- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2008

By David Elliot Cohen
Sterling, 27.95, 336 pages

For David Elliot Cohen, “photojournalism can really change the world.” This bold conviction has led the best-selling editor of the “Day in the Life” series to step away from his own tried-and-true formula and come back with “What Matters,” a book that holds up a magnifying mirror to the world and presents a rather uncomfortable self-examination.

“In our digital age, photography has become wallpaper,” he lamented in a recent interview. “With ‘What Matters,’ I wanted to give pictures that make a difference a chance to call out” to the spectator.

During the 1980s and ‘90s, Mr. Cohen pioneered the art of assigning hundreds of top journalists to cover a random theme for 24 hours. In the 21st century, however, he says he has decided to value content over method.

Inspired by the historic works of Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine and Eddie Adams, photographers who he says were able to “spur real-world reforms,” Mr. Cohen started by putting together a long list of issues including Islamic fundamentalism, climate change and chronic poverty and sent it to leading photo editors around the world.

“I wanted to offer the reader a compendium of decades of photo-reportage,” he explained.

He mentioned James Natchwey as a major influence. One of the world’s most influential war photographers, Mr. Natchwey assembled a landmark collection of 382 war-crime photos under the title ‘Inferno’ published in 2000.

In “What Matters,” Mr. Natchwey contributed to the chapter “The Bottom Billion” depicting global poverty.

“The bravery of Nachtwey’s ‘Inferno’ book inspired me,” Mr. Cohen said. “It is very shocking but also very courageous. I’ve tried to be brave with ‘What Matters’ and didn’t censure any images because I thought they were too difficult or strong.”

The most moving pictures in the book are from Asia, depicting child brides in Afghanistan, homeless people in Indonesia, untouchables in India and workers suffering from stomach cancer in China. Europe, America, Middle East and Africa are also widely covered.

“Child brides was not on my original list,” Mr. Cohen said. “I got convinced by the pictures of Stephanie Sinclair.” Photographed in Afghanistan, Nepal and Ethiopia, Ms. Sinclair’s “Lost Girls” give a human face to an issue often invisible on the international stage.

“Child marriage is probably the most regularly occurring socially-approved human abuse in the world today,” writes Judith Bruce in the text accompanying a dozen striking photographs.

The list of contributing photographers includes 20 of the most celebrated in the world, among them: Sebastiao Salgado, Lauren Greenfield and Shehzad Noorani.

The next step was to find experts to write “passionate and polemical” pieces on each topic, Mr. Cohen said, giving birth to 18 powerful stories that attempt to revive the great tradition of muckraking journalism.

Essays arrived from leading think tanks and a rollcall of professors from Harvard to the University of California at Berkley. “I want the reader to go through a process,” Mr. Cohen said. “First, look at the pictures. Then, if you find something that interests you, read about it in more depth. Finally, if that moves you, go back and see what you can do about it.” The last section of the book provides links and further study on each topic.

“The book is meant to inspire action,” Mr. Cohen said. Then he quoted advice from the opening chapter of the book by Bill McKinnen: “With no picture, no uproar, not in a visual age.”

Finishing her master’s degree in journalism at the Paris Institute for Political Studies (Sciences-Po), Anne-Laure Buffard is an intern on the foreign desk at The Washington Times.

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