Eric Labastida: Bordertown: 1992-2002

I actually don’t remember when I met Eric Labastida. I think it was during the 1996 political convention in downtown San Diego. Another young guy with a Leica trying to make sense of it all. We started hanging out and all these years later we are still friends. We go for long periods with no communication and then suddenly I get an email about a Special Forces flashlight, or a question about Xtol at 1:1 or 1:2? This is just how it works. The photo-life, you just play along.

Eric is from the Diego, and I have to say, from what I know about him all these years later, I can tell you he was influenced in great part by his parents. His mom, well, just good people is all I can say and she cooked or us which means I will forever have a small tattoo of her on my stomach. Eric’s dad is a legend. Eric’s dad is a man, the real kind. If I showed up at Eric’s and his dad was in the driveway gutting a moose it would seem completely normal. And if I asked him, “Nice Ernie, where did you bag that?” and he replied “the zoo,” this would also seem completely normal. If you were looking for someone to walk the length of Baja with only a juice box and plastic fork, Eric’s dad would be the guy but would probably say, “I don’t need the fork.” I think to be a photographer you have to pull from the foundation you were given and Eric seems to have done that.

Spending almost twenty years growing up in Texas meant I had crossed the Mexican border many times. Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, Juarez, etc, and my subsequent photographic life had taken me to other spots like Ciudad Acuna and Nogales. Eric had Tijuana. It was only natural that at some point he and I would go to “TJ” and we did. For me it was a break, something different, a challenge, a bit of action if you will, but for Eric it was far more, it was an obsession. From 1992-2002 Eric was consumed by Tijuana.

Recently, during a conversation about developers, photography, changes in our lives, etc, the topic of “TJ” once again came to the discussion. “Hey, send me some pics and I’ll do a post,” I said. Well, actually, I said “Send me your best five images.” A few days later I get an email, “Hey, is it okay if I send six pictures?” I said, “Sure, go ahead.” And then being the absolute twisted mess that he is Eric pings with me an email…“Okay, I SWEAR TO GOD, I’ve narrowed it to TEN IMAGES MAXIMUM.” Before I could even reply he said, “Okay, twelve.” I’ve added a few additional, but the guts are all his. I also sent him a few questions that should fill in the blanks of who he is, why he does what he does and what this Tijuana obsession was all about.

DM: In 1992 you were a very different person than you are today. Where were you, what were you and what was your photographic outlook?

EL: There’s something I didn’t realize as a young photographer, and that is the fact that you can photograph anywhere. But it takes practice to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Definitely something not learned overnight. I had the very rare opportunity to wander at my own pace with a camera for years. I did it for so long that it became an inseparable aspect of my life. Sam Abell used to call this “the shooting life”. That being said, I also believe that if you go to an environment that you’re not used to it’s easier to “see” things that you wouldn’t otherwise. At the time I was living in San Diego, literally right across the street from Tijuana. For a twenty year old in search of high adventure Tijuana fit the bill. At the time I wasn’t thinking project, story or book, I was just interested in life.

DM: Your father is quit the adventurist, which tells me your mom is too. What impact did they have on your pursuit of docentary photography?

EL: When my dad was about twenty-something he was in the army; he didn’t have a lot of extra money. So when he wanted to go on a hiking trip he just used army issue gear. He took many trips into places like the Olympic National Park and the Sierras. He also had with him his trusty Exacta with a 50mm lens. He shot Kodachrome, first 25 then 64. He would photograph and later have his slideshows. I loved looking at his slides. Because they were shot on Kodachrome they looked like they were taken yesterday. I don’t think you can say that about digital, the jury is still out. I’d like to think I had an original thought when it comes to documenting my life photographically but what I’m really doing is continuing a tradition.

DM: What kind of formal training, if any, do you have, and what is your opinion on the rather common, modern view that studying photography perhaps isn’t really necessary in the age of the internet?

