“Be a human first and a journalist second,” Donna De Cesare once told me.
Even before she became my professor at the University of Texas, Austin, I had been well aware of De Cesare’s work and the recognition it had earned her — like a Fulbright fellowship and the Dorothea Lange prize from Duke University — so I was pretty daunted by the time I enrolled.
As a photojournalist, De Cesare has spent decades documenting the effects of war and gang violence on youth in Central America, from former child soldiers to imprisoned gang members, as well as the war-related diaspora in Los Angeles.
“We don’t think about the long-term effect war has on people, especially children,” she says on the phone. “Once a war ends, we are thinking about the next war.”
Her new bilingual book, Unsettled: Children In A World Of Gangs, includes 145 black-and-white images and a first-person narrative, spanning those 30 years of reportage.
And the first-person narrative is a big part of it: One thing De Cesare explains both directly in the classroom and indirectly through her work is that the role of a journalist isn’t as simple as being an objective observer. Over the years, she has developed profound relationships with the people she photographs, often blurring the line that separates photojournalist from friend.
“Why are we telling these stories to begin with?” she asks. “We can’t really change the world — but we can change the world we are in by making choices.”
For example, her book contains an image of “Pato,” a former child soldier in El Salvador, holding his daughter with bronchitis in a car in Los Angeles. After taking the image, De Cesare drove them to the nearest clinic because Pato didn’t have medical insurance.
“Our responsibility as human beings is to intervene,” she says. “Do the least harm, and doing some good is not a bad thing either.”
Editor’s Note: Lizzie Chen is an intern in NPR’s multimedia department. She studied under Donna De Cesare at the University of Texas at Austin, and recently interviewed her about her new book.