Bruce Haley and I have been talking via email occasionally about various issues that I had mentioned on the blog. At some stage, I wondered why I simply didn’t ask him whether he’d be up for one of my conversations, and much to my delight he agreed. The following conversation touches upon many different aspects of photojournalism and the kind of fine-art photography that one could call “documentary”, but I do have to warn about the very graphic and shocking nature of one of the photographs. Given that the photos from that series are being discussed in detail in the conversation, I decided against not showing it.
Jörg Colberg: As a photojournalist, you covered some of the most gruesome conflicts, producing images some of which shocked the world (which, we should remember, had seen a lot of quite brutal imagery already). What I am often wondering is whether images - such as those of the execution in Burma [can you send me some of those? I’d like to show one in the interview] - really have an impact beyond the short-term outrage. I mean some photojournalistic images have entered the canon of photographic images - such as the infamous photo of the Vietnamese napalm victim - yet right now, we find ourselves in basically the same messy situation again. What impact do these photos really have?
Bruce Haley: I think we can look at this question from both “sides” of the photograph: the societal/cultural/global side, meaning the viewers who engage with the image in some form of media (whether it be a book, magazine, newspaper, on the web or whatever), and then the opposite side of the image, the person behind the camera who clicked the shutter. Let’s call the photographer “Point A,” and the desired recipients of the image “Point B,” and imagine that there is this huge wall or barrier between them. To get from Point A to Point B, the photographer needs to both make the image and then somehow breach that wall (and I’m sure that all of us who work in the medium feel that we’ve spent a great deal of our time banging our heads against this wall…).
But let’s start with Point A, the photographer: speaking strictly for myself (although I’m sure it applies to many others as well), I can say that I came to the medium with a great deal of altruism and idealism; as trite and cliched as it may sound, I wanted to give a voice to what I thought wasn’t being heard, to be an instrument of change, etc. etc. Of course I had my cynical and skeptical side as well, but I think there is a certain ardor for what you want to do that suppresses that cynicism and keeps you going, a sort of fiery core that burns inside and drives you - over the years of your career, against the cynicism and burn-out - and keeps that beating heart of idealism alive (even if only barely, at times). Because unless you veer off into egoism and awards and self-aggrandizement, or the lifestyle of the adrenaline junkie, then you need that inner spark of idealism to keep you moving forward. You need to retain the notion that what you are doing is meaningful and worthwhile and may indeed have some impact on someone somewhere - because let’s face it, not many photographers doing photojournalistic/documentary work are getting rich off of their images. You’re in areas of conflict, or other horrible situations, with your life in danger, and quite often it’s on your own dime - you’re fronting yourself for what? I think that core of idealism runs deep, and against the odds, and keeps us going.
But here is where the aforementioned “wall” comes in: you’ve gone to some place where most people would never want to go, you’ve risked your life, perhaps gotten some strange disease they barely know how to treat back home, and done it all on your own dime. Now you’re back home with your images, you’ve done your edit, and you’ve got a story you want to get out, something that you feel needs to be communicated - perhaps even something you’re outraged about, and you want to shout at the world “Goddamnit! Look at this!” or “Wake up! Do something about this!” The [problem of the] “wall” equates to finding a way to get those images into the world so that they have the greatest chance of communicating their message, and tearing down that wall is often frustrating. Even if you’ve done your story on assignment and not on your own dime, it can end up being poorly edited and its effectiveness lost. The layout can be bad, your strongest images weren’t used, there was cropping, whatever. Or you get a good spread but it’s overshadowed by Paris Hilton going to jail or some such nonsense. So this wall, the method of dissemination of photojournalistic/documentary images for maximum impact, is a major obstacle for the photographer.
But let’s say we’ve breached that wall - the photographer has found a venue for his/her body of work, be it a magazine, newspaper, book, exhibition or the internet (or combinations of these, in most cases). We have now reached the aforementioned Point B, where your question about impact resides. And perhaps this was a roundabout way of addressing your initial query, but I felt that it was very important to at least take a peek behind the curtain and mention some of the major motivations, logistics, obstacles, etc., that occur before the images are even seen by the public and the issue of impact comes into play.
Of course the issue of impact is a sticky one. I think that many of us, even those who love the medium of photography, often feel absolutely overwhelmed with imagery these days. We are constantly bombarded, a never ending streaming fusillade of images (most of them of a photographic nature), that is almost inescapable. If those of us who love to look at and think about and discuss photography find ourselves over the saturation point, what does it take to make an impact upon the other 99.9% of the planet’s population? What makes someone outside of the medium, in the midst of their daily grind, pull an image out of the stream of bombardment and actually take the time to ENGAGE with it? And more specifically, per your query, contemplate an image of war or famine and have it evoke some sort of response? We are then dealing with compassion fatigue heaped upon image oversaturation.
