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Tag Archives: Photojournalism
The book from the last Oaxaca workshop arrived the other say. The cardboard package was on the stairway landing inside the front gate when I arrived home from an afternoon shoot. I took the book inside to the kitchen, slit the packing tape with a paring knife and opened the wrapping.
There was Mary Ellen on the cover of the book.
In the photograph she is seated, facing to her right. A dog lies at her feet, his head raised and cocked slightly, his eyes looking into the camera. A large shawl covers most of Mary Ellen’s body. Only her head, her braids, a bit of her legs and her feet are visible. A large lump appears beneath the shawl on the left of her body. It is the cast on her broken wrist. She wears sandals. Her toenails are painted black. Her feet appear to be large for such a tiny person.
It is a somber image. I would have said that even had she not died just three months after the picture was made. She isn’t smiling, but she rarely did for photographs, so it isn’t that. It’s the tightness of her face, the downward slant of the corners of her mouth, the hunch of her shoulders below the shawl. They create an uncharacteristic appearance of smallness for a woman whose personality was as large as the life she led.
In the photograph I see the sickness. I see the frailty. I see weight she carried, the knowledge that her time was running out and that despite all her fierce will and immense soul – the characteristics that defined her – she could not prevent it from doing so.
I touched the picture with my right hand and cried.
The truth is didn’t buy the book until after Mary Ellen died. The February workshop in Oaxaca didn’t end well for me – nor for Mary Ellen – and when the workshop organizers sent word that book was finished I hadn’t cleansed enough of the bad feelings to want to buy it.
The workshop wrapped up on Wednesday night and most everyone flew home the next day. Mary Ellen was there an extra day and I was staying through the weekend to do more photography. I planned to ride to the airport with her on Friday morning to help her navigate the craziness in the terminal should she need it.
On Thursday morning, I went to an elementary school outside of Oaxaca to photograph a teacher, a young Mexican woman who had returned home to Oaxaca after living illegally through her adolescence in South Carolina, a placed she considered so racist and intolerant that she chose to return to Mexico. After cabbing back into town, I was walking through the zócalo in the mid-afternoon en route to my apartment when I spotted Mary Ellen seated on the patio of her hotel. Before her on a table were many of the contents of the two shopping bags she carried with her – papers, folders, receipts, etc. She was quite upset.
“I was robbed,” she told me after I sat down next to her. She explained that 30 minutes earlier while shopping she accidentally left a wallet containing a sizable amount of Mexican pesos on the counter of a store. After leaving the store and discovering that the wallet was missing, Mary Ellen sent her assistant back to retrieve the wallet. It was gone.
Mary Ellen was enraged. She wanted to call the police. I won’t come back here, she said. I’ve had it with Mexico. The people can’t be trusted. The city has changed so much. It’s not the same.
They were harsh words and they saddened me. I knew she was sick. I knew her health might not allow her to return for the workshop she’d already planned for later in the year. If this trip were to be the last of her two-decade love affair with Oaxaca, I didn’t want it to end so bitterly.
I went to the store. Mary Ellen’s assistant was there, arguing with the clerk and the owner, who, coincidentally, I had known for a couple of years. The assistant, a young Mexican guy, was sure the clerk had taken the money (I know my people, he told me later, outside the store.) I wasn’t yet convinced. Mary Ellen always seemed to be looking for things – a folder, a pair of glasses, something. It seemed reasonable that she might have misplaced the wallet elsewhere.
The shop owner let us look behind the counter, in shelves and drawers and all around the store. Nothing. I returned to Mary Ellen’s hotel. She hadn’t calmed down and continued to talk about getting the police involved. Don’t, I told her. Don’t. This is Mexico. It won’t go well. She ate dinner that night with a friend and I didn’t see her again until 6:30 the next morning, when we met in the lobby of her hotel.
A night’s sleep hadn’t helped. “She stole it. I know,” said Mary Ellen right off. After a night of thinking about it, I still wasn’t sure even though the amount of cash in the wallet equaled a month’s pay or more for a shop clerk. It would be hard to resist. We’ll never know, I told her; you’ve got to let it go.
The driver arrived, someone Mary Ellen had used for years. Two days earlier I’d heard him and Mary Ellen agree on a price to take the two of us to the airport and then give me a ride back into town. Now he wanted to charge us double because of the return trip. It was a standard tactic in Mexico, but it further upset Mary Ellen. No, she said. No. Her mood worsened. There’s no loyalty here, she said, no loyalty.
