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Michael Mullady

Children of Lead

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At an altitude slightly above twelve thousand feet, in the Central Andean region of Peru, pollution is a fact of life for the inhabitants of La Oroya. Since 1922, the city of La Oroya has been exposed to toxic emissions released from the Doe Run Peru metal smelting plant. Doe Run Peru is a subsidiary of Missouri-based Doe Run, the world’s largest primary lead producer and the world’s second largest total lead producer. Doe Run is part of the privately held New York-based Renco group. Peru’s state mining company Centromin operated the 80-year-old La Oroya facility for 25 years before Doe Run bought it in 1997. The smelter processes concentrates, producing 11 metals and nine by-products, including copper, lead, zinc and silver.

In July of 2007, I had my first glimpse of La Oroya and at that instant I knew I had to make sense of what lay before me. As the rain beat against the bus window, there was a sudden stark change in landscape. The rich farm lands and endless mountain ranges faded as we entered a deep valley.  That defining moment, what I was about to encounter, changed my life. It was unlike anything I have ever seen before; what appeared to be snow was ash overlaying black mountainsides. It was a dark and conflicting place and I was overwhelmed with a sense of urgency.

A Health Ministry study from the government of Peru showed that 90% of the children tested had lead poisoning, a condition, which causes mental retardation, hyperactivity, liver and kidney disease and even death. Lab studies revealed that many of these children had levels of lead in their bodies four times greater than what the World Health Organization considers the normal amount. In addition to brain damage, children are at high risk of developing lung cancer as well as other respiratory ailments, skin conditions and digestive disorders.  As the plant continues to release lead, copper, zinc and sulfur dioxide into the air on a daily basis, generations of young children will be exposed to environmental and health risks.

This work evolved from my personal interest in documenting environmentally themed social issues. I hope to use this project as a base for the begging of my book project documenting pollution on a global level. Children Of Lead has yet to be published. I am looking to find the right outlet to publish this type of story in print or the support from a publication to return and continue working on the project. I hope to eventually have it published in print, not for myself, but for the people I documented. They let me so deep into their lives, in the times of joy and the times of sorrow, and in the most intimate and personal moments when they opened up to me it was because they truly understood the injustice they were facing and wanted the world to hear their cries.



Michael Mullady is a native of Northern California currently living in San Francisco.

Michael’s longtime fascination with story telling and the human condition transitioned him naturally into photojournalism. Michael passion for photography lies in long-term documentary projects and he has a specific interest in environmentally themed social issues. Michael is a firm believer that documentary photography is more about who you are a person, then who you are as a photographer and considers himself a visual humanitarian.

Michael’s work was recognized in the 2009 PDN Photo Annual and was awarded the Marty Forscher Fellowship for Humanistic Photography from the Parson’s School for Design in NYC. In 2008 and 2009, Michael’s portfolio was awarded College Photographer Of The Year from The White House News Photographers Association and he was named National Press Photographers Association College Photographer Of The Year in 2007.


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Michael Mullady


Editor’s Note:

Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

64 thoughts on “michael mullady – children of lead”

  1. This is incredible. So many powerful shots. Images 2, 5, 6, 7, 10 (love the little girl framed), 13 & 14 made me stop the slideshow, just so I could get all the details. Great work.

  2. Michael,

    I was very moved by your story and by your photographs. Your first shot is absoluely unbelievable! It is evident that you are a compassionate photographer who cares for the persons you have photographed. There is such injustice out here sometimes that you would want to scream of outrage… Hope you find beyond BURN, an outlet to have that story published and be heard.


  3. The photography is good. The situation is tragic. Looks like a no win for the people there. As I’ve said before, I’m not sure of the value of shooting things that photography can’t change. These photos can’t really help the plight of these children. Perhaps, though, they can advance the photographer’s career. Seems a little cynical to me, though.

  4. This is a very moving essay and the pictures are good. This sort of work upsets me though. I don’t see how I can do anything about it by seeing it. I want to hear about how your work is going to help these people. I feel that it’s not enough to document when you see something like this. But I don’t know what you are supposed to do either. Sorry, it’s just upsetting.

    I’ve just seen Jim’s post. I agree with him. At the same time, I don’t think there is any merit in remaining ignorant, just because its more comfortable to be ignorant of these tragedies. It’s a bit paradoxical. On the one had it seems like you are profiting from people’s misery. On the other I know you mean well. I think if you are going to do this sort of work then surely there’s some obligation on your part to make sure those who are in a position to do anything about this, get to see it. Have you had any of these pictures published in Peruvian newspapers? Does anyone care about these people? If this is protest work, don’t you need to make sure the right people get to see it. I don’t see what good putting these pictures into books is going to do.

    Sorry, for responding this way but surely you have must have had this sort of reaction before now. It’s a tough one.

  5. Oh my, such a powerful essay, very well put together. Moving, extremely sad.

    The angles add an interesting vibe to the whole piece, so tragic though, but well exposed.

    cheers, hope to see more of these.

