Witness in Our Time: Working Lives of Documentary Photographers; Ken Light


Documentary photographers often see things that do not officially exist. (p.5)

A transformation occurs when you see something important that is denied by those who have not or will not see it. (p.5)

If intense engagement with your subjects is the first requirement, keeping your head is the second. You can be too involved, or not involved enough. (p.6)

The only thing to do is to get it right. The only way to get it right is to keep asking yourself if it is. (p.6)

"You attempt to tell the truth," is how Eugene Richards described it. "You try to find the tools, the metaphors, the shapes, the shadows to translate the event or personality as truthfully as possible." (p.6)

Social documentary photographers have rarely had a secure home. (p.6)

The American tradition was first encouraged by late nineteenth century Progressives. To remedy a problem, they reasoned, we must first see it. And people of goodwill, once they see it, will work to correct it. (p.6)

Lewis Hine... proved that beautifully crafted images of ugly conditions could move the nation. (p.6)

Documentary photographs from the dust bowl to Da Nang changed our perceptions and remain lodged in our memories. (p.7)

Documentary photographers, severe critics said, are voyeurs who profit from the misery of the poor by stealing and prettifying their visages, then parading them in exhibitions for the privileged. And photographic realism, they argued, perpetuates the myth that photographs are objective, rather than projections of the cultural values of those who make and distribute them. (p.7)

This criticism... misconstrues why and how Documentary photographers work. These photographers reject the quick, sensational pulse of news pictures in favor of long- term engagement with the people they photograph. (p.7)

And just as there is a difference between a lecherous and a friendly look, the gaze of the voyeur and that of the witness are not the same. (p.7)

[Documentary photographers] are aware that the truths they frame are fragile and tentative... they hold only a slender hope that they can prevent the sort of tragedies

they witness. (p.7,8)

... two truths – that photographs are always the product of personal concerns and that photographs alone are rarely capable of radical social change – to imply a false conclusion, that acts of witness are unimportant. (p.7,8)

We all see others by seeing our different selves in others...[Documentary photographers] own suffering, their memories of their suffering, made them seek the suffering of others. (p.8)

"A photograph that brings news of some unsuspected zone of misery cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude." On Photography, Susan Sontag (p.8)

The world is both a promising place to make photographs and a broad stage for self- discovery. (P.10)

Good photographs are complex records of this exchange between photographer and subject. They give us access to the experience of both and evoke and widen feelings within the viewer... It is the perfect theories and the dreams of a perfect state that deceive us. (p.11)

With [Eugene Smith], nothing mattered but doing a job well, doing it the way he saw it. "If I can bring just a glimmer of understanding in the world," he always said, "my job is not lost." (P.22)

"The camera forced me to look more deeply at my environment, and while the photographs I made were of little consequence, I discovered an interest that took me out of myself and into the world that surrounded me." Walter Rosenblum (P.26)

"In [art critic Elizabeth McCausland's] mind anything outside the range of 'documen- tary photography' was a form of escapism that should not to condoned." Walter Rosemblum (P.32)

"[Magnum] taught how to believe in what you do and to live fully, live fully with your little camera. Don't do it just to record." Michelle Vignes (P.43)

"I learned because Steichen encouraged me. If he saw something lousy in my work – and there was an awful lot of it – he ignored it and found good things to talk about." Wayne Miller (P.46)

"With photographs, I thought I might help some of us better understand the strangers who live on the other side of the world – and on the other side of town." Wayne Miller (P .47)

"When I spotted an interesting situation, I didn't hide my camera or myself. Instead, I

often approached and said, 'Please, pay no attention to me.' I think that I somehow created good vibes. I was trying to sell their story. I was trying to respect their lives. That was the only reason for being [there]..." Wayne Miller (P.48)

In addition to the thousands of photographs I made, there were thousands I didn't because my eyes and instincts weren't good enough. When I think of what I missed, it makes me want to cry. That I had the arrogance to even attempt such a grand concept now makes me uncomfortable." Wayne Miller (P.49)

