In Conversation with Laura Elizabeth Pohl
Scrolling through the @EverydayEverywhere account, Laura Elizabeth Pohl noticed one guest curator had selected images with hints of yellow, another focused on hands. She was intrigued by the idea of a theme but decided to play with a more subtle one — mystery.
“On the first day of curating, I realized that if I didn’t set parameters for myself, I’d drive myself crazy searching through a lot of amazing photos for just one to post,” Laura says. “Then at the end of the week there’d be this random collection of pictures on the Instagram feed.”
Her selects have an ethereal quality. A boy kicks a soccer ball, his feet invisible, swallowed by clouds of dust. A young girl stares into a floral print curtain, illuminated by her headlamp. An Iranian family rides a motorcycle through a pool of black and white textures. A photo of tailors in Delhi particularly caught Laura’s eye.
“The first time I looked at the picture, I thought it was surreal: two men hunched over sewing machines, toiling on a platform above a sea of muted blue and purple clothing,” Laura says.
A man in the background of the image caught her eye. At first, she thought he was staring out through a small window under the tailors. After taking a better look, she realized the man wasn’t staring through a window but rather reflected in a mirror.
“I kind of shivered,” Laura said. “Was that their supervisor? A customer? That man made the picture for me. It all felt so strange and mysterious.”
Laura started telling stories when she was 10, reporting from her neighborhood playground. The hobby turned into a profession, landing her at Dow Jones Newswires in the late ‘90s, where she worked as a business reporter, first in New York City and then in South Korea. But when South Korea co-hosted the World Cup in 2002, she turned to a new tool to tell stories – her camera. The national team had never won a World Cup game before and surprised everyone, upsetting several of the world’s best teams.
“Words alone couldn’t capture the energy, excitement and craziness of the street celebrations after every South Korean win,” Laura said. “It had to be pictures.”
She says the World Cup moved South Korean society, a country stuck between two super powers and ravaged by wars and foreign invasions. It gave South Koreans a reason to be proud of their country.
“I had so much fun photographing the celebrations and emailing World Cup photo reports to friends and family in the United States,” Laura said.
“I thought a photographer’s life was all action and engagement. I wanted that to be my life, not sitting at a computer most of the time and writing, writing, writing. Little did I realize then that running a photo business does involve a lot of sitting at a computer and writing!”
A year later she quit her reporting job and moved back to the United States to study photojournalism. As a photographer, she says she often benefits from the lessons she learned as a writer. During her five years as a reporter she says she had the great privilege of being edited by top-notch journalists.
“I learned a lot from them, like how to write a lede that hooks the reader and how to pace your interview questions to draw out interesting answers,” Laura says.
After earning her Masters degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri, Laura eventually found her niche in humanitarian storytelling. “I was a journalist for many years but became frustrated by having to be objective,” Laura says. “I wanted to be an advocate for issues I cared about, like the lives of refugees, access to healthcare and access to food.”
Laura offers insight on being a humanitarian photographer in an FAQ on her website, answering questions about working for free, gear, pricing and some pros and cons of the profession. She also started NGO Storytelling in 2012 as a way to inspire and inform other humanitarian storytellers. Laura and colleague Crystaline Randazzo also curate @NGOStorytelling on Instagram, where they feature photos from other humanitarian storytellers.
During her career as a humanitarian photographer and filmmaker, Laura lived for a few years in Africa, mostly in Rwanda, and used her photography while there to help show a different side of the country.
“Say ‘Rwanda’ to most people, and they automatically conjure up one of two images: the genocide or mountain gorillas,” Laura says. “But just like any other country, Rwanda is more complex than its visual stereotypes.”
She took dozens of images with her iPhone that depict a more complex Rwanda.
“Rwanda is safe and poor, filled with working people and quirky people, mud homes and skyscrapers, fancy parties and simple gatherings,” Laura says. “It’s complicated, beautiful, and interesting, just like any other country.”
With her work Laura ultimately aims to show how “we are all much more alike than not, no matter where we live, what job we do or what faith we follow.”
Laura says that the photos from The Everyday Projects show just that — she says we all want and experience the same things in our lives: to feel safe and loved, to have enough food and water, to have shelter and clothing, to have access to education and jobs, to laugh and have fun.
“Especially in this time of divisiveness — not just in the United States, where I’m from, but other countries, too — I think initiatives like the Everyday Projects are critical for reminding people all over the world of our shared humanity.”