Helping Others See: The Work of Photographer Larry Louie

Larry Louie
BY Joanna Wong

International photographer LARRY LOUIE leads a dual career. In his optometry clinic, he is a doctor working to enhance the vision of people from all walks of life in an urban North American city. On his travels, he is a humanitarian documentary photographer, exploring the lives and social issues of remote indigenous people. As an optometrist, Louie adjusts people’s visual perception. As a photographer, he seeks to adjust people’s view of the world. In both disciplines, he is interested in things that exist outside the regular field of vision.

Louie’s photographs have often been described as realism at its best. There is a story waiting to be told in every image. His documentation of lives around the world shows the strength and perseverance that defines humanity, revealing the light found in the darkest places. His photographs have received international recognition such as the TYOTY Award, IPA Lucie Award, National Geographic Photo Essay Award, and Humanitarian Documentary Grant with the Worldwide Photography Gala Awards. He is also an avid supporter of Seva Canada, an international nonprofit organization that is a part of VISION 2020, the global initiative for the elimination of preventable blindness by 2020.

How did you come to be an optometrist? How did this practice lead to your becoming a photographer?

Growing up, I actually wanted to become a National Geographic photographer, but my parents discouraged it due to the instability of earning an income. My second choice was a professional career which would provide a steady income and involve some aspect of dealing with vision. Thus, what better work than being an optometrist — gaining an understanding of optics and helping people with their vision. As my practice and career as an optometrist became more established, I began to venture back to photography and travel on a part-time yet serious and consistent basis, this time using both my photography and optometry skills to help people that are less fortunate in the world.

One reviewer has said your work has “a very distinctive style, straddling the fine line of a photojournalist and documentarian.” What is the difference between a photojournalist and a documentarian?

I think the two are similar. A photojournalist captures current issues, breaking news and issues that are relevant and sought after by television, magazines and newspapers. A documentarian uses the same images or a larger body of work to tell a complex story and/or explore certain issues or places. A documentary project can take years to complete.

In terms of being a documentary photographer, what are your goals? What have been some obstacles, if any?

I have two major goals with my photography. The first is to document some of the world’s vanishing cultures and their traditions…. My other goal is to increase awareness of eye care needs in the developing world, especially when most blindness is absolutely preventable…

I have two major goals with my photography. The first is to document some of the world’s vanishing cultures and their traditions. As a result of modernization and globalization, cultures that have been around for thousands of years are now disappearing and becoming extinct. Also, as our world becomes increasingly homogenous, there seems to be an increase in intolerance to cultures and things different from the norm. I want to bring an awareness to these cultures and their traditions and to let the younger generations know that the various customs, identities and values are just as important and valuable as all the new technologies and modern urbanization, and that these cultures should not be dismissed as being backwards.

My other goal is to increase awareness of eye care needs in the developing world, especially when most blindness is absolutely preventable or treatable.

As to obstacles, the main issues always seem to be time and resources. Many of these places I visit require a lot of time for planning, and for traveling. I’m fortunate to have a day job that supports my passion of photography, and am able to shoot and do stories that are important to me. I’m also lucky that my wife Joanna is willing to support me and my endeavors and work in the background organizing our trips, dealing with media, promoting our work and fundraisers.

Most, if not all, of your images are rendered in black and white. Why have you chosen not to work in color photography? How do you make your conversions?

I just like the grittiness and rawness of black and white. I love the way it heightens the contrast between light and shadow. All the images are photographed in the raw mode and then the selected images are converted to black and white in Photoshop.

Since black and white photography removes hue and focuses the viewer’s attention on luminance, how do you select those points of contrast for the viewer’s eye? Do you “see” the picture in black and white before you make the exposure (which is what Ansel Adams did, among other photographers)?

I do see the scene in black and white. Instead of looking for color, I am looking at the lights and darks for highlights, shadows, textures etc. Capturing the light is what photography is all about.

Your use of natural light connects you with past medium- and large-format photographers, who captured images from the same regions, and whose work included blurred subjects because of shutter speed having to be so slow. Yet, with modern digital photography and high ISOs available, the implication is that this shutter speed is an artistic choice. Please comment on this choice, which is reminiscent of photographers such as Linda Connor.

