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BEST OF 2013, Mary Calvert
Annapolis, MD
Project: Self-funded documentary project for travel to northern Nigeria to cover the after-effects of the polio epidemic.

© Mary F. Calvert

© Mary F. Calvert


Mary F. Calvert traveled to northern Nigeria at her own expense to document the subsequent effects of a polio epidemic in densely populated areas, where open sewers and poor hygiene transmit the virus. Muslim clerics and politicians had banned citizens from accepting the vaccine, creating public mistrust, crippling more than 3,000 children and reinfecting more than 20 countries with the virus.

“I believe that journalists have a duty to shine a light into the deepest recesses of the human experience and provide a mirror for society to examine itself,” Calvert explains. “I worked hard to tell this story through the people affected, with compassion and their dignity intact.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Mary F. Calvert: I’ve been an independent photographer for three years, before that I was a newspaper photographer for 20 years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

MFC: One year.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

MFC: Photojournalism, reportage, executive portraiture.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

MFC: Great cameras are tools that help me get the job done, but my most valuable tool is my unshakable tenacity to tell someone’s story. When I set my mind to a project, I rarely let go until I complete it.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

MFC: I consider myself a triage journalist because I have dedicated my career to seeking out and telling the under-reported stories of women and children in crisis. I have consciously steered away from the stories that attract the journalistic pack in order to give a voice to the voiceless.

ASMP: How did you first learn about the polio epidemic in Nigeria? When did you begin photographing this issue and how much time have you dedicated to this project to date?

MFC: I learned about the polio epidemic in Nigeria in 2009 and dedicated a couple of months to the story.

ASMP: Why did you choose to make these photographs in black-and-white instead of color? What process or camera function do you use to achieve this effect?

MFC: I like the impact that black-and-white adds to my social documentary work. I shot the series in color then changed it to black-and-white in Photoshop.

ASMP: You often photograph difficult social issues happening throughout the world, Nigeria: Polio’s Line in the Sand being just one. How do manage emotionally while bearing witness to tragedy? How do you keep “shining the light” as you say?

MFC: At the end of every day, I discuss what I saw, felt and smelled with the reporter traveling with me. I also keep a trip journal. Most importantly though, I rely on my husband, photographer Joe Eddins, and the rest of my family to get me through the rough patches after a particularly traumatic assignment.

ASMP: You say you “worked hard to tell this story through the people affected, with compassion and their dignity intact.” What are some of the actions you take to preserve the dignity of your subjects while you photograph them?

MFC: First off, I do a ton of research before I leave town. I approach my subjects not as someone there to “take” something from, but to “make” something with them.

ASMP: What equipment did you use to photograph Nigeria: Polio’s Line in the Sand and why? Is there other dedicated gear that you keep in your arsenal, in addition to what you used for this story?

MFC: I try to keep my equipment pretty simple and I like to travel as light as possible: Nikon D3S, Nikon D3, Nikkor 24-70 lens and a Nikkor 70-200 lens.

ASMP: Nigeria is a country that some consider quite dangerous. What was your experience traveling within Nigeria?

MFC: Yes, Nigeria can be dangerous. There is some level of risk associated with the kind of work that I do. While I try not to take unnecessary chances, sometimes it just goes with the territory. The women and children I photograph in places like Nigeria, Congo and Afghanistan live with danger every day and that helps me to move past my fears and bring back their stories.

ASMP: What is your process for finding and securing trusted local contacts such as fixers, translators, drivers and security staff in locations such as this?

MFC: Sometimes I’ll get suggestions from a local NGO for drivers, fixers and translators. Most often however, I get recommendations from local journalists, in-country.

ASMP: How do you manage to communicate with your subjects when there’s a language barrier? What steps do you take to build rapport when you don’t share a common language?

MFC: I always learn a few words in the local language so I can at least speak a couple of words of greeting, plus please and thank you to my subjects. Strangely enough, sometimes the language barrier has an advantage in that the subjects and I cannot talk to each other, so they forget me and go on with their daily lives. This helps me to be more of a “fly on the wall.”

ASMP: You’ve photographed people all over the world, from the very rich and accomplished to the very poor and largely forgotten. Does your approach differ in photographing these disparate groups? What have you learned about humanity in covering such a wide range of people?

MFC: My approach doesn’t really change at all. I think when you get down to it, most people just want to be treated with respect and kindness when we connect with each other.

ASMP: The Association of Female Journalists (AFJ) recently selected your project “The War Within: Sexual Violence in America’s Military” for the 2013 Canon Female Photojournalist Award, which will be awarded at Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, France this August. What does this honor mean to you?

MFC: This award is considered one of the highest honors for female photographers in our industry and, with so many talented, prolific women competing, I am very, very humbled to have won. I am also so grateful that I can now further my project on military sexual violence.

ASMP: Approximately how many grants or award competitions do you enter annually? Are there particular honors or awards you have not yet achieved that top your list?

MFC: I enter between 25 and 40 competitions a year. Id find that entering keeps me organized, and winning elevates my brand and helps to finance more projects. I don’t shoot for contests though; the most important thing to me is the work and fidelity to my subjects.

ASMP: What kinds of criteria do you use in identifying which grants, competitions or calls to submit your projects? How much time do you spend researching these opportunities and preparing submissions?

MFC: I do a lot of research on the organizations sponsoring the competitions and make sure they are legit, not too expensive and not a rights grab. It takes a couple of months to get the pictures edited, toned and captioned for entry.

ASMP: The “new media” pieces on your Web site contain stills matched with audio. What equipment do you use for gathering audio? Please talk about your learning curve in working with sound.

MFC: I use a small Edirol recorder with an external mike. My learning curve has been very steep for sound. I’m still learning how to put it all together.