Think about it: trace the course from Goya’s The Disasters of War to the current day, where we can see streaming video of Al-Qaeda beheadings. Would Gene Smith’s Life essays make an impression in today’s climate? What about the photographs of Matthew Brady, Robert Capa and Larry Burrows? Or Nick Ut’s image of the young napalm victim (as you mentioned), or Eddie Adams’ Saigon execution photograph? Would these be lost in today’s oversaturated image stream, just another blip of pixels or whatever hurtling by in the unending stream? I think it’s an interesting question to ponder. Certainly the bottom-line issue of impact (both short- and long-term) can be instantly dismissed by even the most cursory study of history, or glance at today’s headlines - all of the photographs ever taken, shouting to the heavens about man’s inhumanity to man, haven’t made a dent in the brutality on this planet.
So where does this leave us as photographers who want to change the world? I think we retain that flame of idealism that I spoke of earlier, but it must be tempered with realism - we’re not going to change the world, but occasionally we can have a small impact, or short-term impact. A case in point would be the famine in Somalia - in 1992 I was part of an exhibition entitled “Somalia’s Cry,” which was put together by Life Magazine and held at the United Nations. The purpose was to stress the urgency of the situation, and the exhibition received much publicity, was featured on the Charles Kuralt Sunday Morning show, etc. etc. Somalia is a case where I think photographers had something of a short-term impact - a great deal of food aid was sent in, lives were saved (for the moment), and amazing things were done by many dedicated aid workers. On the flip side of this same coin, we all know the resultant history of this crisis intervention, and Somalia is still in a terrible situation today, 15 years later. One is then left to argue whether or not the awareness raised by photographs was of any long-term use, or good.
So where does that leave us, as photographers? Do we shrug our shoulders and give up? Do we let people drift off into an ever-more-comfortable slumber, awash in a sea of news about Britney and Jessica and Jennifer? Or do we push onward and fight for whatever impact we can have, through whatever venues are available to us? I apologize for the string of rhetorical questions, but this is very important to me personally - plus, there are many young photographers out in the field every day, just starting out, doing great work, taking risks, and receiving very little reward and encouragement. I try to provide some of that encouragement whenever possible. And even if we’re not having the impact that we would like in our lifetimes, remember that we are also historians, and who knows what impact our images may have when viewed through the prism of history?
JC: This is a strange and unsettling development, isn’t it? Our culture is becoming more and more centered on images, as you said you can now see everything if you want (often in real time), and it’s becoming clear that we are actually paying a steep price for it, because we are not built to process so much visual information. Things just zoom by, and because we can’t focus much any longer, instead of stories we’re being fed easily digestible morsels, with celebrity stories being just the obvious example - where a simple image and an even simpler message (“Britney almost dropped her baby”) perfectly fit into this maelstrom of images. There wouldn’t really be a problem with all of this, if this development wasn’t happening across the board, so that politics now is communicated in the same way - and the consequences of this are then often disastrous, just look at the Iraq disaster. What can we do about this? How do we make this stop?
BH: I think you have phrased the question perfectly: “How do we MAKE this stop?” And that of course implies some type of coercion or force or tactic to bring about change. I believe that most people, unfortunately, feel completely powerless to effect change, and just sort of give up - then becoming subsumed and consumed by what you described. There is a broad dumbing-down and coarsening of the culture: so-called “reality” television; the fevered obsession with celebrity (and celebrity misdeeds); PlayStation and X-Box addiction; middle-class white kids talking - and spelling! - like gangsta rappers, etc. etc. Now it’s the “Obama Girl” versus the “Clinton Girl” - is this how we are going to pick our political leaders? According to which girl has the hottest body in a YouTube video? Or the whole “MacKenzie Hearts U” thing, where the spoiled rich girl throws a hissy over getting a red car instead of a blue car - I heard more genuine outrage over this, more discussion of this on the web and linking of the video between friends, than I’ve heard about anything that’s happened in Darfur! “MacKenzie” hit home, she was symbolic of a global cancer that we all can recognize, that we all know is in our midst - but then of course it turns out that none of it was real, that it was all a viral marketing campaign for Domino’s Pizza. At some point we have to look around at the general state of things - politics, the media, rampant blind consumerism, you name it - and decide if this is really what we want to pass down to our kids. Personally speaking, when it comes time for me to shuffle off of this mortal coil and pass the torch to the next generation, this isn’t what I want my generation’s legacy to look like.
