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Miki Johnson: So tell me about the American Photo magazine American Masters issue and how you found out about it.
Robert Glenn Ketchum: I didn’t know anything about it. Russell Hart, one of the editors at American Photo, has previously written about several of my projects and has convinced the other editors that I was worth a page or so every once in a while.
But American Photo has, without being mean to them, pretty much concentrated three-quarters of the magazine on individuals who are primarily fashion and people shooters. And the Masters Series had reflected that. There’s only been four others nominated to the series in 20-years of the magazine being published: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and Annie Leibovitz — all people and personality photographers. So it’s exciting to be in such a distinguished group of imagemakers, and even moreso to be included as someone who’s focused on the environment and made photos of the landscape more in the style of Adams or Porter.
Russell called me up, offered the possibility of the feature, and asked for a personal timeline of my projects, books, etc. The task was informative and breathtaking because I’d never put together such a thing for myself. It helped me see how lucky I’ve been to have been involved with so many projects that had positive effects. The conclusion of the timeline provided some serious reflection on that moment back in the ’60s in a Redwood forest on the California coast when I decided to make pictures of the landscape — then to flash all the way forward through those projects to where we are now. Wow! That’s the manifestation of dreaming your own existence, the proof it works.
MJ: Looking back at all of those results, are there any insights that jump out about how you achieved them?
RGK: One we’ve talked about previously, and I think the most significant one, was that I took this traditionally popular item, the coffee table book, and turned it into an advocacy tool. And not just by writing a more didactic text and adding difficult pictures, which I did. Also by learning how to publish it cost effectively and get it out there and use it in the media. If I’d have walked away from any of those publications after they were published, they wouldn’t have done anything. But because I embraced the whole cycle of the performance, it made them more useful.
It also created a system. So with each project the system got more refined and increasingly effective. And certainly now that’s where we are with the Bristol Bay campaign. We have powerful books, and we already have had one relative legislative success. And we’re pushing on.
Now with an acknowledgment like this for me from this magazine, it makes me an even more undeniable force, doesn’t it? You know, if Barbara Boxer already was impressed and invited me into her office before, how about now? It’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. I would be foolish not to leverage this attention to create advocacy on behalf of the environment.
At the opening of the American Photo article Masters Series, Russell writes, “Robert Ketchum may be one of the least known photographers in America, but he may also be one of the most influential.” I’ve done a lot of this stuff under the radar and I’ve done it on my reputation among a small network of people. Perhaps now my reputation has a bigger window.
MJ: Tell me a little about your background as an artist and your decision to approach photography from a more activist position.
RGK: When I came into photography, I had come out of a really prep high school and into UCLA, where I was required to take art classes. At first I thought I was threatened because “art” was something I had not done much of previously. Then I became very interested in the history of art, and I got involved in the design program. The design program led me to photography.
The teachers at UCLA at that time were spectacular, at the leading edge of the ’60s avant guarde movement in photography on the West Coast. That scene had it’s own unique kind of cult and cache. It was grounded in an eclectic base that included Paul Outerbridge, William Mortenson, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and the F64 school, and all this other stuff going on which my UCLA teachers, Edmund Teske, Robert Heinecken and Robert Fichter fed upon.
I entered UCLA in 1966, and it was an exciting time to be making art. I got the opportunity to pay some of my bills by shooting rock ‘n’ roll bands, so that’s what I was doing. In college I also encountered the writings of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson and the campus organizers of the Sierra Club.
On the way back from the Monterey Pop Festival, some friends and I stopped at a canyon in Big Sur called Limekiln Creek to camp. I got up in the next morning and after a solitary walk next to a stream in the quiet of the morning forest, I had one of those epiphanal moments. I heard the words of Aldo Leopold, suggesting that we had a moral obligation to protect our environment because it was the thing that keeps us alive. And Rachel Carson, who said, all the bad things we put out into our environment will eventually come back to us as poisons, and I thought, WOW, if I could make pictures serve those ideas, that would be a really great thing.
