ABOUT THE 2003 FELLOW
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 style."
Starving for a more diverse and active environment, Chakarova left Baltimore and moved to San Francisco in 1994, where she studied photography—first 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 reception.
"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 the village."
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 one-room schoolhouse.
"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 subjects.
"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."