Archive for August, 2009
Earlier this week I was on a shoot in Nairobi and passed a hand-painted sign with the Kodak logo and I had someone take a picture on my Blackberry to send to a friend of mine at Kodak. The image that he took is pictured here.
After I took the picture, and started shooting, two policemen came up and informed me that I had violated Kenyan law by photographing some buildings (the one with the Kodak sign) without permission. They said they were sent there to arrest me and take me to the police station. Having been put in jail twice in Pakistan some years ago and knowing how unpleasant that can be, I wasn’t looking forward to repeating that experience. The odd thing was that in the group I was traveling with, there was a policeman, a Kenyan friend, and my Italian assistant. The officers kept insisting that I accompany them to the police station. They had a pair of handcuffs which they made quite visible.
Eventually, a Kenyan friend I was traveling with asked if he could go in my place because I was in the middle of shooting. They allowed him to take my place, so he left with the policemen and sorted the situation out. After this incident, I was told that the police there often try to extort money from travelers using many different pretexts.
I have worked in dozens of countries with a lot less freedom than Kenya, and never had such a thing happen with the exception of the time I was photographing a dress shop on the street in Beirut in 1982 which had a Syrian secret police office on the second floor. One of the Syrians, an officer I suppose, pointed his revolver at my driver’s head and ordered us upstairs. Fortunately, I had some accreditation papers from several of the militias. We were searched, they took my film (which of course I had the presence of mind to give them some unexposed rolls) and we were let go.
I have vivid memories of my first trip to Kenya in 1972. I traveled from Cairo overland to Aswan through Lake Nasser on a ferryboat to Wadi Halfi. From there I caught a train to Khartoum and then took a riverboat to Juba in southern Sudan. Then I hitched a ride on a truck to Kampala, and caught a bus to Nairobi. Later I went from Nairobi to Lake Victoria and then returned through Tanzania and the Serengeti back to Arusha. Kenya is one of the most beautiful countries on earth with its Rift Valley, Mount Kilimanjaro on the border with Tanzania, numerous game preserves, national parks, and beautiful beaches.
I was walking down the street in Vrindavan when I saw her. I followed this old woman down the street, and after a few minutes, she noticed that I was behind her.
Vrindavan, India, is the city of widows. After their husbands die, they are often shunned by family and members of the community who see them as a drain on limited resources. They cannot remarry, and walking in their shadows is considered bad luck. Ostracized by society, thousands of India’s widows go to the holy city waiting to die.
My translator explained that I was fascinated with her and wondered where she was going. She told us that she had been a widow since she was only fourteen years old, and made a few rupees by praying for others. Even though she had nothing, she invited us for tea.
She had a wonderful sense of humor and made us feel at home. I was touched by her joy and the way she dealt with her infirmity. She had a wonderful spirit and not an ounce of self pity. I can’t look at her picture without deep admiration. The magic of this image is its ambiguity. The woman is anonymous, yet she embodies everyone who meets challenges with a deep-seated will to overcome them.
I was eleven years old when I saw a photo essay on the monsoon in India in Life Magazine by Brian Brake, the New Zealand-born Magnum photographer.
His work established his reputation as a master color photoessayist. Twenty years later, I proposed a story to National Geographic to photograph the monsoon. The next year I joined Magnum Photos.
People have often asked me what it was like spending almost a year photographing the monsoon. I spent several months following the monsoon which affects half the people on the planet.
Weather is often my best ally as I try to capture the perfect mood for my pictures, but photographing the monsoon was an experience that taught me a lot about patience and humility.
Photographing in heavy rain is difficult because you have to constantly wipe the rain drops from the camera lens. That takes about a third of the time. Monsoon rain is accompanied by winds that try to wrestle away the umbrella that is wedged between my head and shoulders.
I spent four days, in a flooded city in Gujarat, India, wading around the streets in waist-deep water that was filled with bloated animal carcasses and other waste material. The fetid water enveloped me leaving a greasy film over my clothes and body. Every night when I returned to my flooded hotel, empty except for a nightwatchman, I bathed my shriveled feet in disinfectant.
Once I was almost sucked down into one of the holes in the street in Bombay into which water was rushing. It took every bit of my strength to keep from losing my balance. After that close call, I shuffled along, inch by inch, yard by yard, until I had to abandon my cautious instincts.
I had to see the monsoon as a predictable yearly event, and not the disaster it seemed to my western eyes. The farmers experience the monsoon as an almost religious experience as they watch their fields come back to life after being parched for half the year.