I didn’t jump into being an environmental photographer overnight; it took another 15 years of evolution and thought. But that was the moment when I started working towards it. And not just to make picture books, but make advocate tools. I still view photography as this fantastically adaptable medium, and even more so now that digital is upon us. Once photographic imagery is transcribed into digital information, you can print in concrete, you can embed in glass, you can print on fabric, you can weave it into looms. This is territory no one has explored much before.
If you look back at UCLA in the ’60s, it was going on then — and then postmodernism came in. And postmodernism took charge, in terms of molding the cultural mindset and conscripting the idea behind all grant giving and all exhibition coordinating. After the arrival of postmodernism, only a few of us would even touch nature and certainly not as a source of beauty.
If you look at postmodernism’s stars such as Jeff Koons, one of the most significant of the early postmodernists, his work is sculptures of Michael Jackson and pop icons, or huge sculptures of his wife and him making love to each other. Postmodernism reflected by Annie Leibowitz is about the cult of personality and in Cindy Sherman who assumes hundreds of witty guises throughout her work — it is basically all about ME. Postmodernism for me is about the cult of ME and US. And yeah, it can be very fun, and cerebral, but more importantly, it has pretty much controlled what the American public has seen in the gallery and art museums for the last 35 years.
After UCLA I got my masters from Cal Arts, which was one of the birthing places of postmodernism, so I totally get it. I don’t mean to put it down. It’s a perfectly viable language within the arts. But for me it was sterile because it was just a language within the arts.
I saw a new world coming at us with a changing environment and the promise of new media connectedness and what it meant to print and publish and do all this other stuff. And I saw the rise of the environmental movement in the early ’70s and how photography could serve it. It just seemed to me that my response as an artist should embrace serving these bigger issues in my life, and that the language and the conversation of this world was much bigger than that of the more rarefied art world.
I remember having this talk with myself, saying if you do this, the art world may ignore you. But if you succeed in the environmental community and you can actually save these lands you’re trying to save, would you trade that for all the fame? And the answer to that was, yes I would. Just make me an effective photographer that can drive real social issues and I will accept whatever it is I get out of that. And I went ahead and I did that work. And I never allowed the indifference from the postmodernist community to disrupt my own working tenor.
At the same time, I never stopped practicing photography in a more experimental way. So I have pieces that are now starting to be shown at Basel, Miami, that are 72 inches tall by 14 feet wide. They’re still based in nature, but they’re highly manipulated. I have also been doing textiles in China, hand-embroidered screens and standing screens and wall hangings based on my landscape photographs. I’ve been doing those for 30 years, and they are finally starting to get exhibition attention.
These may not be how the postmodernist world perceives important art as being made, yet if I were to look back over the last 40 years and say, what was really important? Was it that Jeff Koons did these amazing sculptures of himself having sex? Or was it putting a million acres of old-growth forest into protective status in the Tongass, or adding 60,000 acres of land to Saguaro National Monument resulting in it getting upgraded to a national park, or keeping Mitsubishi out of one of the only Gray whale birthing lagoons in the world at St. Ignacio, Baja? Do I feel that one of those two directions was more important, to me ultimately, and it should be to the public as well? Yeah, I do.
And there’s other amazing work being done by my brothers at the International League of Conservation Photographers, too. Guys like Frans Lanting, who has been knighted by his country for his conservation work, and Jim Balog, who was nominated for a McArthur genius grant this year. I think the work we’re doing (iLCP and others) is going to be held in higher regard in retrospect than it is right now. That’s why I say, I’m very flattered just to be included with these four “master” photographers who so clearly represent a different point of view than mine. Beyond that, just to have American Photo acknowledge me as a photographer and an artist of some repute may give me more traction in academic circles that haven’t seem to notice what I have been doing or hold it with much regard.
You know to me, in some ways post modernism was a dumbing down. It accepted an artists political point of view as long as it was cleverly hidden in intellectual reference, but seemed uncomfortable with putting the message undeniably in people’s faces where it might actually do some good. Exhibits that didactic might anger patrons and cost institutions contributions. Post modernism certainly gave us some outrageous shows and ones that stirred controversy but did they really do anything in the public arena besides create a fashionable buzz?
