Photographer Erik Hoffner is a regular contributor to Terrain.org, most recently reporting on the Swedish forestry industry. His essay “Ghost Nests” and accompanying photographs appeared in issue 27, and here, Hoffner recommends a few photographers and resources that have inspired his work.
Minamata: The Story of the Poisoning of a City… by W. Eugene and Aileen M. Smith
As a teenager I picked up a copy of W. Eugene Smith’s Minimata, a long project from the early 1970s that documented the mass poisoning of a Japanese coastal town by a corrupt corporation—really a startling analog to the 2011 incident in Fukushima involving the Tokyo Electric Power Company. In this case, the Chisso Corporation regularly dumped methyl mercury into the sea, which quickly concentrated up the food chain and resulted in horrific suffering among the local fishing community—and led to the discovery of a new human health syndrome, dubbed Minimata disease, after the area at the center of the problem. Smith’s jarringly beautiful black and white portraits of the effects on this fishing community, including intimate portraits of the sometimes horrific physical deformities people suffered, made a big impression on me. As Minimata demonstrates, the most important image-making is rarely about making a pretty picture, but rather exposing truth and telling people’s stories.
The work of Sebastião Salgado
In that vein, another major influence on me (and so many others) is the work of Sebastião Salgado, a master of composition, and black and white technique. His portrayals of exploitative labor in the developing world—showing the migrations of landless people and the fate of children caught in the middle of huge issues like these—are at once shocking, gorgeous, and educational. One art critic calls his work “fine art photojournalism,” which, whether it’s an actual genre or not, directly influenced my own recent projects in Poland and Sweden. Few have done so much for our fellow humans by standing behind a lens. But Salgado frequently gets out from behind the camera to work for direct change in the world, too: for example, his Instituto Terra project in Brazil, which is reforesting a swath of degraded coastal rainforest. While Salgado’s work often shows the interrelatedness of justice, human suffering, and ecology in stark detail, his most recent project, Genesis, illustrates the potential for humanity to rediscover itself in the world’s remaining unspoiled ecology.
One more source of regular inspiration in the photojournalistic tradition I enjoy is SocialDocumentary.net, a web gallery for ambitious projects spanning the globe, and exploring all issues and mediums with frankness and power. The members of this site share intimate profiles and storylines rarely heard within the American news bubble, from Iran to Myanmar and Appalachia to Armenia. Touring its lush pages is a constant source of inspiration and education, and I admire the dedication of this new corps of photo-documentary explorers and truth tellers.
A member of Terrain.org‘s Editorial Board since 2007, Erik Hoffner is an activist, writer, and photographer whose work appears in Earth Island Journal, The Sun, Yale Environment 360, World Ark, Orion, and others. His photography has been exhibited in numerous spaces, perhaps most often in the Vermont Center for Photography, and he is also on the board of Recycled Fish, a nonprofit for fishermen living a lifestyle of stewardship. For work, he is outreach coordinator for Orion magazine. Learn more about him at www.erikhoffner.com.