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Free time is a terrifying thing to have, at first. When I was a staffer, I talked about everything I was going to do and kept a list. The first week I had off from work, though…I sat staring at my computer just crushed by the overwhelming weight of freedom. So I set up a comprehensive list of everything I wanted to do and organized my days to have a loose rotation. If I have a week off while the Braves are out of town I rotate my days between:
(1) PHOTO DAY – Spent working on personal projects, screwing around with studio ideas, editing photos, researching things I want to work on, planning future projects
(2) FILM DAY – Working on scripts with my roommate, who is a writer, watching shorts, reading FilmMaker, MovieMaker and Film Comment, watching movies, reading about other filmmakers, researching
(3) TRAINING DAY – Log on to Lynda.com and choose something from SEO, Flash, Final Cut, PhotoShop, or any other program and learn something new — it’s been phenomenal
And on the seventh day of the week? Errands and finances: getting bank accounts into order, budgeting for the rest of the month, paying bills, buying way too many Magic Arms at Showcase Inc., etc. The key to my new career is constant growth, continuous learning, and striking a balance between paying the bills and doing what I want to do.
Business took longer to learn, but I read a lot and talked with others who were in business and sales. I listened to other photographers at workshops and conferences and sought out people in industries outside photography. I was like a sponge, soaking up as much information as I could. I then tried to immediately implementing what I learned.
Establishing my professional identity in a new community — we moved to a different city and I created a new business. I was known and well-connected in the Baltimore Washington community because I had worked as a staff photographer for the Baltimore Sun for 11 years. In Charlotte, where we’ve been for two years, people are still getting to know me and my work. My biggest challenge is to grow my client base, while getting to know Charlotte. A friend counseled me, “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” which has helped tremendously. Being patient has been key.
I remember when my son was only two years old and I was leaving for a two-month trip to Pakistan. As I was saying goodbye, I started to cry. Eli looked at me in puzzlement, not understanding why his father was crying, not understanding anything about what was happening and that I was leaving. Twelve years later now, Eli is 14 and my daughter Isabel is 11, and I still find myself needing to connect, to explain, to seek compliance or understanding from them when I leave them for my latest assignment — and more often than not, it doesn’t register with them.
Before a recent trip, I made sure to walk Isabel to school. When we got to the steps of the school, I wanted so badly for us to have a heartfelt goodbye. Instead, she ran off when she saw her friends and barely said goodbye to me. Did this mean she didn’t care? Or was she avoiding “dad’s emotional trips”? Or was she totally unaware of the moment’s importance to me because, for her, our frequent separation is standard operating procedure?
From an early time in my life of constant comings and goings, I’ve realized so much of what I’m going through, I’m going through alone, in isolation. Home has become a base for me, so when I leave it takes time to separate from it. And I never entirely do. Then, upon reentry, I reconnect with my wife and kids, yet I’m often already thinking about my next trip. This constant state of flux creates a sense of being suspended between worlds and always feeling isolated on some level from both — a suspended isolation.
On another trip, I’m flying above Pakistan, en route to Mumbai to teach another workshop, this one for Carlo Roberti who runs the Tuscany Photographic Workshops in Italy. I’m thinking about traces of the familiar. The many good luck charms that Isabel has given me over the years remain in my travel bag, a constant reminder of her warmth, love, good nature, delicious spirit.
My wife Julie rarely gives me mementos, just the constancy of her being, the comfort of knowing she is there and committed. While there is nothing tangible from her in my bag, knowing she is there keeps me going in my darkest hours. From Eli it’s a similar yet more confusing and troubled trace. His love and attention come only with cajoling. He is not forthcoming nor in need of showing me his love or affection. Without these physical and emotional gifts from my family, I’d truly be lost. I can’t imagine a wandering for love and comfort that could possibly replace the firmness of my family.
Part of my sensation of suspended isolation stems from my own personal neediness. I am way too dependent on being connected, and our current climate of digital connectivity only indulges me further. This really started with the cellphone but has accelerated with texting and the ability to have instantaneous communication from almost anywhere in the world. I am addicted. On a good day it’s a wonderful combination, where I feel productive, engaged in the world, and simultaneously connected to my family and studio. On a brooding day, I see it as a character weaknesses that keeps me from engaging deeply with my subjects.
My sense of this suspended isolation started before I even left for my recent trip to Holland and Syria. The morning of my departure it became clear I was already out of my kids’ minds. While saying goodbye, I was reminded that they are living lives entirely outside this internal drama of mine, which only reinforces my feelings of being alone, suspended between my here and there, my aloneness and our togetherness.
