Photojournalist Jahi Chikwendiu was in Darfur, Sudan, with a family that had to move constantly because of attacks on places they were staying. In a camp, the family built a house of thorns in which they laid down their baby girl, Hawa Oosman Adam.
"I wanted to capture this baby whose family had been on the run and now she was lying in bed in this house of thorns," says the Washington Post photographer who grew up in Lexington. "So what I did was I used the thorns as a framing device and I used a very deep depth of field so that the thorns were very much in focus along with the baby in the background who's in focus. When I look at the child, I see this look of innocence, the child sucking on her fingers, surrounded by this wall of thorns."
The plight of families and children in Darfur is one of several undertold stories represented in an exhibit of Chikwendiu's work that opens Saturday at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky as part of the Robert C. May Photography Endowment Series. The exhibit will run through Nov. 1, and Chikwendiu will come home to give a lecture Oct. 23 at the Worsham Theatre in the UK Student Center.
"It's interesting for me to be reintroduced to Lexington by way of my work and my art," Chikwendiu, 41, says before heading out for a day of work for the Post. "The people back home, a lot of them know me as James Clay Fishback, this young hooligan who used to run around halfway terrorizing Lexington. So now, when I go back and reintroduce myself to Lexington through my work, it kind of brings people up to speed. It allows me to give back to people who didn't necessarily think I would amount to much."
Last year, he told Herald-Leader columnist Merlene Davis that he changed his name at age 25 to "start a new legacy." Jahi means "dignity" in Swahili, and Chikwendiu means "life depends on God" in Ibu, an Indonesian language.
Chikwendiu grew up in Lexington, where he first got into photography riding around on his bike taking pictures of city life, particularly homeless people with faces that caught his eye. But he went to work as a math teacher until he spent a summer as a photo intern for the Herald-Leader. That eventually became a full-time job.
After two years, he was hired by the Post, and soon, he was being assigned to cover some of the world's most desperate situations.
The images in his exhibit cover years of Chikwendiu's work, from chronicling inner-city Washington to Darfur, Iraq and other hot spots. The photos are art, but they're also news.
"First and foremost, I'm a photo journalist," Chikwendiu says. "For me, I like to use an artistic approach because I want to make pictures aesthetically pleasing to look at, even if the content is disturbing.
"I want people to be drawn in. ... I want the artistic qualities to let them linger on the picture so that they can fully read the content."
Janie Welker, curator of the May series, says, "Jahi's work makes that transition from photojournalism to art because it is so beautifully composed. They don't just report the story. There's something visually compelling."
Chikwendiu says he always wanted to take what he was doing in Lexington to "a global scale," but he was surprised how quickly he was dispatched overseas by the Post. As many of the images in the exhibit show, Chikwendiu is frequently in places that are not only dangerous, but where being a photographer can make him a target.
He says he depends on street-savvy translators and guides to alert him when situations are deteriorating. For instance, once in Iraq, the crowd around a bombing Chikwendiu was shooting suddenly focused on the guy with the camera.
It's worth the risk to him, he says, to tell "underreported stories," particularly of children.
"One of the things that disturbs me about the world, and not just the Third World, but even in the U.S., is this huge loss of potential," the former teacher says. "A kid can grow up in the suburbs of Virginia, U.S.A., in the suburbs where I live, and their potential can be better reached. But if you grow up in inner-city D.C. or Darfur, where far too many kids grow up, there's this huge loss of potential."
And that's what he wants to show in his photos.
"Like this kid with the thorns," he says, "if you covered up the thorns, you would see pure innocence. But you pull away and see the thorns and think, this kid is living under some strenuous conditions where her potential may never be reached."