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Category Archives: Photojournalism
What do you do when you realize you haven’t become the person you once hoped to be? What can you do? What should you do?
Age complicates the answers. If you are young and unencumbered with life’s baggage, you can – and should – make the changes that will take you where you want to be. If you are older, or even simply old, your options are fewer. You have obligations, many of them, financial and emotional. You have exchanged innocence and belief for experience and doubt. The road ahead is short, the time for a mid-course correction was long ago.
What can you do? What should you do?
These questions are in my head as I step out of the Rubin Museum onto West 17th Street during a recent visit to New York. A harsh, pre-winter wind fails to penetrate the sobriety of the moment, one focused on the exhibition I had just seen – more than 100 photographs made in post-World War II Asia by the pioneering Magnum photojournalist Marc Riboud.
With a Leica loaded with black-and-white film, Riboud inserted himself into the transition points of China, Japan, India and other countries during periods of often tumultuous political and cultural change. His work is direct, honest and, at times, both intimate and grand – everything good photojournalism should be.
Of course, I’d seen Riboud’s photographs before and even studied them in college, but collected together and filling room after room in the museum, the scale and the scope of his accomplishment was impressive and inspirational.
It also – selfishly – saddened me. This is the photography I yearn for and this remains the photography that eludes me. I am working on it, but I am not focused enough. My effort is scatter-shot, diffused by lack of direction.
A friend, a photographer I love and admire, urges me to find a story and tell it. I had dinner with her in New York and over steaming bowls of chewy udon she repeated her advice. Coincidentally, the next day, at the Riboud exhibition, I come across a letter written by Henri Cartier-Bresson to a 33-year-old Riboud in 1956, when the younger man was struggling with his photography.
“You’re still having trouble, I sense, finding a story,” wrote Cartier-Bresson, who then counseled Riboud to look for the “means” of telling a story, to find the pieces and put them together one by one until the larger narrative is complete. (A larger excerpt is below.)
I have no illusions of becoming Marc Riboud. In fact, at this point of my life I have no illusions of anything. Still, I treasure clarity for it can lead to conviction.
What can I do? What should I do?
(When in New York, I walk – a lot. The photos below are snaps from a couple of Manhattan walkabouts.)
“You’re still having trouble, I sense, finding a story. I’ll quote what Max Jacobs says about literature in a letter to a friend: ‘Look for the “means,” a work of art is a gathering of means to achieve an effect. Artists are not penitents displaying their sins, they are creators working towards a goal, they have a skill and a story gets made like a suit, with cutting and patterns. Whatever of ourselves we put into it, fine, but it’s necessary to learn how it’s made: what a situation is, how to bring it along, how to resolve it.”
– Letter from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Marc Riboud, March 19, 1956.
43 students. 43 young people kidnapped in the night. 43 sons and daughters murdered by the hands of corruption. 43 bodies discarded and burned like household trash. 43 chances for a better future lost. 43 more reasons to mourn for Mexico.
The 43 slain university students of Ayotzinapa died because on Sept. 26 they commandeered several public buses and blocked a highway, a common form or political protest in Mexico, and by doing so interfered with the wife of the mayor of Iguala, one of the most violent and corrupt cities in the Guerrero, one of Mexico’s most violent and corrupt states. She was en route to give a speech, found the road blocked and called her husband to demand he do something about it. The mayor, José Luis Abarca, ordered the local police to attack them. The cops handed them to a criminal gang associated with the narcos who control the region. And the students disappeared.
All this happened with the same impunity on the part of the mayor, the police and the narcos that infects all of Mexico and has quite literally allowed killers of all political and illegal persuasion to get away with murder for years.
Since the beginning of what has come to be called the Mexican Drug War, launched in 2006 by then-President Felipe Calderón again the web of cartels who generate between up to $50 billion in illegal drug sales annually and control 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United State, the official death toll of the violence between the cartels, between the government and the cartels and between both of them and the innocent citizens of Mexico – like the 43 students of Ayotzinapa – has reached 60,000. That’s the official number. Unofficially, human rights observers put the estimate at 120,000.
For some perspective, consider that 58,220 Americans died in the Vietnam War, a conflict that compelled my generation to fill the streets of the U.S. capital in protest and led to vast changes in American society.
Of course, Vietnam was an American war and a draft existed that pulled those who could not dodge the conflict directly into it, but still one might imagine that a war of similar lethality occurring in a country visited annually by more than 6 million Americans would spark a modicum of outrage here at home.
