Jon Anderson Interview, Part III

Wayne: Is there a reason why, when it comes to the relationship between image and text, one should be in a power role over the other? When you say that each should have their own story to tell, I’m assuming that you mean they should go even further in concept than the National Geographic way of handling the two?

Jon Anderson: The unequal relation of text and imagery stems from several causes: a belief that text is by its nature expository while imagery is graphic and rhetorical – the primacy of word over image for explanatory power, due to the belief that words encapsulate ideas while images convey emotion; the fact that publishing concerns, whether they be newspapers, magazines or books, exist primarily as outlets for expository and analytic writing, so the images are an afterthought; and the fact that, historically speaking, Grub Street (that is the Press) was originally a rutted detour off the highway of Literature. Photography on its own ground is usually a matter of art galleries, studios and museums. The written word and the printing press were responsible for spawning the press industry; the image and the silver halide print could never have done so. Reportage exists in a tenuous relation to the art world on the one hand, and the world of the press on the other, so its own nature, since it is both an esthetic object as well as an informational medium, is a bone of contention.

Should that order be inverted? Probably not, though in a way the current rage for multimedia storytelling provides a successful example of a medium that gives primacy to the image over the word. The traditional photo essay, too, lends more weight to the image. But there is almost always some sort of text to mark off the limits of the ideas being presented, to define the context. Photography after all is a powerful kind of lie, a fiction without clear limits, so it can easily mislead people, and because it appears to have a special ontological status – after all the image is considered to be an objective record of what was there – many people ascribe to it an objectivity or truth-value that is questionable at best. Joan Fontcuberta has said, “Every photograph is a fiction shown as if it were true . . . What counts is the control of the photographer to impose an ethical direction to this lie. The good photographer is the one who deceives the truth well.” The photographer has the obligation to control the ethical direction of his work, and textual accompaniment can go a long way toward ensuring that control. Many people believe that imagery is a universal language; I happen to disagree, and I think that it is universal only in its potential for being misunderstood – or for multiple interpretations, shall we say, which after all is part of its power.

When I say that I would like to see a new kind of relationship between text and imagery, I am thrown back on the analogy of music to clarify my point: For one thing, if you read music, you see instantly that any piece is composed of many voices – even if we are not talking about something as complicated as an orchestral piece with many instruments, you still have the melodic line, the bass, the harmonies formed by interlaced notes, and with counterpoint you get the mingling of two or more melodic lines or “voices.” Plus you have the rhythm, which keeps the thing moving forward, and this rhythm can get quite complex, as in the case of syncopation, where normally unstressed weak beats (the upbeat) become stressed, as in salsa. I guess I would like to see a photographic narrative that develops according to its own motival logic, just as a piece of music elaborates a theme; while a textual narrative, which may or may not “explain” what is in the photos, rides alongside or cuts in and out of the visual narrative, and the two together form a kind of syncopated linkage, the emphases shifting back and forth between them.

I have been experimenting with this in a small way: a short essay about popular religion here in Santo Domingo and its relation to slavery. The text has its own poetic integrity: it is not there to explain what the Liboristas are doing in their rituals, or what the bruja has in mind as she prepares her altar, both of which appear in the images. It is concerned to evoke the emotional weight and theological underpinnings of syncretic religion. The images have their own trajectory, moving from death, which is the point at which this world and the next are joined, and then on through various instances of ritual practice that evoke some of the themes of slavery and liberation. But the chain of imagery is not dictated by a logical movement from point A to point B. Finally there are small captions that help to define briefly what the viewer is looking at in the pictures, but without overdefining the moment or providing the usual documentary “facts.” While I may never find a magazine bold enough to publish this story in this form, I certainly can publish the book version in a like manner (to be fair, I did find a magazine willing to take on the project, but they are temporarily suspending operations for lack of funding).

Wayne: How good are most photographers on the writing front? Which photographers in particular do you admire for being strong in both? How can new photographers better use writing to market their work?

Jon: People tend to think of word and image as being almost diametrically opposed; we even have scientists talking about right vs. left brain functions as if you were subject to the exclusive domination of one or the other. I think the relation is much closer. I remember reading that Diane Arbus was heavily influenced in her choice of themes by reading the essays of Joseph Mitchell, and I too oddly enough was led here by the same man: my father loved reading his essays and would pack us kids in the car so that we could visit the same kinds of people that Mitchell wrote about. We would go to the Hudson to meet longshoremen or to Brooklyn to find Mohawks who worked on the bridges. That love of exploration is eventually what compelled me to start taking pictures, though I hardly realized it at the time. In fact I think it is safe to say that both my writing and photographic impulses find their source in this childhood experience.