EL: I literally took a small handful of beginning photo classes. But now that i’m thinking about it I’d have to say that my first class, photo 100, taught me skills I still use today. Elliot Erwitt says all you need to learn about photography is printed on the box that the camera came in. I totally believe that. Now mind you, he’s talking about cameras that you could buy between 1950 and 1990. The cameras sold today need an advanced degree from MIT to understand. There’s really only three things you need to know about your camera: one, what film you’re using; two, shutter speed; and three, aperture.I think once you learn the three basics I mentioned above, then taking further classes about how to operate your camera is about as important as taking a class on typesetting.

DM: This is a ten-year project, but did you have any idea when you started this that you would spend ten years of your life in Tijuana?

EL: No, certainly not.

DM:Do you recall the reason why you first went to TJ?

EL: It seemed safer than going to Bosnia or Mogadishu. Living in San Diego, it seemed the logical choice for high adventure on a budget. Actually, I have a buddy who lived very close to the border. He actually started going to Tijuana first, then I started going with him. Tijuana was interesting to me for many reasons. It was the smells, sights and sounds that made me go back year after year.

DM: In a given year, how often would you work on this project?

EL: I was very fortunate to have been able to make many trips during any given year. Typically I’d go down about 2-3 times a week.

DM: When did TJ become an obsession?

EL: I’d say about the second year in. I got caught up in the rhythm of the city and fell in love with the thrill of the pursuit. After I started seeing my results I was encouraged to continue.

DM:Your photographs depict mostly quiet, and some not so quiet daily life moments. Do you consider yourself primarily a street photographer or a chronicler of daily life?

EL: When I first started I considered myself a street shooter because that’s what I thought they called this genre of photography. But after a few years my work started to reflect more daily life situations, and less street shooter kind of pictures. At least in a Garry Winogrand/Lee Friedlander sense.

DM: I would classify this work as classic, black and white documentary work, but how do you view or describe it? And why do you work in this fashion when the world is working in digital?

EL: Too many times I have seen new versions of what was once classic and think “why?”. Why did they feel a need to change something that wasn’t broken to begin with? Film has a look, feel and soul that digital will never have, period. When I start to talk about digital and how it has infected photography I think, “digital photography– that’s really an oxymoron”. Whenever I pick up a digital camera I feel like I’m using a toy not a tool. If they stop making film in my lifetime I’ll just take up charcoal sketching or something. Digital photography is too easy, and when this technology was delivered to the masses it immensely dumbed-down the medium to the point where “a chimpanzee can use it”, as Elliot Erwitt would say. To answer your question, yes I categorize my work as classic B&W documentary work. I catch what is there without influencing the subject–I never ask for them to turn or tilt or smile. I shoot it, soup it and print it.

DM: Was there a particular part of Tijuana you focused on?

EL: When I first started shooting there everything was a wonder to me. However, I usually ended up in one of three sections, the 5y10, downtown or the linea. The “Linea” section or border secion of TJ was by far the most interesting and probably most dangerous to work in because of the drugs and crime that was happening all around. Being 6’2 and 230 is probably what kept me safe, but I’m most likely fooling myself into thinking that. The more I think about it the more I’ve come to the conclusion that I was just damn lucky I didn’t end up dead.

DM: Give me an idea about your mindset when you work? What are you thinking about? What are you looking for? Light? Layering?

EL: They say Cartier-Bresson preferred looking at people’s contact sheets because it showed how the person thought. Um, let’s see, my mindset, I’d say I’m more of a reactionary photographer. I try to make certain prerequisites are in place, like lighting and geometry. As long as lighting and geometry are set on stage all I have to do is be ready like a pouncing cat. Shooting in Tijuana was very often chaotic. I would start the day thinking ok today I wanna shoot street musicians and instead end up photographing prostitutes. You just never knew what you were gonna get. And that’s what I loved about it.

DM: Who was the first photographer who made you think about photography as more than a hobby?

EL: It would have to be my photo 100 instructor Paul Stahalek. One day he showed us his pictures he had done on migrant workers. They were the coolest pictures I had ever seen. Then he pulled out what he used to make these pictures. It was a Leica M6. I remember thinking to myself, really, THIS little camera took THOSE pictures!!!! I was blown away. Later Sam Abell whom I’d met at a workshop introduced me to what I’d like to call a philosophy called the shooting life. It basically meant that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing take a camera with you. I’m going on 22 years of having a camera on me 90% of the time and it’s great.

