How two photographers are teaching the next generation of visual storytellers.
Photos by Zach Arias, Andre Berg, and Cristoph Schreiber
They say a picture is worth a thousand words—but how do you make sure it says the right words? How do you capture an image that tells the most honest version of the story? How do you clearly communicate important details? Zack Arias can teach you if, for ten days, you’re willing to give up everything except a passport and a camera.
In the beginning, Zack didn’t take photography seriously. His father was an amateur photographer, and when Zack was 15, his dad gave him a camera. “In high school I joined the yearbook staff,” he said. “I used photography as a hall pass.”
After high school, Zack went to college because “that’s what you’re supposed to do,” but he struggled to maintain his grades at Piedmont. He turned back to photography as an elective course to help boost his grades—a class that ended up changing the direction of his life when the professor pulled him aside to say, “You’ve got talent.”
The professor believed in Zack, and she helped him apply to the University of Georgia School of Art in 1993. He got in, but his mindset wasn’t there yet. “I kept asking people, ‘How will I make money from this?’ And they kept telling me that it should be a passion,” he said.
He ended up failing out of school and moving back in with his dad. In his early 20s, and feeling miserable, he sold everything he owned, bought a VW bus, and hit the road for six months. Then, a few things happened.
He discovered an inexpensive two-year commercial photography program. It was the birth of his career. Then, in 1996, he watched Schindler’s List for the first time. “What dawned on me after watching it was that someone used film as a medium to tell a story that affected people’s lives,” he said. “Someone could see this movie even years later and be affected by it. So I decided I was going to be a photojournalist.”
Learning it was hard to make money in photojournalism, he used commercial photography and workshops as a way to fund his passion projects. While working on a partnership with Fuji in Morocco, he came up with an idea on how to use his commercial work for the greater good. He called up a friend he’d met from a previous workshop, Andre Berg. Andre was working with an organization trying to make secondary schools accessible for Moroccan children in remote villages. “I told him that I had to work on promo material for this new Fuji camera, and I wanted to help whoever I was photographing. The money from Fuji covered my expenses. On the trip, we produced imagery and video that Fuji could use but also that the education organization could use,” Zack said.
During a dinner after the trip, Andre asked Zack what was next. At that table, the DED-PXL Tour was born. “I had an idea of a workshop where people meet me at an airport with their passport and their camera,” said Zack. “They have no idea where we’re going, and we do something like the work we were doing in Morocco.”
“Sometimes the cliched idea of philanthropy is the poor little child with flies on her mouth. ‘Look at this child! Don’t you want to feed her!’” said Zack. “In Morocco it was healthy kids with food and loving families. The story should be, ‘Look at these healthy kids and how much better off they can be with education! They’re just people who have challenges in front of them. Images and video can tell that story—no sympathy; we’re looking for empathy.”
Andre turned out to be the perfect partner for Zack’s workshop idea.He was already working full-time with philanthropic organizations all over the world, but not just any organizations—only ones that truly met the needs of local communities. “The money isn’t always ending up in the right hands,” he said. “It’s important for the people in those communities to have a voice of some kind.”
“You don’t go build houses in a city that tells you that they need a school,” said Zack.
Andre knew how important good imagery could be for a philanthropic organization. “It’s hard for some to spend money on non-project related things,” Andre said. “So a lot of these organizations don’t have good photos to tell their story, and with the dawn of social media, the need is more important than ever.”
Zack and Andre put their heads together, Zack planning the technical photography skills he would share and Andre planning the details of the trip. “It isn’t easy to pull off from a planning standpoint,” Andre said. “It’s not about getting the most applications; it’s about getting the right applications. Then there’s details to work out, like making sure everyone has a passport, and things like proper vaccines.”
“I also didn’t want this to be poverty tourism,” said Zack. “I didn’t want to be well-off, privileged people going into a community. I wanted us to learn about the culture, about the people, what they’re doing in their life—not be tourists, but guests.”
Three years after their fateful dinner, the first DEDPXL Tour finally came to fruition. Eight photographers signed up—for what, they weren’t 100 percent sure, but they all shared a sense of adventure and excitement for the unknown ahead. “We set up an online group for the trip, so we got to know each other a little before we met in person,” said Zack.
They met in Johannesburg, where they spent two days before their first blind trip to Soweto Township, where Nelson Mandela was raised. “The townships are shanty towns that the black people were forced to move to during Apartheid,” said Zack. “We worked with an education initiative trying to update the curriculum in the township schools. They take in tablets and have the students play with apps.They took in a 3D printer—this in a place where most people’s only computer is their smartphone.”
While they were there, tourist bus after tourist bus came through, stopped at Mandela’s home, and left. The DEDPXL group stayed in a hostel, ate at the local spots, and played soccer with the kids.In other words, they learned the true story of Soweto, and immersing themselves in the community allowed them to capture it on film.
"I THINK WE ARE MAKING PEOPLE INTO BETTER STORYTELLERS."
From there, they traveled to Gaborone, Botswana, and to Windhoek, Namibia, often only warning the group, “Be packed and ready to go at 5 a.m.” They traveled by bus, plane, and Toyota4x4s. They stayed in lodges, in hostels, and sometimes in 5-star accommodations. But everywhere they went, they made a point to get to know the people who lived there, to eat with them and talk with them. How can you tell people’s story when they haven’t shared it with you?
“We want to have personal and intimate conversations with the people we visit,” said Andre. “Just to get a little bit more insight on the world they’re living in on a day-to-day basis. Photographers might go out looking for a picture, but that’s not how you shape your craft. The best thing a photographer can do is learn to be patient—connect the impressions they experience with the images they capture. I think we are making people into better storytellers.”
After ten packed days, it was time to head back home. The tour had been successful for the photographers and the philanthropies they worked with along the way. Zack was thrilled with the results.“I could tell they were more confident photographers by the end,”he said. “They weren’t afraid to get in there and get the picture.”
Zack and Andre just completed a second DEDPXL Tour this past October, with three more tours planned over the next three years. “This time the trip sold out less than 24 hours after we announced it,” said Andre. “Out of the eight people who came on the first trip, about half of them returned for the second.”
Although they would love to do more than one trip a year, Zack and Andre decided to focus on quality over quantity. “We don’t want to do cookie-cutter trips,” said Zack. “And these take a year of planning. Andre is a master at this.”
“We work with locals and non-profits, so there’s a lot behind the scenes,” Andre said. “It’s a unique offering, and I don’t want it to be inflated by lowering the quality of what the people who travel with us experience.”
As for where the 2020 trip is headed, nobody knows—but if you’re willing to drop everything but your passport and a camera for ten days, you can find out.
PICK UP A COPY OF THE MAGAZINE IN STORES TO READ ABOUT TWO OF THE ORGANIZATIONS DEDPXL PHOTOGRAPHED.