By Shannon Gallagher
Zoriah Miller’s career has brought him to nearly every corner of the Earth. Despite romantic notions of what his line of work entails, being a photojournalist is an incredibly difficult job that is physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing.
Although his goals vary with every assignment, one objective remains the same: to tell the stories of those who have been served injustice, those who are suffering, or those that have something to tell the rest of the world. His hope is to bring awareness to desperate situations, and that the resulting knowledge will inspire change. He does not have one specific way of working, as every story is unique, and requires adaptation. “Once you’ve learned how visual storytelling works,” he said, “you know what to look for [in terms of choosing effective images]. I’m always looking for pictures that convey an accurate, but also an emotional and powerful image of the story that I’m trying to tell.” And that he does extremely well. His list of accomplishments, awards, clients, and publications in which his work is featured is vast and worldwide.
Zoriah, who tends to go by his first name for publicity purposes, had no home base for the first decade of his career, and spent a majority of that time on the road. Now, although he has planted some roots (he has studios in New York City and Paris), he still spends nearly 2/3 of the year traveling, dividing the remainder of that time between the Big Apple and the City of Lights. Although he admits that he does get tired of constantly traveling, he says that he is in it for the long haul. “Some times are harder than others,” he said. “The first couple of years were really rough. It goes in phases along with life. Certain states of mind are easier to deal with. I’ve been trying to spend more time in the United States and Europe and less time in the third world. This pattern may become more pronounced as I get older.“ The photographer finds that experimentation is necessary in order to find the right balance in life.
Zoriah is an extremely driven and disciplined individual. “When I do something, I really have to do it full on. My mom might refer to me as “obsessive,” he quipped. “When I decided to pursue photojournalism, it was because it seemed important to me on a personal level, and I was confident that it could benefit people in various difficult situations.” For the first few years of his career, he worked 14-16 hours a day, 7 days a week. “I was pushing, pushing, doing nothing but studying and practicing, and learning web design.”
Due to the strenuous nature of the job, Zoriah engages in heavy physical training year round, for between 1-3 hours a day. “I must be physically able to deal with any situation I’m in. It’s crucial to have strength, be able to run, go several days without sleep, and recover quickly from ailments like dysentery or typhoid.” He describes his preparation to enter a hostile or uncomfortable environment as “second nature.”
At the start of his career in photography, he found himself in the company of several people with business backgrounds, who were willing to volunteer their time and expertise to help him out. These individuals taught him the importance of looking at his art as a business. “My job is to capture images that effect people on an emotional level and inspire change, but the pictures will not do any good unless people see them,” he said. “At first, I had a hard time using my name as a vehicle to promote the images, but what I was actually doing was using my name to get people to pay attention to and learn about the subject matter. For photographers, it is always kind of difficult to grasp the idea that we are in some way involved with that aspect of the business. Many of us want everything to be about the pictures, but in order to get people interested in the product, you need to let them know you exist.”
Of course, there are undesirable situations and places on the map that Zoriah would prefer not to be in, but he understands that in order to be a successful photojournalist, he must leave his comfort zone. “I never wanted to go to Iraq during the war,” he said, “but it was an important subject to cover. I went there during the bloodiest time of the war, yet the fewest number of journalists were covering the situation at that time.” The photographer also understands that his presence is distinguished differently in different parts of the world. “It depends a lot on whether the journalist is perceived as a benefit or a threat to whatever the cause is. Every situation is different, and requires a different approach. Various cultures have different feelings towards photographers, and it is a complex formula that cannot be easily summarized.”
As if his schedule was not busy enough, Zoriah also offers workshops around the world for aspiring photojournalists. The idea for the workshop program, which began in 2008, was born when he reflected on the route he took to achieve his goals. “My path may have been quicker, had I learned certain things directly, as opposed to learning them through trial and error. When I started to become more successful, I began lecturing at universities. At that point, I felt I had knowledge that students could benefit from,” he said. He wanted provide workshops on a 1 on 1 basis, which no other photojournalists were offering. Within 24 hours, an eager student had booked the first class. Zoriah and the student traveled to Kenya, to the home of Barack Obama’s relatives, for inauguration day in 2008. He has taken students on excursions to refugee camps, and also did two workshops in the area affected by the BP oil spill of 2010, dubbed the ‘Deepwater Horizon’ disaster. He and his students spent time on boats with scientists and the Coast Guard, seeing firsthand the response to containing the oil spill, saving wildlife, and rehabilitating areas of nature.
One of his favorite aspects of the job is coming to the realization that all humans are really just people, when it comes down to it. Although Miller has met and/or worked with many individuals who are in the spotlight, he said, “One thing you realize is that we are all just human. I’ve met a lot of ‘simple’ people that I have just as much respect for as Nobel Prize winners, actors, or models. In many ways, über famous people are the same over dinner or a cup of coffee as the people harvesting rice for fifteen hours a day. We all have fears, anxieties, aspirations, and pains. It’s a cool thing to have experienced the commonalities of human beings.”
Zoriah stays busy, with a variety of endeavors in his work. In addition to a small project about life in Detroit, Michigan, a city known for its economic troubles, he is also working on a project regarding terminally ill patients fighting for the right to die with assisted suicide. He recently finished working on a film with Academy Award-winning actress Juliette Binoche. She will play a photojournalist in the film, and Zoriah’s photos will be used. Many of his personal experiences as a photojournalist have also been written into the storyline. The film, titled A Thousand Times Goodnight, was filmed in Morocco, but takes place in areas of Kenya and Afghanistan. Zoriah coached Binoche on playing the part of a photographer in the world of journalism and conflict coverage, and he shot all of the stills for the film. Erik Poppe, the director, was a photojournalist in the 1970s, and has been a fan of Zoriah’s work for many years. Poppe approached Zoriah about the venture several years ago, and it finally came to fruition in the past few months. The film is currently in post-production, and will be released sometime in the fall.
Next year in June, Zoriah will be front and center with a large solo show in Malta, partially sponsored by the United States Embassy. The exhibit will include eighty images, printed extremely large, and publicly displayed downtown. At ZIA Gallery, just north of Chicago, in 2013, Zoriah will be showing a powerful body of images created over the past few years. The exhibition opens June 8th and continues through July 20th. Zoriah is flying in from Rio for the reception that runs 5:00 to 7:00pm. This exhibition is not to be missed.