Intro from Jay Allison: Okay he's a photographer, but it seemed a fine idea to invite Nubar Alexanian to come talk about storytelling. For one thing, when I first met him he was in a rare position: Official Photographer on a radio project ("Vanishing Homelands"). But more than that, when I would ask him about documentary photography, I learned something about narrative, point of view, authorship, revelation of character, journalistic ethics, creative spirit, interpreting life. Useful stuff for radio. You can read all about his work on his webpage, but what I can say is that Nubar is full of heart, tells the truth, and doesn't like compromise. He's a teacher. He came to our local station recently and we did a call-in show together. Photography on the Radio. And the Web. We posted his pictures, with backstories from Nubar, so listeners could look at the photos and hear Nubar tell their stories. People really liked it. We invited him to Transom. Nubar will be inviting some of his photographer friends over to join the discussion. This is fitting for the Internet, as all the tools converge, as the lines get fuzzy, as writers, radio producers, photographers, videographers become one. It is particularly useful now to talk about the images embedded in stories and the stories embedded in images. Please welcome Nubar. You can even ask him what's the best camera to buy and how to take better pictures of your kids. He won't mind.
Picture – Sound
A few years ago, a radio producer friend and I were testing High 8 video cameras. We were both new to the medium, he coming from radio and I coming from photography. Standing side by side, we planned to shoot the same thing with each of our cameras, switching tapes back and forth to see if there was any difference in quality. He had a small single chip Sony High 8 camera with a large Sennheiser microphone on top. I had a large 3 chip Sony High 8 camera using the on-board microphone (three chips are better than one for picture quality). Puzzled by how we might identify who was shooting what with which camera, I suggested we shoot our feet and thereby identify ourselves by the shoes we were wearing. Perplexed by the extravagance of this, he said, “Why don’t we just say our names?”
Ah, the presence of a microphone. It wasn’t long before I learned the painful lesson that a story can be told with bad footage and good sound, but not with bad sound and good footage – no matter how great the footage looked! My bewilderment aside, this was a wonderful example of the different worlds we live and work in: to look or listen, to notice what we see or hear what’s being said.
I love the saying, “Where there’s a life, there’s a story,” and I believe it’s true. It’s kind of overwhelming when you think about it. Six billion different stories taking place at the same time, beginning, growing, ending. I am fond of stories about regular people that are done well. This, along with the news, is why I listen to public radio. I am particularly interested in the “ordinary lives done well” part of this, because the storyteller must be at the top of his/her game in order to pull it off. To do this, they are, by necessity, challenged to celebrate the medium they are working in – in this case, radio. So I am not only entertained and informed about the subject, but also about the medium. This American Life is a wonderful example of this.
The Subject, The Photographer, and Photography
But I’m here to wax eloquently about photography, not tell radio journalists what they already know. I love to joke with friends who are radio or print journalists about how dependent they are on facts to tell a story. It confounds (and perhaps irritates) them. As a photojournalist, I am not dependent on the literal facts of a story to take honest pictures of subjects within the story. Besides, narrative has never been one of photography’s strengths: as a medium it is much too ambiguous. (There are exceptions. Gene Richards and Sebastiao Salgado – their work being some of the best.)
There are, of course, different kinds of documentary photographers, but many of us working today are what I like to call first-person photojournalists. We rely on our experience of events to make images that translate how we feel about what’s happening in front of our cameras. This is one way to make honest pictures. I use the word honest here because I believe acknowledging one’s presence, whenever possible, makes for a fuller, truer description. There are, arguably, other, more noble approaches. But what I’m most interested in are photographs that are not dependent on captions — images strong enough to stand on their own. When the experience of the photographer is included, the content includes more than subject and medium: it includes the photographer as well. This is what all strong photographs have in common. They are about the subject, the photographer and photography.
