Fred Roberts Goes Global For Kids

I don’t know anyone else quite like Fred Roberts which is what I tried to convey in these “moody” images(another of my ten minute portraits). Just to be safe, however, I did add a few that show you what he actually looks like. Fred has a new mission as of the beginning of 2014, which I mentioned in an earlier post. I wasn’t able to voyage to Bhutan with the rest of the crew, but I wanted to catch up with Fred to see about how things went, and to share a bit more about who he is, how the project came about and to share some of the work produced. The simple truth is that Fred could be doing just about anything right now and what he is choosing to do, and why, is a very interesting bit of information to me.

Below is the “best of” film from the Bhutan trip. Remember, these students were green as fresh picked coffee, and there are images in this show that are as good as anything I see being published today, which is frankly somewhat amazing. And there are two or three that are as good as anything I have hanging on my wall at home. Some of these images remind of the time when I first picked up a camera. At one point I climbed on the roof of our house and shot a sunset with a tree in the foreground. I remember framing it up and thinking “I am a genius.” And how that moment led to the changes in my life, something I hope will happen with these young adults.

SR: What was the first moment you were exposed to art and photography?
FR: I took two courses at Yale that really set the stage for me. The first was A History of Art and Architecture by Vincent Scully (definitely not the sportscaster). The second was The Philosophy of Art by Paul Weiss. These were two wonderful and inspiring courses given by two spectacular professors.

SR: You have an atypical photography history which began after a very successful career in the financial world. Can you catch us up on how and when you found your love of photography and why do you think it impacted you the way it did?
FR: I’ll tell you in person. (It’s a long story people, we decided to save you the the whole enchilada.)
SR: Why photography and not illustration or painting?
FR: I can’t even write legibly. In fact, the most difficult moment I have with any of my photographs is when I have to sign a print.
SR: Who was the first photographer who made you stop in your tracks and really consider a photograph?
FR: Henri Cartier-Bresson – no contest.

SR: You have come a long way in a short amount of time and already have three monographs to your name. Tell us a bit more about your books. And what is it about South Asia that attracted you?
FR: The theme of my work derives from an old Hebrew text – the Pirkei Avos. In it, one asks “Who Is Rich?” and the answer is “the person who is happy with what they have”. It is my belief, despite my having been in the finance business for thirty years, that money doesn’t make you rich. I traveled to South Asia when I was working in my previous life, and I saw clearly the richness of life in many third-world countries, despite a lack of monetary wealth. Also, I marveled at the richness of the culture there.

SR: Last year you emailed me explaining a “new project” regarding kids in the developing nations and photography. What is this new project?
FR: I have always been involved in humanitarian projects and charities, and it came naturally to want to take my photography to a new level. The logical next step was to create a workshop for third-world students to teach them photography as a language to tell the stories important to their world.
SR: You recently returned from Bhutan, the first mission revolving around this new program? First off, and most importantly, what films did you watch on the twenty-nine hour flight over?
FR: None. I always use long flights to read all of the back issues of The New Yorker which I am unable to read at home. Great articles – never enough time, except when I’m trapped on a plane.

SR: Tell us a little about the first mission and the team you assembled.
FR: I always want great photographers. But being a great photographer is not enough. They also have to be great teachers. The combination of the two skills is rare.

SR: Just speaking to the logistics of moving this many people and the equipment required for such a mission, how difficult was it to just get things off the ground? And where did this equipment come from?
FR: Thanks to your wife, we approached a local camera dealer for discounted prices. They came through with both discounts and direct financial support. We were able to purchase Canon Rebel cameras and MacBook Pro computers at advantageous prices. We also bought several copies of Adobe Lightroom, which is important to our workflow in the Workshops.
The logistics are a huge issue. Getting airlines to grant special rates for our substantial excess luggage is a big hurdle. Organizing coordinating flights from all over the world is not simple either.
SR: What happens to the equipment after the workshop is complete?
FR: We use 20 cameras and 4 computers on a constant basis for teaching. They are transported to and from the Workshops as personal baggage on the flights. We leave behind two cameras and two copies of Lightroom for the students to use after we leave.