  6. Frank Michael Hack

    Beautifully haunting and tragic images, but leaves me feeling a little sick to my stomach. It is really ironic that we in our comfortable capitalistic glass houses can look at this situation and cry outrage. The only reason this situation exists is to supply the voracious demand for lead, silver and other base metals that are used in circuit boards, electronic equipment and sliver gelatin prints. These people have been exploited so we can go about our lives in the relative comfort and surplus we enjoy, and perfect our craft of photography. We have all benefited from their suffering. Are we not exploiting them again by printing these images in photo books and in displaying them in galleries? Seems hypocritical to me. I think your intentions are in the right spot, and your are a talented photographer but before there is any authenticity to what you are doing it has to have some meaningful impact for these people. How have these these people’s plight been furthered by what you are doing? Who is the net beneficiary of your work? Thank you for bringing this to our attention, but unless you are taking a stand and confronting those that perpetuate this why are you really doing it? Harsh yes, but you have stepped into deep waters. Sh**t I am starting to sound like Jim.

  7. Very strong and moving essay.

    I really wonder about the comments questioning the value of the work if it doesn’t somehow improve the lives of the people documented. “I’m not sure of the value of shooting things that photography can’t change.” That’s a pretty amazing statement. How about the value of shooting things that change the people who view them?

  8. I was going to rant against some of the comments above, but hookstrapped said what I was going to say. This is a powerful essay, and I will link to it from my blog tonight, so I know most visitors to my blog this evening will view this essay.

  9. Michael,

    Very powerful piece, I see this as a strong body of work that can (and most likely will) effect change.

    Stylistically this is an awesome essay as well! I hope to see this series of images develop into that “long-term” project you have envisioned. The dedication you speak of is evident in your work.

    Cheers, Jeremy

  10. Very powerful visuals.

    hmmm… so based on what some commenters are saying (Jim, Andrea) nothing that can’t be changed through photography should be photographically documented, or else it’s cynical?

    Give me a break.

  11. Michael – fantastic essay, powerful and disturbing!

    I do not agree with some of the above comments, though. How can we know that your photos don’t change a thing? How can we be sure about this??? And even if they fail to change the situation – they might really change some of their viewers. Hasn’t it been the goal of photojournalism to show things to the world that haven’t been changed yet?

    I’d find it more cynical not to show those things…

    All the best to you and your work!

  12. These images are so impressive. Immediately I feel connected as much as one can be, to these people. And I do feel that they’re very real people because you’ve caught them individually almost unaffected by your presence. I also aim for this sort of involvement; one where I have as little intrusion in the moment as possible.

    Well done. Your obviously a very consciencious person.

    And this sort of statement that photography isn’t worth anything unless it changes something.. JIM, don’t you think it can change something in the viewer, bit by bit.

  13. While this isn’t the type of photography I gravitate to stylistically or thematically, I’m glade there are people out there still willing to photograph this type of subject matter. While this one essay may not do much to save these kids, I think the fact that it appears in a publication like Burn is encouraging. What I’d like to see is this type of work accompany multimedia and writing on a nice website dedicated to this subject matter.

    These are the types of issues that maybe the vast majority of people will see once and forget about, but I’m sure there’s countless people that will be moved enough to take action. And with the internet, this becomes much easier. Have we learned nothing the last five years about forming niche communities around very specific subjects? Right now, there’s a revolution going in micro funding and financing, a trend that will only continue to increase in the future I imagine. This type of work can be funded.

    I’m just as cynical as the next guy, and again, this may not be a hot button issue for me, but I do envision an issue coming where I would get pretty pissed off. What about Chris Jordan’s excellent, shocking work on Midway Atoll? http://www.chrisjordan.com/current_set2.php?id=11 . But more importantly to me, look at the presence they’ve created on the web? http://www.midwayjourney.com/ And right there, you can support orgs and foundations that are attempting to do something about this http://www.midwayjourney.com/support/

    There are always going to be people like Jim Powers, and certainly from a photography point of view, maybe he has a point. But is this type of work really about photography? Isn’t the point of it to serve some higher purpose?

    I think with the right amount of determination, organization and passion, we will see this type of photography put to good use. But it can never just be about photography. Photography should just be one part of the equation, at least in my opinion.


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  15. This is excellent work. Thats all I need to say.

    Except… JIM: GRRRRRRR Don’t get me started… I had a bad day and another “As I’ve said before, I’m not sure of the value of shooting things that photography can’t change.” statement out of you will push me over the edge.

  16. Michael,

    Powerful work. You have a unique eye for light and composition. I’m confused about some of the other comments. Why shoot the messenger? Michael has done his part by bringing this story to our attention. Now is our turn. Which begs to question why can’t we do something about it?

    A coalition of groups, Center for Human Rights, (CEDHA), Earthjustice, and the Inter American Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) with the support of the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law are trying to do something about it. They petitioned against the Peruvian State for committing human rights abuses against the residents of the mining city of La Oraya and after years it was recently declared admissible by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

  17. Its a really good piece of work and as one person said above ‘it only has to change the viewer’. Thats the point I think. It affects you. Someone may take that and run with it, then something HAS changed. This seems like a testimony. THAT is the primary job of this type of work, and here is done nicely. Maybe, just maybe, someone who has seen this testimony will be moved to get involved. Maybe not. Either way the photographer has done their job.
    The only thing missing for me was the shot that you describe in your statement of the valley covered in snow-like ash. You described it so well i could almost see it.

    A lot of it seems to be underexposed somewhat, a loss of shadow detail very much like pushing film up its curve. Was this a stylistic choice? It does not really affect my appreciation of the work, in fact it fits quite well which is why i ask.


  18. Until I sat down and looked at this, I had no idea that this situation existed.

    Thanks to the work of Michael Mullady, I now do. If he has thus educated me, then, how many others will he educate?