At the airport, all went smoothly. Mary Ellen and I hugged goodbye. After I watched Mary Ellen clear security, I got in the car for the 20-minute return trip into the city. I never saw her again.
A couple of days later I flew home to San Francisco in my own negative mood. I was disappointed in my work. I didn’t like the pictures I’d made. I was exhausted from the heat and had lost five pounds from walking miles every day and I couldn’t see the value of it in the photographs. They were too ordinary, too magazine-y as Mary Ellen would say. I felt like I would never make a good picture.
This state of mind is important in order to understand what happened next. After each workshop with Mary Ellen, there is a flurry of Internet activity among its participants, especially on Facebook. Groups are formed, photos are shared and quips are exchanged. Less than a week after I returned to California, one of the photographers from the workshop posted some photos that deeply disturbed me. I won’t say what the subject was, where they were shot or who made them, but I thought they were a violation of privacy and a breach of trust.
I can be overly opinionated and judgmental – not my finer characteristics – and the pictures outraged me. They hit the sweet spot of disdain I have for privileged First World travelers who come to Mexico and treat the poor people they encounter with (what I see as) disrespect. Anyone who knows me has heard the rant: They can’t speak the language, they enter people’s homes without so much as a please and thank you, they show up at sacred ceremonies and snap away like they’re photographing a Little League parade.
I’ve done it, too. I plead guilty. But I do it less and less. I am working on patience and intimacy. I am OK with spending the whole day with someone and not taking a single picture. I would rather – even if my success rate is low – be a better human being than a great (or even a mediocre) photographer. Thank you, Mary Ellen, for teaching me these things.
In short, I was angry when I saw the photographs. I wrote an email to the photographer. I tried to be polite and persuasive, but I probably sounded condemning and abrasive (see above). The photographer disagreed with me. The photos stayed online.
It seemed so wrong to me that it made me question my own photographs. Am I exploiting people? Am I betraying their trust? I still don’t know the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I was done with workshops. No more, I told my wife, a former journalist who had lived and worked in Mexico. No more photography – or Oaxaca – with others. I would continue my relationship with Mary Ellen, travel to New York to visit her, nourish the friendships I’ve made through her and work in Oaxaca on my own. But no more groups, not with anyone.
This was my mindset when the workshop book came out. I looked at it online, flipped through the digital pages and saw only the negative.
I didn’t see the faces of my friends, I didn’t see the effort and creativity of the other photographers, I didn’t see the dinners with Mary Ellen and her posse of fabulous women, I didn’t see the hopes and hardships of the families I’d visited, I didn’t see the drunken, almost desperate frivolity of the transvestites I’d come to know, I didn’t even see the sweetness of the abandoned children I’d photographed for two years. I only saw what I’d failed to do. I only saw how others had disappointed me and how I had disappointed myself. I didn’t buy the book. I didn’t want those memories.
When Mary Ellen died, I, like every other photographer she had ever helped, was heartbroken. I wanted more of her. I spent hours online looking at her work. Eventually, I looked through the workshop book again. This time it was different. I only saw her.
There she was surrounded by her assistants – steady Cristina, mercurial Beto, thoughtful Ina, energetic Candy, and earnest Paula. There she was in her photographs of the participants, some of whom I feel closer to than friends I’ve had for years. There she was in her photograph of me, I looking small, old and awkward. The dog looked better.
There she was in the work of the photographers – the girl in the locker by Alejandra; the oily men against the wall by Bjorn; the gauzy Holga dog by Chae; the beautiful image of the young orphaned boy in a box by Grant (who worked so hard); the boy in the shelter hanging upside down off a concrete wall by Ina; the dog at the dump by James; the hands of a mother cupping her disabled son’s head by Jody (who has been photographing this child for years); the drummer boy by Lori; and the girl in her communion dress against a blue wall by Julia. And so many others.
Now, I see everything I didn’t see in the book the first time. I see goodness and humanity and passion. I see innocence and experience. I see admiration and awe (by the photographers of Mary Ellen) and I see loyalty and relentless encouragement (by her to them). And, I see myself, still uncertain at this age, still wanting to be more, still dissatisfied, but still trying.
I think that’s what she saw in me. I certainly see that in her.
The first time Mary Ellen Mark and I spoke she came at me like a ravenous attack dog. “Tell me who said that,” she barked into the phone. “I want to know who said that.”
