Chapter 24. Dialogues with Great Photographers: Alison Wright
Alison Wright, a New York based social documentary photographer, has spent a career capturing the universal human spirit through her photographs and writing. For many of her editorial and commercial projects, Wright travels to all regions of the globe photographing endangered cultures and people while covering issues concerning the human condition. She has photographed for a multitude of non-governmental and humanitarian organizations with much of her work focused on post-conflict, disaster relief and human rights issues especially in the realm of women and children. In the spirit of giving back to the communities that she photographs, Wright has started her own foundation called the Faces of Hope Fund (www.facesofhope.org) that helps support women and children in crisis globally through education and healthcare. Wright completed her photojournalism degree at Syracuse University and graduated with a master’s degree focused on visual anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, based on her years of living and working among the Himalayan cultures of Asia. She is a recipient of the Dorothea Lange Award in Documentary Photography, a two-time winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award, and has been named a 2013 National Geographic Traveler of the Year. Wright’s photography is represented by National Geographic Creative and has been published in numerous magazines including National Geographic, Outside, Islands, Smithsonian Magazine, American Photo, Natural History, Time, Forbes, and The New York Times. Wright has also photographed/authored nine books including “Learning to Breathe: One Woman’s Journey of Spirit and Survival,” chronicling her physical and spiritual rehabilitation after a devastating bus accident in Laos that nearly took her life.
Alison Wright, Tibet Girl, near Manigango, Kham, Tibet, 2005, Printed 2013, C Print on Fuji Crystal Paper
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT HOLDEN LUNTZ GALLERY, ON November 3, 2015. READ THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE HERE.
Harris: Was there something or somebody early in your life that first drew you to photography and travel?
Wright: My mother was a British flight attendant for Pan Am, so I say I definitely developed my wanderlust in utero traveling with my parents. I had this wonderful teacher in high school, Mr. Lee, who cared enough to take me aside and teach me how to use my first SLR camera. I remember being fifteen years old and it was the first time that I heard the word “photojournalist” and I wanted to do that with my life: travel the world and take pictures. I definitely was unwavering and always stuck to that path. After school, my dad said that I should go backpacking in Europe. I did that to sort of appease him, but I thought that was a really pedestrian thing to do. What I really did is go to North Africa and that for me was defining of what I wanted to do with my photography. It was my first time seeing real poverty and refugees trying to get out. It just touched me so much. I wanted to somehow help and do something that has meaning with my camera. This is where I thought about doing this kind of social documentary work. Those types of photographers are always the ones I really admire like Lewis Hine, Eugene Smith, and Sebastião Salgado.
Alison Wright, Monk Lighting Lotus Flower Lanterns for Loi Krathong, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2007, Printed 2013, C Print on Fuji Crystal Paper
Harris: You have spent a considerable amount of time living and photographing in Asia. When did you finally make it there and what about the region originally captivated you?
Wright: I was sent there while I was working at a newspaper, but I was sent there to photograph for UNICEF. It was supposed to be a three-week assignment, but I fell in love with Asia and ended up staying for years. I’ve always really been drawn to Asia and its spiritualism since I was a young kid. I was based in Kathmandu and the UN created a job for me photographing for the Convention for the Rights of the Child which was covering all aspects of children from child labor and health to ritual. I wanted to do something that would help children’s rights and I loved it. Every morning before I opened my eyes, I thought, “Wow this is exactly where I want to be and it’s exactly what I want to be doing.” It was very meaningful work.
Harris: I saw that you were a recipient of the Dorothea Lange Award in Documentary Photography for covering child labor in Asia. Was that for the work you made at this time?
