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Monthly Archives: October 2006
Part II of the interview with writer/editor Susan Henderson.
Wayne: You once wrote a magical realism flash for Smokelong. You quipped in an interview that you were unsure what magical realism is. How do you see the genre? Have you tried more experiments in that vein?
Sue: To be honest, it’s not one of my favorite pieces. The writing feels forced and overly dramatic. It was useful to try something new (if only to better appreciate those who get it right!), but it’s not very representative of my work.
A better example of magical realism is a gorgeous short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez called “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” I’ve read it a dozen times because it inspires me. Whenever I feel boxed in with where I can take my characters, this story shows how you can blow a hole through the wall of your story and go somewhere completely unexpected and magical.
I guess, some years after writing that flash you mentioned, I am just as unsure what magical realism is. I mean, does it also include Gulliver’s Travels? And what of fairy tales with gingerbread houses and Wee Free Men living just out of our consciousness and all those wonderful Greek myths – are these examples of magical realism, too? I don’t know. But they’re wonderful stories that bridge the worlds of fantasy with what we know, and in the end, all I care about is whether I enjoyed reading a story or not.
Wayne: What about flash fiction? How does it differ from the sketch or vignette–or poem for that matter? In what way does your affinity for poetry draw you to the form? For what kind of writer is the form suited?
Sue: I love flash fiction. Except for Mary Robison, I haven’t seen anyone try it in book form, but I’m looking forward to the day it’s an accepted form of mainstream publishing. I’ve read flash that has a beginning, middle, and end; and I’ve read flash that’s more like a poem in that it stays with an image or a scene. I think the jury’s still out on how exactly it ought to be defined. And again, I’m always in favor of less rules and more gut – does it feel finished and satisfying and wonderful? Good.
I remember Bob Thurber had once posted somewhere online a wonderful definition of flash fiction. I can’t find it (maybe one of your readers can?), though this [Wikipedia] link is interesting. Thurber is someone I see as a trailblazer in this field, and if I’m not mistaken, he was instrumental in getting the flash fiction wing opened at the Zoetrope workshop. Diane Williams is another trailblazer in the flash fiction movement. She’s be a great person to interview about this. Same with Kim Chinquee, who will be moderating a panel on flash fiction at the Atlanta AWP conference.
Personally, I find flash fiction is the number one way to work myself out of writer’s block. I grab a handful of random words, see what pops into my mind when I imagine those words together, and then try to write a paragraph or two that has movement and feels whole. Often, I’ll publish the flash on it’s own, but eventually, a flash piece tends to wind up as a part of a longer story or novel.
Wayne: You are well respected as an editor, can you share your thoughts on what beginning and emerging writers need to do to best improve themselves as writers?
Sue: Read! Read at least a book a month. Read different genres. You’ll start to fine-tune your ear, you’ll get an instinctual sense of pacing. You’ll learn why you can value Homer and Stephen King and James Baldwin and Alice Munro and PG Wodehouse, even though they seem to have nothing in common. That was an absolutely random and apparently male-dominated list off the top of my head, but you know what I mean. The more you read, and the more varied styles you read, the more you understand the many different ways a good story can unfold.
Wayne: Can you talk about your book projects? Besides the obvious difference in length, how are they different from your shorter works?
Sue: I’ve written two books, and I’ve outlined (sort of) and started (sort of) two others.
I’ve found that I love having the space and time a novel allows me to tell a story. The writing feels so much more grounded and coherent and satisfying. It’s a freeing form for me.
Short stories are very tricky things to write. There’s such an intensity of focus, and often the time span is so tight. You feel at any moment you might lose your audience. You’re trying to say so much so quickly. You have to introduce your characters immediately and write in ways that people understand them or form opinions of them instantly. But you have to write it in a way that doesn’t feel crammed with information because the plot has to race forward and there’s very little time to pause.
Writing a novel allows me to write what seems more like the truth as I know it – that people don’t often evolve in an instant, that the very dramatic events in our lives are rarely the ones that change us the most, and that it’s more often an accumulation of choices rather than a single choice that gets us backed into corners.
