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Remembering Mel Rosenthal Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

6 November 2017

For Mel Rosenthal, who passed away last week a victim of Alzheimer's, photographer was not just a job. It was a calling.

He wasn't an artist, he said, but a messenger. And the message was about the social issues of poverty, housing, healthcare and equality.

His calling meant that he didn't just parachute into a foreign land and start shooting. "He always talked about showing people in a compassionate way," Ricky Flores, who studied with Rosenthal, said in an interview last year. "Other photographers don't always get that. Their work is done just for themselves, instead of raising questions of what's going on and how do we change that."

And it meant he taught for over 35 years at SUNY Empire State College. Documentary photographer Meg Handler, who also studied under Rosenthal, said, "Mel encouraged us to be progressive, socially aware and, at the same time, as objective as we could be."

'Mel planted the idea that you can do good with your camera.'

Michael Kamber couldn't afford to take classes with Rosenthal but he let him sit in anyway. "Mel planted the idea that you can do good with your camera," Kamber said.

After attending grammar school and high school in the South Bronz, Rosenthal earned a doctorate in English Literature and American Studies from the University of Connecticut with a thesis on the effect of alienation on American writers.

Then he took off for Africa where he learned photography by working as a medical photographer at the University Hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Returning to the states, he began his teaching career at Empire State College and published the first of many documentary projects. It was an expose on urban redevelopment in the South Bronx where he lived and worked.

His long-standing Americans By Choice project followed the lives of immigrants, especially Arab-Americans.

He was one of the founders of the Triage Project, a collective of photographers, doctors and writers documenting homelessness and the health care crisis in New York City. He was also a founder of Impact Visuals, a collective photography agency.

In Mel Rosenthal, Seeking Justice With a Camera, Flores writes, "What was central in his work -- and what he taught us -- was that when people let you into their lives, your photographs can amplify their voices on the issues that mattered to them, despite the silence and indifference of the rest of the city and its power brokers."

And you can do good with your camera.

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