Wayne: How did you go from self -projects like your street shooting and portraiture to shooting for publications? Can you talk about how you ended up at Black Star?
Jon: For a couple years after I left school, I worked part-time at the International Center of Photography so I could pick up some training in lab technique – I was a lab assistant and later a teacher’s assistant, and at the time I seriously considered working as a printer. I didn’t want to enroll in ICP’s full time course, though, because I had had enough of school, and just wanted to pick up some information. This was all at the original site over on Fifth and 94th – a wonderful place too. A bit chaotic, which I like, and there were plenty of interesting people passing through. I worked a host of odd jobs to survive – proofreading, paralegal work, editing, tutoring, barwork, whatever came to hand. Later on I interned at Black Star, and in those days, when Howard Chapnick was still alive and in charge, the library was a thriving place and there were several interns, all of whom were hoping to work as full time pros. Black Star still cultivated such people, and there was always the chance that you might eventually start working under contract.
I shot whatever I could whenever I could. I started shooting a lot of slide, because that was the reigning medium then, and even though I have never felt particularly adept at color, I learned all the tricks of lighting and exposure in order to get some decent rich color. I was eventually offered a job as a “researcher” — someone who fielded requests from various publishing concerns and researched the library to assemble a package of suitable images. I told them no, I was going to shoot for them instead and I didn’t have time to be working in the library; this response was greeted with laughter but some appreciation too. Then they offered me the same position, but on a part-time basis and with considerable freedom to come and go, so long as I fulfilled my duties. This arrangement allowed me to go out and shoot whenever there was need. I shot everywhere: house on fire, I was there; water main burst, I was there; demo against police brutality, I was there; Chinese New Year, I was there (so long as they still had fireworks). In addition to the spot news, I was also working on stories: children with AIDS, life in the “projects,” Dominican immigrants, and so on. Eventually I amassed enough material to present to the editor, and I was given a contract.
The library was a marvelous mess and comprised a complete photographic history of the 20th century. First of all there were all kinds of well known contemporary photographers in its vaults: the Turnley twins, Chris Morris, Anthony Suau, Malcolm Linton, Joseph Rodriguez and others. Behind them there were many greats from the 60s and 70s, including Flip Schulke and Charles Moore (of Civil Rights Era fame), Robert Ellison (Vietnam), and many others whose names no longer ring any bells but were formidable shooters – John Launois in particular stands out in my memory. Then of course, all the major events of the 20th century were covered there by many photographers whose names are no longer remembered or were never known – the rise of the Nazis, for example, is found there in great detail. And there was one drawer in particular that I never tired of looking through: this drawer was consecrated to the work of Eugene Smith. Imagine what it was like to hold an 11×14 print of his famous Pietá image from Minimata, or the wake from his Spanish Village essay?!
Black Star, suffice it to say, was an inspiring place, and I felt I had found a home. Howard retired and passed away shortly after I arrived there, but prior to that he was kind enough to offer some advice and encouragement. I set to work, but despite my efforts I never had much of a career there, and in fact I was never at home. There were many reasons for this: the business was entering into a period of change; Black Star was redefining itself; the sort of work that I really wanted to do was no longer supported by the magazines, which had switched to lifestyle reporting as early as the eighties; and I was as yet an ill-defined commodity. To give Black Star credit, my editor tried her best to develop me, but I was not cut out to be an agency photographer in the Turnley mold. I started working as an assistant to one of the commercial photographers there, and this turned out to be a perfect opportunity to learn and to earn. Plus in my spare time – and there was enough of it given the fact that I only had to work a few days a week to cover my expenses – I could devote my energies to working on my own projects. This seemed an ideal arrangement, and I exploited the opportunity. Commercial work had its pleasures too: every day was different, every task posed some new challenge. I met a lot of interesting people, and learned new things all the time. The guy I worked with had an admirable talent for making dramatic pictures out of thoroughly unpromising surroundings. He was one of the best I have ever known, not only for his talent and his work ethic, but also for his humane treatment of me, the underling. Not too many people pass this ultimate test.
With the money I was earning I was also able to pay for trips abroad, so I visited India and Brazil and other places, always bringing back some photo essays to be sold or syndicated. Syndication was a trap, though. A lot of effort went into syndication, but unless your material was of the moment, related to some important news event, there was no point in distributing the kind of thing I was doing in the hopes that some stock sales might be realized, and of course the percentages were not worth the effort either. But I kept working on my essays because really that was what I was in it for, and there was nothing else for me to do. Plus, I consider that all of this was a kind of apprenticeship, so while it didn’t compensate me financially, it did so pedagogically. Eventually I found other means of supporting my work, but while it lasted this initial arrangement gave me time to mature and practice. I have known photographers who came on like a ball of fire, and seemed to be working at the height of their powers from the very start, but I was slow to develop, and it took me a long time to find my themes and my vision.