Photography is SO powerful, why not use it to its fullest power and exploit all of the ways it allows us to express ourselves. Look at Eugene Smith’s book about his wife’s cancer. Or pretty much any photographs Sebastião Salgado takes of people who are misplaced or victimized. I have never wanted to give money to beggars on the street because I’m never sure that it isn’t just for booze. But when I see Salgado’s pictures of world crisis circumstances, I have a whole new take on poverty and would like to see money given there. It’s an amazing power that his best photographs have.
In a way, therein lies the difference between the work I do and the postmodernist movement. The comparison here is the difference between Annie Liebovitz’s work and Salgado’s. They’re both taking pictures of people, but they have VERY different ideas about how those pictures will get used and what it is hoped those pictures will inspire.
That’s what I did. I had a different idea about what was important to my life, how my art might serve those issues, and how to use the work through the emerging mediums to expand the exposure of the ideas to evermore people. Postmodernism didn’t serve me in getting that done and has chosen to dismiss my efforts as journalistic, and not art. I supposed the textiles and the new digital prints are viewed as aberrations of old age.
We all do what we think we have to do.
Name: Robert & Robbie Bailey
Age: 42 & 41
Location: New York
Kind of photography we specialize in: Portraiture
Personal project name and short description: Faces4Reform – Portraits of America’s Uninsured. According to the 2008 U.S. Census Bureau, there were 46.3 million people living in the United State without health insurance. This series of portraits gives you a close look at some of their faces.
When and why did you start it?
Towards the end of the summer, we began to pay close attention to the debate over health insurance reform. As small business owners, we personally understand the plight of the uninsured. For years, we worked 80 hour weeks but were still unable to afford the high premiums unfairly imposed on the self-employed. We opted for a reasonable state subsidized insurance plan but that has increased by 65% in the last three years. If something doesn’t change, we could be uninsured again in the very near future.
Aside from our own personal motivation, we felt compelled to respond to the misconceptions about the uninsured. There are those that would like for you to believe that the majority are illegal immigrants or welfare recipients. In contrast, many of the uninsured people that we know are productive, hardworking individuals and families that are simply locked out of a broken system.
Sadly, political lines have been drawn, the spin-masters are hard at work, and the American public is once again at the mercy of entertainment journalism and those that specialize in misinformation. When that happens, those most affected get lost in the discussion and politics takes precedence over people. This series of portraits hopes to humanize the ongoing debate and encourage participation in the political process. As artists and small business owners, we obviously don’t have the money or influence to affect polices in Washington but we do possess a creative power that can be used to inform and inspire.
Do you have a particular image you are especially drawn to so far?
The power in this particular body of work lies in seeing the images as a collective.
What has been the most challenging thing about the project?
Finding the time to do it.
What has been the most rewarding thing about it? More »
As often happens, the top news this week in photography is also the top news in the world. On Tuesday a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, centralized in the capital of Port-au-Prince. We’ve been impressed by the response from photographers — not necessarily rushing to the scene to make photos (although you can see some great examples of that at the New York Times and The Big Picture), but making donations and encouraging others to. LiveBooks client Nick Zantop alerted us to his comprehensive list of legitimate charities helping with relief as well as a Facebook group providing up-to-the-minute information. We also saw that William Greiner is auctioning off a print with proceeds going to the Red Cross, Clark Patrick started a Cause on Facebook to support Doctors Without Borders, and Brian Smith blogged about five simple ways to support the victims.
The Wall Street Journal released a ranking of 200 jobs last week based on several criteria. The fact that photojournalist ranked near the bottom at #189 not surprisingly caused a stir in the blogosphere. Fred Ritchin at After Photography and Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer both took to task the criteria by which the ranking was made. What do you think? Is being a photojournalist worse than being an emergency medical technician or a nuclear plant decontamination technician?
Magnum photographer Dennis Stock, best known for his iconic images of James Dean, died on Monday. There is a lovely remembrance of him on the Lens blog as well as great multimedia autobiography at Magnum.
