A Year of Transition

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A Year of Transition

A letter from our Foundation President & Founder


Je Suis CharlieWith the start of a new year, it’s natural to reflect on the receding tide of the one past. And indeed, I’ll do just that as a way to kick off our new foundation blog. I promise that follow on posts won’t be as long as this initial “letter” which I write with quiet repose and certain determination.

2014 was a year of firsts and transitions for us at the MRO Foundation.

Among the firsts was receipt of unfortunate news, not once, but three times that photographers who had submitted their work to us had found themselves in terrible life and death situations.

The first bit of bad news came on May 9 informing us that a 2014 photography grant finalist from Russia had been in a terrible car accident while working on a project in Brazil and was in the hospital in “precarious condition.” She wrote to us after her release in mid-June:

“Hi, Foundation of Manuel Rivera-Ortiz. I write you after receiving your E-mail by 28 May. Unfortunately, April 29, 2014 I was in a terrible car crash in Brazil, I broke both my legs and jaw, and was in hospital in Brazil for one and a half months in connection with this, therefore I could not send the high resolution photos, I went to Brasil on a project dedicated to the stigma and discrimination of people affected by leprosy.”— June 16, 2014.

The second and most terrible wave of bad news came on May 13 from our foundation Director Mr. Didier de Faÿs in Paris. He wrote:

“I am just sad, so ANGRY with the killing of Camille Lepage. We were trying to reach her today… Have a look on her pix on a selection for the Bourse du Talent.”—Didier de Faÿs, May 13, 2014.

Our foundation, and the world, was horrified and saddened by the news from Paris that the body of Ms. Lepage, 26, had been found in a car driven by anti-Balaka rebels in the Central African Republic by French peacekeeping troops patrolling in the Bouar region.

In a move that was unprecedented for this foundation, we decided immediately and without question to include Ms. Lepage’s grant submission as part of an extended shortlist of thirteen, even though her incredible project in Africa would not be completed as rules stipulate that only living photographers can be awarded a grant. However, already in motion for about a year, we had been working on a new program to create “The Prize”, an ultimate honor to be given in the form of a statuette to one photographer or filmmaker, for excellence in reportage photography and documentary film. We had at that point not figured how or when we would bestow such honor on anyone. The untimely death of Ms. Lepage inspired us to begin giving out the Prize that very day.

The final stunning news came soon after on June 8, when photographer Majid Saeedi wrote me the following:

“Hi, Unfortunately these days in Afghanistan I got injured during an explosion and it is difficult to send you [photographs] but I can send you the files if you want.”

In a second message that morning he wrote:

“Thanks a lot for your concern and I am really ok now and I was really lucky!”—Majid Saeedi, June 8, 2014.

Saeedi was referring to injuries he sustained in Kabul, Afghanistan photographing Afghan presidential hopeful Abdullah Abdullah. On June 6 after a campaign event, two blasts struck the convoy they were riding in an assassination attempt on Abdullah Abdullah. While the candidate himself was unharmed, 10 others were left dead with scores injured including Saeedi.

So many have put themselves in harm’s way giving their lives to do the jobs they love and to save the lives of others – Steven Sotloff, James Foley, and as far back as the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl.

Sadly, 2015 began with the most recent act of violence against Freedom of the Press in Paris at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Ebdo. Terrorist brothers cowardly entered dressed in full battle gear and slaughtered twelve journalists in cold blood including four of the magazine’s well-known cartoonists, the magazine’s editor and several French police officers.

As journalists we know and accept that the work we do on behalf of humanity, especially on behalf of disenfranchised communities and the voiceless, continuously puts our lives in danger. As a Foundation, we so firmly believe that not only for Freedom of the Press, but equally as important for all humanity, we must secure the right of people to freely express themselves. Only in so doing, will we ever stand a true chance at securing the well being of all of our people no matter where we are from, or what beliefs we hold dear. Of many one!

As the oldest of ten children left with having to take care of them for so long, I am the quintessential nurturer. I love humanity and so shall our foundation. For me, the freedom to speak openly is a vital part of that unconditional love. This is how we are all connected. Reportage and journalism helps us bridge the chasm that ensures we are able to be the defenders of our brothers and sisters. We must constantly remind ourselves that love is earned, not forced by the tip of a blade or the barrel of a gun. For me, this is a matter of respect, self respect.

In 1896, Adolph Simon Ochs set the credo for the New York Times – ‘All the news that’s fit to print.’ This slogan serves, in my opinion, as a trump card over fear keeping us all from becoming prisoners, victims of ourselves or one another.

As such we add this message here today not because we in any way support disrespect of culture or religion, but because ultimately the idea of quieting the voices of journalism that especially aim at helping people around the world is an inherently dangerous proposition.

For us, as a foundation of documentary work, free speech is what allows us and our photographers and filmmakers to do work which is ever important about the very real lives of people, not governments per se, but people: the children, mothers on the plains of Africa, fathers who toil everyday to feed themselves and their families…all of us!

Freedom is the lifeblood that keeps humanity going. As a journalist, I challenge all of us, journalists and non-journalists alike, to embrace the well being of those who by conviction of heart, risk their lives for all of our well being. This has been a terrible new year for us as a foundation. My dream is that going forward we never see a year like this again.

Manuel Rivera-Ortiz
President & Founder
The Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation for
Documentary Photography & Film


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