Olympus Visionary Larry C. Price travels the world, documenting crises and conflict. He’s won not one, but two Pulitzer Prizes for his photojournalism. And we’ll even add on an Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for covering the dangers of underwater gold mining in the Philippines. His most recent project, produced for Undark Magazine, involved traveling to seven diverse cities across five different continents to document the human effects of toxic PM2.5 air pollution.
The results, which you’ll see below, are startling.
Larry’s photos are as haunting as they are beautiful, painting a stark portrait of this world where people live and suffer in the smoke and haze of our industrial bad habits.
For those who don’t know, PM2.5 are hazardous, microscopic airborne chemical particles — sulfur dioxide from power plants, nitrogen dioxide from vehicle exhaust, etc. Most are produced by humans — burning coal & trash and driving vehicles with poor emissions — and what makes them so harmful is their size. At 2.5 micrometers or smaller, these hazardous chemicals easily slip past our respiratory system and lodge themselves in our lungs and bloodstreams.
You can read the full report, and see all of Larry’s photographs, over at undark.org, but we had the pleasure of interviewing Larry about this project, his work and process, and his current gear. I hope you enjoy it.
NOTE: all images © Larry C. Price and have been reposted here with his permission.
Steve’s Digicams: You recently completed a seven-part series on PM 2.5 air pollution (congrats on the George Polk Award, by the way). How did you come to partner with Undark Magazine on this project?
Larry C. Price: This was my second project for Undark Magazine. I’ve been working on stories involving the health effects of environmental pollution since 2012 when I completed a series of stories on child labor abuses in small-scale gold mining in Asia. While photographing these stories, I became aware of the use of mercury in gold mining and the associated health hazards. I became interested in toxic pollution in global industry and photographed a story for Undark about the hazards of chromium pollution from waste products in the tanning and leather industries of India. Undark published this as a four-part series in 2016.
Undark is an incredibly well-designed publication and I wanted to do more work with them. In 2018, I proposed a story looking at the effects of atmospheric pollution on the Indian sub-continent. There is a massive and persistent “pollution zone” from Pakistan that spreads eastward across Indian and Bangladesh. I pitched a modest story to concentrate on pollution in India. Undark felt the proposal was too modest and suggested we expand it to a global report concentrating on PM 2.5, a deadly component of atmospheric pollution that can directly enter the bloodstream and cause a host of deadly diseases. So the project was born and ultimately included seven countries on five continents. I have a great relationship with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington D.C. They are a non-profit journalism foundation that provides grant-based funding for long-form journalism. They have been very supportive of my early work on child labor and now my environmental stories. They provide funding for travel to produce these stories once I have an interested publication.
You and your partners visited Patna, India; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Southern Nigeria; Shijiazhuang, China; the San Joaquin Valley, California; Santiago and Coyhaique, Chile; and North Macedonia. How did these places become the focus of the project, and had you ever been to any of these locations before?
We used a variety of sources to confirm these locations were among the world’s most polluted places. Sources like the World Health Organization, Worstpolluted.org, Pure Earth International and Green Cross International constantly compile data that include PM 2.5 averages. We chose seven locations based on pollution levels, geography and accessibility. I had worked in five of the countries over the years, so I felt equipped to deal with the cultures and travel difficulties unique to each location.
I noticed each project location features a different writer paired with your visuals. How did this process work and how long did you spend in each location?
The project was conceived as a highly-visual multimedia endeavor and Undark wanted a consistent photographic style. I shot stills, 360 and drone video in each location. Undark assigned writers based in each location. In the case of North Macedonia, Tom Zeller, the editor-in-chief of Undark, did the writing for that part. In several cases, I worked alone to shoot the visuals then briefed the writer who pulled background and data together and interviewed their own sources. Otherwise, the writer and I worked the story at the same time. I spent two to three weeks in each location, so there was enough time for us to split up when necessary.
You’ve been reporting on pollution for some time, but were there any big surprises during this particular project?
I think the biggest surprise is how overwhelming and pervasive air pollution is on a global scale. It’s unbelievable how thick and heavy the atmosphere can look when the air quality indices are in the red zone. What’s not surprising is that so many people become so sick with long-term exposure.