Thus far, the official U.S. response has been little more than a shrug. The Obama administration has described the fate of the 43 students and the insipid response of the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto as “worrisome.”
That may change. The street protests that began in Iguala after the fate of the students was learned have spread throughout the county and turned violent in Mexico City. Peña Nieto, who ignored the kidnapping for 33 days before speaking publicly about and then left the country for a trade conference in China, has returned to hear a growing number of cries for his resignation (fueled in part by the revelation that he and his wife, a soap-opera star, had a secret $7 million house in a wealth enclave above Mexico City).
American news media are increasingly covering the issue and Mexican-American communities in the United are organizing and marching in the hope of galvanizing more public attention. One of those marches happened Saturday in San Francisco, with 500 people walking from 24th and Mission, once of the heart of the city’s Latino community, to Powell and Market streets. More protests are planned, once in conjunction with general strike set to occur in Mexico on Nov. 20, the anniversary of the Mexican revolution, and another in 43 U.S. cities in December.
What can you do? Many things. From a little to a lot.
Write or tweet your congressional representatives. Tell them you’re outraged, that you’ve had enough, that you want the U.S. government to demand that is second-largest trade partner (U.S.-Mexico trade totaled $600 billion in 2013) clean house.
If you smoke dope or do coke (and why do you?), then stop. Nearly all the coke and much of the weed comes through Mexico. Your high supports the cartels, which in turn corrupt the government further, which engenders a state of impunity, which allows crimes of all sorts, from tax evasion to mass murder, to go unpunished.
March. Walk in the streets with the Mexicans who have come to our country, legally and illegally, in order to escape the very corruption that lead to the deaths of the 43 students. With more than 33 million people of Mexican origin living in the United States (and that’s not counting second-, third-, fourth-, etc. generations of Mexican Americans) this is as much our war at it is Mexico’s.
If San Francisco’s Mission District were a wild animal, it would be on the endangered species list.
The neighborhood is hunted by predatory real estate developers who toss out longtime tenants like last week’s garbage, encroached upon by relentless and City Hall-sanctioned gentrification, undernourished by new immigrants (who can no longer afford to move there), and infected with an invasive species of screen-staring clones who seem so culturally unaware that one wonders if they realize a real world exists outside of their digital lives.
Yesterday, those who prefer to keep the Mission ethnically diverse, affordable (for San Francisco) and cross-culturally vibrant gathered at 24th and York streets to march and to protest the attack on their home turf and, hopefully, ignite a broader, citywide effort to preserve working-class San Francisco’s neighborhoods in the face of increasing upscale development and what is essentially the legal deportation of anyone who cannot afford $5 coffees, $200 jeans and $4,000-a-month rents.
What is happening in the Mission saddens and enrages me. I came to San Francisco poor and damaged, a refugee of the Sixties. San Francisco welcomed me with affordable housing in its then-fringe neighborhoods (Precita Park, Bernal and the Outer Mission), hands-on jobs that paid the rent (delivering newspapers, hotel banquet work) and an opportunity to drop back in via a low-cost city community college that itself now borders on extinction because of neglect and incompetence.
Without any of those things, I would not have been able to have the journalism career I did, to buy the houses I did, to pay the taxes I do, and to contribute, as I can, to the world around me.
Those opportunities will not exist in a San Francisco that eats its own culture, that destroys itself by driving out the very people who make it unique, that chooses development over diversity. The City — as we called San Francisco in my former newspaper — will become just a city.
The 24th Street march, as demonstrations go, was small, but the message was big. Sadly, San Francisco’s last remaining full-size newspaper, the Chronicle, couldn’t be bothered to cover it (it did find the means to report on a skateboard contest that happened at the same time — shame, shame, shame).
However, Mission Local, the local news project of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, was there and live-reported the event. And, much has been written about the gentrification of the The Mission and increasing use of the state Ellis Act to force evictions citywide — by Tim Redmond, by El Tecolote and, yes, by the Chronicle.
My pictures are below. In them you see the faces and energy of The Mission — and the soul of San Francisco. Let’s not allow them be wiped out.
With Hamas and Israel at it again, I’m reminded that there has been conflict in the Middle East all of my life. The killing and the dying never ends. A wry joke during my newspaper days was that we could save the headline “Mideast Violence Continues” and use it as needed, which was often.