DM: There is an image I’ve included of myself printing in your darkroom. You made this image, but tell me about the darkroom itself?

EL: Oh man, I loved that darkroom. My Dad, who is the kind of man who builds and fixes EVERYTHING, decided to hollow out the dirt under his house so he could have a basement. He started construction i think sometime in 1982 and finished, gosh, i wanna say 3-4 years later? Anyhow, when he was done he used concrete reinforced cinderblock for the walls. You’d need to use C4 to change anything about the basement now. At the deepest section of the basement he designed my darkroom. It is a fully functional darkroom with stainless steel sinks and plumbing. I wish I had one like that here In Vegas.

DM: As far as I know, you have never worked full time as a photographer. Tell me why and what made you do this? Also, do you see this as being a positive thing or do you feel you missed out in any way?

EL: Again, I was very fortunate to be able to work this way, it’s almost like I had a trust fund. The bottom line is this: If you’re shooting for a client then you are responsible to the client. You can’t do whatever you want, unless of course the client gives you complete free range. I had opportunities to work for newspapers in the early years, but I wanted to shoot my own way too often. Much later I showed my work to a friend of mine, Paul Gero, who is a fine photographer who I very much admire. He said “Boy this sure doesn’t look like newspaper stuff” I took that to be a positive thing. Look, I’m not degrading the work of newspaper photographers. Some are VERY VERY good photographers whom I look up to, but it just wasn’t a path I was willing to put myself on. I came to the conclusion pretty early on that if you were the only one you had to please you were much better off.

DM: This project ended in 2002, so what have you been doing with yourself, and what is photography to you today?

EL: In 2002 I shifted gears in a major and good way, I got married and two years later had kids. Now, I’m on the eighth year of a several decade (I hope) project on my life as dad & husband. The process of shooting, souping and printing hasn’t changed very much. As long as Kodak makes film I’ll be happy.

DM:Tijuana now is a very different place than it was back then. I had a problem there a few years back(Got jumped and had to deal with Grupo Alpha). Do you still go and what do you think about the city now?

EL:I wouldn’t work in Tijuana if you paid me. It’s gotten WAY more dangerous to just bum around with a camera. I think it’s the same for any border town: since about 2006 the drug war has made Tijuana a much more dangerous place. I imagine it’s worse than Bogota in the 80’s. In Bogota, you had two main drug cartels controlling everything. In Mexico you have 200 cartels all fighting amongst each other and the government. Way too messy for me!

DM:Did you ever have any strange or scary moments?

EL:Working near the border during the night was always more hair raising than any other area of Tijuana; I saw more arrests, fights and drug activity at night than at any other time. One time we were was chased out of the red light district (the Cahuila, as it was called by the locals) by a knife-wielding lunatic. That was fun. It’s wise to just run like hell toward the touristy section when folks like that are after you. Another time that comes to mind was the time we were stopped and questioned by members of the Grupo Beta or Federal police. That actually was pretty scary because the commandante in charge literally looked like the head of the death squad. Picture this: A man in his mid 40’s with full beard and mustache, mirror sunglasses and dressed in black military fatigues from head to toe. He sat in the front seat of the tinted-window Ford Bronco and only gestured to his lieutenant while holding our ID’s in between his index and middle finger. He let us go after awhile when he realized we weren’t a threat. Unlike the city cops, you absolutely can’t bribe the Federal cops, they will just throw you in jail.

DM:What have you done with this work? Published? Exhibited? What about books?

EL:In 1997 I had a one man show in Tijuana. I was really proud because it seemed really well received by the people. What i kept hearing about the work was ” I can’t believe this is my neighborhood”. My work was also part of a group show in Los Angeles in 2000.

DM:I know you have experimented with Blurb. Tell me about that? And why did you do this? Ego? Curiosity? Or was it to make you think about this work with serious intent?

EL: I’m currently working on a book project through Blurb. I really like doing books using Blurb because I like the control it affords the photographer and the final product you get is just gorgeous. It’s just really nice to have your work in book form because it can’t be wiped away in the blink of an eye. And it’s about a billion times better than a photo album.