The spark for those words was struck several weeks earlier when I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, where my wife and I have a house, and where we were visiting friends.
One evening, one of those friends, a bookstore owner, and I, went to IAGO (Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca) to see an exhibition by New York graphic artist Peter Kuper, who had lived in Oaxaca with his family during the political turbulence and violence of 2006 and had written an illustrated book about the experience (Diario de Oaxaca). The exhibition consisted of drawings from that book.
At the gallery entrance, I saw a poster advertising an upcoming workshop with Mary Ellen. I was astounded. She was my photographic hero and, in fact, the reason I took up photography (see that story here). Oaxaca was my adopted second home. I’d had no idea that two such significant components of my life overlapped.
I mentioned this coincidence to my friend. As a journalist, first a photographer and then later a reporter and an editor, I had dismissed photo workshops as expensive vacations for wannabes who were transported en masse from one location to another to photograph wildlife or indigenous people. I already detested the American and European tourists who stuck their big cameras in the faces of the Oaxaca’s impoverished street children, snapping their photos as if they were tourist attractions like Monte Alban or colorful rugs. I couldn’t imagine hanging out with a group of well-heeled (the only types who can normally afford workshop fees), wide-eyed amateurs ooh-ing and aw-ing over “colorful” poor people.
Still, I was intrigued. This was Mary Ellen Mark. The real deal. The icon. Surely any workshop run by her would be different.
The curator of the exhibition was the wife of a well-known Mexican photographer. After introducing me to her, my friend mentioned that I, too, was a photographer and was considering taking Mary Ellen’s workshop.
Immediately, she told me, “You don’t want to do that. You’re a professional and it’s for beginners.” I was surprised by the vehemence of her dismissal. Really, I asked? “It’s a joke,” she said.
A week or so later, back in California, I still couldn’t shake the dissonance of the experience. How, I wondered, could such an ethical, humane photographer like Mary Ellen Mark be involved with a “joke”? Yet, I didn’t want to waste the money nor the time. Even worse, I didn’t want to participate in something that would ruin the regard I had for Mary Ellen.
I dithered. I fretted. I finally called the workshop organizer in Miami, Photo XPeditions, and spoke with Herzen Cortes, its founder. Tell me, I said, what’s deal? Can someone like me – meaning a crusty, somewhat accomplished professional (albeit not as a documentary photographer) and a Oaxacan veteran benefit from this? Is it really for amateurs?
Herzen, a good guy, pitched me hard, but he was pretty much giving me what was on the web site. I remained hesitant and told him so. Then he said, “Well, would you like to talk to Mary Ellen?”
Sure, I said, and hung up thinking like that will ever happen.
Twenty minutes later the phone rang. It was Mary Ellen, calling from New York. Almost without prelude, she got right to it. “Tell me who said that,” she said. “I want to know who said that.”
She caught me off guard. First, I was surprised she called at all. Second, when she said who she was I expected a persuasive tone, not a combative one. I didn’t know what to say and certainly didn’t want to get in the middle of something. “I can’t tell you,” I said. “That seems wrong.”
“OK,” she said, “all I can tell you is that whoever said that is a fucking liar.”
Boom! There it was. All the passion, all the fire, all the ferocity I had associated with her. In that instant, I decided: I was going.
She went on to explain about the workshop, about how some photographers have come for years to work on long-term projects, about how other journalists have come, about how it was designed for people to do personal work and not travel about in a herd.
That was all unnecessary. She had me at a “fucking liar.” I loved her from that moment on. Loved her completely.
Six weeks later, I met Mary Ellen for the first time during the workshop’s traditional opening dinner in a restaurant overlooking the zócalo in Oaxaca. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Tim Porter.”
She smiled, took my hand in hers, leaned in and said, “Before we’re done, you’re going to tell me who it was.”
And several nights later, over mescal, I did.
The other night, in a Spanish class, a student got hung up on a particular phrase because, as she put it, “it doesn’t make sense in English.” Of course it doesn’t, I told her, but it works just fine in Spanish.
It’s a common trap, one that grabs many Americans who learn a second language – assuming that native Spanish speakers think, as they do, in English and then translate into Spanish as they talk.
It seems silly, doesn’t it? Intellectually, we know that someone from Mexico or Colombia or Chile is not thinking in English and then speaking in Spanish, but emotionally it is a human trait to presume that others are like us. This is mostly a good thing because it enables us to find commonalities among the differences. Despite the language gaps, the discordant cultures and the political tribalism that distinguish us, we share experiences, emotions and the travails of the flesh. We are men, we are women, we work, we strive, we exult, we sicken, we die.