But there is nothing humorous about the cycle of bloodshed-truce-and-more-bloodshed between Israel and its Arab neighbors, nor about the now 18-month-old conflict in Syria.
Given the region’s history of continuous conflict of one form or another, it might be easy for we comfortable Americans to ignore the human suffering that is inevitable in such a world of relentless repression and aggression.
Thankfully, there are journalists who go physically where so few of us even want to venture emotionally. Below are links to recent work from photojournalists in the region.
* The Atlantic includes of Contreras’ work and that of other photographers in this extensive collection (48) of photos from Syria, published a week go. The magazine reminds us: “Syria’s horrific civil war continues. In some places, it has worsened.”
* The Guardian (yet again) streams photos from the new Israel-Hamas fighting. The fear or the people on both sides of the border is evident.
Mexico is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to be a journalist. Three photojournalists were found dead and dismembered Tuesday in the Gulf state of Veracruz, bringing to 44 the number of journalists killed in Mexico in the last six years, according to Article 19, a press freedom group.
While that number pales next to the more than 50,000 Mexicans killed in the same period during the government’s war against the narco cartels (and cross-cartel fighting), it elevates Mexico to No. 8 on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2012 Impunity Index, “which spotlights countries where journalists are slain and their killers go free.” Sadly, the year is still young.
Here’s what CPJ says about Veracruz:
… a battleground for the Zetas and Sinaloa cartels, is one of Mexico’s most dangerous states for the press, according to CPJ research. Four journalists were murdered there in 2011, and on Saturday, the body of journalist Regina Martínez Pérez was found strangled in her home in Xalapa.”
I have a long history with Mexico, including being the owner of a house I built there, but with many Mexicans clamoring for an end to the violence, the repressive PRI party on the verge of regaining the control of the presidency that it held for more than 70 years; the cartels becoming increasingly entrenched in local and national politics, and a the country’s always ethically tenuous journalistic institutions fighting — quite literally — for their lives, I fear the worst for the country in the near term.
You think I’m being overly dramatic? Read this story about the threats against Jorge Medellín, a reporter for the national newspaper Milenio. An excerpt:
Mexican journalists take the smallest hint of a threat seriously because they know that killing a reporter is so easy to get away with. The word for this is impunity–killing with no consequences. None for the killer, at least. But the consequences for the Mexican people are that journalists are afraid to report the news.
The deaths today in the Syrian city of Homs of reporter Marie Colvin, an American working for the The Sunday Times of London, and freelance French photographer, Rémi Ochlik, remind us — yet once again — that a free press in the face of tyranny often carries a terrible human price.
The Committee to Project Journalists tallied 476 journalists killed worldwide in 2011, half of whom were murdered in places like Mexico, where carrying a notebook or a camera is among the country’s most perilous professions, and the other half were killed on assignment in a place where bullets and bombs are part of daily life, perhaps caught in a crossfire, as Colvin and Ochlik were when Syrian forces shelled the city.
Let’s honor their work by sharing it, experiencing its emotion and committing ourselves, in whatever small way we can (here’s one way) to the enhancement and protection of a free press and the people who practice it.
Here is Colvin’s last video report and transcript for CNN, a moving story about the death of child from Syrian bombs. Note the passion, anger and frustration in her voice.
Here is Rémi Ochlik’s site. Above is the splash page of his portfolio. Note the dangerous geography he has been working in.
Few issues incite people more than the debate over affordable housing. As a term, “affordable housing” not only sounds benign but seems undeniably just. Who, after all, would be in favor of “unaffordable housing”?
But, when such an abstract social concept morphs into physical reality, perhaps in your neighborhood, that’s when cultures clash and fears of crime, color and crashing home values cause many of Marin’s famously liberal communities to put progressive ideals on hold and start arguing the nuances of zoning laws.
In Marin, one of the country’s most affluent counties and one of its most expensive places to live, housing ain’t cheap. Even after the big burst of the real estate bubble, young couples still drop more than a million for a so-so rancher in a good Southern Marin school district and the median price for typical tract home in a Northern Marin community like Novato starts at $500,000.
Most of the teachers, cops, and restaurant workers in Marin don’t have the scratch for that kind of mortgage, so they rent – or they commute. (Marin’s drive time is one of the longest in the region because the everyday working folks can’t afford to live here.)
