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Capturing cultures through human documents

By Sharon Aschaiek

Human documents: That is how up-and-coming photographer Natalie Schoenfeld describes the work she does.

And as the 28-year-old travels the world and observes the traditions of different cultures and religions, she inches ever closer to the heart of her central subject: the human being.
"It's not just a job, it's a great journey about learning about people, the way different cultures deal with life, death and spirit," says photographer Natalie Schoenfeld.

"I want to tell people's stories -- and not just in a one-time shoot," Schoenfeld says.

Born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Schoenfeld remembers growing up up with the constant clicking of her mother's camera.

"I always knew I wanted to do photography," she says. "I have a strong drive towards people."

At Ryerson Polytechnic University's photographic arts program, she was able to explore the theory of her craft. But it wasn't until her final year, when she moved to Jerusalem, Israel, for a year as part of an exchange program that she found her direction. Armed with her camera, she had the opportunity to explore the essence of the Middle East conflict and gain an understanding of its religious elements.

Since then, Schoenfeld's passion for different people and modes of life has taken her to the far corners of the world. In Benares, India, she explored the long-standing spiritual relationship between Hindus and the ecologically threatened River Ganges. In Caracas, Venezuela, she delved into the lives of 42 orphans.

She set up her own business, documentos humanos (, and in the best tradition of photojournalism, aims to open people's eyes to worldwide human struggle.
Woman on the train, at Amhedabad TrainStation, India, 1999.

"I want to raise awareness and deal with different issues," she says.

Schoenfeld has spent the last six years developing her work on the international deaf-blind community.

The topic began as a thesis project 1997 while she finished up her BA in photographic arts at Ryerson Polytechnic University.

It evolved into a work she calls Perceptions of Light, where she has familiarized herself and documented the joys and struggles of Canada's deaf-blind communities, even spending a week at Lake Joseph Camp for the deaf-blind in Owen Sound, organized yearly by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

She will incorporate her work into a book of photos that will be exhibited at the 13th Deafblind International conference August 5 to 10 in Mississauga, Ont.

It will also be on public display at Contact, the international, annual photography festival taking place in Toronto in May.

She has investigated the deaf-blind communities in France and Nepal, and plans to develop the work into a more involved, internationally-based multimedia project that incorporates video and writing.
Bob Lock reading. Bob Rumble Centre for the Deaf, 1997.

Schoenfeld continues to cultivate her photojournalism skills through freelance work for daily and weekly newspapers, and for private individuals and companies.

She has had her work published in books, magazines and calendars, and even self-published a book called Life is Else(where?) about the Venezuelan orphans.

She has also sold her award-winning work at at numerous solo and group exhibitions, both local and international.

But in the end, she is driven by the ability to shed light on different cultures, religious diversity, socio-economic struggle and environmental abuse.

"It's not just a job; it's a great journey about learning about people, the way different cultures deal with life, death and spirit. I feel an obligation to talk about these issues," she says. "It's a calling for me."

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