Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I have worked as an international freelance photographer for more than 33 years. As a photographer committed to issues of global health and development, my work has been featured in many international health and development conferences, including the Pacific Health Summit in London in June 2010, a conference promoting women’s reproductive health care and the Audacia Forum, a conference on girls’ education in NY in September 2011. In 2012, my images were used to illustrate the UNFPA 7 Billion Campaign. My photographs were used to publicize and also exhibited at the Women Deliver Conference in Malaysia in 2013. Over the years, I have collaborated with several NGO’s including The Global Fund for Women, EngenderHealth, Packard Foundation, Planned Parenthood, WomensTrust and UNFPA to document and promote the essential work of these groups and their grantees.
In 2011 and 2012, I photographed a library of images for Planned Parenthood in Latin America and East Africa. I have also done extensive photography documenting corporate social responsibility programs. For Pfizer I documented in Ethiopia and Vietnam trachoma prevention programs, as well as, a diabetes prevention program along the entire Mexican American border. In Ghana, I documented malaria prevention programs in concurrence with Pfizer and Family Health International, and River Blindness clinical trials in conjunction with Wyeth and WHO. More recently I have documented social responsibility programs for Novartis, including treatment of leprosy in India and the Novartis Malaria Initiative in Africa and Asia. In the U.S., I documented maternal health care programs for Merck in the slums of Baltimore and Camden.
This past spring, I spent nearly 5 weeks in Africa documenting programs for Management Sciences for Health, American Jewish World Services and Johnson & Johnson, with a great emphasis on maternal healthcare and girl’s education. One of the most difficult situations I had to photograph were young children burn victims in a clinic in Malawi for J&J. I think I may have seen and documented more extreme medical conditions than most doctors who practice here in the U.S.
How did you get started photography?
I was studying neurophysiology of vision in the electrical engineering/computer science department. My research was not going well and a fellow student was returning to his home in India, stopping along the way in Hong Kong. He asked me if I wanted anything from Hong Kong so I gave him $150 and asked him to buy me a camera. Another friend in the department had a functioning darkroom; I bought some Ansel Adams books and quickly got addicted. It felt so good to see some results in the darkroom compared to endless, frustrating hours in the lab without any results or satisfaction. It still took about 10 more years before I turned professional. I lived in Denmark after grad school and I started photographing more.
When I got back to The States, I landed a job at Stanford Medical Center where I was in charge of a computer system creating a relational database to help evaluate treatments. I was doing photography during this time and working on another project, “Where We Stand,” interviewing and photographing older people with disabilities who excelled within their physical limitations. My goal was to be an art photographer and have exhibits and make books. I did in fact have some exhibits in San Francisco and SFMOMA bought some of my work, but I realized I would starve following this path.
When my son was born in 1979, I had to make a big decision whether to continue in computer science or become a commercial photographer. I probably would have pursued more of a National Geographic route, but I realized that I did not want to be away endless months on assignment and miss my son growing up, and so I became a corporate photographer. Whenever possible, I continued to do personal social justice oriented work on my own time, including trying to change the stereotype of aging and people’s attitudes towards disabled people.
Which photographers and other artists’ work do admire?
I am a great admirer of Sebastaio Salgado. He is definitely a hero of mine. His tenacity and commitment is so admirable. I have a quote of his on my webpage: “If you take a picture of a human that does not make him noble, there is no reason to take this picture. That is my way of seeing things.” His work has so much compassion in it and I love his sense of light and composition. I also am a great admirer of Steve McCurry: his use of color and his portrait work is exceptional. People think it may be easy making a good portrait, but it is not; in reality, there are very few portraits that make it past the editing process.
I am basically a self-taught photographer and studied the work of the great masters like Eugene Smith and Cartier Bresson. As far as portrait photographers, Irving Penn greatly influenced me- especially his book- Worlds in A Small Room. His sensitivity to light has become part of my way of seeing. And Diane Arbus portraits were arresting- they caught a moment that revealed something deep and not superficial. I also am a great fan of Gregory Heisler- I think he is a genius. I took a course with him back in Maine around 30 years ago and also one with Jay Maisel. They were both fantastic teachers.
And what about their work inspires you?
