Photographer Carries On With Story After Leaving Newspaper

Isaias Ramos. Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

By Tom Burton

Longterm projects have been one of the advantages for staff photographers at newspapers. But what happens to those projects when a photographer is laid off?

In at least one case, the photographer keeps working on the story. For Karen Pulfer Focht, a project on the children of undocumented immigrants is being published as a book two years after she was laid off.

The Book of Isaias tells the story of Isaias Ramos, a Memphis teenager who was born in Mexico and came into the U.S. with his parents. A top student in school, he was facing a choice between going to college, or becoming a house painter. Daniel Connolly, a writer with the Commercial Appeal, sought out fellow staffer Focht for the project.

“From the start, I wanted to partner with a photographer, and Karen Pulfer Focht had an outstanding track record of working with children and families,” Connolly said in a quote from the publisher’s press release.

The pair started reporting in 2012, looking at a number of students. Connolly finally narrowed it down to Isaias.

“He had tremendous potential and it wasn’t clear what he was going to do with it.” Connolly said. “What are we as a society going to do with this potential?’

The Commercial Appeal story ran in late 2013 and in 2014, Focht was part of layoffs at the paper where she had worked for 25 years. She has since turned to freelance and has been able to work on mostly editorial assignments.

As graduation approaches Isaias Ramos lies quietly in his bedroom, playing his guitar. Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

During that same time, Connolly took a leave of absence from the paper to write the book and Focht shot more photos for the story.

While the book is “more of a heart thing,” the writer is making sure Focht is being paid for her work. There are about a dozen of her photos in the book along with a few from Dominic Bracco II who is based in Mexico.

Focht said the publication of the book is not the end of her involvement in the story. She is looking at exhibition possibilities and some online magazines are interested.

“When you get a good story, you just can’t let it go,” Focht said, adding that Isaias’ story is getting more interesting. His parents have moved back to Mexico to live on property they own there but they left behind Isaias and his younger brother, who was born in the U.S. Isaias now is raising his brother and facing even more decisions.

The Book of Isaias: A child of Hispanic immigrants seeks his own America is scheduled to come out October 4 from St. Martin’s Press. The website for the book is here.