Seeing ourselves in the lives of others can enable us to celebrate what we share and minimize what we don’t. But, the differences remain and must be accepted in order to understand and communicate. Anyone who wishes to learn another language will not be successful if he or she challenges linguistic uses that come naturally to native speakers. You cannot master Spanish by imagining how you would say something in English.
And that’s how Mexico is. A lot of Americans (at least those not consumed by the paranoid mind-think of rabid conservatism) view it as an extension of the U.S. With the two countries sharing a 1,900-mile border, with 6 million Americans visiting Mexico each year and with 33 million Hispanics of Mexican origin living in the United States, it is easy envision Mexico as a browner, spicier, poorer version of the U.S., one with better beaches. But that’s not the case.
“Pobre México, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de Estados Unidos.” (Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.) These words of Porfirio Diaz, the autocratic Mexican president who ruled the country for three decades at the turn of the 20th century, define the conundrum that is Mexico – a land abundant in resource and culture and human spirit, but also one whose potential remains stunted because it lives in the immense economic and cultural shadow of the United States. Like a seedling in a forest, Mexico struggles for nourishment while the larger trees of the U.S. absorb the nutrients from the soil, block the sunlight and suck up all the water.
Lacking nourishment to develop properly – that is to become a thriving, democratic, First World country – Mexico develops aberrantly, like a bush that can only grow in one direction.
The trappings of modern life are everywhere – sprawling beachside resorts along both coasts; luxury car dealerships even in poor states like Oaxaca; expensive restaurants in the capital; booming factories churning out appliances and cars for Americans; and cell phones in the hands of all but the poorest people.
Life looks good in Mexico to those Americans who jet into Cancun and jet out a week later, sunburned and sated with mushy margaritas. But this image is fake. It is a façade.
The resorts rest on a foundation of corruption; only the oligarchic political and business elite (and their children) drive the fancy German cars and patronize the upscale restaurants; the factories are real but their reach is limited and the average national income is $4,500, with the daily minimum wage about $5; and the cost of phone service in Mexico is one of the highest in the world, thanks to the longtime monopoly held by TelMex, which is run by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man.
Anyone who spends time in the poorer communities in Mexico easily encounters more vivid examples of Mexican life behind the façade – single mothers who live in tin shacks and make 20 or 30 pesos a day selling trinkets to tourists; children old enough to be in middle school in the U.S. who have never set foot in a Mexico classroom; villages empty of working-age men, who are in the U.S. picking crops, cooking food and tidying up the yards of the wealthy; and more and more.
In the same Spanish class I mentioned earlier, I occasionally show pictures of Oaxaca, either scenes of the city or portraits of the families and children I’m photographing. Some of the student comments, coming as they do from educated, successful people who are interested enough in another culture to attempt to learn its language, are telling in their fundamental lack of understanding of the forces that create the conditions in which these families live.
Of a 28-year-old woman who has four young children, they ask – why does she keep having babies? Of the children in a shelter that cares for dozens of boys and girls of single mothers, they say – where are the fathers? Of the city’s main square, the zócalo, which is crammed with the tents of striking public school teachers, who have occupied the plaza for a year, they wonder – why doesn’t the government kick them out?
These are good questions, but they are American questions, asked from a mindset and an experience that takes civil society and the rule of law for granted, that (still) believes in the preservation of a social safety net and that cannot imagine the complications that confront a single mother with a fifth-grade education having to survive on her own in a macho culture .
The cultural confusion is understandable. Mexico looks like the United States. There are Wal-Marts and Honda dealerships and Starbucks. Kids wear T-shirts festooned with Disney characters. Adults sport Yankees hats and Dodgers jackets. Teenagers have smart phones. Waiters speak English. Politicians wear suits. People eat pizza. Everyone’s so, so, so nice.
But Mexico is not the United States. Tan cerca de Estados Unidos, pero tan lejos tambien. So close to the United States, but so far as well.