Wright: I’m a big proponent of personal projects even though I was working for UNICEF and I was very happy photographing children’s rights. I started working for many aid organizations: US Aid, Save the Children, and that’s how I made my living. My personal project was really following the Tibetan cause, the diaspora, the Tibetans in exile. I was very taken with this culture that was so visual, which was so rich and I really fell for these people. I came back eventually to the States and I did my master’s degree in visual anthropology studying cultures through photography and film at the University of California at Berkeley. That’s when I received the Dorothea Lange Award for documentary photography for my work with child labor. I was also student of the year, we opened a wing of the Phoebe Hearst Museum with my photographs, and I also received my first book contract for “The Spirit of Tibet.” Now I’ve done pieces for the New York Times, my image “Tibet Girl” just made the cover of the National Geographic book celebrating 125 years that was published by Taschen, and that’s become a really iconic image. I’ve done nine books and I always have a back-story to the photos. I think it adds another layer because otherwise it’s really open to interpretation.
Alison Wright, Young Pilgrim in Sneakers, Litang, Kham, Tibet, 2006, Printed 2013, C Print on Fuji Crystal Paper
Alison Wright, Girl from Hamer Tribe Holding a Gourd, Omo Valley, Ethiopia, 2006, Printed 2013, C Print on Fuji Crystal Paper
Harris: You’ve photographed the Dalai Lama on a number of occasions and he also wrote a forward to three of your books. How did you originally meet him?
Wright: He requested to meet me in 1986 and I thought I’d only get a blessing from the Dalai Lama, but then it turned out he gave me this daylong interview. We eventually developed this relationship over 25 years. On numerous occasions I’ve been asked to travel with him, and now I’ve done more than forty book covers of him. A publisher once approached me and asked me if I had more images of the Dalai Lama and it turned out I had more than 2500 edited images.
Harris: You’ve also met Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi. How was this experience?
Wright: When I first went to Burma in 1996 I felt like I was supposed to meet her even though she was still under house arrest and it was difficult to see her. I didn’t go there as a journalist, I went there in a little yellow sundress and asked for them to call me. Believe it or not, I got this call that they were letting her out for one day and her family invited me to spend the New Year with her. It was amazing to photograph her, so that was her book cover and I also interviewed her. She’s very strong and very inspirational and that’s what I’m so focused on. I don’t do spot news so much anymore as I feel it can be such a page turner for many. I want to show the beauty of these people and the cultures because that’s when you think you’d like to have these people hang around the planet a little longer.
Harris: Okay, so how do you classify your work?
Wright: You know I have a really difficult time defining my work. Sometimes I call myself a photojournalist even though I’m not doing hard news. I feel that I’m a storyteller. I’m looking at post-conflict and how people are getting by. I’m there for the long-term story and that’s what interests me. I started my foundation Faces of Hope eight years ago and I came under criticism because people said that photojournalists don’t get involved. I thought, “Wow, well if that makes me an activist than that’s a term I can live with.” I want to get involved. I want to give back and I want to help in someway. It is also for my own sanity because in all good conscience I can’t just stand there and make photos and not do something. If I’m going to stand there in Haiti in the middle of an earthquake and say, “Oh I’m making these photos because I hope it will make a difference for you,” then why not also raise enough money so I could get some tents sent over to Haiti?
Alison Wright, His Holiness Dalai Lama, 2003, C Print on Fuji Crystal Paper
Alison Wright, Aung San Suu Kyi, 1996, C Print on Fuji Crystal Paper
Harris: Tell me about your accident in Laos.
Wright: I was still living in Asia and I was in Laos working on a project. I did what I do everyday when I’m over in Asia: I got on a bus. My life was exactly where I wanted it to be and that’s when life throws you a curve ball. I got on this bus and it was on a very precipitous mountain road and the bus got sheared in half by a logging truck. I was right at the point of impact and it very nearly killed me. It broke my back, my pelvis, and all my ribs and my arm was half severed off. These two men came on the burning bus and pulled me off. It was really bad and the people around me were killed. The villagers eventually took me to their village and this kid sewed my arm back up with an upholstery needle and thread. It was just a really hack job. This kid wasn’t a doctor or even a nurse, he was just trying to keep me alive.
Harris: Did you know you were on the edge of death?