A number of sayings spring to mind: “The journey of 1000 miles begins with the first step;” “Think globally, act locally;” “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” We’ve all heard these a million times, to the point where they have become cliched bumper sticker sloganeering. But at the core there is much truth - and an action plan - to be gleaned from these simple sayings. No matter how powerless you feel in the big scheme of things you can still effect change, even if it is only at the grassroots level - I mean, let’s face it, we can’t all be Gandhi, but we can each do something! So first and foremost there is a personal decision to be made about how we live our lives - do we allow the pressures of the daily grind to overwhelm and numb us, to the point of succumbing to Tivo and worshipping at the altar of “American Idol,” or do we follow a path of involvement, of volunteer work, of activism? This is the vital fork in life’s road, and right now there’s a huge dust cloud in the air from all of the mindless sheep ambling down the path of non-involvement.
In order for me to be a person who can make the type of change that we are discussing, I need to think of my own life in the following terms: as a man with a family to consider, as a United States citizen, as a world citizen, and as a photographer. And I need to analyze each of these aspects of my life with an eye to the greater good, make appropriate decisions, and then try to mesh them all into some sort of whole that actually functions and makes sense - and hopefully, at the end of the day, can also make some small difference, or raise awareness in someone, somewhere.
The concept of a “life in photography” is extremely important to me - as the years go by, what is it that I am trying to do with my work…? What am I trying to say…? If there is an audience for my images, be it in a publication, a gallery or whatever, then I have also been given a modicum of power - will I use this wisely, to make people think, to engender discussion, to raise awareness? When I think of a “life in photography,” one man immediately springs to mind, a person whom I consider a friend and a mentor figure (whether he wants me to or not!) - Robert Adams. What he and his wife Kerstin have accomplished (and they are very much a team) is, to me, both amazing and exemplary. There is a “total package,” a life philosophy, to the two of them that is embodied in Bob’s photographs yet also extends well beyond the images themselves - their values and beliefs, their lives and the work are intertwined to the point of being one. I strongly recommend that everyone read Bob’s essays and interviews; not only is he one of the most lucid writers on photography that the medium has ever been blessed with, but his words also provide an extremely rewarding key into both his images and his philosophy of life.
I hold in high regard those people who walk the walk, and do it for decades with true integrity - and who at the same time remain modest and accessible. We can all learn from such individuals. For example, Jörg, you noted on your blog when Bob won the Deutsche Börse Prize (around USD$50,000.00), and donated the entire amount to Human Rights Watch - well, you could spend the next year with Bob and he probably wouldn’t even mention winning the prize, let alone giving away all the money. And I’m not talking about some wealthy photographer who lives in a Manhattan penthouse - Bob and Kerstin live in a small coastal Oregon town, and if you drove past their house you would never suspect that one of the seminal figures in the history of modern photography lives inside - nor would you suspect it if you saw them driving around in their old Subaru Forester. So in discussing how we live our lives, how we maximize our abilities to effect change or raise awareness, and further, how to do so within the framework of a life in photography, I think Bob and Kerstin serve as wonderful examples - although they, in all modesty, would be the last to think this of themselves, or even want me to say it - but I’m saying it anyway!
JC: Coming back to your own work, I’m also curious about how you, as the photographer, viewed the reaction to your photos. Did you find yourself in the situation where you wished the general public’s reaction would have been different?
BH: The controversy over the Burma execution photographs makes for a very interesting case study within the history of the medium. I find it fascinating when I consider it objectively, although living it at the time was really rather maddening - after all, not many photographers have the “honor” of being ravaged in an editorial by London’s revered Financial Times! Yes, while not exactly being known for their expertise in the field of photographic critique, the Financial Times managed to trot out some old wanker who actually accused me of staging the execution photographs! And while there’s nothing wrong with questioning the circumstances and ethics surrounding controversial images, such a claim was little more than yellow journalism and should have been well below the standards of such a publication. But it is very illustrative of how feelings flare and opinions are bandied about in such matters.
Anyway, I could go on at great length about this whole incident, but I’ll try to give a more thumbnail sketch here. The bottom line is that it all boiled down to the age-old “Kill the Messenger” syndrome. Like Cornell Capa said about the whole affair, I had only two choices: I could either record it, or walk away. To describe all of the details of that day would take too much time here, but suffice it to say that it was obvious that my presence, and the fact that I was there with a camera, had no bearing on the executions. They had happened on days prior to that one, in just as gruesome a fashion, and they would have gone on in the same manner that day had I not been present.
In fact, when the first execution began I was very shocked. I suspected that they might execute those two prisoners, but I didn’t know for certain that it was going to happen, or when, or by what method. And when the first execution did begin, it started quickly and I was surprised and horrified, but I kept on shooting. I felt that if two prisoners were going to die in a grisly fashion that day, deep in the jungles of Burma, I could at least tell the story of their deaths. Perhaps that is very little recompense, but it was the only alternative, and combined with the tragic life-story of the young man who was carrying out the executions, the incident was very illustrative of the cycles of violence that occur in an area that has experienced decades of insurgency.