A Voice To Call Your Own
When I talk about photography, I like using the phrase “finding your own voice” rather than “finding your own personal vision.” I think it’s because the former is more universally understood, but we are talking about the same thing here. We are all born with a voice that identifies us. And yes, we each develop a singular point of view. But this doesn’t necessarily mean we have our own way of seeing – not photographically. Having your own vision as a photographer means acquiring a visual vocabulary that has evolved over time. (I don’t mean style here, but a way of seeing. They are different.)
About fifteen years ago, I had a young woman working with me whom I liked very much. Sarah had majored in photography in college and was very competent and made a great assistant. But her work was boring. Back then, I insisted that my assistants work on long term documentary projects so that our relationship involved more than making money and learning the trade. She was working on a project about a Vietnamese fishing family that immigrated to Boston. After six months, I felt like things weren’t working out. Her work was not progressing and I was out of suggestions. Sarah expressed frustration with what she called a “protective shield” that surrounded her and kept her from taking risks – even visual risks. After some discussion, I asked her to name the shield (my wife, Rebecca, is a psychotherapist). Having been raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, Sarah thought it had to do with her upbringing.
We made a deal. We would keep working together and she would find a Jewish family in Brookline to photograph for a year. She would put away all of her equipment, her Nikon cameras and lenses, and take pictures only with a Canonette camera. The Canonette is a small inexpensive rangefinder with a fixed lens and limited choices. It was a difficult year. I was impressed by her commitment and tenacity to stay with this project. During this first year, she watched as her peers went to New York to show their portfolios, trying to advance their careers. It was painful. I have always discouraged showing a portfolio to magazine editors. It is far more effective to show a completed photo-essay, about a subject that called you and kept you over an extended period of time. In those days, the staff at Life magazine received about 100 competent portfolios per week for review. (Photography is a relatively easy to be competent in, especially when it’s viewed as a technical medium.)
Sarah produced an extraordinary body of work that took three years to complete. Though she couldn’t see it at the time, her photographs described her experience of what it was like to be a woman in the Hasidic Jewish culture. Every time I edited her contact sheets, I could see her development as a photographer – her ability to include more emotional elements and translate them visually. When it came time to go to New York, photo editors loved the work and every magazine she visited wanted to find a way to use it. She produced a memorable body of work while at the same time launching her career as a documentary photographer.
Photographer As Witness – Storyteller As Witness
In 1968 photographer Eddie Adams took this photograph of the execution of a North Vietnamese spy. It’s a powerful image, one which not only describes the horror of war, but the power of photographs. Also present at the time of this execution was a television news crew, who, it seems, were standing right next to Adams when he took his photograph. When you view their footage, what you see is an event with a beginning, middle and end, a journalistic document in the purest sense. Perhaps because it describes this event in its entirety, and certainly because there is a contextual relationship between each moment (the strength of film) there is relief in ending – of being allowed to move on. In the photograph, there is no end, no beginning, no moving on. In the photograph, there is no context, there is only the present, carried into the future, by one five-hundredth of a second. This photograph, along with the image by Nick Ut of nine-year-old Kim Phuc running naked from Napalm being sprayed in her village went a long way toward stopping the war. It’s impossible to imagine photographs being more effective in the world.
Seeing such pictures published today is almost unimaginable. Yes, the act of witness is important. And there are many photographers documenting important events around the globe, creating sensational images. Yet there is reason for caution. The greatest threat to documentary photography has always been illustration. This is more true today than ever. In fact, I would argue that illustration has won over all forms of documentary photography, generating photographs that look and feel like photojournalism, but are, in fact, conceptual ideas of how to describe a subject or an event. (I’m talking about what magazine editors find appealing, rather than what photographers are willing to do.)
On the other hand, perhaps documentary photography is going through a growth phase, being challenged by other media. For example, no recent single photograph or body of work covering civil wars or atrocities around the world has effected me as much as the story I read recently by Leroy Sievers, Executive Producer of ABC’s “Nightline” – re-posted here on Transom. Photography certainly has it’s own way of transporting the viewer and, as described above, can be very effective. However, the intimacy of this story had a profound effect on me. Perhaps because it is so personal, it provides what none of the photographs seem to offer – a place to stand within the horror of this event, creating a way for the reader to become a witness through telling. This is a powerful example of the effect of first-person journalism, which is what I think it is.