To finish up with some good news, Jörg Colberg (Conscientious) and Hester Keijser (Mrs. Deane) launched The Independent Photo Book last week, a blog where photographers can send their independently produced and sold books and zines, along with information on how to purchase them, creating a simple online clearinghouse. We posted about this in our ongoing discussion on the Future of Photobooks when it launched — 39 items have already gone up since then.
Miki Johnson: Tell me about the book you just released with Ruthann Richter, Face to Face: Children of the AIDS Crisis in Africa. What was the impetus of this project and what were you hoping to achieve with it?
Karen Ande: This book represents the culmination of seven years of work. The project began in 2002 when I was traveling in Kenya with my husband and friends. Our tour guide asked me if I’d like to visit an orphanage she had opened in the town of Naivasha and photograph the children, whose parents had died of AIDS.
I agreed to do it, thinking it would be a one-time visit that might result in a few shots she could use for fundraising. I did not realize that the children would charm me and that their survival hung in such a delicate balance. The orphanage ran out of rice the day I was there.
We left them with some money for food and I eventually went home and began to print the photographs. When I saw the images emerge in the developing tray I realized that I had an opportunity and a decision to make. I could choose to become involved in this issue or not. I chose to get involved, to reach out to nonprofits who were already supporting projects, to make multiple trips to document this issue. It has taken an enormous amount of time and personal finances, but I have never looked back.
I am driven by this issue — 12 million children have been orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. There is little infrastructure to care for the children, but many local people whom I have met through NGO’s have creative viable projects that make a difference in these children’s lives. I hope this book will convince people to take a close look at the children I’ve met and begin to care enough to try to help them.
MJ: You’ve said that when you started photographing it was important to you to focus on the positive, things are getting better and people who are making a difference. Why was this so important to you?
KA: People do not hang around to be depressed. The media overexposes us to images of suffering I think, consistently giving us two messages: 1) there is really nothing one person can do to affect these overwhelming problems, and 2) money donated to Africa will be diverted by corrupt governments and aid agencies and never get to the people who need it.
In fact there is a great deal one person can do if they know how. If you donate to organizations working with in-country activists who know and understand their communities’ needs, the money is not wasted. In fact it is often the best way to help, as these projects are generally successful and sustainable. We list many NGO’s in our book that support these types of projects. More »
It’s not enough anymore to create work for one media platform, especially if you intend to raise awareness about issues or are trying to effect change. Now when I create a new project as a photojournalist or with Talking Eyes Media, the non-profit production company I founded with my wife, Julie Winokur, we have our eyes on expanded opportunities for distribution: the web, social media, books, exhibitions, T.V., lectures, workshops, academic applications, and NGO collaborations. There are undoubtedly even more I haven’t thought, of and we’re always looking for new options.
To work in this multi-platform landscape, you must develop skills beyond still photography. You should at least be proficient at gathering and editing audio, and preferably you’d also understand video and be able to handle post production to produce a finished piece.
Since Julie and I founded Talking Eyes seven years ago, we have developed a process that fluidly moves from proposal, field work, and post production to outreach and followup. With the Niger Delta work, we’re learning as we go. As usual, we’re applying for grants, but now they are in areas I’ve never ventured into before, attempting to receive funding support for educational outreach programs.
One small example of this can be seen on my blog where we posted papers written by history students at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where my book was required reading. They were asked to pick three images and write about them, and we posted a handful of their papers with the students’ consent.
This is an important aspect of multi-platform storytelling: It can easily be disseminated to a wide variety of audiences. It also provides the means for those audiences to talk back with the photographer/producer about the work. It is exciting to being able to create a groundswell of interest in this way, by building a feedback loop between the documentarian, their subject, and the audience.