So there were extremely important points to be made, and issues to be addressed, with the publication of these images - well beyond the graphic and shocking nature of the photographs themselves. But apparently a great many people, upon seeing the cover of a magazine where a man is tied to a tree and being stabbed in the chest, lose sight of the greater overarching issues and instead choose to focus upon the usage of the images themselves - which then further devolves into personal attacks upon the image-maker. “Kill that messenger, damnit!”
Leaving aside how it felt to have my ethics and reputation under fire like this, a much greater disappointment would have to be the fact that the spotlight was misdirected. It should have been shining on the situation in Burma, and the horrible ruling junta that is still in power to this day. For four years I devoted a majority of my photographic efforts to documenting what was going on in that country, and I wanted that spotlight to shine on the overall situation, not on me and not just on the execution photographs.
So yes, the public reaction was nothing like what I had hoped for. But many factors come into play to create the dynamic that occurred. The execution photographs were not released by themselves, or ever singled out and hyped to editors as “shocking gruesome images” or whatever. On the contrary, they were a small part of a large package that contained an edit reflecting several years worth of work in Burma. That edit ran the gamut from the executions and close-quarter combat and wounded and dead soldiers all the way to refugees and schools and traditional dances and landscapes and etc. etc.
But when reality knocks and the cold light of dawn shines, what you often get is compromise, or worse. In this case, due to one major publication running the execution images on the cover and in a very graphic layout on the inside, the focus became all about those photographs, and then in turn about me. Going back to your previous question about short- and long-term impact, well, obviously the situation in Burma is still just as bad as it was then, if not worse. But I never for a moment regret those years that I spent doing what I could do to get the story out. And I had some amazing adventures and quite unforgettable experiences along the way - although I hope to never have to witness two people being butchered again.
JC: Your more recent images are from different areas. For example, you shot an extensive portfolio of images of environmental destruction or of decaying structures in Eastern Europe. What made you change your focus? And how did you decide about what to aim your camera at?
BH: Hmmmm… Well, let me begin by resurrecting a quote from an exhibition text I wrote a while back: As for philosophy, I would have to steal from the poet Yevtushenko and say that a life in photography is “a choice that has no mercy, but is surely redemption.” I turned 50 this past January, and next year it will be twenty years since my first story (going into combat with the mujaheddin in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan), so maybe it’s natural that I’m feeling a bit more contemplative these days, looking back over my career to date, and thinking about where I want it to go from here…
An article written a few years ago said that the common thread running through all of my work was a “latent obsession with apocalypse.” Of course I’ve joked about this ever since, but there’s obviously more than a grain of truth contained in that statement. As long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the dark side of things; as a kid I devoured H. P. Lovecraft stories, and was immersed in cryptozoology, the paranormal, the supernatural. Later it was the occult, Aleister Crowley, the Golden Dawn, poets who explored that territory - Blake, Yeats, Baudelaire, Rimbaud.
But the reason I mention all of this is because when you ask how a photographer chooses a focus, or how he decides where to aim the camera, you are in essence asking them to bare their psyche, and all the ghoulies and ghosties and four-legged beasties contained therein. I came to photography relatively late. I didn’t even pick up a camera as a hobby until I was in my twenties, and didn’t begin my career in photography until age 31. Prior to that I was in the military. I was a paratrooper and an instructor at the Army Recon Commando school at Fort Bragg, and after that I was a cop and a member of a S.W.A.T. team.
The point of all this autobiographical data, however, is that by the time I decided to try to make a career as a photographer, I think my immediate choice of subject matter was pretty much already determined by the life I had led prior to that. If you take all of the influences I cited above, add them to the jobs I had prior to photography, then grind it all up and dump it back into my head, you’re probably going to get a body of work that looks like mine, and the needle on that particular compass is no doubt going to be pointing towards the darker side of things.
I think it was almost inevitable that I would dive into conflict photography right off the bat. I knew absolutely nothing about the business end of the medium, little to nothing about the history of the medium, and I was completely self-taught - I’ve never had one minute of instruction. So I had to play to my strengths and take advantage of my military experience, which is why for the first several years I concentrated mostly upon those places where access was more difficult, where I had to spend long periods of time up in the mountains or deep in the jungle, traveling great distances with various guerrilla groups, going into combat with them. The idealism that I mentioned earlier was in full bloom. I wanted to make a career out of covering those conflicts that were below the media radar, that weren’t getting much attention. My mantra was that if there were 150 photographers in one place, then I didn’t need to be number 151. My efforts would be better spent elsewhere. But there’s a good reason why those 150 photographers are all in the same place: that’s the place the magazines and newspapers are interested in at the time, and are buying pictures from.