SR: You were working with Save the Children as the on-the-ground NGO, how was that experience and had you worked with NGO’s prior to this trip?
FR: Our hope with Save The Children is that they will use the body of work produced by our students for community and government relations, for fund-raising, for general increased awareness of their programs, and to stimulate more students to learn photography as a language through which to tell important stories.

SR: What was the age range of the kids you were working with in Bhutan? And did they have prior photography experience? As Americans we see Bhutan as an isolated Shangri-La type place, is it as isolated as we think?
FR: The students ranged in age from 14 to 17. Most had no previous experience. None had ever used a DSLR nor had they ever shot in Manual Mode. As for Shangri-La, Bhutan is a beautiful and culturally rich country. But, in an age of satellite TV and the internet, no country is isolated.
SR: It is a very different thing to fly halfway around the world and NOT do your own photography. Was this difficult for you and the crew?
FR: I realized that 3 of the 5 faculty members had never been there before, so I provided some extra time and facilities for them to photograph on their own. It was my gift to them for their dedicated service to the cause.

SR: After seeing a brief review of the work completed during the workshop I can say there were a select group of images that are as good as anything I see being made by professionals. Who ARE these kids and did they have any training prior to the workshop? If not, how is that possible?
FR: One or two of the kids have camera phones. One had an iPad. None had ever shot on a DSLR, and none had ever shot in Manual Mode. Teaching them to take the kind of pictures they did is a function of the strength of the instructors. It’s not good enough to be a good photographer. Being a good teacher is a real skill. And the curriculum is important as well. So, good teachers and proven methodology really work with kids who are motivated. It releases their innate creativity and vision.

SR: There are a lot of NGO projects floating about, but this one is very different in several ways. First, you are planning trips out as far as two years from now. How the heck does something like this come about and most importantly how do you get something like this funded?
FR: STC came to me. At the outset, they had big ideas and big plans. As things developed, they became more realistic about their capacity. We, on the other hand, are a proven entity and know exactly what we can do. So, we are prepared to do at least three workshops per year with any appropriate NGO. As for funding, the initial funding, sufficient for two years of workshops, came from my personal credibility. In the future, it will be based on our performance.

SR: Logistically, these trips must be quite an ordeal to arrange. Is this the kind of thing that you plan for then have to reinvent the moment you hit the ground?
FR: Both. We have a template for the workshops. But, each country and each story is different. You have to be sufficiently proficient to be able to reinvent on a moment’s notice, while keeping the big picture in focus. We also have to constantly recalibrate based on the progress of the students. And, then, there’s alway weather. So, having a plan, but staying flexible, is our life.

SR: It seems that every direction we turn these days there is another photographer related project attempting to gain exposure, funding or visibility. What is the end game with this project? What is the best case scenario and why should people care?
FR: My goal is to empower young students to be able to tell important stories that will positively impact their “world”. Learning photography in this context is like learning to use a word processor or learning to ride a bicycle. After you learn the basics, it’s the content and direction that matters. In photography, the more arresting the image, the more powerful the message, so the craft improves the power of the content. That’s why the competence of the faculty, and the resulting competence of the students, is so important. Using professional cameras and techniques will hopefully help their voice to resonate. Also, we want to give them sufficient skills to continue on their own after we leave.

SR: One of the most interesting aspects of this program is that it doesn’t end when your team leaves. What happens next so to speak?
FR: As I said previously, teaching the students to use professional cameras on manual mode and teaching them to strive to learn professional techniques will hopefully give them a sufficient knowledge base to continue to improve after we leave. We also want to have them send us their ongoing work for critique and advice. We want them not only to continue and improve, we want them to teach others as well.

