Photographer Spotlight Series: Micah Albert

Micah is an independent photojournalist and writer represented by Redux Pictures, who has documented and brought attention to major world issues in Sudan, DR Congo, Syria, Yemen, Chad, Central African Republic andSaudi Arabia to name a few places.

He’s spent the last 5 years focusing on human rights, the global food crisis, refugee’s, the internally displaced and issues of migration, gender-based violence, public health and insecurity. His work has also earned several awards including his coverage of the post-election unrest in Kenya’s Rift Valley. He does a brilliant job sharing photos and writing about his work as well as sharing valuable advice on the topic of photography on his blog.

1. How did your relationship with photojournalism develop? Did you always have an interest in the field or was it something that evolved while at Point Loma Nazarene University and how did the focus on human rights, global food crisis, public health and insecurity come about?

I’ve always been a news junky and a lover of history. In my youth, I paid attention to Peter Jennings’s nightly reports on the Lebanese Civil war, crisis and famine in East Africa, and Cold War snafu’s in Eastern-block Europe. I poured through Newsweek, Time and the front page of whatever newspaper happened to be in the house. Those gritty, contrasty, 800 ISO film images from that era had an impact on me and ultimately communicated to me and only spurred-on my interest in a region or issue. Early on, because of those images, I became fascinated by complex and multifaceted geo-politics. I was a weird kid; what 10 year old studies the first intafada for fun?

Photographically, my grandfather was an accomplished photographer and my parents were pretty avid photogs; so I was around it often. Artistically, because I grew up on a farm and was around more ‘grit’, those images from the 80’s and especially the late 90’s in Bosnia, somehow resonated with me.

So it wasn’t until after college when I started learning about page one issues but happened to be on the back page. I started realizing how global events happening to massive populations, say in DR Congo, were getting such little coverage. And this is coming from someone who was seeking the news out. I wanted to hear first hand from these people.

When I realized I could meld my interest in these issues, history, and the region at hand, is when the light bulb went off.

Photography has always been a means to an end, the medium has never been my goal. I always say, “do painters sit around with other painters and talk about paint brushes?”

2. The life of a photojournalist is not all about traveling to exotic locations capturing everything in sight because ultimately, there are certain risks involved. Have you ever found yourself in the position where you’ve feared for you safety and what precations did you take?

First of all, in the West, I think we have a false sense of security around the idea of safety. In 2002, my wife and I were hit by a truck as pedestrians. Only 10% of the people hit at the speed we where hit at, live. 3 days before that accident, I did a 10 pitch climb with out incident in a sport that people tend to consider dangerous.

That accident gave me something I will always cherish, perspective.

Second, I’m not a war photographer but I do get myself into places that are in a state of conflict and are inherently a bit dicey to travel in. There have been some close calls; Yemen is a tough place. I’ll say that much.

As far as precautions, most people do not realize that international photojournalists aren’t just paid to show up and take a picture. They are paid because editors know photogs know how to get from A to B, deal with challenging travel logistics, develop contacts in the field and confront daily problems AND still get a decent photo. So, personal safety, comes with that territory naturally. We all have tricks of the trade that usually come from learning the hard way.

3. What’s the most amount of shots you taken in 1 assignment and what’s your typical workflow look like for sorting through them? I have this stereotypical vision of photojournalist being tucked away in a compact decaying hotel room reviewing their work or have I watched too many films?

To be honest, I don’t even know the ‘most’. Sometimes it takes a lot to get publishable photos. Sometimes it happens on day one. Workflow is pretty exhausting. Shooting, negotiating, listening, asking, traveling, watching your back all day and then reviewing images, in yes, a dilapidated hotel in some sweatbox. A takes a lot to review not just the images but to parse together notes taken to write accurate and meaningful captions.

4. You wrote a very insightful article in how hobbiest often obsess about equipment and how “pros hate talking gear with hobbyist” but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your gear and especially on how you manage to carry it all around.

 Photographic gear of Micah Albert

I’m all about light and fast. I’m used to flying on highly-restrictive regional airlines so plain and simple, I don’t have much option. I still have to plan for worst case scenario and do need to have a level of backup. But in general, I travel with 2 Nikon D3s, 14-24mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.4, 70-200mm f/2.8, a 2x teleconvertor, one flash, back up battery and charger, Macbook Pro, and that’s it.

5. I can’t think of photograph I’ve seen taken by a photojournalist where there isn’t a strong underlying story behind it. It’ll forever be an inherent quality. Would you share with us one of your photographs where you distinctively recall the moments before and after you took it?

 Proudest photograph of Micah Albert

I guess what sticks with me is how the whole day and experience can align into one meaningful shot that you know in that moment, that is “the shot” you’ve had in your minds eye all day or week. So when I look at certain images in my portfolio, the ones that mean a lot may or may not be the best image, but it does have the best back-story. It’s in the back-story where a photographer earns the right to get a telling, intimate and beautiful image where you’ve connected with the person and developed a bit of friendship and understanding. That’s what people don’t see in my images; how much time I take to get to know a person and how hard I work on the back-story that usually gets me access to the much-coveted shot.

This image, taken off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea, is of a man named Abdalla Abrahem, who I’d been working with for a week along with the rest of his family while doing a story on global food insecurity. In order for him to feed his family, he had to venture deeper into the volatile seas closer to Somalia to find fish. He and I spent time in the pirate-controlled waters fishing the day and going back to his small village called Dobaba, a monochromatic, windswept, scorching and humid village of about 600 people.

When I took this image, I knew it was special, because I had earned his trust and respect the days before. It captured the scene of his daily life as well as the weight of the challenge of feeding his family amidst daily risk and threats.

After I took the image, I knew I captured an image that gave him dignity and was able to communicate the issue at hand.

To read up more on other photographers in the Spotlight Series, check out the dedicated page.