For more than a decade, photojournalist April Saul has documented the lives of people in Camden—honoring both their sorrow and their joy
Each of the 65 photos is more joyous than the last: high school graduates wrapped in gold, purple, or turquoise, a whirlwind of exuberant grins and arms thrust high into the air with the triumph of having made it to this moment. These young people are the Class of ’21 from Camden, New Jersey, and they have survived not just a pandemic, but years of some of the harshest conditions urban America can dish out.
Camden is one of the most violent and poverty-ridden cities in the country. Yet it is also a city with a deep reservoir of strength and resilience, and the person who has been telling the story of that Camden, in pictures and in words, is April Saul, J76. A Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalist who has worked for major newspapers, Saul now chronicles Camden, “a city that has captured my heart,” through her Instagram account; her Facebook account, called “Camden, NJ: A Spirit Invincible”; and occasional coverage for NJ Spotlight News and Philadelphia’s NPR station, WHYY.
“The past year has been really difficult for me. The pandemic did not make me want to be out there, taking pictures,” she said. Shooting this past June’s graduations at four of Camden’s high schools “is what I love. It’s so joyful, the antithesis of the really tragic stories that come out of there.”
Saul has been photographing, reporting, and writing about Camden, along with the rest of the Philadelphia area, for about 40 years. For most of that time, she was a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 2014, she received an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship that allowed her to devote a year to documenting life in Camden, and when that year was over, she said, “there was no going back” to a typical newspaper job.
The hallmark of Saul’s work is how she embeds herself with her subjects, letting them become comfortable with her. She has followed families over several generations, chronicled the transition of a 77-year-old transgender Navy veteran, and told the individual stories of all 24 children and teenagers who were killed by guns in the Philly area in 2006. “Her work is so intimate and strong, it’s unbelievable,” said Jim Brown, who taught photography at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications when Saul was a graduate student there.
“She visually helps explain the trials and the successes of that community; everything is approached with full attention and energy,” Brown said.
When Saul was a young photojournalist, “there was this idea that you had to be a fly on the wall, almost a non-presence,” she said. “I don’t think that people really accept that. You have to give more of yourself.” In 2011, Saul made her way to the hospital room of Jorge Cartagena, a Camden boy who had been blinded by a stray bullet. She befriended his grandmother, and followed Jorge and his family from the hospital to rehab to home. His is one of the stories that has stuck with her the most over the years. A decade later, she is still in touch with Jorge: He is doing well, and recently became a father, she said.
“April is very tenacious and very loyal, and she becomes involved with the families and the individuals that she writes about,” said Dotty Brown, J97P, A02P, M06P, a former editor at the Inquirer who handled many of Saul’s projects. “She does not parachute in and out.”
Saul was motivated to document Jorge’s recovery as a sort of follow-up to her 2006 series on young gun victims. Those stories ranged from the 3-year-old who got his little hands on a loaded gun to teens caught in a surge of gang violence. “Almost every family wanted to see me, wanted to talk about the loss of their kid—somebody noticed that their kid was gone,” Saul said. “And Jorge, here’s a kid who was still alive, unlike all those other kids I never got to meet.”
A “First-rate Photojournalist”
Saul was raised in East Brunswick, New Jersey, a middle-class suburb 60 miles and a million light-years away from Camden. Her mother, Louise Saul, was a teacher-turned-journalist who primed her daughter’s interest in social issues and civil rights. That mindset came with April to Medford—“I wrote a pro-choice editorial for the Tufts Observer”—where she majored in English. “Tufts was a nurturing place where you definitely didn’t get lost in the crowd,” she said.
Along with writing, photography was a constant interest, and she spent a semester in London through Syracuse University’s photojournalism program. There she decided this was the career she wanted. When she thought her teacher wasn’t taking her ambitions seriously, she went over to Northern Ireland—this was right in the thick of the “troubles”—to photograph what was happening and prove her mettle.
She earned her master’s at Minnesota. “She stood out among a cohort of students who were all standouts,” recalled Jim Brown, her former professor. “I predicted then that she was going to be an absolutely first-rate photojournalist, and that has proved to be the case.”
Saul started at the Baltimore Sun in 1980, where she was the first female staff photographer within anyone’s memory, and a year later moved to the Inquirer. After she and her husband divorced, she was left with the responsibility of caring for her children—then just a baby and a toddler—on her own. “That was really a struggle,” she said. “I never felt like I was doing a good job as a photographer, or as a mother. When I won the Pulitzer as a single mother, I remember thinking, ‘Has anybody else ever done this?’”
That Pulitzer, in 1997, was shared with two other Inquirer staffers for a project about end-of-life care. In an interview with the National News Photographers Association, she recalled how she almost didn’t make it to the office for the celebration because she didn’t have a babysitter.
Devoted to Camden
After finishing the Patterson fellowship, “I wanted to devote myself to Camden,” Saul said. Her Facebook page has become like a blog. People in the community reach out and contribute ideas, and widely share her posts—the one of the high school graduations, for example, which would never have been granted so much space by mainstream media outlets, received thousands of shares. “It’s very satisfying.”
When Saul began spending considerable time photographing Camden, she didn’t know very many people—and most who saw her didn’t know what to make of her, a middle-aged white woman in a city that is mostly Black and Latinx, and young. “I later found out I was being profiled by the police as a drug customer, and was being profiled as a narc by some of the residents,” she said.
“She used to get a lot of pushback because of this perception of a white woman coming to Camden to cover our Black news,” said Tawanda Jones, a community advocate who leads the Camden Sophisticated Sisters, a drill team that enrolls hundreds of kids. “She is not what they thought. And she prints the truth.” When Jones’s drill team went to Hollywood to appear on Dancing with the Stars, Saul used her frequent flyer miles to accompany them and tell their story, Jones recalled.
“From covering politics, to nonprofit organizations, to the deaths, her heart just goes out with her stories. That’s what makes people gravitate toward her,” Jones said. “It didn’t take long for people to say, ‘You are one of us.’”