The Voice of America (Russian Service) put together a few nice bits about my Belarus work and upcoming Waiting Room photo book. The reporter came to my FotoweekDC talk a few weeks ago, the video segment is from that. The interview was by email, it’s published in Russian only, so see below for the English version I gave them. They also ran a set of select pics on their photo blog. I have no idea what the blog text says, if any Russian-speaking friends want to enlighten me I’d appreciate it.
How did you decide to start doing photography? What was the starting point?
My father was an artist and photographer. We had a small darkroom in our home, he taught me not just about developing film and how to make a good print, but also how to really see. So this was the very beginning. Until my early 20s I was more into music, I played guitar in various bands and studied music in college. But gradually photography sort of took over my creative interest. I did both for a while but eventually chose photography as my main focus. Though I think a feeling for music still informs my visual side as well. It all goes together.
What kind of camera did you use when you start doing photography?
I started with film cameras, this was before digital existed. My first camera was a Canon AE-1. Later I did much of my personal work with the Leica M6. Now I am doing mostly digital. I made a decision that I needed to find a way to do ‘my thing’ with digital cameras, instead of stubbornly holding onto film. I don’t need a $5000 camera though, I sort of go the other way - working with more modest tools like smaller cameras and phone cameras and trying to maximize them. I very much like some small Ricoh digital cameras that give me the quality I need but allow me to take a nimble, discreet approach. Instead of being the guy with the huge camera doing something serious. More and more in this world, that’s the way to get negative attention. Sometimes I prefer not to be taken seriously by people when I am working.
The work of what famous photographers impresses you the most? Why?
When I started I was very excited by Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, Marc Riboud… especially Koudelka. He is so uncompromising in his vision. I met him a couple times recently and it was very special for me. His work has a sense of mystery, ambiguity, and suggestiveness that really appealed to me and still does. In fact, I quite like many lesser known Czech photographers, like Viktor Kolar, Vojta Dukat, Bohdan Holomicek, and my good friend Karel Cudlin. Something in the Czech photo DNA I guess. The photographers who impress me are not necessarily virtuosos, but they can make magic out of ordinary subject matter.
Sometimes people say that it’s necessary to go somewhere in order to take pictures. How did you decide to go to Belarus?
I think it’s not so important to go somewhere, although of course the exotic and unfamiliar are more arousing to our senses. Photographing the familiar is harder for sure. Though I’m trying to find fresh ways of seeing what is around me close to home. Either way, it’s more important what is in your mind, what is your sensibility, your point of view. This is influenced by everything, by who you are, by art, film, literature, music…
With all that said, I am very interested in places, and I am driven by the desire to capture the essence of a place. Not literally, but impressionistically, with a point of view. I first went to Belarus as part of my broader project shooting in various parts of Eastern Europe over some years. I’m interested in how different countries have evolved - and are evolving - since the end of communism. There are quite different case studies if you consider places like Prague, Kosovo, Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus… But any broader context is only a kind of backdrop, when I go somewhere I am not trying to work as a news reporter. I’m simply looking for what interests me, what feels true on a universal and enduring level, what is ambiguous instead of literal. I want to understand correctly but not be confined by the need to describe or explain. I guess I am offering impressions not facts, but impressions informed by facts.
How is it possible to capture a moment in order to make a special picture?
Well, it’s necessary to be able to anticipate, to be sensitive, to be in command of your equipment and technique, and to have a kind of inner intensity so that when you respond it’s like a coiled spring being released. It helps to study human nature, and develop your ideas so that when a moment comes along you can even recognize it as ‘your’ moment. If you don’t have some idea what you are trying to do, at least some set of ideas you are drawing from, how will you know that a particular moment crystallizes your thoughts in some way?
Why are most of your pictures in black and white?
I’ve always preferred black and white. It distills the scene to the essentials of mood, emotion, composition, etc. It’s more mysterious and I like mystery. Color can be like visual noise if it’s not well-handled, and I don’t think I handle it that well. Though for the past year or so I’ve been doing a color series that I quite like, so maybe I’m getting better.
Do you think there are some special details in the photojournalist’s work, for example in Belarus? Did you get into some extreme situation there and in the USA?
I haven’t really had any special problems in Belarus, no one really bothers me when I’m working. Well, there was one crazy guy who got in my face the first time I was there, but I think he just had anger management issues. But I’m not usually shooting things that are politically sensitive so there shouldn’t really be any issues. The second time I had an exhibition in Minsk showing some of this work, I actually got some positive coverage in the state media. I suppose it’s ironic that I’ve been detained shooting in Washington DC, but not in Belarus. I had gone to take pictures of the Pentagon after September 11. At that time there was surveillance of everyone who came and went there. I spent a long time sitting, waiting, at the site for the right light before I started shooting. Then the next day I came back with my wife, who is a radio and TV reporter. Some soldiers thought we were suspicious and questioned us for a little while. Made me miss my good light!
