Delano: Storytellers should strive for truth, not neutrality

The bodies of two slain young men laid out at daybreak on a lonely stretch of road at the edge of Metro Manila. Signs hung around their necks in Tagalog saying, "no more hold up robbers" © James Whitlow Delano

James Whitlow Delano has spent four decades as a documentary visual storyteller, producing award-winning assignments on topics such as climate change, the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the changing face of China, the U.S.-Mexican border and the impact of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, among others.

The Tokyo-based photojournalist has won numerous accolades for his work, including the Alfred Eisenstadt award, the Leica Oskar Barnack Award, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, as well as a win in this year’s Focus on the Story Awards.

In 2015, he founded EverydayClimateChange, an Instagram feed where photographers document global climate change, showing to viewers that climate change is a worldwide phenomenon and not a politicized construct or philosophical abstract.

Focus on the Story and Johns Hopkins University’s Big Picture program are proud to host an Oct. 23 panel discussion with Delano at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

“How Photography Shapes Our Understanding of the Human Condition”

Oct. 23, 4:30 p.m.

A panel discussion with James Whitlow Delano at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, 1740 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC.

Exhibit and reception to follow at 6:00 p.m.

The Great Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland is shrinking rapidly quickly due to global warming. By the end of the 21st century, scientists believe the glacier will lose 80% of its current mass.

Mike Lee: For decades, you have been covering the subject of climate change, starting out years before this became a prominent, global issue. What led you to Borneo and the Philippines in the 1990s to work on documenting the indigenous people and their struggles to live in a degrading rainforest?

James Whitlow Delano: Well, when I moved east in the mid-1960s, the first American environmental movement since John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt was underway at a time.

In Livermore, in the early 60s, we could hear dull thuds of open-air depleted uranium explosions at Lawrence Livermore Nuclear Labs. The lab was not outside town, it was right on the edge of town. Being the height of the Cold War, no one questioned the government’s intentions or the danger involved to the public. I learned later of “criticality accidents”–an accident when uncontrolled fission takes place–at the lab and radioactive materials ending up in the city sewer system while we lived there. Naturally, most if not all of this is vigorously denied in the best legal speak by the lab.

I then moved to the New York area at a time when the winds blowing the right way, or wrong way–depending on your point of view–would shatter the Rockwellian suburban bliss when the toxic fumes from oil refineries and other industries entered our leafy realm. In the late-60s the Arthur Kill, the river that separates Staten Island, NYC from New Jersey would sometimes catch fire, because so much petroleum had been dumped or spilled into the water.

These things make you notice these toxins effect on the environment. The wetlands around New York are much cleaner now and a lot of the water birds and fish have returned. So, I have also witnessed nature healing itself, when given a chance.

Penan clan from Long Kelamu build a barricade to block loggers from Samling Global Limited from accessing one of the very last tracts of virgin forest in the Malaysian state of Sarawak that is not part of a national park.

Lee: What was the impact this project had on you? How did it shape your worldview as you documented their story? How did this lead you to develop the Rainforest Crisis Project, and tell us what the response was to the work?

Delano: I visited the Philippines in 1992. I left wondering where the rainforest was. The only rainforest I saw were like shaggy hairstyles on the crowns of mountains flying over them. In fact, a year later, while flying into New York to visit family and editors, I saw more forest from the window of the airplane flying low over Pennsylvania and western New Jersey than I had in the Philippines.

I visited Borneo for the first time in 1994, during the climax years of industrial logging. Arriving with a head full of 19th century accounts of the island only intensified the impact of rambling up an absolutely anaerobic, silt-choked Rejang River perched on the roof of a high-speed express longboat.

Alfred Russel Wallace, English naturalist and Darwin contemporary, penned this simple description of Borneo in the 1850s: “For hundreds of miles in every direction a magnificent forest extended over plain and mountain, rock and morass”. The mental picture of that place and time, where people were utterly irrelevant, had firmly taken root in me.

Borneo looked more like Bayonne, New Jersey than the impenetrable jungle of indigenous Dayak headhunters I’d imagined. Extinguished forever was any romantic notion of equatorial Asia.

The scale of permanent damage was simply breathtaking. So I wondered, how could anyone visually represent the scale of this human-made debacle in a way that would make sense to people halfway around the world, who would probably never come to Borneo; or was it such a fait accompli that it would simply be a botanical and cultural postmortem examination?

In a continuing effort to better represent what is happening in places that are not only geographically but also spiritually distant, I have constantly tried to improve my storytelling skills. In the case of the Global Rainforest Crisis Project, I invited several gifted filmmakers to join forces by making their work available to those interested in drilling down on the subject.

(L) Morning sun illuminates icy hotel window in Harbin, Heilongjiang, China. (R) Looking out over a forest of smokestacks from the same hotel window after the ice melted, Harbin, Heilongjiang, China.

Lee: Tell us about your background, and how this influenced your work, particularly the series you have been emphasizing regarding the climate change issue. Your life experiences growing up had a profound impact on your focus.

Delano: Oh that is not a simple question. Without harping on details, I was born into what could have been a fairy tale family. My father was an Ivy League-educated doctor and US Army captain and my mother, a nurse. My father was stricken with multiple sclerosis in the time treatment for that disease was in the Stone Age. When I was 6, while still able to walk with crutches, he leaned on an unsecured movie theatre door and fell backwards hard, breaking his back. He never walked again.

My earliest impressions of my mother were her absence. She would sleep for days in a dark room on the down cycles of her bipolar disorder.

