OP/TECH USA Ambassador Feature: Daniel Farber Huang and Theresa Menders
Daniel Farber Huang and Theresa Menders have successfully collaborated over the last 20 years as a husband and wife team. Huang+Menders' collaborative work is included in the permanent collections of numerous museums and historic institutions including the International Center of Photography, the New York Historical Society, the Museum of the City of New York, Museum of Chinese in America, the New York City Fire Museum, the Smithsonian and other cultural institutions.
They focus on a wide range of social and cultural topics, with a particular emphasis on women's and children's issues locally and around the world.
Daniel and Theresa, thank you both for taking the time to meet with me for this interview today!
First off, I want to say that the photographic work you do is emotionally heavy and I think that many people would like to hear about your work and know more about it. I think it's amazing that you work to bring awareness to many humanitarian crises around the world.
So how did you two get started in photography and particularly, how did you both get started in photographing humanitarian crises?
Daniel: Photography has always been a part of our lives. We have huge families. Theresa is one of 12 children in her family, and I am one of ten in mine. There were always photos being taken in our homes. Realistically, our formal photography started the afternoon of September 11, 2001. We lived in New York City and 9/11 was such a massive event. For the first time in a long time, all across the country, museums, institutions, historians, people were all wanting to document what was occurring immediately around us as a nation. We lived in Manhattan, a few miles north of Ground Zero. We were able to document literally the day-by-day events as they were rapidly unfolding. We knew the world was watching. In a certain way, trying to make sense of what happened through the lens of our cameras was comforting. It gave us permission to think and feel, "This doesn't make sense today but someday, we'll figure it out.
After awhile, once people had seen some of the work we had done, they said, "Hey, this is really good, you ought to show it to museums." 9/11 kind of changed the way that institutions or museums looked at photographs and who should be taking photographs. So, we actually reached out to a number of organizations in New York City. Much to our surprise, the vast majority of them...or I think all of them said, "We'd like to have your work in our permanent collections because what you've done is important."
Part of what we photographed, which was incredibly sad at the moment and still is, were the Missing Persons posters that were posted everywhere around New York City. They were 8.5 x 11 photo copies put out by people searching for their loved ones missing from Ground Zero. We had never seen that before and we haven't really seen that since. We cataloged that as much as we could, just taking straight-on photos of each poster. We didn't necessarily know at the time what to do with that growing collection of images, but we knew someday it would be an important historical archive, along with everything else that was going on as well. Realizing the work we were doing was being recognized and validated by historians and the "art world" made us take a much more critical look at what was in our capability of doing. That is what started it... more than 20 years ago at this point.
Theresa: It's important to ensure that history is archived in some way. Over 20 years later, it's still important. That was the start of us documenting events going on with the world and issues that are important for people to be informed about and understand. 9/11 formalized our documentary photography versus just taking artistic photos. We recognized we could use our photography to make an impact and add constructively to the conversation around pressing issues.
Over time, we broadened our scope to focus on women's and children's issues, and the alleviation of poverty. We prioritized our purposeful traveling where we would go somewhere to document situations or certain events that were occurring. When the global refugee crisis began in 2015, we were drawn to raising awareness of the plight of displaced people. We also knew for us to understand the situation better, we needed to be boots on the ground, so we initially spent meaningful time in Greece in refugee camps documenting the situation. Our cameras ended up being our way of connecting with people.
In these situations, we'd have a camera, we're speaking with people – often navigating around language barriers – and they would ask us to take their photos. Afterwards, Daniel and I were talking about why everyone wanted their photo taken. We realized that having a photo taken by a third party is in many ways validating. It means that someone else recognizes that person exists and is a person of value, even though they might currently be in a terrible situation. That's when we started thinking about what we could do more broadly than just photographing camps and the deplorable conditions people were living in. We were thinking, "What else can we do?" That started us on our Power of Faces project. That's where we started and how it has evolved over time.
Daniel: From the start of the current refugee crisis beginning in 2015 and continuing through today, millions of people have been forced to flee their homelands due to conflict or persecution. People were literally fleeing for their lives and yet some politicians and interest groups were demonizing them. People were not risking their lives in inflatable rafts because they wanted to. It's because they had no choice.
