The Camera Is Only A Tool

December 12th, 2013 | by Julián Cardona
For the Transom Online Workshop, we asked Mexican photojournalist Julián Cardona to share some secrets about framing a photograph. He said, “It’s more complex than just framing a subject, but I understand the needs of an inexperienced photographer and will outline them in my text in the more practical, easiest way. Count on it.” We did, and Transom is proud to present his enlightening essay. Jay A

Photos by Julian Cardona

In my work I frequently meet people whose lives are on the verge of changing drastically: mothers whose daughters have disappeared or have been murdered, relatives of victims of the frequent massacres in Juárez, or a group of 40 migrants who risked their lives under the intense summer sun in the desert to cross undocumented into the United States. A photojournalist like myself is an oddity because suddenly, as if from nowhere, he appears in the lives of these people. The impression that remains from those brief encounters, ones that sometimes only last minutes, is a photograph. And a good photograph is not simply a good photograph to me — it is a record of an intense personal experience.

For me, the most important thing is to be prepared, to be open to meeting another person and listening to their story.

The camera is only a tool. Nothing more. You have to master photographic technique. However, that is only the mechanical part. For me, the most important thing is to be prepared, to be open to meeting another person and listening to their story.

Before going out into the street, I search for a specific story. I assess it from a critical perspective and analyze its social, economic, and political components in detail. I try to learn as much as possible about my subjects, and, whenever possible, to discuss various points of view with my colleagues. A photograph represents several levels of closeness with our subjects. For me, this closeness, the way I approach the subject, is of the greatest importance to the final result.

Sometimes meetings with the people who share their stories are random, sometimes planned. In both cases, there is a process for approaching them, sometimes gradual, sometimes sudden. Once communication has been established with the subject — aside from logistical questions about security, transport, and housing — you enter into an active relationship. At that stage, it is important to establish a relationship with full confidence and honesty, to clearly define the territory of the photographer and the subject so that the encounter can progress organically. A good photograph can be powerful and eventually become, to greater or lesser degree, an agent for change. However, other times, a photo may be irrelevant, especially from the point of the view of the subject who may be living in very difficult circumstances. I try not to create false expectations in my subjects.

The next level of closeness is the face to face, when they reveal the circumstances of the tragedy to us, of a life or of a death. In this moment, one in which distances — physical and emotional — with our subject disappear; we enter into the intimate space of the other. It is remarkable. The variety of characters that you encounter during your career as a journalist is impressive, and in crossing their threshold, the personal universes of my subjects become an extension of my own.

The next level of closeness is the face to face, when they reveal the circumstances of the tragedy to us, of a life or of a death. In this moment, one in which distances — physical and emotional — with our subject disappear; we enter into the intimate space of the other. It is remarkable.

In this phase, you can behave pragmatically, professionally, or even disdainfully, and something will come of it. There are no rules; only the spirit lives, not the letter. Different journalists, photographers, and editors proceed differently. At this stage, our hands are instinctively on the camera while the people who we call our “subjects” open up their lives for us, retelling their stories, fears, traumas, and joys.

The goal with the camera is to leave everything superfluous outside of the frame, to ignore it, to be extremely alert to connecting emotionally with that person. This can appear to be subjective. For me, it is a state of sensibility that the photographer compliments with the technical side of his craft. This is a process learned beforehand, like driving a car, except that the car is only a means, not the destination in itself. My purpose has nothing to do with recognition or fame or the influence of the newspaper or magazine that publishes my photos, because that would mean confining the photos beforehand, reducing them to fit in a specific space. When I hear my subjects tell their stories, I don’t want my mind to be conditioned by experiences or images that have nothing to do with the present. I listen and observe with attention. Once I have been allowed into their living space, I come closer or walk away silently. I prefer a fixed focal length because it forces me to move close to my subjects, to feel their presence, look in their eyes, observe their features and reactions, to live with them, and to inhabit that same crucial moment in their lives as I push the shutter.

In that moment, I use photography to try to capture any emotion or feeling that creeps onto the delicate geography of the face of my subject. In the end, I rely on my own humanity to tell the story, because it allows me to map out the full emotional range of my subject.

Examples (Photos ©: Julián Cardona)

Felicitas Ruiz, owner of a houses constructed in Mexico with money sent by immigrants in the United States, photo by Julian Cardona

“Before going out into the street, I search for a specific story.”

I first talked with friends from Oaxaca about the images of houses constructed in Mexico with money sent by immigrants in the United States. And from then on the topic kept coming up. I scheduled a trip to La Mixteca and nearby zones and found several examples of pretentious, uninhabited buildings like this one in which Felicitas Ruiz, the mother of the owner, appears.

Mario and Angelica, an undocumented immigrant couple, photo by Julian Cardona

“There is a process for approaching the people who share their stories.”

I contacted Mario and Angélica, an undocumented immigrant couple, through a professor at Chapel Hill. We talked about their home state and the places where they crossed the border, places that I knew from previous experience. I spent several days with them in the apartment they had recently rented in Carrboro. The immigrant population in North Carolina had grown considerably and spending several days with the couple allowed me to put a face on the statistics.

Mothers in the group Voces sin eco, photo by Julian Cardona

“Clearly define the territory of the photographer and the subject.”

For several weeks I followed the case of a disappeared teen in Juárez. One day I was searching for one of the mothers who belonged to the group Voces sin eco, and she thought I was a government agent. I explained my journalism project to the whole group, and their doubts disappeared. That’s how I managed to continue covering the issue; they allowed me to spend three-and-a-half months documenting their movement.

Dulce Yolanda, saved from a near death experience when she was crossing the desert, photo by Julian Cardona

“Leave everything superfluous outside of the frame.”

Dulce Yolanda was saved from a near death experience in New Mexico when she was crossing the desert to be reunited with her family in the United States. I found her in a women’s shelter in Juárez. The image doesn’t reveal information about the place or even about her clothes. That information was unnecessary.

About the Julián Cardona

Julián Cardona is a photojournalist from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Among the many places his work appears: Vanity Fair, PBS Newshour, NPR, CNN, Al Jazeera AmericaCUE Art Foundation, Blue Star Contemporary Art MuseumLa FronteraHearing Voices; also in the Institute for Arts and Media and El Nuevo Sol at California State University–Northridge; and, collaborating with author Charles Bowden, on the books Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future and Exodus/Éxodo.

PBS “Mexican Photographer Captures Shades of Juárez” (with Margaret Warner):

Alice Driver translated this essay from the Spanish. Thanks to the Knight Prototype Fund for supporting this Transom Online Workshop resource.


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