DM:You sent a photo the other day of rows and rows of film drying in your office with your son hiding behind it. Tell me about your process and how you work? I’m guessing you use TRI-X and Leica, but give me(and the rabid mass of techies)a little more information.

EL: Happy to oblige. The pictures that are on this post were made with a Leica M2 and a 35mm Summicron. With the exception of two or three. The film I used hands down was Kodak TRI-X Today, I use the same Leica M2 with 35mm. Summicron. Ive added a Leica M4 with 50mm and my Leica R6’s each with a 60mm macro and a 28mm. Summicron respectively. I still use TRI-X but now I rate it at an EI of 250 and soup it in XTOL 1:1. For the Tijuana work I used Rodinal 1:50 and shot the Tri-x normal.

DM:You said to me a few days ago that images you thought were the shit back in 1998 you no longer consider that strong and you also said your style had changed. What do you mean by this? Do you think your vision has changed? Are you a better photographer now or then? Does it matter?

EL:I think the sole act of living on planet Earth for 40 years now has changed my vision. I chalk it up to being such a pain in the ass stickler about composition and overall quality. The food I eat, the music I listen to, the movies I like, have all for the most part evolved. Wine, cheese and humans (usually) get better with age. Am I a better photographer? Hell, I don’t think I care if I am or not. I think I’m good enough for my 40th year on Earth–that’s all that really matters; I’m having fun, I’m documenting my life and my family, and folks seem to really dig my work.

DM:Personally, I’m finding less and less inspiration from the professional photography world and more and more inspiration from other creative world genres like art and sculpture. What about you? Where does your inspiration come from?

EL: The professional photography world has been, in effect, run over by the binary steamroller that is digital technology. What inspires me? Right now there are three things that are not photo related in my Domke: 1. Colman Barks The Soul Of Rumi; A New collection Of Ecstatic Poems. 2. My iPod, with 15,000 songs and 3. my two and a half ounce flask filled with Balvenie Doublewood 12 year old scotch.
So, that’s ancient poetry, music and booze (not necessarily in that order).

Eric’s son amid the rolls of drying film.

The author printing in Eric’s underground darkroom circa 1998.
He was being modest people, it was a FRICKING CAVE. There was a door in the darkroom. I’d printed in there for a long time but had never opened the door. One day I did. A SOLID WALL OF DIRT.

You can follow Eric on his blog.

Questions from a Reader: About Process

A reader wrote me a note and asked me to write about my projects. I was thrilled to get this request because doing projects is what I enjoy the most. Most of the time, these days, I get questions regarding primarily three things, three things which might surprise you.

I get questions about legal issues. I get questions about technology. And I get questions about business. But questions about actual photography, or process-hang on to this word-really don’t come around all that often. This might surprise you because it surely surprises me.

I find it very strange to speak to a class of college photo students and not get one question regarding process or the actual photography, but get bombarded with legal questions regarding model releases, property releases, usage and how to avoid legal matters when it comes to their imagery. I find it odd that young photographers are so enamored with technology, and in many cases feel like their education, or basic knowledge of photography, is in fact tied to this technology. I also find it rather odd that it APPEARS that young photographers are spending more time marketing and advertising their work then they are actually creating it.

At some point I want to discuss these things further, and the idea that once you make a decision to make your living with photography, in this day and age, everything changes.

But let me get back to that “P” word. Process.

In the past few days I’ve had no less than eight meetings with photographers, gallery folks, magazine folks, book folks and educator folks. I’m exploring, as usual, snooping around, gathering creative intel and trying to keep the learning process going. The idea of “process” has popped up several times, and each time it gave me a buzz.

