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An Empathetic Eye

He looks at the world and sees hope

“Creative people are out of their minds,” laughs Michael Forster Rothbart ’94 in his TEDx talk “Boxing Outside the Think.” In the most socially conscious ways, he’s his own perfect example.

After Swarthmore, he traveled India and China, photographing areas of conflict, including a World Bank-financed dam, to expose the impact on displaced communities.

Later projects included documentaries on hydrofracking and on rural life and democracy movements in Central Asia, as well as a travel book about his two years living in Kazakhstan.

From 2007 to 2009, Forster Rothbart spent time on a Fulbright grant in Sukachi, a village in Ukraine, next to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, interviewing and recording the lives of Chernobyl residents a generation after the nuclear meltdown. Five years later, he began a parallel project on Fukushima, Japan, photographing plant workers, refugees, and residents returning after a similar disaster. To better communicate the motivation of the people who live and work in these areas, Forster Rothbart produced a 2013 exhibit and TED book, Would You Stay?, composed of personal narratives, photos, maps, and interviews. 

Last fall, Forster Rothbart began to monitor the cease-fire agreement between Ukraine and the separatist Donetsk republic during six months with a special monitoring mission for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “It’s not quite a peace treaty, because they continue to attack each other, but it is an important step in working toward peace here,” he says. 

When he’s not behind the camera, Forster Rothbart writes stories, designs maps and games, and plays with his two kids—activities that support his desire to use creativity as a tool for building community.

“Swarthmore helped me develop the most important skills an artist and journalist needs,” he says, “like the ability to talk and listen to anyone, compassion for those who are suffering, a tendency to think critically and look for hidden structures, and a belief that anything is possible.”