Fred Roberts Goes Global For Kids

I don’t know anyone else quite like Fred Roberts which is what I tried to convey in these “moody” images(another of my ten minute portraits). Just to be safe, however, I did add a few that show you what he actually looks like. Fred has a new mission as of the beginning of 2014, which I mentioned in an earlier post. I wasn’t able to voyage to Bhutan with the rest of the crew, but I wanted to catch up with Fred to see about how things went, and to share a bit more about who he is, how the project came about and to share some of the work produced. The simple truth is that Fred could be doing just about anything right now and what he is choosing to do, and why, is a very interesting bit of information to me.

Below is the “best of” film from the Bhutan trip. Remember, these students were green as fresh picked coffee, and there are images in this show that are as good as anything I see being published today, which is frankly somewhat amazing. And there are two or three that are as good as anything I have hanging on my wall at home. Some of these images remind of the time when I first picked up a camera. At one point I climbed on the roof of our house and shot a sunset with a tree in the foreground. I remember framing it up and thinking “I am a genius.” And how that moment led to the changes in my life, something I hope will happen with these young adults.

SR: What was the first moment you were exposed to art and photography?
FR: I took two courses at Yale that really set the stage for me. The first was A History of Art and Architecture by Vincent Scully (definitely not the sportscaster). The second was The Philosophy of Art by Paul Weiss. These were two wonderful and inspiring courses given by two spectacular professors.

SR: You have an atypical photography history which began after a very successful career in the financial world. Can you catch us up on how and when you found your love of photography and why do you think it impacted you the way it did?
FR: I’ll tell you in person. (It’s a long story people, we decided to save you the the whole enchilada.)
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SR: Why photography and not illustration or painting?
FR: I can’t even write legibly. In fact, the most difficult moment I have with any of my photographs is when I have to sign a print.
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SR: Who was the first photographer who made you stop in your tracks and really consider a photograph?
FR: Henri Cartier-Bresson – no contest.

SR: You have come a long way in a short amount of time and already have three monographs to your name. Tell us a bit more about your books. And what is it about South Asia that attracted you?
FR: The theme of my work derives from an old Hebrew text – the Pirkei Avos. In it, one asks “Who Is Rich?” and the answer is “the person who is happy with what they have”. It is my belief, despite my having been in the finance business for thirty years, that money doesn’t make you rich. I traveled to South Asia when I was working in my previous life, and I saw clearly the richness of life in many third-world countries, despite a lack of monetary wealth. Also, I marveled at the richness of the culture there.

SR: Last year you emailed me explaining a “new project” regarding kids in the developing nations and photography. What is this new project?
FR: I have always been involved in humanitarian projects and charities, and it came naturally to want to take my photography to a new level. The logical next step was to create a workshop for third-world students to teach them photography as a language to tell the stories important to their world.
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SR: You recently returned from Bhutan, the first mission revolving around this new program? First off, and most importantly, what films did you watch on the twenty-nine hour flight over?
FR: None. I always use long flights to read all of the back issues of The New Yorker which I am unable to read at home. Great articles – never enough time, except when I’m trapped on a plane.

SR: Tell us a little about the first mission and the team you assembled.
FR: I always want great photographers. But being a great photographer is not enough. They also have to be great teachers. The combination of the two skills is rare.

SR: Just speaking to the logistics of moving this many people and the equipment required for such a mission, how difficult was it to just get things off the ground? And where did this equipment come from?
FR: Thanks to your wife, we approached a local camera dealer for discounted prices. They came through with both discounts and direct financial support. We were able to purchase Canon Rebel cameras and MacBook Pro computers at advantageous prices. We also bought several copies of Adobe Lightroom, which is important to our workflow in the Workshops.
The logistics are a huge issue. Getting airlines to grant special rates for our substantial excess luggage is a big hurdle. Organizing coordinating flights from all over the world is not simple either.
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SR: What happens to the equipment after the workshop is complete?
FR: We use 20 cameras and 4 computers on a constant basis for teaching. They are transported to and from the Workshops as personal baggage on the flights. We leave behind two cameras and two copies of Lightroom for the students to use after we leave.

SR: You were working with Save the Children as the on-the-ground NGO, how was that experience and had you worked with NGO’s prior to this trip?
FR: Our hope with Save The Children is that they will use the body of work produced by our students for community and government relations, for fund-raising, for general increased awareness of their programs, and to stimulate more students to learn photography as a language through which to tell important stories.

SR: What was the age range of the kids you were working with in Bhutan? And did they have prior photography experience? As Americans we see Bhutan as an isolated Shangri-La type place, is it as isolated as we think?
FR: The students ranged in age from 14 to 17. Most had no previous experience. None had ever used a DSLR nor had they ever shot in Manual Mode. As for Shangri-La, Bhutan is a beautiful and culturally rich country. But, in an age of satellite TV and the internet, no country is isolated.
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SR: It is a very different thing to fly halfway around the world and NOT do your own photography. Was this difficult for you and the crew?
FR: I realized that 3 of the 5 faculty members had never been there before, so I provided some extra time and facilities for them to photograph on their own. It was my gift to them for their dedicated service to the cause.

