“Food for the Hungry” Chief Photographer

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Rodney Rascona, a photographer for Phoenix-based Food for the Hungry talks about his work for the organization and shares images from his most recent assignment in East Africa.

Ted Simons: Rodney Rascona is an advertising photographer who often uses his skills to raise awareness for humanitarian organizations around the world. His photographs manage to capture the strength, dignity, and resilience of people who struggle daily just to survive. Here to talk about his work is Rodney Rascona, he's the chief photographer for Food For The Hungry, a Phoenix-based Christian charity that seeks to end hunger and poverty worldwide. Welcome to Horizon, thanks for joining us.

Rodney Rascona: Thanks very much.

Ted Simons: How long have you been doing this? And what exactly do you do for Food For The Hungry?

Rodney Rascona: I became involved about 2000, first project was going to Ethiopia for about three weeks to at that time try to identify if famine was in a certain part of their fields where they were working, and I just stumbled into them. I had a small office across from the Scottsdale air park and they came up on the web one day that there was an earthquake in Istanbul and I had sent an email out saying hi, I'm a senior photographer, if you need any photographer I have that and low and behold they wrote me back and we had a three-hour conversation a couple days later and I thought that was it, and next thing I know I had a phone call to go to east Africa for them. That started a very, very long relationship, which has just been an unbelievable experience.

Ted Simons: You write that you create portraits to convey messages of need. What does that mean?

Rodney Rascona: Well, as you know, as a news man, there is a constant vying for the audience's attention on a myriad of issues. One minute it's the Oscars, the next it's an earthquake in Chile, and Japan, and there is a direct need for most of the organizations working around the world that are involved with the human condition to raise revenue. It's just the reality of the everyday life of making things happen. It costs money. And so I am a rare kind of unique set of experiences because I'm an advertising photographer for 30-some years, and I've been with Food For The Hungry and others for the last 13 years, about 12 or 13 years. And that traditionally required me to go unaided to a particular field, I worked a lot in east Africa, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, many, many times over the years, dealing with issues, aids, HIV, education, food security, famine, unfortunately sometimes, drought, I've been dealing with drought since 2000. So creating images which are poignant in our world there is no shortage of disposable photographs. It's not until you try to create a serious body of work around serious subjects to help educate and to inform the viewer, the consumer. And that's the place for serious photographers.

Ted Simons: And we're looking at some serious photographs here from east Africa. Correct?

Rodney Rascona: This was the first part of September, I was out there for a couple weeks with Food For The Hungry.
Ted Simons: And when we look at these photographs, when you look at these photographs, do you see that gentleman and this woman, when you saw them from a distance, did you say, "That's a face I need to capture?" Or when you captured the face did you say, "My goodness, look at this work?"

Rodney Rascona: No, it's a lot more cerebral than that. And more happenstance. It's instinctual. I have come to accept I'm very, very good at working with the human condition. I'm very, very good at it and I try to figure out how that and why that is, but it's mostly probably to my own sense of humanity about these subjects. It's usually very, very hard for me to get through talking about them without tearing up. There's a lot of pain and suffering in the world. So as a photographer, I try to -- there's photographers and there's those of us who are serious photographer rather senior photographers, a lot of experience, let's put it that way. I look to myself to create something much more so than someone who maybe just came out of college with a camera. I believe I should require myself to do much more than that, and so these images I couldn't say they were planned, they weren't thought of in advance. It's me being put in the crossroads of something that's happening and then me applying a skill set and it may be more technical than human, but most of the times when I'm in the field I don't even use the camera the first couple days. I'm really making relationships.

Ted Simons: I was going to say, making relationships has to be important here. Is it difficult to have people trust you, a woman carrying water, a man carrying sticks. These people don't have time to fool around. Here you are, someone they're not familiar with. Is it difficult to get that connection, that relationship?

Rodney Rascona: You know, I would say it is probably maybe for some, it's not for me. I seem to possess a certain amount of integrity that they feel. There's no shortage of people either in the camps or in Ethiopia, or wherever it is, there's no shortage of government photographers, or nongovernment photographers out there, news photographers, and I'd like to say most of their reasons for being there are true, but unfortunately that's not the case. My work is purely like the work I did there I had probably six hours inside three days on the ground. It took a long time to get the permits, the UNHCR has a tight lid on it, it's an emergency environment. This particular kind of photograph, that was the first image of a concept I wanted to do. It didn't get to go anywhere beyond that because there was a major food distribution right when we had planned that, so the other 20 women who planned to be there didn't show up. But when you are trying to work with the human condition, photography really doesn't mean a lot.

Ted Simons: I want to get to your photographs from Haiti before we run out of time. These look to me, this is where an advertising photographer gets into that truth and the two mix and you wind up with striking images here. Talk to us about, again, the cerebral method here, because these are obviously, these are photographs that you tried to get on a consistent basis with people in a consistent field. What's going on here?

Rodney Rascona: Well, I had just come back with Food For The Hungry, I had just come back from Kenya in early January when the earthquake hit, and we immediately were going to go out to the field and through some various NGOs, the Paradigm Project, Food For The Hungry, Med Air, these are all related organizations that know one another, and at the time photography that was coming out was mostly journalistic in nature, so it was very dire photographs of truckloads of dead bodies, and rubble, and it was very bleak. So I was challenged to create images of hope. And because I'm not a photojournalist where I would respond to what I would see, I went out specifically with the idea to put elements whether they be lighting, camera style, technique, I did everything contrary to what I would normally do. And that was the advertising side of me that sought a concept. What does that look like, is it a body of work? We originally were going to do a body of work of the aid workers from France, but they had already left. Over the space of five nights we invited people from the street, allowed them to get cleaned up and come in front of this particular colorful background, which spoke to me from an advertising standpoint and was also very anthropological. So the background wasn't the concern, it was the people you were focusing on because the background was consistent through the body of work. The goal was to raise a level of awareness to bump the visual aesthetics that would then give the message the stories some longer air play. Consequently, that work was awarded International Photographer of the Tear, Deeper Perspective. We won that at the Lucy this time last year. For that work, and what's really fascinating, out of a hundred some countries, some 12,000 entries, they selected a non-- I didn't get paid, it was a humanitarian job, and that won out. And so it means that imagery on a high order, serious imagery created by serious photographers on serious subjects where photographers were allowed to be part of and spend time with their subjects, be in the field in the very classic way journalists had done for years, something happens. Something special comes from that. The whole goal is you're trying to apply senior skill set to create something which will stand out, and so that's done well for that subject. Right now it's slated for spring to be an exhibition in London. Trying to raise all the revenue for it. But it's what's required to these kinds of projects are required to raise attention these days to cut through the clutter of everybody's got a camera.

Ted Simons: We could talk to you for quite a while. Fantastic work. You're fighting the good fight and great stuff. Thank you so much for sharing your photographers with us.

Rodney Rascona: You're welcome. Thank you for the time.

Rodney Rascona:Photographer, Food for the Hungry;

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