It may well be that photography works best when it manages to raise whatever bit of humanity it documents to an iconic level, but that means that it requires a certain purging or purification of the elements so that an emotional focus is obtained.

Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson is a St. Domingo-based photographer / writer. He is an Alicia Patterson fellow and the author of The Dominican Batey. Jon studied literature and history at Columbia University, before leaving to become a photojournalist, eventually to be represented by the photo agency Black Star.

Wayne: Can you talk about why you decided to study literature in school instead of photography? Where did photography rank among your interests at the time? And how did you make the transition from literature to photography?

Jon: I came to photography by chance, which is appropriate, I suppose, since the form of photography that I practice depends largely on the hazards of life.

Were it left up to my teachers at the time, I might never have pursued photography, since I was judged to be deficient in the skills that are required of a visual artist. I have always been drawn to literature, it comes easily to me, and I was an English major in college. But I took several courses in Art History as well as a drawing course, and while I came to understand the vocabulary of a painting or a sketch, I never mastered its expression. I remember once when the class was drawing from a nude model, and the teacher passed from one student to the next, diligently commenting on the progress of each. When it came to my turn, he silently passed me by. He never offered me a comment during the whole term!

After traveling around Europe for a while I conceived the idea of continuing my literary studies there, obtained a master’s degree, and then returned to the States and studied at Columbia University. In the middle of teaching and writing my dissertation, on the Victorian social novel and the effect of urbanism and new scientific theories, I was diverted from a career as a professor when I happened to step inside a bookstore in Austin, Texas, where I had gone to give a lecture on urban history. I picked up a book of portraits by Mapplethorpe and was impressed by the luminous quality of these images (I later learned the trick behind this kind of lighting, which is used a lot in fashion photography, but at the time I had no idea what could produce such a look). Many of my friends had already graduated and were beginning their careers as junior professors in various colleges around the country, and I determined to capture their likenesses on film. I had played with cameras, of course, since I was a kid, but I never worked at it; in fact, my brother was the one who created a photo lab in the bathroom. I shot a Brownie, but lackadaisically. This time however the hooks were in me.

I had a friend show me how to develop film and make prints, and once I saw that image reveal itself in the developing tray, I was enthralled. I don’t think that young photographers today can understand the magic of that moment, the alchemy of photography, since the instantaneity and lilliputian immateriality of the digital image that is betrayed in the chimping is just so lacking in revelatory power. In the lab, I am a conjurer; at my desk, in front of a computer, I am nothing more than a technician.

I returned home, set up a studio of sorts in my small apartment, with nice wraparound light bounced back into my huge north-facing window from the whitewashed wall across the alley. I photographed everyone and anyone who would visit me. I also did still lifes (a couple of which I still have because they are kind of surreal), nudes, and some landscapes. Mostly I shot medium format. But I hadn’t found the source of my compulsion; I was simply following in the usual wake of all black and white photographers before me, perfecting my control of the negative, experimenting with different films and chemicals. I gobbled imagery: Strand, Sander, Evans, Model, Arbus, Karsh, Penn and a host of others whose work was centered on portraiture. But then I made a discovery about myself and a different sort of photography.

I started looking at the work of people like Garry Winogrand, which I didn’t quite “get,” but I knew that I had finally found something that welded all my interests into one consummate activity or practice: street photography. At the same time, I was wandering around the streets of New York, in between long bouts of writing or teaching, and following the homeless people around, observing them. I slowly began to snap pics of them, but tentatively, shyly. I had no idea about how to engage them yet. I began to figure out, however, that what interested me was the way that people lived rather than esoteric formal composition under controlled studio conditions, so I started exploring the city’s subcultures: the shanty towns, the ghettoes, and the prostitutes down in the Meat Market. It so happens that I was walking around down there one day, after having paged through Danny Lyon’s photographs of disappearing New York, and I decided to capture this remarkable neighborhood full of decaying meat, blood, cobblestone streets and hollow loft buildings. At one point, a prostitute accosted me and asked if I wanted to take her pic—for a price. But on closer examination, I realized that in fact she was a he. Naturally, I was curious, and I started walking around there more often in the hopes that these people would accept my presence and eventually allow me to photograph them. After some jockeying back and forth, I was finally surrounded by them all one day and they asked me to snap a pic of one of their friends who was flying high on crack. Diane, with her pants down past her knees, was stumbling up and down the sidewalk, next to various painted signs advertising meat, and I just couldn’t resist. At the time I was shooting with a Fuji 6x9, which yields a nice big neg, and after quietly pressing the shutter button, I had one of my first real pictures. After that I became the “official” photographer of the House of La Too Much—some of these characters, and they were indeed characters, had appeared in the famous film Paris Burning, about the whole drag queen scene. I was fascinated by them, and began hanging out with them at all hours. It was a pretty dicey neighborhood in those days, scary at night—Stella Macartney and the beautiful people were not to settle there for another eight years at least. I never got many very “close” images, but I did get some excellent portraits, and I began to feel my way, gropingly, toward the path I was later to follow.

