[slidepress gallery=’benjaminrusnak_farfromparadise’]

Hover over the image for navigation and full screen controls

EPF 2011 Finalist

Benjamin Rusnak

23º, Far from Paradise

play this essay

23º of latitude separate the Equator from the Northern tropic. These latitudes are home to beaches, palms, vacation resorts, idyllic paradise — and poverty.

This is where the sun bares countless dark and desperate lives. This is where the unfortunate location of birth often condemns people to a life of struggle in an unforgiving land, beset with drought and flood, famine and tempest.

Conversely, this is where hope and resilience coexist with tribulation. For the poor, there is a duality to life. In each person, each moment holds joy and pain, a mourning for what is lost and a yearning for what may be. These lands represent a dream holiday to tourists, but they are only an elusive fantasy to millions of residents still hoping for the reality of paradise to become theirs.

I have documented the lives of the poor in the Caribbean and Latin America for a decade. The people I meet struggle, strive, hope, dream, live and die in those 23º. While this region is only one part of the globe, the lives of turmoil and legacies of hope within it are emblematic of people around the world who suffer at the same latitudes. Their lives are separated by a chasm of degrees, in contrast to those living in developed nations to the north and south.

This work in progress seeks to illuminate this intersection of geographic lines with circumstance of birth and how the irony of being poor in paradise creates strength, resilience and a duality of spirit. I believe the broad view of the panoramic format, combined with an often intimate perspective, creates a novel way to explore the relationship between the land and those who must scrape together an existence from it.

To continue this work, I will return to Haiti, where the seismic shifts to land, culture, economy and politics since the 2010 earthquake have made the nation’s story even more poignant to this tale. I also plan to return to violence-plagued Guatemala and to Guyana, a country in a decades-long state of decline.


Benjamin Rusnak is a humanitarian photojournalist. He has documented poverty in the Caribbean and Latin America since 2000 as staff photographer for Food For The Poor, one of the largest international relief agencies in the United States, based in Coconut Creek, FL. He brought a decade of newspaper experience to telling the stories of those in need in the developing world.

His work has been recognized by Pictures of the Year International, the Best of Photojournalism, the International Photography Awards, the New York Photo Awards, Photo District News, the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, the Alexia Foundation and the China International Press Photo Contest. In 2008, Rusnak won the prestigious Gordon Parks Award. In 2009, his exhibition of Dreams & Tempests premiered as part of the citywide festival, Atlanta Celebrates Photography and has traveled to California (The KONA Gallery), Washington, D.C., and Florida. ZUMA Press represents his editorial work, and zReportage.com and DOUBLEtruck Magazine often feature his essays. He was awarded InterAction’s Effective Assistance Humanitarian Photography Award in 2010.

Related links


53 thoughts on “benjamin rusnak – 23º, far from paradise”

  1. Benjamin.. not easy to pull off something different and new on such a subject as poverty, my feeling is you have succeeded, showing the beauty that goes along with daily struggle.. very nice use of the pano format.. thanks.. :)

  2. This work stands out. And not just because of the format, which is wonderfully exploited here. The compositions are masterful. There is joy, and humanity, and hope mixed with the images of squalor and poverty.
    My hands down favourite image here is number 3. What a wonderfully put together image, I’m astounded by it’s sheer beauty in spite of the desperate scenario it depicts. Number 8 is iconic. The three beautiful, very stressed out faces of the girls, the framing of the buildings on either side, and the hand thrust into the frame all creates an amazing sense of tension and of something very serious going on, while actually not having to show us. Yes, what it feels like.
    These photographs mostly depict a series of small understated moments. But in doing so they give me a greater sense of the people and the struggle they endure than most of the more explicit work I’ve seen.

    Congratulations Benjamin. I love what you are doing here. Good luck to you.

  3. Benjamin.
    “Conversely, this is where hope and resilience coexist with tribulation. For the poor, there is a duality to life. In each person, each moment holds joy and pain, a mourning for what is lost and a yearning for what may be.”

    This is a wonderful example of how what you feel in your heart coming accross in the work.