ASMP: In some of your new-media pieces, you collaborated with J. M. Eddins, Jr. Please describe this collaboration and how the process worked.

MFC: My husband, photographer J.M. Eddins Jr, and I went to Greenland for a travel story. We traded off shooting and gathering sound on alternate days and Joe put most of the multimedia piece together.

ASMP: Are you most accustomed in working solo as a photographer or do you welcome collaboration? Has your experience or outlook about this changed over the course of your career?

MFC: My husband, J.M. Eddins Jr., is a huge part of my success and we collaborate in many ways. A brilliant photographer in his own right, he has been instrumental in editing my pictures, talking through the story development with me and knowing the kinds of stories I like. He often gives me ideas for projects like “The War Within: Sexual Violence in America’s Military.”

ASMP: In your opinion, what are the most challenging aspects of collaborating with others in a project? How do you approach and resolve such challenges?

MFC: Finding time to work with another working person is always difficult. It is also a challenge to find someone that shares the same work ethic, work style and value for a story that one may have. I think it just takes some patience and trial and error.

ASMP: You’re based in Washington, D.C., an obviously strategic location when covering global events. Do you ever imagine yourself moving abroad?

MFC: I would love to move abroad. Family responsibilities keep me living stateside right now.

ASMP: Before beginning a freelance career, you worked as a staff photographer for The Washington Times for 11 years. What were some of the perks and the challenges to being on staff at that newspaper?

MFC: I loved my newspaper career and the excitement of never knowing what my assignments would be from day-to-day. It was also wonderful to have that institution behind me supplying me with equipment and funding for projects.

ASMP: During your time at the paper your daily assignments focused primarily on US Congress, political campaigns and the White House. What, if anything, have you learned from working within these circles that you’ve drawn on in the projects you’ve undertaken around the globe?

MFC: Every time I work at the White House or Capitol Hill I learn some new thing from my fellow photographers. From technique to camaraderie, I have so much respect for all of them. All of this, including the seven-second photo opps we get in the Oval Office, has given me tools that I use on every overseas trip.

ASMP: Is there any political figure or Washington insider who is your favorite subject to photograph? Is there anyone from this sphere that you find most illusive or difficult to do justice to in an image?

MFC: In Washington we go from scripted event to scripted event, so it is very difficult and challenging to make “real” pictures of public figures. This said, I love photographing the very expressive Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

ASMP: Given recent events within the newspaper world (such as the situation at the Chicago Sun Times and recent sales of the Boston Globe and Washington Post), what is your opinion about the future of newspaper photojournalism?

MFC: I am very afraid for newspaper photojournalism, as papers shrink and editors have the mindset that anyone can make a picture. I mean, lots of people have cars too but that doesn’t make every driver Mario Andretti. Also very troubling is the general devaluation of photography and working photographers.

ASMP: What makes a good photographic subject? Do you think there’s anything that’s unphotographable?

MFC: A good photographic subject to me is someone who openly expresses his or her emotions. After that it is up to me to capture it. I don’t really think there is anything unphotographable. Some things are just more difficult than others.

ASMP: Your bio says, “Mary’s true photographic calling was, and continues to be, documenting the humanitarian struggle of women around the world.” Why do you choose to focus on women’s issues?

MFC: Like Nicholas Kristof, I believe that the marginalization of women and girls is the great moral challenge of this century. I am driven to do my part to bring awareness and, hopefully, a chance for a better life for many of these women.

ASMP: When you were growing up, did you have any positive female role models? If so, who are they and what impact have they had on your philosophy?

MFC: My mother Mary T. Calvert was a strong influence on me. She taught me to fight for what I believe in, never give up on people and always, always think about those with fewer rights than myself.

ASMP: In today’s world, do you feel that being a woman is more of a help or a hindrance to the job of photojournalist?

MFC: I have just tried to be the best photojournalist that I can be. Sometimes being a woman helps, sometimes not. I have been invited into some situations because I’m female and kicked out of others because I’m not male. Every circumstance is different.

ASMP: In addition to your work as a photojournalist you also teach workshops. What, if anything, do you learn about photography from your students?

MFC: My students inspire me with their uninhibited, enthusiasm to learn. I love being around when they have their “light bulb” moments, and I often receive notes later, when things come together for them. When I was coming up in the business, other photographers were generous with their expertise and I feel it is my duty to give back. Teaching workshops has made me a better photographer, journalist and person.

ASMP: Given all of the photo stories you’ve worked on over the years, what story and/or situation/location has been the most memorable for you and why?

MFC: My Ethiopia’s Trail of Tears story about obstetric fistula was probably the most memorable because it was my first project about women in crisis. I had never really done a story that meant so much to someone: a story that could actually bring awareness and relief to those affected. It started me down the path that I am still traveling today.

ASMP: What story and/or situation/location has been your most challenging to date?

MFC: I think my Congo’s War on Women project had the most impact on me. It was a very dangerous, traumatic trip and I have never met such brave women who had faced and survived so many horrific experiences.

ASMP: From a post on your blog about your love for the Golden Gate Bridge, we know that you’re married. How do you balance home life and a career about which you’re so passionate?

MFC: Though I am very passionate and dedicated to my work; my family and home life are very important to me. I am fortunate to be married to photographer Joe Eddins, who is very understanding when I come home and say I’m going to Congo or Afghanistan. I could not ask for a more supportive partner to help me ride the ebbing and flowing tide of work and home.

ASMP: Where do you ideally see yourself in ten years time? Have you set any major personal or professional goals for yourself in the years ahead?

MFC: In ten years, I see myself alive and well, happy with my family and continuing my work.