I thought novels would be like writing very long short stories, but they’re really a different form all together.
Part II of the interview with photographer John Loomis.
Wayne: Can you talk about the evolution of your career since you went to Missouri?
John: First, at the risk of sounding cagey or a bit ridiculous, I’d like to say that the “reasons” some people look for–in the paths that others have taken towards some goal–going freelance or deciding to photograph conflict, for instance–usually end up being pretty hollow and inapplicable to their own career. Learning that Jim Nachtwey perhaps woke up one morning and knew he was ready to move to NYC and get freelance work doesn’t really do me any good, and I’ve tried to steer clear of comparing that sort of thing because it’s all extremely specific and personal logic… and it should be. I mention this because I feel that whatever I may have done, for whatever reasons, doesn’t really mean anything to anyone else… to say otherwise in my opinion is just bullshit, and I’m tired of bullshit.
Along those lines, I don’t think I really chose to go freelance; it sort of chose me. All I did was have the courage to trust myself and take the next step, and then the next, and then the next. I hope that I have, at the very least, grown smart enough to learn from my inevitable and many mistakes. But that’s my career up into this moment… really that’s it. “Evolution” is a pretty strange way to put it, I feel, because I’ve been roughly trying to do the same thing since the very beginning. Slowly over time my understanding and consciousness about what I want for myself has changed; everything else has remained the same. And despite describing it so abstractly, I really like where I am right now photographically.
Wayne: How did you decide to locate to Miami? How does that city and the state of Florida color your work?
John: After living in North Carolina for a couple of years I was looking for a change and thought about heading back home to Florida and to Miami, where I was born and [where] my family had lived for generations. What I really wanted was more energy in my environment, and South Florida is definitely a great place for that. Additionally, and certainly not playing a very small part in my decision, my girlfriend had just started medical school down here. Any other reason after that, I’ve learned, sort of gets muted out.
In terms of working in Miami, I really hope that some of the color and passion has infused into my work. It’s started to, but it takes time to really uncover the true texture of a place. I think where it’s come through the most so far has been in my personal project work that I’ve begun here–essays that are deeply inspired from the new energy I’ve felt in South Florida–and that, along with being close to my family, has made the move really wonderful.
Wayne: You do a lot of corporate and environmental portraiture. How did you train yourself for such work? Can you share your thoughts on what goes into good portraiture? You also do a lot of work for the business magazines; how do you overcome the time constraints associated with that kind of work?
John: I do some, but it’s more of a reflection of the industry than my own personal interests. Portraits are at least 60 percent of what I and most photographers are assigned to shoot, and because that’s the case I do them in order to stay in business and fund other types of work that I’m passionate about. I never really trained at all to do business portraits–outside of buying a Hasselblad when I was first starting out–and I just approach each portrait on my own terms, trying to find something, anything, to make me interested in the subject or their environment. Even when I don’t care about some rich white guy in a suit (which is an unfortunately valid stereotype), I usually can find some beautiful ambient light to fall in love with instead… and sometimes that’s really what I’m photographing. (You can imagine that I don’t share that philosophy with my business clients.) But in my mind really important portraiture goes beyond light or composition, or even a connection between photographer and subject. It’s about trying to tell a story within the frame of a human body or face.
My background in journalism made dealing with the pressure of deadlines a not especially daunting problem, thank god. If I’ve been granted 10 minutes, I’ll get 20 out of the subject often times, simply because I demand it. When photographing someone who is used to being in control I never allow myself to be another person who is under their orders. I’m not rude, but I make it clear that I’m in charge and I’m there to do a job well and make them and their company look as good as possible. Nine times out of ten they are extremely helpful and give me what I need to make something work for my client, both because it’s in their self-interest, and because I feel that people generally want to please each other.
Having a limited palette to work with because of a CEO’s busy schedule can also be freeing in a sense, because you focus in on just a couple of variables and work them as hard as you can. On documentary shoots where I have a never-ending amount of time, sometimes I have more difficulty in trying to find that focus.