Transom digs first-person everything.
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A Thousand Words
Photography is an odd and fascinating medium. As Wim Wenders once said about a friend’s photographs: “Whoever came up first with that saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ didn’t understand the first thing about either one.” I’m not sure what Wim Wenders had in mind when he wrote this. But if a photograph were worth a thousand words, it’s entirely possible they would have nothing to do with the truth.
So what’s the truth here? Do you have any idea what’s going on in this photograph?
I was seeking a kind of personal truth when I began my first long-term documentary project about Peru. I first traveled to Peru on assignment in 1974 and fell in love with the place – deeply in love. I was taking landscape photographs back then with a view camera, the kind of camera you have on a tripod with a big black cloth over your head. These photographs were very beautiful, but it’s easy to take beautiful pictures of beautiful things. Besides, I felt like I was taking and not giving, as if I had secretly slipped into the country, taken a few jewels, and slipped back out without being noticed. I didn’t have to interact with anyone. So beginning in 1978, I spent 15 years traveling back and forth to Peru on my own. I accepted no assignments to subsidize this work because I wanted to see in my own work why I found this country and its people so compelling. I wanted to take pictures that were about them that also told me something about me.
I am proud of this body of work. In 1992 it was eventually published as Stones In The Road: Photographs of Peru. Peru taught me about photography. It was there that I learned and developed my own visual vocabulary. And it was this body of work that helped establish my career as a documentary photographer (even though it wasn’t published until 1992). I am flattered that my friends in Peru feel strongly about how well these photographs portray their country. However, it’s also true that no one in these photographs benefited by being in them. This disturbs me about this work and a lot of photographic books published in the last 20 years.
Many of you will probably find this surprising, but I believe that in radio the greater good is greater than in photography. I am aware of the editorial struggles radio and print journalists go through. We go through them as well. I am also aware that there is basically one outlet for radio. But everything I’ve been talking about can be summed up this way: what dedicated radio journalists and dedicated photo-journalists have in common is the willingness to work from inside out rather than outside in. This means not looking at the marketplace to see what will sell. Rather, to do stories we all feel passionate about, allowing the subject and content to dictate what is necessary whenever possible.
The rub is, although there are many more magazines being published today than ever before, there are none publishing this work. You will only see this work in books – books that are mostly purchased by other photographers. There is basically no mainstream audience for the work we do. So when I’m sitting in my driveway, captivated by a piece on NPR, I marvel that you have this one outlet that connects your work with me and most of the people I know.
Nubar Alexanian’s Friends
Susan Meiselas is an award winning documentary photographer best known for her work in Central America. In 1978, Meiselas received the Robert Capa Gold Medal for “outstanding courage and reporting” for her coverage of the insurrection in Nicaragua that same year. In 1992 she was named a MacArthur Fellow.
Her photographs have been published worldwide in the pages of Time, The New York Times, Paris Match, and Life. She is the author of two monographs: “Carnival Strippers” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976) and “Nicaragua” (Pantheon, 1981). She is the editor of “Learn to See” (Polaroid Foundation, 1975), “El Salvador: Work of 30 Photographers” (Writers & Readers,1983), and “Chile From Within” (W.W. Norton, 1990). Meiselas is a member of Magnum photos and lives in New York City. See her Kurdistan in the Shadow of History Exhibit and portfolio at Magnumphotos.com.
Abigail Heyman became the feminist eye/voice of photography with “Growing Up Female; A Personal Photo-Journal”, the landmark book which documented the female experience from a feminist perspective, and challenged assumptions about being a woman. While much of the book is autobiographical in theme, her photographs “transcend the strictly personal and assume public posture.” Photographically, as Andy Grundberg said, it “tested the line between reportage and personal expression.”