The other story I pursued around this time concerned the shantytown that used to exist under the FDR in between the Bridges, right across from the New York Post building. These people also fascinated me, not only because of their extreme poverty but also because of their rebelliousness, their refusal to assimilate to mainstream culture, and their self-deprecating humor—one of the guys I came to know, named Mark, had a realty sign, “For Sale,” hung outside his shanty. Many of these guys were in fact quite smart. There was one guy that everyone in the community called “Mad Mac”—because he was paranoid and schizophrenic (or perhaps just bipolar). He had this fantasy that women and the FBI were in league to get him. I spent some time with him and took a good photograph of him in his shanty, with his reflection in the mirror, and a temporary girlfriend sitting outside the doorway. He appears quite isolated and tortured. Yet the shack was a marvel of engineering: it had a postal box, a fence and porch, and a periscope for spying on people outside. Plus he had axles built into the bottom frame, so he could attach wheels and cart the house away. A photographer who teaches at Cooper Union, Margaret Morton, has some pictures of his shack, but she never published any pix of the man, so far as I know. One day he asked me if I were from the FBI, and I knew that our relationship had come to an end.

The shantytown series was my first real inkling that I might in fact have a future in photography and that my strengths lay in getting close to people and rendering their lives in a visual narrative. The narrative aspect was very important. My entire training in literature had produced a very strong sense of narrative structure and its significance in our lives, and what I had learned duriing all those years reading 19th century realist novels was easily transferred into my new activity. In fact, though my path appeared to be a completely fortuitous meandering journey up till then, it turned out, on hindsight, to be quite purposeful and, in a sense, destined. While I seemed to be drifting, there was a definite pattern to it all.

I left school behind—just upped and left. My friends were nonplussed. They kept asking me what I was going to do, whether I had an “eye” (though by then they were all asking for portraits), and urged me to finish my schooling. I realized that I had been in school for a very long period of my life, and that I had learned just about all it had to teach me—which was a considerable amount. Some photographers seem to be happy with a bit of vocational training before assuming their career—but many of the photographers that I admire—Salgado, Towell, Nachtwey and others—all have training in the liberal arts or in some other discipline which in turn seems to have nurtured their photography, giving them ideas and broadening their imaginations. Technique is one thing, but ideas come from a broad knowledge of culture. Anyway, I discovered that everything I was studying in school—urbanism, poverty, marginal subcultures, social conflict (all of which form the main themes of Balzac, Dickens, Zola)—was there right in front of me, and instead of spending my life writing books about other peoples’ achievements, I wanted to produce books that people would read. Poverty and social conflict, outside of war, became my main themes, but I always kept an eye on the larger theme of culture, of how people lived. Ultimately, that is what interests me most, and the camera I carry is like a passport into other people’s worlds. I discovered at some point that my eye was connected to my heart: as Don McCullin has said, “photography is not seeing, it is feeling.” But I also discovered eventually, after all my efforts to learn technique, to perfect my shooting and printing, to learn about color in addition to black and white—that the best means of developing your visual sense, your formal expression, is to make mistakes. By breaking the rules I came to understand what a bit of Tri-X and a portable camera were capable of creating, and I came to favor an eclectic approach, one that varied with the prevailing circumstances.

It may be that photography, or rather Street Photography—a genre that depends on the accidental significance of chance events—taught me to give up rationalizing so much, give up control over the object world, and instead learn to swim with the currents, take what comes, rely on intuition and feeling. The experience of shooting for me is very zen-like: you peer through that little viewfinder, you find a connection to the scene before you, and you become that scene, you merge with it somehow. It is a very visceral and engaged experience; anyone who has shot archery and read Herrigel’s book will know just what I am talking about. But the key for me was that it was a very different experience from the excessive rationality and verbal discourse I practiced at school. I transferred a lot of the ideas I was working with into my new activities, but I treated them in a new medium and a very different M.O. Course, it is not fair to leave it there: my verbal skills have been a tremendous help to me, allowing me to write essays that accompany my photographs, and also to write grant applications, which, if they are successful, help me to work on the stories I really care about.

Wayne: How did you go from self -projects like your street shooting and portraiture to shooting for publications? Can you talk about how you ended up at Black Star?