This is a lesson I learn again and again. As I sit, for example, in a mother’s living room and we talk about the town and the weather and her son, who was born deformed and now, at age 11, struggles with the onset of puberty from the discomfort of a wheelchair, I fall into that same trap as the woman in my Spanish class – I imagine the mother and I are the same. We are laughing and joking and she smiles so broadly and openly that we seem like old friends and for the moment I lose sight of the gap between us. I see what we share and miss what we don’t. I forget in that instant what I need to remember most in order to understand her and her life – that I will leave and she will stay. I will return with my expensive camera, which costs more than all the money she made last year, to my life of order and drinkable water and indoor plumbing and she will stay, with her son, with her family, in the town where she was born and where she most likely will die.
How blindly egotistic I am to imagine that she and I are the same – I in my life of privilege and good fortune and her in her life of struggle and hardship.
She is beautiful and warm and loving – like Mexico. She is heartbreaking – like Mexico as well. I need to accept this. I need to live with my love and embrace the sadness it brings.
They love the photos. My wife, my friends, my family, they all think the pictures are terrific. They stare at the faces of the people. They comment on the aprons of the women. The cluck over the cuteness of the children and they sigh at the images of the food. These are wonderful, they say, such marvelous pictures.
But they are wrong. Well-meaning and flattering, but wrong. The photographs are inadequate. They are incomplete. They don’t capture what I saw. They don’t communicate what I heard. They don’t convey the feelings I felt when I made them. They lack as much — if not more — than they contain.
So much is missing.
The heat, for example. Where are the streets roasted by the sun into hot concrete slabs that scorch the feet? Where is the smoky sweatiness of the kitchen where the women are cooking, their golden skin glistening and their gold teeth glinting through the haze? Where is that room in the house, the one with the refrigerator filled with Corona and Coke, the one so dark that its corners disappear into blackness, the one in which the bride, still encased in the frothy spume of her synthetic gown, seeks haven from the heat?
And the drinking. Where are the groups of men who sit on shaded street-corners and underneath trees and drain bottle after bottle of mescal all day long and into the night? Where are these men who stare at me, curious and friendly, when I arrive and ask directions? Where are these men who watch me, slack-eyed and smirking, as I walked through town at dusk en route to the highway? Where the shots of mescal at the wedding breakfast, the cases of beer at lunch, and the bottles of both at dinner?
And the stories of the people. Where is young man with the gang tattoos on his face who tells me he’s done five years in a California prison, including a year in solitary? Where is the drunken gatecrasher with the Yankees hat who wants me to come with him to some caves in the hills so he can show me the shards of pottery he found? Where is the lovely older woman who posed for me with her hatchet as she was hacking up the last of the 25 turkeys cooked for the wedding dinner?
And so much more. The animals – the skinny dogs, the condemned turkeys, the flatulent pigs, the shitting cows and the ubiquitous flies, on the food, on the faces of babies, on whatever is alive or dead. The outhouses – reeking in the heat, furnished with encrusted thrones devoid of seats and provided with reading material so that yesterday’s soccer section can be used as today’s ass wipe. The food – the mugs of breakfast chocolate; the large, tangy tortillas that substitute for forks when ripping chicken from the bone in bowls of red mole; the sticky plastic cups of horchata.
Why don’t the photographs show these things as I really saw them?
It’s possible that I don’t have what it takes to make the photographs I want. Maybe I don’t work hard enough. Maybe I hesitate when I should engage. Maybe I simply lack the creative eye to see through the camera what I see without it. If this is so, then it explains why other photographers return from scenes just like those I’ve been in with images that are much more powerful.
Another possible answer is that photography by itself is not capable of capturing everything a photographer sees, hears, and otherwise experiences. This seems self-evident, doesn’t it? After all, a still photograph is a limited representation of a moment. It lacks the sound, the smell and the other tactile sensations of the actual instant.
Of course, I prefer the second answer to the first because it is not a condemnation of my abilities, but the truth is that both possibilities are dissatisfying and deflating.
If indeed, as I sometimes suspect, that I just don’t have the talent or the drive or the know-how to make great photographs, then, naturally, that would be depressing. But, equally disappointing would be the realization that photography, a pursuit I wanted to follow since I was in my 20s, lacks by its very nature, meaning its capture of a brief instant from an endless stream of moments that together produce a memorable experience, the ability to convey that experience from one person to the next.
There is a third option, though. It could be that I ask too much, that I want photography to be the means by which I fill the holes in my life and when it doesn’t I blame the images for their incompleteness, condemn the craft for its impotence, or indict myself as talentless.
This supposition carries the advantage of preserving what measure of self-esteem I have about my work as well as giving photography the respect it deserves as a tool of communication and journalism, one wielded with great impact by many photographers more talented than I.