SR: If viewers want to get involved is there a way for them to do so?
FR: I am always reachable through our website We are interested in every form of involvement. We welcome more and more participation by those who are genuinely interested.

SR: When I speak to you a year from now, what will you tell me about this project?
FR: Hopefully, that all of the students have continued to improve, that we are going back to previous locations to conduct advanced workshops for previous students and new basic workshops for new students. Also that we have many more opportunities in many more countries to continue to expand our program and the finding to support it. This all presumes that our students have been successfully telling compelling and effective stories, and are positively impacting their worlds.

SR: You are back in Los Angeles now. What is next for Fred Roberts, like right now, today?
FR: Editing the images of the students from Bhutan to clearly tell their stories and display their beautiful work. Also, planning for the next workshop

SR: What are you reading?
FR: A Quiet Flame, by Philip Kerr.

Here is a short video recap of the first workshop in Bhutan. And if you want to see all the videos try here.

My Comment on The Melcher System

I just posted this comment on Paul Melcher’s blog, The Melcher System.

I really like his blog, and I think he tends to come up with topics that don’t get a lot of play. He looks more at industry trends and business tendencies. His latest post is about all the multimedia pieces regarding the death and dying of Africa, and how this is so overplayed. I think he has a valid point, and I’ve certainly had conversations with many photographers about this exact thing. He also touches on NGO work and how it seems to be what everyone wants to do now. Take a look.

First of all, I think there are plenty of good photographers doing valid and important NGO work, and in fact I have friends who do. Their heads are on right and their hearts are also in the right place. They are professional, get paid for their work, and are constantly reassessing what they are doing and if there is a way they can do it better. They are respected by the people they work with, and for, but earned this respect by being real photographers, and by not just doing what is expected. They supply more than just images. And…you have probably never heard of them.

But, I think there are also a lot of photographers who gravitate toward this work for a variety of other reasons, and I’m not sure how many of these reasons are often talked about. First, I think this work is easy. I know that might sound odd, but when you shoot things of this nature your subject matter is right there in front of you. I’m not saying it’s easy to get to, easy to look at or easy to stomach, but the contents are provided. It’s a lot different coming up with projects in your neighborhood in Brooklyn, or Boise or wherever else it is that photographers live, and there are plenty of people in these places that also need help. I’m not sure how skilled the photographer needs to be to get this imagery, perhaps you need to be a more skilled traveler, to get in and out, than a skilled person behind the lens.

I also believe that this work is as much about lifestyle as it is about the work. Hey, I think we have all had romantic notions about being photographers, and typically when we do, these notions don’t come in the form of running a portrait studio in suburbia. Most of the time these notions revolve around travel, major events, etc. I think this is natural, but again, we don’t seem to want to talk about this. Ever seen a portrait photographer in a scarf? How about photojournalist/documentary photographer? I’m guilty. After my first trip, many years ago, I came home with a scarf. A few years ago I was in a gathering of photographers in New York and we were all introducing ourselves. As my turn came I introduced myself and added, “I shoot weddings.” You could feel the air come out of the group. Photographers scattered. A friend of mine in the group asked, “Why did you do that?” I told her I just wanted to see the reaction, and a reaction there was. I do shoot a few weddings a year, and many portraits and documentary work, and I have an interesting observation. When I meet someone new and they ask what I do, if I say, “I shoot weddings,” I NEVER get a follow up question. When I say, “I shoot portraits,” I will occasionally get a follow up question. But when I say, “I’m a documentary photographer,” I get a follow up question, typically many, every single time. I don’ think there is anything surprising about this, but I think this is, again, about lifestyle. For every Elliot Erwitt, there are hundreds of photographers focusing on death and dying.