"Sure, we all make pictures of kids. but no one had really made an in-depth effort to photograph that world of children. I decided I wanted to do that. I wanted to come back to what was me." Wayne Miller (P.52)

"... when Jeanette was a beginning college student, she paid me compliment that I shall never forget: 'Dad, why don't you do another book about my age group? People don't understand who we are or how we feel.'" Wayne Miller (P.52)

"I was asked, 'Why did you quit?' For many years, I had been a spectator, an observer of other people's lives. I wanted to be a more active participant in the world, no longer just a fly on the wall watching the world through my viewfinder." Wayne Miller (P.53)

"'[Me editor said], in this game, you don't get shocked.' ... The man was right. You know, here when you deal with events like this, you really have to do long, middle, and close- ups so that he has a choice... From that day, I wasn't going to be shocked by anything. I wasn't going to get emotionally involved." Peter Magubane (P.58)

"It is important that one deals with these subjects, especially the street children and the children working, so that the government can do something about the plight of these children. I introduce myself to these children, tell that what I'm doing. I become their friend and stick around without taking pictures. After a week, when they trust me and I trust them, I begin to work, and they don't see me as a stranger." Peter Magubane

(P .61)

"I tried to work as a social documentarian... I was trying to document a manner of life... I would use assignments as a vehicle and a cover to do documentary photography.: Matt Herron (P.64)

"Dorothea [Lange] was always very concerned that a documentary photographer should have no political bias whatsoever." Matt Herron (P.66)

"I think that to a certain extent Dorothea was right. It was extremely difficult in that pressure cooker to work in an objective fashion as a social documentarian." Matt Herron (P.68)

"I try not to preconceive anything... I try never to preconceive until I'm faced with actually laying out and writing the book." Jill Freedman (P.75)

"It's a very great honor and a privilege to be able to enter people's lives. It's very humbling. The most important thing which sets photography I like against most of which I hate is respect. You don't get anything decent unless you have the respect. When you're sincere, then people will work with you. If you put in enough time, you can be invisible. It used to amaze me what people would do in front of me, and what people would say...: Jill Freedman (P.75)

"I put myself down for years saying well, I could have done that, earned a great living, met people, maybe even my true love, have people to work with so you're not out there alone... Then I realized, well if I had, I wouldn't have done these projects... The point is to stay alive. I really didn't have much money..." Jill Freedman (P.76)

"We're storytellers, really. I consider myself a documentarian, in the sense that I try to show – of course from my point of view always... I try to show what's going on. I try to, as much as possible, keep myself out of the focus... I like to work to try to tell the story of the lives I'm trying show, from their point of view." Jill Freedman (P.77)

"Unfortunately, today most magazines are no longer interested in documentary photography." Mary Ellen Mark (P.81)

"Still photographs do something very different that television. Still pictures exist forever.If they are really are really exceptional they can become icons. We see powerful video footage... but we see it only once. Great photographs become locked in our minds." Mary Ellen Mark (P.81)

"... I am always thinking of the different ways I can finance my own work. Because without personal projects, what's the point? The self-assigned subject is your heart and soul." Mary Ellen Mark (P.82)

"I photographed that story to show just how tragic the lives of the young people were. I wanted the people who saw the pictures to enter that world and better understand the plight of those kids." Mary Ellen Mark (P.82.83)

"The best documentary images, like all great photographs, have always had a place in the world of fine art. This is very important, especially now when we no longer have the opportunity to see these pictures in magazines." Mary Ellen Mark (P.83)

"The minute I picked up the camera, there was an opportunity for me, a rather shy individual, to reach into the community... It gave me the greatest excuse to poke into other people's business and really helped me overcome a great personal timidity in relating to people." Earl Dotter (P.86)

"I've learned that before I ever bring my camera out of the bag, the first thing try to do is let folks know who I am, why I want to take their picture. Then, if they are satisfied with what I'm up to, they are better able to respond and live out their life in front of the

camera rather than act it out." Earl Dotter (P.87)

