Photographer Manuel Rivera-Ortiz moves beyond the shock of poverty to capture humanity

The pipelines stretched as far as the eye could see, across a field littered with waste. Here and there were bags of garbage, a discarded hubcap, even a crude lean-to tent. And amid it all, there was a young boy, perched squarely atop one of the pipelines. His eyes made it clear: This was his photo.

Sure, it’s hard not to notice the puddles and the muck and the stretched-out T-shirt that serves as his only article of clothing. But the child’s eyes, staring straight into the camera, communicate humanity, pure and simple. It’s not poverty we’re looking at, but the perseverance of life.

Documentary photographer Manuel Rivera-Ortiz has made it his mission to capture some of the most impoverished places on the planet, though ultimately, he sees his work as a “celebration of life.” Last month, as he prepared to fly to Arles, France, for the city’s annual photography festival, Rivera-Ortiz spoke with Images & Voices of Hope about the challenge of taking pictures that convey both hardship and hope.

He calls himself a bridge-builder, linking worlds as disparate as Park Avenue and the slums of India. For some viewers, he says, poverty can make people seem “alien” and “different.” That’s exactly the perspective he’s trying to change.

“You need to bridge their understanding. It’s not us versus them,” Rivera-Ortiz explained. “Sometimes you have to show the people on this side of the tracks that those people are not very different from themselves.”

Rivera-Ortiz himself is a prime example. Long before he was zipping across the globe, he knew dirt floors and the feeling of an empty stomach. A child of the barrios in Guayama, Puerto Rico, he saw his family’s prospects decline with the collapsing sugarcane industry.

“I grew up in dire poverty. The children that I photograph today, they might as well be in some kind of weird time warp, where I am taking a picture of me back then,” he said.

He recalls the drunken rages his father would fly into, when his mother complained that there was no food for their ten kids. That was followed by beatings and abuse.

“That comes with poverty, and I have no qualms about saying it. Yes, I have scars. Literal scars on my body,” he said. “I’m here not to tell you it was cute, and not to tell you that somehow human experiences are all the same.”

Rather, what he does hope to communicate is that the people he photographs have “everyday, regular lives” too, just like everyone else. They are not defined solely by their dire surroundings. “I can tell you because I went through it,” he said.

"Enterprise" by Manuel Rivera-Ortiz.
“Enterprise” by Manuel Rivera-Ortiz.

Rivera-Ortiz’s family eventually moved to New York State, where he would later receive his master’s in journalism from Columbia University. Though his circumstances have changed, he still credits his upbringing with giving him a certain “simpatico, a connection” with his subjects.

In the field, he found himself drawn to something he felt was missing in contemporary photojournalism: what he calls the “human element.” Documenting war and bloodshed didn’t appeal to him as much as “what happens after the war: the so-called routine, daily lives of people.”

He starts his shoots by training his eye on the details, like how someone picks up a book or falls asleep a certain way.

“I don’t go in there looking for that one picture or that one moment. I go in just to experience the place,” he said. “I’m there for those people. I’m not there just to tell a story or to make a career or find that iconic image.”

The goal, as he sees it, is to come away with a portrait of something unique to each person.

But there are often practical impediments to shooting in as many diverse locations as Rivera-Ortiz has. His travels have taken him from Kenya to Thailand to Bolivia. Whenever he encounters a language barrier, he says he navigates the situation with body language, pointing and gesturing and sometimes even handing his camera over to his subjects.

That’s exactly what he did in India, when the sound of laughter drew him away from the monkey temple he was visiting. “Of course I made a beeline for where I heard the voices of children. I went under some bushes, and I found myself in a little village,” he recalled. “There was the father with a machete in hand, looking sort of like, ‘Who are you?'”

Rivera-Ortiz took his camera — the only camera he says he uses, an old film-based Nikon F5 — and passed it to the father. He showed the man how to look through the viewfinder, then started to play with the children. It didn’t take long, Rivera-Ortiz says, before the family was actually inviting him to take their picture.

“A lot of times, the people in these situations don’t have access to cameras,” he said. He admits he’s often unable to send his subjects copies of his photographs once they’re printed. Many of them don’t have addresses. “It does break your heart. But you hope, somehow, that something comes of the work you’re doing.”