Cartier-Bresson made me so aware of “the decisive moment” where all the elements of a photograph come together in a split second- the gesture, the graphic elements, etc. Eugene Smith always inspired me by his total immersement and dedication to a project. Gregory Heisler taught me to think very deeply about a portrait- there are so many elements that need to be considered; will I photograph tightly or show more of the environment; how does the environment help us tell a story and how do I use the light that makes a compelling image. How will my choice of not only focal length, but where I place my camera- is it high, low; should the subject be looking at me or not making eye contact. As I mentioned previously, Irving Penn made me incredibly aware of light and framing and arranging people to make a dynamic image.
I recently saw a retrospective of Steve McCurry’s work and I admire him so much; his portraits are extraordinary; the choice of subject, the intensity of expression, the color and compositions are all perfect. And his more journalistic images have the same quality. Jay Maisel made me very aware of the use of color and composition. I remember an anecdote he told; an amateur photographer will see a tree, take one photo and feel satisfied and walk away; a professional may take over a hundred photos or more to just get the image that is compelling.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you overtime?
Well, no surprise but Steve McCurry’s image of the Afghan girl with the green eyes. And Salgado’s images of the gold workers in the open-pit mine, and there is one of a mass of people in the Mumbai train station; they all have an epic feeling to them.
Please tell us about “Faces of Courage”and how this project came about.
Back in early 2001, I had been a follower of Nick Kristof’s column in the NYTimes; he writes quite frequently on the terrible treatment of women and girls around the world, and also of the work being done to empower them. I had a friend who was on the board of Global Fund for Women and she arranged for me to go to Asia for 3 weeks and document some of their grantees. The trip had a profound effect on me. I came face to face with the brutality that women face on an everyday basis; I remember photographing in a women’s shelter in Ulan Bataar, Mongolia. We had to go through two heavily padlocked doors to enter. All ages of women were there, from quite elderly to mothers with children. I will never forget a vey young girl who was alone. At that time, I was not gathering stories but I have the photos of the young girl and never knew why she was there or what happened to her and it still haunts me.
The older women had been severely beaten and the shelter was only temporary; it was small and the demand to stay there was great. Lawyers who were advocating for the rights of these women by trying to prosecute their husbands brought me there and they told me an unbelievable story. A man in the countryside had starved his wife to death and they had difficulties bringing him to trial; the situation was unimaginable.
I came across these situations and on a much more positive note, documented all the wonderful work being done by the NGO (non-governmental organization) to empower women and young girls- work we rarely hear about in the news. After I returned, I produced a brochure from my work and wrote the following artist statement, which is as relevant today as it was then: “Over the years I have become more motivated to use my photography to communicate in a more socially conscious way—in a way that exposes people to both the degree of human suffering that exists in today’s world and to the courage and fortitude that people manifest to overcome it.”
I believe that it is especially important for people in our society to understand other cultures and the enormous difficulties that people in other countries face daily in order to simply survive. The human condition is wrought with great uncertainty and suffering, and yet the human spirit and the hope for a better life can grow stronger in the face of adversity.
I am constantly inspired by the profound fortitude of people living in difficult conditions and the empathy and commitment of the many who give counsel and aid to those less fortunate. I believe it as my moral obligation to use whatever talents I have as a photographer to transcend our limited world views and to help bridge the gap between cultures of affluence and poverty. I have been working on the “Faces of Courage” project for over a decade. It has evolved slowly. A great deal of the work was done “pro bono” and I had to continue doing commercial work to support my family and myself. To get access to do this photography, I have had to collaborate with NGO and foundations willing to make arrangements for me to document their work.
I think “Faces of Courage” is very timely, as there is a growing movement in the United States and abroad that is hungry for real, substantive content on women’s human rights; people yearn to explore and understand more fully the facts and issues involved. I intend its message to be an effective communication tool, while shedding light on the heroic work of the small, grassroots organizations featured throughout.
As the book’s images and stories show, the struggle of women to gain autonomy over their own lives is a battle of epic proportions. Much has been accomplished but there is much more to do. The selected photo essays heavily emphasize the positive impacts of family planning and girls’ education. I cover a very broad range of topics. I start out by explaining why women are the poorest of the poor and why “being born a female is dangerous to your health”- a quote from Anne Firth Murray, founder of the Global Fund for Women.
