Q&A: Renée C. Byer’s Living on a Dollar A Day

“I think of myself as a journalist who chooses the art of photography to bring awareness to the world. Art is a powerful means of expression, but combined with journalism it has the ability to bring awareness to issues that can elevate understanding and compassion. It’s the basic reality of why I do what I do.”—Renée C. Byer

Approximately one out of six people live on a dollar a day. It’s a statistic that remains abstract for many who do not feel its implications on a day-to-day basis. That’s why photographer Renée C. Byer traveled to four continents to capture the circumstances of people living in extreme poverty—to give us the names and show us the faces of those it haunts. She shows us the poor whose lives are dominated by health problems that are treatable with modern medicine, who work hard in hazardous conditions for little pay, and who build homes on borrowed land because, like all human beings, they have to live somewhere. In Living on a Dollar a Day, Byer translates a stark statistic into stories so that we can more easily access our compassion and, hopefully, exercise our humanity.

BECKY HARLAN: Renée, tell me about your new book, Living on a Dollar a Day. How did you get involved with this huge project?

RENÉE C. BYER: The Forgotten International, a San Francisco-based non-profit, was seeking a photojournalist to work on the book. They focus on programs in the U.S. and worldwide that alleviate poverty and the suffering it brings, especially for women and children. I’m pretty well known for working on projects that shine a light on people who are suffering. People who may not have the ability to illuminate those issues themselves. So this was a dream assignment, frankly. The first thing I had to do, though, was to spend a few months figuring out how to carve out some time from working at The Sacramento Bee where I’m a Senior Photojournalist.

BECKY: You have worked for The Sacramento Bee for over a decade, yet you still manage to do these long-term projects. How do you balance daily stories with more in-depth documentary work?

RENÉE: I’ve done many longer term projects throughout my career, and some are very emotionally taxing, very challenging. So the daily assignment is a great break for me. Although it’s challenging to juggle the two, it also can be a relief for me. So shooting orchids in a beautiful greenhouse for a daily assignment is a luxury for me rather than traveling the globe to report on human tragedy of enormous proportions. I like the mix, frankly. It works well for me because it helps pace my emotions.

I’m also very focused in my own community. For example, I’ve done several stories on the California economy crisis even throughout working on Living On A Dollar A Day. I’m always trying to focus on issues that are important, whether they’re in my community or in someone else’s community. I feel like we all share this earth together and one always will impact another.

BECKY: When you were working on your Pulitzer Prize-winning photo essay, A Mother’s Journey, which chronicles the relationship between a mother and her son as he struggled with Neuroblastoma, you clearly spent a lot of time with the family. How did you deal with working on Living on a Dollar a Day, a project where you spent a little time with a lot of different people?

RENÉE: You know, for me, spending time with my subjects is very important to make that intimate connection. When covering out-of-the country assignments, there are a lot of different variables, so first, depending on the countries, you might need an interpreter, security, a driver, a social worker, so it’s more difficult to get that one-on-one connection that you might get in the U.S. Your most important connection is with your helper, making them understand what you’re doing as a photojournalist. Working on A Mother’s Journey was actually very important to this because I could show the people I was working with that body of work and then they would understand what I was trying to accomplish.

BECKY: So it’s still about connecting with people, but it’s about connecting with the people who are helping you connect to your subjects?

RENÉE: Yes, you’re still having to do it, but now you’re having to do it to educate the people in the country who are helping you. You can’t assume that they know what photojournalism is, so you’re having to explain storytelling. You have to start from the ground up. As I gained images and stories while I was working in different countries, I would show them those stories as well. Just like the story [from Living On A Dollar A Day] on Jestina Koko, that was where I had shown my previous work from other countries, and then the fixer saw what I was really trying to do and they said, “Oh we have this case scenario,” and they connected me to Jestina.

BECKY: Tell me about Jestina’s story.

RENÉE: She can’t walk, and so she drags herself about her home. Well she’s actually squatting in someone else’s home. They’re allowing her to sleep in this hallway with her child. I remember that her only hopes and dreams were first, to get herself a place, a little apartment or room that she and her daughter could live in so she wasn’t in this trafficky area in this other place, and also that her little girl could go to school. This is a great example of where a child is not able to go to school because she’s needed to help her mother. Her mother doesn’t have enough money to put her in school. The cycle for her is very grim. Everything is about getting from today to tomorrow. If it wasn’t for the good will of a neighbor she would be sleeping outside.

