Life Lived: B.D. Colen on Photography



By Nick McCallum

Photographers Without Borders is a visual storytelling medium, as its moniker suggests, conveying information about our world by those with an eye for the picturesque. In a single image, our team of talented individuals seeks out and captures some of the most beautiful vistas from around the globe to celebrate and share the diverse nature of humanity. Meanwhile, the rest of us are happy taking selfies or Vine videos to try and make up for some sort of culturally induced ADHD.

Recently, I had the good fortune to make contact with Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter and editor, B.D. Colen, who has been teaching documentary photography at MIT since 2001, and has covered such events as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as well as the famine in Somalia during the early ’90s. My own abilities being more inclined to the written word than with the lens, I thought this would be a great opportunity to gain insight into the process of photography; to learn some of the finer details involved regarding the art form so essential to the PWB experience.

As a young man, Colen remembers first being enamoured with the work of Ken Heyman and his 1963 book of street photography, Willie, which follows a young boy living in Hell’s Kitchen. The son of a prostitute, Willie was photographed over a month’s time roaming and playing freely in one of Manhattan’s most infamous neighbourhoods, and it was this aspect—of a boy simply being a boy—that Colen found so inspiring. As a self-proclaimed “photographer of the mundane,” Colen’s goal has been to examine those moments that are so monotonous or commonplace that they go virtually unnoticed, and by doing so, presents his viewers with a glimpse of the humanity intrinsic to everyday life—of life lived.



This personal mandate is certainly apparent in his series Alone, Together – Beneath the Streets of Boston, wherein people were captured on the shoulder-to-shoulder commute of Boston’s subway, listening to headphones, doing their makeup, or blankly staring at their own reflection in the car windows. But what about places like Somalia, where he documented the appalling effects of famine during the civil war? For Colen, the best way to combat such atrocities, in his position as photographer, is to “honestly reflect what you see, when you see it.” He believes that, for people to truly understand what’s going on, they must be shown the world for what it is, in all its innocence, its compassion, and even its hard brutality. This is why, Colen contends, cell phone videos have actually had the biggest impact in bringing about social awareness and change: because now more than ever, people are able to see the world not only as it is, but also, as it happens.

A modest and humble individual, B.D. Colen, continues to reinvent himself, and his art, likening his persistent motivation the way he imagines a mountain climber decides to scale the next peak: “You see it there, and you just want to do it.” This month, Colen returns to Haiti for his fourth visit, shooting images for the non-profit organization, Midwives for Haiti, a project certainly in keeping with his commitment to life, and all its precious little moments.

BDs work can be seen by clicking here.

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