Jon: For a couple years after I left school, I worked part-time at the International Center of Photography so I could pick up some training in lab technique—I was a lab assistant and later a teacher’s assistant, and at the time I seriously considered working as a printer. I didn’t want to enroll in ICP’s full-time course, though, because I had had enough of school, and just wanted to pick up some information. This was all at the original site over on Fifth and 94th—a wonderful place too. A bit chaotic, which I like, and there were plenty of interesting people passing through. I worked a host of odd jobs to survive—proofreading, paralegal work, editing, tutoring, barwork, whatever came to hand. Later on I interned at Black Star, and in those days, when Howard Chapnick was still alive and in charge, the library was a thriving place and there were several interns, all of whom were hoping to work as full-time pros. Black Star still cultivated such people, and there was always the chance that you might eventually start working under contract.

I shot whatever I could whenever I could. I started shooting a lot of slide, because that was the reigning medium then, and even though I have never felt particularly adept at color, I learned all the tricks of lighting and exposure in order to get some decent rich color. I was eventually offered a job as a “researcher”—someone who fielded requests from various publishing concerns and researched the library to assemble a package of suitable images. I told them no, I was going to shoot for them instead, and I didn’t have time to be working in the library; this response was greeted with laughter but some appreciation too. Then they offered me the same position, but on a part-time basis and with considerable freedom to come and go, so long as I fulfilled my duties. This arrangement allowed me to go out and shoot whenever there was need. I shot everywhere: house on fire, I was there; water main burst, I was there; demo against police brutality, I was there; Chinese New Year, I was there (so long as they still had fireworks). In addition to the spot news, I was also working on stories: children with AIDS, life in the “projects,” Dominican immigrants, and so on. Eventually, I amassed enough material to present to the editor, and I was given a contract.

The library was a marvelous mess and comprised a complete photographic history of the 20th century. First of all there were all kinds of well-known contemporary photographers in its vaults: the Turnley twins, Chris Morris, Anthony Suau, Malcolm Linton, Joseph Rodriguez and others. Behind them there were many greats from the '60s and '70s, including Flip Schulke and Charles Moore (of Civil Rights Era fame), Robert Ellison (Vietnam), and many others whose names no longer ring any bells but were formidable shooters—John Launois in particular stands out in my memory. Then of course, all the major events of the 20th century were covered there by many photographers whose names are no longer remembered or were never known—the rise of the Nazis, for example, is found there in great detail. And there was one drawer in particular that I never tired of looking through: this drawer was consecrated to the work of Eugene Smith. Imagine what it was like to hold an 11x14 print of his famous Pietá image from Minimata, or the wake from his Spanish Village essay?!

Black Star, suffice it to say, was an inspiring place, and I felt I had found a home. Howard retired and passed away shortly after I arrived there, but prior to that he was kind enough to offer some advice and encouragement. I set to work, but despite my efforts I never had much of a career there, and in fact I was never at home. There were many reasons for this: the business was entering into a period of change; Black Star was redefining itself; the sort of work that I really wanted to do was no longer supported by the magazines, which had switched to lifestyle reporting as early as the '80s; and I was as yet an ill-defined commodity. To give Black Star credit, my editor tried her best to develop me, but I was not cut out to be an agency photographer in the Turnley mold. I started working as an assistant to one of the commercial photographers there, and this turned out to be a perfect opportunity to learn and to earn. Plus in my spare time—and there was enough of it given the fact that I only had to work a few days a week to cover my expenses—I could devote my energies to working on my own projects. This seemed an ideal arrangement, and I exploited the opportunity. Commercial work had its pleasures too: every day was different, every task posed some new challenge. I met a lot of interesting people, and learned new things all the time. The guy I worked with had an admirable talent for making dramatic pictures out of thoroughly unpromising surroundings. He was one of the best I have ever known, not only for his talent and his work ethic, but also for his humane treatment of me, the underling. Not too many people pass this ultimate test.

With the money I was earning I was also able to pay for trips abroad, so I visited India and Brazil and other places, always bringing back some photo essays to be sold or syndicated. Syndication was a trap, though. A lot of effort went into syndication, but unless your material was of the moment, related to some important news event, there was no point in distributing the kind of thing I was doing in the hopes that some stock sales might be realized, and of course the percentages were not worth the effort either. But I kept working on my essays because really that was what I was in it for, and there was nothing else for me to do. Plus, I consider that all of this was a kind of apprenticeship, so while it didn’t compensate me financially, it did so pedagogically. Eventually, I found other means of supporting my work, but while it lasted this initial arrangement gave me time to mature and practice. I have known photographers who came on like a ball of fire, and seemed to be working at the height of their powers from the very start, but I was slow to develop, and it took me a long time to find my themes and my vision.

