Ribs sticking out, twigs for arms, eyes sunken. I’ll never forget it. I was about seven years old when my mother showed me a black-and-white photograph of a naked and emaciated child, in some book at the public library. For me, that moment was the start of learning about a much bigger and more serious world beyond my comfortable middle-class, middle- America suburban home.
I’m reminded of that long-ago image when I see Benjamin Rusnak’s photograph of an 18-month-old boy, barely alive at a malnutrition center in Guatemala. Rusnak returned annually with his camera and recorded a miracle: eight years later, we see the same child, healthy, arms crossed and smiling. Rusnak’s photos literally help change the lives of his subjects. He shoots humanitarian photojournalistic images for social service agencies and magazines, as well as commercial and fine-art work. From pictures of starving children to landscapes of the American West, his photographs establish connections between himself and his subjects, his subjects and us.
Based in Boca Raton, Florida, Rusnak has won acclaim from Pictures of the Year International, Best of Photojournalism and International Photography Awards, among others. In 2009, he received the prestigious Gordon Parks Award. While at one time he never expected this kind of recognition, he knew that he wanted to be a newspaper photographer ever since high school.
Back then, he took fine-art photography classes; assisted his teacher, who was a wedding photographer (“I owe him my whole career”); and developed and printed his “artsy” images in the basement darkroom his father built him. His parents had a sense of social justice, accepting other cultures and ethnicities. “They talked about caring, compassion and fairness,” says Rusnak, who was raised in a Virginia suburb outside Washington, D.C. During the summer, his parents took him and his twin brother to national parks out West, which stimulated his love of travel. So did hearing his Air Force father’s stories about the places he went all over the world. Family subscriptions to The Washington Post and National Geographic helped develop his understanding of the world. He observes, “First, I loved photography. Then, I loved the idea of social activism through telling stories.”
Rusnak took his passion to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where he majored in communications. He learned photography skills on the job, shooting for several community weeklies and the school paper. But when he graduated in 1992, he says, “I didn’t have any connections in the profession, so I was at a disadvantage.” He applied for 47 internships and got number 46, at Agence France-Presse (AFP), a wire service in Washington, D.C. He photographed White House press conferences and Supreme Court protests — “Boring stuff, but I learned about deadlines.”
After AFP, he interned for The Ann Arbor News and The Indianapolis Star, freelanced for The Washington Times and landed a staff job at The News-Press in Ft. Myers, Florida. “I thought I’d be in newspapers my entire career,” says Rusnak.
When his newspaper-editor wife, Susan Bryant, took a job two hours away in Boca Raton, the couple moved there, but there were no openings for Rusnak. Then the photographer who had replaced him in Ft. Myers told him about Food For The Poor, one of the U.S.’s largest international relief and development organizations. Rusnak approached them cold, and they offered him a position as staff photographer, covering some of the most poverty-stricken areas in the world. “Not freelancing, but a real job. I was surprised. I didn’t know a job like that existed,” he says. From 2000 through 2013, he traveled to eight countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Rusnak quickly learned the difference between working for a newspaper and working for a nongovernmental organization. “It’s about intent,” he explains. “Standard photojournalism wants to make a difference in the world by telling a story for readers and politicians, hoping that someone else will enact the change. Humanitarian photojournalism tells a story to the donor base of an organization, which is responsible for raising money to help thousands of people. Also, that organization quantifies the amount of good being done, in lives changed and dollars raised.”
More of this article can be read in the Fall 2014 issue.