The photojournalist's latest project digs into the history of hatred and social justice in America through 180 remarkable images

Emerge Impact + Music is created and produced by ABP Media’s parent company, A Beautiful Perspective. Leading up to the event, we’re featuring some of the musicians and speakers who’ll be performing in Las Vegas April 6-8. 

When Rick Smolan goes on a tangent, he commits.

He credits “terrible ADD,” but the impressive patchwork of Smolan’s life suggests pathological curiosity and guts. That’s why he’s so good with a camera, and how he stretched a chance assignment in Australia into a career-making adventure.

Four decades after documenting Robyn Davidson’s 1,700-mile journey across the outback with her dog and camels for National Geographic (the subject of 2014 feature film Tracks), the 68-year-old photojournalist is a bestselling author and CEO of his second successful media company, Against All Odds Productions.  

“I went to four high schools. I had a D-minus average. I would have been voted least likely to run anything, by my friends. I completely backed into all this,” Smolan says, self-deprecating as he should be smug, given that three-dozen publishers told him his first book idea was incredibly stupid.

Since A Day in the Life of Australia dropped in 1981, Smolan has launched multiple book series with millions of copies in print. His latest project with partner Jennifer Erwitt, The Good Fight: America’s Ongoing Struggle for Justice, gets at right-now issues by digging in the country’s photographic past and pairing the astonishing reflections with contemporary images, essays and statistics.

“It was going to be a history book,” Smolan says, “and not at all to say we’ve solved all the problems, but just to say: Look how recent so many of these advancements are and how many of them we take for granted.”

That was before Donald Trump became the Republican candidate for president. His win prompted Smolan’s team to hold and retool the publication for a year. Headline after headline underscores its message.   

The Good Fight covers a century of “the sporadically violent, often triumphant, always risky struggles of Americans who have experienced hatred, oppression or bigotry because of their gender, skin color, country of origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability or beliefs.” Smolan says it grew from a conversation he had with Anti-Defamation League director Jonathan Greenblatt, and that ADL provided a generous grant to enable their joint concept.  

Choosing just 180 photographs from the hundreds of thousands reviewed for the project, Smolan says, was like deciding which children make it onto the lifeboat.  

“We went spelunking through these incredible goldmines of images at Getty and the Library of Congress and Magnum, and the basements and archives and boxes of photographers who passed away 20 years ago whose families let us go through their contact sheets,” he says of the effort to say something essential about America’s story in what he sees as a very dark chapter.

The Good Fight: America's Ongoing Struggle for Justice

He’s blunt about Trump and the GOP’s “lemming-like voting,” about lines blurring in journalism, and photographers back in the day saying you could shoot every Time cover story in the same eight frames because editors didn’t fancy pulling the thread of the ruling class’ coke-snorting kids in poor countries.

That is the root of his Day in the Life model, which gave bitter photographers a vessel for untold stories. Instead of obvious shots of kangaroos and the Sydney Opera House, he sent a force of them across the Australian landscape to document a single day with no preconceptions.

“They wanted their pictures to change the world. And after years out there feeling like they were just being used to fill pages, that’s when I started thinking, well why don’t we just do one project, all of us, without any fucking editors and no magazines and no publishers?” Smolan recalls.

He compares his brand of crowdsourcing to finding a fantastic jigsaw puzzle with no box. For each project, Against All Odds pulls forces of leading artists and thinkers into exploration and distillation of massive topics like the global water crisis or the internet (on deck are the human face of blockchain and the future of food). Through books, exhibits, documentaries and apps, they unravel our fears and fascinations.

Smolan has shared his insights at TED, the World Economic Forum, Techonomy, IdeaCity and many other conferences, and he will appear as part of a showcase on truth at the Emerge Impact + Music festival April 7 in Las Vegas. If you catch him afterward, be prepared for some magnificent tangents. A sampling:

On resistance to gun control: It’s like saying everybody should be able to drive 120 miles an hour with no seatbelts because it’s taking away your freedom if you have to wear seatbelts. Isn’t that the same argument as war weapons being sold to 18-year-olds? This idea that, well, if you take anything away you’re taking all of our freedoms away. It’s such utter horseshit.

On National Geographic owning that its past coverage was racist: Rather than letting other people attack them, they decided to actually engage a scholar to go through their history, and he came back to them with this conclusion. And instead of ducking it or denying it or attacking the messenger, they said: We screwed up really badly, and now we need to fix it and get it right. Which is such a contrast to the way our current president deals with anything. Never let the facts interfere with a good story seems to be his motto, and attack the messenger at all times if they disagree with you. So anyway, I just thought it was nice to see some glimmer of maturity and hope in the middle of all this insanity.

On his sweet job: I sometimes think this is all a drug-induced hallucination and I’m still back in college. It’s like, sure, Adam Driver plays you in a feature film. Sure, you followed this woman across the desert and had the cover of National Geographic at 27. Yeah right! In what world would any of those things ever happen? I feel like I live a fantasy. I love my job. Every 18 months I get to go learn about something brand new and get all of these experts to spend time and teach me. It’s wonderful.

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