Dire poverty, dental nightmares and beautiful pictures

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The need is overwhelming, which is the only thing it has in common with the scenery.

He’ll arrive in some remote part of the planet, and the lack of dental care will be “astronomical,” says Donald Zelazny. No, wait; not just astronomical, but “whatever’s more than astronomical.”

It’s mercy and mayhem, compassion and chaos. The volunteers will open their doors at 8 a.m. — if they even have doors — and some of the 80 people already waiting will have walked five hours to be there.

Eventually, though, there will be time to wander. The dentist from Rochester Hills will bring his camera, and where before he only saw urgency and poverty, now he will find something vivid and beautiful.

Travel and photography are Zelazny’s passions. Dentistry is his livelihood, and at the risk of being sugary, his gift.

Donald Zelazny took photos while on missions to provide dental help to the poor.

In Guatemala or Honduras or Mexico or even once in Jerusalem, the joys and the job blend together.

Then he comes back to work at his office in Franklin with a renewed sense of gratitude and more pictures for the walls.

Through August, his photos will be on exhibit at Farmhouse Coffee and Ice Cream in Franklin, a quick stroll from his office.

The shop is at 32644 Franklin Road, set back from the street. The images and their circumstances are imprinted in his memory, souvenirs of volunteer missions, vacations, and even the trip to Kazakhstan on which he adopted his son.

“Any place,” he has found, “can be totally fascinating.” And anybody can be inspiring, even if they’ve never seen a toothbrush before.

Or especially if they never have.

Donald Zelazny's photo captures the tranquility at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Overseas and U.S. volunteer

The Zelazny snapshot:

Age 54. Grew up in Ohio, but never rooted for Ohio State. Dad loved photography, and Donald, the oldest of four kids, followed him into the basement darkroom.

Notre Dame undergrad, then dental school at Michigan. Collects and wears quirky minor league sports jerseys from the likes of the El Paso Chihuahuas and Albuquerque Isotopes.

Shoots pictures with a Canon T1i. Curly hair has turned white; eyebrows haven’t caught up yet. Son Andrew is 13 and daughter Tessa, adopted from Korea, is 11.

Lost both parents in 2014, went through a divorce and had kidney stones.

Took four dental mission trips anyway.

The trips are secular, he says, not religious. “I know teeth. I don’t know souls very well.” But there can be an almost spiritual feel to knowing he has changed someone’s life.

Conditions tend to be rudimentary and electricity can be sporadic. In Honduras, a scorpion took up residence in the equipment locker.

But you can’t save your good works for Central America. He and his staffers, two of whom have also gone on missions, volunteer at a clinic in Pontiac.

“If you’re not doing something for the home folks,” he says, “it seems a little odd.”

A horse-drawn cart stands in front of the hulking sandstone treasury building in Petra, Jordan.

No translation needed

The office known as Z Dental runs all of its purchases through a Visa card and uses the points to pay for airfare.

On arrival, the goals are unlike anything you’d expect to see here. “It’s not about what hurts,” he says, “but what hurts the most.”

Eventually, though, there is time to explore and take pictures.

“I like people shots,” he says. A woman in Peru, with a century of living etched in her face and what looks like years of dirt on her sandaled feet.

Another woman in Guatemala, with bright birds embroidered on her tunic and so few teeth you can count them, one-two-three-four.

An elderly man in the main square in Warsaw, Poland, playing an accordion. “I often wonder how long he sat there.”

It’s color and chaos at a rural marketplace in Guatemala.

The exhibit in Franklin went up earlier this month, and Farmhouse Coffee co-owner Deanna Yow says that “everyone reacts to different pieces.” For a photographer, the key is that they all seem to react to something.

Zelazny has a motto that’s the name of his blog and his photo gallery, and also something of a philosophy.

“Smiles,” he’ll tell you, “need no translation.”