Josh Meltzer is the recipient of the PhotoPhilanthropy 2010 Professional Activist Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions of photographers who work with nonprofit organizations worldwide. His striking black and white photography captures moments in the daily lives of internal migrant workers in Mexico, who have moved from rural regions to the city of Guadalajara in search of new opportunities.
Meltzer collaborated with the non-profit American Hands Aiding Latin American Youth (AHALA) and its Mexican non-profit partner CODENI, A Collective for the Rights of Children. The organizations work to offset costs and other hurdles to education and provide after-school tutoring to the city’s most marginalized populations. They also educate the children and their parents about human rights, including rights to health, education, retreats, and home visits.
PhotoPhilanthropy: Three years have passed since you won PhotoPhilanthropy’s Activist Award in the professional category. In retrospect, do you think the award has been effective in increasing exposure for your nonprofit partners?
Joshua Meltzer: Yes, I believe it was. CODENI and AHALA have been using my images for a while, and this grant was useful for them to gain international exposure to their work as well as to the living conditions of their client families. Furthermore, the loose connection between the university student photographers in Guadalajara and CODENI/AHALA has been strengthened thanks to the PhotoPhilanthropy award. In 2008, I also started a photography course at the university, which the students have continued on a volunteer basis.
Have you kept in touch with any of the children from your workshops and with the subjects from your work?
I’ve kept contact with many of them. Thanks to Facebook, we share notes and photos on a regular basis, with the kids as well as with their parents. CODENI/AHALA have a computer literacy course for some of the mothers, and this has given them the skills to use email and social media to keep in touch. My wife and I have also become the educational sponsors of one of the girls in my project.
How are they children doing today?
They are growing up. Several of them have become parents, perhaps not surprisingly but certainly too early. Many are doing very well. Some of them even attend high school and college – they are among the first in their families. However, one kid featured in my coverage of the brickyard community has sadly become a drug addict, and has abandoned schooling.
What projects have you completed since you won the grant?
The grant has allowed me to attend graduate school, where I focused my final project thesis on continuing this story. I was able to add video to my still photography, creating new stories on internal migration and interviewing subjects I had photographed before. Furthermore, I was able to spend six weeks shooting again in Mexico in 2008, which allowed me to revisit many communities and families where I had worked. Some of them have experience profound changes. The brickyard community, for instance, has been changed completely. There are no more brick ovens. Instead, the entire community has been replaced with public housing units and schools. Unfortunately, this change has come at a cost. Making bricks has been forbidden in the community. However, no alternative job or career training has filled its place so far.
Additionally, this summer I have been shooting and teaching on a large documentary on the Roma people throughout Eastern Europe as part of a project headed by Rich Beckman, my graduate professor at the University of Miami. It will air this fall on European television and be available online.
I have also returned to teaching at Western Kentucky University. However, I am branching out a little bit from photography and video to teach infographics and web programming.
What is your mission? Has it changed since winning the grant?
My mission has always been to find and tell compelling stories that are not covered thoroughly, and to share them with wide audiences. I also find it fulfilling to pass this mission onto my students.
Most importantly, do you feel that your photography triggered some sort of social change? If so, how has this been demonstrated?
In Mexico, there is social awareness of the plight of internal migrants and indigenous peoples throughout the large cities. For the most part, though, that awareness is limited to the young and educated. I have seen developing friendships between students and indigenous people through the project. One woman, whom I photographed in Guadalajara past summer, has become close with several biology students who did research in her community. She has inspired them to become indigenous rights activists. Nonetheless, I don’t think that there has been a huge change yet, or specifically because of my images.
What are your next projects?
I’m looking for locations to host my next show, both in university settings in the U.S. and in Mexico. In addition, I will be releasing my online multimedia project late this summer, which will be fully bilingual.
To see more pictures of Josh Meltzer’s winning photo essay watch PhotoPhilanthropy’s slideshow: Mexican Internal Migration.
For further information about Josh Meltzer’s work visit www.joshmeltzer.com
The PhotoPhilanthropy Activist Awards identify outstanding work done by photographers in collaboration with nonprofit organizations worldwide. Since the Activist Award’s inception in 2009, PhotoPhilanthropy has received work from photographers in 88 countries, representing 435 nonprofit organizations and shedding light on pressing human rights, public policy, social and environmental issues.