Many would argue that it is rare to find someone who practices both media well, and that may well be true; but perhaps there are many more photographers out there who, for want of trying, simply havent written anything that might in fact be quite good. It may not be for lack of ability but of motivation. [James] Nachtwey, for example, is a very thoughtful, judicious speaker; were he to take up a pen and write, I bet the results would be well worth reading. But there are plenty of great photographers who can write. I have a list of quotations that I like to keep, and all of the photographers who appear on that list are quite eloquent on the subject of their craft. Of course, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a good writer, and we have his thoughts collected in one volume, so the value of his writing can be passed on to the next generation of photographers. Eugene Richards also writes beautifully, and the text that accompanies his first book, Few Comforts or Surprises, is pure poetry – the title alone is wonderful. Many of the original Magnum shooters were writers as well, and George Rodger, for one, was handy with a pen. Another photographer whose writing I admire is Larry Towell. The Mennonites book is full of eloquent writing, and part of that eloquence stems from his restraint. At one point he describes the homecoming of family members who have been on the road, and he writes,

“We pulled into the barnyard of Henry Dyck, Susanna’s uncle, patriarch of the Redekkop and Wieler families, of the Dyck and Klassen brood. He bit his bottom lip to satisfy his thirst for family blood when he saw us.” [Jon’s italics.]

One single line that beautifully plays on the literal and metaphorical meaning of blood, and we have the entire meaning and feeling of an emotional homecoming summed up. That is good writing, and Towell is adept at it.

From the business end of things you would think that combining the ability to write and to shoot would make you more likely to succeed, and certainly increase your fees. It is no secret that photographers should cultivate writers so as to ride their coattails when they get assignments, and I suspect that writers have an advantage when it comes to pitching stories, since the “word people” are the ones who dictate to a greater extent what runs in the publication. So if you can combine both activities in yourself, you might expect better results hunting down assignments. I have yet to discover whether that is true, because I have not yet seriously tried combining the two. Plus I think that when it comes to reportage it is pretty hard to do so, as there is so much ground to cover. I am generally relieved when I find a good writer willing to work with me and take care of the story writing.

But good writing skills enter into photography in more ways than one: writing captions, writing good story pitches, writing grant applications – these are regular activities that we all engage in, and the better we do them, the better the response will be. Captions are generally pretty boring and often repeat what is plainly seen in the photo, so at the very least a photographer ought to use the caption as a chance to expand on the theme rather than recapitulate what is plainly visible. Story pitches are crucial too: if the pitch is poorly written, the editor is not going to have much confidence in your grasp of the story, even if you don’t actually intend to write the essay. You have to have a clear and terse understanding of the idea if it is to have any chance of surviving the chaos of a newsroom or editorial office. Grants too, which can be a significant means of funding a personal project, depend greatly on the applicant´s ability to write up an imaginative and fluent proposal. The words sometimes count for more than the imagery. That is why, in my article about grant writing, which is available to LS members, I give a bunch of writing tips, because very often that is the last thing the applicant thinks about.

Wayne: What brought you to the Caribbean? Can you tell us more about your current projects there?

Jon: I began travelling here back in the early 90s, but in a sense I have always had some connection to the region, as I grew up in New York and was perfectly familiar with the Puerto Rican diaspora. In my childhood, Motown, Stax and Fania, apart from rock and roll, streamed constantly out of the bodegas and radios out on the street. Puerto Rican independence was a hot issue, and Spanish was heard on many streetcorners. For a while there I believe that Spanish classes were mandatory or at least commonly given in the public schools – I remember that I had lessons for a couple years.