Wayne: You take a lot of time and effort to educate aspiring and emerging photographers in online forums like Lightstalkers. From what kind of hard knocks would you most want to spare them? What are the biggest kinds of business mistakes that such aspiring photographers make?

Jon: Well, I don’t know if I do in fact spend a lot time teaching others, but I have been rather vocal on Lightstalkers. That is partly a result of the fact that I have been doing more writing at home lately, and I have a lot of energy that needs channeling so the excess goes into posting on LS! But my years as a teacher certainly have formed a pedagogical attitude in me when it comes to passing on traditions and helping others out. Lightstalkers is unique in that it embodies a spirit of cooperation and mutual aid that is rather rare—the nature of our business is such that it tends to pit us one against the other, or isolate us, because after all you pretty much work alone. But LS mitigates against that and provides a community in which we can all share, and the overall tone of the site is remarkably supportive and generous.

I don’t know if I would want to spare anyone the hard knocks that are bound to be their lot in this business. It is probably best to get knocked around a bit, toughen up, and learn firsthand what you can expect from this life. Those lessons never leave you. Plus, after documenting poverty for something like 12 years, I have come to believe that adversity, within limits, is more likely to produce something of lasting value. It is when we are frustrated in our attempts to perform according to our dreams that we are forced back on ourselves, forced to regroup, and figure out a different approach. This is what happened to Miles Davis. When he discovered he couldn’t play like his idol, Dizzy Gillespie, he was forced to capitalize on his personal limitations as a player and come up with a different style of playing. That is when he became Miles.

When you are a young photographer, unless you have a head for business you are bound to make all kinds of mistakes, particularly as a freelancer without anyone to watch over you. Many young photographers are too anxious to get into print and will undersell themselves to do so or sign over their rights. These are particularly bad practices because we all suffer as a result. And this is true in the commercial realm as in the editorial: I know of one case recently brought to my attention in which a major national retail chain was offering an outrageously disadvantageous set of terms in their contract, but they figured they could get away with it since they were targeting younger photographers. Contracts all around have gotten a lot tougher, and many young people are willing to sign them simply to get their first break. I think that patience can be a photographer’s greatest friend, not only on the shooting but also the business end of things: there is such a thing as pushing too fast to get published, with the results coming short of more considered mature work. It seems that some new photographers don’t take time, either, to research the field more carefully, know their clients, know the agencies and their different procedures, or know much about the places where they go to shoot. I have had several people come down to my island to shoot a variety of things, usually cane, and some of them know nothing about sugar production or the people who slave on the plantations. They get the dates mixed up, arrive when no cane is being cut, or go to the wrong places and think they are in the middle of a real batey. You don’t have to become an expert, but it helps to know the ground you will be working. Antonin Kratochvil, through his example, taught me the virtues of careful preparation. I believe he talks about this too in Ken Light’s book. Photography is a bit paradoxical: the shutter opens and shuts on an image in a split second, but the patience required to find that image, or wait for it to come along, is geological in pace, or seems so by comparison. I would say too that it takes an investment of around 10 years before a photographer can really start to bloom.

Wayne: What misconceptions do newcomers have about the business, craft and art of photography?

I have no idea really, since I come from a different generation and have no clue as to the formative ideas that act upon their consciousness today. However, one thing I have noticed among a smaller group of photographers—the photojournalists—is a naïve desire to get right into the bang-bang, to become a "War Photographer," and while I have no interest in dissuading anyone from taking that step, since after all one can only know if one is suited to it by leaping, and we absolutely need people out there witnessing these events, I am a bit puzzled by the single-mindedness of the newbies. I was recently traveling with a journalist who was connected with the original Bang Bang club in South Africa, and we were discussing the effects of armed conflict on photographers in general. I think what the younger people don’t see is the psychic and emotional damage that is done to some of these shooters, though one can read about it in books like Don McCullin’s autobiography, [Greg] Marinovich’s "The Bang Bang Club," or [Anthony] Loyd’s "My War Gone By, I Miss It So." Some shooters come out of these experiences and are incapable of sustained emotional relationships with people, they have serial marriages, they effectively abandon their children. Some appear to be partially shell shocked, and others are just withdrawn. Some of them remind me of junkies, they crave that adrenalin and when it is not there, they are somehow absent. This is not to impugn their principles or motives for doing this work; it is just a recognition of the complexity of their situation and some of the costs involved. It is natural for the younger crowd to think only about the excitement and the romance of the myth; but I hope that they come to realize that photojournalism comprises many themes, many possibilities, even though the media outlets for it may seem somewhat narrow in scope.