I also think that this work shows up on industry radar, Brooklyn and Boise are less likely, and can afford the photographer name recognition in the most macho of photo-circles. This is, after all, the genre that presented us with the “concerned photographer” title, which I’ve never really understood. Again, there are great photographers doing this work, but I’ve also run into a fair number who don’t really seem to be concerned about what I think we have been led to believe they are concerned about. We are all concerned about money, getting work, getting published, getting more work, doing the right thing, having those we photograph represented in the most accurate way, etc, but this seems to bounce off this crowd, masked by the “concerned” label. I think being a “concerned” photographer can also be used as a crutch for asking for more things, whereas a portrait photographer or commercial photographer maybe just has to work more to get where they are going. Anyone who does journalism, documentary, or most any other genre of photography is a “concerned” photographer. I think PDN recently did a piece titled, “Photographers Making a Difference.” I think this is a far better way of labeling these photographers and their work. In the end that is what matters. Are the images incredible? Are you making a difference?

I have also found there are huge numbers of these young, and sometimes not so young, NGO photographers who are working for FREE. Is doing volunteer work a good thing? Yes, it can be. Again, I’m not saying there isn’t a time or place. But, I’ve found many of these photographers think that “nonprofit” means the company doesn’t make money. I’ve found photographers that don’t realize many NGO’s have a budget for photography. NGO’s are in business, so if they can get images for free, they do it. It’s not a malicious thing, it’s financial. Working for free, for me, isn’t sustainable, and frankly I’m not sure how anyone else does it.

A while back I was at an NGO gathering in Los Angeles, a fairly large gathering, and was introduced to an NGO coordinator from Latin America. Finding out I was a photographer she said, “Oh, I take advantage of you guys all day long.” I was a little surprised and when I questioned her further she said, “Photographers just don’t know the business, so we get them for free every time.” This might be an extreme example, but I think the message is true. How many times has a photographer heard, “Well, so and so is way better but so and so will do it for free.” In the end, everyone suffers, most importantly those in the photographs. We are bombarded by so much of this work, that continuing to rapidly produce the visual overload we are creating will only contribute to the image fatigue regarding places like Africa. Our technology has allowed us to mass produce incredible numbers of images, and then instantly load them into the information pipeline, flooding the world with work that frankly should have never been released. I think it would benefit everyone to slow down and create work that is top-notch, thought out and presented in ONLY the most critical of ways.

Death and the dying will always be covered, more so today than ever before, but perhaps photographers should also focus on the humanity and the glimmer of hope. I’m sure it will be a harder sell, and perhaps not viewed in the same daring regard, but you just never know. And, the outlets for this work should also widen their coverage…….I know, I’m crazy.

Writing this email made me think back to the recent Africa stories, those I can remember, and most are as you point out, war, famine, but I can also think of an education story or two . What I wonder about is farming, agriculture, transportation, commerce, the elderly, debt, the residue of colonial times, etc, and wonder where all the stories are about these topics? Maybe there out there and just not getting the chance?

Maybe the answer is that you can’t win awards with these stories?

Brendan Bannon/MSF/Africa

So I have this friend Brendan, a photographer, who lives in Nairobi. Brendan has been over there for a while, years in fact, and has been doing much work for the NGO world based out of this East Africa region. Kenya, Somalia, etc, BB has traveled many roads and many miles in pursuit of the image, or images that will transcend the expected, images that will force us to ignore our “fatigue” of such places and events and take notice.

In case you were wondering, this isn’t easy. Not by any stretch.

First, you have to get there, which in today’s world perhaps isn’t THAT difficult, at least when it comes to the major cities. But that is where the veiled simplicity ends.

Then you have to REALLY get there.

Planes, trains, automobiles, and then on foot.

Many of the places he works are remote, requiring access through small bush plane, then small transport. Time is limited, people are suffering, consequences are dire.

These situations separate the people with purpose from the tourist.

Brendan has to get in, under difficult circumstances and make pictures. Pictures, not snapshots, not “content” but pictures that convey that life sharing vein of being human.

We all have have this vein, perhaps lose it from time to time, but at the heart of this work is a very, very simple idea, there are certain people who are suffering, and there are certain people who can help.

