Richard Sharum has been a photographer based in Dallas for 16 years, but he doesn’t let Dallas contain him. In his work, he seeks to find the unifying factors among humans all over the world. Typically, that means focusing on socioeconomic groups that affluent Dallasites (or Texans, or even Americans in general) disassociate themselves from; he demonstrates the commonality we share with the poor, the homeless, the sick, the foreign.
“All my work, and this sounds really cliché, but it’s about empathy," Sharum says. "It’s trying to find these unifying elements between people that they don’t know are there until it’s too late.”
Sharum draws a vivid comparison between different parents of children with cancer, whom he met during a photography project with the nonprofit Children’s Cancer Fund.
“Pediatric cancer does not give a shit whether you live in a 14 million dollar house in Highland Park or if you live in a box,” the photographer says.
Cancer, sadly, is a unifying element that can bring otherwise disparate groups together, like parents and children from vastly different backgrounds. But unifying elements don’t have to be tragic; Sharum hopes that through his work, we can recognize our fundamental links with others independent of disastrous events.
War, Sharum says, is a unifying event, but so are things as simple and intrinsic to human life as “losing a tooth, your heart being broken for the first time, falling in love, sex.”
If we know that we share so much with all of our fellow humans, regardless of surface-level differences like class or race, then why are we so quick to disregard and judge others?
Sharum aims to dispel the myths that we have created about people who are different from us; this is what motivated his work with nonprofits. Rather than show children with shaved heads smiling as they undergo chemotherapy, he wanted to show the truly unforgiving reach of illness, which has the power to break down the socioeconomic barriers that we have created.
Sharum wants people to know the true stakes of cancer, and hence the true worth of donating money to research.
“I wanted the general public to see, this is what it’s really like,” he says.
That same desire to dispel myths brought Sharum to Cuba, where he has spent the last four years documenting the rural Cubans known as the campesinos. There were a number of negative myths involving Cuba that Sharum grew up hearing.
“I was told Cuba’s bad, Cuba equals communism, Cuba equals Russia, Cubans hate Americans, blah, blah blah,” Sharum says.
He wanted to explore the country to find out for himself whether these hateful claims were true, and
he discovered that even the positive imagery associated with Cuba is misleading.
“Ninety percent of the [photography] work shot in Cuba was coming out of Havana," Sharum says. "When you think of Cuba, what do you think of? Classic cars, colorful housing, old guys playing guitar on the street.”
Photographers’ emphasis on Cuba’s capital doesn’t reflect the fact that 85% of Cuba is rural, occupied by campesinos.
“These are the real Cubans," Sharum says. "It’s not the people in Havana playing soccer in the street. Those are Cubans, yet, but that’s like saying you can encapsulate all that is the United States by doing a story on San Antonio.”
An initial focus on the agricultural industries in Cuba slowly shifted to a documentation of the day-to-day lives of the campesinos, the people living and working in rural Cuba. As he spent more time among these people, Sharum recognized the stark falsity of the myths he had been raised on.
“All these people that I spoke to in the countryside, they weren’t afraid to talk about communism, they weren’t afraid to talk about the government, and they are fed up with both their own government and the United States government fighting like children," Sharum says about his surprising interactions with the campesinos. "They just want more access to medicine and food, like we want.”
Instead of brainwashed communists or haters of America, Sharum discovered kind, generous, honest and hard-working people whose desires for a happy, well-lived life matched his own. His photographs capture the true lives of the campesinos and will be published in a book this year. You can support the project and get a copy of the book through Sharum’s Kickstarter campaign.
In capturing not merely the work that the campesinos do or the strained situation in which they live, but who they are, Sharum demonstrates the fundamental and most important human experiences we all share.
By bearing witness to our common experiences, we are all able to treat those who are different from us with genuine empathy.
“That’s the goal of the book,” he says. “It’s not just to create pretty photographs and sell books, it’s to actually do something.”
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