I am currently writing grants to fund a broader implementation of this feedback loop idea (really it’s a wiki, but I wanted to avoid that term). My vision is to create a new website, or augment the existing one from liveBooks, so that students in the U.S. and Nigeria (or anywhere for that matter), who are using teaching materials I’ve created around oil and environmental issues, can contribute their own comments, information, pictures, and videos to the site. So a student in Port Harcourt, in the Niger Delta, would study these issues using the texts, stills, and video from my work there (along with expanded teaching materials we plan to include in a teaching DVD) and then do his or her own reporting or just contribute personal materials to the site. In this way, they can correct, augment, and develop my work to broaden, deepen, and personalize it. More »
Miki Johnson: Tell me a little about the re-entry project, how you got interested in it, and why you wanted to tell the story.
Joe Rodriguez: I’m going to be very honest with you. This is a very personal story. It started when I was a young child. I watched my stepfather come in and out of prison over the years, about a decade or more, and a few of my uncles did the same thing. Then he was also an addict, so we had to watch this whole process, this up-and-down roller coaster ride with the family. And there wasn’t really much support for addicts back then in terms of re-entering society.
My stepdad died many years ago, and as a young boy growing up into a photographer, that story has always stayed with me. So this project was a personal journey. When I was working in Spanish Harlem and all around the country doing socially impacting stories, I started to see that this issue of incarceration was affecting many families. So I’ve been watching this growth of incarceration throughout the United States of America for some time. You know, I watched it go to 1 million, then 2 million over the years.
Then last year the Pew Research Center did a study called “One out of a hundred people in prison.” That was kind of the spark to seriously revisit this story and see what I could do about telling it in a different way. I did not want to repeat myself, and I didn’t want to repeat what other photographers have already done with work inside prisons. I wanted to challenge that story somewhat, because I think when you come out of prison, you’re still doing time in many different respects. You may be on parole, you may be an addict, you may have problems getting employment, and you can’t vote — all those different issues that affect many ex-offenders.
I thought it could be interesting to look at a non-profit organization like Walden House, which has been dealing with people coming from prison, specifically addicts, and working very intensely on changing their behavior. So a couple of years ago, in 2007, I connected with the people at Walden House. And a whole year went by talking about this possibility of working together or me coming to work inside some of their facilities in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And then last year they gave me a green light; I visited three of the facilities. One was dealing with mothers and children, one was dealing with just women, and one was just with men.
It was overwhelming and daunting because I profiled 40 to 45 people. And out of the 40 to 45 people, I focused on about 5 who we did these multimedia pieces on. I am hoping to reach a larger audience, because of the Internet and its long reach. I also just wanted to create a historical document of these people. And to be very honest, I don’t know what more I could do right now. I would love for it to change things, but I’m not that gullible.
MJ: Tell me about that decision to make this into a multimedia piece and, especially, to gather audio?
JR: The first trip was completely on my own, but I received a grant from the USC Annenburg Institute for Justice and Journalism for the second trip. That was specifically to do multimedia stories. The reason I wanted to do audio was because I can’t always get down everything the subjects are saying in a written interview. So the audio became a way to tell a more concise story and also to bring the audience in, in an emotional way. I want to grab the audience so hopefully they can feel Tracey’s story and Darlene’s story and John Vaughn’s.
MJ: And also they can’t ignore the words, right? I think a lot of people never get around to reading text with photos.
JR: We’re living in the age of interruption. I’m starting to look around and watch people when they’re reading on the web. It seems to be tricky for them to stay focused for pages and pages of text. I think audio really helps get the story in their head much faster. And then if they really want to learn more, they’ll be hungry enough to read. I think it’s a way to pull people in, not just into your immediate story, but to hopefully give them something more where they can go further with the issue or with this person’s life.
MJ: And when you were actually doing these interviews, how did you make the creative decisions, when to record and when to make images and how those work together?
JR: I just tried to keep myself calm knowing that what this person is saying while I’m photographing, I’m gonna hopefully be able to revisit in audio. One guy, Marko, was working in a bakery and I wanted to take pictures of him there. I photographed him working behind the counter, dealing with the public. Then the pictures slowed down and while I was waiting for him to go in the back with the ovens, I did some ambient audio of the store.