Brendan’s photos are that line in the sand that confront us, when we take the time to notice. It’s easy to think of the world as “us” and “them,” meaning anyone outside our specific, daily circle, but we really are one place, one people, regardless of categories of convenience.

But there is something else about his work, and him, that I like. Is it his full and bushy beard? Nope? His fondness for running shoes? No. His passion for lugging around a panoramic camera through the mountains of Sicily? No, not that either.

What I like is that he lets his work speak for itself. BB is a thoughtful guy, and is very much an unassuming individual. He doesn’t brag about his work, hype himself up, but instead just produces pictures, and stories, and in the end, just gets things done.

He doesn’t seem to be concerned about photo-contests or feathers in his cap, although he has a few.

He just makes pictures, makes reports, files stories, podcasts, etc, and lets the work confront those who view it.

In other words, I’m sure he owns a scarf, but he probably doesn’t wear it everyday.

There are a lot of photographers out trying to do NGO work, a good thing, but being the jaded individual I am, I always wonder about real motivations, but with Brendan I never do.

All you have to do is look and listen and you’ll know why.

Western Kenya Displaced People MSF

The Story of Monica Juma

Treatment Programs Western Kenya


Mountain 2 Mountain

Okay, I am reposting this so if you see it twice on my blog, my bad.

Hey campers, wanted to bring something to your attention, for those of you are who interested in this sort of thing, which I think is just about everyone.

There is this guy, this crazy photographer, Tony Di Zinno, who I first met, I think, at Art Center in Pasadena. Tony teaches at AC, but spends a lot of his time in the field on…on…adventures shall we say. He shoots people, sports, car racing as well as many of the adventure activities we see on TV. You know, the type of sport that has you writhing in your favorite arm chair as your palms sweat and you talk out loud to yourself, “Oh man, not going to catch me doing that,” as you crack open another cold beer or reach for those choco peanuts.

But Tony is involved in a lot more than just snapping pictures. Tony is just involved. One conversation with him and you realize you are speaking with someone who probably isn’t watching reality TV. Instead you wonder if he is up at 3am pouring over 3000-year old Tibetan texts, memorizing them and then breaking some secret code. He is wicked smart, and again, involved.

So, he recently sent me a note about a program he is involved in, , which is an organization that promotes education and development in mountain communities both at home and abroad.

Tony and M2M have a new project, one that would ring a particular bell with you photo-folks out there, which is a project revolving around the organization, Tony and another photographer, Reza, who is a regular contributor to National Georgraphic. For those of you who don’t know Reza, stop what you are doing and go look him up. This guy is the real deal as well, and has produced some of the most epic NG features to date, as well as covered some of the most significant figures in modern times including Shah Massoud, the former leader of the Nothern Alliance. I probably spelled all that wrong, but you get the point.
In fact, his photo, of Massoud,” is pasted to the side of my file cabinet which is in the middle of my office!
I was fortunate enough to meet Reza, years ago, at Perpignan, and he spent a long while with me, just talking, and it doesn’t take long to realize you are dealing with someone who is committed to what he does beyond the normal call to duty.

Reza started a photojournalism school in Kabul, AINA, and he and Tony are in the process of producing a show from the student work, “Views of Afghanistan” which will go on exhibit in the spring of 2009. This project is based on “Three Cups of Tea” a NYT’s best seller by Greg Mortenson. M2M raised over 100k for his foundation that aided in the empowerment of girls in Afghanistan, something not possible under Taliban rule.

If you want to get involved in a grass-roots organization which has a proven track record of effective results, this could be the group for you. There are many ways to get involved so take a peak and learn a little more about this organization. What these folks are doing isn’t easy, and it is dangerous to say the least, so take a minute and check out what they are doing.

By the way, the top link is to the blog and this bottom link is to the organization site direct.

Mountain to Mountain

c/o Di Zinno Photography
1246 Huntington Drive
South Pasadena, CA 91030