Wayne: You take a lot of time and effort to educate aspiring and emerging photographers in venues like Lightstalkers. From what kind of hard knocks would you most want to spare them? What are the biggest kinds of business mistakes that such aspiring photographers make?
Jon: Well, I don’t know if I do in fact spend a lot time teaching others, but I have been rather vocal on Lightstalkers. That is partly a result of the fact that I have been doing more writing at home lately, and I have a lot of energy that needs channeling so the excess goes into posting on LS! But my years as a teacher certainly have formed a pedagogical attitude in me when it comes to passing on traditions and helping others out. Lightstalkers is unique in that it embodies a spirit of cooperation and mutual aid that is rather rare – the nature of our business is such that it tends to pit us one against the other, or isolate us, because after all you pretty much work alone. But LS mitigates against that and provides a community in which we can all share, and the overall tone of the site is remarkably supportive and generous.
I don’t know if I would want to spare anyone the hard knocks that are bound to be their lot in this business. It is probably best to get knocked around a bit, toughen up, and learn firsthand what you can expect from this life. Those lessons never leave you. Plus, after documenting poverty for something like twelve years, I have come to believe that adversity, within limits, is more likely to produce something of lasting value. It is when we are frustrated in our attempts to perform according to our dreams that we are forced back on ourselves, forced to regroup, and figure out a different approach. This is what happened to Miles Davis. When he discovered he couldn’t play like his idol, Dizzy Gillespie, he was forced to capitalize on his personal limitations as a player and come up with a different style of playing. That is when he became Miles.
When you are a young photographer, unless you have a head for business you are bound to make all kinds of mistakes, particularly as a freelancer without anyone to watch over you. Many young photographers are too anxious to get into print and will undersell themselves to do so or sign over their rights. These are particularly bad practices because we all suffer as a result. And this is true in the commercial realm as in the editorial: I know of one case recently brought to my attention in which a major national retail chain was offering an outrageously disadvantageous set of terms in their contract, but they figured they could get away with it since they were targeting younger photographers. Contracts all around have gotten a lot tougher, and many young people are willing to sign them simply to get their first break. I think that patience can be a photographer’s greatest friend, not only on the shooting but also the business end of things: there is such a thing as pushing too fast to get published, with the results coming short of more considered mature work. It seems that some new photographers don’t take time, either, to research the field more carefully, know their clients, know the agencies and their different procedures, or know much about the places where they go to shoot. I have had several people come down to my island to shoot a variety of things, usually cane, and some of them know nothing about sugar production or the people who slave on the plantations. They get the dates mixed up, arrive when no cane is being cut, or go to the wrong places and think they are in the middle of a real batey. You don’t have to become an expert, but it helps to know the ground you will be working. Antonin Kratochvil, through his example, taught me the virtues of careful preparation. I believe he talks about this too in Ken Light’s book. Photography is a bit paradoxical: the shutter opens and shuts on an image in a split second, but the patience required to find that image, or wait for it to come along, is geological in pace, or seems so by comparison. I would say too that it takes an investment of around ten years before a photographer can really start to bloom.
Wayne: What misconceptions do newcomers have about the business, craft and art of photography?
I have no idea really, since I come from a different generation and have no clue as to the formative ideas that act upon their consciousness today. However, one thing I have noticed among a smaller group of photographers – the photojournalists – is a naïve desire to get right into the bang-bang, to become a War Photographer, and while I have no interest in dissuading anyone from taking that step, since after all one can only know if one is suited to it by leaping, and we absolutely need people out there witnessing these events, I am a bit puzzled by the singlemindedness of the newbies. I was recently travelling with a journalist who was connected with the original Bang Bang club in South Africa and we were discussing the effects of armed conflict on photographers in general. I think what the younger people don’t see is the psychic and emotional damage that is done to some of these shooters, though one can read about it in books like Don McCullin’s autobiography, [Greg] Marinovich’s The Bang Bang Club, or [Anthony] Loyd’s My War Gone By, I Miss It So. Some shooters come out of these experiences and are incapable of sustained emotional relationships with people, they have serial marriages, they effectively abandon their children. Some appear to be partially shell shocked, and others are just withdrawn. Some of them remind me of junkies, they crave that adrenalin and when it is not there, they are somehow absent. This is not to impugn their principles or motives for doing this work; it is just a recognition of the complexity of their situation and some of the costs involved. It is natural for the younger crowd to think only about the excitement and the romance of the myth; but I hope that they come to realize that photojournalism comprises many themes, many possibilities, even though the media outlets for it may seem somewhat narrow in scope.
