|Andre' Harper photo
show of Mimi Chakarova's photos
When Mimi Chakarova's family left her native Bulgaria
and migrated to Baltimore in 1989, the teenager felt alone and
out of place. Desperate to find a niche, she saved her money,
bought a simple point-and-shoot camera, and started taking pictures.
"Baltimore was a very segregated town,
both economically and ethnically," recalls Chakarova, now a lecturer
in the Graduate School of Journalism. "My family was both poor
and foreign, so we struggled. Since I couldn't speak English,
I used the camera as a way to communicate."
Her unique ability to communicate through
photography has earned Chakarova the 2003 Dorothea Lange Fellowship.
"It's important to respect and learn from
those who have come before you," she explains. "Seeing how the
masters chose to document their subjects helped me develop my
Starving for a more diverse and active
environment, Chakarova left Baltimore and moved to San Francisco
in 1994, where she studied photographyfirst at City College,
then at the San Francisco Art Institute. She earned her degree,
but felt "there had to be something more."
"I was trained as a fine-arts photographer,
which means you spend a lot of time exploring yourself," she says.
"I found I was more interested in others than looking inward."
Though she initially pursued documentary
filmmaking, Chakarova was discouraged by the field's expense and
lack of opportunity. She decided to try documentary photography,
and found a career that, over the years, has taken her around
the world, often to places most people would like to avoid, like
the impoverished shantytowns of South Africa.
"The residents there were so surprised
to see me," she explains. "One woman told me that in the 30 years
she had lived there, no one from the outside had ever come to
see the horrible conditions in which they existed."
She also traveled to Jamaica to explore
life for people living in the shadows of giant luxury resorts.
But those in the community where she stayed were distrustful of
a white woman with a camera around her neck, and gave her a chilly
"They assumed I was there to take pictures
for calendars or postcards; that they were once again being exploited
for profits they would never see," she says. "I was shut out,
and almost gave up on the project. But I was eventually befriended
by a young, mentally retarded man, and he introduced me around
Once the community came to trust Chakarova,
she was able to document their deplorable lack of basic needs,
including electricity, running water, and proper education. Back
in the states, she used the photos to inform others about the
situation there, and sold prints to raise money for the village's
"I go wherever stories are not being told,
or are being told through a slanted perspective," says Chakarova
of her projects. "To be successful, my photos must not only educate
people, but motivate them to take action."
Among her most recent work are photos
depicting life at the Creative Growth Center in Oakland, a facility
where people with mental, emotional, and physical disabilities
produce works of art that are later sold, with the artists receiving
a percentage of the profits. She'll use the fellowship money to
complete the second phase of this project, profiling people with
disabilities as they go through their everyday lives.
But first she's off to Eastern Europe
to document the trafficking of women there, a trade that has flourished
in recent years. "I want to find out why this is happening," she
says, "and see if I can help bring an end to this awful enslavement."
While Chakarova has been praised for having
an "unfailingly good eye," she says the most important part of
documentary photography is not the technical aspect of operating
a camera, but the relationships one must build with his or her
"Anyone can learn about light, composition,
aperture settings, and developing film," she says. "The most difficult
skill to acquire is the ability to connect with people."