Wayne: So, why a magazine like BlueEyes? Who was involved with the startup, and how was it launched? What was the market missing? Why is it online, and what advantages and disadvantages does the Internet hold for documentary photography?
John: Blueeyes Magazine was created in 2003 by myself in order to create a home for passionate documentary photography work. In a sense, the reason for it is because of that 60 percent that I alluded to before. There is just not enough editorial space for important long-term photography which explores political, social, and cultural issues around the world. I found it important to try and help foster an online publication which could support and celebrate what I believe to be the most difficult and rewarding genre of photography. The seed that created the magazine was cultivated at Missouri among the same group of friends who inspired me with their incredible work which they created and then had no place to share it. Since that time the magazine has been expanded and we now have a seven-member staff who all give their time for this labor of love.
There really wasn’t any other options for Blueeyes when I created it, during the beginning of my freelance career, nearly broke and living in my hometown. The internet allowed me to publish stories without an eye on length, and that freedom was an important part of what I was trying to encourage; that projects didn’t have to subscribe on a traditional 8 to 12 picture format that I had learned in college. The obvious advantages inherent in publishing online, some of which we are still trying to take hold of, are creating a worldwide base of viewers who can interact with the magazine anywhere at anytime, through which we may help foster a dialogue between the subjects, photographers and readers. The main disadvantages that I’m impacted by is that I love holding photography in my hands, or seeing it up on a big white wall, which I miss with Blueeyes, but which we are working towards very slowly.
Kitra Cahana is a Montreal-based photographer and student at McGill University. Her photography has appeared on the front pages of The New York Times and USA Today. She has won third place in the prestigious Pictures of the Year International for her coverage of the recent Israeli Disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
Wayne: How did you end up covering the Gaza Pullout? Did you already have magazine assignments lined up, or did you simply decide that you were going to make it your first large, self-assigned project?
Kitra: I didn’t plan on covering the Disengagement. Two months prior to the Pullout I went down to Gaza on a whim with a fellow photographer. I had a flight scheduled to go home to Montreal for the following week, but failed to show up at the airport when I realized how significant it would be both personally and professionally to stay in Gaza. Without a plan or a press-pass (because I was 17 and too young) and with little more than my camera body, I found a lot of support with the photographers who were already based in the settlements. I eventually nested on the Reuters couch in the central settlement of Neve Dekalim.
I spent the year leading up to Disengagement balancing my studies at Hebrew University with an internship at a prominent Jerusalem-based photo agency Flash 90. I had a lot of local contacts, but not enough to know how to organize myself within the wire and magazine world. I think it was to my advantage to have had the freedom to work for myself. That way I was able to fully learn from the outstanding photographic sources living around me without the stress of working for somebody.
Why the Pullout for this kind of assignment? It is not often that we find ourselves in the heart of the world as it is beating the strongest. The Disengagement was the first major story that I found myself in the middle of. There was no way I couldn’t have done it. When I was first trying to convince my hesitant mother that I needed to stay, I just said: “This is something I know I have to do,” and she understood.
Wayne: How difficult was it to keep from getting wrapped up in the emotion of such an event?
Kitra: I think to be a strong photographer you need to speak the language of emotion. As a human witnessing another’s pain through photography, I try to humble myself behind the camera. It is not my place to delegitimize another person’s suffering but to recognize it whether that be a settler being evicted from his home, a soldier fulfilling duty or a Palestinian waiting at a checkpoint. But the task being attuned to emotions is deeper than that. I feel the need to develop my own compassion through photography, but more importantly, to envision a poetic landscape that is reflected in the way I feel and experience the subject in front of me.
Wayne: How did you first become interested in photography, and specifically, interested in photojournalism?
Kitra: I think photography helps us define what it is we are searching for. When I first started photographing four years ago, photography was less product oriented and more about developing a perspective of the world. I was drawn to the personal meditation I found therein. Photography gives us a chance to reframe the viewfinder and thus reframe the way we think thoughts about the world. Walking through an exhibit, I decided to use photography as the medium to develop self. I singled out qualities that I hoped to embody and began to photograph them. A month was given to only photographing joy, the following month to sharing. I found in the end that the images were all identical. But I wasn’t. I think all art has the power to transform. Eventually my interest in the image itself and my interest in photojournalism began as I realized the potential of turning reality into art through recognizing the beauty that exists (even in the most horrific of circumstances).