As a young photographer, attending college, I would head to the stacks at the school and dig through every photo-related publication I could. This was pre everything electronic, so doing this required a bike ride or hike, of several miles, in 100-degree temps. I would arrive at the tidy office, soaked in sweat, then have to sit in the hallway until I stopped dripping. Upon further inspection the woman behind the desk would say, “Okay, you can go in now.” This was my escape, digging through these magazines. At the time, “News Photographer” was my favorite. It was very different than it is now, and I couldn’t get enough. The school I attended had years of this pub, each in it’s own plastic holder, sorted by year. I memorized those pages. If you asked about the feature regarding the Miami Herald photographer who did the project on street gangs, I could tell you which issue it was in. If you asked about the photographers getting shot at in El Salvador I could tell you that too. The school also had all the European magazines, which in my mind, were far superior to our editions. They did not have limits on what they could run, and the Euro’s knew how to design and lay out a real spread. French Photo was grand, really grand, at that time.

What drove me to these publications was the idea of learning how someone else went about their business(work). Where did the idea come from? How did you pull it off? What was your mindset? And most importantly, what was the experience like in the field?

My questions were about process, not about legal, technical or business aspects of the work. But, at that time, the business of photography was very different, and the industry today perhaps requires a different form of passion and direction. Photographers, working photographers, from around the world, would come to the school, speak and show their work. I remember asking one of these people, “What was the ultimate reason you felt you had to get into Haiti at that time?” And, “What was the feeling on the plane on the way in?” I remember my fellow students asking things like, “What was your typical day like in Haiti?” and “Was your skin color ever an issue?” The photographer spoke about her relationship with the Haitian people, and she showed images of specific people and how they had become close. She spoke about how long it took to make the images, sometimes years, and when things went so wrong during the fighting how she managed to get out, make her pictures and then get back again. She spoke about editing, about searching for those missing pictures that would help explain to the world what was really happening in this tiny, island nation.

I was hooked. I was enamored. I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking about what I was going to try to do. I wondered how I could make such an impact, impression or difference. I had yet to figure out my own process. That would not come until years down the line, long after I realized that process is a fluid situation, changing its colors, shedding its skin. Let me repeat this for all those young eyes out there. My process, really figuring out what I wanted and how I needed to do it didn’t come until YEARS down the road, long after I had begun making my living with photography. Sometimes today I see that photo-cart miles ahead of the photo-horse, and this folks will only get you so far.

So, a few weeks ago someone wrote with specific questions regarding process and I thought I would give it go in terms of explaining myself. These questions are copied straight out of an email. I’ll try to explain and show examples. But before I go any further, I need to preface this list, and this endeavor. This is MY process. It might be of interest to you, or not. It might work for you, or not. It might be a good process, or a crumby one. I don’t know. When I look at modern photography I always have more questions than answers.

– Once you come up with your subject matter do you just take time to go out and shoot with that in mind
or is it a more organized and planned effort?

Yes. All the above. Coming up with the subject matter is an art in itself. I keep a list, both in physical form and in my head, in regards to what I’m working on now and what I want to do in the future. I could work every day for the rest of my life and not get to all the ideas on the list. The list is growing on a daily basis. I try to keep multiple stories going at the same time, both close to home and those further away. I can’t go for long periods and not work on a project. I get depressed, unhappy, lost, etc, just doing “commercial” work. And when I say “commercial” I mean what makes me money. Commercial work is fine, but often times it is a compromise and it just doesn’t feed my inner fire. I wish I had more of a passion for money and for things, but my drug is experience.
Once I’ve settled on a project it typically becomes about time and money, or resources. How much time can I afford to spend on this story? This is why I keep several things going at once. I currently have a story done entirely at my house in California. I don’t have to go anywhere. I can literally shoot from where I’m sitting right now. This is simply about producing work, new work, which is CRITICAL for me. In today’s world it is easy to do a body of work, then spend years trying to find it a home. I used to think this way, or operate this way, but stopped doing this about five years ago. I think modern photography is very fickle, and in many cases, a waste of time trying to engage. So I take the time, energy and money required to sell work, and put it back into doing new projects. People can sort it out when I’m dead.
When I undertake a major project there is a lot of planning involved. When I go into the field, the research is basically giving me the best chance to produce. With limited time and resources you don’t want to waste time. However, from time to time, I’ll just go, with no research at all, just to see what happens. Did this last week. 2000 miles in the car, shot 2.5 rolls total. But, explored an area I had never been, and learned a lot. Later in the year I will work on this particular project again, and I’m researching specific events and locations where I KNOW I can make pictures. This is a very broad, wide ranging story based on a simple idea. So, when I’m there shooting one thing, I meet people, or see things that lead me in new directions and I just have to go with it.