Marin is also very white – very, very white – which is also a matter of economics since most of the members of California’s emerging minority-majority haven’t yet accumulated the wealth to buy into Marin.
This is where the affordable housing debate comes in.
Housing advocates, who want to comply with state laws by building clusters of subsidized housing in cities around the county, say Marin needs to provide a place to live for those who school our kids, serve our meals and staff our boutiques. Plus, they say, more diversity would be a good thing.
Those on the other side argue that the market should prevail and they welcome anyone who can afford the price of entry into Marin. Providing subsidies, they argue, increases density, attracts people who commit crimes and, thus, lowers the value of nearby homes – theirs. It’s not a matter of race, they say, but one of values.
I photographed people on both sides of the issue for a story writer Nate Seltenrich did for Marin Magazine on Novato, Marin’s northernmost city and the center of the current debate. Novato is not the place most people think of when Marin comes to mind. There’s no Golden Gate Bridge, no Muir Woods and none of the hipster quotient that defines smaller southern towns like Mill Valley and Sausalito. Novato is pure suburb, a collection of developments and shopping centers linked by Highway 101 and extending out from an aging downtown that seems to be undergoing perennial revival.
I made several trips to the Novato for the story, a couple to photograph the people and locations where housing might be built, and another to shoot a community meeting about the issue. I came away from the story with mixed feelings about the matter.
On the one side, there are plenty of examples, not only in Novato but also elsewhere in Marin, of affordable housing that works, meaning it not only provides shelter for people who don’t own a Range Rover, but also fits into the community architecturally and socially.
On the other side, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it if the city council in my leafy town decided to put 100 apartments on my block, but I also hope I’d find away around that concern and get my head in spot where I did the right thing – and I think we all know what that is.
Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.
A standoff between police and a man who entered a Marin County branch of the Bank of with a fake gun and a grudge turned into a spectator sport for me and my neighbors in Corte Madera – where the most exciting thing that usually happens all year is the changing of the flowers on the main drag’s median strip.
It wasn’t quite Dog Day Afternoon – the suspect, who surrendered peacefully late into the evening never made an appearance and I’ll suspect looks nothing like Al Pacino – but it was enough of a scene from to keep hundreds of suburban onlookers entertained for hours.
There were cops, SWAT teams, FBI agents, TV crews doing live stand-ups and more automatic weapons than you might find at an Arizona gun show. There was also all of us – the crowd, well-equipped citizen journalists, Tweeters and Facebookers. We photographed, we recorded, we uploaded.
One guy kept calling the news desk at the ABC affiliate in San Francisco pitching them cellphone photos, which they used. He looked at my big Nikon and said, “That’s a nice lens, but I can email my shots to the TV and you can’t.
He had me on that one.
I’ve been out of the newsroom for 10 years now, and even when a collision of events produces a yearning for the stain of ink and the wretch of deadline, I don’t miss newspapering. And even though I spent 22 years as a working journalist and another three dissecting the dysfunctionality of newsrooms, I’m not sure I really miss journalism either — but the jury’s still out on that one.
What I do miss, though, is covering breaking news (which is not necessarily the same as doing journalism).
Even before 24-hour cable, the infinite news hole of the Internet, and the insta-twitterness of today’s reporting, news was all about the now. It was a story told in a language dominated by Five W’s and a Big D (for deadline). It happened fast, was reported faster, written quicker still, and often forgotten in the next news cycle. If you could focus on the now and forget the later, you could thrive in the world of breaking news — as I did.
I’ve long thought that the character traits needed to do deadline news are in conflict with those that make us better human beings – impatience, aggressiveness, competitiveness, and a relentless search to find the negative in almost any situation, to name a few of the former. That’s why journalism is so complicated: On the one hand it attracts many people whose moral compass guides them toward deep, insightful stories that can right society’s wrongs, but on the other it rewards more frequently people who can feed the daily beast — now the minute-by-minute beast — with headlines designed to grab attention today without regard for the impact they may have tomorrow.
Still, I confess to occasionally missing the rush of big news events. They are, despite the blase facade adopted by the reporters and photographers who cover them, exciting. There is tension, there is conflict, there is urgency and there is a hierarchy of importance of the players involved — at the center the newsmakers, on the rim the audience, and in the middle the media.
