Pulitzer Center Update

Photojournalist Trio Discuss Borders and Statelessness at Talks @ Pulitzer

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(From left) Louie Palu, Tomas van Houtryve and Greg Constantine answer audience questions at the Talks @ Pulitzer event.

One could have been enough. But with the talented trio of Greg Constantine, Tomas van Houtryve and Louie Palu, their Talks @ Pulitzer discussion on border issues and statelessness was more than just informative. In the true spirit of the Pulitzer Center motto, the three photojournalists “illuminated the dark places” of the statelessness, crimes and corruption in Mexico, Korea and Burma through their stories and photographs.

Greg began the talk by discussing his project “Nowhere People,” which documents the impact of the denial of citizenship and statelessness on ethnic communities around the world. He explains a stateless person as someone who is “denied citizenship and belongs legally to no country in the world, mostly due to discrimination and exclusion.”

“It’s a government making a conscious decision to deny them the fundamental right to belong,” he said.

The project started in 2006 in Burma, where he found one of the most extreme cases of statelessness in the world: The Rohingya community, a group denied citizenship and documentation despite the generations who had inhabited Burma for centuries. Since then he traveled to Asia, Africa, Middle East, Dominican Republic and Kuwait to document similar issues of statelessness, the whole time carrying a film camera — a rarity these days — to take black-and-white portraits.

“A lot of the places I’ve photographed are very vibrant in color, and for me, the colors were actually a bit distracting,” he reasoned. “For a really complex abstract issue like statelessness, I felt that the black and white aesthetically would strip away those distractions and take things more towards the heart of the issue.”

Louie Palu, an award-winning war photographer, also used black and white for his photographs, but for a slightly different reason: if he had used color, his shots would’ve had so much blood that they’d “overpower the photographs.”

“I wanted to negate the murder being the main issue in the photographs,” Louie said. “There are a lot of other issues that had nothing to do with murder.”

Louie’s work documents the enormous impacts of the drug war along the US-Mexico border.

“I really challenge anyone to try and dispute that Mexico isn’t at war,” he said Tuesday. “There are areas of Mexico where the government is not at all in control… [and] Mexican drug cartels are bigger threat to Americans than Al-Qaeda, terrorists, anything else. They have more money than any other organized crime group in the history of the world.”

He showed the audience his photos of the war's collateral damage—of meth and crack cocaine addicts; of the migrants’ blistered feet who attempt to cross the border at drug smuggler routes; of the poor, uneducated men who make $10 a day; and of a murdered man outside of a schoolyard.

“So you have 60,000 people killed [since 2006],” Louie starts saying. “You have families, the children, you have the children seeing all this violence… And what you end up having is a mental health crisis. When you’re not building the proper infrastructure to deal with all these casualties from this war you’re going to have a major problem on your hands.”

A different kind of war is illustrated by Tomas van Houtryve's photos of North Korea and its borders. There, the war is for the hearts and minds of a people behind a nearly-impenetrable border. Accordingly, few foreigners are allowed into to the country.

Tomas went to Korea twice under two assumed identities: the first with a friendship delegation of European extreme leftists and communists, and the second with a business delegation. The entire process required an immense amount of patience. Not only did Tomas have to wait to publish any photos from his first trip so that he could return, but he also had to be incredibly deceptive while on the job.

“There was this incredible frustration with seeing things I wanted to photograph but knowing that if I blew my cover I’d be in trouble very quickly,” he said. He pretended to be a normal tourist by asking them to take his photograph at various landmarks and mixing in bad photos with his very captivating ones. Even so, officials regularly checked his camera and deleted photos. Unbeknownst to them, he backed up all of his photos and did not lose any.

Of the three photojournalists speaking at the event, Tomas was the only one to use color in his photographs.

“When it came to photographing communism, we already have in our minds this visual landscape of communism as very gray,” he explains. “So I wanted to start out fresh and establish a visual narrative that wasn’t based on stereotype.”

Like Greg and Louie, he also showed photographs of the individuals he met, including the story of a young man who snitched on his mother and brother, who were planning an escape from a forced labor camp, to his schoolteacher. He was then mistakenly tortured by the government, but he was released in time to watch his family’s public execution.

“It was strange talking to him,” Tomas said, “because the basic ideas I take for granted about intuitive love between a mother and son, between family, he doesn’t have at all. He said that South Korea felt fake to him. I asked him, ‘What feels true?’ And he responded, ‘the rules of the guards in the camp felt true.’”

The three journalists' work encapsulates a broader picture of border issues and human rights by viewing them through the lens of individuals they met. The stories their photos portrayed — and, in turn, the stories of how each photographer captured their photos — revolutionize our perception of border issues, citizenship and the human right to belong to a country.

Watch the conversation here: