It was all so easy. I didn’t know it at the time. There was no reason to know. There was only reason to want, to get and to experience. “Who was your greatest rival?” the driver was asked. “Well, if you go far back there was a guy, a pure driver, a complete driver, but this was before politics and money, this was pure racing.” It was the same for me. I just knew I wanted to be someone who made pictures. I had little. Two cameras, two lenses and a bag of 35mm, black and white film. I was “freelance,” which according to my father was “mostly free,” “little lance.” It didn’t matter. There was a simplicity, or purity of the drive. Not once did I think of fame, or fortune. They were fools gold, but further these things felt like poison. A slow drip of someone else’s idea of me, of who I should be. Who I should want to be. I never once thought, “What would so and so want from me?” I just did what came naturally, what felt natural and that was more than enough.
Find story. Get to story. Shoot story. Compile. Repeat. That was the game. The hunt was and is what I am about. I knew it then and I know it more than ever today when once again I find myself free and easy. The early days were the way they were, perfect in their form. With success comes outside influence. A reluctance to put my work out, even from day one, because I just wanted to be in those places, meet those people and make those photographs. Lying in bed at night, staring a cracked fresco on the ceiling above while my parter breaths deeply, next to me but a world away. My exposed film lined up on the floor below the bed. Consuming my night. Reliving those fractured seconds where nothing else in the world mattered but becoming one with my surroundings. Feeling what it meant to really do this. This was never a hobby. It was part of the DNA. Born somewhere far back in history. A newspaper reporter, a school teacher, a searcher, a pioneer, all passing down threads they could never imagine.
My energy then was all directed outward. Endlessly. I projected. I never wanted anything in return, other than acceptance and opportunity. I knew what I was doing wasn’t going to change the world, but I still felt the need. My world was so peaceful compared to today, to now, when peace is something our culture is slowly exterminating. Click and wind.
“I don’t get you,” she said. “You shoot these things, you edit and make stories and then you put them in a drawer and never show them to anyone.” “Yes, that’s true.” That’s just the way it is, and no explanation will change it. It was never meant to be, me and this, at least as anything official. It’s not that I don’t care, because I do, but not in the traditional sense. Walking into a house I stare at images on the wall, mine, forgotten that I had made a transaction years ago. Walking into a hotel, staring at images on the wall and realizing they too were mine, forgotten as part of a past trangression. Erased from the front range, placed in the back row and dismissed. Embarrassed even. “Those aren’t really mine.” “You are confusing me with someone else.” I can’t go back, only ahead, but I can strip down, leave behind and reengage. When these memories come they come with an overwhelming force. They are reminders, indicator arrows where my past controls my future. Call this what you will, but I appreciate these little subtleties. Followed by smiles. Acceptance again. Strip down. Fall away and walk on.
Remember? Remember when? When it was all so easy.
I’m not sure why I’ve been thinking about these things, but I have. Maybe it’s because someone asked me about writing about my beginnings, about how I got started in this business and what I would recommend to someone starting today. That’s the kind of question that forces me to look in the mirror and what I find staring back at me isn’t always nice. As a full time photographer, life these days is about compromise. Photolife, in some ways, has always been about compromise, but today the ratio is far higher than ever before, at least in my experience. Some folks will love it, others not so much.
I can’t tell you how or why to be a photographer, and even if I could I wouldn’t because I think the only truly rewarding thing is finding your own way. I had help along the way, people who made a suggestion or gave a push, but I think for the most part I earned it. I walked the backs of those who came before, no doubt, and everything I’ve done with a camera has been done before, and in most cases, it’s been done better.
Honesty isn’t the rule of day anymore, and this isn’t just regarding photography. Take at look at the political world, the financial world, the education world, and you will see we have lost our way as a species and a global culture. The genie is out and she ain’t going back in the bottle.
We have some difficult decisions to make. Don’t worry, I’m not digging a bunker as I write this. I think this can all be done with the right leaders, the right message and the right education. I doubt I’ll be in involved at all. By that time I’ll be in diapers and looking for you to help with the changes. Get ready Smogranch followers.
All I can do is break down my life and “career” into a series of moments. These might not have been profound at the time or moment but they sure are now.
In 1993 I was an intern at a major US newspaper. I was clueless about most things, photography included, but I was game to go for it, so I found myself in a situation of being given daily assignments ranging from professional sports to celebrity funerals to random street art. I was ravenous. I had a desire to be close to the fringes of society and thought I really wanted to be a war photographer. I’d been shot at, chased and freightened more than once while working in the field. In many ways, at least at that time, it was a game. I was a willing participant in this game but didn’t really know the stakes. I was just a bystander with no particular point of view other than trying to make a better portfolio which would hopefully propel me into the magazine world. SELF-CENTERED WARNING NUMBER ONE
I really had no idea the power, or lack of power, I had in my hand.