I got to return to that space one evening in October at Dominican University in San Rafael, which was hosting the third of three debates between California gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown (who won the election three weeks later). For a few hours I was inside the ropes, shooting the crowd, the candidates and the debate. My deadline for Marin Magazine was the next morning, so I wasn’t filing as the story unfolded like most of those in the pressroom, but it was enough of a crunch to get the adrenaline pumping.
I’m not confusing the fun I had that night with the value of that type of reporting, which is mostly worthless to the average person. Inches upon inches of words and video upon video of yadda-yadda from each candidate and from reporters and pundits keeping score. Some call it horse-race journalism, and that’s apt. I’m not defending the practice; I’m just saying it’s a thrill to ride the horse now and then.
I saw ad this morning on the op-ed page of the New York Times touting the winners of the Hillman Foundation’s annual journalism awards for social justice journalism, so I jumped to the site to see the photojournalism winners. Sadly — and oddly — the page names the winners but doesn’t link to the work itself. Allow me:
* Childhood Poverty in Colorado — The Denver Post’s owner may be recovering from bankruptcy, but the photography (and reporting) staff is hard at work. Wonderfully intimate and ultimately saddening images from variety of families. The splash page is above.
* Ian Fisher: American Soldier – Photographer Craig Walker of the The Denver Post (again) follows the enlistment, war and homecoming of one soldier. Walker’s work also the Pulitzer this year for feature photography.
* The other photojournalism Pulitzer winner this year was Mary Chind, who shot the dramatic photo below of a construction hanging for a crain in order to rescue a drowning woman. Here’s the story behind the shot.
Here in the United States, with politicians and pundits of all stripes yammering ad nauseum about each other’s shortcomings, and with our insatiable obsessions with media and celebrity, it’s easy to lose perspective about what’s important in the world. Despite the tolls taken by the recession, we Americans still live in a comfortable bubble marked by the personal freedoms of expression, consumption and, most fundamentally, democratic standards — liberties denied to millions of other people on the planet by oppressive governments, megalomaniac dictators and hard-fisted clerics.
Photojournalism provides us with a window into that crueler world. Here’s a sampling:
* Planet War: Foreign Policy editors put together a powerful photo essay on the 33 conflicts “raging around the world today,” reminding us that “it’s often innocent civilians who suffer the most.” Above, an Iranian dissident in December 2009.
* 2nd Tour Hope I Don’t Die: A narrated presentation of still and video images made by Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael reflecting on his coverage of Iraq from January 2006 to December 2008. He describes it this way: “I tried to make pictures that reflected my complex and often contradictory experiences, where the line was continuously blurred between perpetrator and victim, between hero and villain. In time, the labels that had heretofore defined my perceptions of the world became meaningless.”
* Hell on a Small Island: Dirck Halstead writes about two photographers, Damon Winter of the New York Times and Shaul Schwarz of Reportage/Getty Images, who covered the horrific human disaster that followed the January 12 earthquake in Haiti. For them, says Halstead, “the camera becomes a shield, a protective layer between terrible death and the photographer.” Here is Winter’s gallery, and her is Schwarz’s gallery.
The battlefields change, the combatants differ, the technology improves, but some things about war remain constant: Soldiers are young, innocents die and photojournalists capture the carnage. Great human photography often emerges from terrible circumstances. Here are some examples from Afghanistan:
* The Long Haul: The Digital Journalist has a piece by photojournalist Lucian Reed about his life and work in Aftghanistan. It begins: “I’ve been to Afghanistan eight times in the last 18 months. My apartment is slowly taking on the look of a caravanserai. I have more friends in Kabul than Manhattan. My mind is full of snippets of Dari, counterinsurgency strategy and half-remembered warlords, major and minor. My son – not yet quite born – will have a Pashto middle name. I make no claims to being an expert on the place but, God knows, I seem to love it.”
* Field Test, Under Fire: Freelance photojournalist Danfung Dennis writes a technical piece on on DSLR News Shooter about using the still and video capabilities of the Canon 5DmkII in Afghanistan. He starts: “The 5D Mark II is capable of unprecedented image quality, but since it is a stills camera, there are several limitations that I had to address before using this camera in a warzone.”
* Getting Exisential in Afghanistan: Photojournalist Chris Hondros trails a platoon of GI’s on a hunt for Taliban caves. Stuck halfway up a hillside he ponders: “Why am I here? How did this happen? Why exactly am I hanging on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan this morning? I’m not in Army, I didn’t sign up for this. I should be back home, watching TV or canoodling in bed or having a strong espresso in Brooklyn. Or just about anywhere else.” (In dscriber.)
* Gallery of War: Visit Battlespace, a powerful online gallery of images from Iraq and Afghanistan.
*How Not to Get Shot in a War Zone: Advice from conflict photographer Teru Kuwayama. First on the list: Wear your seat belt because “it’s the traffic that’s most likely to kill you.” (Via Photo Editor.)
* Does the World Even Need Photojournalists? That’s a question being asked on Lightstalkers by Aaron J. Heiner. He comments: “Truth be known it’s hard to see why the media would want to pay us to do a task that people are willing to do for free. yes, we have training, and experience, but it seems that the big boys (the networks, CNN, FOX and so forth) would gladly give that up for free man-on0the-street coverage.”
* Dispatches: Report from Afghanistan on The Digital Journalist by photographer David Bathgate. A quote: “Attacks with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms were nearly a daily occurrence during my stay at Firebase Lindstrom.”
* Burn, Baby, Burn: Emerging photographers show their work at Burn Magazine.
Link-gathering while I’m on hold with Adobe:
* Woodstuck: Magnum puts up a slideshow of photos by Elliot Landy from Woodstock. And, yes — since you asked — I was there.
* Crazy, man, just crazy: Dirck Halstead at The Digital Journalist gets asked, “Why would you be a photojournalist today?” And answers, “You have to be crazy.” Then adds: “I have always considered being crazy as important to a photographer as being curious.”
* Taking the biz out of news business: Jack Shafter says at the Slate that what’s bad for business just might be good for journalism: “If the downside of the battered-down barriers to entry is less pay and lower status, the potential upside is that a flood of new entrants into the field could portend a journalistic renaissance.” Now, let’s see about getting paid.
* Putting the bizz into journalism: National Press Photographers Association has a toolkit of business practices.
* Eddie Adams reviewed: Sportshooter has a review of “Eddie Adams: Vietnam.” One quote from Adams: “Making pictures in Vietnam is easy…Things are happening all around you and you just have to press a button and not get killed.”
* The Mexican Suitcase: The International Center of Photography in New York has begun releasing images from the 4,300 negatives it received in a suitcase a couple of years ago containing the work of Magnum co-founder Robert Capa and his fellow photojournalists covering the Spanish Civil War, Gerda Taro and David Seymour. Amazing images, say the curators, but still no negative of Capa’s most famous and somewhat disputed photo, “The Falling Soldier,” a shot of a Spanish soldier being hit by a bullet. Capa’s photo at left is of a Spanish refugee camp in France. The New York Times has a slideshow.
” … among a group a revolutionaries whose work rose to prominence in the late 1960s and ’70s and transformed the nature of documentary photography. … The idea of conscience has been embedded more deeply in Mr. Lyon’s photography than in those of all but a few of his contemporaries.”
The new book is a collection of photo essays whose settings range from Chicago to Haiti.
* Detroit: The Troubled City: Think the recession has hit your town hard. Chances are where you live is better off than Detroit. Magnum shooter Bruce Gilden has a new photo essay up showing the hard times in Motor City.
The assignment was to create a package of photographs and text marking the 10th anniversary of the institute, whose focus is seeking treatment for diseases associated with again such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons.
To the non-scientific community, the Buck is perhaps better know for it’s striking modernist building designed by I.M. Pei. For that reason, I wanted to emphasize the faces and voices of the scientists who work there as a way to demystify the institute. We selected a dozen scientists, people like Lunyak, who runs her own epigenetics lab, to junior staff scientists who spend much of their time moving fruit flies from one jar to another.
I asked them why they became scientists, what they hoped to achieve and how they see the role of science in modern society. (Answers here.) I was struck by the amount of passion in their responses. Nearly all expressed a motivation to find cures to debilitating diseases, and some told compelling personal stories about why they became a scientist.
The portraits were done over two days, with locations ranging from open labs to the fruit fly room to the Pei buildings striking interiors. All were shot with small speedlights, using two or three lights in some instances to just one in others, like this shot above.
I also made three pre-dawn visits to the Buck to photograph the exterior at first light, once in the rain. The magazine used one of those shots (see below) in the table of contents, but the opening photo, which ran across a page and three-quarters, I shot one afternoon purely by chance while on a scouting mission, confirming once again that in this business serendipity can be as important as preparation.