"Contemplation16" by Manuel Rivera-Ortiz.
“Contemplation16” by Manuel Rivera-Ortiz.

He worries, however, that much of the photography published today has left viewers desensitized. Graphic images are like drugs, he says: Once we start consuming them, “we want more; we need more.”

“In order for these people to compete, network after network, newspaper after newspaper, they have to bring up the body count higher and higher. And that’s unfortunate, because buried in all that is the humanity,” he said.

Nicole Dahmen, a visual communications scholar at the University of Oregon, studies alternatives to the violent, disturbing imagery often used in the news media. She argues that the effect of these images is actually relatively short-lived.

“We’re overwhelmed with shocking images. We’re overwhelmed with graphic images. And so in this ubiquity, they’re all too easily forgotten,” she said in a recent telephone interview.

Dahmen points to the photo of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, facedown on a Turkish beach, as an example. “It was like his image was everywhere, and then it was gone. We’re referring to that now as a hyper-icon, something that escalates to prominence very quickly and then just as quickly fades.”

As part of her current research, Dahmen explores Restorative Narratives as a means of diversifying photojournalism today. This genre, originally coined by ivoh, describes sustained reporting that goes beyond the breaking news, to show communities recovering from trauma and despair.

The concept of Restorative Narratives had been largely applied to written journalism, and Dahmen was curious to see if photography could express some of the same characteristics. Ultimately, she believes it can.

“What I really appreciate about this genre,” she said, “is that these visuals are helping us craft more complete stories, better stories, in that it’s a journalist’s responsibility to communities and citizens to give that complete picture, to show what’s possible, to show solutions and to show resiliency.”

Dahmen does acknowledge that most, though not all, of today’s most iconic images are still breaking news photos. As for images that cover the aftermath of breaking news events, “we haven’t seen them have as much impact as that original photo yet,” she said. “But it’s just good journalism to complete the story and follow the story through.”  

Some of the strategies Rivera-Ortiz employs to go beyond the shock of poverty are relatively simple. In some snapshots, he catches people in moments of joy, playing cricket or swinging from a parent’s arms. They’re scenes that could be set anywhere in the world, only they happen to take place in favelas and slums.

Another technique he uses is to hit his shutter just as a subject is looking straight into the camera. The effect is a little confrontational, he says, but it forces viewers to really stop and lock eyes with the person in each photograph.

"Contemplation 2" by Manuel Rivera-Ortiz.
“Contemplation 2” by Manuel Rivera-Ortiz.

What Rivera-Ortiz doesn’t dwell on is pain and suffering. “When you create poverty porn, yeah, you might shock some people into sending 20 dollars to UNICEF or whatever, but that’s all you’re doing,” he said. “I think you can make a stronger message by reaching their heart. And that you can only do by actually showing them something they can understand.”

Currently, Rivera-Ortiz says he’s investing in helping other journalists follow in his footsteps. “You know what’s funny? I want people to copy what I’m doing. I want them to do this,” he said, laughing.

His nonprofit, the Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation for Documentary Photography and Film, will be showcasing up-and-coming visual artists at the festival in Arles from July to September. But to have exhibits, you need a venue, and Rivera-Ortiz says he’s pouring every spare penny he has into preparing a 12th century house for the task.  

Though the foundation was founded in 2010, Rivera-Ortiz says it’s still, in many ways, like a startup. Rivera-Ortiz envisions launching a program in the future, for instance, that puts cameras in the hands of impoverished children across the world, so they too can document their lives. Funding, however, remains an obstacle.

On a personal level, Rivera-Ortiz anticipates releasing a new photography book in the coming year, with about 80 pictures from his travels in the tobacco fields of Cuba’s Viñales Valley. His previous book, 2015’s “India: A Celebration of Life,” included a collection of 165 photographs taken over the span of a decade.

There’s a cloud right now looming over professional photography, Rivera-Ortiz says. Newspapers are shuttering, and photojournalists are getting pink slips. But he also perceives this as a time of great hope. He sees social media as offering a new outlet for glimpses into everyday life. Still, there’s a lot of work to be done.  

“We need to get back to the idea of celebrating life,” he said. “We need to get back to loving ourselves. I think, until we do that, we are in trouble as people. We really are. And I think the media has a big role to play here.”

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