Important causes and a passion for photography have always gone hand in hand. Many times it has been photography that has brought attention, interest and a change in laws and mindsets to many under reported issues and dangerous situations throughout the world.
Adventure, outdoors, editorial and commercial photographer Ron Levy, based on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, is one of those photographers who has a passion for pro bono assignments that can bring awareness and change to important social and environmental topics. It has always been his goal to work for clients as National Geographic—they have bought his imagery since the 1980s— see the world, learn new perspectives and lead a life away from the cement jungle. Levy is a devoted photographer but always finds a way to do other work that enriches his life and his work.
He acknowledges that pro bono work is not often financially sustaining or justifiable in the short term, but it does have several major benefits: It forces him to pursue substantive, inspiring and often visually challenging photographic work that he may not have the resources or access to himself ; it adds great imagery to his portfolio, which shows his passion and can be used in marketing efforts to reach new clients and jobs, and it connects him to a community of citizens and organizations who are doing good for the world.
Currently he is working on an under reported situation about cloud forest destruction in central Mexico in an area called La Quinta. Levy does at least one to two pro bono projects a year, and this one just fell into his lap while visiting his wife's family in Mexico.
Over 900 trees have been razed by a local developer in the small pueblo of Tenango de Doria in the state of Hidalgo, all in violation of Mexican laws. Mexican law specifically states that in this area, even if one tree is cut down violators can face up to nine years in prison. As a result of the destruction, the potential for continued, clean drinking water will be compromised has been affected for this particular town. This has become a sensitive cultural and ecological issue for the people in these small towns, and most of them are not assertive nor have any financial backing. An ecology group, Salvemos el Bosque (Savers of the Forest), formed by professors from a nearby school with participation from some of the locals, is now taking action and fighting back. They have managed to gather over 700 signatures from other concerned citizens.
Levy is facing challenges on several fronts. He has had little access to photograph the clear cut area because of continual rain. Although, he has not faced any kind of threats, there have been bully tactics and some physical abuse used on the part of the developers on some of the people from Salvemos el Bosque. At this time no charges have been filed. “These people are easily intimidated,” says Levy. There is fear of retribution, and Levy has had to be careful and use his diplomatic as well as his photographic skills to capture the imagery he wants.
In his ongoing efforts to help, he has met with a lawyer and has picked up judgment papers from the Delegacion Federal en el Estado de Hidalgo with a decision in the ecology group's favor. “We presented them to the Minister of Agriculture who oversees enforcement,” says Levy. With more interest from the federal offices than the ministers in the lower offices, who many times are bought off, the group has won the decision for now. However, the decision does not include penalties such as prison terms, and there is no retribution yet in terms of re-planting the lost forest.
Levy plans to go to U.S.- based NGOs and others, such as the International League of Conservation Photographers ( iLcP) and Conservation International with the hope of getting more exposure from interested publications.
“Nothing has teeth yet, but the law has been broken, and times have changed a bit in Mexico. People do care about trees and their community,” says Levy. He would like to hear from anyone interested or available to help, with a similar experience in Mexico. Even though he is now working with a lawyer who has drafted papers and is also the owner of nearby land, there still is no money or other contingency groups to help.
The cloud forest destruction in central Mexico is just one of many of his projects documenting the selective compassions of humanity and the bonds that exist in ethnic cultures between people, the land and their communities. An expert location photographer, who has shot for numerous magazines and Fortune 500 companies, has had worldwide publication for over 30 years and has exhibited in museums and galleries on four continents, Levy will continue his pro bono work with Salvemos el Bosque with the goals of more exposure and financial backing.
As part of his longtime commitment and passion for such causes, Levy also has been producing a series of charity posters for the American Cancer Society, illustrating the common challenges faced by Iditarod dogsled racers and those of cancer patients. He has photographed the grueling Iditarod through the most dangerous parts of the mountains and trails for many years and has brought great attention to the race, the mushers and the dogs. You can see more of Ron Levy and the causes he supports at his site, www.ronlevyphoto.com, and visit his blogs on these other projects.