    And if enough get educated, and if among them there are a few people who are outraged enough and motivated enough and clever enough and connected enough, then who, while photographing brightly lit people upon a stage can, in their present comfort, smugly state that this work will change nothing? This strikes me as a bit cynical.

    Maybe this essay will lead to change. Give it a chance.

    Keep pushing your story, Michael. Get it out there to all the world. Maybe there are children yet unborn who experience live healthy lives who would have missed the chance, had you not got something going here.

  19. Powerful and disturbing essays which has to battle a pretty mean foe …… those who have no alternative in the battle of survival and know very well that they are putting their loved one at risk.

  20. Excellent piece, Michael.

    It’s important that you, and others bringing forward similar situations through photography, continue
    despite the likelihood that immediate changes will not be in the cards.
    You’ve started the ball rolling and somewhere,sometime the right button gets pushed.

  21. Jim —

    Still won’t answer? Really, I expected to get home from work and see an answer to whether if just a few people are motivated to help this community, is that enough for you?

    Or does medicine, some comfort, education or food where otherwise there would have been none not matter in the slightest?

    I’m trying to figure out who you are, Jim.

    Gordon — Ben is right, I was being ironic, even left a smiley face to tip it off. :) I shoot weddings somewhat regularly, but shhhhh, don’t tell anyone, I can’t take the lambasting…

  22. I have just been here for 24 hours, in France, not done much, visit to the library in town (and their great ever resplenished photobook shelves), some late TV (which is like having a dozen PBS channels to choose from); opening a few neswpapers/magazines, and everytime I come here, it dawns to me how sheltered from the rest of the world the US public, audiences are, which I see reflected in Jim’s perennial “copy and paste” answers (post #3, made the podium again, Jim!). Especially psychologically sheltered.

    Michael, thanks for your essay, it is always as the situations seem helpless that we need to talk about it even more, not giving up giving victims a voice. Just assuming nothing will come out of it whatever, is like living forever in Germany in 1932.

  23. Good work Michael, I hope you get some funding for this and that you get even more exposure.

    Some of the photographs are a little too dark on my MacBook – you have serious subject matter: let’s see it.

    Also, the Bio in third party didn’t work for me.

    As for Jim, I copied this from a PDN Pulse article on a talk by James Natchway before I read your comment as I predicted what you would say ….

    “Somalia taught him the importance of having images “published in the mass media at the time conflict is happening.” When The New York Times Magazine ran the Somalia images as a cover story, the phone at the Times rang off the wall with people who wanted to help, Nachtwey said. Last year,  Nachtwey learned from an International Committee of the Red Cross official, Jean-Daniel Tauxe, that the magazine story helped the ICRC mobilize the largest aid effort they had undertaken since World War II in Somalia, saving 1.5 million people.”

    He considers himself and others who produce work like this as civil servants. I say, why should the rest of us get away with allowing such misery to exist.

    The one comment rule is why I don’t write here too often now. Comments such as Jim’s should be answered here (to post that a photographer takes photographs of dead and dying children for his/he own ends is beyond belief). I know that it takes the talk away from the photographs briefly but that, in my opinion is of worth.

    Thanks for the photographs Michael,


  24. One thing is sure, ignorance has never changed anything. By bringing this story to our attention it’s now up to us to either act or keep ignoring. Thank you for the essay, Michael, and thank you for the additional information, Brennan, that’s a starting point for me to go further.

  25. Very good work, some excellent photographs, and very moving indeed.
    I’d definitely wish to see more.
    There are beautiful photographs that show how tragic the situation is, and I know that the more you’ll keep shooting the more we’ll see.
    Did you try to sell this story to Internazionale, L’Espresso or D di Repubblica in Italy, and The Guardian Weekend of The Financial Times Mag in the UK?
    The photo I do not really get is No.14.
    Keep up and thanks for sharing.

  26. Where are those who shout out against the factory in this village?
    Who are those who continue to run this death machine, those who choose to poison the same air they breathe?
    Who are the workers, those who NEED the work?
    Who are the workers who come home to their poisoned children sitting ready at the dinner table?
    Are all the people in this village silent mourners and victims, unable to do anything about this deadly problem?

    A tragical and an important story to be told for sure, but I only get to see the story from one side here. I’d like to see the different sides.

    Thanks for sharing!

  27. It’s hard not to be moved by sound, relevant photojournalism. The future of visual journalism is in good hands with folks like Michael Mullady out there. Bravo.

    I seem to remember an obscure city in Japan, Minamata… hummmm.

  28. salvatore sacco

    Great story, nice work. I really like your command of craft. Nice balance between use of light, composition and emotional content. My only quirk; I feel some of the angled shots are a little too extreme, a distraction to the content. Congrats, keep it going.

  29. This is wonderful Michael. To begin, despite what others have said, it is very important to tell these kinds of stories, even if radical changes are not made at once. We are living in a world that we, human beings, have destroyed for various reasons…ie. wealth, greed, personal comfort etc. I recently watched the new film by Nicholas Houlot here in France called “The Titanic Syndrom” and one of the phrases that really hit home was “We will all pay eventually, just some later than others”. Here, in Michael’s essay we are seeing this first hand. It is both a story of human suffering and ecological destruction.

