DANVILLE -- Taking selfies in front of landmarks and monuments while on a trip abroad is par for the course these days, but not for social documentary photographers. They leave themselves out of the shot to give viewers a sense of the people, places and issues that face their subjects.
'It's not just capturing the beauty. We want to focus on the human side of travel photography," says Danville social documentary photographer, artist and educator Niki Stefanelli.
To that end, Stefanelli has curated a show of documentary photographs that feature her work along with that of fellow photographers John Rizzo, Rudi Dundas and Mark Tuschman. The exhibit is on display at Danville's Village Theatre Art Gallery.
Called "Journey Around the World," the exhibit features 37 color digital prints taken from the photographers' journeys to Bhutan, Bolivia, Cambodia, China, Ghana, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Morocco, Myanmar, Turkey and Vietnam.
For Stefanelli, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute who worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, one of the exhibit's goals is to get viewers to see not only the challenges people in less affluent societies have to overcome, but how much experience humans everywhere share.
In her travels all over the world for the past 20 years, Stefanelli has led photographic tours and regularly seeks out destinations that are not as comfortable as the United States. She has observed that while many Americans travel abroad, it's often to places very similar to the United States, such as Europe.
"I seek out destinations where I'll be exposed to people and places that are different," says Stefanelli. As a result her travel photographs end up being educational for those who've never been to the developing world.
People everywhere want access to clean water, food, a roof over their heads, a peaceful community and religious freedom, says Stefanelli. This, she says, is exemplified in a wall of photos in the exhibit of Jews in Ethiopia, Buddhists in Bhutan and Hindus in India all practicing their religion. "When you view them as a whole," it illustrates the freedom to practice religion, says Stefanelli.
A former art teacher at Athenian School in Danville, in the spring of 2013, she took her class on a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam to photograph the people of the two countries. Her students' photos, along with some of her own, became the basis for another show at the Village Theatre in fall 2013.
While on the class trip, Stefanelli met up with photographer Rizzo, who helped the students with their picture taking. Rizzo's work in the show focuses on how communities around the world struggle to hold onto to their culture while being forced to step into the modern world.
In his artist statement, Rizzo, of Tarrytown, New York, says his "personal goals are to be leading and teaching in the field about cultures that are under tremendous pressure to maintain their way of life in the face of encroaching Western influences and diminishing resources."
Marija Bleier, the gallery's visual arts coordinator, compares Rizzo's focus to what she observed on a trip to the Congo. There she saw people used to eating peanut butter from leaves and then discarding the leaves on the ground to decompose using plastic bags instead. The bags don't decompose. "We're bringing them plastic bags that they have no way of disposing of," says Bleier.
The work of Mill Valley-based Dundas focuses on close portraits -- especially as they relate to water issues such as drought. Dundas has also traveled the world extensively including riding on horseback into the Tien Shan Mountains in Central Asia to photograph wild tulips for UC Berkeley journalism professor and food advocate Michael Pollan's film "Botany of Desire."
Bleier says that Menlo Park photographer Tuschman's work in the show zeros in on how "privileged we are to live in a developed country."
In his artist statement for the show Tuschman says, "As I have grown older, I have become more motivated to use my photography to communicate in a more socially conscious way that exposes people to both the degree of human suffering that exists in today's world and to the courage and fortitude that people manifest to overcome it.''
Bleier said she hopes the exhibit, via the camera lens, can help to make the world a smaller place.
"Journey Around the World" runs through Feb. 24 at Village Theatre Art Gallery. The gallery, at 233 Front St. in Danville, is open from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and by appointment on Monday and Tuesday. It is closed Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, go to www.danville.ca.gov/Things-To-Do/Art-and-Culture/Village-Theatre-Art-Gallery.