Wright: After more than ten hours it was clear to me that I was not getting out of this situation alive. Eventually a British aid worker found me and drove me eight hours to Thailand in the back of a pickup truck. He got me to a hospital where I was in intensive care for three weeks. They were still sure that I wasn’t going to make it, but I did. I eventually went back to the United States. I was given a pretty grim prognosis: they told me I would probably never walk properly again and I had more than 30 surgeries. I planned on climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro for my birthday next year. After two years, I did it. I ended up writing this book called “Learning to Breathe: One Woman’s Journey of Spirit and Survival” and it’s just gotten such a great response. If you can somehow help and inspire other people, that’s my whole goal whether it’s through photography or writing.
Harris: And that’s when you started the Faces of Hope Fund?
Wright: When I did that book I thought I really wanted to walk my talk and that I needed to do more. I started this foundation, the non-profit Faces of Hope Fund because I had to give back to the communities that I’m photographing. The first thing I did was to go back to that little village in Laos and I brought five American doctors and $10,000 worth of medical supplies to help this little clinic to get going. With the Faces of Hope Fund the mission statement is to help women and children in crisis through education and healthcare globally. It’s ironic that so much of my humanitarian non-profit work has been photographing healthcare issues because for me to really live it and see what it’s like to have no healthcare at all is eye opening; it’s brutal and it doesn’t have to be like that.
Harris: Do you think the bus wreck in Laos had an impact on your subsequent portraits?
Wright: Absolutely. I think it added a whole new depth to my work and it certainly brought a whole new empathy to my images as well. Sometimes people ask me, “Don’t you feel like you’re taking advantage of strangers?” It’s definitely not how I feel. It’s for me a real connection and that’s what I love about it. My last book “Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit” is edited to have a triangular viewpoint. I’m looking at them and they’re looking back at the viewer because I wanted that to be a theme. The point of that book is no matter how different we look, what I take away is that we’re really the same the world over. I’ve been to 150 countries and what I take away is we all want safety and health for our families and friends, we want our kids to be educated, we want a little money in our pocket or enough to get by, we want to love and be loved. We make it so much more complicated and yet when I go to these countries there’s a real respect of who I’m photographing and there’s a real feeling of celebrating of how they look.
Alison Wright, Monks Resting at Bayon Temple Angkor, Cambodia , 2006, C-Type Color Photograph
Harris: So how do you actually approach people and put them at ease to photograph them?
Wright: When you first want to photograph people they usually don’t want to and I’m the same way. Often people are just being shy and it’s a matter of just persuading them or really pointing out what’s special about them or why you want to photograph them. “I love this orange hat you’re wearing. Oh what a great necklace.” Who doesn’t want to feel special? Once you point it out, what’s capturing your eye, I would say people for the most part let me photograph them. If they’re really adamant that they don’t want to be photographed it’s usually for some spiritual, cultural, or religious reason. I don’t want to make a picture of someone looking angry. Even in Afghanistan I’ve had so many of my male colleagues say, “I cant believe the photographs you’re able to get” because women are beckoning me into their homes, they’re taking their burkas off, they’re so brave. That’s kinship. There’s so much for us to learn from these other cultures and everything is so rapidly changing.
The Dalai Lama once told me, “Good intent is most important in all that you do, always remember.” I just love that because it’s made me sort of a softer person. I think about what my intent is all the time. I think if you really put it out there, people know that you’re there to celebrate them or you’re there to help them. You’re almost conversing with someone on a heartfelt level. I don’t speak the languages, so you’re trying to communicate in ways that they know it’s okay.
Harris: What would you say you try to show most in photographing people?
Wright: I try to focus on the universal connectivity of the human spirit. We all just want to love and be loved, to have safety and health for our friends, family and children, meaningful work and a little money to get by. It’s all quite simple, but we tend to make it more complicated than it needs to be. I think it’s important to show hope.
Alison Wright, A Geisha's Sanbonashi Decoration, Kyoto, Japan, 2005, Printed 2013, C Print on Fuji Crystal Paper