    Contrary to what Jim and others said, we can change things with photography. This may involve getting involved in grassroots organizations and making careful choices when purchasing things. One simple example of this is a documentary film that I saw several months ago about the pineapple plantations in Costa Rica and how the intensive farming uses abundant pesticides which have completely polluted the adjacent river systems and thus the drinking water. Perhaps you know about this Michael…? It could be another side to your project. In any case, I have stopped buying pineapples, 1. because pineapples are not grown in France and 2. based on seeing this reportage.

    Regarding the photos…I think they’re really nice based on the content, composition, and deep shadows. There is a real soul in many of the images. In my mind, this style of photography may have been done before (NPPA), but one’s own personal touch always comes through. They tell a story but at the same time set a mood.

    Wonderful compassionate project and I look forward to seeing how it develops :-)

  30. I mostly enjoyed the essay, though I do have a bit of a problem with the photo of the woman crying at the graves of her two children. That’s the kind of image that makes me hate photojournalists. Hopefully there wasn’t a reporter along to ask her how she felt. But the essay as a whole illustrates what I love about photojournalists. It shows us a piece of the hidden, tragic world that is an important foundation for the lifestyle we lead. Whether work like this results in effective activism or not, it may someday prove important that these things were documented. And even if it only proves to make Michael’s life more interesting, further his career, and provide food for thought for those of us who like photojournalism, what’s wrong with that? Presumably, those people aren’t any worse off for being photographed. And Michael no doubt helped the local economy, at least in some small way. And it is possible that a much larger good could come from it. Wouldn’t be the first time.

    I’m curious, Michael, if you’ve made, or plan to make, any effort to get those photos published in Peru? The Andean kid with a tear running down his face is THE iconic image there (which is why that was the only other one in the essay I didn’t like). Or in Missouri, where the profit of poisoning those children is realized? My guess is that those would be the places where you could best hope to have any real world effect.

  31. Pingback: michael mullady – children of lead | burn magazine | The Click

  32. A powerful, heart-breaking and heart-committed, act of testimony in the simplest and most substantial way. As photographs, as straight-forward documentary photography, it would be hard pressed to find work done by someone so young with such a sense of commitment to both the story and the people without out the pressing need of the photographers ego. As an act of activism, it is also powerful and necessary. some of the arguments put forward by commentators above seem not only vacuous but specious for in truth I sense that Michael is neither interested in self-promotion nor in creating work such as this for the intent to aggrandize his practice through the documentation of suffering. In fact, in both his statement and the act of the pictures themselves, I am certain that Michael has made a very specific choice:; to use his talents and gift as a visual story teller to speak about the plight of a particular group of people that most of us are both unaware of or uninterested in.

    As to the notion that photography misery is both empty and cynical, I find that perspective cynical in itself. It is true that alot of photographers (i’m thinking particularly of western photographers and ‘grief tourists’) define both themselves and their practice by how much suffering they are able to witness and endure: running from scattered and desolate place to another to trump up their credentials and name and award. However, this is NOT true of all photojournalists, not at all. In fact, one of my friends and one of the photographers i most admire, Marcus Bleasdale of VII, has spent the better part of the last decade detailing both the civil war in Congo and the effect of the Gold industry there (please see his magisterial book One Hundred Years of Darkness). Marcus’ work has not only highlighted the misery of the plight and death and destruction in Congo but has pinpointed the relationship between that and the mining of gold, etc. In fact, he continually uses his work to bring awareness about the relationship between gold and mining and the consequences in Congo (do you all know where you gold comes from??).

    MOreover, I wish for those cynics to take a moment and think of the totality of inexplicable injustice and suffering in the world, both natural and man-made. We, most of us here, are the fortunate ones, the ones who are alive, who are so fabulously wealthy (and bored) as to be typing on computer screens, twittering over nothing substantial in front of our monitors and caring the lightness of our tedious lives. And yet we are remarkably fortunate. Imagine for a moment, the little girl in gaza whose body was burried up to her head during a rocket attack, all that was left of her her closed eyes. Imagine for a moment the grandfather in Afghanistan caring his 9 year old grandson who happened to be playing with his younger sister on a dusty road one moment and the next tossed into the air dismembered by a roadside bomb, landing 1 meter in front of his house and that same grandfather who ran for 5 kms to the military base to try to save the life of his grandson, or the child in Myanmar, chained ankle tapped against the root of a stick, who lay floating in the fetid swirl of swollen river after a tsunami, the fact is that each of us would go mad imagining the horrible and profound inequality that exists, the unfathomable gap between fortune and loss and not one of us has the answer, not one of us can solve or bridge this impasse. However, in light of all this, all we can do, it seems to be, is attempt to be good, to attempt with whatever means we have, whether that is through words or actions or activism or photography or meditation or prayer or silence or donation or transmutation of our souls, whatever act, whatever attempt that anyone makes to offer speech against the darkness, to offer not a solution not an answer but an avenue by which we can help, we can become aware, all this, at least to me, is what matters.

