The World According to James Whitlow Delano

Lest you think the environmental problems we've seen this last year or so are unique to the United States, street photographer James Whitlow Delano would like to show (and tell) you otherwise. US-born Delano has lived in Japan for the last 17 years and travels throughout Asia shooting the culture, especially challenging human rights situations and environmental disasters.

Delano’s photographic accomplishments are numerous. His work has appeared in many publications including Mother Jones, Vanity Fair and The New York Times. He’s published several monographs about Asia and Italy as well as contributing to books by National Geographic. Delano has had numerous gallery shows and won major photographic awards including first place in the National Press Photographers Association: Best of Photojournalism 2008 Best Published Picture Story (large markets)/Kabul Drug & Psychiatric Hospital and the Alfred Eisenstadt Award, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism/Life Magazine 2000 Best Travel Photo Essay (China).

His documentation of numerous environmental and social tragedies includes:

I started corresponding with him after viewing his images about the global water crisis in the New York Times.

How did you transition from shooting fashion photography and celebrity portraiture in Los Angeles with major photographers like Annie Leibovitz or Joel Meyerowitz to shooting environmental and human rights street photography in Asia? Was there an a-ha moment or was it a gradual process?

I always shot socially conscious street photography. I was always drawn to street photography, despite starting my career shooting fashion. The day I moved to Japan, I stopped shooting fashion and never went back. The fashion work simply fell by the wayside.

Wandering the streets with a Leica morphed easily and naturally into story telling and issue reporting. I still use lessons learned from former bosses like Annie Leibovitz or Michel Comte. They too come from the rich heritage of photographers like Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, etc. They are deeply talented and deliver the goods every time, no excuses. Those lessons I carry with me to this day.

You shoot on a Leica camera with a 35mm fixed length lens, which means you aren’t zooming in from a distance. This brings you pretty close to your subjects. What is the story you're telling people through your work? What do you want people to take away from your exhibits?

I love people and the light in their eyes. But, I do have a tremendous sense of too little, too late being the global response to huge problems. I seek out issues I feel have not been adequately addressed. Sometimes a monumental problem, like the jaw dropping scale of pollution in China, is summed up with the same telephoto images of disembodied smokestacks and viewers' eyes glaze over because it shows nothing new.

I want to take you and put you in the place, to live with those affected by an environmental issue. If you can see yourself, see a family member in the faces of people on the other side of the planet, you might just do something about it. At the very least, you will see an individual, not the "other."

[In China] I went after what the government did not want to be seen and photographed - people literally living in the middle of pollution which bathes over them, infiltrates their blood streams, enters their babies from the mother’s milk.

Recently I returned to the rainforest in Southeast Asia, which is a series of islands and peninsulas. The region is often compared to the Amazon. There is really no comparison with a continental Amazon forest and the decimated forest on islands where the furthest point from the sea is often less than 50 miles. Industry can so efficiently lay waste to lands that are ancestral homelands of people who have lived there for 10,000 years or more.

You've said in a past interview that you can see so much happening in China that reminds you of America, even comparing the Three Gorges Dam to the Tennessee Valley Authority and the desertification of China to America’s Dust Bowl days in the 1930s. We're really not that different, are we?

The US is no different than any other country, although Americans sometimes like to think so. More and more, I feel drawn back to look at my own country with the same critical eye as any other country. Living abroad has helped me take a more objective point of view [of America].

Of the stories you've told, which has had the greatest impact on you?

Without much doubt, riding out Cyclone Nargis in Burma in 2008 and then heading down to record the aftermath in the Irrawaddy River Delta moved me like no other experience. The fear still in the people’s stunned eyes and knowing intimately how there had been no escape left me literally speechless. Aside from the occasional menacing soldier, there was no organized government help for these people several days after the event, despite being able to drive directly down into the heart of the storm zone from Rangoon (Yangon). I witnessed more loss of human life in 30 minutes from an open boat, than I had in my entire lifetime.

Despite having a mother who struggled with bipolar disorder (eventually taking her own life) and a father who died from multiple sclerosis when you were relatively young, you had a happy childhood being raised by your aunt and uncle. How does your childhood inform your work now?

I have never met a writer or photographer from an entirely 'normal' background!

I am certain that the early years gave me a different sense of what is important in life. I never possessed the sense of youthful immortality. I had learned too much about the nature of life and death by adolescence. Career and material accumulation had less relevance to me than going out and learning the truth about the world firsthand.

I am a driven person but in a different way. I am driven to acquire knowledge, not possessions and nature trumps business on my list of priorities. That is not to say one at the expense of the other, just finding a better balance than we have now. My feet are firmly planted on the ground.