How do you illustrate poverty? Photographer Mark Tuschman picks one clear image: a woman and child.
He's seen this sight over and over: in a battered women's shelter in Mongolia, a support group in China for women deserted by their husbands, a community of poor female fishmongers in Ghana.
"If you've been born a woman, in many parts of the world you've been dealt a very bad hand," he said.
Tuschman is a commercial photographer, working for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and other clients. But about twice a year, the Menlo Park photographer travels to distant lands, capturing what he sees with a strong sense of social justice.
He works with nonprofits that help the underprivileged, recording people's lives and how programs are helping them. With the Global Fund for Women, for instance, Tuschman went to China, Mongolia and Thailand in 2001, visiting such projects as a job-training center for blind women in Bangkok, and domestic-violence programs in Mongolia and China.
"I met a lot of courageous women doing wonderful things. You don't read about this in the newspaper," he said.
Viewers, however, can easily see many of Tuschman's powerful photos these days; several are on exhibit at the Hot Mango Pickle Gallery in Palo Alto, with works by San Mateo photographer Robert Kato.
Many photos are from Ghana, where Tuschman has traveled with the New Hampshire-based nonprofit WomensTrust, which centers on microfinance programs for women. The group makes small loans to support poor women and girls in their businesses, and also has affiliate programs in education, literacy, healthcare and stipends for the elderly.
In one photo taken about a year ago in the village of Pokuase, a woman who used her loan for her food business gazes into the camera, a baby on her lap and strength apparent in her large hands. Her teenage daughter sits next to her with a placid Mona Lisa smile.
Pulling up the photo on a computer in his home, the soft-spoken Tuschman recalls seeing how hard the mother worked, selling food and caring for her many children. Soberly, he regards the teenager through round glasses and recalls returning to Ghana earlier this year. The girl had changed dramatically since the photo was taken.
"She was already pregnant, and she looked bad; she was crying," he says.
Tuschman's photos are notable for their intimacy and ease; people are captured where they live and work, in the midst of a chore or a reflective moment. Their faces seem natural, unposed. A deeply wrinkled brow can hold beauty even as images of poverty hold pain.
Overall, his photos "capture the common humanity of people," said Ann Wallace of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, a client of Tuschman's. "His portraiture puts a recognizable face to the complex and troubling social issues with which we struggle in our society."
Working with an established nonprofit helps Tuschman build trust with his subjects. But sometimes he finds a human connection that is enigmatic.
"The only way I can explain that is energy," he says. "Maybe I put out a good energy."
As for his introduction to photography, he calls it "fate." He was getting his Ph.D. in neurophysiology of vision at the University of California at Berkeley when a friend preparing for a trip to Hong Kong and asked if he wanted anything from there. Tuschman found himself asking, "How about a camera?"
Tuschman took pictures as a hobby while working at Stanford in computer science (in which he also has a degree). Ultimately he switched careers to commercial photography — which seemed like a safer bet for making a living than fine art — nearly 30 years ago. He now works all digitally, printing his work at home. His wife, Jana, is also an artist in mixed media, and their two children are both anthropologists.
In recent few years, Tuschman has focused on women's reproductive health issues. In many areas he has visited, women have little access to quality health care, and there are high rates of teen and unwanted pregnancies, deaths in childbirth, and sexually transmitted diseases, he said.
With a Packard Foundation grant, Tuschman has worked with the New York-based nonprofit EngenderHealth to photograph reproductive health-care efforts in Bangladesh, Tanzania and Ghana.
"In Tanzania we interviewed and photographed women being treated with anti-viral drugs and medications that were intended to prevent their babies from contracting HIV," he wrote in a biographical statement. "Because of the great cultural taboo against AIDS, almost all of the women interviewed were too fearful to tell their husbands they had HIV."
Tuschman saw more positive signs, too, including women's clinics in Tanzania and family planning services in Bangladesh. He turned his photos on reproductive health into a self-published book called "Still I Rise," and hopes to garner funding to create a larger book and a traveling exhibit.
If an image of a woman and child means poverty to Tuschman, there's another image that for him sums up reproductive-health issues. It's one of his photos that's on the Weekly cover this week, of a woman in a headscarf, her hands neatly in her lap. She's sitting quietly, hoping to see a doctor.
When facilities are scarce, getting health care is all about waiting, as Tuschman has seen over and over. "She's waiting with a stoicism," he says, looking at the woman with admiration. "Just waiting and waiting."
What:Photos by Mark Tuschman and Robert Kato, on exhibit at the Hot Mango Pickle Gallery
Where: 539 Bryant St., Palo Alto
When: Through June 1, open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and by appointment
Info: Go to http://hotmangopickle.com or call 650-324-2577. Tuschman's Web site is http://www.tuschmanphoto.com ; Kato's is http://web.mac.com/studiokato .