Columbia photographer Jeff Gardner travels the world to raise compassion, awareness

Thursday, December 5, 2013 | 7:36 p.m. CST; updated 8:09 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 5, 2013
Columbia photographer Jeff Gardner has traveled to many parts of the world to help raise awareness and compassion in impoverished areas. The photographs Gardner takes for nonprofit organizations often serve to recruit volunteers, ask for resources and seek donations.

COLUMBIA — When Jeff Gardner was in Tanzania two years ago, he snapped a picture of a little boy holding a glass of water. The water was the color of mud.

He added a caption to the photo: "Would you hike six hours to drink this water?"

The picture became part of a campaign to bring clean water to Maasai villages in Africa. He made the trip on behalf of Africa's Promise Village, a foundation in Austin, Texas, that raises money to dig sanitary wells, supply safe drinking water and support other public efforts.

As a humanitarian photographer, Gardner is contracted to take pictures that will raise awareness for issues like these. He has traveled to Haiti, Zambia, Ghana, Turkey and other countries, and said he hopes his images will create a connection between those in need and those who want to help.

"The camera becomes a time machine to the part of a life in another place," he said. "People want to see the world less poor, less hungry."

The photographs that Gardner takes for nonprofit organizations often serve to recruit volunteers, ask for resources and seek donations. He is currently working with Medicus Christi to raise funds for a hospital in Ghana.

After traveling to Ghana in 2012, Gardner developed a book of photographs about the implications of poor health care. With the resulting donations, Medicus Christi will build the TORCH/WALC Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center in Ghana in 2014.

"His ideas go beyond people living in dirt," said longtime friend Thomas Szyszkiewicz. "People want to have some reason for hope that what they give will make a difference in people's lives."

Faith in a change of plans

Gardner, 49, was a college history teacher before he was a photographer. After converting to Catholicism in 1999, he decided to use his skills outside of the classroom.

"The question for me became, 'What's God's plan for others lives that need me?'" he said.

In 2007, he began working as a freelance writer for the Catholic Press Association. He found his niche as a humanitarian photographer after covering the aftermath of Haiti's earthquake. While there, he took pictures of Haitians still coping with the earthquake's lingering effects a year later.

"All of (the places) impact me, but Haiti ranks up there," he said. "You're going into a scenario in which things are so out of whack with what you assume is normal — places where poverty is a beast."

Gardner typically spends just one or two weeks traveling, but preparation for the trips begin months in advance.

He has developed a routine. He carries two pieces of luggage — a book bag with camera equipment and a small suitcase with everything else. He stocks up on medication for malaria, when needed, and gets necessary vaccinations.

Traveling can be an ordeal. There's often extreme heat and nearly always the physical strain of being in transit for 30 to 40 hours at a time.

"All of that aside, there's the psychological impact of standing on a garbage dump and knowing there's not a damn thing I can do about it," he said.

Gardner remembers using a long telescopic lens to photograph a woman in Zambia who was receiving care from the Lifeline in Zambia, an interdenominational Christian organization. The woman had abdominal cancer as a result of AIDS.

After Gardner took her picture, she began crying. Later, he discovered the woman was under the impression that the camera was going to cure her cancer.

Taking time off

Gardner still finds it an adjustment to settle into a daily routine after he comes home. Because it's also been difficult for his family, he opted not to go abroad this year. 

Instead, he's working on a graduate degree, spending time with his family and working within the U.S. Even though it's been difficult, he wants his experiences abroad to motivate his kids to help others, too.

Gardner has four children, three boys and one girl, between the ages of 8 and 14. He and his family moved to Columbia from Wisconsin three years ago after his wife accepted a job at University Hospital.

"I want them to have a sense of intrigue and vitality and the coolness of other cultures," he said about his children. "I want them to be able to move beyond their own boundaries."

Next year, he will head to the Middle East to work with a series of organizations assisting Christian refugees. This time around, he said, he's more prepared for the difficult aspects of the job.

"If you're living your life, sometimes it's going to hurt a little," he said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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