Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Peter Menzel: Food for Thought

The Aboubakar family of Darfur Province, Sudan, in front of their tent in the Breidjing Refugee Camp, in eastern Chad, with a weeks worth of food. The Aboubakar family of Darfur Province, Sudan, in front of their tent in the Breidjing Refugee Camp, in eastern Chad, with a weeks worth of food.
© Peter Menzel

A Napa Valley photojournalist points out the world's inequalities through his lens.

Photojournalist Peter Menzel is passionate about what he views as the sorry state of American life, from "red-state" politics and war to junk food-based diets.

But he doesn't just gripe about it. He's successfully published five photography-based books, including "Material World: A Global Family Portrait" and "Hungry Planet: What the World Eats," to raise awareness of these issues.

For "Material World," published in late 1994, Menzel shot portraits of people worldwide, posing in front of their homes with all of their possessions. Following a similar theme a decade later, "Hungry Planet" showed people all over the world with the amount of food that they consume in a typical week. The wealthy Westerners, with their groaning boards, were shown in sharp contrast with African refugees and their startlingly meager supplies, but proud and grateful-seeming countenances.

These books do more than showcase Menzel's photographic skills; they are intended to educate, to change people's viewpoints and lives.

While Menzel is, undeniably, a certified liberal political activist, he's also an energetic, perceptive and astute businessman. He has to be; he couldn't do his costly, socially conscious work if he weren't fairly sure that his efforts would ultimately make bottom-line sense.

"I know a lot of photographers who don't have the wherewithal to do what they really want to do," he explains. "Magazines are fun and interesting, but I wanted to do something larger that had greater impact."

He did, and he intends to keep on doing so. The immediate future has Menzel continuing to show people what the world eats; his next book focuses on what 101 people of different nationalities eat in a single day.

"We'll be in the food realm for another book or two," he explains. "It is really important, and we can educate people about their diets. There's not a lot a single person can do about war and famine, but you can do something about your diet."

All on the line

Menzel is no armchair activist. When he publishes a book, he puts his financial health on the line, opening home equity lines of credit and maxing out his credit cards to support travel and production. In the early 1990s, he spent $600,000 of his own money to produce "Material World," more or less establishing an innovative pattern that he set for the rest of his career. So far, he's always ended up in the black but, he adds, "we go so far into debt it takes years to recover."

Now, he essentially publishes his books himself, along with his wife and collaborator, Faith D'Aluisio, under their Material World Books imprint. Printing, promotion and distribution are handled by an established publisher, most recently Ten Speed Press. When a book is published, the couple gives hundreds of interviews to newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, as well as free slide lectures at bookstores, libraries and pubic schools.

Tiring of the financial risk, Menzel says he is trying something new with his latest book project by seeking foundation funding under the auspices of Blue Earth Alliance, a Seattle-based nonprofit that helps photojournalists find sponsors. "We thought we would give this a shot and see if anyone wants to pitch in," he says. "If not, we forge ahead with the tried and tiresome method of self-funding. But the sub-prime fiasco has made borrowing more expensive."

While he spent his own money and mortgaged his home to fund "Material World," Menzel was also smart enough to form a corporation to run the project, thereby giving himself some financial protection. Of course, it helps that the home he collateralized is in California's lush and highly desirable Napa Valley. Having his own in-house stock photo operation with 30 years of images as the backbone of the business doesn't hurt either.

Indeed, Menzel's stock library is the engine that drives all of his efforts. The in-house operation covers North America only; he works with 12 independent stock agencies to cover the rest of the globe.

Running stock in-house can be quite a bit more profitable than signing with an outside agency, but it's also costly in terms of overhead. "It can be a logistical nightmare a lot of the time," he says. "First people [used to want] everything the next day, via FedEx, and now they want it the next hour [via FTP]." But his limited experience with stock agencies in the United States hasn't been satisfactory, so he's essentially run the North American show himself for almost his entire career.

The international nature of his work is also crucial. If you read magazines anywhere in the world, you've seen Menzel's photos. That's because he aggressively markets each of his major projects globally and has translated his books into many foreign languages. Later this year, some images from

"Hungry Planet" will appear in a children's book called "What the World Eats."

This constant promotion is not about vanity, Menzel says; it's the reality of business. Placing the material everywhere there's an outlet willing to pay for it helps sell books and earns significant income.