    Will these poor families be helped? Will their poisoned lives be remedied. Most likely as we continue to be the carnivorous and greed filled creatures we are (and i include myself, for i am just as empty, just as greedy just as hungry for the material things that spawn this suffering), this will not desist. However, when a photographer, or writer or NGO or tribe leader or labor organizer or private humanitarian hopes to speak out, to attempt to, if not right a wrong, bring awareness to suffering, bring help to a group that needs it, how can we not do anything but say, there for before them go i….

    it is true that these families, mothers and fathers and children, will be long forgotten by us within the next few days….and if i am honest, i will forget them too. I am trying to look myself in the mirror with deep honesty. How much suffering to we countenance and abide and how often to we let is slipt through our awareness. And yet, we can be changed. There may be one of us here or someone who is so moved by the plight of this community that they will do something, not to end the existential misery and profound loss of the living, but do something simple and practical and real. Like all action, photography wrestles with it’s own failure, but how poor have we become, how cyncical have we become to, a priori, dismiss the work of a photographer who is trying like all hell to bring awareness, to help those who are suffering. Is the idea grandiose? Hell yes, everything about us is grandiose, but at least it is trying, with humanity and commitment….

    a powerful and strong and heart-breaking essay. One to which i hope all of us will allow us if not to reflect upon these people, but will allow us to reflect upon how it is we, each of us, in our small, immutable ways, attempts to live…

    to shed light upon the darkness of our own relationships to things….

    thank you Michael for sharing with us this work and this powerful and heart breaking story….

    all the best

  33. Michael and David: please forgive me for breaking (again) the 1 post rule…but i wondered to offer readers, especially those readers who view this kind of work pointless, an example of how a photographer can make a profound difference in the lives of those she has photographed.

    Award-winning photographer Stephanie Sinclair (The UNICEF Photo of the Year 2007) and member of VII has done remarkable work on women’s issues, particularly stories about women and young girls in in Afghanistan. Anyway, part of her work on women who’d been attacked by husbands/men with acid. Stephanie created Operation Azra to help a young women who’d been attacked with acid. This organization/fund organized a photo exhibition in NYC and raised money for to help Azra Latif. The work continues to this day…..

    Stephanie is a remarkable photographer and a remarkable humanitarian and i must tell you all a great person in real life and totally down to earth. Her activism is one small example of photographers using their work, their connections and their passion to bring both awareness and help to others. The world’s ills cannot be solved but each of us can make a difference in the lives of others, beginning with those closest to us…..

    I loathe the kind of cynicism that defines some of the remarks above….questioning the photographers intent or the practical consequence of work such as michael’s is legitimate and fair, dismissing it as self-aggrandizing and cynical is unfortunate…..

    i am happy Michael has shared his work with us and continues to be motivated by a desire to bring awareness to people who he has met and spent time with…..

    this kind of work is still inspiring to many of us, even if our own photographic practice is very different…

    thanks Michael for sharing..

    and here is Operation Azra



  34. great work Michael! i think this is such a powerful story and beautiful work! well done my friend.

    JIM POWERS: why does every story have to save the world? i think calling his “motives” cynical is ridiculous!! michael is a young photographer who has worked very hard on this project. this is an important story that i am sure not every one knows about. kudos to michael for documenting it.

  35. Brilliant. Emotive. Learning all the time. Beautiful photography.

    I will revisit this essay again and that speaks volumes. Well done Michael.

    You are indeed worthy of burn publication.

    Best wishes.

  36. It’s a humbling experience to hear people speak so passionately about my work, whether it is empathetic or pessimistic. Igniting dialogue about this story is the commencement to change. Effectively improving any social injustice is a process far beyond simply taking photographs and showing them to the right people. It has to be a collaborative effort from multiple people stretching far beyond the photographer reach. The photographs can be, however the basis for generating a campaign aimed at social revitalization. I view them as the seed, which can grow and root together the various individuals or organizations, which together can collectively work towards a common goal. In my heart, I know I have done my part. With the little resources or support I had, I found my way into La Oroya, Peru, and into the lives of the people who are most impacted by the smelting plant. My hope now lies in the viewers, every one of you who has taken the time to view this project and everyone who it will eventually reach. One by one, if I can bring awareness to this injustice and impact my viewer, then I have succeeded.

    The majority of people viewing this kind of work, whether it be 10 minutes or 10 days, will eventually forget about these people and go about there lives of overindulgence and greed. It’s an unfortunate reality but here in the United States the majority of our population doesn’t have the will power to do anything about what people like me inform them of. It’s easier to forget the underrepresented people in developing countries and to instead submerge one’s self deeper into the materialistic society were all accustomed to. This is something that has weighed on my conscious, being a young photographer determined to get people to care about what has consumed so much of my existence. On a daily basis an internal battle rages in me as I try to remain optimistic and hold onto the hope I have for humanity.

    I appreciate those of you who shared the links to photographers who have found success at helping their subjects. These visual humanitarians have been much of my inspiration as an aspiring photographer. My only wish is to one day have the social impact people like James Natchwey, Stephanie Sinclair and Marcus Bleasdale have had. I commend these people and they prove there’s hope for the work I’m dedicating my life to.

    I choose not to invest in addressing the stylistic choice of my photography. I can only say that in the visual arts, all we have that separates us from others is our personal vision and our individual qualities, both which are directly reflected in our work.

    Many comments posted here have struck me; I would like to better understand a few in particular.

    “This sort of work upsets me though. I don’t see how I can do anything about it by seeing it.”

    “I’m not sure of the value of shooting things that photography can’t change. These photos can’t really help the plight of these children. Perhaps, though, they can advance the photographer’s career. Seems a little cynical to me, though.”

    Andrea and Jim, Let me first say that I appreciate your honesty and respect your opinion. In this moment, I only hope that I have informed you of something you may otherwise have never know about. If by viewing this story you can reflect on your own life and the deed of helping others, that is enough. Also, generalizing is a horrible quality.