Then I knew I needed to do a portrait. I went into it thinking that if I could make a very engaging portrait, and I have a pretty engaging interview, I was gonna be happy with that. If I got anything extra, more reportage-type stuff, that would just help it even more. So I was actually multitasking with that particular interview. It really just depends on the subject and what’s happening.
What I like about the way I work is that it’s slow, so it enables me to revisit the person. And the more I revisit, the better story I get, either in audio or pictures. But I try, really, really earnestly to separate them — if I’m taking pictures, it’s gonna be about pictures. I try not to start thinking about what they’re saying or what’s going on, because then that just fractures me even more.
MJ: When you were planning the actual multimedia pieces, how did you think about how you wanted to put them together?JR: The first thing that was very important for us was just to listen to the audio. For an hour’s worth of audio, we could use maybe 5 or 10 minutes of workable audio from that. And after listening to the audio — and saying, is that important, that could be good, that could be good — then we laid out the proofs.
We feel that proofs are a more concise way for us to edit than on the monitor, because we can leave them down on the floor or leave them up on the wall and revisit them. That was the thing that we learned, the importance of revisiting. It took actually two or three months just to do the first multimedia piece. Now we know how to do it. I have to give major props to Benjamin Jarosch, our studio manager, who had never done this before, just like myself.
Revisiting is key because some days you think you’ve got it, and then you go back and you see it differently that time. Not to the point that you’re gonna pick it apart to death, but just making sure everything makes sense. When we laid the pictures out and looked at it with the audio, we’d say, ah that doesn’t really work there. Do we have a photo that kind of relates to this or can be a metaphor for this? Or can give us some atmosphere?
In the Darlene piece, she talks about her father passing away, and there is an image of a cemetery. That cemetery is not far from where she grew up, although that image was not taken at the same time the interview was. Because I know this culture so well, some of my images from other projects, even from East Side Stories, came into that story. And I would not have been able to do that if I didn’t allow myself the time to look and listen and then leave it alone and come back and revisit.
David White: Innocence, duckrabbit’s feature about child soldiers in Sri Lanka, just sort of emerged organically. I shot the photographs a few years ago now, whilst there was still a ceasefire. It was a very difficult and at times dangerous job, but one that I desperately hoped might make a tiny difference.
Recently I was sitting up very early in the morning when I saw a report on the news about the escalation of the war in Sri Lanka. I just started to write about how that made me feel. For once I was not worried about how other people would interpret and dissect my thoughts — I just needed to get my feelings out.
I posted my thoughts on the duckrabbit blog, and from there Benjamin picked up the baton, unbeknown to me.
Benjamin Chesterton: David is someone whose photographs have always moved me. His great big generous heart comes across in all his work and never more so than in the beautiful pictures he took in Sri Lanka. I’ve long wanted to turn them into a piece of multimedia, but what can you do with just 10 photos?
I got up one morning to find that David had posted about that experience on the duckrabbit blog. He captured the artist’s predicament in a really simple and powerful way. The desire to make a difference because some cause has embedded itself so deep into you. The feeling that if you don’t do something, it will suffocate you from the inside out.
Pretty much all I did was take his words, grab some screenshots off news sites on the web, use a song that never fails to move me, and mix it all up with his original photo’s. I didn’t tell David I was doing this. Just banged out a rough copy in a day, sent him the link and held my breath.
David: I have scanned, printed, and reproduced those Sri Lanka photos many times. I like them, I think they’re strong, but they’re not new. The words were a few lines I hammered out when I should have been sleeping. Yet, when I saw the finished piece, I cried, as did my wife, Jane.
Since then, that has been the many people’s reaction.
It still amazes me that such simple content can be reworked into something so strong. I could never imagine those stills in a magazine story having the same effect. Imagine going back to a set of pictures you have taken a while ago, that you know intimately, and having them move you to tears. That intrigues and excites me. That’s why I think multimedia offers amazing opportunities for photographers, to get their work out to new audiences, and to use it to reveal the world in new light.
Miki Johnson: You are obviously very passionate about nature and conservation issues. Where does that passion come from?