Some of those holes, those devoid of personal satisfaction, moral fulfillment and social purpose, journalism once filled. Not every day, of course, but often enough to keep the drudgery of the daily deadline at bay. Journalism is a story-telling mechanism. This is important to me. I believe in the power of the story as a means to produce social good (and, for me, to enhance self-worth). I also believe the purpose of telling the story is to affect the reader (or the viewer or the listener), to cause a reaction, be it emotional or intellectual.
My photographs are not telling the stories I want to tell, and these days those stories have to do with the Mexico, or at least my Mexico.
My Mexico is complicated. My Mexico is a contradiction. It is a country of wealth and warmth and welcoming people. It is a country of corruption and crime and vast social division.
My Mexico smells of ripe mangos, pungent salsa and smoky mescal. My Mexico stinks of clogged sewage lines, leaking gas tanks and dark clouds of exhaust fuming from buses and trucks.
In my Mexico, the nights can be so silent that only the rush of the evening wind en route from the mountain to the valley catches the attention of the ear. In my Mexico, the cities are besieged by a harsh cacophony of honking vehicles stuck in clogged streets, boom-boxes blasting disco tunes from sidewalk stands, and of a nocturnal canine orchestra that never sleeps.
My Mexico has markets laden with towers of fresh fruit, aisles of locally grown and slaughtered meat and colorful comedores that serve platters of homemade enchiladas and tamales and moles. My Mexico has food contaminated with agricultural poisons and human waste and water no human can drink without risking intestinal disease.
My Mexico is limited. It is mostly Oaxaca. My Mexico is vast. It reflects the history of all of Latin America and represents the current social, political and economic conflict of an emerging democracy.
My Mexico is missing in my photographs and I want to see it there. Is this asking too much? Of the images? Of me?
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.
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.
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.
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.
* Hope Amid the Flotsam: Another good read from A Photo Editor on the “endless stream of photography” and, with it, the proliferation of mediocrity. He connects through to a farewell post from photographer Liz Kuball in which she comments:
“It is so easy, when your Google Reader is always full of excellent photographs, to feel as though the rest of the world is producing constantly, consistently, at a level you’re simply incapable of.”
But cheer up, brave hearts, A Photo Editor also points to Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey’s more sanguine view:
“… but if you are “special” there are also way way more opportunities…and so so much room for invention….i swear, i have never seen so much room!!! “
* Rumor Focus: Nikon Watch keeps the full-frame Nikon mill churning with word of 12mp D400 and a 24.8mp D3x.
* Sync & Swim: Check the Journey-to-the-Bottom-of-the-Sea rig Jill Greenberg used to shoot the U.S. synchronized swim team for a Radar magazine fashion spread.
Just a quick post on this portrait because I am jamming to finish a couple of magazine projects before I head out of town for a working vacation — to the wedding of a friend in Cartagena. Vive los novios!
The magazine wanted a picture for Father’s Day and we found Greg Snowden, the owner of a local green building materials company, and his three sons.
I met them in the store after it closed, put up a big softbox over a picnic table and threw a couple of smaller lights on the background.
The boys were rambunctious and never settled down, mugging for the camera, grabbing at each and pulling Dad into the fun. At first I tried to control them, then realizing I couldn’t I just went with the flow, hoping a make a couple of good frames.
The result is above, one of about four or five usable shots out of 75 or so. I happy with it, although it’s not what I set out to do and therein lies the lesson:
Never try to teach a pig to sing. It doesn’t work and it only P’s off the pig. In this case, the pig sang when it was good and ready.
* People Who Need People: The New York Times asks the question we’ve all been wondering about: “Can a few snapshots of a baby or a bride, accompanied by a fawning article, really be worth millions of dollars?” Read the whole story about why tab magazines now routinely pay celebs to play (like this cover of Branjelina and child).
* Gulf Twosome: The two shooters atop the current photo how-to heap — David Hobby and Joe McNally — report back from the doings at Gulf Photo Plus. David offers the behind-the-scenes story on this SB800-laden image. Joe calls Dubai “3 parts Vegas, one part planet Tatooine, and 6 parts oil money.
* Photographers Wanted: Want to be a photojournalist? These newspapers are hiring.
* Pitching a Home Run: Rob Haggert (A Photo Editor) tells us how to make winning pitches to photo editors. Rule #1: “The absolute fastest way for photographers to get a story made is to approach a writer that the magazine uses on a regular basis.”
