For Renée C. Byer, photojournalism means so much more than producing an image. It’s about serving as a witness to another person’s life. In 2003, Byer was on assignment in the West African Republic of Mali when she came across a mother and her toddler burning wood to make charcoal. It reminded her we can find a shared sense of humanity in the most unlikely places.

“It was so hot, but I realised that I could go home and they couldn’t – and then I heard the village chief say that those that don’t work don’t eat,” says Byer, who also works as a photojournalist for The Sacramento Bee. “I thought, my goodness, this little child wouldn’t get to eat if he doesn’t help his mother. Time and time again I’ve seen that [alongside] deprivation there’s this extraordinary human spirit. And when people see these images, they can almost imagine themselves in other people’s shoes and this turns empathy into action.”

In Ghana, West Africa, Fati, 8, works with other children searching through hazardous waste.

In Ghana, West Africa, Fati, 8, works with other children searching through hazardous waste. Credit:Renee C Byer

Byer won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for A Mother’s Journey, a series documenting a single mother’s struggle to support a son dying from a rare form of childhood cancer. Her images show how economic pressures heighten human suffering. This is an ongoing thread in her work.

Living on a Dollar a Day, an acclaimed book and photo series that shows as part of the upcoming online edition of the Head On Photo Festival, saw Byer spend two years travelling through 10 countries, including Cambodia, Moldova, Ghana, India and Romania. The series features young girls going to work at garbage dumps, widowers taking care of eleven children, and brothers laughing and playing while sharing cramped quarters. Byer imbues her subjects, who subsist on one US dollar a day, with dignity and complexity. Although some of the work is harrowing, it also defies the West’s tendency to reduce poverty to cliché.

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