I feel the digital technology has provided the photographer with greater latitude. Yes, it is now an artistic choice and the power of a blurred image or selective focus can be very powerful. The choice of blurred subjects gives the image a sense of energy or chaos such as some of my images taken in a busy market in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Please tell us about your work with Seva. What exactly is preventable blindness? What is it like, reaching out to people in remote areas in terms of optometry and working to help them see?

Seva Canada is an international non-governmental organization whose mission is the elimination of preventable and treatable blindness around the world. As an optometrist and documentary photographer, I am very much aware and concerned about the problem of blindness in the world.

The need for effective global blindness prevention and treatment programs will become increasingly urgent as the number of people in need is rapidly outstripping the eye care services available to them. About 285 million people are visually impaired worldwide: 39 million are blind and 246 million have low vision. 80% of all visual impairment can be prevented, treated or cured, and about 90% of the world’s visually impaired people live in developing countries. Even more disturbing is the fact that two out of three blind people in the world are women and young girls, with most of them living in areas of developing countries where they have limited access to sight-restoring services.

Larry Louie
BY Joanna Wong

The majority of blindness in the world is either preventable or curable. The leading cause of blindness is cataract, the clouding of the eye’s lens. A 10-minute eye surgery to remove the cataract and insert a man-made plastic lens will restore a person’s sight and transform the lives of his or her family and even community. It’s a quick fix that costs just $50 Cdn in the countries where Seva works, including pre- and post-operative care, and has a ripple effect for generations. When you give someone back their sight through eye care such as prescription glasses, the treatment of an eye injury or infection, or a cataract surgery, you free that person’s caregivers from the burden of caring for a blind person. You also enable the person to return to work or school, to care for his or her family and to reach their full potential. Restoring vision is one of the most cost-effective health interventions to reduce poverty.

I work as an optometrist and photographer at Seva projects around the world. And, as a photographer, I use my photographs to promote their work and bring awareness to eye care issues around the world.

It is very gratifying, being able to reach these people in far-off rural areas and provide them with the eye care treatments they need. The gratification is almost instantaneous. After a ten-minute cataract surgery and a maximum of three days recuperation, a blind person can see again and we are usually there to witness the miracle. Most of the time, we really believe we are making a significant difference in the lives of the people we touch and helping them to become an active and useful part of their family and community.

Your environmental portraits show people in squalor, and yet there is often a sense of warmth and joy on the faces of some of your subjects. Could you expand on this seeming dichotomy that makes your images, from a thematic point of view, intriguing and almost incongruous?

In my travels to the slums of develoing countries, I have seen a great deal of happiness and love in the family unit. Even though life is harsh and a struggle, it does not necessarily mean that the people are unhappy or devastated. The harsh and difficult conditions is what a photojournalist may choose to present because that depiction sells newspapers and so the public assumes that aspect is the only one; in reality, there is lots of laughter and enjoyment in the slums. Human beings are very resilient. People who may not have a lot, can truly value and appreciate what little they do have. Sometimes those who are living the simplest lives are the happiest and find the most joy in simple things. It is relationships among people, the sense of community, family and identity, that bring the most joy to people, and not that next iPod or iPad.

You have been quoted as saying, “I feel an urgency to document people in areas of the world threatened by urbanization and globalization – places where traditional ways of life, ancient knowledge and customs, languages and identities are disappearing at an alarming rate. The changes brought by industrialization and urbanization affect not only animal and plant species – societies that have been around for thousands of years are also at risk.”

This statement asserts the general truth that a people and culture should be free to preserve their traditions and land; yet at the same time, the poverty and physical conditions in which they are shown cry out for a better life. Is one of your goals to articulate a contradiction or struggle between suffering and the human spirit conquering a terrible environment?

I think modernization and urbanization of our world is inevitable. It is human nature for people to gravitate toward better and easier lives for themselves and their family. I guess my feeling is that we should help those who are not progressing as quickly as others and assist those who don’t have even the basic necessities (and I don’t mean the next iPod), adequate food, water, sanitation, and shelter. We should help equip them with skills and education for their children so they can continue to grow and keep up with the rapidly evolving world instead of being in a vicious circle of poverty. People should be given a hand-up and not just a handout. We are no longer isolated societies living within the boundaries of our countries. The poverty and health conditions in other nations are quick to affect us, too. Look at the protest in the Middle East and the nuclear crisis in Japan; these are no longer national crises, but international issues that will affect all who live in the world.