  4. The opening shot is simply great – I think I like it better than anything that I have seen come out of Haiti since the earthquake. I’m glad to see an essay that does not flinch from showing the tragic situation there yet shows so strongly the resiliency of the people there.

    I got a little confused by the brief leaps into other nations, but then I haven’t been getting enough sleep, so that might account for it.

    Congratulations! Well done!

  5. just a couple of minutes on Benjamins site and you can see he has both the chops and the commitment.
    This panoramic work also has some real gems in amongst it.

  6. This is a wow essay; from the first frame I was swept up in the wonderful photography and the superb use of the panorama format. It is at once a joy to view the photography and distressing to see the poverty and the waste of human potential that poverty brings. The tension between the two is palpable.
    To my mind, Benjamin has struck a fine balance between showing the unrelenting difficulties of life in the regions and people’s ability to find some joy to life even here. I’m reminded of reading about a missionary who had spent many years in Africa working with the poor who, on his arrival back in England, noticed that no-one was smiling.

    Congratulations Benjamin and thank you.


  7. I haven’t read the artist statement and in fact I don’t even know who the photographer is. I’ve jumped into full screen slideshow and watched over and over again.
    I love it!
    I like the way this photographer sees, I’ve no idea who he’s influenced by or anything, couldn’t care less. I like the images and his way of framing especially with panoramic format and I would certainly buy a book on this essay.
    Right, I’m off to read the Artist Statement…

  8. “Their Maker, she said, gives them the sky to carry because they are strong. These people do not know who they are, but if you see a lot of trouble in your life, it is because you were chosen to carry part of the sky on your head.”–edwidge danticat


    What i often hate about photography done in countries such as Haiti, or photography centered on the suffering of others, is that it often gets its visual power from a certain exploitation of the substance rather than an exploration of the lives of the subjects. Benjamin’s work is a magnificent counter to such misery driven work. This story begins with the focus on the celebration of life, even amid such astonishing economic, political and natural devastation. Its fullness is not only a tribute to the lives of those he has documented but also to the act of bringing attention to the plight and aspirations of others. This is particularly hard to pull off in a world sated by images of misery, particularly that of Haiti and other Caribbean-basin nations.

    The opening image is surely the most beautiful and most emotionally devastating/uplifting image that I have seen from Haiti. A cinematic image that is so simple, so open as to be a wonderment and yet filled with heartbreaking truth when one considers its context. His eye for detail and for shadow is rich and mature and I love that rather than use the panoramic lens/camera for effect, he actually harnesses it to widen our emotional understanding. Picture 3 is a great example of that as we move from shadow to light (right to left) and family to social context (fore to background)….and i love the silver snake of light (like Frank’s silver arrow of highway in Americans) in the penultimate image, as if a moment from nearly every great carribean/s.american novel i’ve read…the dangerous tongue of the land….

    But most importantly what i love it Benjamin’s balance: the complexity of the narrative from joy to havock, from ambiguous to protest, from outright life-living delerium (that gorgeous leap from the bridge) to heart-break reality (xrays)…and one gets a wilding sense that people endure, that above all the impossible difficulty, people are sustained by a belief, a belief so ribbald as to be undiminishable…and where does this come from?…..the extraordinary mystery and strength of the will to live…

    magnificent, beautiful, intelligent work driven by the will to document and sustain…

    a magnificent essay….and benjamin’s entire oeuvre is just brilliant…

    big congratulations and thank you so much for sharing…


  9. pano
    pano!!!!!!!! that brought me back to my childhood…my mother use to yell through the window:
    panoooooooooooooo come home, its getting late!

    at least someone here gave my name some justice!
    thank u! not that bad! this work is Aaight:)

  10. benjamin,

    first of all congratulations.

    i shouldnt but i must say that in comparison to the other essays here that i have paged through (all the years of BURN) that’s about poverty only yours have evoked so much emotion from me BECAUSE you show how poverty is lived.

    it is not the lack of money or how much sympathy can flow downstream but that poor people can also have dreams and can live a life full of hope inspite of not being able to experience any. hope is the last thing before death and is worth living any minute for.

    i am not sure about your background and i dont need to know —
    but i feel like youve been there like i have. thank you.

