Dorothea Lange (1936). Photo: Rondal Partridge, Library of Congress Credit: Library of Congress

If the past is a foreign country, Dorothea Lange’s images work as a visual time machine, providing a portal back to the dusty byways, rural backroads and prison camps that many would prefer to forget. A Berkeley resident for much of her life, Lange continues to serve as a beacon for documentary photographers, not least at UC Berkeley ever since Cal economics professor Paul Taylor established a fellowship to honor his late wife some two decades after her death in 1965.

Open to faculty members, graduate students, or seniors who’ve been accepted for graduate work at Cal, the Dorothea Lange Fellowship isn’t officially associated with the Graduate School of Journalism, but it’s not surprising that the honor has taken up part-time residence in the J-School’s North Gate Hall. On Feb. 22 , 6:30-8:30 p.m., the J-School presents “Photographer Dorothea Lange and the Berkeley Connection: Forty Years of Lange Fellowship Winners,” an online event celebrating the ongoing power of Lange’s influence.

In 1987, Logan Professor of Photojournalism Ken Light was the first person associated with the J-School to receive the prestigious campus award. He is hosting Monday’s presentation, focusing on Lange’s deep ties to the community.

“They lived at 1163 Euclid and hung out at Berkeley,” said Light, who’ll show some of the iconic photos of migrant farm workers that Lange took for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression and her long-suppressed images of the Japanese internment.

The $4,000 fellowship has helped support and launch a bevy of excellent photographers from the J-School, several of whom will be on hand to talk about the projects they pursued with that funding. Los Angeles native Clara Mokri, who’ll graduate from the J-School in the spring with a master’s degree in documentary filmmaking, is the most recent recipient of the Dorothea Lange Fellowship (as well as the 2020 Jim Marshall Fellowship in photojournalism at UC Berkeley).

The daughter of Iranian-born Hollywood cinematographer Amir Mokri, she grew up in a family where a video camera was omnipresent. When her grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s her interest in photography became a calling.

“It made me want to document things around me, the idea of archiving things that happened to you, with more of a sense of urgency,” said Mokri, whose work has been featured in Time, Vice, Surfer Magazine, California Sunday, New York Magazine, Mother Jones, Sports Illustrated among others.

“Clara produces very tight, well composed, well-edited images,” Light said. “They impact you. I think one reason that J-Schoolers often win the Lange Fellowship is that they’re really focused on storylines and creating a cohesive body of work. They could go out for a month and come back with photos they outlined.”

Mokri’s proposal involved a reporting trip to Indonesia, but it was postponed due to the pandemic. The 2021 Lange Fellowship was also postponed until at least early spring semester due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

In addition to Mokri’s work, Monday’s presentation includes images by 2010 fellowship recipient Steve Saldivar, a video journalist at the Los Angeles Times, and 2005 winner Tristan Spinski, a photographer and writer living in Maine who contributes regularly to The New York Times, Mother Jones, The Washington Post and Audubon Magazine.

Wesaam Al-Badry, the 2019 Dorothea Lange Fellowship recipient and a recent J-School graduate who’s participating Monday, had encountered work by some of the previous winners years before enrolling at Cal. The photojournalism world is a small one, and he credits a pre-grad school encounter with Light with shaping his self-directed approach to the profession.

“I don’t think of outlets where I can publish my work,” said Al-Badry, whose family fled brutal political persecution in Iraq and Saudi Arabia before gaining asylum in the United States in the mid-1990s. “Ken Light has a lot to do with that. I met him when I was an undergrad at the San Francisco Art Institute and was telling him about a project I wanted to pursue. He said ‘stop thinking about if. Do the work and they’ll come.’”

Image from “The Thunderhawks,” an ongoing project focusing on a Native American family Wesaam Al-Badry met while covering protests at Standing Rock. Photo: Wesaam Al-Badry
Image from “The Thunderhawks,” an ongoing project focusing on a Native American family Wesaam Al-Badry met while covering protests at Standing Rock. Photo: Wesaam Al-Badry

Wesaam Al-Badry’s photos have been used widely in campaigns for the ACLU, the UNHCR, and other global organizations. His work documenting the impact of the pandemic on farm workers in the San Juaquin and Salinas valleys is supported by grants from the National Geographic Society and Magna, but his Lange Fellowship allowed him to continue documenting a Native American family he met during the Standing Rock protests.

“My way of photographing, I have to have a purpose,” said Al-Badry who is also a multimedia artist represented by Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco. “That’s what makes me brave. I see a story that needs to be told, I pack up my gear and show up. If we all relied on editors to give us assignments, we’ll be staring at the TV all the time.”

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....