The next section is on the ways women are “beaten down”- their lack of access to maternal health care, forced to marry as children, fistula, aids, teenage pregnancy and the largest chapter in this section is on physical violence against women. The next section is on “Standing Back Up”- describing some programs on micro-finance and agricultural empowerment I continue by honoring health care workers, and continue with family planning programs, including sex education for teenagers.
By far, the largest section in the book is on girl’s education and I conclude with a portfolio of young girls that illustrates the goals of UNFPA; “A world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled”. I also highlight a few exceptional teenagers who have benefitted greatly from the work of the NGO’s. I have been asked more than once why, as a man, am I focused on the rights of women? The answer is simple: because they are a human-rights issue, not just a female issue. Millions of women face travails on a daily basis that are an outrage and totally unacceptable. It is my deep hope that this project will inspire more people to join in the effort to bring dignity and hope to the lives of marginalized girls and women everywhere.
How do you hope your photography will make a difference?
Photography is a universal language and it is my hope that my images will move viewers to respond not only with empathy, but also with action.
It is my intention to photograph people with compassion and dignity in the hope of communicating our inter-relatedness. My approach to photography has been well received by my clients, who are the CEO’s and staff of the people working to empower women and girls. There are quotes on my Kickstarter page and I will attach a set of testimonials. Here is a recent quote by the CEO of WomenDeliver, Jill Sheffield. “This is the ideal time for Mark’s idea to become a reality as the Millennium Development Goals are winding down after producing some wonderful gains . . . and as we gather speed into the new development agenda. The gains for girls and women have been amazing but in some places the job ahead is still a big one. The world needs a booster dose of hope and progress. Mark’s photographs can have just that effect.” Jill Sheffield, CEO WomenDeliver People tell me my work is making a difference; I certainly hope so.
I hope it inspires the people who do the daily work in the field to be encouraged, I hope it makes young students aware of the problems so they will become activists, I hope it raises consciousness and funds for the organizations I work for to increase the size of their programs. One of the frustrating things for me is seeing the good work that is being done but the scale is too small compared to the number of people who could use their services.
Please tell us about your process.
Years ago I was working with my son photographing some indigenous people for a book he was helping to write. He asked me how do I get the photos I do after all, I can hardly communicate as I don’t speak their language.
I had to really think about what I was doing and the answer I came up with is that somehow I am communicating with my energy and intention. For some mysterious reason, I have a lot of confidence and calm when I am photographing and I am not trying to do grab shots when I am working with a person. They sense my intent that I am trying to do something special and present them in an honorable manner.
What challenges do you face as a photographer?
Marketing has never been my strong suit and I think with the advent of digital photography, many NGO’s and foundations feel they can just send their staff to take some quick photos when they do their site visits. I have to convince them that if they hire me, I will bring back a library of compelling images and they will be able to use them in so many effective ways, that their benefits will far exceed their costs of hiring me.
With the rapid changes in how people make and view a photograph how do you view this time in the history of photography?
There are so many images on the Internet that good work can easily get lost. The attention span of people when using the Internet is incredibly short. A book has a more lasting impact. One can sit quietly and not be distracted by e-mails and instead leisurely read and view the images. I guess I am also of the generation that unless I see something in print, it is almost not real. As a matter of fact, I have to make a print to really evaluate a photograph it is much different on a monitor. Social media and the internet is a double-edged sword; there are clearly great benefits but there is so much noise and so much “stuff” that it is very difficult for good work to stand out. We are going through a major technological revolution that will affect our behaviors in ways that are not all to clear right now; the diminishing attention span (and I include myself) I believe has serious consequences.
What is on the horizon for you?
When the book project is finished, I hope to teach a course at Stanford Continuing Studies on photographing for NGO’s, Foundations, and Corporate Social Responsibility Programs. Some of the organizations I have worked for make good use of my images and others use them minimally with very little impact. Having earned my livelihood as a photographer in corporate and advertising work, I think I have a good sense of how to use photography effectively to communicate. This is what I hope to teach- stay tuned. I also plan on continuing my work on women’s human rights issues and also focus more on problems here in the U.S.
Thank you Mark for sharing your work and words.
To learn more about Mark Tuschman please visit his site at, Mark Tuschman.