Part of what spurred us into wanting to get involved is that there was so much imagery of displaced people living in horrible, dangerous, and bad situations. It's true that was their environment, but we knew some people would draw the incorrect conclusion that refugees must also be horrible, dangerous, and bad people by default. It's really so far from the truth. We work hard to show individuals outside of the context of their environment to give context about what makes a person who they are. We want to use our photographs to spur action and remind people refugees are not merely numbers or statistics, but are individuals with their own hopes and dreams for a better life in a kinder world.
Yes, I really do see that your work humanizes the people that are in those situations. It puts faces to the numbers. It tells a whole different story. I think your work is so very important. Thank you for what you do in bringing awareness to the world. It's easy to forget what people are going through, especially if you are not on the ground seeing it and experiencing it. Not everyone can be on the ground like you are but you help bring things into perspective for people.
What was your photography experience like before you started documenting the events of 9/11?
Daniel: We were always appreciative of great photographers – Steichen, Steiglitz, Capa, Nachtwey, Leibovitz – and were active practitioners, always open to seeing “the decisive moment.” We have extensive archives going back to our earliest work that we're in the slow process of digitizing.
How did you guys get involved with OP/TECH USA?
Daniel: Everything we do we have to carry on our own. Trying to travel and work as efficiently as possible is critically important to us. With the Power of Faces project, we travel packing a makeshift studio. We work in places that don't have electricity, such as open fields or on beaches. Having everything we possibly need while bringing as little as we possibly can is always a delicate balance. A lot of the OP/TECH products just made sense. We are also really rough with our gear a lot of the time given our type of field work ...not by intention but you know....
Oh I'm sure with the nature of your work that it's just inevitable!
Theresa: Yes, our bags go through a lot in transit, we operate our equipment in some harsh conditions, and are often navigating tight spaces or challenging terrain.
Daniel: We do try to acknowledge people for their good work so a few years ago, we wrote a nice note to the previous owners of OP/TECH telling them about some of our gear experiences. They were quick and gracious to respond, encouraging us to keep doing the work we were doing, and asking how they could help. We developed a dialogue over time and it's grown into a great relationship.
I am so happy that you two use our products to their fullest potential! We are happy to support you and your work. What you do is so important - capturing those images for the world to see and learn from. Your images tell stories. Powerful, compelling stories - full of emotion.
What is your most recent work?
Theresa: This weekend, we are going to be meeting with Afghani refugees who have recently resettled in our area and making portraits of them as part of The Power of Faces. We will be capturing them now that they are finally in a stable place where they will be living. That's a side of the story that we would like to capture more.
In March of this year, we were at the Poland/Ukraine border documenting the situation as people fled the war in Ukraine. That situation in many ways was different from any other crisis we've covered. While most of our other work has been in refugee camps or areas where people have been living for a while, at the Poland/Ukraine border people were actively fleeing, in transit and seeking safety. We were seeing people get to the border and realizing, "Now what?" It was a temporary respite for them once they were able to cross the border.
Daniel: The war had literally started 3 weeks earlier.
Theresa: And just about 13 miles east in the Ukraine, there was a missile strike on a military base just a couple days earlier. It was a very raw experience for us as photographers because as Daniel mentioned earlier, we are not intrusive at all. We stay to the side and we work to blend in. Unless people invite us in, we are staying more in tune with the audience.
I have some training in psychological first aid and I have a further interest in how to help people who are dealing with trauma and how to help them heal. Some people we meet like to tell their stories as a way to process their situation, some people approach us wanting to talk or wanting to do an interview.
Unfortunately, anyone can be a refugee and that is something Daniel and I think about a lot. When we do work on The Power of Faces we seek to show individuals and their families without the context of being in a camp. They could be anybody. They are people. Refugees come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. It's not just something that's happening “over there.” We all need to be willing to help each other. Our work is getting noticed by people who want to help and that is what we hope to continue achieving as we continue our work.
Can you tell us what it is like to work as a wife-and-husband photography team?
Theresa: We each have different strengths and approaches to our work, so we are able to operate extremely well together with our planning, field work, and “back at home” responsibilities to raise awareness of important situations. There have been countless times where one of us might have an advantage engaging with different groups of individuals. Sometimes, I am able to get welcomed into female-focused communities. Daniel may be invited to sit with men, and sometimes both of us together are viewed as a comforting, non-threatening duo.