  11. One of the best essays I have seen in a long, long time, on Burn and elsewhere. In a word: wow.

  12. you had me at the first image…..
    a kite….
    made of
    plastic bags
    says it all…….

  13. Paul, Imants, when I viewed my thought was Oh Benjamin, you’ve seen some terrible things. The starving Guatemalan child in the crib staring up with that horrific expression was very hard to look at.
    I’m very humbled and impressed by this.

  14. Gordon…

    I understand your feelings totally, I was viewing these images when my little 5 year old son walked in to my studio and I just thought, “Wow, how lucky we are back here”.
    I often remind myself in silence we have no right to complain and that’s true 98% of the time…

  15. Bob
    “I love that rather than use the panoramic lens/camera for effect, he actually harnesses it to widen our emotional understanding. Picture 3 is a great example of that as we move from shadow to light (right to
    left) and family to social context (fore to background)…”

    Yes, I was struck by how wonderfully the format is used for telling the story. The viewing experience is so different from how we view photographs normally. Cinematic is a good description. We cannot view the image all at once, the story unfolds as we scan accross. I would love to have seen the large prints shown in “dreams and tempests”.

  16. This work really is on another level, I keep coming back to it.
    Feeling slightly sorry for who’s the next finalist after Benjamin! A bit like what Pete Townsend said at Monterey Pop Festival after Hendrix finished his set..

    “I just went out and strummed.”

  17. yesyes – i like the dedication to this subject and the content..
    the sequencing is intelligent and there is real depth of knowledge and empathy with the people coming through.. bypasses cliche visually and theoretically.

    this line;
    “and how the irony of being poor in paradise creates strength, resilience and a duality of spirit.”
    made me think though, that poverty which exists everywhere may produce this duality..?!

    good stuff benjamin.. will tuck into your site now..

  18. Benjamin! Awesome work and with an XPAN!!! Agree with the majority… work from another level! OK, thanks Ben, now gotta go out shooting with this camera. Hope you win the EPF.


  19. Excellent work, Benjamin.

    It’s not often that the panoramic format is used in the documantary realm without
    it being gimmicky.

    So as not to disrupt this section, I’ve linked to an interesting Turkish pano series over
    at c’mon baby light my fire

  20. This is exceptional work.

    It took me a few minutes to get used to the panoramic format, but I love it. It works better when viewed full screen. In a gallery show it would be stunning.

    Well done.

  21. Pete…
    “In a gallery show it would be stunning.”
    Go to his website and to the menu STRUGGLE and then DREAMS AND TEMPESTS and take a look at image 2 and 3.

  22. Hasselblad Xpan? Beautiful. The compositions are masterful. I want an Xpan for a few ideas I have but, moneys aside, the daunting thought of mastering the frame leaves me wondering. This is precisely the kind of work I love for showing me how masterful framing can be int his format.

    As an attempt at throwing some constructive thoughts out there…

    Benjamin, you talk about this area being a dream land for tourists. Could I ask why you chose not to include them as a prominent juxtaposition to the way of life of those you have documented here? Is that a key element of the story?

    I am tempted to say that hope and resilience coexist with tribulation everywhere – that is just a plain human fact of existence. Even the rich feel the poverty of existence; even the poor feel the wealth of existence. What makes it particularly special in this area/these people? Does that come through in your essay?

    Could I also ask why you chose to mix ethnicities and people, rather than focussing on one ethnicity, one people, or even one individual/family in telling your tale? Given that you mention this being a holiday destination for rich people yet not showing them, I do wonder why you gave us this sense of universality in depicting a wide range of people here.

    I feel bad, given my last EPF finalist review and also given how stunningly beautiful the composition and technical execution of these images are. I have enjoyed viewing both this and Daria’s essay. But I feel these questions are pertinent, and I think asking them would benefit one or both of us, so I have to ask them.