It strikes me that photojournalists appear to divide loosely into two camps: those that follow war and those that document poverty. There are some who do both, but if you think about it, Nachtwey, for example, mostly covers armed conflict, though of course he covered the famine in Baidoa—but again that was within the perspective of armed conflict. Salgado, on the other hand, doesn’t cover war, he covers poverty. I am certainly of the latter camp. Now war is perceived to be the sexier of the two, so I guess more young photographers are drawn to it, but I think poverty is every bit its equal in terms of injustice and moral disgrace and thematic power. Undeniably, though, the experience of shooting in either of those contexts is very, very different. I cannot speak for the war shooters, but for myself, being among poor people so often, seeing what a lack of education or proper sustenance does to people, seeing the criminal injustice of it all, the hopelessness—watching people starve to death in front of you, or a child beaten or abandoned, well there is a certain psychic toll there too, and you need to be pretty balanced in order to sustain it. However, as Salgado has pointed out, life among poor people has its rewards too: while material wealth is lacking, there is often great spiritual wealth, and when you work among these people you are often anointed with that blessing and return to your life the better for it. That may seem unfair, but I cannot help it, it remains true. Working among poor people has made my life, if not my wallet, richer.

Wayne: In what ways are writing and literature important to you in your work?

Jon: I suppose most people starting out probably think solely in visual terms and derive their inspiration from the photographers they admire. However, I feel that part of what makes a great photographer is the ideas he or she brings to us, and good photographic ideas are not necessarily to be found solely in visual sources, and certainly shouldn’t be restricted to the media (bear in mind, throughout all of this, I am mainly thinking of photographers who cover news events or do reportage). Outside influences are important. If we derive our ideas for stories solely from what we find in the media I think we run the danger of limiting ourselves to the clichéd narratives favored by the press—you know the sort of thing, like underprivileged or handicapped person overcomes obstacles and succeeds. This Oprah Winfrey genre is very popular and shows up in many forms. Various versions of this theme regularly win awards, but I would be hard pressed to remember any that successfully translated into a book of lasting value.

It is worth noting that many universally admired photographers are people who benefited from a liberal education and do a lot of reading; their ideas derive from a broad knowledge of art, literature and history. Let me give you an example of a book that I feel is an extraordinary narrative, one that transcends the genre of war reportage—Philip Jones Griffiths"Vietnam Inc." This book is not just an indictment of what we used to call the military-industrial complex; it is a consummate overview of the whole industry of war. The conception is brilliant, and part of that brilliance lies in the editing, in what he chooses to show us: the photograph of the jet pilot standing outside his shiny clean machine in itself is a simple enough image, but in the context of the narrative it takes on a profound weight and irony. The book, in its scope, in its attempt to come to grips with the larger meaning of war in modern times, is equal in power and originality to [Francisco] Goya’s "The Disasters of War." I cannot comment on the inspiration behind "Vietnam Inc.," and I know nothing about Jones Griffiths’ background, but the ideas embodied in the book are definitely not derived from the media for which he worked. They come from a much more profound source. Undoubtedly someone working in Iraq now will eventually produce a work of this ilk, and thereby give us something more than the usual blow by blow, bombing after bombing, perspective. I think that with the glut of violent imagery that surrounds us, one almost has to adopt a more comprehensive approach if one expects to break through the lethargy of the public. But in order to do so, they just as undoubtedly will have to work outside the context of the media.

Speaking for myself, the literature I have read is a constant source of ideas, and as I said earlier, much of what I am working on is directly related to the themes I found in the works I was studying. But there is more to it than that. Modernity was born with the Enlightenment (some would argue for an earlier date, the 17th century), and, apart from any specific ideas that might be found in any particular work, one of the fundamental tenets of post-Enlightenment thinking is the role that narrative plays in shaping society, in shaping our lives—a process that, as Althusser famously observed, is largely unconscious. The stories we tell each other, the fables we grow up with, define our moral universe and thus, for those of us who do reportage, it is of the utmost importance to provide our readers with adequate narratives, to push the envelope a bit and to find new ways of structuring our stories. An excellent example of this is Eugene Richards’ "Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue": not only does he provide different stories from different areas; not only does he edit the sequence of images in highly interesting ways; but he also manages to provide multiple perspectives, a bit like a modernist novel with different competing narrators – there are two running narratives weaving in and out of the photos, one from “The People” and one from “The Photographer” as well as the afterword written by a medical expert, who provides a third perspective. Myself, I am more and more interested in combinations of image and text that break the usual pattern whereby the text explains the photos, or the photos illustrate the text; instead, I prefer something more like counterpoint, each narrative form with its own integrity, its own trajectory—they play off each other, but each has its own story to tell.

Wayne: Is there a reason why, when it comes to the relationship between image and text, one should be in a power role over the other? When you say that each should have their own story to tell, I’m assuming that you mean they should go even further in concept than the National Geographic way of handling the two?