Pay up or shut up

"Willing to pay" is an important phrase in the current world of photo-budget cost-cutting. Publications may use three images gratis in connection with a review of Menzel's books. However, if they want to publish his book-related photos in other contexts, he demands payment, as he would for any of his other work. This is contrary to common practice in book publishing, in which the publicity value of having a book's images appear in other publications is seen as trumping the need for compensation.

Many publications simply don't want to pay, but if they ask him to forgo payment, Menzel just says no. Most give in; only one or two interested publications did not end up agreeing to run his "Hungry Planet" material, for instance.

Another trick familiar to photographers, and for which Menzel has no patience, is the rights grab. A major magazine wanted "Hungry Planet" images and was happy to pay $1,500 for them, but wanted the payment to cover publication in absolutely all sister publications. The publication, from a major American publishing firm, had a lot of sisters, all over the world. Menzel again said no—and he prevailed.

"If you take what people offer right off the bat, you're doing yourself a disservice," Menzel says. "But you have to have something people want."

Menzel says that becoming a successful photojournalist/entrepreneur/social activist is not really that complicated. "Anyone that's really smart and ambitious and really likes to work can be successful, but you need some business sense," he says.

How did Menzel come by his business acumen? Sheer stubbornness, it seems. "After five or 10 magazines say no to one of my ideas," he says, "that actually eggs me on all the more, to the point where I'll almost kill myself to prove that they're wrong."

Insatiable curiosity is another key requirement for success. "It's fun to figure out how to do things," Menzel says. "I taught myself lighting, using what, I guess, is the deconstruction method, and I did that with business as well."

Figuring out how to make a profit from publishing socially conscious photo books was more complicated. "There aren't too many people doing this sort of thing," he says. "The key is that you cannot give up when people tell you it is impossible."

For example, Menzel personally ordered and paid for an additional press run of "Material World" after he appeared on Oprah Winfrey's television show and sensed greater demand than his publisher had foreseen.

A traveling jones

Menzel's interest in a photojournalism career is easier to understand. It started from a very basic desire: to leave.

He grew up in Farmington, Conn., a leafy, preppy suburb of Hartford. When Menzel lived there, the population was just over 10,000. "When you come from a small town, you just really want to get out," he explains.

Initially drawn to the sciences and math, he was dissuaded when he didn't get into MIT or any of the other four colleges to which he'd applied. He also had "a bad experience with calculus as a senior. So I decided to do something else."

Nearby Boston seemed like an interesting place in 1966, and Boston University let him in. In his sophomore year, he discovered its photojournalism program. Having taken Farmington High School's black-and-white photo course, he thought the BU program seemed like a promising major. "I thought if you could take pictures and travel, that would be ideal," he recalls.

He graduated with a BS in photojournalism and has been getting out of town ever since. He worked for magazines worldwide, including three projects for National Geographic, and became known for his expertise with scientific and technical subjects. "For 20 years, I was the guy who could make particle physics and alternative energy look interesting," he quips.

Close to the action

One of the many unusual places he worked was Kuwait, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. His experiences there helped spur his foray into book publishing and inspired some of his most famous images—and some great stories.

For instance, just getting to post-war Kuwait proved to be quite an adventure in itself. Having learned that U.S. firefighters were being sent to battle the 700 oil-well blazes that were an after-effect of the war, he contacted Stern, Life and other publications about covering the action. Soon, he was off to Houston, where three of the specialist firefighting companies were based.

From there, he managed to get as far as Dubai, but was thrown off a private jet headed for Kuwait. Then, at a hotel bar in Dubai, he met pilots for an air-freight company and, in a development straight out of a spy movie, they conspired to get him in. Donning a short-sleeved white shirt and a black tie, he passed as a bored crew member deadheading into Kuwait. (He never actually said that he was a crew member; no one else ever said he wasn't, either.)

During his third trip to Kuwait, he had time to focus on the peripheral aspects of life under a huge cloud of oil smoke. He encountered a Palestinian doctor who was there to study the effects of the smoke on all living creatures. The doctor was an avid jogger and, ironically, insisted on continuing the practice even though he knew well the health consequences of exercising in such lung-blackening conditions. His only concession to the toxic conditions? A simple face mask. Thus was born one of Menzel's most unforgettable images.

