Alison Wright’s work as a documentary photographer has taken her all over the world. Her photography is represented by the National Geographic Collection and has been published in magazines including National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Islands, and Smithsonian. Named a National Geographic Traveler of the Year, Alison has won the Dorothea Lange Award in Documentary Photography and the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award. She has published ten books, the latest of which is Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit, and established Faces of Hope, a nonprofit supporting women and children’s rights globally. Her website is www.alisonwright.com.
This year Alison will be joining us in Santa Fe to teach his class Photographing the Human Condition: Creating Images That Make a Difference July 14 - 19, 2019.
We had the opportunity to talk with Alison about her approach to photography:
SFPW: As a photographer whose work often focuses on humanitarian need and traumatic situations, how do you create images that documents the situation and the people involved without slipping into exploitation?
Alison Wright: I think you need to be clear on your intent. I tend to feel more purposeful than voyeristic because I’m usually being hired to photograph a specific event or project but most of all I feel like it’s my job to bear witness. When you hear that 300,000 people have been killed in an earthquake in Haiti it’s really difficult for us to wrap our mind around that. So how do you get people to care? I think focusing on one persons story can really help create compassion and empathy.
SFPW: Working in chaotic situations, where many people are potentially suffering and hurting, sounds like it can take an emotional and mental toll on the photographer; how do you stay connected and continue to pursue your work without burning out?
Alison Wright: You do have to compartmentalize it to a certain extent in your mind because you have to keep taking the photos, although admittedly I am sometimes doing it with tears in my eyes. More often emotions affect me in the quieter moments, sometimes while I’m editing. I have tools for self-care such as a deep meditation practice and good friends that will listen.
This kind of photography, to witness the suffering of others, can be emotionally challenging. It’s not for everyone.
Through these experiences, I was inspired to start my own non-profit, Faces of Hope, that supports woman and children through education and healthcare. I wanted to do more than just make a photograph, I wanted to help make a difference. I help support local grass-roots organizations and then highlight their work on the facesofhope.org website so that others may be inspired to give their support.
While photographing the aftermath of the tsunami in Sri Lanka, I came across a man burying five family members as he read from the Koran. It was dusk, a milky sky, and I approached slowly while taking a photo. I then paused and took his hand and tell him how sorry I was for his loss. He looked up at me from his book. “Please,” he said, “Don’t forget about us.”
And this is truly the reason why I do what I do.
SFPW: Aside from your humanitarian and ethnographic work, what other types of photography do you pursue? Do these other styles inform your humanitarian work or do you approach them differently?
Alison Wright: Even though I do have an editorial sense of style it’s what I get hired for and it even crosses over into corporate jobs whose companies are seeking that look. I find that every job is basically problem solving so they support each other. I feel lucky that I get to shoot projects that I truly enjoy and embrace.