Maureen Cavanaugh: If, earlier this month, you thought you heard way too much about a rural Florida preacher's threat to burn the holy book of Isam, you were not alone. Many people complained about the amount of news coverage that story got. While some events dominate the news for days, there are many important stories that go under-reported and under-covered.
Photojournalist Micah Albert specializes in covering those stories all over the world. Mostly they are about people who have many problems, but not much power.Micah Albert’s photographs will be on display at a new exhibit at Point Loma Nazarene University. The show is called “Undercovered.” Joining me now is photojournalist Micah Albert. And welcome to These Days.
MICAH ALBERT (Photojournalist): Thank you. Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Give us an example, if you would, of an underreported story that you’ve covered.
ALBERT: Yeah, so I’ve been really interested in Yemen for many, many years. I’ve been saying it’s the next Afghanistan for probably three or four years and it’s just not been on editors’ radar. It’s just not been on the public radar. It’s been on foreign policy’s radar, it’s been in the academia, the people are very – follow it very closely but, basically, in the news cycle it just wasn’t covered. Same thing goes for East Chad, same thing goes for Southern Sudan. Same thing went for Congo about five years ago. Now, finally, places like Central Africa are getting quite a bit more coverage. So – But Yemen is probably the biggest.
CAVANAUGH: Micah, tell us what you know about Yemen that we don’t.
ALBERT: I went to a lot of places that they’d never met an American before and so I had a lot of really good conversations with people, just dialogue, really good conversations with people in a country that is such a social pariah at the moment. I feel like everywhere I’ve gone, being a history buff and a news junkie and all those things, somebody who really pays attention to these things, I go there and I have these preconceived ideas about the place. And every single time, it – the people blow me away. The people really break down a lot of those prejudices that we may think or have about the place.
CAVANAUGH: What is it about Yemen that makes you think it might be tomorrow’s Afghanistan?
ALBERT: Well, like…
CAVANAUGH: And what do you mean by that?
ALBERT: There’s quite a bit of arms trafficking that goes from Yemen basically into the Horn of Africa. When you border just a stone’s throw across to a literal black hole of a failed state in Somalia and you have those two – basically, these two continents coming together in such a close proximity, it’s really dangerous. So Yemen’s predicted to run out of water in the next five years and 90% of the people live in the west and so, you know, water’s a huge issue. I mean, just like here in San Diego or in the state it’s a big issue. It’s a even bigger issue in Yemen. And, of course, the biggest – the biggest thing – It’s probably the two biggest things is the threat of Al Qaeda and the activity going on in the – It’s a very remote place. I went into a lot of regions there to work in conjunction with the World Food Program on a lot of food aid that they were doing to some really hurting people and in the context of that is where a lot of the Al Qaeda training cells are basically happening. And I know U.S. have ramped up a lot of defense efforts in the region as well of that is there is a major secessionist movement. So Yemen used to be two countries and now they’re one, and now they’re trying to go back to two. So there’s a lot. It’s basically a powder keg and in a really bad region on the globe.
CAVANAUGH: Now in these bad regions on the globe where the issues are lack of water, food insecurity, sort – really deep social issues, are they just fundamentally difficult to cover? I mean, news reporters go to places where something is happening, an event, an explosion, a war, something you can cover and you can tell people about in a news story. How do you express to someone this complicated issue of a nation that’s running out of water?
ALBERT: Yeah, absolutely, so I kind of pride myself in being like a large picture reportage photographer, is kind of the way of saying it versus doing daily kind of spot news things. So I do a lot of research on these problems. And I recently spoke in a class and I talked about basically access and how challenging access is and how to go to a place like that, usually that you have to deal with a lot of ministries of information, etcetera, and they put a lot of limitations and censorship on what I can and can’t tell, especially as a photographer. So usually they want me to cover very banal issues in those places and I have to be extremely creative if not take a lot of risks to kind of tell the real story of what’s going on. And so in the case of the Somali refugees pouring across the Sea of Aden in one of the most dangerous places on the planet, you know, I had to be pretty creative. I had a lot of limitations that I could not get the images I wanted, so I had to be creative and talk to people and eventually get on a fishing boat that went into the sea and cover global food insecurity and the refugee situation all at the same time, and kind of had to do some things that were slightly illegal.
CAVANAUGH: Now do – when a government says, okay, you can come in but these are the things you can do, those are the things you can’t do. Do they actually have someone go around with you and watch what you do?