This feeling is a semi-permanent condition at this point. This trip has been easy in some ways and quite taxing in others. Syria makes me feel diminished and weak. I know when I get home and review the work, the story will be a success, and I will feel strong and secure. But for now, I am tired and searching for solid ground. That is home, I know. But home is fleeting for me right now. I love you, Isabel and Eli. Our lives are crazy and moving too fast. I hope you and I find a sweet eddy to chill in sometime soon.
Interestingly, the best antidote to all my inner bullshit (as my wife would not put it but clearly views it) is to just do great work. It’s amazing how much better I feel and how my feelings of isolation suddenly vanish after a great day of shooting, reporting…being engaged. When I’m in the field, my ability to find stories and my desire to report and record are what keep me going and allow me to “forget” about myself. When I already feel isolated, and I’m not finding ideas and stories — that’s when the mental games kick in and life starts to feel desperate.
I’ve observed this cycle over the years, and it’s interesting how I frequently come out of it. Just when I am so goddamn lonely, desperate, burned out and tired, hopeless and depressed — in a state where a normal person would take a mental health day or a vacation or check into the local rehab clinic — I’ll go out that day and have an amazing experience, a great shoot, a wonderful human encounter, or witness something that takes me out of myself. Suddenly I’m healed, re-energized and ready for more. It’s bizarre and runs counter to logic. But I’ve had it happen dozens of times in my career.
For now, my only way to deal with my suspended isolation is to just bull through the emotions. After an exhausting inner dialogue with myself, I pick myself up, dust myself off, and get on with things. Is there any choice? Over the years, the only thing I’ve learned to help me cope with this is that, experience shows, it’s always ok in the end. I will get through these periods of isolation, suspended between worlds. My work always turns out great, my moments of despair invariably pass, and I get home. The key is not to let the conflict in my heart and mind poison my relationships with unnecessary outbursts of anger and pain — so when I am home there is at least the opportunity for us to connect, to find the love and calmness that fills our lives with beauty and health.
The reason I started in photography is that my father is a photographer and my grandfather, who did sales for photographic equipment, also did photography as a hobby. By 1983 my dad opened his own business, and at that point his father and him started these stock photography trips. My dad submitted my grandfather’s photos for a book that ended up becoming the number one best-selling book in the 1980’s. That got my grandfather pretty excited. So they spent the rest of the time until his death running the photography company together. And that’s kind of what I grew up with, with both of them shooting together.
Originally I had no desire to grow up and be a photographer. But when I got to college, I suddenly realized that this is the lifestyle I’m used to. Being a photographer is unique because you have permission to go places you’ve never been. Every day is different and you work with all these different creative people. So one night, I said to my father, I’ve never expressed an interest in this, and I’m still not sure, but would you support me while I explore photography? And he said, absolutely. It’s a great gift he gave me.
I ended up getting a degree in film, so I could still be different from my father. My pictures can move, while his are still. But that was just out of my youthful need to be different. By the time I was 28, I had gotten to the point where I could work with my father, rather than for my father. Plus, I’ve always been a little envious that my grandfather and him worked together. So when I moved back to Dallas from San Francisco, I ended up saying to my father, let’s do photography together.
What we found works best for us is to divide up our roles and responsibilities. My father, for instance, handles all of our Photoshop retouching and all of our printing. That’s one of his talents. I try to handle our new business relationships, our marketing, our websites, our blog, and those kinds of things. That helps us keep enough energy in our own personal batteries to do a good job for our clients.
As far as family-run photography businesses go, working with my father is different from a husband and wife working together, simply because we’re not the same age. Here I have my father, who’s been in business for 30-plus years; he has wisdom from longevity. He’s seen a lot of different things. At the same time, I have a youthfulness and the ability to relate to clients on a different level. For example, when my dad flirts with the bridesmaids, it’s more of a fatherly kind of thing than if I do.
One of the things that I appreciate about my dad is the fact that some people kind of get stuck in doing the same thing. Once they figure out that something that works, that’s becomes their signature and they don’t do anything else. My dad has been really good at reinventing himself, almost like Madonna, throughout the years. Sometimes we play a games with the bride and say, “Guess who took what photos.” Sometimes the wildest ones, the most energetic ones, are ones that my dad took, but the brides would have guessed it’s me. It’s fun because he still has that youthful spirit.