Jon: The unequal relation of text and imagery stems from several causes: a belief that text is by its nature expository while imagery is graphic and rhetorical—the primacy of word over image for explanatory power, due to the belief that words encapsulate ideas while images convey emotion; the fact that publishing concerns, whether they be newspapers, magazines or books, exist primarily as outlets for expository and analytic writing, so the images are an afterthought; and the fact that, historically speaking, Grub Street (that is the Press) was originally a rutted detour off the highway of Literature. Photography on its own ground is usually a matter of art galleries, studios and museums. The written word and the printing press were responsible for spawning the press industry; the image and the silver halide print could never have done so. Reportage exists in a tenuous relation to the art world on the one hand, and the world of the press on the other, so its own nature, since it is both an aesthetic object as well as an informational medium, is a bone of contention.

Should that order be inverted? Probably not, though in a way the current rage for multimedia storytelling provides a successful example of a medium that gives primacy to the image over the word. The traditional photo essay, too, lends more weight to the image. But there is almost always some sort of text to mark off the limits of the ideas being presented, to define the context. Photography, after all, is a powerful kind of lie, a fiction without clear limits, so it can easily mislead people, and because it appears to have a special ontological status—after all, the image is considered to be an objective record of what was there—many people ascribe to it an objectivity or truth-value that is questionable at best. Joan Fontcuberta has said, “Every photograph is a fiction shown as if it were true . . . What counts is the control of the photographer to impose an ethical direction to this lie. The good photographer is the one who deceives the truth well.” The photographer has the obligation to control the ethical direction of his work, and textual accompaniment can go a long way toward ensuring that control. Many people believe that imagery is a universal language; I happen to disagree, and I think that it is universal only in its potential for being misunderstood—or for multiple interpretations, shall we say, which after all is part of its power.

When I say that I would like to see a new kind of relationship between text and imagery, I am thrown back on the analogy of music to clarify my point: For one thing, if you read music, you see instantly that any piece is composed of many voices—even if we are not talking about something as complicated as an orchestral piece with many instruments, you still have the melodic line, the bass, the harmonies formed by interlaced notes, and with counterpoint you get the mingling of two or more melodic lines or “voices.” Plus you have the rhythm, which keeps the thing moving forward, and this rhythm can get quite complex, as in the case of syncopation, where normally unstressed weak beats (the upbeat) become stressed, as in salsa. I guess I would like to see a photographic narrative that develops according to its own motival logic, just as a piece of music elaborates a theme; while a textual narrative, which may or may not “explain” what is in the photos, rides alongside or cuts in and out of the visual narrative, and the two together form a kind of syncopated linkage, the emphases shifting back and forth between them.

I have been experimenting with this in a small way: a short essay about popular religion here in Santo Domingo and its relation to slavery. The text has its own poetic integrity: it is not there to explain what the Liboristas are doing in their rituals, or what the bruja has in mind as she prepares her altar, both of which appear in the images. It is concerned to evoke the emotional weight and theological underpinnings of syncretic religion. The images have their own trajectory, moving from death, which is the point at which this world and the next are joined, and then on through various instances of ritual practice that evoke some of the themes of slavery and liberation. But the chain of imagery is not dictated by a logical movement from point A to point B. Finally there are small captions that help to define briefly what the viewer is looking at in the pictures, but without overdefining the moment or providing the usual documentary “facts.” While I may never find a magazine bold enough to publish this story in this form, I certainly can publish the book version in a like manner (to be fair, I did find a magazine willing to take on the project, but they are temporarily suspending operations for lack of funding).

Wayne: How good are most photographers on the writing front? Which photographers in particular do you admire for being strong in both? How can new photographers better use writing to market their work?

Jon: People tend to think of word and image as being almost diametrically opposed; we even have scientists talking about right vs. left brain functions as if you were subject to the exclusive domination of one or the other. I think the relation is much closer. I remember reading that Diane Arbus was heavily influenced in her choice of themes by reading the essays of Joseph Mitchell, and I too oddly enough was led here by the same man: my father loved reading his essays and would pack us kids in the car so that we could visit the same kinds of people that Mitchell wrote about. We would go to the Hudson to meet longshoremen or to Brooklyn to find Mohawks who worked on the bridges. That love of exploration is eventually what compelled me to start taking pictures, though I hardly realized it at the time. In fact I think it is safe to say that both my writing and photographic impulses find their source in this childhood experience.