Image from the series shot at my house. This book is almost near completion, titled “Homework” and will be an edition of 25 books total, each with a print included.

– Do you brainstorm by making specific shot lists [with the idea of remaining open to serendipity] or do you
shoot more once you get there and are reacting to your subject matter?

Well, I plan as much as I can, in SOME ways. Checking on a specific event, contacting specific people, but I never try to plan the images. I learned at the newspaper that visualizing imagery before you actually saw it was certain death. Nothing was as I thought it would be. And really, that is what is so great. I don’t know what I’m looking for exactly, I’m just reacting. The idea is to put yourself in the right place, at the right time, in the right LIGHT and react. Serendipity is everything. But here is a HUGELY important point. I’m shooting REAL moments. I’m not posing, staging, or doing a portrait series, most of the time. Images like this are so frickin rare I can’t tell you. Great images I mean. Think about it. Right place, right time, right light and good enough to capture something that is happening once, in a split second, and then is gone forever. It is the ultimate challenge and you have to be mentally prepared to NOT get it, and then have the drive to go back again and try again.

Working New York City and just stumbling upon this guy in a tunnel while walking to another shoot. Serendipity. Random image. By the way, I asked him to shoot this image. When I see a guy with a gun and wad of cash, I’m feeling him out before engaging. He just nodded.

– Before you shoot have you decided on the lenses you are going to use or wait for the subject matter to
dictate this? [I do realize since your direction is usually documentary in style that you do tend to shoot with
your 35mm & 50mm when shooting with your Leica.].

I decide on the look I want before I do the project. The content dictates what I will use. I have 6×6 projects and 35mm projects, and occasionally a 6×9 project. I also choose color or black and white. With the 6×6 I own two lenses, but I choose one for each project. With 35mm I own two lenses total, and with 6×9 I only own one lens. So, not many choices to make. Recently I taught a workshop in Peru and I broke my rule of working. I used both the 6×6 and 35mm, and I shot both color and black and black and white. I won’t do this again. Too many options. Too many choices. Not enough depth with either. For me, I need simplicity. To get the depth I need, I can’t use more than one style. Now the book I produce from Peru will look good, it really will, and it will be different from anything I have ever done. And, most importantly, I learned what NOT to do the next time around. In a nutshell, if you are thinking about your gear, you are failing. Period, end of story. I see so many young photographers completely at the mercy of their hyper-complex dslr. And then subsequently, at the mercy of their hyper-complex software. I actually feel kinda sorry. And now we are adding sound and motion. This is why most of what I see from the new media looks like one person doing three things at once. That is such an unfair burden to have to work under. I’ve used the same cameras for so long I don’t have to think about anything but what is front of me. This is a very liberating feeling.
Also, different gear provokes different reactions. You walk into a small town with a dslr and 70-200 and everyone in town knows “the photographer” has arrived. I can’t stand this happening. I walk in with my Leica and nobody pays me any attention. This is critical to making real photos and also being able to keep people at ease. Last week I walked into a small cafe, in a very small town, in an area of the country that is experiencing some difficulties. There were three men in the cafe, all local cowboys, all Latino, and all speaking Spanish. I sat five feet away and made pictures without ever saying a word. Everything was established with eye contact, head nods and a mutual understanding(and I speak Spanish well enough to work). I shot with the Leica and 50mm. Had I walked in with my Hasselblad, or a 5d Mark II, it would have been different.

My double down work from Peru. Don’t get me wrong, there are images I like from each style, but ultimately I’m looking for work that is above my head, beyond what I’ve done before, and to do that, I need to simplify and establish an understanding and a bond that goes far beyond the temporary and superficial.

– Do you shoot till you’ve exhausted your ideas or do you have in mind a rough estimate of the amount of
images it will take to cover your subject they way you want?

I never predict image count. My “Homework” book has twenty five images total and I’m done with the project. My ongoing, larger project will force me to shoot thousands of images over the next two years or so. I will edit down to say fifty images with the intention of doing a book. Remember, Robert Frank shot something like 27,000 images while he was making “The Americans” and edited 53 images total for the book. This is how it works.