I think in any relationship, the biggest question is, are you still growing as a person? Whether you’re husband and wife, whether you’re brother and sister, whether you’re father and son. We can all learn from each other. You just have to have that open heart and open spirit. Not only do my dad and I work together, we live together, too. It’s just him and me. We are literally around each other 24/7. We’re very blessed by our photography business; it gives us a lot of opportunities to do things together.
Photojournalism and the documentary tradition is alive and well, but like Frank Zappa once said about jazz, “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.” The question I constantly confront is, how do we move this medium forward into the new millennium, keeping it fresh, alive, relevant and growing? We cannot let the digital revolution destroy the magical powers of still photography. I firmly believe we are in a period of transcendent growth and opportunity. How do we reinvent still photography in the digital age and prove the naysayers wrong?
Having the patience and time to produce in-depth, meaningful work is of utmost importance — but now without the support of magazines, how do we continue? We cannot allow the economic and political shifts in media to destroy our ability to get out into the world to tell stories people want to hear and see. We’ve never been at a more challenging crossroads for photojournalism, and finding alternative sources of funding and dissemination are essential. What will those look like and who will they come from? My guess is from a variety of places: NGOs and other foundations with specific interest in the issues our work deals with, the editorial world both in print and online (with online providing the bulk of new opportunities over time), grants from both the arts and photography, but also direct partnerships with non-media sources such as universities.
In the face of all this uncertainty, it’s especially important to keep it real for yourself and true to your passions, causes, joys, and inquisitions. What drives me is the compulsion to seek a kind of truth, to find out what certain realities feel and look like as they relate to issues and themes that matter to me personally. Now when I translate those situations into stories, they are no longer only visual — instead they include all the elements of storytelling. Still images are the basis for these stories and the structure for my explorations. But utilizing more of the senses, with sound that incorporates the voices of my subjects, the ambient sounds of the situations my images are made in, moving imagery to give more visual dimension to the subjects and place, and finally music…that most universal of languages. Today we inhabit a playland of creative opportunities unrivaled from the past. Yet for me still photographs form the emotional core, visual feel, and personal approach to my work as firmly as ever.
What strikes me about being in India is the growing gap between village and city life. City life is dirtier and more chaotic. People are drowning in their own excrement and sullied air. The calm of silence is hard to find, and the constant blaring of horns and the sounds of a civilization on it’s out-of-control march towards modernization leave me questioning the future of mankind.
Rural life is simpler, often set in magnificent landscapes and rich environments, yet impossibly poor by first-world standards. There are too many children, not enough education and health care, and a toughness to daily life that leaves me feeling as uncertain about the fate of man as the city does. If India represents the future of human civilization, an emerging economic superpower, I fear mankind is doomed on this earth. The common denominator between this imbalance and the one I’ve witnessed so graphically in the Niger Delta is a clear lack of sustainability. The more I travel the world with my peering eye and my questioning mind, accruing a privileged wealth of firsthand knowledge, this lack of sustainability is my overwhelming impression.
From my upper-middle-class-but-progressive New Jersery neighborhood to the oil-spoiled countries of Africa and the Middle East, to the overpopulated India and China, to the dirt poor communities across the globe, particularly in the southern hemispheres, we have created an international human community that is in imbalance and cannot possibly sustain itself from the point of view of resources, pollution, overpopulation, and the associated social, economic, and environmental strains. Unless we change our ways fast, failure seems to be the only outcome. Maybe not in my lifetime, but eventually.
These thoughts leave me less than sanguine about life, yet on a daily basis I also witness the spirit of human ingenuity, the life-sustaining power of people’s survival instincts and the glimpses of solutions, both on a small community level and at a global level as practiced by the most progressive corporations and institutions. Take for instance an initiative we learned about, which preserved and developed medicinal plants and herbs native to this Rajasthani community. They have created a nature preserve dedicated to this cause, thereby providing income for the community. While being a photojournalist can be damaging to one’s sense of hope and drive you into a deep hole of despair, there are also uplifting moments and glimpses into how people survive and help one another. It’s this constant cycle of destruction and renewal, part of the life cycle, which I get to witness on a constant basis through the privilege of my roving observations.
Every National Geographic Photo Camp I’ve worked on has impressed these notions upon me, and as I get older, the need to receive and give nourishment and cross pollination becomes essential. Being in this rural community in Rajasthan makes me wonder if the future of sustainability, or at least any hopes of survival, will come from the simple, centuries-old agrarian lives people here live. They are not greedy, they live within their means, eat fresh food and all seem to have one need. Yes they could use surer, cleaner sources of water, more reliable electricity, stronger houses, much better education and health care….all the extraordinarily important elements of a healthy life. But at least they live within their means while the developed world lives far outside of theirs, relying on a structure that is unfair, destructive to the earth’s environment, and self-serving.
