Manookin has always been charitably dedicated, having volunteered in Afghanistan, at orphanages in Ecuador and on relief projects in post-Katrina Mississippi. While she knows that every photojournalist who sheds light on a problem anywhere in the world is working for positive change, she simply wants to take a more active role. She works with a sense of urgency as an activist who uses her camera as a means to an end.
“I want to do a little bit more groundwork,” she explains, “not just leave it out there for some random person to see and help a situation. I love photojournalism, and I think it’s so powerful and important, but I think in this society we’re fed these images all the time and these stories. They’re all really important, but I get frustrated, personally, watching the news or hearing these stories that I can’t do anything about. And I think they’re all important to tell. I’m not saying we shouldn’t tell them; I just want to concentrate on things I can actually change. That’s the whole idea of New Sky—creating tangible solutions or finding the tangible solution for these scenes that we document.”
Between traveling to Afghanistan and photographing in post-Katrina Mississippi, Brenda Manookin has been building a diverse body of work. Her venture, New Sky Productions, has a decidedly unique outlook. Rather than being a recorder of events, in New Sky, Manookin and her partners are seeking tangible solutions to the events they photograph. It’s activist photojournalism at its best, and although New Sky is barely off the ground, they already have projects in the works, including a documentary about a Native American tribe that’s losing its land, literally. In Louisiana, where the tribe’s island home is located, the land is washing away at a rate of some 30 feet per day.
Getting a startup off the ground is no easy feat, particularly when your goals are more socially oriented than good business. Manookin has yet to turn her passions into a profit, but aside from the personal challenges, it makes for a very rewarding purpose. Her company’s goals are to start with small projects and grow in whatever ways can achieve the greatest impact. The company works to aid nonprofits, in general, she says, and individuals, in particular. For example, she hopes to help get medical treatment for a young boy she met in Afghanistan. Any positive change, no matter how personal, is a huge success for Manookin and New Sky.
“It gets a little tricky because it’s journalism,” she says, “but I do have an agenda. And it does change things. I know a lot of people might frown at that because I know that there are a lot of ethical lines that I’m treading. But I kind of don’t care. If I can do it through my images, that’s all I care about.”
The most important part of Manookin’s mission is the help she can provide; it matters less what tools she uses to provide it. Not only does that mean working in photography, video and graphic design, but sometimes it also calls for putting down the cameras and picking up a shovel, or a paintbrush, or a telephone.