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Interview with Julia Dean, of The Julia Dean Workshops in Venice Beach, California. She is the mind behind the international documentary project Child Labor and the Global Village: Photography for Social Change.

What is social documentary photography to you and how did you get involved in it?

Well, I tried a lot of different kinds of photography to try to figure out what type of photography I like the best. I did sports, I was a sports photographer for 10 years. I did cycling, skiing and all kinds of fun stuff. Then I took my first trip overseas. I was photographing the Tour de France for some cycling magazines and I ended up going to Greece to just photograph on my own. I came back with some pictures that I really liked. They were pictures of people and their environments, which had cultural information I could start sharing with people. And so I decided that I wanted to do that kind of photography. One thing led to another and I became involved with different people. I began to see what was going on around me, which made me want to bring light to certain problems. So it's just kind of become my mission along the years to do something with my photography, whether it be just to educate students, educate the public, get somebody motivated to action for something or just teach people about people in general. I guess you'd call that social documentary photography.

Do you consider yourself more of a photographer or organizer or both?

Both, I guess. I have to do the organizing part because everything I'm doing right now requires that. Luckily, I'm good at that for the most part. I like them both. I like doing big projects and taking on big things. It's a real challenge to me ... to see how much I can get done in a day (laughs). I just like it all. The way I like photography is to just go away for an extended amount of time and just be a photographer, for like a month at a time. That's a nice way to do it.

How did the child labor project come about?

The project originated in 1993 when I went to India for five months, Thailand and Malaysia for a month after that. At the end of my India trip, I started to become real troubled by seeing kids in the workforce, living and working on the streets, living and working in the train stations. When I came back I decided that I wanted to do my share to bring light to the issue. Not that other photographers hadn't covered it and hadn't done a great job, there's some really nice work out there. But I wanted to be a part of it.

And so I decided that with my budget and time frame it would take me 10 years to get to 10 countries, and that wouldn't be very effective. Having been influenced by the group of photographers on the Farm Security Administration project -- Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, all the documentary work from the Depression and the '30s -- I was really inspired by that work many years ago and at the time remember thinking, "Gee, there were such social problems back then, but I don't really know if there are any now." This is how young and naive I was. Keeping all that in mind has just kind of come together with this project. I decided that I wanted to have a team of people like the FSA team, there were 11 of them which is where I got my number from.

So I invited four people onto the team who have worked with me in the past on social issues and stories, then I had a big contest for the rest of them. I flew my judges into L.A. -- including the L.A. Times Director of Photography Larry Armstrong, Bert Fox from National Geographic and Kathy Ryan from The New York Times Magazine -- and we had a big contest all weekend. I had lots of students helping me from Santa Monica College, which is where the contest was held and where I was also teaching part time. They provided me with the room and everything, which was really great. So at the end of the weekend we picked the winners, or the judges did, and it ended up being a remarkable team. We've got two Pulitzer Prize winners, two L.A. Times photographers, a National Geographic photographer, a W. Eugene Smith winner ... an amazing, amazing team of people. One of those people on the team was a student at the time, which was one of the categories due to my interest in education. I had a spot for one student and Brian Finke was the one who got that. So we have 10 professionals and one student on the team.

Are you shooting for the child labor project?

I'm the last one to go. I'm doing it that way because I couldn't relax on my own story if I hadn't gotten everyone else out.

What were the selections based upon?

Everyone sent in up to 20 slides and then we had them all trayed and ready to go. The judges and everyone else in the room would click through them and decide.

What were you looking for?

We were looking for people who could tell a story. They had to have a photojournalistic eye if not experience. The reason why I brought these particular editors in is because they are so good at what they do. They look at a lot of photography, and there was a lot of photography there. It was a fascinating process to watch.

How many people applied?

One hundred forty-five total and we picked six people. So it was terrific. Six months later I flew the whole team into L.A. One of them is from Paris, one from Rome, they were from all over the place. We met at the Malibu Beach Inn. It was really lovely. Then we got our story assignments and talked over the logistics of the assignment. We talked about the issue itself and what our mission was. Since then, I've sent one photographer out and he has come back. That was Brian Finke, the student. He went to India to do a story on children who live and work in the train stations. He's also photographing a woman there who started a school in the train station called the Platform Schools to help these kids out. So the story's got kind of a nice humanitarian angle saying, "Here's the problem, but here's a possible solution." And that's one of the things we're trying to do.

One of the reporters on the project, Sarah Bachman, has really been my right arm in all this. She's a real expert on the issue, and she's writing her own book as well as our book. She and I extensively researched all the stories and all the possibilities. The final idea ultimately being my decision, with she and Bert's help. We wanted to show the complexities of the issue, not that there is one solution to the problem that will work. We wanted to show what all is involved in the issue. So we've got really good stories. Jon Warren is leaving this Monday for Cambodia. His story is about children who work in the garbage dump. He'll be gone five weeks. Clarence Williams, from the L.A. Times, who won the Pulitzer last year, is leaving for Burundi, Africa, the following week.

Do you give the photographers specific contacts for their stories?

Clarence is going to Burundi to photograph child soldiers, so you couldn't go there without things being set up. One of the things Sarah and I have been doing for the past three years is finding the stories, finding the contacts and getting NGOs (Nongovernmental Organizations) involved in helping us out. So for the most part that's what we're doing, hooking up with NGOs.