SR: After seeing a brief review of the work completed during the workshop I can say there were a select group of images that are as good as anything I see being made by professionals. Who ARE these kids and did they have any training prior to the workshop? If not, how is that possible?
FR: One or two of the kids have camera phones. One had an iPad. None had ever shot on a DSLR, and none had ever shot in Manual Mode. Teaching them to take the kind of pictures they did is a function of the strength of the instructors. It’s not good enough to be a good photographer. Being a good teacher is a real skill. And the curriculum is important as well. So, good teachers and proven methodology really work with kids who are motivated. It releases their innate creativity and vision.

SR: There are a lot of NGO projects floating about, but this one is very different in several ways. First, you are planning trips out as far as two years from now. How the heck does something like this come about and most importantly how do you get something like this funded?
FR: STC came to me. At the outset, they had big ideas and big plans. As things developed, they became more realistic about their capacity. We, on the other hand, are a proven entity and know exactly what we can do. So, we are prepared to do at least three workshops per year with any appropriate NGO. As for funding, the initial funding, sufficient for two years of workshops, came from my personal credibility. In the future, it will be based on our performance.

SR: Logistically, these trips must be quite an ordeal to arrange. Is this the kind of thing that you plan for then have to reinvent the moment you hit the ground?
FR: Both. We have a template for the workshops. But, each country and each story is different. You have to be sufficiently proficient to be able to reinvent on a moment’s notice, while keeping the big picture in focus. We also have to constantly recalibrate based on the progress of the students. And, then, there’s alway weather. So, having a plan, but staying flexible, is our life.

SR: It seems that every direction we turn these days there is another photographer related project attempting to gain exposure, funding or visibility. What is the end game with this project? What is the best case scenario and why should people care?
FR: My goal is to empower young students to be able to tell important stories that will positively impact their “world”. Learning photography in this context is like learning to use a word processor or learning to ride a bicycle. After you learn the basics, it’s the content and direction that matters. In photography, the more arresting the image, the more powerful the message, so the craft improves the power of the content. That’s why the competence of the faculty, and the resulting competence of the students, is so important. Using professional cameras and techniques will hopefully help their voice to resonate. Also, we want to give them sufficient skills to continue on their own after we leave.

SR: One of the most interesting aspects of this program is that it doesn’t end when your team leaves. What happens next so to speak?
FR: As I said previously, teaching the students to use professional cameras on manual mode and teaching them to strive to learn professional techniques will hopefully give them a sufficient knowledge base to continue to improve after we leave. We also want to have them send us their ongoing work for critique and advice. We want them not only to continue and improve, we want them to teach others as well.

SR: If viewers want to get involved is there a way for them to do so?
FR: I am always reachable through our website www.fredrirobertsworkshops.org. We are interested in every form of involvement. We welcome more and more participation by those who are genuinely interested.

SR: When I speak to you a year from now, what will you tell me about this project?
FR: Hopefully, that all of the students have continued to improve, that we are going back to previous locations to conduct advanced workshops for previous students and new basic workshops for new students. Also that we have many more opportunities in many more countries to continue to expand our program and the finding to support it. This all presumes that our students have been successfully telling compelling and effective stories, and are positively impacting their worlds.

SR: You are back in Los Angeles now. What is next for Fred Roberts, like right now, today?
FR: Editing the images of the students from Bhutan to clearly tell their stories and display their beautiful work. Also, planning for the next workshop

SR: What are you reading?
FR: A Quiet Flame, by Philip Kerr.

Here is a short video recap of the first workshop in Bhutan. And if you want to see all the videos try here.

Debbie Fleming Caffery: Facing Change

Just came across this while trying to find another video. If you don’t know Debbie Fleming Caffery then you have been missing out. Within ten feet of where I’m writing this post hangs an image of hers, a 20×24 silver gelatin, and I can tell you when you see her work you can identify it…right quick.
I met Debbie in Santa Fe several years ago and was blown away by she and her work. As she says in the film, she’s been called “art photographer,” “documentary photographer,” etc, but just know she is a photographer. All that matters. You gotta listen to this all the way, some classic lines in here. This video was created by Leica and Facing Change.

The Odds of Being Aimless

Off the grid in 18-degree Central New Mexico.

I asked people what I should write about. Many people responded. This post points to a few of the things people brought out. Not one thing specifically, but since this just happened to me I thought I would give it a go.