Jestina has struggled with this disability since the age of three. So she’s living and begging on the sides of the street. When it’s raining she can’t drag herself out, so she has to work really hard on days when the weather is nice to make up for that. She does laundry for other families, she makes cookies to try and sell, you can see how hard working she is. You see this in almost every country. Nobody is lacking the will to work, they just need a little bit of extra help to get out of the poverty cycle.

BECKY: You’re known for capturing really intimate, relational moments in your photo essays. Tell me about that.

RENÉE: Whether the story is done in the U.S. or abroad, the most important thing is to let it unfold on its own. Time and access are the essence of compelling photojournalism. I have this innate curiosity that drives me beyond the obvious. For me it’s very important to go behind the scenes and into their home to find pieces of daily life that everyone can relate to. So people aren’t seeing a photo that will push them away, but will pull them back into the scene. So they’re not being overwhelmed by the emotion, but they’re able to relate to the emotion. So that they can imagine themselves trying to live this life, and in some way, hopefully, they could help.

For instance, we were at a slum in Delhi, and I see this little boy scavenging in this horrible garbage wasteland. He’s got bare hands, no protective clothing. He’s wearing flip flops, I think. And he’s looking for a few rags to sell as material to earn some money for his family. I’m standing there in insufferable heat, my shoes are literally melting it’s so hot, and all I’m thinking about, focusing on, is how can I tell this story about this little boy? No one else can smell this terrible smell that I’m smelling, nobody can feel this intense heat, nobody can imagine this wasteland that I’m standing in. How can I give this justice in a photograph? That’s what’s going on in my head. I’m trying very hard in my head to translate that to someone who has never been there. Later on, I went inside his family’s home. I had no idea what the inside of any of these places was like, so I was just stunned that it was this one tiny 10’ x10’ room with just a bed. That was their entire living space. And these boys just started playing on the bed. It was such a beautiful slice of life. It’s one of those moments that’s so unexpected that you just feel privileged to be witness of. To me it was such an interesting dichotomy between this child and his determination to try to find something to help his family survive and then later in the day having him play in this very childlike way on the bed with his brothers, and it was this range of emotion which is so important in this kind of work. It shows how the human spirit can transcend even the worst deprivation.

BECKY: What is next for you? Will you be returning to photograph any of these individuals featured in Living on a Dollar a Day?

RENÉE: This project was enormous. I’ve been working on it for three or four years, and I don’t see it ever leaving my life. I’m not sure where it’s going to go or where I’ll wind up. Right now I’m very focused on getting the pictures into the right places so that we can really try to motivate change—to work with the pictures that have already been made so that these voices can be heard. Everyone thinks that we live in this glamorous world, and of course part of being a photojournalist is making the images, but I find that people don’t understand that the biggest challenge is getting the photos in the right forum to motivate change.

BECKY: Is there anything else that you want to add?

RENÉE: There’s one photo of a little girl that is being starved to death on purpose so that her mother can beg with her on the street to elicit money to feed her other children. You know the hardest part about those kinds of photographs is that they’re so alien or so foreign that people just can’t look at them. They just dismiss them and turn the page. Because it’s so unimaginable that it could be happening. It was one of the most egregious things I saw, frankly. It’s unimaginable to us, but for the mother it was all she could think to do. And that just gets to the depth of depravity that’s out there. This mom can’t think of another way to survive without sacrificing one of her children. The picture was so harrowing that I fear people will just dismiss it and turn the page instead of really looking into the eyes of this child. Could you even imagine your baby looking like this—being two years old and only weighing nine pounds?

It’s very very easy to look at these images as if they’re not real, but they are real. This does exist. The biggest challenge is making that connection, so that people understand that there are 18,000 children under the age of five dying every day from causes that are preventable. I’m serious. How can that be happening in this day and age? And that’s why this book is a call to action. I hope in my lifetime that we can make a difference, and eradicate this—that we can have a shared humanity.

Renée C. Byer is a represented by Zuma Press. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winner, a Senior Photojournalist at The Sacramento Bee, and the photographer for The Forgotten International’s book, Living on a Dollar a Day, which was released in early April 2014. To learn more about how you can help TFI alleviate poverty, visit their webpage.

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