There are so many incredible and interesting and funny experiences and people you meet when you do this kind of independent work. It might be boring to talk about them. It’s like older people who tell war stories, the memories are powerful for them but not necessarily for others. On the other hand, photographing in another place can often be quite lonely, even depressing, to wake up each morning, maybe not feeling well or whatever, trying to figure out what you will do that day to move your project toward success.
Do you think that the world has changed? And working in the style of Cartier-Bresson is very difficult since there are a lot of privacy concerns?
Yes, in many places it has become harder to work as a street photographer, though snap-and-run is a relatively small part of what I do. Often it’s more about being able to work my way into situations or scenarios that allow for some degree of at least unspoken permission or tolerance from the people around me. It’s never been easy, plus now there are so many real or imagined security concerns. It’s a complicated subject, this whole new landscape of privacy, security, the internet, etc. But often people are flattered to have their picture taken, as long as they feel you don’t have some kind of negative agenda. You have to be transparent, open in your intentions, this can be felt despite language barriers.
There is an opinion that photography is the art of one thousand details, for example, the organization of the trip. How do you get ready for the trip? Is it possible to compensate all spending?
Well, first of all, I am rarely compensated for any spending! At least not right away, and not always in the form of direct payment. Grants can help, I’ve had a couple that made a big difference. But karma has a way of working, efforts are often re-paid in unexpected ways.
It’s true that maybe 80 percent of the effort is putting yourself in the position to even have a chance to make a good photo. Then you try not to screw it up. I personally don’t plan every detail of a trip, a lot is left to fate. Of course the basics are in place, but sometimes even where I will sleep, where I will go, can be subject to change. On another level, getting ready for a trip involves a certain mental preparation, including a certain amount of preconceiving what I’m looking for. But once I’m working, I try not to think too much, I try to respond intuitively.
With what famous magazines or publishers did you work?
I worked a lot for many years for the Washington Post, New York Times, and many other newspapers. I’ve been published in many magazines in the US and Europe, though usually from assignments they give me, not my own projects. I consider myself a reformed/former photojournalist, now pursuing my own projects is all that’s really important to me. It’s fine and nice when a publication presents your work, and that used to drive me. But I think you can only take your photography to the next level when you stop worrying about whether it will fill an editor’s need.
What is the range of payment for photographers who work for famous magazines or publishers?
In general the rates for newspapers are quite low, and the contract terms are not to the photographer’s advantage. Magazines pay more, but the whole industry is of course declining. It’s a very difficult time for those who are used to relying on income from magazine assignments. I have a teaching job now, so that gives me less time to shoot, but less financial pressure. I’m working on a few projects but for the short term future, I’m more concerned with shaping the work I’ve already done and getting it out there. In addition to The Waiting Room, I’ve got a couple other books I’m planning to self-publish. Self-publishing is a whole separate conversation.
What kind of camera do you use now?
The last time I used the Leica with film was in spring of 2009, in Belarus. I’m not saying I’ll never shoot film again because I like film. But I’m pretty comfortable now using my little Ricohs when I go off to work on a project (or even for most local assignment work from clients). Specifically, I have two Ricoh GXR cameras, one with a wide angle, one with a normal lens. I never use zooms. I have used the Ricoh GRD series point and shoot cameras quite a lot. I can hang the results next to my Leica shots with no problems. But I’m not really into equipment. You need the right tool that you enjoy using, but it’s just a tool.
What is the recipe for success?
You can’t really worry about success. Don’t worry about ‘being a photographer’. Worry about your craft and your vision, and realizing that you are up against the best in the world. We are saturated in pictures, many are wonderful, yet so many are mediocre or worse. Mediocrity won’t cut it. So be relentless and self-critical. You have to be great. If you are not, don’t kid yourself because of ego or whatever. Either figure out how to get better or go do something else. We have enough images in the world, in fact many more than we need. We don’t need the technically perfect, the banal, the superficial, the outlandish.
I don’t know the definition of success, let alone the recipe. But I would say develop your own vision, think of yourself as a visual author. Develop your ideas and your sensibility. I tell my students the only reason we need more photos in the world is if they are YOUR photos. So, you have to figure out what that means and how to achieve it. Then do it, and keep doing it.
Also, I personally think we have too much, not too little, photography that shows what is wrong with the world, under the idea that you are creating awareness. I’m not telling people NOT to do this, because of course awareness is important. But I saw the last World Press exhibit and very little of it was interesting to me. So much of it was very hard to look at on a human level, and just made me tired. We already know the world is fucked up, in countless ways. We cannot sugar-coat reality; as a great photographer friend of mine said, sentimentality won’t save us. But photography, for me, is about so much more than just showing the problems of the world. Ok, maybe I tend to have melancholic atmospheres and textures in my work. But I am neither a nihilist nor a romantic. I’m not setting out to show the negative or the positive. We need to be critical but not cynical. We have to avoid kitsch at all costs, but I am not embarrassed about the word humanism. Photography should have humor, hope, beauty, wonder, poignancy, and of course mystery. Because life is above all mysterious, right?