Pardon the oversimplifying, but your style seems to be a combination of pure documentary as well as specific compositions that help dramatize the realities of working and living in harsh environments. How do you approach these shoots?
Over the years I’ve worked to minimize the gear I use on assignment and to lessen the impact of the photographic process on my images. I try to find compelling situations and then capture impactful instant that makes the most compelling image. I generally avoid extremes focal lengths––I’d say about 80 percent of my photographs are made with a moderate wide to gentle telephoto zoom. On occasion, I’ll use a long telephoto to compress perspective. That’s a holdover from my newspaper days!
What was the hardest situation to photograph, emotionally or physically?
Children in difficult situations. I’ve done many stories over the years about children in need. These are always the hardest to do but the ones that have the greatest chance of bringing about social change. The PM 2.5 project depended more on endurance than physical strength. On assignment, I walk probably 6-10 miles a day. That’s with gear, so I’m glad my knees are in good condition. I try to stay in reasonably good shape, but I admit I feel it at the end of a long day on the streets. When I did the gold stories, I was often climbing down into these narrow mining shafts––sometimes several hundred feet underground––to photograph the kids at work. This was very demanding and dangerous. But that’s what these children do each day, so I figured I could do it too.
How did your editing process work on this project — how many files did you start with, what software do you use, and how did you approach your edits, stylistically?
I generally work with one camera and two lenses. I’ll travel with a spare body and perhaps a backup lens (yes, I’ve destroyed gear on assignment) but I try to keep things simple and under the radar. I shoot a lot of images when I’m working, perhaps a couple of thousand exposures in a long day. There will be lots of redundant images, but I’m after nuance, refinement, best moment, body language, etc. If I see a nice image, I’ll work it until I know I have the best shot.
All these images are ingested onto two portable drives when I get back to the hotel each night (one hard drive is simply a backup clone.) When I fill a card, it’s stored away––I never reformat cards on the road. So, I have three copies of my work at all times. Once the card is ingested, I’ll set about editing in PhotoMechanic to choose and caption the best images. These selects are ingested into Lightroom where they’re toned and added to a “collection.” From the selects, I’ll assign “4 stars” to the final edit and these are sent to the publication.
On this project, I generally decided on 80-100 submissions. For publication work, captioning and metadata are very important. I’ve used PhotoMechanic since version 1.0 and find it the fastest way to cull huge numbers of images.
You’ve had a decades-long, award-winning career as a photographer. You’ve shot film. You’ve shot digital. Tell me what drew you to Olympus cameras and lenses.
I’ve long admired Olympus as a brand, even going back to the 70s when I started working professionally. I love their philosophy of developing compact, travel-friendly equipment. My introduction to modern Olympus digital equipment coincided with my transition to digital for the majority of my work. I worked with an early Olympus camera on a book project called A Day in the Life of Africa in 2002. It was my first real digital project. I fell in love with the little E-20 digital camera Olympus provided to the photographers. I immediately saw the possibilities of digital imaging and never looked back. I’ve used Olympus gear exclusively since then. Their gear is perfect for the way I work, and their lenses are second to none.
What’s in your kit right now?
Right now, I’m using the new Olympus E-M1X body along with my trusty E-M1 Mark II. I’ve been traveling with the beautiful 12-100mm f4 PRO zoom. It’s a great travel lens. For low-light, I like the 17mm f1.2 PRO. I can shoot in any conditions with just these two lenses. I generally take a small tabletop tripod, a tiny LED light panel, a Garmin VIRB 360 camera, a DJI Spark drone, a Rode Video Mic Pro, a Sennheiser wireless mic setup, and a ZOOM H1N digital recorder. A small pouch holds extra batteries and cables. All this fits in a Think Tank Urban Approach 15 backpack. The Urban Approach will fit on the smallest regional jet and, in a pinch, fit under an airline seat.
Do you have a favorite M.Zuiko lens?
My all-time favorite is the 12-40mm f2.8 PRO zoom. It’s a stunningly sharp lens and is fast enough to work indoors without supplemental lighting. I’ve taken it on many trips as my only lens and never felt lacking. I love the Olympus fast pro-series primes: the 17mm 1.2 is a favorite.
What’s next for you?
I’ll keep working on environmental projects for now. I’m developing a few stories on topics I discovered while shooting the PM 2.5 project.