Wayne: How seriously were you considering photojournalism as a career when you entered McGill?
Kitra: I finished covering the Disengagement on Thursday the 25th of August last year and started my studies at McGill in Montreal the following Monday. By that point, I knew my path lay in Photojournalism. While I probably could have found a way to continue working full-time, I didn’t feel as though I was ready emotionally and intellectually to start doing that. Just because you are able to work doesn’t mean that you necessarily should. It’s very easy to approach photojournalism superficially–to not have a context or to not be able to fully see what you are seeing and translating what is in front of you for the rest of the world. It’s a responsibility that I felt was bigger than where I was last year.
Wayne: How beneficial or detrimental have your studies been to your photojournalism?
Kitra: Knowledge is a tool that is wholly empowering. It gives us a context to see what is in front of us and the ability to live on multiple levels. That translates into the ability to create layers in photographs and to make use of symbols that can turn a normal image into a historical or religious reference. So far, studying has only broadened the number of stories I want to photograph and the depths to which I want to cover them. It gives me the language to speak about my images and the ability to refer meaningfully to what it is I am doing.
Wayne: How challenging is it to be both a student and a photojournalist, and what are you doing to overcome those challenges?
Kitra: I’ve sat through a lot of lectures distracted by the interesting light that falls on my professor’s face. But distractions aside, I find that being a student has allowed me the space to think about photography. To not only look out into the world for vision but to also look inwardly and bookwardly for understanding. I think the school year gives a nice balance for the growing photographer. The school year is devoted to reflection while the long, juicy, passion-filled summer breaks are devoted to story making. I appreciate being able to take my time developing an emotional maturity before taking on a full-time career.
Wayne: How supportive has your family been about Your photojournalism, especially since you’re turning up in these crisis areas?
Kitra: I am extremely close with my family. I am the eldest of five uniquely individual children and two parents?who I see as champions of humanity in their own right and the source of our achievements. Some of my photographic ambitions have made my parents uneasy, such as this past summer when they could hear Katyusha rockets landing near my hotel window over the phone. But they are adventurers as well, and I grew up hearing about their run-ins with various armies on their two-year honeymoon in South America or the times they smuggled Jewish literature into the USSR for the Jews of Russia. All our resources were always devoted to traveling and experiencing the world, and, thus, most of my childhood memories are in developing countries living with the people there and realizing that you are allowed to call the whole world your home.
Wayne: You have an amazing eye for someone who just turned professional. Which photographers have been influential on you in developing that eye?
Kitra: The photography section in the library is really where my photography education began. Among those that I regard highly and get “aesthetic tingles” from are the works of Paolo Pellegrin, Joachim Ladefoged, Trente Parke, Jehad Nga, [Sebastiao] Salgado, Jan Grarup, Tom Stoddart and Pep Bonet especially his Faith in Chaos. Each has a certain aesthetic consciousness that I would like to develop in my own images. Studying their works and others has inspired me to push further in my own vision.
While interning at Flash 90 in Israel, I found great encouragement in being with other photographers at an event and watching it afterwards on the wire. My boss at Flash 90, Nati Shohat, gave me a mind-frame to begin thinking about photography. Afterwards I have found many mentors and friends in the field. Shaul Schwarz has had a huge impact on my photographing.
Wayne: Are you seeing noticeable improvement in your technical skills from assignment to assignment?
Kitra: I feel as though I’ve grown technically in great strides very fast. The more assignments I do, the more I come to understand where my weaknesses lie and how to address them. There are certain shots I know are harder for me to see, but recognizing where I have difficulty seeing helps me see more clearer. While working in Ethiopia, Shaul encouraged me to “Work at what you’re bad at, and explode at what you’re good at.” Although difficult, it’s a mantra I repeat and try to live up to.
