In South Africa, UC Berkeley graduate student Molly Oleson put her camera to work capturing images of farming women who were being forced off land their families had lived on and cultivated for generations.
In India, she documented the lives of girls in the impoverished state of Bihar, where some families are starting to break free of traditional ways and sending their daughters to school — and the possibility of a better future.
In Brazil this summer, helped by the 2013 Dorothea Lange Fellowship top prize of $4,000, Oleson will venture deep into the Amazon rainforest to bring back the story of the Kayopo indigenous communities’ struggle to protect their land, culture and livelihoods from destruction by what would be, if built, the world’s third-biggest dam.
“One of the goals for me with my work is to not only document such things but also hopefully to encourage people to do something to change social ills,” says Oleson, who is graduating this month with her master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. “I feel documentary photography can be a really strong tool for accomplishing that.”
The fellowship, sponsored by Berkeley’s Office of Public Affairs, memorializes the great 20th-century American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, best-known for her stark images of people weathered and worn by the Great Depression. A Bay Area resident, Lange also photographed the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and later documented the effects of the postwar boom on California. She left her collection to the Oakland Museum of California.
The intention of the prize is to encourage the use of photography in scholarly work at UC Berkeley.
Oleson arrived at documentary photography on a path that started in the arts world. She studied painting, sculpture, printmaking and photography while earning her undergraduate degree at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts. Interests in writing and travel brought her to the door of international journalism, and she walked right through it. At Berkeley, she has focused on multimedia and writing, and hit the streets as a reporter and assistant editor with the journalism school’s Mission Local online news site.
Documentary photography, around issues like global health and the environment, marries her art background with storytelling. With newly honed skills in web design and video, as well as writing and photos, her work in India became a multimedia project for the J-School.
Out of the South Africa project came a photography exhibit at UCLA this spring. “The wider the reach of these photos, the wider the chance of inspiring some change — which makes me happy,” says Oleson.
With the Lange fellowship, her plan is to travel to Brazil to tell the story of “what land means to the people who live on it and what they’re willing to do to protect it.”
The loss would be the world’s too, she says, because the land the tribes are defending is so rich in biodiversity.
“If I can tell that environmental story through the story of this tribe, it would make much more of an impact,” says Oleson.
The Dorothea Lange Fellowship committee also selected a second winner this year: Allison Allbee, a graduate student in urban planning who has taken many journalism classes, including several in photography. She received $2,000.
More information is available on the fellowship website.