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Aperture Access
A small cottage in rural Romania at twilight; children from the village gather to peek in the lit window of the house.

Aperture Access

Glenn Ruga ’81 opens windows into unseen worlds

From his home office in Concord, Massachusetts, Glenn Ruga ’81—a graphic designer, social documentarian, and human rights activist—created the Social Documentary Network (SDN), a global center for documentary photography. Since 2008, Ruga has grown his network into a community of over 2,000 exhibitors whose work is seen by more than 10,000 visitors each month. To potential members, the network’s website explains, “We want the real stuff, your stuff—messy, awkward, jubilant, filled with contradictions, in want of answers, but the stuff that the world is made up of everywhere, every day.”

This appeal to authenticity is felt in the hundreds of stories on the site and in the pages of ZEKE magazine, its print companion—examples of photos from them are showcased here.

Black and white close up portrait of a boy in Northern Ireland

Ruga is keenly attuned to controversies of representation and the importance of having people on the ground tell the stories they’re closest to. “We have special issues once a year with a guest editor who is either from these communities or has special access to them,” he explains. In many cases, he says, “the photographers who are creating this work are from these regions. We’ve had lots of exhibits that show very intimate portraits of communities and environments that we just wouldn’t see otherwise.”

For those with smartphone cameras in their pockets, Ruga has this to say about getting out there and telling their own stories: “Having a good quality technical device doesn’t make somebody a good photographer, but it certainly has allowed people’s innate skills to really shine.” In a passionate essay titled “Aesthetics of Documentary: Why Good Pictures of Bad Things Matter,” Ruga reminds us why the effort is worthwhile, writing, “Beauty is not separate from suffering. On the contrary, perfection and beauty give us hope that things can be different and better, that we can rally, we are an intelligent species, and we can rise from the ashes to heal.”


A young woman with hyperpigmentation of the skin is shown near an ornately decorated door in an adobe wall.

Morocco. Tilila has hyperpigmentation of the skin. She suffered a lot from harassment at school and on the streets when she was younger. … [but] many Moroccan and foreign fashion designers and photographers work with her today because of her unique look. Photo by M'Hammed Kilito.


A toddler reclines as his mother cradles his head in her lap and gazes down at her son.

Rwanda. Florence, 19, and Brian William, 3. “I became pregnant when I was 15 in a rush of passion with my boyfriend. … I returned to my studies with the support of Hope for Rwanda, a local charity that has taught me to be a strong woman and built my confidence. … When I complete my studies, my aim is to become a journalist on radio and TV.” Photo by Carol Allen Storey.


A couple wearing face masks are shown on a sofa surrounded by food and pets.

April 3, 2020, Iran. Corona-Stricken New Year. Photo by Negar Aghi Ali Tari.


A young Moroccan bodybuilder flexes her bicep while wearing a pink “Barbie” shirt. She is juxtaposed with a texture of rusted rippled sheet metal.

Morocco. Salima’s parents think that weightlifting will deform her body and that she will no longer be able to marry the man they wanted for her. She feels…that it is the body she has always dreamed of. Photo by M'Hammed Kilito.


From the outside of the window, a couple are seen kissing.

May 7, 2020, New York. From the Outside Looking In. Photo by Ventiko.


A man in a rowboat in a river surrounded by dense rainforest; he is seen from the back in this black and white photograph.

Atalaya Province, Peru. Linder Miques Viquia, a member of the Sepahua Community Vigilance Committee, patrolling the upper Sepahua River, where illegal land grab schemes are leading to rapid deforestation and threatening the people and nature of multiple critical protected areas. Photo by Jason Houston.

Four boys are seen high in a scrubby tree by the edge of a river.

March 29, 2014. A group of boys climb a tree on the Xingu River by the city of Altamira, Para State, Brazil. Major areas of the city have been permanently flooded by the construction of the nearby Belo Monte dam complex, displacing over 20,000 people. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim.


Black and white photograph showing a young child holding a black kitten against her chest.

A young child and her cat. From a Romani community situated along the River Stura in Turin, Italy, where an estimated 500 people lived in makeshift houses for more than 20 years, until they were evicted in 2015 by the authorities. Photo by Carla Fiorina.


Looking upward we see a man wearing a suit and a face mask taking part in a demonstration. He raises his fist high in the air. Other demonstrators can be seen holding signs.

June 19, 2020, New York City. Juneteenth Rally. Photo by Burroughs Lamar.


A Kurdish YPJ fighter looks over the wreckage left by fighting on a street.

April 14, 2015, Kobané, Syria. At a cemetery in Kobané, YPJ fighters mourn during the ceremony for Ageri, a fellow fighter who was killed during clashes with ISIS in the eastern frontline of Kobané. Three years after this photo was taken, Sarina (center) lost her life fighting ISIS. Photo by Maryam Ashrafi.

Top image: A Roma village in rural Romania. Children from the village gather to see what's going on inside the house in the evening. Photo by Ruti Alon.