    “That’s the kind of image that makes me hate photojournalists.”

    Michael, you had some very kind words to say but would you expand on this comment. Hate is such a strong word and why would you so passively and unsympathetically say that without any explanation. That image was the result of a deep relationship with Mercedes, countless days were spent building the trust needed to visit the graves with her. She lost two of her three children, imagine that, really think about what she must have gone trough. I’m not sure if you have children or not, but I could image for the many of you who do, it would be the worst pain imaginable losing one…imagine two. Mercedes was plagued by pain; emotional suffering on a daily basis had drowned her into a jaded existence. I would have been a coward to not take that image. Only a childish fool to insecure in his own skin would refrain from taking that photograph. Whether or not it’s too literal, too stylized or not enough, it’s something that must be seen and not forgotten. I am curious to learn the meaning behind your statement.

    I would like to make it clear that my idea for a photo book is at this point just a thought. My intentions are foremost to help the subjects I choose to photograph. I’m only one person, with one camera, with barely enough money to feed myself. If it were not for financial reasons, I would be in La Oroya and other similarly affected places working to raise global awareness. I wish that my images, like some of the others that have come before, can be the beginning to starting an organization or global campaign which caterers to the need of these people. These are all ideas constantly on my mind which I will forever strive towards.

    It’s not if, but when; when will people notice, I hope before it’s too late.

    The power of photography is undeniable.

    Change does not happen overnight.

    This is my heart and soul.


  37. I think this is exactly the kind of situation when photography can have a significant impact. The only hope for change begins with making people face the truth, and seeing is believing. I never knew about this. Having seen it, I’d be open for suggestions about what I could do next to make a difference. This company is based in Missouri — you bet they can be made to feel pressure.

    One of the saddest stories I’ve read from any photographer is about how Dayanita Singh gave up on “making a difference” after her photo of a girl about to become a sex worker (in “Witness in Our Time” by Ken Light). Sure, her photo didn’t save that child, but I believe it had an impact. And it might have saved the girl if she’d been in position to post it immediately on the Internet rather than have it appear months later in a magazine. She also complained that people only wanted to save that one girl, not the thousands others like her. Well, there are ways to publish photos if you want to stimulate that kind of response. Perhaps she was guilty of thinking only of herself and photographing middle class Indian interiors is her penance. From what I understand, this photographer IS thinking carefully about where these photos will appear and how to maximize the right kind of response to them. I’d like to hope he’s a realistic idealist.

    As for Jim, using the word “cynical” seems very lacking in self-awareness to me.

  38. michael webster

    Michael, unfortunately I can be overly flippant as a writer and without an editor to save me from myself often write my metaphorical foot in my metaphorical mouth. My use of the word “hate” in that sentence is a perfect example. The intention was not to communicate “passive and unsympathetic.” It was more an attempt at levity — in hindsight, inappropriate. I thought the succeeding quip about the reporter asking the woman how she felt explained my uneasiness with the photograph. I was being, as they say, “half serious.”

    Or maybe I should of phrased it more like “that’s the kind of image that makes me hate myself as a photojournalist.” Critiquing others’ work often sets off my internal debates about journalistic ethics as well as aesthetics. Of course one can’t always know the relationship between the photographer and the subject. Some people like, or at least agree to, being photographed. Others don’t. Photographing those who don’t want to be photographed is part of the job. It’s easy if the subject is some heinous criminal being frog marched to a police car. It can be incredibly difficult if it’s someone suffering horrendous grief. I always question whether the photograph is worth causing grieving people even more pain and discomfort. Although in this case your relationship with the subject makes the photograph beyond reproach, the answer is not always so clear.

    And I’m still curious if you have, or hope to publish those photographs in Peru. I’ve spent a lot of time there and am pretty sure Peruvians would find those images powerful. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but a few years back just about every Peruvian household had a maudlin poster of an Andean child with a tear running down his face hanging on the wall. It was effectively the national image of Peru. I don’t know if that’s still the case or if you are aware of it, but as it was the first picture in the series, I thought maybe you were directly addressing that national archetype. My first thought was that it was clichéd, but on further reflection I appreciate it in that context.

    Anyway, in case their was any other doubt about my intentions, I like the work very much and am on the side of those who recognize that it’s the kind of work that needs to be done. Actually, I’m perplexed that there would even be an argument. That’s what photojournalists are supposed to do.

  39. Michael,
    your images address an important issue that would otherwise be overlooked or ignored. You stir up our comfort zones with strong, esthetic images that show a horrible truth that we would rather forget than accept.
    Good photojournalism can be entertaining, it can be informative, but if it is well done, then it is also a pain in the bottom!
    You achieved all of this very well!
    Big thumps up and respect!
    Good luck for your future projects!

  40. This is great work, and I hope that the net outcome of publishing here is to motivate you even further in your long-term pollution project and to find assistance with that.

    As far as the essay is concerned, in addition I would have liked to see at least one larger simple daylight landscape – a Burtynsky-style attempt at showing the scale both of the pollution and the economic impact of the plant, if that makes sense.

    The best of fortune. It’s a noble purpose.