A few days ago the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy story about the ominous criminal, political and social conditions in Mexico that have combined to degrade civil society in many parts of the country to the brink of public disorder.
Fueling this collapse are two evils — the ravenous appetite of the narco cartels for control of the border, of law enforcement and of the proverbial hearts and minds of Mexico’s impoverished citizens; and the endemic, ubiquitous and persistent corruption of government on all levels.
The Journal piece focused on the implications for the United States should the rule of law fail in Mexico. It quoted a high-ranking official in the country’s current ruling party, the PAN:
“The Mexican state is in danger. We are not yet a failed state, but if we don’t take action soon, we will become one very soon.”
For me, it’s more personal. I have good friends — Mexicans and Americans — who live there. I have a house in Oaxaca, Mexico’s most beautiful state and also its poorest. I have seen the country’s working people, through resilient desire and endless effort, carve out good lives for themselves amid a system that favors the wealthy, the connected and the corrupt. And, sadly, I have witnessed well-off people I considered friends express disdain for the poor and for the creation of a society of laws. They are, after all, the beneficiaries of the current system.
I don’t cry easily. The scar tissue laid on during 20 years of daily journalism usually keeps the tears in check. But these days Mexico makes me cry.
In the fall of 2006 I stood in the zócalo, the main square, of Oaxaca – a place I love, where I got married, where I built a house on the far end of a dirt road – and watched a battered TV play a video of the day state police rousted striking public school teachers from the square. I watched the rise and fall of batons on makeshift shelters. I saw the march of heavy boots through darkened streets. Fires burned. Rocks flew. The camera shook. Above all, I heard the sound of helicopters, which police used to fling canisters of tear gas into the crowds below.
I cried right there as the video played. A woman next to me, dressed in the traditional apron of a southern Mexican housewife, saw me, an aging gringo journalist laden with camera gear, and said, “Que triste. Que triste.” How sad. How sad.
The resulting international outrage — far beyond any that accompanied the earlier deaths of dozens of Oaxacans — prompted the federal government to send troops into the city restore order.
More than two years later, nothing has changed for the better in Oaxaca. The economy, highly dependent on tourism, has yet to recover. The governor who attacked the striking teachers remains in power. The leaders of the strike are jailed. The killers of Brad Will are free. (The photo at the top of the post is from an anniversary march in Oaxaca’s main square two years after the 2006 attacks.)
Multiply this one incident — a strike, a shooting, a disregard by the authorities for even the facade of justice — throughout the country and amplify it along the drug-trafficking lanes in the border cities and you begin to get grasp of the severity of the challenges Mexico faces. Here’s one fact: 6,000 people were killed in Mexico last year in drug-related violence. The U.S. dead in Iraq for six years of war is 4,200.
Perhaps you wonder why you should care about what happens in Mexico. After all, aren’t the beaches in Baja still beautiful and the pina coladas in Cancun just as tasty? De veras, they are. But Mexico is much more than an American playground.
First, it is also, as the Journal points out, the largest U.S. trading partner and with our economy already on life support we don’t need to lose our best customer.
Second, if you think having more than 4 million undocumented Mexican immigrants living in the United States is troublesome, then imagine the immigration pressure on the border should the Mexican government collapse. Says the Journal:
“It has 100 million people on the southern doorstep of the U.S., meaning any serious instability would flood the U.S. with refugees.”
Finally, there is morality. What is happening in Mexico is simply wrong. It is wrong to oppress the poor so the wealthy can prosper. It is wrong to deny people jobs because they belong to an opposing political party. It is wrong to glorify crime and drug use. And, it is wrong to kill journalists. (Read this report, or this one, or this one from the Committee to Protect Journalists.)
Poor Mexico. I cry for you. I wish I could do more.
I have, to paraphrase Blanche Dubois, always benefited from the kindness of strangers. By this I mean I have had many guides — good people who, through advice, action or simply mannerism, provided me with a way forward when I could not see one and anchored me against the storms to which I have always been unwisely drawn.
One of the most important of these people was Fran Ortiz, a photographer with the “old” San Francisco Examiner who taught me the principles of photojournalism at San Francisco State and, later, encouraged me to pursue a career in it. I took half of that advice — I kept the “journalism,” but dropped the “photo.” Now, I am trying to reunite them in some form.
