Sacramento Bee photographer Renée C. Byer traveled to four continents over two years to tell a story of world poverty both singular and universal. The harrowing and inspiring narrative unfolds in “Living on a Dollar a Day” (348 pages, Quantuck Lane Press), released last year to international acclaim.
Viewpoint Photographic Center in Sacramento on Wednesday will open the first extensive West Coast exhibit of photographs from the work, which recently earned the 2014 International Photography Award for Best Documentary Book.
“Living on a Dollar a Day” was written by Thomas A. Nazario, founder of The Forgotten International, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization working to eradicate poverty across the globe. Forgotten International funded and supported the work, which sent Byer to 10 countries: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Thailand, Cambodia, Liberia, Moldova, Peru, Ghana, India and Romania.
The hardships and situations she depicted seem so extreme at times as to be unreal. Flipping through the pages of the book can be an overwhelming experience.
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“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t emotionally taxing to me as well,” Byer said.
“I always realize that I can go back home, that I have way more than everyone else has, and it’s their story I’m trying to tell. I’m working as hard as I can to make that human connection so other people can understand the plight of the people I’m photographing.”
Byer has won numerous national and international honors for her work, including a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for her work with Bee staff writer Cynthia Hubert on “A Mother’s Journey,” a story about Cyndie French and her son Derek’s battle with the rare childhood cancer neuroblastoma. Derek died in 2006.
“I consider myself a journalist who chooses the art of photography to bring awareness to important issues throughout the world,” Byer said.
Images from “Living on a Dollar a Day” have been featured at Visa Pour L’image, the premier photojournalism festival held in Perpignan, France. One of the photographs has been selected for the International Photography Awards “Best of Show” exhibit that will open in New York and then visit six more countries.
During her travels for “Living on a Dollar a Day,” Byer witnessed people suffering the aftermaths of war, unchecked diseases, forced prostitution, child labor, starvation and environmental toxins.
“I’m very conscious of making images that won’t turn people away,” Byer said. “That’s why I’ll try to get the gamut of all the emotions, not just a child crying because she’s suffering from malaria, but also those little moments of humanity where children are just being children so that other mothers or fathers can relate and almost see their child in this child’s shoes.”
Subtitled “The Lives and Faces of the World’s Poor,” the large-format book’s goal is to give a human story to the statistic that just over 1 billion people – that’s one in seven around the world – live on a dollar a day. David Griffin, former director of photography at the National Geographic, designed the book and helped Byer edit the photographs of hers that were included.
“Art’s a powerful means of expression, but when combined with the unvarnished storytelling of journalism, it has the ability to raise compassion and awareness,” Byer said.
“I’m at a point now in my career where it’s not really about making the photographs, it’s about getting those photographs into the right forum to motivate change.”
Viewpoint Gallery has 42 of the book’s 215 images in its show. Byer and curator Rebecca Gregg are trying to make the images as accessible as possible. They’ve created groups of photographs that tell full vivid stories of the subjects’ lives.
“For this particular show I didn’t want frames around the photographs,” Byer said. “I wanted to have it so there wouldn’t be a barrier between the image and the person.
“What I’m trying to do is elicit the emotions but also to get this shared humanity (with) what you’re witnessing in the image,” she said. “It ultimately is a call to action in a certain way.”
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Living on a Dollar a Day: The Lives and Faces of the World’s Poor
What: Exhibition of photographs by Renée C. Byer selected from her prize-winning book
When: Opens Wednesday; artist receptions 6-8:30 p.m. Feb. 13 and 5-9 p.m. Feb. 14; gallery hours: noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, through March 7.
Where: Viewpoint Photographic Art Center, 2015 J. St., Suite 101, Sacramento
Information: (916) 441-2341 or www.viewpointgallery.org
Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit
What: Another photographic exhibit worthy of mention features the work of Paul Kitagaki Jr. Informed by the Japanese concept of gambatte – or triumph over adversity – Kitagaki’s exhibit juxtaposes historic images of Japanese Americans interned during WWII with contemporary photos of the same individuals (or their descendants) by Kitagaki. He is married to Renée C. Byer, and both are Sacramento Bee photographers.
Where: California Museum, 1020 O St., Sacramento
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday and the first Sundays of each month through May 3
Cost: $6.50-$9, free for children 5 and under and for members
Information: www.californiamuseum.org; (916) 653-7524