Students in two of professor Bill Gentile's courses recently talked to well-known British photographer Sean Gallagher about his work and the how the current economic climate is affecting this industry.
Gallagher's current project documenting the desertification in China began in 2007 thanks to a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
"It’s really a vast problem," Gallagher said. "According to recent estimates about 20 percent of China’s land area is now desert or deserted."
The grant enabled him to travel by train from one side of China to the other. Along the way, he stopped to capture shots he thought were essential to telling the whole story, which will appear in National Geographic’s upcoming China issue.
"I thought the issue was really underreported," he said. "I thought, 'wow this could be a visually interesting story.'"
While moving across the country, Gallagher interviewed Mongolian farmers on scarce vegetation and the disintegration of grasslands, photographed towns literally built on top of the desert and even found one or two tourist resorts.
He traveled with a native who was his guide and translator. "My Chinese is OK, but when I spoke to people in the field, I could only go so far," he said. "So I needed someone to help me go to that next level. I wanted to tell the story through the view of individuals, to use their voices rather than just my voice."
Gallagher didn't start out to be a photographer. He graduated from college with a degree in Zoology, however, an auspicious internship at Magnum Photos in London launched his career and before long he was working across the world, spending extended periods of time in Japan, Brazil, New Zealand.
He also addressed concerns about the economy and the effect on photojournalists. "There are a lot of us out there trying to do this, and it's very difficult," he said. "But I think we each got to find our own way that we can survive in our climate at the moment." For Gallagher, it's been teaching photography in Beijing and creating his own workshops. He also touched on the convergence of multimedia and video and still photos and how important that has become.
He also advised students to network. "It's very important when you start out to make those connections with correspondents and key people."
He ended by telling students to start thinking where they’d like to go in the world to shoot photography, suggesting Africa and India as two underrepresented hot spots.
Gallagher traveled to China to work as a freelancer in 2006 and has been based there ever since. He's made a name for himself with his special niche of Asian environmental issues. Although he’s based there, he never forgets where he came from. "Beijing's my home, as long as I can go back to England for Christmas…my parents would kill me."