As you all know, I love working on projects. Now “project” can mean different things to different people, and one question I get a lot is, “Oh, projects…like what kinds of things do you work on.” When someone asks me this I often draw a blank. The range of projects I’ve done is wide. I’m not sure why answering this is such a struggle but it is. I typically try to size up the person asking and then fit a few topics that I think might strike a cord with them. I’ve done projects on the border, pornography, religion, culture, travel, objects, etc, etc. so narrowing it down can be a real issue.

My general, drop-down answer is, “Well, I do long-term, black and white projects, that revolve around a people or a place or a idea or theme.” “I find something, or somewhere like and I go back over and over and over again until I have a body of photographs.” This generally gets the point across. At least I think it does. I find that the idea of working on one thing for a long-period of time tends to confuse more and more people. Think about it this way. How many people do you know who travel? A lot right? How many people do you know who seem to use travel as a contest? “I’ve been to 50 countries.” Or, “I’ve been to one hundred countries.” Another twist on this is the “Can’t go back to the same country” idea of travel I often run into, as if countries are just there to be seen once, added to the tally and then discarded. I’ve been to Sicily five times and still don’t know a heck of a lot about it. So again, the idea of going back to the same country, or same place, over and over and over, I think is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. We are here to see as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. Not me. I like to simmer on a low heat, for long periods of time so my flesh just falls from my bones.

So recently I was out working on a project. It was mid-winter and below freezing. I had limited time, a map and a general idea of where I wanted to go. There was nothing specific on my list. Even though I had a map and a general plan to see certain territory, I was what I consider to be aimless.

Now aimless photography can be fantastic and can be rewarding simply in it’s unpredictable nature. You can stumble across something, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime image. Or maybe you won’t. Actually, odds are you won’t even come close to striking it rich. But, sometimes we do it anyway, and this is what leads me to my point. We still do it. We can’t help it.

When I look back on the best work I’ve done, it didn’t come from aimless pursuits. It came from planning. It came from being in the right place, at the right time and knowing that the picture potential was high. So on this winter day, I was more experiencing being out than experiencing great imagery. This isn’t easy, this kind of work. It takes the ONE thing we all seem to have in limited supply. Time. So as my tires crunched through sheets of ice and the sun fought to win out against the cold and wind, I just sat back and tried to see. I just tried to relax.

When we look at the news or at photojournalism, what do we see? We see people where the action is. Many photojournalists go from place to place, dropping in, shooting the action, then taking off when the action subsides. This work, in a very short period of time, can produce world-changing imagery. What I was doing on this winter day, not so much. So, when I chose to do this kind of work, I TYPICALLY try to plan, I try to work with someone or something specific in mind. I don’t say, “I’m going to go shoot on the border,” and then just drive to Tijuana. Nope. I say, “I’m going to go shoot on the border,” and I find a family that lives on the border who I can go and live with for three days or five days or a month. In short, I’m NOT aimless. I’m got a photo-target and I aim primarily at that one thing so as to maximize the potential for my images.

Now, just because I have a target doesn’t mean I stay on that target regardless of what happens. You have to be ready to flow, to forget your plans and go with your gut. Say for example my border family happens to know Osama bin Laden, and he stops by for some menudo while I’m there. Bin Laden turns to me after eating the last tortilla and asks, “Hey, you seem pretty cool, you wanna party with me in Kandahar?” “Hmm, let me see, that doesn’t really fit my photo-plan.” People, you just go. Now this particular situation, not Osama, but the general idea of shelving a plan and going with your gut has happened many, many times.

On this winter day I found a small village. A real village. Like a place that has changed very little from the late 1800’s. Sure, there are automobiles, a school, television, etc, but when I drove into this small place I could just feel how lost in time it was. But remember, it was winter, below freezing which means NOBODY was outside. My car has California license plates. I didn’t know anyone. There was no event going on. This is a very difficult way of working. You can get out and start walking around, could get lucky and get someone to invite you in and the relationship begins, but the odds are low. So now, my future begins to take shape. I look for a way in, a time, a person, an angle that will give me a reason to be there. It could be a year from now. It could be next week. Because what I’m looking for with the images isn’t about the surface, it’s about the “Why” in life. Or the “How?” How did this place remain so intact. Why is it so lost in time? And how can I translate that into a still photograph?

This idea of trying not to work aimlessly permeates all my work. If I shoot a portrait do I say to the client, “Well, let’s just drive around.” No. I’ve done that in the past, even had a few successes, but most of the time I want a plan A, B, C and D. I want to stack the odds in my favor.

The real schtick of that is that when you DO get in the right place at the right time the feeling is so incredible it’s like a drug that clouds your mind into thinking you NEED to have that feeling again. The more you have it, the better you get at finding ways to change those odds.

As I sit here the clock ticks and it ticks loud. On one hand I LOVE the unknown of working aimlessly, but my archive tells me the more I think, the more I formulate, chances are, the better off I’ll be.

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.

Peace.

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.