An image from a six picture package from San Diego.

– After each shoot [I’m sure you look at what you have, edit etc..] do you then regroup and figure out what
holes exist in the work, with the intention of going back to get shots that fill in the holes.

Yes, exactly. I shoot, edit, make prints, add them to the overall take. Then, periodically I look at the entire project and try to find that theme, see what is missing. I work on an island, and don’t really show anyone my work. Recently, I made my first magazine, an 88-page issue with a certain theme. The issue has seven chapters, the last of which is my latest project, in it’s infancy. I’ve shown this magazine to about ten people, and each time that new project has prompted many questions and suggestions. It has been interesting for me because I’m normally not getting any feedback at all in regards to my documentary work. I’m not sure I’m going to do this in the future, but it has been interesting. I also have to figure out what text I need. How much help does the viewer need in putting this all together? Can I get away with just image titles, or captions or do I need an essay?
Also, it is critical to live with the work before you make major decisions. If you are shooting and looking at your work right away, personally, I think that is a huge mistake. It takes a while to figure out what you have and what it means. I was in Peru months ago, and I’m still editing and looking at those contact sheets. I recently found an image from a shoot I did back in 2000. I missed it all those years, and then suddenly there it was. Today everyone is in a rush. Instant gratification is the rule of the day, and then we wonder why the quality bar has fallen so low. We shouldn’t be so shocked. I had a curator tell me recently, “Art projects need to be produced very quickly these days.” Well, okay, but don’t complain about the quality of projects you are reviewing. There is NO substitute for time and access.

My long lost friend, first made in 2000, but not found until 2010. A lesson to anyone deleting images in the field, or on the computer once back at home base.

– What would you say are your common themes amongst your varied subject matter?
The only thing I can think of is people. The vast majority of my work is about people, which complicates things to a tremendous degree. I see a lot of the urban, abstract landscape style documentary projects that are popular right now, and I’m sometimes envious of the detachment. You just wander and shoot. No talk. No discussion. No working your way in. But that work just doesn’t do it for me. I find it cold, sterile and temporary. But again, I’m in the minority here. That work has dominated modern documentary photography for the past five years. This work is based on the work from the 1970’s and 1980’s, so it is not like this is original, it is just experiencing a second or third life. A lot of people like this work. I’ve seen countless shows over the past five years made in this way, so there must be something about it that hits home with folks. My work seems to be like pulling teeth, so much so I don’t really think about time anymore. I’ll finish when I finish. Not like there is anyone waiting for it!
I recently had a book publisher ask about my latest project and about seeing it. I thought to myself, “Well, okay, let’s talk in two years.”

Douglass Kirkland photographing me photographing him. Even when I’m not working, I’m photographing people.

– Do you work as a fly on the wall or are there times you set things up and direct your subjects: being animal,
vegetable or mineral..

This depends on the project. Most of the time, fly on the wall. But if I need to shoot a portrait, I’ll do it. Working in the classic documentary tradition is the most difficult, thus the most rewarding when I get something good. Like a chess board with pieces moving and you need to be five or ten moves ahead to anticipate what is possible. I’ve done portrait projects, but more as an experiment than anything else. Speaking of animals, I’ve done a bunch of projects regarding our great beasts. They can’t talk back or tell me, “Hey, you can’t shoot here.”

From “Dogs Can’t Read” a project detailing dogs and graffiti in four cities around the world. This was from Tijuana, and I did not set it up. Sparky here was napping in the middle of this frame shop.

– What are you mostly trying to do or say? Make people think, see and/or feel or…all 3.