One day I was driving to an assignment and had my trusty police scanner with me, a device that brought the spilled guts of the city directly in contact with my ears and brain. The scanner was a drug that gave me the high of chaos and mayhem but could be politely turned off at any time.
Less than a mile in front of my car a guy in a van blew a red light, careened across a street and plowed into a family picnicking in their front yard. The call came in and my heart rate spiked. I began punching the ceiling of my truck, buzzing with excitement.
Rolling up on a scene like this is a surreal thing. You see the truck, you see adults in distress but for me there is no sound. I slammed the truck to a stop by driving up in someone’s front yard and dropping anchor. I had an agenda, make pictures.
There wasn’t anyone there yet meaning authorities or help. For a BRIEF .00000001 of a second I thought about rendering aid. If I could. It was a scene out of control, which normally means good photos are at hand. My mental plan kicked into gear.
“Start wide and move in.”
“500 at 5.6”
“Be cool, relax.”
“Don’t be too crazy or the cops will boot you out.”
“The light is great, shoot backlit if possible.”
“What the f^%$ happened here?”
“How many people were in this yard?”
“Where is the driver?”
“Is anyone dead?”
“What will the paper want?”
“What will the paper run?”
I methodically worked my way through the scene reducing the content in front of me to verticals and horizontals all masked in the thin veil of “public safety.” The rule of thumb was “If we show these terrible things then people will be more careful.”
The police arrive and my radar is on high alert. One wrong step, get too close and I’m in trouble. But this day is different. Everyone is immersed in the scene and I’m working close. I’m right on top of the paramedics, the police and the family members uninjured in the wreck. After about thirty minutes things begin to calm. I get on my WWII cellphone and call the picture desk, tell them what I have.
Now the sound comes back and I begin to see the world like a normal human being once again. And then they get a wrecker and pull the van back……..
Underneath the van, unbeknownst to the paramedics, is another young girl who had been run over and trapped. Covered in dirt and blood, motionless. It felt like hours before anyone could move. We stood staring and then suddenly the sound was gone again.
Two firemen grabbed her and began CPR. I was close, real close, standing over the top of them and this is where things get a little ugly for me. My FIRST thought..can you guess? “Hope she is okay?” Nope. “Is she gonna make it?” Nope. My FIRST thought was “This is gonna be a great picture.” Yep, in all honesty that is what I thought.
In those days I was very green. I was trying to make it in the photography world and signed on to take the responsibility of a newspaper photographer. As a newspaper photographer that is what you do. You don’t pick and choose you report, but something was LOST on me. There is a detachment required that I was okay with at the time but something I’m not okay with now. Now I believe the exact opposite is true. I have no interest in making pictures I’m not 100% attached and committed to. I’m not faulting newspaper photogs or photojournalists. That is what they are paid to do. Detach if necessary, remove, shoot, transmit, cash check. Being paid for disaster work is a reality that nobody likes to talk about but a necessary part of being a commercial photographer. We need photojournalists in the field snooping and searching for the story, and certain people are so well designed for this work it’s impossible for them to do anything else.
This feeling. This feeling of what I’m actually doing is an impossible thing for me to ignore anymore, hence my departure from photojournalism of any kind. My agenda has changed, so have my methods. I’m not saying one is better than another or right or wrong. That is for you to decide, but moments like this little disaster film taught me a lot about what I want to do and certainly about what I don’t want to do.
Now when I’m around these scenes I feel sick. I feel like a failure. I feel the same sitting in LA traffic. I look around and think “Really, is THIS what we came up with?” So, I turn this sick feeling and use it to my advantage and use it for motivation and drive. How do I turn the negative into the positive?
I take this negativity and direct it at finding solutions. I’m not always successful, but I like trying. And when I say solution I don’t mean some grand, global platform. I mean a simple solution for me, or a particular issue.
Photography for me now is more about observation and recording of history than making a visual statement or sending a message. I’m not concerned with getting published or getting a gallery show. I’m more concerned about having the time to record my surroundings.
As for the girl, I don’t know. I don’t know anything about her, whether she was okay or not. I moved on, edited, printed, captioned and turned in my photographs. They ran in the paper. People told me I did a good job. I got my scanner, got back in my truck and drove into the world once again.