  41. This is simply disgusting. How is this company not held responsible for this? From their website we get this:

    The people of Doe Run, more than 4,000 around the world, care deeply about what we do and how we do it. We take our responsibilities to our families, our co-workers, our communities, and our environment seriously. Wherever we operate, we recognize we have a responsibility to contribute to the improvement of those communities, and we do so by implementing environmental management programs; supporting local schools; and by providing health care, recreation, and other public services.

    Our responsibility to the community also includes ensuring that our employees have a safe environment in which to work, and we are proud that our employee safety performance is well above the industry average.

    Jim, you are so wrong. You know, maybe we can’t change things now but we can be aware. We need to be kept aware of who is doing what in this world.

  42. Wow, this website is fantastic for those of us who are passionate about photojournalism, thank you Mr. Harvey. These discussions we have here are so needed in our industry, and I am thrilled we are talking.

    I remember getting the “hard news” photography assignments in college and being disgusted that 30 kids would run out with their $3,000 digital cameras and shoot photographs of homeless people for a grade. To me, the difference between preying on our subjects and helping them is more about what we do after we take the photographs. I could cite countless examples of photographers who come back from an assignment and pursue publication with a personal agenda. They produce countless articles, exhibits, presentations, meetings with corporate heads and politicians, etc… all to make their photographs seen, heard, and responded to. Taking the photographs is only half the battle if we take our jobs seriously and treat our subjects with true humanity.

    In that vein, Mr. Mullady, I hope you return to Peru often and expand on this story as much as possible. I want to see those that work at the factory, from the corporate heads, to the factory floor laborer. I feel like these photographs represent a small fraction of an even more amazing story. I want to sit down and read pages of information and individual stories to give me a true understanding of the complexities behind these photographs of suffering. Without a lengthy, deeply researched, article written by a journalist (or yourself) we can only scratch the surface here. I think you should pursue publication in as many different mediums and for as many different audiences as possible. I would love to see you try getting these photographs into the hands of the companies responsible. Show them that their profits affect an entire community. Perhaps, give them options for change, research companies that have taken the responsible route (if they exist). Our job is to illuminate and inform the public consciousness (or maybe more like the public conscience). Anyone who denies photojournalism’s power to inform change in the real world is blinded by cynicism.

    Thank you for sharing these photographs with us Michael (and David). However, the often jaded audience here is mostly photographers and industry people, think big!

    *That isn’t to say we’re not making a good step right here at Burn. I just spent 2 hours looking at these photos, writing a comment, and doing some much-needed self-analysis instead of watching a stupid TV show on Hulu and drinking a beer. Take that for what it’s worth.

  43. Thanks again everyone for taking the time to look at this story and to write a response. I am grateful to David for posting this piece on Burn and for this impressive community of people who are both supportive and incisive.

    Michael, Thanks for expanding upon your earlier comment. I would agree, that photographing people who don’t agree to be photographed (especially if they are mourning or in moment of crisis) is a very difficult and sometimes unbearable thing to do. It is however indeed part of the job and unfortunately deadline pressures, shooting in conflict zones and many other factors make it a reality for many photojournalists. It’s seemingly a similar battle many of us go though, whether on assignment or not, when caught in these vital moments and faced with these questions such as, will I be doing them any good by taking the photograph? Sometimes it’s a thin line, and in our most susceptible moments it can be terrifying. Every situation is different and every person with a camera is different, I can only say that for this image questioned there was depth. I hope that’s apparent in my work. Making one mistake in a tight community can get you blacklisted. If that were the case, the image would unquestionably not be worth it. I am a very sincere person when working and at this level of involvement with a story, taking any image would not be worth causing someone more grief. The inroads you build into a community, sometimes come through the acceptance of one individual making every moment in the field imperative. There was not a reporter with a notepad after the fact because the reporter was somewhere in a cubicle and the notepad had something we forgot about regarding a storm or tragic everyday occurrence or a team loosing or just maybe a similar story somewhere else in the world, scribbled on it.

    These images have not been published in Peru. While in Peru upon completion of this work, I spoke with someone at El Comercio, Peru’s largest circulation newspaper. There seemed to be little interest from them. This smelter has been operating under that same conditions for many years and Peruvians are well aware of the situation. I feel that more importantly then Peru, it’s critical to get outsiders to see what’s happening in La Oroya. The images were shown in a gallery put on by the Peruvian Society for the Environment. The money raised in the gallery went directly to the organization, which is working with the children in La Oroya. While Peruvians are well aware of the issue, most people outside Peru have no idea about these peoples plight and perhaps the right person would be outraged after seeing my images and take a step towards positive change. Sometimes all it takes is one person. One outraged politician, or one person involved with a health care NGO, or one person with enough money to do something themselves. Either way, this work is about action and reaction. I have taken the action to document this now what will be the reaction.

    You mention the tear in front of the chimney being an iconic image, if that is the case, it would only validate me not publishing the work in Peru even more. I however, have never seen that poster nor have I herd of that image being iconic. I would be interested in finding or seeing a copy of that poster you mention, or the iconic image.

    @ Bjarte. re: “Are all the people in this village silent mourners and victims, unable to do anything about this deadly problem?”