Many would argue that it is rare to find someone who practices both media well, and that may well be true; but perhaps there are many more photographers out there who, for want of trying, simply haven't written anything that might in fact be quite good. It may not be for lack of ability but of motivation. [James] Nachtwey, for example, is a very thoughtful, judicious speaker; were he to take up a pen and write, I bet the results would be well worth reading. But there are plenty of great photographers who can write. I have a list of quotations that I like to keep, and all of the photographers who appear on that list are quite eloquent on the subject of their craft. Of course, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a good writer, and we have his thoughts collected in one volume, so the value of his writing can be passed on to the next generation of photographers. Eugene Richards also writes beautifully, and the text that accompanies his first book, "Few Comforts or Surprises," is pure poetry—the title alone is wonderful. Many of the original Magnum shooters were writers as well, and George Rodger, for one, was handy with a pen. Another photographer whose writing I admire is Larry Towell. The Mennonites book is full of eloquent writing, and part of that eloquence stems from his restraint. At one point he describes the homecoming of family members who have been on the road, and he writes:

“We pulled into the barnyard of Henry Dyck, Susanna’s uncle, patriarch of the Redekkop and Wieler families, of the Dyck and Klassen brood. He bit his bottom lip to satisfy his thirst for family blood when he saw us.[Jon's italics.]

One single line that beautifully plays on the literal and metaphorical meaning of blood, and we have the entire meaning and feeling of an emotional homecoming summed up. That is good writing, and Towell is adept at it.

From the business end of things you would think that combining the ability to write and to shoot would make you more likely to succeed, and certainly increase your fees. It is no secret that photographers should cultivate writers so as to ride their coattails when they get assignments, and I suspect that writers have an advantage when it comes to pitching stories, since the “word people” are the ones who dictate to a greater extent what runs in the publication. So if you can combine both activities in yourself, you might expect better results hunting down assignments. I have yet to discover whether that is true, because I have not yet seriously tried combining the two. Plus, I think that when it comes to reportage it is pretty hard to do so, as there is so much ground to cover. I am generally relieved when I find a good writer willing to work with me and take care of the story writing.

But good writing skills enter into photography in more ways than one: writing captions, writing good story pitches, writing grant applications—these are regular activities that we all engage in, and the better we do them, the better the response will be. Captions are generally pretty boring and often repeat what is plainly seen in the photo, so at the very least a photographer ought to use the caption as a chance to expand on the theme rather than recapitulate what is plainly visible. Story pitches are crucial too: if the pitch is poorly written, the editor is not going to have much confidence in your grasp of the story, even if you don’t actually intend to write the essay. You have to have a clear and terse understanding of the idea if it is to have any chance of surviving the chaos of a newsroom or editorial office. Grants too, which can be a significant means of funding a personal project, depend greatly on the applicant´s ability to write up an imaginative and fluent proposal. The words sometimes count for more than the imagery. That is why, in my article about grant writing, which is available to LS members, I give a bunch of writing tips, because very often that is the last thing the applicant thinks about.

Wayne: What brought you to the Caribbean? Can you tell us more about your current projects there?

Jon: I began traveling here back in the early '90s, but in a sense I have always had some connection to the region, as I grew up in New York and was perfectly familiar with the Puerto Rican diaspora. In my childhood, Motown, Stax and Fania, apart from rock 'n' roll, streamed constantly out of the bodegas and radios out on the street. Puerto Rican independence was a hot issue, and Spanish was heard on many streetcorners. For a while there I believe that Spanish classes were mandatory or at least commonly given in the public schools—I remember that I had lessons for a couple years.

When I was beginning to photograph around New York, I was very much under the spell of Bruce Davidson’s East 100th street, which combined a kind of studio portraiture with reportage in the barrio—it was perfect for the transition I was making from portraiture to street photography. I was living in and around various parts of Harlem and, of course, I was surrounded by Dominicans. I was also working with them in various part-time jobs. So I became pretty intimate with the community and naturally started taking pictures: there were baptisms and weddings and loud parties, as well as the whole drug scene, which up around the 150s and 160s was getting out of control. I once visited a ward in Roosevelt hospital which was filled with young paraplegic men who had been wounded in the drug wars. I used to hang out at a famous little boxing club in that neighborhood, and I got to know all the fighters as well as the people living on the block. I took everybody’s picture, though some of the parents didn’t like it and insisted that I was “five-O” (police). The owners of the boxing club were a father-son team—the father had been a good bantamweight fighter, and the son was a corrections officer at Rikers. They called him Mister Mace, but in fact he was a great guy and was very much concerned to get kids off the streets and give them some training and discipline. Several of his fighters went on to win golden gloves medals.