From the start my idealism overrode my business sense, which sounds cool when you say it but doesn’t pay the bills quite as well (and believe me, I am definitely not one of those trust-fund-kid photographers!). But the main problem with following this mantra was that there weren’t many magazines willing to front the cash for a months-long excursion into the armpit of some insurgency, which more often than not was located in a place most people had never heard of and couldn’t even find on a map. So if I really wanted to pursue stories like that, it would be on my own dime and sell the pictures when I got back. And this can work, but it can also backfire.
For example, I suffered financial setbacks in ‘92 and ‘93 when two different stories fell through - and here one has to discuss the logistics and mechanics of making something like this work. There were two stories I really wanted to do, and both involved very deep access and illegal border crossings. I spent a great deal of time setting up these trips, getting these two guerrilla organizations on two different continents to agree to take me in with them. In both cases I ended up flying half way around the world, making my way to remote areas for clandestine meetings, etc., and in both cases the organizations backed out at the last minute. In ‘92 they balked at trying to smuggle me across a very major border, heavily guarded and mined, and in ‘93, on a completely different continent, the other guerrilla group simply reneged on their promises. The former I could understand somewhat, although I made it clear that I was more than willing to take any of the inherent risks; the latter never gave me a reason at all. The first time this happened I was disappointed, and lost money; when it happened again a year later, I lost more money and was really pissed off. I re-contacted the person who had initially set up the whole thing, one of the higher-ups in this particular guerrilla organization (that shall remain nameless here), and I expressed my extreme displeasure. I also politely hinted that since I had no pictures and therefore no way to make back my money, my only recourse might be to use some information I had picked up over there and write an interesting article instead - one that dealt with the smuggling routes and methods the group used to fund their insurgency. Of course this person then felt the pain of my loss and I received some reimbursement from the organization, and for the next year or so my wife was afraid that our whole family would be assassinated. So Jörg, if I get whacked after you put this up on Conscientious, you’ll know what happened! Just when something seemed to be healed, I had to go and pick at it.
But this sets the stage for my first major shift in focus, which happened, like many things in life, unexpectedly and without any real planning on my part (although the foundation, perhaps, was laid by what I had been doing in my down time - attempting to overcome the complete ignorance I had of the medium in the beginning, and plunging myself into a serious study of the history of photography). I was offered the opportunity to accompany a delegation from Britain’s House of Parliament on a fact-finding mission to Nagorno Karabakh, and off I went. They stayed for a week and I went to all of their official meetings and functions, and then they left. But I used the fact that I was already there, already had access into Nagorno Karabakh, to stay on for an additional six weeks, and just basically wander (and that word, I think, is a key ingredient to my shift in focus). Armenia and Azerbaijan had been fighting over Nagorno Karabakh, and a cease-fire had recently been put into place and was holding. There was grief and mourning, but there was also hope and the rebuilding of lives and infrastructure. People were attempting to restore a sense of normalcy, especially for the sake of the children, and I just immersed myself into trying to capture all of these feelings and this process of recovery on film. For six years the bulk of my work had dealt with loaded subject matter that evoked a strong gut reaction - combat, dead bodies, famine, refugees. Now, the subject matter was quiet and nuanced. When I returned home and processed the film, I was surprised at how much I responded to this new work. It was still dark, but there was hope seeping through the cracks. This was the beginning of a real sea change in my photography. Business-wise in the short-term, a body of images of that nature is not easy to place, but in the long-term I’m still selling prints from that trip, 13 years on.
That started a period of wandering - mostly throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, but also down into South America - and the medium of photography really opened up for me. I had been so focused upon conflict that it seemed as if I had been wearing blinders. Eventually I was shooting 35mm, medium format, large format, panoramic… people, street photography, portraits, daily life stuff, religious pilgrimages, traditional rural architecture, urbanscapes, landscapes, industrials, etc. etc.
My approach ranged from the scatter shot, following whatever interested me at the time, to more concentrated efforts; for example, like just about everyone else who travels in that part of the world, I became intrigued by and fascinated with the Roma. I devoted the majority of my efforts in ‘96 and ‘97 to finding small settlements of those most disenfranchised, living in abandoned apartment blocs or on the edge of garbage dumps or in temporary camps with no electricity, etc., and once located, convincing them to allow me in. Obviously the Roma can be incredibly closed and suspicious of outsiders, and with very good reason, but eventually, over the course of those two years, I found some groups who allowed me in, and felt comfortable enough with my presence to allow me to spend time amongst them and make photographs that were genuinely candid.