"It became very apparent to me that in photographs of someone who has been victimized, about the only element the viewer of this kind of photograph can relate to is in an individual's desire for self-respect and dignity. So, when I photograph I'm always looking for the common ground between my subject and the viewer of my photo- graphs. If you can attract their interest initially by your artistry and lead them into confronting the issues your subject matter raises, then you've gone a long way toward at least presenting material that they can think about." Earl Dotter (P.89)

"[Robert Wells, a teacher at Northeastern University] would inform his students about the life of the painter, where he or she came from, and the great pains that come from doing something personally and socially creative. Most people don't care about the painter's processes, but they're important. Art is a crucible, the means to express what we're feeling, what we care about, providing we care about anything." Eugene Richards (P.92)

"My job is to get my worldview out there, to get what I see published... I try to tell stories through pictures." Eugene Richards (P.92)

"Our society is changing and becoming more insular in terms of what we're willing to see beyond our own lives. Such insularity comes with being more successful, making more money. And, we don't want to rock the boat." Eugene Richards (P.93)

"Anger was probably the one thing I shared with other photographers of my genera- tion. And now for many that's gone, displaced by other drives and concerns." Eugene Richards (P.93)

"... as you get older, there's no doubt about it, a certain physical energy fades, and it becomes tougher physically to do the job. Financial concerns also multiply; photo markets are declining. So the result is that not many social photographers after the age of fifty are still social photographers... So it's a rare person that, for lots of reasons, can keep it up." Eugene Richards (P.94)

"Also if you throw out something that is socially critical – especially about issues of race and class – no one is going to pat your head." Eugene Richards (P.94)

"... this made our jobs and our lives more complicated, because you just can't get involved with your subjects, and not being able to do help them got to be emotionally difficult. We stayed as long as we could, and then the story closed." Eugene Richards (P .96)

" I know it sounds so naive, but I do feel like each of us has a social obligation, and books are like paying off a social obligation." Eugene Richards (P.98)

"There's something about being inside a collective of artists who continue to create

and invent ways of surviving – sometimes sharing out of self-interest and sometimes not. Echoing exactly the human experience." Susan Meiselas (P.102)

"You don't always know where you're going or where something is going to lead to. It's discovered, not planned for...I was capturing the world I was seeing, completely following my own sense of what was important." Susan Meiselas (P.102,103)

"... making books should be about creating a new audience." Susan Meiselas (P.104)

"There is an ongoing challenge for us, as documentarians, to continue to be committed and engaged, while at the same time innovative. I fear we have deadened out." Susan Meiselas (P.105)

"Why aren't people interested in what we documentarians are passionate about? Why are we in such a small ghetto? ... We cannot always assume people are going to be interested in what we are involved in. We have to find ways of taking people someplace they don't expect to go." Susan Meiselas (P.105,106)

"Doing documentary work is not just building the relationships and shooting. It's also finding the spaces, be they magazine pages, books, or exhibition spaces, to transform and present the world we see differently... We've got to find partners willing to experiment with ways of getting people involved with 'other' people and distant places. Susan Meiselas (P.106)

"... I discovered that the stories that gave me the most pleasure were the same stories I did before, not as a photographer, but as an economist, as a student. I had found what was important in my life. I believe that ultimately what you do in life is the thing that you are most capable to do, the thing that you are most concerned with. I don't believe you do many different things in life. You do the same thing in different versions, but it's always the same thing." Sebastiao Salgado (P.110)

"I believe there is no person in the world that must be protected from pictures. Every- thing that happens in the world must be shown and people around the world must have an idea of what's happening to other people around the world. I believe this is the function of the vector that the documentary photographer must have, to show one person's existence to another." Sebastiao Salgado (P.111)

"Documentary photographers have a slice of the responsibility – they must provoke a discussion. You don't go to a place to create good images, to create beautiful things. That's not what it is about. You have your own way to show them, and the photograph- er must find his own way." Sebastiao Salgado (P.111,112)

"In my case I prefer to work on very long-term stories. For all the stories I do, I write an outline. I create a framework where I concentrate my energies and ideas." Sebastiao Salgado (P.112)