When I was beginning to photograph around New York, I was very much under the spell of Bruce Davidson’s East 100th street, which combined a kind of studio portraiture with reportage in the barrio – it was perfect for the transition I was making from portraiture to street photography. I was living in and around various parts of harlem and of course I was surrounded by Dominicans. I was also working with them in various part-time jobs. So I became pretty intimate with the community and naturally started taking pictures: there were baptisms and weddings and loud parties, as well as the whole drug scene, which up around the 150s and 160s was getting out of control. I once visited a ward in Roosevelt hospital which was filled with young paraplegic men who had been wounded in the drug wars. I used to hang out at a famous little boxing club in that neighborhood, and I got to know all the fighters as well as the people living on the block. I took everybody’s picture, though some of the parents didn’t like it and insisted that I was “five-O” (police). The owners of the boxing club were a father-son team – the father had been a good bantamweight fighter, and the son was a corrections officer at Rikers. They called him Mister Mace, but in fact he was a great guy and was very much concerned to get kids off the streets and give them some training and discipline. Several of his fighters went on to win golden gloves medals.

I knew a few young men at that time who were cut down by gunfire. One of my favorite early photographs depicts a funeral of one such young man from a family I knew fairly well. I had in fact photographed the daughter at her wedding only a short while previous to the murder of this unfortunate guy, who was himself a father. My feeling is that a lot of these guys get into the life not out of desperation but because of temptation: they are bombarded by images of the good life from our consumerist society, they are attracted to the idea of fast money, and there is a certain romance to the gangsta life. This guy certainly had no compelling reasons for selling drugs, he was not indigent, though he wasn’t faced with a lot of options either. Anyway in those days the bullets were flying; people who called me at home, over on Manhattan Avenue, could sometimes hear the sound of gunfire in the background. Once when I was a leaving a bar on Amsterdam near 106th Street, I walked right into the middle of a gangland execution. The local druglord, a guy they called “flaco,” was hanging in front of the bodega that served as his headquarters, when a guy (who happened to be flaco’s lieutenant and was himself the target of a contract) jumped out of a “gitano” (gypsy cab), ran up to him, and shot him several times in the torso. This happened not more than five or six feet in front of me, and wouldn’t you know it, I had no camera! It was pouring down rain, I had gone to the bar to meet some friends, and thinking that a couple rounds later I would be back at home, I neglected to carry a camera. Well, I learned a lesson that night.

As I photographed more and more in the immigrant community, I naturally developed an interest in the culture back home, so I went to the Dominican Republic to start exploring, and I used the elections of 1994 and 1996 as an excuse to get familiar with the place. I instantly fell in love with the country – it was one of those backwater, somewhat chaotic places that I love to get lost in, and it had the added virtue of being absent from everyone’s radar, so I was free to photograph without competition. Photographers always go to Haiti and Cuba, the former for its legendary chaos and the latter for its equally legendary political status. But in Santo Domingo I found similar cultural, social and political themes that had yet been undocumented, so I was in heaven. The political history here, for example, is every bit as interesting as the other two countries, and the cultural practices are too: we have vodú and other types of syncretic religion, a traditional agrarian culture, and the same problems that all developing nations share in this era of globalization. Of course, the fact that the media wasn’t interested much in the country meant that I had a harder time trying to publish material, and I have to struggle still, though people at least recognize the name of the country nowadays.

Eventually, though it took some time to realize what I was really doing down here, I figured out the themes that were to dominate me. I think that while one often picks a theme outright – say, famine in the Horn of Africa – and then works to line up an assignment, prepare the ground, take a few weeks or more to document the situation, and so on, there are times when one works without any clear theme or direction, and the photos eventually shape themselves into a narrative without too much deliberate or conscious molding by the photographer. This is what I like best about photography: the vaguer the outlines, the more I can drift in the sheer tide of imagery without fussing about arriving at some predetermined point, the more I can give myself over to the act of taking pictures and discover those outstanding moments that deserve to be memorialized. I came down here with the loose idea of continuing the themes that governed my work among the immigrants, mainly their search for the Good Life, but that soon developed into a much bigger project. First of all, I realized that to adequately describe this world, I had to come to terms with sugar production, which is what basically created the Caribbean. That of course led to my present photojournalistic work with the cane cutters and the gross abuse of their human rights. In addition to photographing the situation, I am involved in a variety of efforts aimed at ameliorating their lives, their working conditions, and their political rights. (The Open Society has been a solid supporter of this work and has introduced me to a whole new way of getting the imagery out there.) This theme in itself is so large that it took on a life of its own. It turned out that my documentary work here was so ambitious in scope that it was in fact better managed as three distinct projects which, when viewed in relation to one another, could best be seen as a portrait of a developing nation. This meant, of course, that I was dealing with themes of post-colonialism, development, globalization, and the threat posed by these to the nation’s traditional way of life.

