We would love to know a little about the early days of your career.
My journey with photography began when I was 17 and a communications student at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. I dreamed of being a writer from the time I was 15 and had discovered literature in my high school English classes, Renaissance paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and was absorbed in the counter culture and progressive politics of America in the late 1960′s and early 1970′s. Rock – also music said something about the moment we were in as a human race, as did the surrounding culture of that time. I was captivated by the idea of doing something good in the world and being creative, so I decided I wanted to be a writer.
That fantasy was destroyed by a harshly critical poetry professor at Syracuse during my freshman year.
In a moment of anxiety about my future I decided to check out photography. Once I learned about photographers like Imogen Cunningham, who at that point was in her 90s and still making pictures, I was convinced this could be my lifelong calling. But it wasn’t until I saw Mary Ellen Mark’s book, Ward 81, that I found my true passion; in depth social and political documentary photography, also sometimes called photojournalism. Seeing her intimate images of female mental patients at an Oregon facility got me very excited. I’m not sure what this says about me, but as an 18 year old young man my ideal work would be to spend 3 months in a mental institution to make intimate images of the patients. The thought seemed to coalesce everything I cared about in life at that point; storytelling, art, intimacy with people that were vulnerable and in need of help….and so much more.
Once I graduated from Syracuse, having spent one semester in London as part of their program, I immediately moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. After a few years of doing local PR jobs and free shoots for the bevy of local arts publications in the SF area, I graduated to getting stringer jobs for the LA Times covering northern California. Then moved onto regional work. Finally in 1984 I landed my first New York magazine assignments and the rest is history. During the 1980′s I was literally doing 10-15 magazine assignments a week, mainly covering Silicon Valley. I photographed Steve Jobs at least 9 times, Bill Gates, etc, etc. Then in 1988, I began my first long term documentary project, looking at the Protestant community in Northern Ireland. I spent the next 3 years developing what would be my first true documentary project. I disengaged from assignment work for periods of weeks or months and ultimately published a small book on the project, The Protestants: No Surrender. It was this project that finally allowed me to break in with the National Geographic in 1991.
I also did something that would reflect my future approach to this profession and my work; I successfully proposed an idea on the Kurds. That story went onto become a cover story and eventually I published a book of that work, When The Borders Bleed: The Struggle of The Kurds. Since then I have completed 17 NatGeo stories, done countless magazine assignments and created a number of personal projects – some weeks long and one 8 years long. In 2000 I began to shoot video and get into multimedia, which is now a firm and important part of my practice. I have also developed a strong commitment to advocacy journalism, which seems to conform to my original desires so perfectly.
Anything that still inspires and keep driving you after so many years into photography?
I am inspired by the desire to tell stories that have impact on both individuals and the greater good, and that can contribute to positive change in the world. But what’s so captivating about being a visual storyteller is the privilege to learn about the world, from individuals who are doing inspiring things and by the wonder of being alive. Photography allows me to have an intimate and front row seat to both witnessing and recording history, but also the small and no less powerful moments in the lives of regular folks who do amazing things that we will never hear about. I am also inspired by the challenge to create imagery that is compelling, aesthetic and artistic, while staying true to the reality that confronts me. This specific challenge is a rigorous kind of inspiration through problem solving. I am driven to tell stories. While many photographers can teach me, show me new ways to see or capture the world, my vision is determined by my own inner drive to learn, observe, anticipate and capture the world in front of me, as it is. Photography is a kind of diplomatic passport to worlds unseen, issues that need illumination, history in the making, the human experience in evolution and the many awe inspiring places in our fragile world. If photography has taught me anything, it’s that we must seek the common good, treat people with respect and dignity, look to expose the problems that exist, but also be open to capturing the beauty of life and the human spirit.
Your perception of the power of still images to change people's mind.
Photography can still have tremendous impact and even change people’s minds, but the sheer amount of imagery we are bombarded with today has made it harder for images to have the kind of impact it once had. The other element in this equation is, who is the viewer? Some people are much more open and susceptible to the power of images, while others are just not.
Please tell us about your books.
I’ve published 9 books, ranging from my first, self published book, The Protestants: No Surrender, to my most recent book, Photojournalisms. My books range from the very personal (Photojournalisms), to the pure reportage and documentary, Curse of The Black Gold and Aging in America. Some of my books are reflections and reinterpretations of my work, like THREE and my next book Abandoned Moments.
Since we are based in India, we would love to know about your experience of working in India on CKDnT/CKDu.
I went to Tamil Nadu in 2016 to produce a photo essay and short film, Hidden Under An Indian Sun, as part of my multiyear and ongoing project about CKDu (chronic kidney disease of unknown origins). Working in India is generally a very positive and inspiring experience. I find the attitude and openness of Indians (this is of course a gross generalization in a nation of 1.3 billion people of such varying types and backgrounds) makes my job easy and allows me to explore the stories and issues that move me. CKDu is now in it’s 6th year and is a documentary project looking at the impact of this growing global health issue that mainly impacts the rural working poor. The work I produced in India was published on the National Geographic website and subsequently appeared in other publications and websites worldwide.
Would you please tell us how did you conceive the idea of 'Three' and your journey through the project?
