Documentary projects are not easy. Truly great images do not happen very often, and the reality is you can spend a lot of time in the field and come home with next to nothing. You have to come to grips with the fact that the vast majority of images you make are NOT going to work. For me, this is the fun of it all. Some days I win and other days I get trampled. Most of the time documentary projects naturally break up into long delays and waiting periods mixed with frantic, intense moments of all out shooting anarchy. Like a dog on a cold winter morning after getting that first snuff of cold air up the nostrils. The hair on your arms stands up and your body and instinct goes into DEFCON 1. Again, this is why photography is so much fun. Those down periods are perfect time for reflection, doubt or angst, and the shooting periods wipe it all away, especially when you KNOW you nailed something.
Uruguay was somewhat standard in terms of a basic project. We had an idea, we had the team, we had a basic plan and one by one we began to tick things off the list. We will be here on this day at this time and if that doesn’t work we have a plan B or we just go to the beach. Some things you feel in your heart days away. “This is going to be awesome” you think but then the reality doesn’t match your mind. In other cases you downplay a location or event and suddenly it turns into a photo-goldmine. I know that I never really know until I’m there and I see it for myself. I learned a LONG time ago NOT to pre-visualize what I EXPECT to see because it was never matches what I envisioned.
Most of the time we descend on a place or event and begin to scout. In this case we landed at a small bar in a neighborhood in Montevideo where a Murgas group was getting ready. Not knowing what Murgas was I wasn’t really sure what to expect, which is a good thing because I was totally calm during the morning. Had I known how beautiful this scene would be I probably would have been bouncing off the walls. Arriving at this place I could see immediately how interesting, fun and important this little scene was. The sky was overcast meaning flat, broad, open-shade light which his very easy to work in. The building was old, colorful and filled with character, the EXACT opposite of Southern California. I was so happy with the architecture alone I briefly thought about growing a beard, buying an 8×10 and moving to Carmel.
What happens when you land in a place like this? What do I do? Very simple. I take stock of what is in front of me and I block everything else out of my mind and just work. I build my story in my mind. What do I have? Do I have an overall? Do I need an overall? Where is the best light? Is this better in black and white or color? Is there a personality that stands out? What do I need to show a viewer who, like me, has no idea what Murgas is? And how do these images fit in my overall story. There is a continual conversation happening in my head. And I’ll tell you something else. For me, in a strange way, this is the benefit of NOT knowing the language(at least Uruguay’s version of it.) I said ONE sentence to ONE person at this event, shortly after we had arrived, and they looked at me like I was speaking in alien tongue. They said something to someone else, then they all laughed, and I knew I was off the hook. I could be the mute guy wandering in their midst without ANY verbal responsibility.
This is NOT as good as being able to speak the language, not even close, but for someone like me who can go days without speaking to anyone, it is nice to work with ONLY my images in mind. Working with two formats, and color vs black and white, is where things get complicated. Going in here with one camera and one lens is the best thing you could do. But, we all load ourselves down with photo-baggage and ideals and then suddenly we find ourselves juggling a set of creativity balls that will at some point come crashing down. You just hope it doesn’t get to the point where you walk away with nothing. So, in this case I was looking for light, then content, and then how that scene translated. It is better in black and white or color? Both cameras were set with 50mm equivalents, so all I had to do was think “color or black and white.” When I shoot color I’m looking for the hottest part of the frame and I’m basing my exposure there, even though I’m shooting negative. This might not be the best plan for you, but after shooting transparency for so many years I’m used to this method. I look for the hottest light, which pulls me in the direction of a certain type of image. With black and white I’m looking for the exact opposite, so when I say this gets confusing now you know what I mean.
I also move from system to system making sure I don’t run out of film in both cameras at the same time, just in case something strange happens like a UFO landing on the building. Might want to have a few extra frames put aside for that one. Not running out of film comes with practice and years of being a wedding photographer where running out of film can be a disaster. I can also load my cameras without looking at them, which is a must if you are attempting to work in fast moving arenas. My camera systems have different personalities. The Blad is slow, methodical but allows me to bond with the people I’m working with. They are very much a part of the process, at least when it comes to formal portraits. I do use the Blad for reportage as well. The Leica is fast and silent. Normally by the time they think I’m shooting I’m already done. I can be right on top of someone and make several frames without being too influential in the scene. So, due to these realities, these cameras give me different style pictures. I don’t shoot a lot of portraits with the Leica and I don’t shoot a lot of fast street stuff with the Blad.
On this afternoon I worked inside out. Again, these folks are preparing for a major public event, so they are expecting to be photographed. Okay, maybe not by two unsuspecting gringos and two other photographers, but at least they were in the mindset of knowing it might happen. So, in short, it’s an easy environment. They see me, no hiding the fact I’m there shooting so I embrace this reality and just dive in. I get close right off the bat which allows the others to see how I work, and I how close I get, in some way breaking the ice for the entire scene. Even if I don’t want images that close I’ll do it anyway just to set the visual table for what I want to do next. This is a game people. We take and we give. We make it easy on some people and hard on others. We can be nice and we can be not so nice. Every scene is different. And you are constantly weighting how bad you want something. I tend to be pretty mellow. I know now the power that photography has, or more importantly, the power photography DOESN’T have.
In some way, the lives of the people in these images is in my hand. I’m not the most important thing here, and I never have been. We are simply a conduit and translator. I’ve never understood the ego and attitude from the photography world. We aren’t doing anything special other than translating a scene already in front of us. So, you have to keep that in mind when you work in places like this. They are trusting you to do what you do to the HIGHEST level possible. If you half-ass it, it will show in the work and how you represent them. Don’t know your gear, don’t have the right software, use to many filters and it reflects on them and photography in general. We owe it to them to do what is right.
Doing what is right takes time, practice and critical thought. If you are thinking about your gear you are missing the point. If you are thinking about how you are going to share this on social media, while you are shooting, you probably won’t connect at the level you need to. Save that for later. This work is about history, documentation and making a UNIQUE visual statement that has your fingerprints on it. There are so many images being created today that it’s easy to get lost in the storm. I’ve seen sub-par photographs get hundreds of “likes” and the dreaded “awesome work man.” If you are going to be serious about photography you have to clear your mind and truly see what is in front of you, then filter it through your brain to find the perspective that makes you…well, you. Again, it ain’t easy. From a trip like this I MIGHT have three, four maybe five images I would keep in the long run.
After a very short period of time I have a range of work from this scene. I unzip the top pocket on my backpack to see how many rolls I’ve exposed. It feels good but means little. I do it cause I’m twisted. And then I try to forget everything I’ve seen, even though it is right in front of me, and I try to see the scene with new eyes. What did I take for granted? What did I miss because I made decisions quickly? Do I need to step back? Is something unhealthy influencing my images? And then, time permitting, I start again. I sit and I watch. And I watch, and watch and watch to see what I didn’t see the first time. I look for details and I do one of my favorite things which is to walk away and leave the scene. I begin the great hunt that takes me to the edges of the scene, the location, etc. Like sharks circling just outside the depth of where the sun’s rays fail to reach…you can see flashes of their glimmering bodies as they cruise the depths below. That fringe area is a goldmine.
And when I’m done I put it out of my mind. I try to forget the place and the people and move on. Whether it was insanely good or insanely bad it can effect what comes next and I cant’ have that. Being haunted is a part of this game, so I know I have to deal with it but I don’t to make sure I’m in control, not the other way around. And then, you wind up and do it all again.