It strikes me that photojournalists appear to divide loosely into two camps: those that follow war and those that document poverty. There are some who do both, but if you think about it, Nachtwey, for example, mostly covers armed conflict, though of course he covered the famine in Baidoa – but again that was within the perspective of armed conflict. Salgado, on the other hand, doesn’t cover war, he covers poverty. I am certainly of the latter camp. Now war is perceived to be the sexier of the two, so I guess more young photographers are drawn to it, but I think poverty is every bit its equal in terms of injustice and moral disgrace and thematic power. Undeniably, though, the experience of shooting in either of those contexts is very very different. I cannot speak for the war shooters, but for myself, being among poor people so often, seeing what a lack of education or proper sustenance does to people, seeing the criminal injustice of it all, the hopelessness – watching people starve to death in front of you, or a child beaten or abandoned, well there is a certain psychic toll there too, and you need to be pretty balanced in order to sustain it. However, as Salgado has pointed out, life among poor people has its rewards too: while material wealth is lacking, there is often great spiritual wealth, and when you work among these people you are often anointed with that blessing and return to your life the better for it. That may seem unfair, but I cannot help it, it remains true. Working among poor people has made my life, if not my wallet, richer.
Wayne: In what ways are writing and literature important to you in your work?
Jon: I suppose most people starting out probably think solely in visual terms and derive their inspiration from the photographers they admire. However, I feel that part of what makes a great photographer is the ideas he or she brings to us, and good photographic ideas are not necessarily to be found solely in visual sources, and certainly shouldn’t be restricted to the media (bear in mind, throughout all of this, I am mainly thinking of photographers who cover news events or do reportage). Outside influences are important. If we derive our ideas for stories solely from what we find in the media I think we run the danger of limiting ourselves to the clichéd narratives favored by the press – you know the sort of thing, like underprivileged or handicapped person overcomes obstacles and succeeds. This Oprah Winfrey genre is very popular and shows up in many forms. Various versions of this theme regularly win awards, but I would be hard pressed to remember any that successfully translated into a book of lasting value.
It is worth noting that many universally admired photographers are people who benefitted from a liberal education and do a lot of reading; their ideas derive from a broad knowledge of art, literature and history. Let me give you an example of a book that I feel is an extraordinary narrative, one that transcends the genre of war reportage – Philip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc. This book is not just an indictment of what we used to call the military-industrial complex; it is a consummate overview of the whole industry of war. The conception is brilliant, and part of that brilliance lies in the editing, in what he chooses to show us: the photograph of the jet pilot standing outside his shiny clean machine in itself is a simple enough image, but in the context of the narrative it takes on a profound weight and irony. The book, in its scope, in its attempt to come to grips with the larger meaning of war in modern times, is equal in power and originality to [Francisco] Goya’s The Disasters of War. I cannot comment on the inspiration behind Vietnam Inc. and I know nothing about Jones Griffiths’ background, but the ideas embodied in the book are definitely not derived from the media for which he worked. They come from a much more profound source. Undoubtedly someone working in Iraq now will eventually produce a work of this ilk, and thereby give us something more than the usual blow by blow, bombing after bombing, perspective. I think that with the glut of violent imagery that surrounds us, one almost has to adopt a more comprehensive approach if one expects to break through the lethargy of the public. But in order to do so, they just as undoubtedly will have to work outside the context of the media.
Speaking for myself, the literature I have read is a constant source of ideas, and as I said earlier, much of what I am working on is directly related to the themes I found in the works I was studying. But there is more to it than that. Modernity was born with the Enlightenment (some would argue for an earlier date, the 17th century), and, apart from any specific ideas that might be found in any particular work, one of the fundamental tenets of post-Enlightenment thinking is the role that narrative plays in shaping society, in shaping our lives – a process that, as Althusser famously observed, is largely unconscious. The stories we tell each other, the fables we grow up with, define our moral universe and thus, for those of us who do reportage, it is of the utmost importance to provide our readers with adequate narratives, to push the envelope a bit and to find new ways of structuring our stories. An excellent example of this is Eugene Richards’s Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue: not only does he provide different stories from different areas; not only does he edit the sequence of images in highly interesting ways; but he also manages to provide multiple perspectives, a bit like a modernist novel with different competing narrators – there are two running narratives weaving in and out of the photos, one from “The People” and one from “The Photographer” as well as the afterword written by a medical expert, who provides a third perspective. Myself, I am more and more interested in combinations of image and text that break the usual pattern whereby the text explains the photos, or the photos illustrate the text; instead, I prefer something more like counterpoint, each narrative form with its own integrity, its own trajectory – they play off each other, but each has its own story to tell.