In essence I was photographing not just current social problems, but a disappearing culture. So I decided to borrow Edmundo Desnoes’s famous title, Memories of Underdevelopment, for my own, because I felt that it captured the basic idea quite well – the fact that I am dealing with things that will soon become mere memories, and the fact that underdevelopment, though generally used as a synonym for poverty and backwardness, is actually full of beauty and truth and that the cultural practices that come out of this context are not in any way inferior to life as it is lived in developed nations. This umbrella idea is then divided into three separate narratives, a trilogy of sorts: Caña Brava deals with the sugar plantations; El Camino de los Negros deals with popular religion and its roots in slavery; and The Good Life deals with the transition from agrarian to urban society and the mass movement of people from their rural homes to urban slums in search of a better life, which unfortunately continues to elude them. This last theme is of course the subject of other photographers’ work – Salgado’s Migrations dealt with this theme, and Jonas Bendikson of Magnum is currently involved in a project documenting life in third world slums globally. But the advantage of my approach, it seems to me, is that it focuses on one specific movement in one particular place, and as such the overall trajectory is more easily seen and documented. I really think that what is happening here on my small island is very emblematic, it provides a microcosm of what is going on across the globe, and I also feel this theme is one of the most important of our times. Globalization has placed the conflict between the haves and have-nots squarely on the front stage, and the problems of the latter directly and sometimes very quickly affect the lives of the former.

Currently I am involved in producing a multimedia version of the cane story, and I am preparing to travel to the bateys so I can gather some oral histories and also record some of the ambient sound – the rustling of the wind through the cane, the cutting of the cane, and so on. These elements will be mixed with some indigenous music, which we call Gagá and which is performed on handmade instruments and found objects to produce a very percussive and raucous carnival music. This new rage for multimedia storytelling is turning us all into soundmen, and frankly I don’t feel too comfortable with that, but I am excited by the opportunity to explore a new way of assembling a narrative. So far the slideshows seem just that, a slideshow with a musical background. I would like to see more film technique employed in the formation of the slideshow – not just the typical Ken Burns-style panning in, out, and around the image (which, by the way, is still a bit clumsy in digital form; the reason that his documentaries look so good is that he painstakingly filmed the stills). I would like to see jump cutting, montage, cutaway or insert shots, and greater synchronization of the sound and the image – the use of sound can be exploited in all kinds of ways: for example, the rhythm of machetes can blend with the percussive instrumentation of Gagá music. I don’t want to violate the integrity of the still image, otherwise I would just shoot video, but I would like to see how far we can go in combining elements or techniques from both media and still retain the power of the still image to fix itself in the mind of the viewer.

This multimedia version will be distributed in a variety of ways, perhaps through one of the websites that specialize in this now, but also by directly approaching a host of institutions in order to motivate certain groups of people who might not otherwise learn about the issues via traditional media outlets. For example, I want to distribute it to educational institutions and libraries, so that young people can learn about what goes on in their own country and how to change it – after all, you want to foment change, targeting students is the way to do it, and this is one of the things that the Open Society’s Documentary Distribution grant has taught me. I am also planning to target law and medical schools, the former to attract human rights activists and the latter to attract volunteers for the clinics down here. As photojournalists we tend to think mainly in terms of publication in a paper or magazine, but why leave it at that? In addition to the usual media, we can also disseminate our work through the web or by entirely rethinking the whole means of exhibition both in terms of strategy and venue, and by targeting specific institutions. Each outlet can be exploited in new ways: an exhibition need not be a high society event or something limited to the art crowd. One winner of the Distribution Grant [Eric Gottesman] is apparently rigging up a mobile exhibit that will travel to various regions in Ethiopia and be presented at village meetings. My own exhibition has already gone through two separate stages and is now being prepared for a third in conjunction with the work of another photographer. And we have plans for a fourth incarnation. Each of the winners of this OSI grant created unusual ways of getting the message across, and I have come to conclude that undertaking exhibitions in this manner can be quite an effective means of disseminating one’s ideas broadly and consequentially. Plus, let me add that there is nothing quite like seeing these images up on a wall; for one thing the viewer reacts in an entirely different manner from that which ensues from the viewing of an image in a magazine. Their attention is more fixed, and the presentation goes a long way toward impressing people with the gravity of the message.


One response to “Jon Anderson Interview, Part III

  1. Wayne, two thumbs up for this very well made interview. It was a interesting and insightful read! Thank’s for sharing!

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