In such situations I will first show up without my cameras and just talk to people, explaining what I would like to do. If I am allowed to return, my cameras are zipped away in the bag, and I just hang out and talk and drink. My camera never even comes out of the bag until people are comfortable with both my presence as a person and my presence as a photographer.
The next big sea change in my work (and the one where my head seems to still mostly reside) occurred in 1999 - 2000, and in some respects I believe that a personal and family issue played a critical role in this change. Up until that time the majority of my work had focused upon people; however, during that period just mentioned, my photographs became increasingly depopulated, and by 2002 the last person vanished from my frames entirely.
In 1999 I was living in rural Oregon, traditionally a logging economy, but the timber industry had been hit hard. I began a series of photographs documenting pulp and paper mills, lumber mills that had been closed, lumber mills that were being torn down, etc. Shortly thereafter I started the industrial series in Eastern Europe and the former USSR - some of the most horribly polluted places on the planet. On one hand I was repulsed by the damage to the environment and the health of the surrounding populace, but on the other I was absolutely fascinated by the post-apocalyptic, sci-fi film appearance of these sites, and the abstract qualities of their geometric forms. After the usual often-frustrating battle for access, when granted, I would spend days exploring and photographing every nook and cranny of these places, losing myself into the darkest and most wretched spots I could find.
But here is where the personal back story comes in: By the years in question here, ‘99 and ‘00, my wife and I had come to the realization that our son (born in ‘95) was not just a late talker, but was autistic. Much of my time became devoted to helping him learn to use words, then to use rudimentary sentences, then to answer questions, then to begin grasping the notion of a back-and-forth conversation… Concurrently, I was working with him to understand what for the most part comes naturally to us - the meaning of body language and facial expressions (we had to draw simple pictures depicting facial expressions and get him to learn these by rote). So over this period of several years, as I spent countless hours working with my son, trying to teach him how to interact with other people, the humanistic aspect of my photography lessened and lessened until people vanished from my work entirely.
Looking back on this stage of my career, I believe that I was concentrating so much on human interaction in my personal life, that the frustration and burn-out factor of that chased all vestiges of the human form out of my photography completely. I was using my work to get as far away from people as I possibly could, seeking escape and solitude by going into the depths of some of the most damaged places on the planet, where I could be alone. And perhaps there is another aspect to this as well: currently there is no known cause for the autistic spectrum disorders, but many researchers believe that there is a genetic predisposition which is brought on by environmental triggers. My work from 1999 to today has been primarily of an environmental nature; from 2002 onward, exclusively so. I suspect that this is at least partially driven by my involvement with autism, and a deep concern over what the world’s pollutants and toxins are doing to our kids.
In looking back over nearly 20 years of work, I suppose one can see a degree of accuracy in that article’s mention of my “latent obsession with apocalypse”. However, I think that if you were to look at an anthology of my work, or a retrospective exhibition, you might say what I said earlier: “It’s dark, but there is hope seeping through the cracks.” I retain a sense of wonder about the world, and about the possibilities of the medium of photography - and I am still every bit as excited when I pick up a camera today as I was when I started.
One final note here: I realize that I am open to accusations of cliche and stereotyping. My Roma images show only the most poverty-stricken, my photographs from formerly-communist countries dwell upon urban decay and rural life and polluted industrial sites, etc. etc. Nowhere do we see those new high-rise luxury flats in Bucharest, or the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner in Baku, or all the well-dressed kids at the disco. Yes, I stand guilty as charged, of photographically ignoring such things. There was a young man who worked as my assistant in Romania for several years, and we became quite good friends; however, as time went on he became somewhat of a fiery nationalist. At one point he said to me: “People who look at your pictures will think that Romania is nothing but Gypsies and muddy fucking peasants!” And I will be the first to acknowledge that there is truth in that statement.
But I remain strongly emotionally-vested in my work, and so can only follow where my heart leads. As much as I dislike putting labels on my own (or anyone else’s) photography, I would say that the “concerned photographer” who started out in 1988 is probably still calling the shots deep down. I have images that say “Cherish this,” but many more that say “Change this” or “Think about this” or “We can do better”…
JC: Your images of environmental destruction appear to live at that intersection between art and photojournalism. I think that’s a somewhat tricky area to be in - after all, on the one hand, you probably don’t want to reduce those places to beautiful abstract images, on the other hand, you want the photos to be appealing. How do you deal with this? What kind of decisions did you make when working on those sites?