"You don't go to do one picture. You go to build a story. In the end, I believe that documentary photographers are people that love to tell stories. These stories are made with a big sequence of pictures." Sebastiao Salgado (P.112,113)

"Sometimes people say, 'Oh, you go to make good pictures of poor people.' The people don't understand peanuts when they say this, because I never go to do a picture. I never go to do a good picture. What is a good picture? No. I go to stay inside my story, to try to understand what's going on, to be close to the people I photograph, and to create a flow of information that we can use to communicate something." Sebastiao Salgado (P.113)

"With documentary photography the difference is that the photographer must have a big concern. You must have a big ideological affinity with the subject you will be shooting, because if you don't, you cannot remain sincere and empathetic for long. You must strongly identify with the subject. Then when the photographer first actually encounters the subject all of his preconceptions change." Sebastiao Salgado (P.113)

"The documentary photographer today must adapt to and accommodate the new ways we can use pictures. There are more uses for photography and documentary photo- graphy today than ever before." Sebastiao Salgado (P.114)

"You must live intensely the story you intend to do." Sebastiao Salgado (P.115)

"People who want to do documentary photography are not artists in the sense that an artist's work can stay. It's not this. It must be your life one hundred percent." Sebastiao Salgado (P.116)

"I go to the community first, always with my camera so they know I'm a photographer. I speak to the people and normally stay and live with them. I try to involve myself in their legends, because they're related to the festivities I'm photographing. I also read materials that are related to the topic..." Graciela Iturbide (P.119)

"I don't pretend that my photography's going o actually change the world or make it a better place or anything like that. I photograph this way because I want to. The camera is like a pretext to put me in a situation, to go to a community so I get to learn about them and I get to learn about my country." Graciela Iturbide (P.121)

"My photographs deal with the dignified aspect of humanity, even if I'm photographing the worst of situations. And there is a very deep complicity or dialogue between the person who is being photographed and myself." Graciela Iturbide (P.121)

"The important thing is the prep work before. You should read about it, get all the infor- mation about it, as much as you can. You have to line up a fixer – somebody in the country who speaks the lingo and can fix things if there is a problem." Antonin Kratochvil (P.128)

" You have to be aware of yourself, of course. Prisoners and soldiers are attuned to fear; I believe they can smell it on you. It changes the situation completely by making them suspicious. They suspect you are doing something wrong because you're not sure of yourself. You have to know why you're there." Antonin Kratochvil (P.131)

"It's been a long process for me. I get sad when photographers – experienced or amateurs – come to me and say, 'How can I get my name out there? How can I get people to respect me? How can I get the assignments?' They ask, 'What am I going to get?' My feeling is it's not what you are going to learn? More like what are you going to give?" Donna Ferrato (P.134)

"There's so much to learn out there with a camera. It gives us power for educating ourselves and for educating others. We have to be patient, try to learn as much as we can until there comes a point where we have something to share with other people. And that doesn't come for a long time." Donna Ferrato (P.134)

"I also have an agent who books speaking arrangements for me at universities across the country." Donna Ferrato (P.137)

"When I got discouraged that nobody wants to give me assignments, thinking maybe I should sell the old pictures... I needed to get it out there. [My dad] would say, 'No Donna have faith in yourself. They don't give you assignments, because they're stupid. You just keep working, keep quiet, keep your costs of living low, don't let anybody control you.' Philip [president of Magnum] always told me the work was good, and he'd never seen anything like it. Philip believed in me." Donna Ferrato (P.138)

"I always wonder: 'How does a person inspire a movement? To make changes?' If I don't like something, I don't complain about it. I figure out how to change it. That's what I try to do with my camera." Donna Ferrato (P.138)

"Photographers need to think about how they can make contributions to put their ideas across clearly so they can show there's a reason for their work. Photographers must do their own proposals, research, and budgets, meet with editors, represent themselves, figure out ways to make their work a vital tool needed by the community, by the society." Donna Ferrato (P.139)

