For nearly four years, Mark Pearson has endured malaria, landslides, and rebel gunfire to photograph the disaster relief efforts of ShelterBox volunteers -- a nonprofit founded and supported by Rotarians that delivers tents and critical supplies to disaster victims.
We spoke with Pearson, an honorary member of the Rotary Club of Wadebridge, England, to find out more about his extraordinary job.
Q. How did you get involved with ShelterBox?
A. I was working as a press photographer, and I was sent to do some portraits of Rotarian Tom Henderson for a local newspaper. I spoke to Tom and showed him some images, and he asked me to volunteer to cover ShelterBox work in northern Uganda. At that time, thousands had fled the Lord’s Resistance Army and there was a huge IDP (internally displaced person) problem. So it all started from there. Three months later the tsunami happened, and I went to cover the east of Sri Lanka. Tom gave me contacts for Colombo Rotarians, and the Rotary clubs gave me a vehicle.
Q. Are you a volunteer or are you getting compensated?
A. I was a volunteer for the first year or so, giving my time and supplying my equipment free of cost to ShelterBox. Now I receive a nominal payment for my time, and of course, on-site and travel expenses. I am still a freelance photographer but now spend much of my time working with ShelterBox worldwide. ShelterBox work to me is more of a passion than a job!
Q. What do you hope to accomplish with your book?
A. I want to demonstrate the “reality” of humanitarian aid work -- the thread being the ShelterBox project and their work worldwide. I want to show people the difficulties humanitarian aid workers face -- in particular, the ShelterBox teams -- and let them know it is not just a question of delivering “aid” material to the nearest airport or port. There are many obstacles and problems to overcome, not the least of which are the terrain, the weather, etc. The book illustrates amongst other things the similarities between a manmade disaster in southern Lebanon and the same destruction in an earthquake in Pakistan. There is really little difference in the damage caused -- of course in war-torn areas there is often the added problem of unexploded ordnance to watch out for.
Q. What were your impressions of Rotary before volunteering with ShelterBox? And now?
A. I knew of the Rotary organization, but had not been involved before ShelterBox. Over the last two years, I have found out how big an organization it is, with a great worldwide network. All the Rotarians I have met are very influential, trustworthy, and respected in their countries. I think it is a great organization. I have met many UN officials who praise the work ShelterBox, and of course Rotary, does.
Q. How would you describe your approach to photography?
A. My general approach to photography is on a social documentary side, rather than looking for the immediate sensational images. I like to immerse myself in the story. I have stayed in the worst conditions for months, like with the tsunami. After spending that much time, you start to see the real side of the problems faced by the people affected. Then you see what’s really going on, and as you are living in it, you have a better understanding of the crisis.
View photos from Aftershock.