Daniel Beltra: Really since I was a kid I was passionate about nature and photography. I was interested at first in being an agency photojournalist, and I managed to get a staff position with EFE — the Spanish national agency. I was shooting all kinds of stories, but still with a taste for nature. I never finished college but I did a couple years of forestry engineering and four years of biology. Then I got tired of the normal day-to-day photographic work –- from the press conference to the basketball match to a demonstration. I wanted to do stories more in depth. I ended up quitting my job and I started working for Gamma, which allowed me to shoot stories that I selected and to give them more time.
At the same time I started shooting for Greenpeace, which opened this whole world to me as a photographer. That was really an incredible opportunity. All of a sudden I found myself traveling to Polynesia or the Antarctic or to Patagonia. So I was really on the frontier where many of these environmental issues were happening.
I got started with Greenpeace when I was a staff photographer in Spain. I talked to their local branch and they said, we do a lot with the media, so if something is going on in your area we’ll let you know. They called me one day and said they were doing a mammal survey on the Mediterranean. So I talked with my boss at EFE and he said, “Yeah right. What’s the news? And you want to take two weeks to do it?” I ended up convincing him to let me go on my own holiday time. I went with the agreement that if the story was good enough, the agency would distribute it. I was willing to go on my holiday because I was really passionate about it and I saw that it was a great opportunity.
I had a great time, they ended up distributing the story, and Greenpeace really liked it too. They came back to me and said, if you want to work with us, we’d be really happy to have you. But I was a staff photographer and I couldn’t. Then in 1992 I quit my job and started working with Greenpeace in Spain and also Greenpeace International, which is based in Holland. Since then I’ve been really involved with them. From 1992 until I moved to the United States in 2001 I was the Spain correspondent for Gamma. And often Gamma would say, “Are you working for Greenpeace or are you working for us?” Because I always wanted to go on the Greenpeace assignments. Of course Gamma had interesting assignments, but it’s very hard to compete with someone saying, “Do you want to go on a survey of the Arctic for three months on an icebreaker?” That was a no-brainer for me.
Greenpeace is my main client by far. They don’t employ any staff photographers; they work only with freelancers. I think they are clever the way they always want to have names in the industry that are recognized. So there’s a bit of a separation between the activism and the professional journalist that comes in. And in my case I try to keep that line separated, but deep in my soul I am very loyal to Greenpeace. But they don’t tell me what to shoot or anything. Of course they tell me they want a story about the Amazon, but once I’m there they don’t say show this, don’t show that.
Things are really changing with non-profits. I get the feeling that some non-profits can afford to pay regular market fees now. Maybe not 100%, but 75%. I think Greenpeace is very clever…they decided what are the best means to reach the public and inform the most people. And good photography or good video is a great tool. So to put someone that can do a great job in a situation that is very interesting and then they expose that in the media, it tends to work very well.
I feel that my work has more impact now than when I was a photojournalist. Not because I am better, but because of the situations I’m working in. I’m not only documenting what’s happening, but there’s a really strong will to change the situation. Greenpeace has pioneered that.
Miki Johnson: Did Aina meet with any resistance at first?
Reza Deghati: To give you an image, in 2002 we announced we were going to have a photography courses. There was no telephone, no electricity, no satellite, no running water. I said, it doesn’t matter, we can do it. Two days after we announced the courses, we had 500 people who signed up. We gave them a paper to write their resume on, told them what that was, and how to write it. We spent a few weeks reading the resumes, sorting out 55 students for interviews and we posted that list. The next Wednesday we had 700 people show up. Everybody said, “I didn’t see my name, I thought maybe there was a mistake.” The people in Afghanistan are like a dry sponge. They need every single drop. You cannot imagine how fast-learning they are.
In which city in the U.S. can you bring in seven girls who have never touched anything like a camera, train them, and in nine months they can make a documentary that is nominated for an Emmy award? These are the people who can change their own country much more than we can. And the enthusiasm of those people…You have to be there to see the eyes of the women who listen to the radio. Or when we distribute the magazine, see the whole village come to thank us.
