Q&A: A chronicler of Faces of Courage

Name: Mark Tuschman
Age: 70
City: Menlo Park
Position: Photographer


J.: You’ve traveled to countries and photographed women who live very difficult lives, in difficult conditions, from poverty to sexual violence. How did you start doing this work?

Mark Tuschman: I always read the columns of Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, and I became aware of the problems women and girls face throughout the world when they are stripped of their status as full human beings, and I wanted to do something about it. In 2001, I went to Asia to document some of the programs offered by the S.F.-based Global Fund for Women. That was the first time I came face to face with the brutal reality that many women and girls face.

Mark Tuschman

You’ve put a decade of that work into your new book “Faces of Courage: Intimate Portraits of Women on the Edge,” which you will talk about at Book Passage in Corte Madera at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5. How did you find your subjects, and how did you gain their trust?

I worked with NGOs and foundations. I couldn’t just get on a plane and fly off. When I went into a community or a home, it was with people they’re already working with, already had a relationship with. I tried to give them the feeling that I’m doing something special and will tell their story, as well as treat them with care and dignity.

Did your subjects know you were calling them courageous?

No. The title of the book was hard to come up with, because I really cover so many subjects. I tried to tell the whole story as much as possible, about the plight of women and girls. It wasn’t just about lack of education for girls or spousal violence or dowry abuse or reproductive health care or AIDS, though those are some of the issues it deals with.

The photos in the book are dramatic. Some can be seen here (www.tinyurl.com/slate-tuschman) and some are on display through Dec. 31 at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco. As for the book itself: It’s your first that isn’t self-published. How did you come to do it?

I’ve spent my career doing commercial and corporate photography, but I’ve always felt that photography should be used to raise consciousness and promote social justice, so I’ve always tried to do something along those lines while I did my corporate work. I also grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where I lived in a tenement house with my extended family. There was a lot of poverty there, so I was always very sensitive to it and the struggles people have and how they’re affected by their cultures.

Are you donating any of the proceeds to women’s charities?

Unfortunately I couldn’t get enough funding, and I am way behind in recovering money of my own toward this book. Even with a Kickstarter campaign, I went into debt doing it. I did it because I spent 10 years doing this project, and I felt an obligation to the women I photographed so I couldn’t let it disappear.

What about your photo exhibits of Israelis and Ethiopian Jews?

I went to Israel about five years ago with my daughter, who’s a very good writer, and, with a producer, we got the stories of 14 Israelis of different backgrounds to show the multi-cultural diversity of Israel. As for the Ethiopian Jews, I went there on assignment and photographed them for a morning while they were in services.

Do you feel Judaism has influenced your career path?

I lived on the Lower East Side from the late ’40s until 1961, where you were just Jewish because that’s where you lived and that’s what your culture was. My grandparents were religious and I went to synagogue with my grandfather when I was young, but when my parents put me in a yeshiva as a boy I hated it, so I went to public school. I’m culturally Jewish, and while we belong to a temple, I can’t say that I’m very observant. But I believe I’ve been practicing Judaism with my photography.  Part of Jewish teachings is that we have to try to perfect the world, to make it a better place, and I’ve tried to do that through my photography. Tragically, there’s more to do each day.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."