  23. Hi all,

    I am in Haiti this week and just learned of this work being honored as a finalist. But I am even more honored and gratified by your wonderfully warm and amazingly intelligent, insightful and supportive comments. I can’t express how much they mean to me. Obviously this is a very personal body of work, and to answer one valid criticism about the poor needing the credit – it was born out of the need to express myself after years of documenting poverty for fundraising purposes. As a former newspaper photojournalist I have found that the difference between humanitarian journalism and standard journalism is that standard journalism tells stories of injustice hoping that someone else will right a wrong, while humanitarian journalism tells a story, raises funds and fixes the problem directly, as often as is possible. The work is richly rewarding as a human being, but lacking as an artist – hence this body of work was born. I readily admit to struggling with winning awards from images of someone else’s suffering. Photographer’s have struggled with that for decades – just think of Kevin Carter and his Pulitzer image from Ethiopia. Like many before me, I hope that by make appealing images of painful realities I will draw people into caring about topics and lives from which they are far removed. And just maybe a few hearts will be touched. In the meantime, I ease my conscience with the knowledge that the humanitarian side of my work really is making a difference. And your comments have made a difference in my life during a difficult week.

    With sincere thanks,

    Benjamin Rusnak

    P.S. I was already planning to be in Charlottesville for LOOK3, so if any of you are there please introduce yourselves.

  24. Thanks for the reply Benjamin, it is that difficult scenario that few professions have…….. when is it exploitation and when does it become a service to humanity.

  25. thank you ben for your reply.

    even though i am not a photographer, i say these too among the PROs here in BURN that your pictures are great.

    but reading your response, you are even a greater person… and for this reason, today at this minute and onwards, your pictures mean all the more.

    onwards in achieving your personal goals, and i wish you strength to carry on the physical body but more so, i hope you find ways to nourish your good spirit amongst the difficult things your eyes have to see.


    Superb work! As has been said, you have managed to bring a fresh eye to a subject that has certainly been documented before. But never like this. Yes, the panoramic format adds a new twist but it is so much more than that. You have captured the spirit and life of the people, and that’s what it’s all about. Bravo to you for creating such a significant body of work and for being one of the 10 EPF finalists. You deserve it.

  27. Yes, … different perspective … i could see the sincere life of them from your works.

    Thank you for very nice works… :)))

  28. benjamin

    dwelling upon the previous EPF award beneficiaries, each has shown a willingness to connect deeply with their subject beyond the superficial, each has concerned themselves with an issue which deserves wider attention and each has, after the fact, continued to exhibit and pursue in other-ways their goal of widening the story.. serving humanity to one degree or another, and with an emphasis on naturally interesting work which seems in no way forced nor contrived..

    any kind of real change does not come through photographs of course – it is the photographers actions, from what they do with the photos to who they connect with, which makes any difference..
    and here – with this story as the ones previously – a large chunk of money given to the right mind can be multiplied in it’s effects 10 fold.

    i like the work very much.. the “place” it is coming from even more…

    you say
    “I readily admit to struggling with winning awards from images of someone else’s suffering.”

    if you choose to focus on suffering and put the work forward for rewards – better to redouble your efforts.. to make the life of your subjects more comfortable or secure… than to feel bad :o)

    a life in photography in order to satisfy the photography industry / our career alone, is vapid and shallow..
    a life in photography keeping “the industry” within reach, yet utterly outside of motives and influence could be admirable.. either serving those who gift us these moments, or looking to connect with those who feel like we do.. whatever the discipline.

    lykke til from norway.

  29. Just from looking at the photos, I wouldn’t guess that this essay was about poverty. I’d probably hazard that it was about a small African, or perhaps Caribbean city or country. Maybe that’s because I don’t automatically associate images of people of recent African descent with poverty? Of course I note the shantytowns towards the end, but those obvious images of poverty don’t overwhelm the essay. They’re much more scenic than devastating.

    I share others concerns with portraying dire suffering and poverty with such beautiful images and for me black and white just makes it so much worse. Those ugly little details, the clashing colors etc, that clutter the color photograph are the very details that are more likely to communicate the profound poverty of the scene. I don’t want to use the term exploitative, I trust that’s not the intention, but I don’t see a lot of positive reasons to do this type of work. We all know that there are poor people living in shantytowns throughout our little world. That’s hardly a secret. The problem is that few people have much understanding of why? And there’s nothing in this essay that even hints at an answer to that. Not in the photos. Not in the text. Tell us, or better yet, show us something we don’t know, pués.