One of my most vivid memories was being a very young child sitting in an adult’s lap in Livermore, California. The sun was beginning to rise. I did not know what was going on but there was a gathering of very concerned adults and I sensed something serious had happened. I now know it was one of the many times my mother attempted to take her own life by taking a bottle of pills.

She would succeed when I was 11 but by then I was lucky enough to be living with my paternal aunt in the New York area – while my father was permanently hospitalized by the age of 36.

My aunt would become my rock and gave me the greatest gift – a happy childhood.

I mention this to make the point that, because of this life experience, I never possessed the conceit of youthful immortality. So close to being orphaned, it also infused in me, at an early age, an understanding about the fragile nature of life, and empathy for those who are hit by similar misfortune but do not have a savior like my aunt and uncle to take them in and nurture them as if they were their own children–no exceptions.

It is hard to overstate how much this history is the shadow player in how I photograph and what kinds of issues I document.

Father brushes his daughter's teeth at an unheated evacuation center for survivors of the tsunami in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, Japan, where 700 people whose homes have been damaged or destroyed, live. There is no running water at the middle school which serves as an evacuation center. So, water must be used sparingly. The cold comes down hardest on children and seniors.

Lee: Black Tsunami and Empire reflect other work you’ve done in Asia. Tell us about both, and how you came to approach both subjects.

Delano: Empire: Impression of China was my long-term project and first monograph. I moved to Japan in 1993, just when China’s development was set to skyrocket.

By the late 90s, I realized that so much of the remnants of Qing Dynasty and Maoist China I was photographing was disappearing before the relentless advance of the wrecking ball, as a command economy was efficiently erasing one of the richest cultural legacies on the planet in the name of nation building.

It is hard to overstate the changes seen since the early-1990’s. In fact, I still have so many more photographs waiting to be printed in my archive of negatives from that time.

Black Tsunami: Japan 2011 was more personal. A massive triple disaster was visited upon the country I had lived for over a decade and a half.

After the tsunami struck, in less that 30 minutes people who were like my neighbors and family (my wife is Japanese) were left destitute, cold and wet. It was important to me to try to represent the crisis as one that all of us were just one very bad day away from.

It is hard to imagine a country more efficiently run than Japan. Yet supply lines immediately broke down. In order to get to Tohoku at all, from Tokyo, it was necessary, and a good idea, to travel north along the Sea of Japan coast, not the Pacific coast because the roads were in awful shape and Fukushima Daiichi was about to melt down. When we drove back across the dividing mountain range to the Pacific side, there were days-long lines to buy gasoline, empty store shelves and no food for sale in the tsunami zone. People would sit in in line their cars all day into the night, lock them up, walk home and return to the line the next morning.

Then, later, while documenting the second stage of the disaster–the nuclear crisis in Fukushima—I went on foot into the nuclear no-entry zone to document the evacuated villages. They were quickly overrun by nature, with plants running wild and sometimes wild animals, like wild boars or monkeys sheltering inside the abandoned houses.

In the early days of the aftermath of the tsunami, with boats deposited high and dry on rooftops, cars wedged nose down between houses, or folded over bridge guard rails like smashed soda cans and trees impaling third floor windows, it seemed that had an flying saucer landed, this would not have seemed out of place amid destroyed cities where ships had washed almost a mile inland and left beached beside ruined houses.

Intellectually, everyone knew life would never be the same but emotionally everyone was far from coming to terms with what just happened.

Ginnalyn Soriano, 21 encounters the body of her elder brother, Julius, 24 years old, whose corpse is being carried away in a body bag after he was executed during a police operation in Caloocan, Metro Manila

Lee: What was the most difficult photograph you made?

Delano: I think a series of photographs I made on the night that Julius Soriano was executed Caloocan, Metro Manila, I have never encountered pure, full-bodied sorrow that I witnessed in Julius’s sister, Ginnalyn. It was raw, primal, born of the deepest sense of loss by someone who has so little to lose in the first place.

She was confused, stunned, and inconsolable and, for me, she was the purest embodiment of the tragedy unfolding. Julius’s wrists still bore the indentations of plastic zip tie constraints. A bullet remained in his arm, coming to a stop precisely at the indentation that remained belying the police claim that he had pulled a gun on them. Julius had clearly been executed – murdered in cold blood.

I pushed back emotion and quietly talked to myself with photographing, imploring myself to represent this truth – this execution.

A year later, I was able to meet Ginnalyn again and to see a smile on her face. She was putting her life back together. I will not try to describe how that made me feel.

As a journalist, your word is only good if you’re dealing in facts and your reputation is intact. In other words, it is all about trust. If there is no trust, your reporting is meaningless.

Lee: What advice would you give to those aspiring to be an activist photojournalist?

Delano: I think that Christiane Amanpour puts it well by saying, “I believe in being truthful not neutral.” Be faithful to the facts, but there will be times where there simply is not another side to a story. Stories about extrajudicial killings, or stealing indigenous peoples’ lands because you can (they rarely possess title to land they’ve lived on since time immemorial), exploiting and profiting from their resources and destroying the ecosystem in the process; simply does not offer up another side to such a story.

As a journalist, your word is only good if you’re dealing in facts and your reputation is intact. In other words, it is all about trust. If there is no trust, your reporting is meaningless.

People will try to discredit you or suggest you’re biased. Your job is to let the facts tell the story. If people perceive you as an activist, that will be out of your hands. We are non-fiction storytellers documenting the closest possible representation to the truth.

All images © James Whitlow Delano. You can see more of his work on his website.

Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.