Her book, “Butcher, Baker, Cabinetmaker; Photographs of Women at Work,” is about women who hold jobs that children commonly assume are only done by men, and is aimed at changing those expectations for a new generation of school children. “Dreams & Schemes; Love and Marriage in Modern Times” penetrates wedding rituals to examine the underlying emotions and widespread implications they often conceal. Photographs of her own family were the genesis of “Flesh & Blood: Photographers’ Images of Their Own Families,” an intimate and poignant collection of many contemporary photographers’ work, which Ms. Heyman co-edited and produced.
Heyman has participated in solo and group photo exhibitions; her work frequently appears in publications in the United States and abroad. She is a former member of Magnum Photos, and at one time directed the Documentary and Photojournalism Studies Program at the International Center of Photography in New York City.
Jeff Jacobson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1946. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1968, and from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., in 1971. While practicing as a civil rights lawyer in the American South in the early 70’s, Jacobson became interested in photography, shooting in southern jails and rural areas. After completing a workshop at Apeiron with Charles Harbutt, in 1974, Jacobson quit his law practice to devote full energies to photography.
In 1976, Jacobson began working in color while photographing the American presidential campaign. It was during this personal project that he began experimenting with strobe and long exposures, a now familiar technique that he pioneered. Jacobson joined Magnum Photos in 1978, and in 1981 he left Magnum, along with photographers Charles Harbutt, MaryEllen Mark, Burk Uzzle and others to found Archive Pictures. He continued his color explorations in the United States throughout the 80’s which culminated in the publication of his monograph, “My Fellow Americans,” in 1990. During this time, and continuing to the present, Jacobson regularly does assignments for magazines, such as The New York Times Magazine, Fortune, Time, Geo, Stern, Life, and many others.
Jacobson’s photographs have been exhibited or are in the collections of museums around the world. He has taught workshops regularly at ICP and other venues in the US & Europe and has been awarded grants from the National Endowment For The Arts, and The New York Foundation For The Arts.
In 1990, Jacobson moved to Los Angeles and began a series of complex, mostly urban landscapes from all over the world which appear as if they were digitally altered, even though all are straight documentary photographs. These photographs raise questions about the influence of the computer upon our notions of photographic reality, and will be published in the book, You Are Here in 1992. In 1999, Jacobson returned to New York where he now lives. He has begun a series of photographs made mostly at night, pushing Kodachrome film as far as possible.
Alex Webb was born in San Francisco, California in 1952. He became interested in photography during his high school years. He majored in history and literature at Harvard University and studied photography at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Webb attended the Apeiron Workshops in 1972; he began working as a professional photojournalist in 1974. His photographs began to appear in such publications as the New York Times Magazine, Life, Geo, and eventually in Stern and National Geographic. Webb joined Magnum Photos as an associate member in 1976, becoming a full memeber in 1979.
During the mid-1970’s, Webb conducted reportages in the US south, traveling extensively, documenting small town life in black and white. He also began working in the Caribbean and Mexico. In 1979, Webb began a body of color work that he continues to pursue today. Since then he has traveled throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa. He has published four books: Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds (1986) and Under A Grudging Sun (1989), both published by Thames and Hudson and From the Sunshine State and Amazon: From the Floodplains to the Clouds, both published by the Monacelli Press. He has also created a technology-mediated artist’s book entitled Dislocations with the Film Study Center at Harvard University (1998-99). A new book about the US/Mexico border is due out fall 2001, also from Monacelli Press.
Webb received a New York Foundation of the Arts Grant in 1986, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1990, a Hasselblad Foundation Grant in 1998, and won the Leopold Godowsky Color Photography Award in 1988 and the Leica Medal of Excellence in 2000. His photographs have been the subject of articles in Art in America and Modern Photography. He has exhibited widely both in the United States and Europe. Among museums that have exhibited his work are: the Walker Art Center, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the International Center of Photography, the High Museum of Art, the Southeast Museum of Photography, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
To see some of his recent work visit Alex’s portfolio at Magnumphotos.com.