I am eager to teach, give information to, even lecture my children because I want them to learn what I’ve learned — sooner rather than later. Maybe they’ll be able to take advantage of the information and avoid some of the mistakes I made growing up. This desire also holds true for the photo students I encounter in my workshops. Photography is so much more than image making, particularly photojournalism and documentary work. There are deeper responsibilities and moral and ethical issues connected to your work when you are given permission to enter people’s lives intimately to witness their pain and joy. We photographers become agents of communication, bridging worlds, charged with healing as well as slapping our viewers in the face with information they must know. Students and young photographers must learn this as early as possible to better serve the purpose of this work. We must learn to make the world a better place by shedding light on dark places but also by providing solutions and hope. It took me years to understand this, having spent so much time just trying to make my mark in this profession and struggle with making a living and gaining influence to get my stories out. I want my students to understand these critical elements sooner rather than later.
The first day of the workshop was frustrating due to a selfish teaching assistant. I was tired and cold and wanted to go home. Until then the workshop had not been satisfying; the kids were too timid, unengaged with us, and the conceit of the structure of the workshop began to show through for me. The power and importance of education is what I learn from these experiences, not always smooth or easy.
This workshop was a challenge, to bridge the gaps between us and the students, as well as between the city and rural kids. By day three the magic had begun, with the shy and nervous rural kids finding their voices and comfort levels, expressing themselves more openly to the instructors as well as their urban workshop mates. Likewise, the city kids began to shed their pretensions and superiority complexes, opening up and letting themselves just have fun.
By the end of the workshop the kids had made new friends, the shy had come out of their shells and the smart city kids had shown tremendous teamwork and supported their non-English-speaking rural peers. It was heart warming to see how well the two groups coalesced to support one another, had fun by sharing music and other teenage things, and ultimately moved past their previous stereotypical impressions of one another. Breaking down barriers is what this workshop and my life are dedicated to.
During the workshop’s graduation ceremony, my team of 5 students created and presented me with a poster; I’ve included a few of my favorite comments from it below. I love the first one, written by a stick-thin and very shy village girl named Deepika, who was crying the first day trying to hold a camera to her face and close one eye, something we photographers take for granted but for her was an impossibly weird and discomfiting thing to do.
Deepika…“I like your nature and behavior. I love the way you talk. We were able to learn lot from you and I even like you.”
From another student…“You teach us really nicely. You are very joyful person, which keep us energetic.”
Darhmendra….”I love your style of photography and how you solve our problems.”
Miki Johnson: Tell me about why you wanted to do photograph Hajj.
Newsha Tavakolian: I always wanted to go to to the holy city of Mecca. So then when I went there in 2006 for a reportage on the death of the late Saudi king, I said to myself, “It would be such amazing place to photograph, I should come back to take pictures during the annual Hajj pilgrimage.” So for two or three years, I was applying for the visa. And I could never get it. But in 2008, I applied just five months before, and I was pushing hard because I really wanted to go there to take pictures. This time they gave me the visa and in a couple of days I had to be ready to go.
MJ: You mentioned that it was very important for your pictures to be personal. Why was that?
NT: If you look at the first picture [above], I was preparing my Hajj dress. It’s a custom when you go to Hajj, you have to ask all the people around you, family members and friends, for forgiveness, because in Muslim culture, when someone comes back from Hajj, no one should be sad with them. If you had a fight with someone, or you hurt someone, and you go to Hajj, your Hajj is not accepted. So everybody should have good feeling about you.
So I did that. I sent a text message to all my family members and friends. I said I’m going to Hajj…you can read the text in the first picture in the caption. Many of my family members and friends texted me back. My cousin brought me a Hajj dress. My aunt brought me prayer beads, and other relatives came, and they said, “Please pray for us. I want a good husband.” Another one said, “I want a good wife. I want a house.” Because when you go for the first time to Hajj, they say if you pray for someone, it’ll be accepted by God. So I had to prepare myself before I went to Hajj — from a photographic standpoint as well. Because for me, the pictures should show the emotion in such a spritual place, show how people are, and where they are sleeping, and small details. Because many photographers who go there, they are too newsy. But I wanted to take pictures of the journey I’m going through myself.
But of course Hajj is one of the most difficult places to take pictures. Because it’s so crowded. There are too many people there. It’s hot. You have to walk 10 hours…normally it takes half an hour, but because there are so many people, it’ll take 7 or 10 hours to walk between the religious sites. And I had two heavy cameras.