THREE grew out of a simple bolt of inspiration to put three images together from a photo essay I had made in Brazil in 1999. From there, I become obsessed with the idea of exploring my archive to decontextualize my work and reorganise my images into the classical formation of the triptych. We originally created this project for an exhibition, long, large prints on a wall, and then created it into book form and finally created a 13 minute experimental film.
I was reading about your project "Aging in America: The Years Ahead" and your encounter/interaction with Maxine and Arden Peters and it simply moved me. Would like to hear it from you for our readers.
In 2000, I met Maxine and Arden Peters, who lived in a farmhouse in rural West Virginia. They were both ninety. Maxine was a tough lady. I had gone to live with them for a couple of weeks in October of 2000 and one morning we woke up and it was apparent that this was her day to die. She had been fighting end stages of Parkinson’s disease and it was clear to all of us that she was ready to go. With the deterioration of her body, the quality of her life had become abysmal. She was a shell. It also became clear to me that Arden didn’t know what to do. There was no one else to tell him that maybe she needed permission, so I took him aside and said: “It’s ok to go in and tell her that she can let go.” I don’t know exactly what he said to her, but she passed away an a hour and a half after he shuffled into their room.
When you make the commitment to develop and maintain a relationship with your subjects in order to get access, trust, cooperation and collaboration are essential. But in a case like Aging in America, you’re also taking on more than that. You need to be prepared to stand up when these kinds of moments happen, and be able to come through as a human being, not a photographer. The next thing I know, Arden invited me to the funeral to speak to the church congregation. I’m thinking ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I going to say to these folks?’
You take on a tremendous amount of responsibility when you do this work. But as long as you have the mind and the heart space to assume this responsibility, your work will benefit on every level. Not only will the work be more powerful, it will be deeper, which holds true for your personal experience as well. Our lives move at a blinding speed now, so it is crucially important that we as visual storytellers take the time to slow things down: to notice the details and be in it for the long haul. A lot of life happened before I was able to get to that most intimate of moments with Maxine and Arden. Before that crucial moment in their lives, there was going out for drives, hanging out in their house doing nothing, photographing her being cared for, talking late into the night, sleeping on the couch, sharing memories and stories. That is what it took for me to show them that I respected their dignity and truly enjoyed their company. It was a privilege to hang out with these older men, witness the care they were providing for Maxine and how beautifully their community supported them. And for one brief period I became part of that community. While our lives are increasingly being played out in real time on social media, there is another parallel universe where life moves slowly, in actual real time. Accessing that space in other people’s lives is magical and what leads to memorable, intimate images that go beneath the surface.
Your project "Look Into My Eyes" left me thinking, speculating, imagining about human characters. It definitely got me not to judge anyone anymore before I completely know them. How did you conceive the idea? Did you come across any story that still drives you?
I had been invited to Israel to give a series of workshops to high school students from Jewish, Muslim, Bedouin and Arab Christian communities. I decided to do a series of portraits and ask a set of basic questions about identity to each of the more than 40 students. We then decided to put this simple interactive piece together. I am always looking for new ways to capture story and reflect the human experience.
Your photography and film making go hand in hand. How do you manage the two? Which makes you happier - photography or film making?
I started shooting video in 2000, in the middle of the Aging in America project. I had decided I wanted to capture the voices of my subjects. Since then filmmaking has become an integral part of my practice. I now determine at the start of a project whether it will be made up of stills only, filmmaking only or both. Photography is still my first language and love, but filmmaking plays a significant and growing role in my work.
We, at FOTOJAJS, have recently started a project called Click For A Cause under which we pick up different social issues and try to document and showcase them. While working on Pollution and Climate Change, we came to know about @EverydayClimateChange and your involvement in it. Our readers would like to know more from you.
Everydayclimagechange was started by James Whitlow Delano, an American photographer based in Japan. I was one of the first photographers to join the group and in the past 3 + years it’s grown into an important channel for voices concerned about our planet and the impact of our changing climate. I see it as a voice of science and reason, making a plea that we should come together to find solutions to this growing problem that humanity is facing. Believing in climate change does not mean you’re against business or capitalism per se, and in fact it has the potential to create a huge amount of new jobs, technological breakthroughs and in general be a source of progress for humanity on this earth, while also leading us to a more sustainable way of life.
As a documentary photographer you keep travelling across the globe. How about your family? What else do you like to do when you are not with a camera?
I have spent more than half of the last 30 years of my life away from home. Now that my kids are grown and out of the house, I bear the brunt of the trauma, violence and pain of others that I’ve witnessed and absorbed. This has led me to want to hibernate and avoid too many people when I’m done working. When I’m not working, I love being with my family, watching movies, some sports, cultural events, reading, hiking and generally trying to relax.
The young generation of photographers from the subcontinent are hugely influenced by you. What will be your message to them?
I appreciate the desire and perseverence of SouthAsian photographers, but one must make sure they make their approaches to potential mentors and educators in a way that is not too aggressive and shows respect for the time and energy of people. The best path forward is to find a story, issue or theme that you are genuinely moved and inspired by, and then spend months or years developing a great body of work. Then bring that to an editor, mentor, educator or publisher to get feedback and guidance. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
And now if you are interested to attend workshops with this master photographer, here is where you look up:
Interview by: Jhinku Banerjee