ALBERT: Yeah, a lot of times I’ve had minders. In the case of Syria I’ve had a lot of minders. Sometimes it’s really nice and comfortable because you don’t have to worry about getting yourself into trouble. However, when you turn this direction and you need to get that photo, it’s nope-nope-nope-nope, you can’t – can’t do that. And so trying to get away from that is usually impossible in a place like that.
CAVANAUGH: Now how do you decide on the places and the people whose stories you want to go and cover?
ALBERT: You know, when I was 8 I really wanted to be an archeologist and spend, you know, time in the field and in the dirt and all that kind of stuff. And then I found out that 90% of the time you had to, you know, be in the library and I didn’t want to have anything to do with reading when I was 8. And, ironically, that’s kind of what it is now. I spend the majority of my time doing research and reading and networking and spending time in front of gatekeepers and movers and shakers, people really the ones truly making a difference in this world, and learning about these issues. But in general, I have a lot of interest in certain regions, so East Africa, North Africa, Central Africa and kind of places where there’s an inherent rub of culture, of religion, of politics, and where that place’s problems don’t just happen there, they don’t just exhibit or spill out into that one area; they actually spill out into like the general world. You know, in the case of the Colton industry in Congo, for instance, the majority of that mineral that makes all of cell phones work, for instance, the majority of that mineral comes from Congo so that’s something that doesn’t just matter to Congo but you and me.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, when you say, okay, I want to, let’s say for instance, go into Congo and I want to get the approval of the government to be able to go in and even with restrictions, to go in and take some pictures, how long does that usually take? How long does that process take? Months? Weeks?
ALBERT: Absolutely, months.
ALBERT: It – I usually have to present stories on a silver platter to the network of editors that I work with, basically proving that the story is relevant to the news cycle, that it’s kind of ramping up to be timed just right, at the same time that I can prove that it is logistically viable, that I can – I’ve proven that all I really need is the funding basically to go to the place. I can get there and operate and get from A to B.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Micah Albert. He is a photojournalist who specializes in covering undercovered stories all over the world. A show of his photographs, called “Undercovered,” is going to be opening tomorrow at the Keller Gallery at Point Loma Nazarene University. You know, Micah, you were telling us that you are really enthused with the kind of reception that you get from the people whose situations you cover in the various countries you go. Do you think having a camera actually breaks down some barriers for you?
ALBERT: I would say at times but I wouldn’t say as a general rule. I really try to spend, you know, quality over quantity. I’d rather spend time with one or two people for many days than multiple people in a very short period of time. It’s – I try to spend as much time and actually be friends with people and try to get to know people like I would in America or anywhere in the west for that matter, and not even use my camera just to get to know somebody on a personal level. And then eventually when I develop some sort of rapport, I’m able to kind of bring it out and people get more comfortable because a lot of my images are in very sensitive situations, not just in a region, but sensitive, maybe they’re dying of AIDS and they’re, you know, weeks away from dying. You know, situations like that. You know, you can’t just whip this huge camera out and just be totally offensive and oblivious.
CAVANAUGH: I want to talk about some of the images that are going to be on display at the Point Loma Nazarene University. You’ve brought in some photographs for us and the first photograph I want to talk about is a wonderful image of a young boy. He’s caught in mid-full body dive, right into a river. Where was this photograph taken?
ALBERT: It was taken in southeast Chad, right on the Darfur border. It’s in an internally displaced camp and that means something different than a refugee camp because the difference between the two is one is not crossing an international border. So the big thing with this is that the Janjaweed that are targeting – this is the same tribe that’s not far in the north from them. They’re the same tribe that’s being targeted and yet they’re not crossing a border so they get significantly less international aid. So they’re in their own country, they’re targeted by their own country, they’re targeted by Sudanese rebels. It’s a huge, huge problem. In general, one of the undercovered things that I’m – I pay a lot of attention to globally is the internally displaced community. There’s far more internally displaced peoples than there are refugees. But in the particular photo, I – Most of my photos, I have a lot of great memories attached to them but that one was taken at sunset and a seasonal river is 120 degrees the whole day and it was just great to spend time with kids, as usual. You know, these kids, however, are living in some of the worst conditions you can imagine but kids will be kids and they enjoy swimming just as much as I do, so just to hang out, swim with kids, goof around and take a few images, it’s, you know, it’s kind of a special memory.
CAVANAUGH: On your website, micahalbert.com, you also have a number of photographs about internally displaced Iraqi children that are sobering and beautiful at the same time. I’m thinking of one in a market that’s just overflowing with colors and yet there, you know, there’s someone working there who has been displaced from his home. So just really, really remarkable images blending the beauty and the sadness at the same time.
