Donna DeCesare was born in New York City. After completing an MPhil degree in English Literature at Essex University, England, she began working as a freelance photographer, writer, and videographer.
DeCesare is the recipient of fellowships and grants, including the Dorothea Lange prize, the Alicia Patterson fellowship, the Mother Jones International Photo Fund grant, and the Soros Individual Project fellowship. In 2003, she was named a fellow of the Dart Society for the Study of Journalism and Trauma, and in 2005, she completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Colombia.
Her photographs have been published in news and arts magazines, and exhibited in national and international exhibitions. Her photo reportage for the website Crimes of War won a top award in the NPPA Best of Photojournalism, and her work on U.S. and Latin American gang violence has won photojournalism awards.
She has worked as a videographer and producer on projects for PBS, Discovery, and The Learning Channel. Killer Virus, her first video assignment, won an Emmy Award in 1995.
In 2002, DeCesare joined the journalism faculty at the University of Texas, where she teaches documentary photography and video. She is also a member of the advisory board of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.
Over the last several years—on self-assigned projects and in collaboration with UNICEF—I have been documenting Central American and Colombian children living with a burden of fear and stigma. Whether they are living with HIV, surviving as prostitutes, or struggling with the physical and emotional scars of war, the fact that they are children does not save them from being treated as outcasts or blamed for situations over which they have little control.
Children affected by the war in Colombia, whether former combatants or children maimed or displaced, all face varying degrees of social exclusion—from ridicule to social cleansing or retribution. In Guatemala, it is not uncommon to hear that HIV is a curse from God. Children suffer taunts and bullying from classmates, but also hostility from teachers who would exclude them from their classrooms. Those who want to clean up “HIV carriers” target street children, already vulnerable to vigilantism. While economic desperation leads some children to brothels, there are disturbing subtexts of incest, abandonment, or semi-enslavement in these testimonies that demand public outrage.
As children in Guatemala and Colombia know, showing your face while speaking honestly can get you killed. And yet, they also crave recognition. As soon as they spotted my camera, they were eager for fame or immortality. “Oh, take my picture,” they said, But a moment later, their expressions turning sober, they would add, “Just please don’t show it here.”
Any illusion that photographers can control where or how our images appear dissolves in the age of the Internet. An image that exists in a public sphere can be instantly copied and distributed whether or not its publication is intended or officially sanctioned. How to depict suffering and injustice without exposing victims to further stigma or harm has become much more difficult. The ubiquitous reach of the Internet penetrates even remote areas of Guatemala and Colombia.
Knowing that I couldn’t control local exposure of my images, I needed to find a way of working that would protect the children’s identities, allay their fears, and empower them to speak truthfully about their lives.
When I was beginning the project, a conversation with Ellen Tolmie, the UNICEF director of photography, stuck with me. We’d been talking about the need for children, especially those who feel imprisoned by stigma, to have a context in which they can exercise control. Later, when a child asked if he could pick a different name to accompany his photographs, it occurred to me that he was really asking to share control. This inspired me to look for ways to make the image-making process collaborative. My conversations with the children became like a brainstorming game. In this playful dance of posing and waiting for a spontaneous gesture, an expression of candor, or an image that provided context, we learned to trust each other and they were able to share their secrets.
—Donna DeCesare, September 2006