"I always tell young photographers, 'Discover the world. Take pictures. Live cheaply.'" Donna Ferrato (P.139)

"As a kid I was always told to shut up, you know, be quiet and speak when spoken to. I could never get my voice out. Photography is my voice." Joseph Rodriguez (P.142)

"... one of the most important issues to address is how much time it takes to tell a good story. For myself, I just want to be able to get enough money so I can have the time it takes to do my work in a responsible manner and get it out there." Joseph Rodriguez (P .142)

"For me it's important to be able to show a little bit of the positive side of life and to try to give that balance, to give respect to people. There's a lot of heavy-handed photogra- phy today. In America social documentary has always been like, 'Where's the problem? Let's try to document it so we can correct it.' But after looking at other influences of documentary photography in Latin American, Africa, Scandinavia, and Russia, I feel it's a little more than that. It's also about people's lives and showing something positive." Joseph Rodriguez (P.143)

"You know there's always this uncomfortable feeling of having the camera and people staring at you. You have to swallow that to make pictures." Joseph Rodriguez (P.144)

"You know from your gut when you're onto something." Joseph Rodriguez (P.144)

"Since the beginning of my photography I could not separate my life from my photography." Dayanita Singh (P.150)

"I was so naive with my AIDS work and so idealistic. The photo of Marie about to be made a sex worker created a lot of sympathy for her in America. People across the world wanted to adopt her. But no one wanted to help the thousands of other such girls in Bombay." Dayanita Singh (P.150)

"It had been a trespass for people to storm through the [refugee] camp without consult- ing those whom they were photographing... I discovered a new way of working... Now I recognize the initial sense of unknowing when first visiting a community and embrace it as a part of the process. I see it as a sign of receptivity to what the place and the people have to offer. I begin asking the members of the community for their willingness to collaborate in the documentation. In my recent work... the elder's agreement to work with me, to provide insight, as well as protection, has been crucial." Fazal Sheikh

(P. 156)

"... I realized that many of the connections and decisions about where to work are based upon intuition." Fazal Sheikh (P. 157)

"Although it is inevitable that the photographs are also a product of who I am, I hope that my perceptions defer to or mingle with those of the people I photograph, allowing the personal chord to resonate with the documentary." Fazal Sheikh (P. 157)

"The people in the photographs often look directly into the camera and, by extension, to the viewer. There are no visual gymnastics, and the image is pared down to what I believe to be its essential nature. The sitters present themselves. My role is not to confer upon, but rather to encourage that which is already inherently part of the person to come forward. The strength of the sitter's gaze and an entire life lived in their bodies speaks for itself." Fazal Sheikh (P. 157)

"I am unable to predict what will be a strong photograph. The most compelling images

have come from remaining receptive to what the place has to offer. A photograph with its roots in my imagination pales in comparison to that which is given in the moment of collaboration. In the time following my engagement with the people, the experience lingering in my mind overwhelms my perceptions of the photographs. It takes quite a while before I am able to recognize the strength of any given image. Time and distance provide a frame and a context." Fazal Sheikh (P. 158)

"I have always been troubled by the notion that a person becomes the subject of a photograph simply because [____________]. It is not the sum total of who they are. For their part, [the people] understood that the images and their stories would be shown in pubic, and they still insisted upon speaking out. However, I felt protective of the trust they had placed in us, and I struggled with the responsibility of bringing those testimonials to light." Fazal Sheikh (P. 158)

"I hope that my work reaches toward a great good. However, I am not willing to achieve that goal at the expense of the individual. I believe that it is the individual and his testimony that allows us to access broader themes – through the specific to gain entry to the universal. I want to be able to go to a community and ask that it teach me about its truth. I try to encourage the medium to pierce the alienation in a return to the basics of humanity." Fazal Sheikh (P. 159)

"Early on, I realized that the subject matter of a documentary photographer has nothing to do with sensationalism, nothing to do with the unusual – it has everything to do with the very commonplace events of lives." Gifford Hampshire (P.165)