* Jumping the Canon-Nikon Divide: Freelance sports photographer Preston Mack switched from Canon to Nikon when he heard these words from an editor: “The cover image doesn’t look in focus.” Read Mack’s whole tale of learning to love the D3 on Sportsshooter.com.
About a year ago, I photographed competing immigration rallies in San Rafael. On one side of the street were advocates for the local Latino community; on the other were members and supporters of the Minutemen, a conservative anti-immigrant organization. Both groups were a rarity in Marin County, an affluent, mostly white, heavily liberal enclave just north of San Francisco.
A few weeks earlier, federal immigration agents had raided homes and businesses in the city’s Canal neighborhood, a tightly packed area of run-down apartment buildings and small homes that is home to 12,000 people, 86 percent of them immigrants from
The raids were part of the broader immigration debate in the country, a divide that had spawned huge marches across the country. I wanted to put something together for Marin magazine about how the issue played out in suburbs, but was hesitant for a couple of reasons. First, I was jammed with doing the book. Second, after 20 years of traditioal journalism I didn’t want to write an on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other type story where the emotion got buried under a slag heap of official statements from either side.
After I finished the book this spring, I began talking with Tom Wilson, head of the Canal Alliance, the Canal neighborhood’s primary social service group, about different story ideas. He pointed me to an after-school program that tutors neighborhood children, teaches them other academic skills and exposes them to a world of possibilities outside the Canal. The program guarantees that if a child sticks with it, he or she will graduate from high school and enter a community college.
I told Tom I’d like to photograph the kids in the middle-school program and ask them a few questions about their dreams. Then I pitched the idea to the magazine, adding that I’d write an introductory essay — not a story — about the immigration issue. To my surprise, they loved the idea.
I made the photographs over three afternoons in a classroom. I wanted the pictures to be simple portraits, so I posed the children in the middle of the room and lit them with one umbrella and a big reflector, using the far wall for a backdrop. I spoke with each for about five minutes first, talking about their dreams, their families and their countries of origin. Most of the interviews were in English, a few were in Spanish.
Some of the children dreamed big — to be doctors or lawyers. Others wished for little more than a visit home to their family in Mexico. Some rushed forward to be photographed. Others I had to persuade through cajoling.
If you look at the photographs, you will see the faces of children, but also, in many of them, the eyes of adults who have seen more of the world, a rough world, than any 12- or 13-year-old should.
If you read the essay (below), you will learn how I feel about this children, which is that regardless of how any of us feels about immigration the children of immigrants should not pay the price. Who are we to deny them better lives — especially in the United States, a country founded on that very principle?
* Here are the photographs.
* Here is a PDF of the Marin Magazine package, including the essay.
* Or, click the jump for the essay.
Anyone who has worked in media knows the end product — magazine, newspaper, film — represents a series of choices and decisions made by individual creators, the team as a whole and, increasingly in films, the audience. (And, of course, web-based media like You Tube or Fark is almost wholly based on audience selection.)
How much weight your decision carries in influencing the final result is often relative. When I ran newsrooms, I had little control over what the creators — the writers and photographers — chose, but quite a bit more over the final product.
Now that I’m freelancing again, I have creative control over how I shoot something, but less to say about how the photo is going to be used or even which one from a shoot will run in , let’s say, a magazine. I have learned, though, how to shoot things differently for different clients — some like light glossy and bright colors, others prefer darker, edgier shots. I shoot to match their style, then always add in some preferences of my own.
The above picture of Samantha Paris, who runs a voice-over training school in Sausalito, provides some good examples of the choices I made in photographing her and the decisions my client, in this case Marin Magazine, made in using the photographs.
I stopped by Samantha’s studios while the writer was interviewing her, just to look the place over and meet her. As soon as I saw the recording booth, I knew I wanted to shoot her in there, but also knew I’d be pushing my technical skills because the space was so tight (about 3 feet by 5 feet) and so dark.
I wanted to use the shapes of the microphone and the pop screen as graphical elements and also have a spotlight effect to the photo. The booth had a window in front so the actor and sound engineer could see each other and I decided to use one light to shoot through that window.
At home, I blocked out a space in my living room similar to the size of the booth, and saw that I could get another light stand in the back corner of the booth and a shorty studio stand on the floor behind Samantha. I did some tests shots and felt I at least had technical control of the shot.