BH: You are right, for a dozen-plus years I’ve been told that my work lives at that intersection! And I agree that it’s a tricky place to live, but mostly for others, those people being the ones who have to either market or write about my work, or who feel some burning need to label or categorize a photographer and/or his images. Most people in the gallery world would probably consider me a photojournalist or a documentary photographer; on the other hand, I have a good friend who is a true Old School photojournalist, and for years he has mockingly called me an “artist”. Whatever! When I am in the field working, I can honestly say that such thoughts never enter my mind. I simply try to make the best photographs possible of the subject matter with which I am engaged, in accordance with what it is that I am trying to communicate via that particular body of work. I don’t ponder whether shooting something a certain way will make me an artist or a photojournalist, nor do I worry about any later critical response in the “art vs. document” vein. I really don’t care. And if some feel this is overly simplistic of me, well, at least I’ll never be accused of over-thinking my pictures!
Regarding the industrial work… To actually be on the ground in some of these places is an incredible experience. As I said earlier, they can be both repulsive and fascinating. There is no escaping the level of destruction of the natural environment, the effect on the workers and the surrounding populace and flora and fauna. The amount of poisons and pollutants that are still in the ground, and the ground water, in even the abandoned sites is truly frightening.
But there is another side to the experience, one which I have spoken and written about ever since I started this project, and that is the “fantasy” side. Standing in the midst of one of these huge ravaged abandoned industrial sites, it’s almost difficult not to think of oneself as being inside of some post-apocalyptic science-fiction film set. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen, except in a movie. I was a Marvel Comics junkie as a kid, and this is the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to having one of Jack Kirby’s massive machine-filled cosmic landscapes come to life! So in addition to the disgust at what man has done to the surroundings, there is on top of that this sense of awe, of wonder, of other-worldliness, like you’re alone in this sci-fi or fantasy landscape. Both of these feelings were very strong for me, and I wanted both to translate into the photographs.
So yes, in some images I did compose so as to heighten the fantastical and/or abstract qualities of the subject matter - for me this was unavoidable. One cannot work in a place like that and not see the similarities between certain random accumulations of discarded metal and the sculpture found in the grounds of most museums today. In other photographs it is all about the destruction. In many you can read elements of both.
In 2003 I put out a limited-edition portfolio of some of this work, entitled 13 Million Tons of Pig Iron. To some extent this was a conceptual piece, and the plates inside were selected so as to emphasize textures, geometries, abstraction, machine form, etc., and not just hammer home the environmental message. Yet in all the feedback I’ve gotten from this, no one has missed the underlying issues - they may describe the portfolio as beautiful, and some particular images as beautiful, but never once has this not led to questions about the places themselves, and their environmental legacy.
On the other hand, a while back when you mentioned me on your blog and linked to my Disfigured Landscapes on Alan Griffith’s wonderful Luminous-Lint website, that online exhibition was a completely different kettle of fish when contrasted with the portfolio. For the website, since the exhibition went up just in advance of Earth Day, I went through and selected a more message-driven sequence of images, emphasizing the ugliness and destruction as opposed to any qualities of form or abstraction. But this doesn’t mean that I selected images that I felt were inferior to the portfolio in terms of their compositional qualities. They just seemed to better fit the specific purpose of the online exhibition.
This deals with your concern over finding a balance in such images - a balance somewhere between reducing horror to beauty or abstraction versus making an appealing photograph. I don’t think it’s a mortal sin to make an appealing photograph of what is at its heart a message-driven subject; on the contrary, I think it is a necessity. However, I would qualify “appealing” to refer to the mechanics of the image itself - the attempt by the photographer to capture the optimal composition, optimal lighting, etc., given what lies in front of his or her camera and the time available to make the photograph under a given set of circumstances.
As I mentioned earlier, with most people in their daily routines and comfortably numb due to constant image bombardment (besides suffering from compassion fatigue), you need to bring your “A” game to the table if you want to have a chance of making a photograph actually communicate something, because first you need to arrest the attention of the viewer, a feat in and of itself, and then make them want to engage with and explore and think about what’s inside of that frame. A photograph that is poorly composed, the lighting is bad, whatever, is at an immediate disadvantage right out of the gate.
But I think you are also concerned with something beyond this level - the idea that a beautiful image of a horrible subject can become transformed into an object, where the viewer thinks more about the photograph as a photograph than, as John Szarkowski would say, a window into something else. Thus in turn, more attention is paid to the surface qualities of the image and the abilities of the photographer than to the subject matter itself. With the overseas industrial project, many factors came into play in determining my working decisions - not the least of which was that dreaded “A”-word that always rears its ugly head: access.