Good question. I’m selfish. I’m doing this work for me, not for anyone else. I’m doing it for the experience, and I’m not really trying to say anything, other than, “Hey, take a look at this,” or “What do you think about this?” Most people don’t really care about photography. If photography disappeared tomorrow the world would not skip a beat. We need to be aware of this as photographers and if you have an ego, do the public a favor and rid yourself of it. I think another point to make is I’m not making images for other photographers or editors. They are in the minority and are VERY unlike the general public in their view of imagery. I often ask younger photographers, “Who are you shooting for?” If you are shooting for an editor, or to win a contest, it will dictate what you do. There is a huge difference between shooting for the editor of a news magazine, and the person subscribing to the magazine. I’ve seen a huge disconnect on this front in the past ten years, and this disconnect is reflected in the number of publications going out of business. Sometime we get wrapped up in our own heads, our ego, and our goals of fame, fortune and perhaps acknowledgment. Misguided in my mind. Hey, I’ve been guilty of this many times. Trying to learn from it.

Heaven for me. In the midst of the mayhem, alone, one small camera and getting as close as I can without disturbing the scene. Who will see it? Who will publish it? I don’t really care.

– What parameters do you set up for yourself if any?

Learn. Have fun. Treat people with respect. Don’t quit. Don’t take the easy route. Don’t shoot the same images. Don’t settle. Don’t be content. Forget everything I know and just feel and experience what is front of me. Think. React. Predict. Prepare for success. Prepare for failure. Realize what I’m doing is mostly inconsequential. Realize how lucky I am. Don’t set things up. Don’t influence if possible. Lean forward not back. Keep my promises. Send work(don’t be an asshole and promise then not do it.) Write everything down. Don’t rush. Realize that having cheese puffs in the car when traveling is as essential as gasoline.
Realize I have a problem with cheese puffs. Realize there is nothing I can do about this problem. Wipe cheese puff residue off hands before grabbing camera.

Me putting an absolute beat down on my nephew while fishing, which is far more important than anything I’ll ever do with a camera. I have to do this now, while he is little, before he turns the table on me.

So what did we learn? I’m selfish. I love cheese puffs. I’m a loaner. I’ll probably never be a well-known photographer.

What else should you know?

I feel like I haven’t started yet. There is so much to learn, and so many images to make. I’m very, very happy being a STILL photographer and currently have ZERO interest in carrying sound gear or motion gear and joining the masses being told this is my future. I also think I can disappear. I do. I know, it sounds silly. But when you are in harmony with your surroundings, you can make yourself disappear and get those images you could only get if nobody knew you were there. Do this work long enough and you will know what I mean. I also think you can FEEL images coming on. There is an energy, sometimes good, sometimes bad, that hits like a roundhouse punch, alerting you to the fact something beyond your control is on the way. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you get run over.

I am never without my camera. I take flack, which I love, for carrying my “man bag.” I call it a purse. And if wearing a dress would help me get images, I’m a size medium, bring it on.

I wake up in the morning thinking about these projects, and I fall asleep at night with the same thoughts in my head. It is a curse, a real curse that takes over my life.

I could reduce my entire photographic life to ten images, something I try not to ever forget.

I find my inspiration in music and literature, not art and photography.

I can see someday in the near future, when I no longer work as a photographer. I can see this being an insanely liberating relief.

I feel like I’ve completed a major chapter in my life, with nothing but blank pages ahead of me, and the only way to find the words will be to walk out that door, close it behind me and never look back.


Finite Foto Feature

New Mexico has a long lineage of art and photography. This continues today in the form of book publishers, galleries, collectors, workshops, etc. We also have New Mexico based online photographic outlets like Finite Foto, formerly known as Flash Flood. I’ve written about these folks before, and even had a piece featured a while back.
A few weeks ago I ran into Melanie McWhorter, one of the masterminds of this organization, and she asked me if I was interested in writing something about photojournalism.
Now I don’t consider myself a photojournalist, but at past points in my life I had done work in this genre, so I thought I’d give it a go. At the same time I had received several requests from blog readers to write something regarding my projects, why I do them, how I do them, etc.
I had just penned this little story when I ran into Melanie. So, here we are.

Now I don’t think this is going to answer all the questions, and this is also rife with my opinion about several things related to the modern documentary world, but I think it will be relevant to many of you, and might surprise or confuse a few others.
Also, I’m just one feature of several in this particular issue, and if you are interested in the doc/pj world, then have a look and bookmark this site.
Any thoughts, notes, feedback, drop me a note and I’ll give you my two cents.