By Lauren Tyler
Driven by passion, not by fame and certainly not money, Lou Dematteis has spent nearly three decades documenting war-torn countries, using photographs to tell stories that would otherwise not be seen by the wider global community.
An internationally acclaimed photographer, Dematteis received an award from the World Press Photo in 1986 for his photo of Sandinista soldiers leading CIA agent Eugene Hasenfus into the Nicaraguan jungle, an image that would eventually allow him into the ranks of photographers working for the New York Times.
Since then, Dematteis has released three documentary photography books including his most recent “Crude Reflections,” co-written by Kayana Szymczak. Dematteis’ “Crude Reflections” documents the oil exploration and drilling of the Ecuadorian Amazon and includes stories told by indigenous people who say their lives have been effected by the oil industry’s efforts to extract oil from the region.
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Born in Palo Alto, Calif. in 1948, Dematteis grew up in an Italian-American family in nearby Redwood City. He is fluent in Italian, which he learned at home while growing up. Dematteis first began taking photographs in grade school, using a point-and-shoot camera known as a Kodak Brownie. Later, he began to learn about the technical side of photography after his uncle gave him his camera. Most of the photos Dematteis took at that time were of his family and at school.
The former Reuters bureau chief and staff photographer had always had a genuine interest in global, social and political issues, moving to San Francisco to study political science at the University of San Francisco.
While in college, Dematteis concurrently took photography courses at the De Young Museum Art school. It was during his first of many trips to Italy that he decided photography was what he wanted to do.
“I was impressed by all the beautiful art and architecture. [It] flipped a switch inside,” said Dematteis.
Dematteis’ political and social knowledge worked alongside with his visual sense. “I found with photojournalism I could combine creative inspiration with wanting to affect the world,” he said.
Dematteis would make a number of trips to Italy to meet relatives, travel through the country and work on his photography. In 1977, Dematteis had his first exhibit in San Francisco with the work he had done abroad, sponsored by San Francisco’s Museo Italio Americano, marking the beginning of his photography career.
In 1978, Dematteis began working part time mainly for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and El Tecolote, a bilingual neighborhood newspaper in the Mission district of San Francisco, as well as taking on assignments for other publications.
In 1981, Dematteis accepted a full-time position with United Press International where he covered daily news and sports. Beginning of 1985, Dematteis went on his first of many trips to Central America to work for Reuters, after being offered an opportunity to back up a Reuters photographer working in Nicaragua. Working with Reuters, he would go on to become a salaried staff photographer for the international wire service.
While in Nicaragua, Dematteis covered the Contra wars, the conflict between Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government and the counter-revolutionary Contras.
“[I was] captured by the Contras, there were several situations where I could have easily been killed,” Dematteis said.
Dematteis said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from the immense amounts of violence and destruction he had seen while in Central America. “It took me a long time to relax,” he said.
While working on assignments for Reuters, Dematteis also began compiling information and photos for his book, “Nicaragua: A Decade of Revolution”, which was published in 1991.
Dematteis would leave his position at Reuters in 1990 in order to publish “Nicaragua”.
“In order to publish the book I had to quit Reuters. I took a point of view on the war,” Dematteis said. “I could understand [Reuters’] point of view because they could be charged with not being objective.” When on assignment, journalists attempt to forego their personal views on the assignment in an attempt to report the news objectively.
After Reuters, Dematteis focused on raising money to finance the publishing of “Nicaragua.” He said he had to do it on his own time, in addition to his regular assignments; in the end, he barely covered the costs.
“It was a financial hardship to do that book,” Dematteis said.
After the publication of “Nicaragua,” Dematteis returned to San Francisco, working again with Reuters as a contract photographer.
His next major project would focus on Vietnam, a country that had been cut off from most of the world since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. In “A portrait of Vietnam,” Dematteis wanted to document the reconciliation movement and show the world the human aspect of daily life in Vietnam as the country was becoming more accessible.
Dematteis focuses a great deal of attention on making connections and working with his sources in order to “develop an exchange” of contacts with the people that he meets.
Through his contacts, Dematteis was able to work with an acquaintance in the U.S. who was also working to normalize relations with Vietnam. After Dematteis’ “Nicaragua” was taken to Vietnam, Dematteis was invited into Vietnam by the Vietnamese Photography Association.
Since he was invited as a photographer and not a journalist, Dematteis was able to examine places and settings more thoroughly and with more freedom than a journalist would have. Although Dematteis could not converse as easily with the population in Vietnam as in Italy and Central America, he was still able to gather a cohesive story of people’s lives for his upcoming book.
“A Portrait of Viet Nam,” Dematteis’ second book, was started in 1992 and published in 1996. Dematteis said the book was distributed throughout the United States and Vietnam and was received very well. During the same year, President Clinton declared the normalization of relations with Vietnam.
After Vietnam, Dematteis returned to San Francisco and to Reuters. “I was working as a contract photographer, [and] the head of the photo bureau in San Francisco,” Dematteis said.
While he was based in San Francisco, Dematteis continued to travel throughout the world. In 2003, he was sent on assignment to Ecuador to follow-up on a legal battle between approximately 30,000 Ecuadorian Amazon residents and Texaco, now acquired by Chevron Corp. The Ecuadorians involved in the case alleged the waste from Texaco’s oil-drilling operations conducted from 1964 through 1990 is to blame for a range of health problems, cancers and birth defects afflicting inhabitants of the region.
Dematteis’s third book, “Crude Reflections” documents the stunning contrast between the pristine rain forest, the remnants of the region’s oil exploration and the effects of the exploration on the Ecuadorian Amazon, was printed in 2008.
Dematteis said people of the Ecuadorian Amazon want the toxic waste cleaned up so they can farm their lands for the cacao, corn and coffee, which used to grow abundant and healthy. In addition, he said they want the rivers to be clean again so they can bathe and drink without fear. Unfortunately though, “there are going to be some areas and aquifers that won’t be able to remediate,” said Dematteis.
Dematteis presented “Crude Reflections” to audiences twice at City College, and was exhibited in the Rayko Photo Center in downtown San Francisco from Nov. 7 to Dec. 6. Photojournalist Ed Kashi’s “Curse of the Black Gold,” a photo exhibit and book documenting the impact of oil exploration along the Niger Delta was shown along with Dematteis’ photographs.
The two photographers came together because as Kashi said, their work is “advocacy … these are issues that are pressing.”
Dematteis is promoting his book throughout the U.S. and continues to return to Ecuador to remind people there that “their efforts are not in vain.”