I spent days in frustrating meetings, attempting to get into some of these places, sometimes I was successful, sometimes not. Once I was granted access after a few hours of back-and-forth, but after walking about 50 yards through the gate with all of my camera gear, I was suddenly surrounded by guards with AK-47s and unceremoniously ejected from the site. Someone had changed their mind. When I did get access, it varied in quantity and quality. Sometimes I was allowed days to photograph, sometimes a few hours. Sometimes I had a “minder” watching everything I did, sometimes I was left alone (and sometimes I would tell that “minder” how boring it would be to follow me around, and that his time would be better spent in a nearby bar while his boss in the office thought he was with me - a few bucks in his palm and he was never seen again). I sneaked into some sites; I bribed my way into others. And some were just sitting in the middle of nowhere, completely unguarded - though these were by far the exception to the rule. Even those that common sense would tell you were useless and abandoned were usually watched over by several armed guards.
So access shaped all aspects of my freedom to photograph, with time constraints effecting my decisions on what to shoot and how. But to answer your questions better, let’s use as an example those sites where I was allowed free rein. In such cases I spent numerous days moving through massive industrial complexes, methodically working from one end to the other, into and through every nook and cranny of every building. To be quite honest, Jörg, while I was actually there working I never took the time to actively ponder or dwell upon those issues you have raised. I was in the zone, working non-stop from dawn to dark every day, because I always knew that at any moment my access could be revoked. So I was working like a madman and photographing everything, in many different ways, from large overviews to smaller industrial landscapes to individual buildings, then inside and long shots of huge interiors, rows of machinery, smaller rooms, individual machines, specific parts of machines, Siskind-like wall abstractions - you name it.
I was basically doing industrial archaeology, and gathering everything that I could. It was only at the end, once I was home and all the film was processed, that I concerned myself with the issues you have raised. Then it was a matter of editing (deciding which images clearly spoke of environmental destruction, and which could or would be considered more interpretive) and selecting the purpose and ultimate usage of any given individual photograph. But overall, I don’t really think that too many of them lose sight of the overarching environmental issue, regardless of their composition. Your mileage may vary, however…
JC: I’m always a bit worried about where and how to show such images, because I think the location to some extent determines how people view the images. To some extent, I am very uncomfortable with showing images from New Orleans, say, or photos of disfigured Iraq war veterans in art galleries, because that’s not where these photos should be seen. On the other hand, if you show those images in magazines, then it’s questionable what long-term impact the images really will have. What do you think? Do I maybe worry too much about a problem that doesn’t really exist?
BH: Obviously not everything that hangs in an art gallery is automatically “Art” just by dint of location. Likewise, regarding individual perception, I don’t think most people walk into an art gallery and just automatically make the assumption that what they are about to experience has to be “Art” - I know I don’t! A few months ago I went into a swanky gallery in San Francisco, and I thought someone had gone to a rug warehouse and bought carpet samples to tack up on the walls!
I do think, however, that most people will make an assumption of “worth” - that if it’s in a gallery, then for some reason some curator or gallery director thought it was good enough to be there, whatever “it” happens to be. Not that this assumption of worth is any more valid than the assumption of “Art,” mind you! In my opinion (as someone who has been exhibited and sold in art galleries for some time now), I think that much of this issue has to do with the presentation itself, and the atmosphere in the gallery. Take the two examples you mentioned above. Walk in and look at the wall text: does it talk about the victims of Katrina, or does it sound like critical psychobabble, extolling the virtues of the photographer’s composition and usage of color, praising his juxtaposition of the broken Jesus statue with the overturned car and the crossed palm trees in the background? Does it talk about the individual Iraq war veterans and their struggles, or does it praise the photographer and compare his portraiture to that of Richard Avedon? Likewise the atmosphere in the gallery itself (which equates with those who are working there): are they engaged with and sympathetic to the subject matter, or are they just trying to flog print sales for the gallery and the photographer? When you walked in, did some snooty metro-sexual kid who fancies himself the next Gursky look down his nose at you, let out a barely-audible sigh, and then go back to whatever he was doing? The inside of an art gallery is just an empty room until you put something in it - and how you set up that exhibition in there will mostly determine how those photographs are viewed.
Earlier we talked about venues, and impact - I see the gallery as just another method to communicate through photographs, and potentially a very good one. Since an exhibition is only of a certain duration, then yes, it is ephemeral like a magazine. It will also most likely never reach the number of people that a magazine will. But in terms of impact on an individual, a gallery has a power that cannot be matched by a magazine (or possibly even a book), for stepping inside of that space puts you in contact with an incarnation of the image that feels more direct and immediate, more alive than any published version can (especially at the sizes we are seeing in the galleries these days!). Except for the opening reception, the atmosphere will probably be hushed, allowing a person the time - away from distractions - to really absorb not just individual images but also the cumulative effect of the entire exhibition. I think such an experience can be a very powerful tool for the type of photography that we are discussing. But it must be presented in the proper atmosphere, with the emphasis squarely upon the subject matter and not the talent or cachet of the photographer. So I generally favor showing such work in art galleries - but only when the exhibition passes the “sniff test” for genuineness and sincerity.