When I was in Porbundar, the historic birthplace of Gandhi, I came upon a dog. There he was, locked out of the house, standing on a tiny piece of concrete as the flood waters rose. His expression betrayed his emotions. You can tell by the picture that he realizes his predicament and hope his owner opens the door soon.
Actually, a moment after I took the picture, the door opened and he ran inside.
I went to Cambodia in 1986, on an assignment given to me by Kathy Ryan of the New York Times Sunday magazine to photograph Dith Pran and Haing Ngor.
My assignment coincided with Diane Sawyer who was doing an ABC news piece on Dith Pran and Haing Ngor returning to Cambodia after filming the movie “The Kiling Fields.” It was the first time Pran had returned to his country, and it was still a bit dangerous because there were still Khmer Rouge in the countryside.
Pran grew up near Angkor Wat and as a young man had been a tour guide, when he met Sidney Schanberg, the New York Times reporter, whom he worked for as a translator and fixer.
Schanberg was eventually forced to leave the country, but while he won a Pulitzer for his coverage, Pran became a virtual slave of the Khmer Rouge in a death camp. Dith Pran watched the country descend into the hell known as the killing fields, but was able to survive from 1975 until 1979 during the time when a third of the population was killed. Pran later said, “Only the silent survived.”
Eventually Schanberg found Pran in a refugee camp and brought him back to New York and helped him to immigrate to the United States where Pran became a photographer for the New York Times.
Pran and I became friends after our time in Cambodia so after he retired from the New York Times, we returned to Siem Reap. It was moving to be with him as he returned to his country and revisited his family. While there, we visited nearby Angkor Wat. I was so struck at the magnificence of this temple complex, I planned to come back and photograph it as soon as I had the opportunity. Years later, I went back and photographed Angkor Wat on assignment for National Geographic.
Haing Ngor, who played Pran in the movie, “The Killing Fields,” won an Oscar for his role. Tragically, Ngor who was a doctor in real life, was murdered in Los Angeles during a robbery.
The first time I saw W. Eugene Smith’s photographs was in a fine art photography class in college. As we worked on our own pictures in the darkroom, we talked with awe about Smith’s legendary obsession for perfection, which drove him to spend long days in the darkroom. His drive and idealism fascinated me. He was so dedicated to his ideals and principles that later in his career, he was fired for refusing to use medium-format cameras. Smith was fanatically dedicated to his mission as a photographer, and because of his drive for perfection and his dedication he was often regarded by editors as difficult.
During his coverage of the Second World War, he was severely wounded while on the east coast of Okinawa photographing an essay titled ‘A Day in the Life of a Front Line Soldier’. He endured two years of hospitalization and plastic surgery, and commented later that it was his policy to stand up when others were down, and that he had forgotten to duck.
While documenting the story of a chemical company in Minamata, the severity of the irreparable damage caused by industrial mercury poisoning became apparent. Recognizing Smith and his work as an extreme liability, thugs from the pro-company union attacked him. Smith documented his own beating and, although he survived, he experienced substantial permanent damage to his eyesight.
During the Minamata project, Smith produced one particularly profound image which anyone who has seen it will never forget. The photograph shows a mother bathing her daughter, a young girl (her name was Tomoko Uemura), who suffered extreme birth defects and mental retardation from the poisoning. The depth of tenderness, compassion and selflessness displayed by the mother is a gift to all who view the image.
To me, that image, represents Smith’s unique ability to combine the eye of a photographer and the attitude of an artist with raw honesty and uncompromising integrity.
Unfortunately, we cannot reproduce this picture because Aileen Mioko Smith, Eugene’s partner in the Minamata project and holder of the copyright, and the family of the girl decided that the photograph would no longer be issued. As Aileen Mioko Smith says:
“In 1997, Tomoko’s parents asked me to let Tomoko rest. I agreed, and we mutually decided that the photograph would no longer be issued. It’s so hard to communicate the beauty of the decision that was made, but it was a positive statement made by both of us.”
The image is truly inspiring, and shows the love and compassion to which we should all aspire.
To me, this image represents Smith’s unique ability to combine the eye of a photographer and the attitude of an artist with raw honesty and uncompromising integrity. All photographers, in one sense or another, are heirs to his legacy.
One of his quotes summarizes his philosophy: “What use having a great depth of field, if there is not an adequate depth of feeling?”
W. Eugene Smith: The Camera as Conscience