a Day’ tells stories of poverty in other parts of the world, your recent work has focused on poverty and homelessness in California. How did this project begin?
California continues to lead the nation with seventy per cent of its homeless residents living unsheltered in tent encampments, abandoned buildings, cars, on sidewalks or anywhere else outdoors. The other thirty per cent are considered sheltered but without permanent housing, meaning they are staying in emergency accommodation, transitional housing programs, or safe havens. But on any given night shelters in Sacramento County are full, leaving thousands of homeless people exposed to the elements: extreme heat in the summer, in the winter freezing cold.
In 2021, more than 195 homeless men, women and children died in Sacramento County. That number is significantly higher than the previous record, set in 2018, when 140 homeless people perished. The number of homeless people in Sacramento now exceeds that in San Francisco. If not for the daily help of volunteers and homeless advocates many more would die.
Given the USA is the richest country in the world, how does such a situation arise and what can be done about it?
The difference between the USA and many other countries is we used to have safety nets in place, but the economic divide is so wide now that the middle class are struggling and beginning to join the homeless population. People in this situation need to be assessed on an individual basis. Who needs affordable housing and a job? mental health services? drug- and alcohol-addiction services? I have found many are homeless because they can’t give up the emotional support of their pets. Seniors on a fixed income face rental costs they simply cannot afford. Some people have fallen through the cracks ever since they left foster homes or were released from jail with no support. The list goes on and on…
There is no quick fix. It took us a long time to get to this situation and it will take a long time to get out of it. In California, one of the richest US states, we have one of the worst dichotomies between rich and poor. The failure in policy is self-evident. It’s complex and political. But it needs to be met on the most basic human level. Each individual has their own story about how they became homeless, and many say they would prefer a hand up to a handout.
How can photography help?
Photography is a universal language and, combined with trusted journalism, has facilitated some change. That’s why I continue to document the plight of those whose voices are not being heard. It does save lives, but not enough.
Who needs to see these images?
Everyone, from the policy-makers to our next-door neighbours, because without a shared humanity the cycle will never be broken. My biggest concern is poverty fatigue and a hardening lack of humanity. But I also see volunteers and non-profits that continue to work hard to save lives on a daily basis, which does give me hope.
Personally, I wish my images could be shared more on social media platforms because, in the past, people have been encouraged to action by my postings. I’ve received many inquiries on how to help through Facebook and Instagram, but it would be useful if there was an algorithm that circulated the posts to a wider audience.
I think that algorithm exists: the paid targeted promotion from which Facebook and Instagram make their money. Perhaps the question is could these massive commercial social-media companies set aside some of that targeted circulation for free use by organisations and individuals promoting humanitarian issues such as this.
What have you learned in the process of making your work?
Art is a powerful means of expression, but when combined with journalism it has the ability to elevate public understanding, compassion, and (sometimes) motivates our humanity to create change. My hope is to continue giving a voice to those who would otherwise never be heard.
Renée C Byer was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1958. She majored in art and mass communications at Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois, graduating cum laude in 1980. Working in photography, video and the written word, she has been a senior photojournalist at The Sacramento Bee since 2003. She has presented her work in twenty-one solo exhibitions and nineteen group shows in North America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. Her work is held in a number of prestigious public and private collections including the Newseum in Washington DC.
Renée C Byer’s photographs have featured in fourteen books including two monographs: ‘A Mother’s Journey and Selected Photographs’ [Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art 2010], and ‘Living on a Dollar a Day: the Lives and Faces of the World’s Poor’ [Quantuck Lane Press 2014], which went on to take the top prize for a documentary book at the 2014 International Photography Awards. She has won numerous photomedia accolades, being twice nominated for an Emmy award and, in 2007, she received a Pulitzer Prize for her photo essay ‘A Mother’s Journey’. She lives and works out of Sacramento, California.
photo: Paul Kitagaki Jr
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.
On Friday 2 September 2022, the world’s leading festival of photojournalism, Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, will present a screening of images from Renée C Byer’s project on homelessness in California, ‘Homeless Crisis Worsens’.