  30. Stunning work. I feel like this illustrates that there’s good and bad in everything, that there are simple things that make us smile even in the worst situations. Thank you for sharing this, I enjoyed it very much. I particularly appreciate that there’s a wider point of view than just “these people are so poor” as the joy that is presented is more humanizing.


  31. Like everyone so far, I’m stunned by the beauty and grace in many of these images.

    I paused at #7, bothered by the words “a bag full of hope.” Really, is the hope in the bag? Just a “donated food” is enough to say, I think, and let the picture speak of hope. Likewise, on #18, “even more valued” means the feeding programs were valued before, and they are more valued now. Obviously, you like programs that feed people, but that statement is not in the image. Writing that caption turns this into an illustration, a reflexive sales job. It’s a great photograph from the flowery vinyl tablecloth to the plastic forks and rice in between, and in context with the other images it’s more powerful without the message.

    I think the subject of feeding programs is complicated. In your day job, you can work in a less complicated world where food relief is always given at the right times and places, and never does more harm than good. In your personal work, you can get away from illustrating and just see. That’s what this work is about, in my opinion, and I hope you’ll keep climbing, as the first commenter said.

  32. I don’t comment often but wow. This is some of the most moving photography I’ve seen in a long time. You honor your subjects with grace and dignity. This is all about humanity and beauty in every day life. The panoramic format absolutely works. This is about the 4th time I’ve been back to look and I’ll come back again. Thank you.

  33. I’m not sure if you would like to hear that this in fantastic work, given the subject matter. I believe you have captured the soul of the issue in a poetic approach. The series absorbs you into it, and the panoramic view forces the viewer to scan the contents from left to right, and back.

    Thank you for doing this.

  34. Framers Intent, thanks for your compliments (as well as everyone elses’). I am finally in a place where I can answer some of your very good questions.

    As for why I have chosen not to show the vacationers’ side of paradise, I have a heartfelt calling to tell the story of the poor. I am not called to tell the story of luxury resorts, even though that may be a very interesting comparison indeed. With so many travel magazines, brochures, and even the Travel channel there is a glut of images depicting traditional paradise. Instead, I find it more interesting to allow the viewer to imagine their own version of what paradise is supposed to look like, thereby creating their own internal contrast against my images.

    I disagree that the depth of pain or hope and resilience that I feel I am documenting in the developing world exists at all levels of a society. My experience is that with less material possessions and limited food, water and safe shelter the poor tend to have less “things” in between them and the rawness of life – both good and bad – and therefore they feel both joy and pain more viscerally. I acknowledge these are sweeping generalizations, but I stand by them. For me this is very apparent in several of the images, particularly #24 where two women reflect on what was lost and what was spared after the earthquake. That moment spoke to me and I hope it encompasses the entire project in one frame.

    These 25 images are part of a slightly larger edit that includes more images from Latin America. Looking for the most impactful 25 images tilted this particular edit toward Haiti, but the struggles, emotions, hope, determination and most importantly – irony of location – are the same for the poor throughout the region. The universality that I am looking to convey is strictly among the poor of these latitudes, not the wealthy, who I would imagine have different struggles in their lives that would be the makings of a separate essay. This story was born out of observations I have made while working throughout these 23º of latitude. Many have said that the best stories come from personal experience, but whether they are good or not, these images are my experience.

    Thanks to Burn for creating this space for honest, open dialog about the industry and passion that we all obviously care about so much.


  35. Ben,

    Many thanks for answering my comments in such depth, appreciated. Apologies for taking a moment to realise you’d posted – busy times for all of us, I’m guessing. ;-) I have a busy couple of days coming up, and am just about to go to bed. But I’ll return and continue the conversation once I’ve had a moment to sit down with your images and subsequent comments again. Thanks.

  36. Pingback: Amazing Panoramic Stree Photos: Benjamin Rusnak » 5PM Light

Comments are closed.