Dorothea Lange Fellowship winner tells stories of people on the fringe

Roland Whitley sits with his son and two people at McDonalds.

Roland Whitley sits with his son and two mentees at a McDonalds in a photo that was part of a series that won the 2019 Dorothea Lange Fellowship. (Photo by Clara Mokri)

Growing up the daughter of a prominent Hollywood cinematographer, Clara Mokri remembers being on movie sets with her father and seeing the power a camera could wield in telling stories. Her father chose to work on blockbuster film series like Fast & Furious and Transformers. Mokri, though, wanted to forge her own path.

“I always used to think that I wanted to be in the film industry in that capacity because I looked up to my dad; I still do,” she said. “But I was more interested in non-fiction storytelling.”

With that desire, Mokri took up photojournalism and hasn’t looked back.

Mokri, 23, is now a first-year student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and the 2019 winner of the Dorothea Lange Fellowship, a $4,000 award given to a graduate student or faculty member who has demonstrated outstanding work in documentary photography.

Clara Mokri smiles at the camera.

Mokri is a first-year student at the Berkeley School of Journalism. (Photo by James Tensuan)

Her winning submission is a series of black and white stills of Roland Whitley, a formerly incarcerated man in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Whitley had spent 20 years in and out of prison, but after his most recent release seven years ago, he became an advocate for education, mentoring youth in his community and dedicated his life to helping other former prisoners reintegrate into society.

“I think any news story is most powerful when it’s about a person. I just think human stories are what drives the news,” said Mokri. “I wouldn’t say I focus on any specific genre as a photojournalist. But I am interested in covering people on the fringe.”

Mokri was introduced to Whitley in the winter of 2018 by a friend who is filming a documentary about him. She spent more than six months, on and off, taking nearly a thousand photos capturing Whitley’s community and daily life as a mentor, activist and father. Mokri whittled her photo story down, choosing seven images she felt were the most visually interesting and that exhibited human emotion.

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“I think any journalistic story where you’re with someone for a long time and telling their story, you’re going to get to know them on a personal level, and the more you get to know someone, the more you can capture who they really are,” said Mokri. “That produces the best and most sincere images.”

Mokri joined Berkeley’s journalism program after working as a photo editor for publications like Vice and Time magazine. She also studied with investigative journalist Bob Woodward while an undergraduate at Yale University.

Samantha Grant, a lecturer at Berkeley’s journalism school, called Mokri “a born image-maker with a hungry heart and a willing hand.”

Mokri, who is fluent in three languages, plans to use the $4,000 fellowship to travel to South Sulawesi, Indonesia, this summer to photograph the Toraja, an indigenous group that lives not far from the area where her mother’s family, who are Indonesian, once lived.

The outside of a window sill photographed with a picture frame and trophies.

Outside the police station on Stratford Avenue in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Photo by Clara Mokri)

The Toraja are “technically on the fringe, because they are a group that hasn’t been covered very often,” said Mokri. “I want to learn more about my own culture through the people I meet, because I’ve never been there.”

Mokri plans to take a series of environmental color portraits of the Toraja and snapshots of their community using a large format, film-based camera for portraits. She says it will be an homage to the fellowship’s namesake.

“Shooting film is something I don’t get to do very often. This is something I will have the time to work on, and I think it will be just a really beautiful medium,” she said. “I also think this is in the spirit of who Dorothea Lange was and the type of work she did.”