"... documentary happens because a photographer wants it to happen. A photographer decides something should be documented, and he or she puts in the intellectual, as well as artistic, effort. The pay-off has to be in terms of that photographer's satisfaction with the work itself, because there's no economic reward, there's no fame and fortune in it." Gifford Hampshire (P.171)

"Documentary photography is not being published as much as we think it should. This does not devalue documentary photography. It's still as valuable as it ever was for the right reasons. The right reasons probably don't earn a lot of money, but it doesn't make them wrong reasons." Peter Howe (P. 174)

"The job of the photojournalist is to witness those things that people don't want to think about. When they're doing their job right, they are taking photographs that people don't want to publish by their very nature." Peter Howe (P.174)

"If our society ever rediscovers what really is important – socially, intellectually, emotionally – then they'll rediscover how important documentary photography is." Peter Howe (P.174)

"A documentary photographer is a writer rather than a reporter. Great documentary photographers come to their craft with their own preconceptions, their own interests

and ideas. They are not neutral observers." Peter Howe (P.175)

"It's very hard to explain to an editor of a magazine that has to be commercially successful why it is we should depress the shit out of the readers. And, of course, we shouldn't. But this makes it hard to get the really tough stories in, particularly in this country. The perception is that the average American reader does not want to read about the more thorny, gritty side of life. And that is sort of the bread and butter of the documentary photographer." Peter Howe (P.175)

"I am wondering, whether, in fact,... that photography is becoming much more of an art form than and information medium." Peter Howe (P.177)

"The people who edit magazines, the people who are in the driving seat of publishing and journalism, are word oriented. There is little acceptance that there can be another way of understanding the world, which is more visual, more aesthetic." Colin Jacobson (P .178)

"It's a very strange thing. With almost every magazine I've ever been on, when they get around to doing a readership survey they find that the thing that people most like and remember about the magazine is the images. But it never seems to make any difference to the way the magazine is put together." Colin Jacobson (P.180)

"Photojournalism is being a journalist with a camera. Documentary is more culturally driven, designed for learning to understand one another, to document life at a particular time. It is not for the here and now but for posterity." Colin Jacobson (P.182)

"Today so many pictures are being taken that no one is really interested in what has gone on before. Man's witness of his own times dies with him. Added to that, the technological advance in camera design have made photography seem easy. It has become so popular – that because of its popularity, it is danger of losing its own self- respect as well as the trust and confidence of viewers in its veracity and artistry. The role of the photographer is to witness and to be involved with his subject. There are many concerned photographers all over the world whose work will provide the visual history of our century – the first century of which such a documentation will exist. The concerned photographer finds much in the present unacceptable that he tries to alter. Our goal is simply to let the world also know why it is unacceptable." Cornell Capa

(P .192,193)

"There were two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that needed to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated. Lewis Hine (P.193)

"In 1978 I started photographing migrant and child farm labor. A fellow photographer, Bill Owens, tried to discourage me, saying that Dorothea Lange had done this already and done it well. Documentary photographers are often met by such comments, but I believe that each generation needs to reexamine important issues despite what has been done before. I was amazed to find that so little had changed since the days of

Lange's work. This strengthened my conviction to see, reveal, and support those trying to make change." Ken Light (P.194)

Unaccompanied minors – children between the ages of eight and eighteen who were either orphaned or separated from their parents in the flight from their home.

- Guggenheim Fellowships

- Carnegie Endowment
- Intl. Fund for Documentary Photography
- Rockefeller Foundation
- Pacific News Service
- Alicia Patterson Foundation
- National Endowment for the Arts (NEA Photographer's Fellowship) - Fulbright Fellowship
- National Press Photographers
- Visual Studies Workshop- Guggenheim Fellowships
- Carnegie Endowment
- Intl. Fund for Documentary Photography
- Rockefeller Foundation
- Pacific News Service
- Alicia Patterson Foundation
- National Endowment for the Arts (NEA Photographer's Fellowship) - Fulbright Fellowship
- National Press Photographers
- Visual Studies Workshop