Menzel's focus changed with the dawn of the '90s, however. Following his intense experiences in Kuwait and later in Somalia, after the U.S. invasion there, he heard a National Public Radio report about the marketing of Madonna's book "Sex," followed by a snippet of her hit song "Material Girl." Appalled at the contrast between its superficiality and the horrors he'd just seen, he began to develop the idea for "Material World." Published three years later, the book became a worldwide success.

Coaxing out portraits

Menzel is also known for work that gets him closer to his subjects: his portraits. He's a habitué of Burning Man, for instance, the avant-garde art festival held late each summer in the Nevada desert.

One of his more arresting images is of a performance artist with a hat made of lit candles that have dripped down, covering his face. Another image shows the same man with pushpins stuck into his face, made all the more gruesome with fake blood.

Performance artists in garish makeup, though, practically beg to be photographed. It's much different most of the time for Menzel, who travels all over the world to photograph people who are much less interested in self-aggrandizement.

His approach to getting a good portrait, whatever the context or situation, is to "just talk to people, no matter the language, no matter if I can speak it or not." He works to make subjects feel at ease "by not being sanctimonious or confrontational, but friendly and open and nonthreatening.

I smile and laugh and try to find something we have in common."

Digital has been a huge blessing in this regard. "Part of the joy of digital is, if a subject is leery, you take a shot and show it to them and say, ‘Oh, you look great!' and they see what you're trying to do," he says. "It is much easier than trying to explain what you're doing, or hauling out a Polaroid."

Preserving a legacy

Digital isn't such a blessing when it comes to the task of encoding 30 years' worth of slides, though. Menzel has just sent out his last shipment of physical images to his 12 worldwide stock agencies, now that he finally has 10,000 of his key shots drum-scanned, fully keyworded and cross-indexed on his website.

Again, he digitized like a smart businessman. After doing a great deal of research on the subject, he outsourced the scanning to India. "It cost a fraction of what it would have to do it myself or have it done in the U.S.," he explains.

The results were superb, but in a business where it can be hazardous to send originals across town, how did he sleep at night with his precious decades of work jetting off to the faraway subcontinent?

Well, the slides weren't simply put in a FedEx box and sent on their way. Some were hand-carried from Menzel's studios by a representative of the scanning company; others were overnighted to Los Angeles or New York, where they were picked up by a company rep and hand-carried the rest of the way. On the return trip, the disk with the scans came home first, followed by the slides, all via regular shipping methods.

It may seem like a lot of trouble when an American company such as Corbis would almost certainly have been happy to handle the entire thing for him. But that's not for Menzel. He sees the post-9/11 stock world as greatly diminished and less democratic. Corbis and Getty, he says, "swallowed up the independents and drove prices down. They're Wal-Mart-izing everything in the stock world."

Characteristically, Menzel doesn't mince words when it comes to ultimate control of his livelihood: "I'll go be a wedding photographer before I'll sign over my work to Corbis or Getty."

IN THE LOUPE: Peter Menzel

Staff: Most of the time, Menzel has four employees who handle the nuts and bolts of his Napa, Calif.-based operation. He also works with his wife and co-author, Faith D'Aluisio, mainly on book projects.

Favorite gear: Canon EOS 5D, featuring a 35mm-sized sensor. "As a photojournalist, I don't need more than 12 megapixels. For lighting: "I'm using Lumedyne, but you can't change the ratios on the battery packs; you need ND gels."

Exhibits: The United Nations, Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago), National Museum of Natural History (Washington, D.C.), Visa Pour l'Image (Perpignan, France), others in U.S. and Europe.

Publications: National Geographic, Forbes, Fortune, Wired, Geo, Stern, Paris Match, Life, Le Figaro.

Pet peeve: "The political and cultural lethargy and blindness of Americans, who are too content with their material wealth to get off their sofas, turn off their TVs and actually speak out."

Advice for aspiring photojournalists: "Marry somebody with a decent salary," Menzel says, jokingly. "You should probably have a rich uncle or a wife that's an heiress!" On a serious note: "I would love to see some of the tech millionaires foster photojournalism ... some [George] Soros-type guy who saw [it] as a way to wake people up."

Eric Rudolph
Story Author: Eric Rudolph

Eric Rudolph has written about photography for many major publications. He also runs bwphotopro.com, a website about black-and-white photography.

Eric Rudolph is a Corporate Communications expert who writes about photography for both magazines and corporations. He has wrote major feature articles for leading consumer magazines like PhotoMedia, Popular Photography and American Photo.

Website: www.bwphotopro.com E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
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