David Elliot Cohen – photography can change the world.

Bestselling author and editor, David Elliot Cohen has written or co-authored more than seventy large-format illustrated books — many with Rick Smolan — that have collectively sold more than 5 million copies. Most were in the hugely popular Day in the Life or America 24/7 photography book series co-founded by Cohen and Smolan.

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I’m going to present to you some issues that are really tough to look at. When I was doing the Obama book, I was reading a bunch of his speeches.

My latest book, called What Matters, is about essential issues of our time. with some of the greatest photographers of our time. All of them are masters of their craft and they are deeply passionate about what they shoot.

How passionate are we talking about?

Passionate enough to shoot about water issues for our chapter on thirsty world. About finding an end to malaria. About AIDS ravaged communities.

All of the pictures, the stories you see going on behind me were shot under very difficult situations, with very little pay.

I wanted to explore and understand, and imagine – telling stories that need to be told, regardless of the obstacles. You get to a certain age and you want to work on something worthwhile.

I tried to work on essential issues and then focused on what can or can not be shot.

I asked 25 photo editors from around the country [NYT, Wash Post …]

What photos have you seen that are really important?

I considered bio-tech but there weren’t enough pictures that could tell that story. But they also brought to my attention other pictures and stories, I didn’t think of: Child Brides – 1 million girls between 10-15 years old are married off each year.

After gathering all the images I went to talk to writers. I tried to talk to writers who were the best in their field who could elucidate these photos.

Then I added the final step. A comprehensive section for the readers who wanted to turn outrage into action – just in case that happened.

What Matters was published in 2008 and I’ve been trying to push it out there as much as possible. I’m trying to tell people why this matters, why they should care. The reason i have to go out there and tell people is because most people wont spend $20 on a book that shoves tough issues in their face.

I’ve done hundreds of interviews (mostly radio) – the question I get most often: Why did you do this book?

You can either give them a sound bite or you can think about the question every time it’s asked. I did my best to consider the answer every time.

Here was my first answer: I walked into the big sprawling Barnes & Noble near my house – all usual suspects, glossy, well-done. and I thought to myself, after 8 years of Bush and Cheney, I gotta do something else, I can’t do another book like that.

[the crowd applauds]

I wanted to talk about how the language of photo-journalism can entice change.

Photo-journalism can capture a decisive moment and make the viewer think about the meaning of that moment. All great photo-journalism is personal and specific and compels you to think of the ramifications of that moment.

We consciously pursued stories that can make a difference. We thought that photos mattered. Photography can change the world.

I believe in my heart one great photograph can change the world.

When one great image resonates with one talented and energized person, and they take action, that can create positive change that can change the course of the world.

I can’t predict which person will connect, which image will resonate, but I completely believe it will happen.

Then the universe gave me proof.

I was introduced to Mark Johnson, an artist who built a music school for kids in a poor township near Capetown in South Africa. It was such a success that he’s now building these schools all over the world.

Why is he doing this?

Well, 6 years ago I was given a  book: A Day in the Life of Africa

The image I saw served as a symbol for me and my crew.

I went to Africa, met a local jazz artist. I asked what can we do to give back to your community?

Answer: the kids here need a music school, need inspiration.

And so we built a school.

Now we’re going to build hundreds of these schools around the world.

One photo :: One inspiration :: One dedicated person :: One change for the better

There are 200 photos in What Matters.

See the book for free: www.whatmattersonline.com

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I’m inspired. Let’s go make change!

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