During the first ever Afghan presidential election, everyone was saying, it’s going to be very tough. People won’t show up. And to the astonishment of the whole world community, it was the smoothest election. When all the world’s communities were astonished, Afghanistan’s foreign minister in a press conference said, “One of the reason our country understands democracy, is thanks to AINA.” These are the impact the organization is having now. But for me, the real outcome is 20 to 30 years from now.
MJ: What has been the biggest challenge Aina has faced?
RD: The real challenge and real problem is how to get funding for this project. Because when you are a pioneer, and you have a new idea, many people don’t understand the idea, or they think it’s not matching their organization’s mandate.
So I thought, “Well Reza, look in the mirror, you are a photographer, see what you can bring in.” I made a big auction in 2002 of 50 of my prints and two cameras I used to have with me in conflict zones, a Leica and a Canon. I was trying to send a message to all my colleagues saying that we need to be more involved. We are in contact with this population and we know how they are suffering and we have to give back to them. So from that moment some of our projects started attracting donations. But there were times when some projects, or the whole organization, were not getting funding. So then I started putting in all my income. When that wasn’t enough, I put in 100% of my savings, and did more auctions — three auctions up until now.
The reason I was doing this was that I believed this would be one of the big things the world needs in the 21st century. I believe training these local journalists will help create the big change. The main challenge was helping people understand that giving educational tools to children is more important than just building schools. But every time I found myself explaining this to someone and another NGO was talking about building a school, at the end they were writing checks to the people building schools, not building minds.
We have done 12 issues of our children’s magazine. Every time we have money, we print 40,000 copies and distribute them free everywhere. This costs 50,000 Euros, about $60,000. Think of 60,000 dollars in front of one day of U.S. military operational cost — and then think about what the result of these 40,000 magazines could bring.
Another challenge for me is explaining the importance of what we are doing to people in other countries. They say, “Our children have bookshelves that are full of books and magazines. They don’t mean anything.” So when I tell people about these children’s magazines we print, it’s hard to imagine what their importance is. But we’re talking about our magazine being the first ever printed color material ever seen in the whole village. Once we brought a single copy of the magazine to a whole village. When I went back after three weeks, 150 people had gone through that magazine. Fifty children had learned by heart some of the stories. That’s one of my challenges, how to explain to people how important these projects are. Or how many children’s lives do we save with one radio by helping women understand what the causes of child mortality are.
So how do we deal with funding? The National Geographic mission program is one way. But who is the second? National Geographic is not for profit. It’s not a foundation with deep pockets. This year they have to cut millions of dollars out of their budget. And we want to expand to other countries, also. The whole project is like a toolbox. When we go to a country and see a government that doesn’t like one of our projects, we can have a tool that is matching every country in the world, because of our concept of a toolbox. We can go to Cuba, Syria, Burma and be accepted by the government. That’s the whole concept. And by working and living in those countries, I’ve come to realize how you can get through those problems.
MJ: What can photographers and photo industry professionals do to help?
RD: We have launched Aina photo agency. If all the magazines in the world would look first at Aina Photo’s website when they are looking for pictures from Afghanistan, or if we can find a way to promote Aina Photo’s website, it will help its operation. So I’m talking to photo buyers first. If we sold one picture per day, at say $200, it would help the whole agency to run. If we can bring magazines in the world to understand that if you buy pictures from them, you are helping, because we are training more photographers now. You just helped train more photographers. And editors don’t take money out of their pockets, they get good pictures. If you give one assignment to an Aina photographer, instead of sending one person from Paris, you save hotel, interpreter, guide, and security fee. You save a lot of money. You gain by saying : I got better pictures, the pictures I wanted. But also in other parts you have a better conscience.
For photographers to help, when I launch this whole international organization, I will need membership. I’m going to ask all my colleagues if they want to help this project by becoming a member. This is a new form of social networking internationally. Many photographers are passing through Afghanistan, so I invite them to come to Kabul and give a lecture. In return they’ll get a lot of help. One of the projects I’m thinking of launching will be an international worldwide auctioning of prints by famous photographers who want to help this project. Like I did.