For the shoot itself, I used three SB800s — the one outside the window,the one in the booth corner and the one on the floor. The main and hair lights had snoots and CTO gels to warm up Samantha (not that her personality needed it) and the background light had a blue gel.)
We shot for about 30 minutes in the booth, including a sequence in which she acted out some scenes (left).
I also wanted to make some pictures of Samantha interacting with her students, so we set up some chairs in a front room with a big window and I shot about 20 or 30 frames using the natural light.
Afterwards, looking at the files, I was pleased with the shots in the recording booth (although I did underexpose by a half-stop), but I was pretty sure the magazine would use the more informal and more interactive shots with the students. I also liked the shots of in the booth more when she wasn’t acting and just looking at the camera.
I got first indication of which way the magazine’s choice would go later when my wife, a former journalist, looked at the take and loved the acting shots and those of Samantha with the students.
She was an audience focus group of one and her instinctive response mirrored the one the magazine editor made later. The image below of Samantha and her students, ran big. The “acting” shot ran smaller. My favorite (at the top of this page) didn’t make the cut.
Is there a lesson? Yes, and it’s that we shoot (or write) for many audiences — the audience of one (ourselves), the audience of many (readers, viewers) and the audience of economics (our clients). I love it when they overlap. When they don’t, I cash the check anyway.
This is a story about a simple picture gone wrong and why a do-over is sometimes the right thing to do.
Every month in Marin Magazine I do a small feature called Marin Album — a photograph and a short essay. Typically, the photo is some scenic slice of Marin life, like this one of a cyclist in the Headlands or this one of a little leaguers on opening day of baseball season.
For the May issue, the magazine asked if I could make a picture for Mother’s Day of a mom and her new child. Nice, I thought, that will be sweet. Plus, it’s simple. I can use window light and skip some of the complicated setups I’d been doing recently.
One of the magazine’s writers had a baby a month ago, a boy, so I arranged a visit to her home. When she opened the door, her dog, some kind of pug, started barking and never stopped — I kid you not — for the hour I was there. It was a sign I should have heeded.
I looked around the house. Too dark to shoot in except for the living room. But the windows were behind the sofa, meaning if I put her and the baby on the couch their faces would be in shadow.
This is where the “should have”s” begin — I should have brought in some lights instead of sticking with the natural light plan. I should have asked her to change her green shirt, which reflected an icky tone on the baby’s skin. I should have taped the dog’s mouth shut.
And, when she brought out her son from his crib I should have said, “This is not going to work.” He was a cute kid, as all month-old’s are, but his skin was bright red, blotchy and pimply. a condition I later learned to be “baby acne.” Without some serious Photoshop retouching, this little boy was going to look more like pre-pubescent teen than Baby of the Month. (And, don’t forget mom’s green shirt adding to color mix.)
I should have said I’d be back in a month, but I didn’t. I shot, I used reflectors, I turned them this way and that. Two gigs later, nada.
Later, looking at the shoot in the computer, I kept thinking, “How could I blow a shot of a baby.” All I wanted was this and the best I got is what you see to the left.
I fessed up to the magazine, blamed the dog and said I needed another mom and another baby. That’s how I met 3-month-old Maya, above, and her mother, Ines. This time I told them what to where, brought in some lights and put the dog outside. Better. Much better. And at the point when I wrapped Maya in the blanket and asked Ines to hold her head I knew I had the shot I wanted.
Ines’ hands wrapped around Maya’s tiny head reminded me of what my mother used to say about her hands, how as she grew older they resembled those of her mother.
I used that thought as the key for the text below (after the jump). Continue reading
* Nikon’s new website, Nikkor.com, is live and features the work of photographers who use — what else? — Nikons. Despite the marketing intent of the site, the work it showcases is terrific. Check the images by photojournalist Amy Vitale. (Thanks to Nikon Watch for the tip.)
* Strobist-in-Chief David Hobby points to this portrait of Admiral William J. “Fox” Fallon by photographer Peter Yang for Esquire Magazine. Yang made the photo with one light, a technique, says David, that anyone can attempt regardless of the price of their gear. (Here’s my mimickry of the Peter Yang shot.)
* The Photoshelter blog, written by Rachel Hulin, has a Q&A with photojournalist Antonin Kratochivl (Iraq, Myanmar and other conflict zones) that includes a wonderful portrait of him by Clay Enos. (Tip from A Photo Editor.)