…my feeling is that we should help those who are not progressing as quickly as others and assist those who don’t have even the basic necessities… People should be given a hand-up and not just a handout. We are no longer isolated societies living within the boundaries of our countries.

On the other hand, our cultural identity is just as important: knowing who we are and where we came from. Due to modernization, many young people are lured away from their traditional way of life and cultural identity by the promises of a better and more glamorous life in the city. Instead of putting value on who they actually are, they value themselves by what they have and what they own. Instead of spending time building relationships with their friends and family, many of them live a very disconnected life and seem in pursuit of something that is unattainable. I hope, through my photos of disappearing cultures, that part of the past is preserved and that they bring an awareness of how important some of theses traditions and cultures are as we move toward future. There should be a balance, and government policies should reflect that balance, be sensitive to age-old traditions as they deal with indigenous cultures. Maybe there are lessons to be learned from cultures who have been living harmoniously with nature and the natural environment for centuries.

Your award-winning image, Djenne Mosque, Djenne, Mali from Mali, is truly great: surreal and romantic in the best sense of awe and otherworldliness. The viewer is unaware of the poverty, the heat, the dirt and dust, the religious mind fostered in the mosque; yet the viewer can be caught up in the dream of such a faraway place, which seems a true National Geographic approach to world news coverage. What is the story behind this image?

Djenne Mosque
(Djenne, Mali)
BY Larry Louie

That is the romance of photography: it is a medium that can show beauty or ugliness of the world we live in. I like to show a contrast of both. If there was no ugliness, I don’t think we could really appreciate or realize what beauty there is. Mali may have a lot of poverty, but it is also a country rich with culture and history. The heat, dirt and dust around the mosque are nothing in comparison to the industrial pollutions of some of the dirtiest countries in the world. As for religion, I think all religions teach people to be good and to care for one another. Different religious beliefs are just different paths for us to reach our spirituality. It is men who make radical interpretations of religious scriptures and enforce practices that are harsh and ugly.

There is not much story behind the image. I had seen images of the mosque in the past and always wanted to see it for myself. Historically, Djenne was once a great center of learning and trade. I arrived in Djenne in the late afternoon, scouted the surrounding location for a great vantage point and noticed a nearby building with a rooftop. After obtaining access permission, I got up early the next morning and waited for the sunrise. Luckily, as the sun broke through, a local person in traditional garment walked by, providing a scale for the size of the magnificent building. What this image taught me is that getting a photograph like this requires both preparation and a bit of luck.

Is there a particular story or two that stands out from your visits to these developing countries? Do you keep in touch with anyone?

The most memorable stories from all our trips are the ones that involve eyesight. Being an optometrist, helping the visually impaired and documenting their struggles to increase awareness, is what is important to me. Volunteer work with Seva Canada, both as an optometrist and as a humanitarian photographer, is an amazingly rewarding experience. Through my photography, we raise issues of eye care in developing countries and fund eye surgeries and eye care for the poorest of the poor developing countries. We do keep in touch with all the project managers in the places we visit and people we’ve helped and do go back to the same place again and again to see how the project is doing.

Larry Louie
BY Joanna Wong

One visit that touches me the most is the time that my wife and I visited a blind school for girls in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was the only school in Dhaka that will board and educate blind girls of all castes and religions and most of the funding comes from local and international donations. We were welcomed with open arms. The den mother there was an acid burn victim — a jealous boyfriend had thrown acid in her face and thus she was scarred and blind for life. What an amazing woman — she overcame her struggles and is now a den mother and teacher for blind girls, educating them on how to survive in a non-handicap society and also helping them have self-respect and pride. In countries such as Bangladesh and India, blind or handicapped children are seen as a punishment for the sins of their parents and thus are often hidden away. While we were there, the children sang a beautiful song just for us to thank us for coming to visit them and brightening their day.

What are your current projects?

This year we have been fundraising for an eye camp in the Humla region in Western Nepal. It is an area that has received very few services because of its inaccessibility and because it was a stronghold for the Maoist rebellion. There are no roads or vehicles in the area and the only airstrip in the area was just tarred last year. The region is very poor and many people there actually go hungry because the soil is not very good for growing.

Our goal is to bring a much-needed eye care camp to the area, and hopefully do this at least on an annual basis until something more permanent and sustainable can be established there. So I will be there documenting the eye camp that we sponsored and also photographing the interesting local tribes with their distinctive culture and traditions. I am also possibly going to Calcutta, India on another project.

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