Wayne: You’ve had a heady year. Your work has already appeared on the front of the New York Times and USA Today. Not to mention your placing in POYI. Besides producing terrific work, how have you managed that?
Kitra: While interning in Jerusalem, I was working for an agency, Flash 90, that submitted photos to EPA. So when Laura Bush visited the Western Wall, my photograph of her was featured on the cover of USA Today through the wire service. Then during the week of Disengagement, EPA’s Jim Hollander took me on as a stringer, so it was again thanks to the wire that I got the cover of the NY Times. My mother called the next morning to tell me, and we were all really astonished and excited. POYI was also very thrilling as were other recognitions.
Wayne: How are you using that early recognition to further your photographic ambitions?
Kitra: Early recognition has in itself furthered my ambitions. Whether my work is spectacular or not has often been overshadowed by my age. It is sometimes difficult to get a sense of where along my development I am. I think that by nature photography is a very unassured act. We are constantly dealing with a subject matter that is finished in itself and yet constantly changing. In that respect I find it difficult to find a confidence in one’s own work. But being recognized has helped develop a confidence and a belief in the process, – even if I do not fully understand it yet.
Wayne: What took you to Ethiopia?
Kitra: I recently returned from an independent project in Ethiopia and Israel where I photographed the Falash Mura, a group of approximately 12,000 impoverished Ethiopians, who are immigrating to Israel under the auspices of the Israeli government. The story itself is fascinating and has many political as well as humanitarian aspects to it, which has challenged me on multiple levels. It has forced me to take time aside and meditate on my story and its flow. While unsure of my outcome, I am more understanding of the process of story-telling and the conflicting responsibilities that a story can pose to the narrator.
Wayne: What other kinds of assignments are grabbing your interest?
Kitra: I am interested in stories that have to do with my community as a young Jewish woman. I am interested in dealing with issues that are going to further my understanding of self as well as stories that are going to teach me about the sort of adult I wish to become. Most likely this would mean documentary photography a la visual anthropology. Often, I find, photojournalism not representative of the amount of good that exists in the world.
Photojournalists have not only the responsibility to tell the world how destructive it is, but also how inspiring it is. This is achieved through telling how great the world is and can be- through aesthetics as much as true human situations.
Wayne: You recently got back from Israel. What was it like covering the situation on the ground?
Kitra: It’s always a challenge to find the point where photojournalist meets humanist, as in every new situation that point is renegotiated. I covered my first attack with dead bodies on the scene while I was up north in Israel. I found it difficult trying to find that balance between being sensitive to the survivors mourning over their loved ones, while at the same time recognizing my responsibilities to tell the story as a photographer. I expected to be more distraught than I was in reality. I think sometimes one isn’t always ready to recognize one’s own mortality in a moment like that. It’s afterwards that one begins to live life as a changed person.
Wayne: How was it different from your expectations?
Kitra: I was moved emotionally by the resilience of the human spirit to respond to those in need, to create a sense of normalcy even in times of war. I hadn’t expected that. The north was relatively empty because the rest of the country responded quickly by finding summer camps for the children and making make-shift homes and opened doors for the adults.
During the war I spent a few days living with a family with four down syndrome children. They were visited every few days by young volunteers from Southern Israel who risked their lives to comfort the children and play with the neighborhood families living in the bomb-shelters.
Wayne: How has it solidified your resolve to become someone willing to document crises, and what is it about your psyche that makes you want to do so?
Kitra: Having traveled so much as a young child in developing countries has made the existence of extreme poverty, disease and death a natural force in my mind. I don’t see myself as becoming a crisis photographer but rather as a humanist photographer. Sometimes I feel as though photography is a form of spirit possession, where the subject communicates himself to the people through my camera. Sometimes people pushed to the extremes reveal the core of the human spirit. Other times, I feel as though I am a sort of aesthetic dictator where I impose beauty onto situations that can otherwise only be described as grotesque and horrid.