Daniel: We have a mantra that has helped us over the years, “The fight is between us and the problem, the fight is not between us and each other.” We do often find ourselves in intense, unpredictable, fluid situations where there are a lot of emotions, stresses, and risks present for everyone – the two of us as well as everyone around us – and by focusing our efforts and energy on addressing the problems, our work has been able to remain productive and relevant.
When you are not helping to document humanitarian crises, do you photograph other subjects?
Daniel: Yes, absolutely. There's always beauty to be found in the most unexpected of places, and it is always satisfying to capture a moment in time that resonates, whether it's overseas, in our town, or in our home. Sometimes it's with our big gear, sometimes with our phones. There are easily tens of thousands of images that we each have taken just for ourselves to appreciate, never to be published. We have four children so that's a whole other story. Also, for fun, we tend to put an outsized amount of effort into our annual holiday cards.
Have your children gone on any humanitarian trips with you?
Theresa: Yes, on several tours they have been integral members of our documentary teams. They each are able to view the situations and environments from a different perspective than we might, and back in the U.S. there has been strong interest from the broader public to see and hear about the refugee crises around the world from a younger person's perspective. They each have worked on raising awareness through a wide range of channels, from TED Talks, to museum exhibits, university presentations, and articles.
What you photograph can be very heavy and what you experience while on the ground can be very heartbreaking. How do you and Theresa cope with what you see there?
Daniel: We talk to each other a lot about what we are seeing, sensing, and feeling before, during, and after each tour. It's crucial to be willing to go into situations with an open mind. We are able to do what we do because we work hard to practice empathy at every step and be mindful of how and where we fit in each situation.
What are some of your go-to OP/TECH USA products? Do you and Theresa have your own favorites?
Daniel: For years I've been using the OP/TECH Reporter Strap to carry two heavy cameras in a low-profile manner, which has been helpful when climbing ladders or crawling through tight spaces. Sometimes (often, actually) I put my equipment through rough use given the environments or crowds, so knowing that my cameras are well-secured is reassuring and one less thing to worry about. The Tripod Strap is also extremely useful for freeing up a hand because if we have to carry a full-size tripod somewhere that inevitably means we're also lugging around a lot of other equipment too.
Theresa: I'm partial to the Super Classic Straps and the Cam Straps for my cameras. Depending on the situation, I may want just one or several different cameras on me, so being able to grab individual cameras quickly out of my pack makes field work more efficient. Also, the Accessory Packs are great for keeping our different categories of gear organized and protected in transit.
How often do you and Theresa go on trips to photograph humanitarian crises?
Theresa: We typically plan three major trips each year, including returning to locations we had previously documented to report on new developments. Looking into the next two years, we expect to broaden our scope to raise awareness of individuals and populations being displaced due to climate change and other macro factors. We are also working to raise awareness of the need for psychological first aid and mental health services in humanitarian situations.
What advice would you give to a photographer who is wanting to start doing what you and Theresa do?
Daniel: At the end of the day, we hope to add constructively to the conversations about vulnerable populations, whether it's regarding displaced people and refugees, women's or children's issues, or poverty. To do that effectively, it's important to build subject matter knowledge so we can share objective information with the public, rather than just promoting an opinion. We both are continually learning and furthering our formal and information educations to hone our individual craft. Theresa is earning her Doctorate in Public Health and I recently completed my second Masters degree in Journalism and International Security. Informally, we each tap into subject matter experts, read voraciously, and continually train to refine both our technical and artistic skills.
Theresa: For emerging photographers, I would say keep your eyes open, observe your environment, digest and appreciate the work of other photographers, and see the world through other people's lenses. You don't need fancy equipment to tell a story (think about world-altering images made 70 or more years ago and the simpler cameras they had at the time). Today, we're seeing productive change come about thanks to a camera phone so the gear isn't what makes an image important. In our work, we seek to humanize the plight of refugees and other vulnerable people, to remind the world that everyone is deserving of personal safety and their individual freedom. Every person has their own courage, beauty, dignity and grace. We want the world to see it.
To learn more about Theresa and Daniel's work, you can connect with them using the links below!