    Bjarte, you have brought up a very good point, one that others have also mentioned in this thread, suggesting showing another side to the story. These are great points and shooting factory workers and local activist will be much of my focus should I return. I do feel however, that based on your statement you have either not taken the time to really look at the work or you are a bit on the surface, naively blasting away so many questions. I find it challenging to explain something that’s so highly interpretive, but to be literal for the purpose of an explanation; there are 4 of 14 images where a subject is mourning, that’s less then 1/3. I withdrew some more graphic images simply for that reason. I would hope that you and everyone else could see some of the hope in my work. Whether it’s Nataly washing clothes with her mother, continuing on with a seemingly normal existence despite her horrible condition. Or Joel as he struggles of step down his doorsteps, determined to push forward and get to school in time. These kids don’t pity themselves so you should not either. You should realize that these children are the basis for this project because there is hope for them. Maybe if not them, then for the generations that will come. This was my intention and as I stated in my story summary, this is a project about the children, los ninos del plomo, this is their time, time for you to listen with your eyes and expose your heart.

    @Bjarte. Re: Who are the workers, those who NEED the work?
    Most all these families photographed are connected to the company someway. In some cases, the father worked at the factory. In some cases, the family received gifts from the company. In some cases, the people were formerly employed at the plant. In all cases, the people had some kind of connection to the company, which made photographing there extremely difficult. The people I met who were currently employed at the factory, even knowing how the plant affected their children, would not be photographed. That job is everything to them, and as horrible as it seems, their main concern is to keep their job above all else. The people who were not employed were often times bribed with gifts, such as a broom on Christmas or a facility were they can shower once a week. These are all things the company does to divert pressure off them to follow through on their environmental remediation plan and update the smelter. Without going too into detail, there were times when subjects of mine would not let me visit anymore because they had been threatened. The company has eyes everywhere in that town. The reason that La Oroya exists is because of the smelter and every resident has some connection to it.

    @David Bacher: “This style of photography may have been done before (NPPA)”
    What does that mean? What hasn’t been done before but more importantly I can’t figure out the significance of your NPPA reference.

    @ Frank Michael Hack. Re: How have these people’s plight been furthered by what you are doing? Who is the net beneficiary of your work?
    @ Jim Powers. Re: These photos can’t really help the plight of these children. Perhaps, though, they can advance the photographer’s career.

    People here have all ready responded to both your comments far better then I can, so I will keep it short. You both seem a little outrageous but I find your comments might hold some truth upon a different interpretation. I would only hope these images advance my career because I live for telling these stories that need change. I want to make a career being a photographer who does something real with a camera. Many photographers mentioned earlier in this thread that has implemented some change in the communities they documented, surely did not make those kinds of changes immediately or when they were students. I know, while different roads were taken, it was a long journey for most of them to get to the established position they are in now, and it’s now that people listen to them. If this story could not only raise awareness about La Oroya but also show my intentions and capabilities as a photographer, then all the better. I hope that would be the case. All I sincerely want is too find a way to tell this story and other similar stories and share them with the world. Beyond that, I would vouch that doing this kind of work is actually the contrary to what you might think of as “benefiting” for an aspiring photographer. If your seeking to advance your career, i.e. getting work and making money, you are far better off learning to light portraits or anything else besides social documentary. I would be bewildered to find anyone doing social documentary work for a personal benefit. I can’t see how living like a bum, sacrificing relationships, getting robbed, risking your life and spending most of your time alone in some fucked up place seems appealing unless your heart and mind tell you there is no other option. Also, if you have a conscious, this work can be emotionally destructive. Carrying the burden of helping the people I photograph, in my most vulnerable moments, has haunted me. Like a knight returning home from battle, only with the swords of a thousand fallen soldiers, struggling with every step to push on. To make sure those deaths were not in vein, and so his people would know their stories, even if it will ultimately only caused them more pain. It would be easier to drop those swords and to return home empty-handed, then to return home only to have people question his motives for showing the effect of such a disaster. But for that one knight, who was the witness, there was no question. It was too important to be forgotten and against all odds, if nothing be done, at least people will see the blood that blanket the swords. So next time they hear about a battle, they will think about that blood and know that what’s happening is real.

    @ Bob Black “to use his talents and gift as a visual storyteller to speak about the plight of a particular group of people that most of us are either unaware of or uninterested in.”
    Many of you said some remarkable things, I am very thankful of that. Bob, you are spot on. This is what I’m all about, inside and out. I’ll never let go of it, no matter what people say, never. Your kinds words and others are much appreciated.

    I find photography to be an instinctual and a very personal process, one of not only understanding the world around you but also better understanding yourself. The world we live in is filled with beauty, love and life. It is also plagued by war, environmental destruction, famine, illnesses and death. Most people living in their western bubbles would only know the first part. A traveling man once wrote, life is a book, those who stay in one place only read one page. It’s for those people, the ones blinded by their own self-absorbed lifestyles, that I share this page from my book. It’s just one fragment, a small piece of the world outside our own, and a small piece of a very larger puzzle. A puzzle that perhaps once completed could be revolutionary.

    La Oroya has been classified as one of the world’s ten most polluted places. This was part of the original reason I was insistent on going there. The larger project I speak about would be documenting the 10, perhaps 20, most polluted places to live in the world. This is the long-term project I intend to work towards. I feel that by documenting similar issues in other countries, a wider audience would be reached and thus able to relate. As horrible as the situation is in La Oroya, there is so much injustice happening in the world, it’s been challenging to get someone to care about just one. I hope by documenting issues around the world focused on this theme, I might really be able to do something extraordinary. It’s at that level which I could see an organization evolving from the work and truly influential people getting involved. My ship has already sailed I’m just waiting for the wind to come.

    Thanks again everyone. Be well.


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