John Loomis is a Miami-based photographer who specializes in editorial, portrait, and photojournalism for his magazine and advertising clients. He is also the editor in chief of Blueeyes Magazine. John is represented by Redux Pictures.
Wayne: You first started stringing for your local Florida newspaper when you were 15. How did that happen, and what kind of assignments were you shooting?
John: I stumbled into journalism and photography during the beginning of high school and pretty much immediately fell in love with it. I was actually probably way too serious about it way too quickly, and in that first year I was lucky to befriend a couple of photographers at the local newspaper in Tallahassee, [Florida], and started to shadow them on shoots and then eventually became a sort of intern/stringer. I shot small assignments here and there, but mostly just during the summers. Everyone at the Democrat was really wonderful to me and I ultimately grew to relish the atmosphere of working at a newspaper and swapping stories with everyone.
Wayne: How long and in what ways were you involved with photography before then? What other photography did you do before you ended up at the University of Missouri?
John: Before high school I really don’t remember any significant tie to photography. I had always been involved with art, and was an avid painter for years. But I’m not one of those photographers with a cute story of how their parents gave them an old Kodak when they were four, and their life was changed. Quite honestly, I didn’t really fall in love with the medium of photography ever… I fell in love with trying to communicate and understand the world around me through art, and using that medium to tell a story. That’s what was really powerful to me. And to that end, and because I loved newspapers, as soon as I learned about the University of Missouri, that it was where the word “photojournalism” itself was invented, I was sold and knew I wanted to leave [Florida] for college.
Wayne: You were already working semi-professionally/professionally before school. Why did you decide you need to study photojournalism? Why the University of Missouri? And what did you think of the program once you were there?
John: I already had some experience, at least a little beyond working on a school yearbook (I was very lucky, by the way, to go to a high school who had a very serious and historic journalism department–which is probably rare) but I knew that I had a lot to learn. Also, at the time I had no idea how people actually got a job in journalism as a photographer, and so I thought that college was a really good idea. And it was. On this side of school, which I really loved but ultimately grew to feel very held back by it, I can see that what was ultimately the most important part of my education was the amazing group of friends that I made and was challenged by to push myself and my ideas about what great photography was all about. Beyond my friends, I had two really wonderful professors and mentors, in David Rees and Kim Komenich, who gave me so much in their friendship and passion.
Wayne: You have seen the debates over whether formally studying photojournalism makes sense. What are your own views on this?
John: Outside of the unique opportunities of Missouri (POY, CPOY, speakers, MPW, etc.) that allowed me to meet a lot of very cool people in the industry, which helped me out a good deal, journalism school itself is something that I don’t find all that important. I get asked a lot, or read on Lightstalkers, about debates between which photo J-school is the best, […] and I think it’s a bit of a joke. None of them are better, really. In my opinion it was not the school, it was my tremendous luck to attend with some really wonderful people, that made the difference. Journalism is one of those great fields where you can’t learn much from a book, and only after you throw the book out the window and run outside to start trying, and fuck up, can you start to make sense of the job and what it means to practice it well. Journalism school doesn’t do any harm, I guess, but it’s very possible to go straight through and never be really challenged.
Wayne: Why did you also decide to study English?
John: I had always studied English at school, and as I got further into college I began to drift away from journalism classes and towards my literature classes because they just made a lot more sense to me. Around the same time of this shift, I took a very important photography class taught by Komenich, which I audited (I wasn’t allowed to actually enroll because it was a “capstone” class), I was exposed and really engaged for the first time with a ton of documentary work that I had never seen before. It was a revolution for me. This was Magnum work and Robert Frank and Errol Morris films and Sylvia Plachy. Kim had us go through dozens of these incredible books from his collection every class–books that went so much further than I ever knew was possibly in expressing a personal vision of the world that had absolutely no interest in debates of “objectivity”–and lectured on the connection between photography and jazz and literature and everything else. So, after that class most of the other photography classes didn’t mean much to me… thus my English major. Later even English wasn’t enough for me, and in my senior year I left school to start freelancing.
Paradegoers on National Poland Day lose a hot dog to the streets of New York.