MJ: Tell me about being there, taking pictures. How did people react to you?
NT: Before I went there, I was thinking it was going to be hard. Maybe they won’t let me go to a certain area to take pictures. But in Saudi Arabia, when you go to Hajj, you have a minder with you, a rule which goes for all journalists visiting Saudi Arabia. They bussed all the journalists and photographers around in a group, which was a problem for me since I wanted to avoid having the same angles as the news wire photographers. I had to go out of my way to visit other places or shoot from different perspectives. To capture the feeling, the emotions of the Hajj, you cant be like a Japanese tourist traveling through Europe. I wanted to spend time in certain places, hang out with pilgrims. The high point of the Hajj is only four days so you cannot waste any time.
I was thinking many Muslims wouldn’t want to be photographed. As a photographer, I went to many different places; I covered different things. I know how to deal with people. I try focus on faces of people to see if they are ok with being photographed or not. It’s a spritual trip, so you don’t want to go around destroying people’s private moments too much. I try to be like a fly on the wall and don’t attract too much attention to my camera. Everyone needs to wear white, and in order not to stand out, I wore the same with clothes as everyone else.
Being on the road half the year away from my family is probably the hardest part of being a photojournalist at this point in my life. The challenge of balancing these two vitally important parts of my whole being is essential, because without one or the other, my life would dissolve into an abyss I prefer to avoid. I’m constantly in dialogue with myself to keep in check my compulsion to create and push my boundaries, while maintaining my family’s tight bonds, making sure my children feel loved, continuing to be a vital participant in their lives, and providing my wife with enough support and love. At times, when I’m far away for long stretches, I wonder how I can continue to make it all work. My wife and kids are tremendously supportive and understanding, yet it’s my sense of loss and longing for their companionship that causes my heartache. What I find so interesting is how both elements of this weird life feed into one another.
It used to be, when the kids were younger, that I couldn’t wait to leave again, within days of getting home. Now I battle with the need and desire to be home and not miss all the amazing things my children are up to, while I also feed off of the engagement with the world my work and travels provide. I couldn’t do this without the unconditional support of my wife, Julie Winokur. She is an incredible woman: a great mother, a talented writer and multimedia producer, and an excellent storyteller. She has that rare quality of the common touch, the artist’s sense of how to put a story together and the writer’s ability to construct narratives. We are so fortunate to have one another. It is rare to be able to combine work, family, and friendship. Not that it’s always easy or fun or loving, but, at the end of the day, we recognize our good fortune. Finding a teammate or collaborator in life is not easy.
Of course, Julie and I constantly imagine how much easier our work life could be without the responsibilities of the children, being able to travel freely, have her join me on my more dangerous and risky projects. But what I’ve come to realize is the vital importance our children have in our work lives. The daily minutiae — making a school lunch, eating a home cooked meal, giving love and support to a sad child, sharing a movie together — help buffer us from our obsessive ambitions. And such simple family pleasures, which make us human and reaffirm our love and commitment to one another, remind us of the most important aspects of our work: new-found sensitivities to other people’s lives and a deeper understanding of what it means to come through for another person who is depending on you.
And what is even more exciting now, as the kids mature and grow up, is that we’re increasingly able to include them in our work. Last year my son Eli, who is 14, assisted Julie and I on two shoots, which gives him a better understanding of what we do, as well as boosting his income dramatically :-) And at the moment we’re working with Isabel to produce a musical score for an upcoming multimedia piece to accompany my next book, THREE, due out in April.
I am on a rare vacation with my family, traveling around Rajashtan, India for two weeks over the Christmas, New Year break. My nearly 11-year-old daughter Isabel is gaga over animals and continues to fall in love with every stray dog, monkey, cow or other animal, of which there are countless on the streets of India. We are in Udaipur, a lovely city tucked in the hills of southern Rajashtan, where today our rickshaw driver suggested out of the blue that we go to a place called Animal Aid. It is an animal shelter and rehab clinic run by an American couple and their 19 year old daughter, who moved from Seattle seven years ago. Just earlier today we had been talking to Isabel about going to a veterinarian to watch how they care for animals, so it was providence that brought this suggestion to us. Once we arrived, it dawned on us that not only had we chanced upon a discovery for Isabel that could lead to a summer volunteering opportunity, but we might also have found a story idea for one of our clients back home. As I say over and over again to students, keep an open heart and open mind, and you never know what life will bring you. Here was a perfect example of that.