Photography that opens doors – and minds

I have often wondered how it would be to see like a photojournalist. In the right hands, the camera becomes a key that unlocks the world. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Sirlene Machado holds her daughter in Mato Grosso in Brazil, on Jan. 31, 2020. She was interviewed for a story about small landowners in the Amazon.

Looking back on the past year, it may be tempting to remember the challenges wrought by the pandemic, social unrest, and political strife. But as 2020 settles into the rearview mirror, we invite you to explore our photos of the year and see what Monitor photographers saw: people working to better understand and connect with each other. 

I have often wondered how it would be to see like a photojournalist. Sure, I’ve peered through a viewfinder and tried to capture the essence of a place or a moment. But inevitably, I end up settling for “good enough.” My native tongue, after all, is the written word.

In the right hands, however, the camera becomes a key that unlocks the world. 

“This job is a creative passport that opens doors to see the ways other people live,” says staff photographer Ann Hermes. “It has fundamentally altered the way I interact with the world because I’ve been afforded a greater understanding of the people and places from each story I’ve worked on.”

One of the chief goals of Monitor journalism is to build bridges of understanding. We all live such unique lives and it can be difficult to understand why people feel and do what they do. Every story we write seeks to facilitate that understanding. Our photojournalists add an extra dimension and intimacy to that effort.

Each photo is an invitation to the reader to connect with a story on a personal level.

“Many times as a journalist, you are talking with people who are unlike you,” says Melanie Stetson Freeman, who has been a staff photographer since 1985. 

“As photographers we get to go into their homes and learn how they live. It’s always amazing to me that people let us into their homes,” she says.

The result may seem like happenstance: a snapshot in time. But developing intimacy takes careful planning, and a willingness to connect with subjects in a deeply personal way. Alfredo Sosa, our director of photography, describes that foundational work with a portrait subject as “almost like a dance.”

“There is some implicit agreement between photographer and subject,” he says. “The subject needs to be prepared to give and the photographer must be ready to take without crossing boundaries.”

Those connections have become even more precious in the year just completed, as the pandemic forced so many of us to limit our interactions with others.

Quarantine protocols have meant that our photographers have had to be more careful about where they travel. When they did venture out into the field, they found creative ways to visit with subjects to bring that additional layer of humanity to our stories. 

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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