ALBERT: Yeah, that’s critically important to me. A lot of people do point that out. I think too much of the news and too many of these places is extremely negative. That is the reality of it. Yet when you go there, there’s such beauty in that reality. It’s hard to even imagine that that can be – those two things can coexist. And so that’s really important to me as a human being, as a photographer, to show that juxtaposition of that joy and happiness actually – and beauty does happen in some of the worst things, you know. Circumstances don’t always equal just complete tragedy. I think I want to try to bring that to mainstream media. I think it needs a little bit more of that.
CAVANAUGH: Well, the second picture that you brought in for us is taken in a refugee camp during Kenya’s post-election unrest in 2008, and this does look like a refugee camp. Describe a little bit more for us the – all these tents and the people milling about.
ALBERT: Yeah, I flew in on assignment there that day and it was ironic because Congo was signing, at the moment, a somewhat historic peace deal in their war. That was awhile ago. And I couldn’t believe that I was flying into Kenya to cover this, you know, the place of beacon and hope and light and stability, you know, and it was anything but at the time. And it was – we went out, a Kenyan friend of mine went – were out in the Rift Valley where a majority of the problems were happening. And so I spent a lot of time in that place and I knew that place like the back of my hand. I really knew the people and the region really well. And I’d been there many times before and so it was very, very, very – it was emotionally difficult to go to a place that you’ve been to before and to see it just totally different. I’ve been in a lot of refugee camps, too many to count, and they’re always different and there’s nothing consistent about them. But this particular one, I think, it was eerily quiet because it was a place – You know, in Sudan or Chad or something, you know, I feel like a lot of the people there, their normal world is a refugee, it’s conflict. But in Kenya, it wasn’t. And so everybody had a bit of a deer in the headlights look and so it was very sombering (sic). And the particular photo I really like, I kind of pride myself in the sense – doing the sense of space type approach to photography and trying to kind of put people in the context, really show what that looks like. Have you – really invite you into the image and so you can feel what that place might’ve felt like.
CAVANAUGH: And the third image that we – you sent us is a absolutely gorgeous picture. It’s the blue sea and it’s a man with a concerned face and he has a blue outfit on. People can see this on our website right now. It’s posted on our – on the KPBS.org website. What is the backstory behind this picture?
ALBERT: So that’s taken off the coast of Yemen and this kind of the pseudolegal thing that I was mentioning earlier. I really was trying to tell the bigger picture of global food insecurity. And in order for me to really kind of understand what this looked like for an individual, I needed to see how difficult his daily like routine was. And so basically we left Yemen, got on his fishing boat and went into the Sea of Aden, you know, very, very dangerous place. That’s where, you know, of course, where all the piracy issues are going on. And it was an awesome day. It was – In hindsight, I don’t know if I would do it again. However, it was an amazing day of fishing and swimming and getting to know this guy. And I also had spent time with his daughter in the school a few days before and so it was really neat to kind of like know his family and to be able to end the day fishing and sharing a meal with him and his family from what we caught, you know, and really truly understanding what – what it’s like for him to try to feed his family and his daily routine.
CAVANAUGH: You can see so much on his face, so much of that concern and that daily grind of this being an issue day after day after day. Micah, why are you drawn, do you think, to these underreported areas?
ALBERT: That’s a really good question. I think I ask myself that often. I feel – In general, I just – I really am passionate about those places and, at the end of the day, the people. It’s not just the issue and the place but it’s really the people. I really want to be a voice for the voiceless. I want – going to those places is not the hard part for me and I want to go there and bring their story back. And so the show that’s opening and be able to be on here and talk about this stuff, I just feel so honored for their sake that I can be a conduit for their story. I’m just a storyteller. I’m not passionate about photography per se, it’s just that’s the best way I know how to tell a story. So if I can bring their story from thousands and thousands of miles away and share them in public here and maybe you learn a little bit more about a place that you previously didn’t know, I feel very honored just to be able to be a part of that.
CAVANAUGH: I’m so glad that you were able to come in today and talk to us about these photographs. Thank you so much.
ALBERT: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with photojournalist Micah Albert. Micah Albert’s exhibition “Undercovered” will be showcased at the Keller Gallery at Point Loma Nazarene University. The opening is tomorrow. It continues through October 22nd. You can also see his photos at micahalbert, that’s M-i-c-a-h-a-l-b-e-r-t, dot-com. And you can also go online and comment about what you’ve heard at KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.