A three-year-old girl sits on a window-ledge at the battery-recycling shop where she works. Her eyes stare blankly at the camera, showing no hope or happiness. This is just one of the dozens of startling images in David Elliot Cohen’s new book “What Matters.” The book carries the subtitle “the world's preeminent photojournalists and thinkers depict essential issues of our time.” One wonders how the girl herself would depict those issues, but no matter. This is a book she’ll probably never see.
Long-time followers of Cohen’s “creations” (as he describes them) will recall him as the co-creator of the “Day in the Life of…” and “24/7” series. He has guided dozens of picture books into print and onto the coffee tables and shelves of the book-buying public. While those volumes are no doubt noteworthy for the beauty and drama of their presentation, Cohen’s latest creation has something other than beauty and drama on its agenda.
The photographs here are guaranteed to evoke emotions ranging from alarm to horror. The essays accompanying the photos are just as provocative, and furnish the reader with a textual background to the issues at hand. According to Cohen, the purpose of the book is to make readers feel so strongly about particular photos or essays (or the combination of the two) that they will have no choice but to do something about the situation.
The “creator” himself notes in his introduction that the photographers and writers who contributed their work to “What Matters” are the actual creators of this volume. Those contributors include photographers Tom Stoddart, Stephanie Sinclair, and Stephen Voss, and writers Douglas S. Massey, Awa Marie Coll-Seck, and David R. Marples (among many others). Some readers will recognize many of the book’s contributors from their individual work for professional or academic publications. Few readers of this book will have anticipated the coordinated onslaught of concerned thinkers and photojournalists brought together by Cohen here for the purpose of promoting social change through outrage.
Although “What Matters” covers 18 global issues, ranging from safe water access to genocide to the grief of the families of lost soldiers, Cohen believes that all of the world’s ills can be reduced to two critical issues. The first is overpopulation, which he sees as the ultimate cause of many of the environmental concerns raised in the book. The second is the ever-increasing inequality in the global distribution of wealth. Cohen deftly highlights the latter situation by sandwiching a chapter on excessive consumption in Los Angeles between a chapter on the poorest billion people on earth and another on working-class toddlers.
The book’s title is both a proclamation and a question. After leading the reader through hundreds of pages of photos and text detailing man’s inhumanity to himself, to others and to his environment, Cohen concludes with a section on the capacity of people to help each other through individual efforts. Indeed, the book’s postscript, “What You Can Do,” provides a chapter-by-chapter list of resources for not only further information but also immediate action.
A young woman stands on the floor of the mosquito-net factory where she works. Her face, full of pride and hope, beams at the camera.