Jason Benovoy, lawyer & photographer

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Jason reminds me of a young Sebastião Salgado, a Brazilian social documentary photographer and photojournalist. They share a passion and commitment to social justice issues and photography. Jason has the wonderful ability to allow the subjects he photographs to tell their story, to open up and be vulnerable. He is a witness to their reality. Jason is humble, down to earth and inspiring in more ways than he realizes. It gives me great pleasure to introduce him to you here and showcase some of his work. His work deserves to be seen in a gallery setting. If you can help make that happen, or you know of someone who can, please let me know or contact Jason directly. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did. Jason, keep doing your amazing thing. http://www.jasonbenovoy.com/

Tell me about your work as a lawyer
We started with Syria about four years ago [Jason is a refugee and immigration lawyer]. It’s when we first started seeing cases trickle in and then it was a huge explosion.

What motivates you to do it?
When we win cases it’s a huge win. Money-wise obviously not for this kind of law but the difference you can make not just for one person but a whole family is motivating. A single case requires so much time, energy and money to win. If you win one case you have made a huge difference for that one person but there are literally four million people behind them waiting in camps. You end up asking yourself ‘whether this raw energy, this gross energy that I am investing can be spent somewhere else for larger impact’. It’s hard to say. It is a bit selfish to ask. From our client’s perspective you have made a huge difference for them but on a global perspective it’s insignificant. It’s difficult to juggle that. You focus on small victories.

Let’s talk about photography.
I think it is one of the most amazing methods of communication. Every millisecond there is some nuance of something that is happening. Most of it we don’t pay attention to because we are continuously on to the next moment. A photograph is a freeze of a moment that otherwise you might have never noticed. It forces you to look at, to analyze it. As a method of documentation photography it is very effective and accessible. You don’t have to go to a museum or spend millions of dollars to buy it, view it or enjoy it.

How did you get started?
When I was 15 my dad bought me an old Nikon F camera. I had one 50mm lens and just started taking pictures. I learned how to develop photos a little bit after that.

What did you take pictures of when you got started?
I grew up in the country in Cantley so it was my family, some cool tree which it turns out didn’t photograph very well. For me it was a cool thing to have around. It was never a primary focus of organizing an outing or trip. I have a twin brother who got into it as well and he excelled at it. So when I saw that, I was like ‘wow man, that’s cool, those are nice pictures yet I am the one who started first so my pictures should be better than yours’. That started a brotherly competition. I took it a lot more seriously and I learned a lot from him.

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You have traveled and lived and worked in a lot of different places. How has that influenced your photography?
The first big thing I did was at the end of 2004 following the Indian Ocean Tsunami. I organized, with a few buddies, an exploratory trip to Sri Lanka that was heavily hit. We were doing a reconnaissance project for an NGO based in Vancouver. Sri Lanka was going through a bizarre time in the summer of 2005. They were starting the reconstruction process. It took a long time for aid organizations to mobilize. The country at that time was very politically unstable so there was less desire to go there. When we went there it was very fresh. Everything was destroyed. I knew it was a very historic moment for the country. I carried my Nikon camera with me and took pictures of what was going on. Surprisingly most of them turned out really good.

Why surprisingly?
That trip was an extremely difficult one. To be surrounded by so much suffering was really difficult to digest and I was quite young.  No one can get ready for something like that. To see that level of disaster mixed in with the political context of what was going on in the country. And it was challenging physically, middle of summer, southern tip of Sri Lanka, it was insanely hot. Infrastructure was heavily affected by what they had gone through and the security situation was deteriorating. It was a very stressful trip. I feel like I was taking the photos and not taking them. I was randomly shooting. There was no purposeful framing. I was so overwhelmed by what was happening that it was kind of a reflex basically.

What have you done with the photos?
I haven’t put them anywhere because they are film.  After leaving Sri Lanka I had a two day layover in Paris. It was a really a good and a really bad decision at the same time. Very bad because I had no more money and it’s hard to get around Paris without a lot of money so the only thing I could do is walk. The wine was cheaper than water. It was difficult to find free water – bars and cafes would charge you for a glass of water. I was young and thought ‘this makes economic sense’ so I drank wine and walked around with my camera.

The experience of going through those 5-6 weeks in Sri Lanka being in the middle of total devastation where everything is wiped out to Paris which is hands down one of the most purposefully beautiful places on the planet was a really difficult reverse culture shock. Everything is studied so finely ‘how can we make this the most beautiful it can be’ it is so over the top gorgeous. I just went to absolute devastation to complete opposite in a matter of hours. I was much more deliberate with my photography in Paris. I realized how absurd all of these details are just for aesthetics. It was no judgement. I was trying to process everything I had gone through.

You recently completed a photo essay for the Ethiopian Women with Disabilities National Association?
A group of women with disabilities has created one of the most mind-blowing and effective associations that I have ever seen in all my years of working on that continent.  These women completely kicked ass. They are so well organized, effective, powerful influential and at the same time kind, understanding, very down to earth and totally devoted to their cause.

Tell me about the project?
The Association was preparing for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3. They saw photography as a really effective medium to showcase their work and I volunteered to do it. They did the most outstanding job of structuring the days and brokering the cultural barrier that existed on many levels. There were examples of women who had gone through their training, received small grants and were thriving along with those who are just starting with the Association. Women already have a complicated position in Ethiopian society and having a disability adds this extra layer of vulnerably that is extremely limiting to trying to survive.

woman smiling at a stall

What was the experience of photographing these women like?
Right away we got down to the juice. They opened up about the challenges of their childhood, when the disability is acquired and how their family reacted to that. These are difficult things to talk about and associated with significant trauma. The openness they had towards me was extremely generous and very humbling and something that you can never plan for. Photography, if you use it cleverly, can be a passport to a community. To have a purpose and to have a tool that allows you to document their story really changes that relationship. I am here to represent what they want me to see about them. For a community that might not have that kind of exposure or attention it was pretty energizing.

 

What I was able to photograph was 100% the result of the people I was photographing. It’s them allowing me to take those pictures and the Association brokering the relationship that gave me the access that made those pictures interesting. They made me a witness to it and I just took the pictures. If you are not good at building that kind of relationship you are never going to get really good photos unless you just take pictures of landscapes or things that don’t talk back at you.

What will you do with the photos?
Two things, large format photos were used as an exhibition for the main event in Ethiopia. The Association owns the material and can use it for other events. I will use that material plus the knowledge that I gained to help them build a proper website. These pictures will be the anchor for that website.

Would you like to do something with the photos in Canada? 
Yes. I would love to. I have their permission to use the pictures. The pictures on the website are a select few but there are so many more that are worth showcasing.

While in Addis Ababa I also took a series of simple portraits of the surviving members of a community of people with leprosy. And I love them. They are such captivating subjects. To understand what it is like to have leprosy in general, and then having leprosy in Ethiopia, is really heavy. There is extreme stigma. It is such a simple treatment, an extremely cheap course of antibiotics and you are cured. But because of the stigma and the way the country is people don’t have access to it and they develop visible signs of leprosy. This community is so isolated and they are right in the capital. People without leprosy avoid getting close to the community because they are scared to catch it which is difficult because none of them are contagious any more. It’s that stigma.

To have a photo series of them sitting on a rickety chair and staring at the camera I think is amazing. These people are isolated but when I was there they were so excited to have their pictures taken. To be able to honour that to show this still exists and this is what it looks like and the people who go through it, it was something else.

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