Fran was a man of immense visual talent, but what made him such an accomplished photographer were his patience, gentility and humor, qualities that enabled him to insert himself (and his camera) into the lives of his subjects so seamlessly.
As a teacher, Fran was persistent in pushing us toward excellence. He taught me how to read a contact sheet to understand how I shot, how I moved through a scene or interacted with the person I was shooting. One frame, he would say, says little about the photographer. The entire shoot reveals his technique, personality, strengths and weaknesses. The same observations apply today on a screenful of images.
He told us to get closer, to move in, to be amid the action not apart from it, and to get in front of people — faces, not asses, he would say. These techniques were all part of Fran’s belief that, as Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Kim Komenich said in this tribute: “Fran realized a photo should be made and not ‘taken.’ He based his entire way of seeing on the idea that the negative is the score and the print is the performance.”
Made not taken. I try to judge my own work by that standard and still fall far too short far too often.
One of the best times to make pictures, Fran said, was in the worst of weather. When the weather gets bad, grab the camera and head out, he would tell us in class. During these last few days of heavy (and welcome) Northern California rain, I’ve heard Fran’s voice in my head quite often.
The shot above — San Francisco under a storm — is my response. I like it, but I keep wondering how Fran would tell me to improve it. (Take a bigger look.)
Last year was a tough year for journalism (and many other professions). Newspapers, a dying industry, but still the primary source of original journalism in the world, cut more than 15,000 jobs. Some big ones decided to stop delivering the daily paper. Some smaller ones gave up paper altogether in favor of the Web. And a worse-than-dismal economy guarantees more of the same in 2009.
The decline of print journalism is inevitable for numerous economic, social and technical reasons. But, we have yet to see the sustained emergence of a replacement business model that can underwrite the journalism once paid for by the Daily Fish Wrap.
The proliferation of personal media tools — digital cameras, video recorders and phones — has transferred some of the lost capacity of professional journalism into the hands of everyone. That is a good thing. It means more eyes, more ears, more minds on the watch for news. When I was in the newspaper cattle-prodding business a few years back, I extolled the instant reporting of the London tube bombings by the victims of the attacks. Jeff Jarvis just did the same regarding the recent horrors in Mumbai.
Let us not forget, though, that as beneficial as it is for people anywhere and everywhere to report what they see, they are separated by at least one core principal of professional journalism — obligation.
Good journalists feel an obligation to witness the news and report what they see to their communities — even if that means running toward things that common sense and self-preservation would compel one to flee from as quickly as possible.
The picture on this page is an example of that obligation. Taken by Sebastian D’souza, the photography editor of the The Mumbai Mirror, it shows one of the Mumbai terrorists walking calmly through a railroad station. The New York Times reports that the photo is one only a few showing an attacker clearly. The Times describes the important of D’souzas photos and those of another newspaper photographer, Vasant Prabhu:
“Their photos, some of them unpublished, provide detail and precision that is lacking from other witness accounts. They show brave attempts by police officers to stop the attackers. They also highlight the woeful inadequacy of the officers’ weapons and thus help to explain how just 10 terrorists managed to hold a city hostage for three days.”
Read the whole story. And then ask yourself: Which direction would I have gone — toward the news or away from it?
* From Staffer to Freelance: John Harrington, who writes the Photo Business News blog, points out that all the layoffs in the newspaper business are going to swell the ranks of freelance photographers. He wrote it a while back, but still worth a read.
* More Cuts on the Way: Alan Mutter, former editor and now chronicler of a declining industry, sees more down-sizing ahead “if the industry is to sustain its traditional operating margin,” which, by the way, is still more than 18 percent.
* Silencing the Inner Curmudgeon: When your world is collapsing around you, as it is for many staff photojournalists, it’s easy to let the anger rise and the bile fly. But that doesn’t help you find more work, or learn new skills, or fuel the energy and creativity you’ll need to keep working as a photographer. (I know; I’ve been there on all sides.) If you feel the curmudgeon stirring inside, read Jay Rosen’s post on how to deal with the beast.
* Photoshop, Ethics and the PJ: In my magazine work, I set up a lot of pictures, meaning I arrange the people and control the light in a way pure photojournalists don’t. I also Photoshop the pixels out of an image if I think it makes it snap more. How much of this type or post-shot manipulation has been debated in the PJ community ever since someone first burned the edges of a print. Here’s a good discussion about the topic on SportsShooter, sparked by this original rant and this young photographer’s portfolio.