Friar Describes His Passion: Shooting Justice Around the Globe

HNP Communications In the Headlines

HARTFORD — In his solo gallery debut, Octavio Duran, OFM, proudly showed more than 20 photos at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church here, ending a two-month exhibit by discussing his passion for his photojournalism ministry.

“Through the Franciscan Lens,” which ran from Aug. 7 to Oct. 5, showcased Octavio’s shots taken around the world, including in his native El Salvador, and also Africa, South Korea, China, Mexico, and other places. The photos, which included a close-up of an African boy peering through barbed wire, a Vietnamese man collecting drinking water in a filthy river, a panicked Korean woman with a starving infant, and Egyptian young girls making rugs, all illustrated his passion.

“All my photos show a sense of justice, compassion and joy,” he said. “These aren’t the kinds of artistic photos you would usually see at a gallery.”

More than 20 people turned out Sunday afternoon to hear Octavio discuss his work at the Hartford church’s Clare Gallery for a closing artist reception. “I feel very blessed to have this show,” said Nancy Wynn, who runs the Clare Gallery.  The event concluded the parish’s commemoration of the feast of St. Francis.

Thomas Gallagher, OFM, the church’s pastor since August, was on hand to hear his fellow friar speak.

Pointing to the photo of the man drinking from a river in Vietnam, Octavio said, “The pollution of that river was incomprehensible.” About the photos of the girls making the rugs, he asked whether it was exploitation to have children making that kind of a living.

He said that while many of the subjects were sad, he sees his photography as capturing real life around the world for others back home. “If I didn’t have a camera, I couldn’t document it. In this way, you get to see what it was like for the photographer.”

A Call to Action
Not only are his photos works of art, many are also a call to action. They bring back memories of both sadness and joy, he said, but they also elicit emotion from the friars, long known for their commitment to justice around the world.

“The friars show emotion and are moved to help the mission around the world,” he smiled. Noting the photo of the young boy behind the barbed wire, he said, “It would be a wonderful world without fences.”

Admitting that it was difficult to choose the photos for this exhibit from the more than 250,000 he has taken over the past 30 years, Octavio recalled how he learned the art as a young seminarian in El Salvador.

He got his start by buying a used camera in the late 1970s, purchased for $200, considered a fortune back then. He needed the camera to cover Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez for the diocese’s newspaper. The controversial bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador tried to stop the ongoing violations of human rights and spoke out on behalf of the poor and victims of the country’s civil war. In 1980, he was assassinated by a right-wing group.

“I was able to document Romero’s life,” recalled Octavio. “I feel privileged to be able to tell his story with historic images.”

Back then, Octavio said he was selling his photos for $1, and felt happy just to be able to take them.

Everything changed, though, when Maryknoll Magazine asked for permission to use his photos. He realized then his photography was a commodity.

“I learned, in addition to being a friar, I could support myself by just taking photos, and it was fun,” he smiled.

Thus was the beginning of his professional photojournalism career, one that has taken him to more than a dozen countries to shoot for publications besides The Anthonian, an award-winning quarterly publication of the Province’s St. Anthony’s Guild.

HNP_Octavio'sMontageProvince’s Photographer, Art Director
Octavio perhaps is best known, however, for his work as the Province’s photographer, where his photos are often posted on the Web site and in this newsletter, along with The Anthonian, where he is art director.

In February, Octavio returned home to Sacred Heart Friary in New Jersey from a photojournalism assignment to China, where he followed the ministry of Francis Kim, OFM, who helps North Korean refuges cross into China.

Many of his assignments have taken him to dangerous places, he said. He eerily recalled the feeling of having his “spine frozen while being interrogated by the Chinese border patrol a few steps away from the border of North Korea,” while covering Francis. A similar feeling happened to him while covering Archbishop Romero. Other situations have put him in harm’s way, but the thrill of getting the right shot, he said, far exceeds any trepidation.

Some of his best-loved photos were taken in Mexico, where he documented The Day of the Dead, a unique ritualistic commemoration of the loved ones who have gone before us. Octavio likes to capture contrast in his photos. In one shot, he captured the starkness of a lone toddler wearing a hat sitting in a colorful grave patch with flowers, clueless of the somber event he was witnessing.

For now, he is planning a trip to Assisi, and is open to whatever photo opportunities God presents to him. He said, “Photography is a medium that allows me to be in interesting places to bring images to the friars.”

Octavio’s photos may be purchased by contacting him by e-mail or through HNP’s Communications Office.  Click the photo above to see a collage of Through the Franciscan Lens photos.

— Wendy Healy is a Danbury, Conn.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to HNP Today.