How long are each of these photographers in the field?

Well, they are required to stay for 30 days, most people will probably stay a little longer. I know that Clarence has given himself extra time and John's given himself an extra week.

How did it work out with those who have staff jobs?

They had to get it okayed before they applied. When Clarence won, his boss, Larry Armstrong, was there because he was one of the judges -- when an L.A. Times person came up, I was the vote instead of him. But anyway when Clarence won, I looked over at Larry and said, "Okay, he's getting a month off, right?" (laughs) Everyone else is a freelancer, we've only got two staffers.

 


Do they get paid for doing this?

They are getting the basically equivalent to $200 a day for 30 days, so they get $6000. The student got half that. And all their expenses are covered. Well, they have to give me a budget and I have to okay it. The money is coming from various places. I'm doing all the fundraising. The budget is $400,000. It's a big one. Kodak has come on board. They're giving us all of our film for the whole project. A&I Color Lab, here in L.A., is doing all of our processing for free. Some of our sponsors so far have been United Methodist, the International Labor Organization in Geneva and World Vision.

MSNBC is doing a whole series of Web site stories on us. When Clarence and Jon come back they're going to do all three of them. We're going to try to get all of them published there. The project is affiliated with a nonprofit group in San Francisco called The Tides Center. They are a real reputable group that is in business to house projects like ours. They have a nonprofit status, so all the donations that come my way are tax deductible. That allows me to apply to big foundations.

Are they shooting chrome?

Chrome and B&W.

Interesting choice. They're both good for different reasons.

Yep, yep. It's a balance, we've got about half and half. Some people are just B&W shooters or color shooters. Some stories call for color, some for B&W.

I'll be really happy when that first exhibit goes up. Right now it seems like it's quite a long ways down the road, but not compared to where it started.

Who's editing the film?

Well I'm one of the one's to do the first edit. Then I send it to Bert. Ultimately the editing is his decision. I just look at it and make my marks ... for fun (laughs). I want him doing that because that's what he's good at.

Well, I'm really impressed that you would take such a huge project on. Were there any times when you were just like, "This is the craziest thing ever?''

Like every other day (laughs) ... I've been working on this for over three years now -- from the moment I wrote my first four-page proposal; it's now 65 pages long. I barely knew anything about the issue in the world of child labor issues, and I just had this thing I had to do. Looking back at the last three years, sometimes near starvation because that's all I was doing, I think, "Would I do this again if I knew all that I know now?" And I'm like, "Yeah, probably." I'm hoping to do one after the other with maybe a little rest in between.

What have you learned about the issue since taking it on?

That it's very complex. That the solution is not necessarily to boycott the product until kids are out of the factories, because then they have to hit the streets and become prostitutes. So really if there's only one easy solution to the whole thing, it's education. These kids need to get an education. And if they have to make money, it has to be regulated in some way by the school system. There's some really horrible forms of child labor, like bonded child labor, where kids are actually bonded or chained to their rug looms or to make soccer balls in terrible, terrible conditions. There's also child labor going on in the United States, which is one of the places we're covering.

Really, that's interesting...

Joel Sartore is covering that story.

I love his work.

Joel was one of my first students in 1982. He was in the second class I ever taught. He was 19. He seemed several decades younger than I when I taught the class, but he was only eight years younger than I.

And so what's been the hardest part about the project so far? Logistics or fund raising?

Well, the logistics are fun. It's fun to hook up the photographers with the contact, get their plane ticket. That's the exciting part. Looking at the work is really great. The hardest part is just raising money. It's not an easy task. I just got turned down the other day by a foundation I was really hoping for, the Coca Cola foundation, and I had a direct link there. So I thought we had a pretty good chance there. I could wallpaper my studio with the rejection letters. I've gotten a lot too, so it's all about percentages of give out and what you get back.

One of the reasons I wanted to do this project is because there just aren't any markets for this type of work. So I figured, "Well, okay, if I can't get anyone to pay us to send 11 photographers out than I'll just pay for it somehow and do it." I think the second one will be easier than the first, based on what I've learned. One day I'm a lawyer because I'm writing up a contract, and the next I'm an editor looking at someone's film. The next day I'm a fundraiser and a travel agent.

Are you looking to be done in a year?

I'm hoping to have everyone out and back in a year. Maybe it'll take another six months to get the exhibit together and started.

What are your end goals of the project?

Our ultimate result will be an international exhibit starting in the U.S., a photographic book with some text, lots of magazine and newspaper articles to get the word out about the issue. Finally, we want some of the people from the nonprofit groups helping us to be present at our exhibits for those who might want to get involved. We don't want people to attend the exhibit and say, "Well this is horrible, now what?" So people will be able to get involved through these NGOs. They have specific things they do to help this issue. People might want to give by volunteering or give monetarily or just help spread the word. I guess that's the main thing, educating people and giving them ways in which to help.

Final thoughts?

Well, I feel like each step of the way has taken me a lot longer than I had anticipated. I thought that I'd have this whole thing done a year ago. But it's hard to do everything all at once and make a living too. But it's worth it because unfortunately the issue of child labor is not going away.



Drop Julia a line at julia@juliadean.com
and check out http://www.juliadean.com.