I knew a few young men at that time who were cut down by gunfire. One of my favorite early photographs depicts a funeral of one such young man from a family I knew fairly well. I had, in fact, photographed the daughter at her wedding only a short while previous to the murder of this unfortunate guy, who was himself a father. My feeling is that a lot of these guys get into the life not out of desperation but because of temptation: they are bombarded by images of the good life from our consumerist society, they are attracted to the idea of fast money, and there is a certain romance to the gangsta life. This guy certainly had no compelling reasons for selling drugs, he was not indigent, though he wasn’t faced with a lot of options either. Anyway, in those days the bullets were flying; people who called me at home, over on Manhattan Avenue, could sometimes hear the sound of gunfire in the background. Once when I was a leaving a bar on Amsterdam near 106th Street, I walked right into the middle of a gangland execution. The local druglord, a guy they called “flaco,” was hanging in front of the bodega that served as his headquarters, when a guy (who happened to be flaco’s lieutenant and was himself the target of a contract) jumped out of a “gitano” (gypsy cab), ran up to him, and shot him several times in the torso. This happened not more than five or six feet in front of me, and wouldn’t you know it, I had no camera! It was pouring down rain, I had gone to the bar to meet some friends, and thinking that a couple rounds later I would be back at home, I neglected to carry a camera. Well, I learned a lesson that night.

As I photographed more and more in the immigrant community, I naturally developed an interest in the culture back home, so I went to the Dominican Republic to start exploring, and I used the elections of 1994 and 1996 as an excuse to get familiar with the place. I instantly fell in love with the country—it was one of those backwater, somewhat chaotic places that I love to get lost in, and it had the added virtue of being absent from everyone’s radar, so I was free to photograph without competition. Photographers always go to Haiti and Cuba, the former for its legendary chaos and the latter for its equally legendary political status. But in Santo Domingo I found similar cultural, social and political themes that had yet been undocumented, so I was in heaven. The political history here, for example, is every bit as interesting as the other two countries, and the cultural practices are too: we have vodú and other types of syncretic religion, a traditional agrarian culture, and the same problems that all developing nations share in this era of globalization. Of course, the fact that the media wasn’t interested much in the country meant that I had a harder time trying to publish material, and I have to struggle still, though people at least recognize the name of the country nowadays.

Eventually, though it took some time to realize what I was really doing down here, I figured out the themes that were to dominate me. I think that while one often picks a theme outright—say, famine in the Horn of Africa—and then works to line up an assignment, prepare the ground, take a few weeks or more to document the situation, and so on, there are times when one works without any clear theme or direction, and the photos eventually shape themselves into a narrative without too much deliberate or conscious molding by the photographer. This is what I like best about photography: the vaguer the outlines, the more I can drift in the sheer tide of imagery without fussing about arriving at some predetermined point, the more I can give myself over to the act of taking pictures and discover those outstanding moments that deserve to be memorialized. I came down here with the loose idea of continuing the themes that governed my work among the immigrants, mainly their search for the Good Life, but that soon developed into a much bigger project. First of all, I realized that to adequately describe this world, I had to come to terms with sugar production, which is what basically created the Caribbean. That of course led to my present photojournalistic work with the cane cutters and the gross abuse of their human rights. In addition to photographing the situation, I am involved in a variety of efforts aimed at ameliorating their lives, their working conditions, and their political rights. (The Open Society has been a solid supporter of this work and has introduced me to a whole new way of getting the imagery out there.) This theme in itself is so large that it took on a life of its own. It turned out that my documentary work here was so ambitious in scope that it was in fact better managed as three distinct projects which, when viewed in relation to one another, could best be seen as a portrait of a developing nation. This meant, of course, that I was dealing with themes of post-colonialism, development, globalization and the threat posed by these to the nation’s traditional way of life.

In essence I was photographing not just current social problems, but a disappearing culture. So I decided to borrow Edmundo Desnoes’s famous title, "Memories of Underdevelopment," for my own, because I felt that it captured the basic idea quite well—the fact that I am dealing with things that will soon become mere memories, and the fact that underdevelopment, though generally used as a synonym for poverty and backwardness, is actually full of beauty and truth and that the cultural practices that come out of this context are not in any way inferior to life as it is lived in developed nations. This umbrella idea is then divided into three separate narratives, a trilogy of sorts: Caña Brava deals with the sugar plantations; El Camino de los Negros deals with popular religion and its roots in slavery; and The Good Life deals with the transition from agrarian to urban society and the mass movement of people from their rural homes to urban slums in search of a better life, which unfortunately continues to elude them. This last theme is of course the subject of other photographers’ work—Salgado’s Migrations dealt with this theme, and Jonas Bendikson of Magnum is currently involved in a project documenting life in Third World slums globally. But the advantage of my approach, it seems to me, is that it focuses on one specific movement in one particular place, and as such the overall trajectory is more easily seen and documented. I really think that what is happening here on my small island is very emblematic, it provides a microcosm of what is going on across the globe, and I also feel this theme is one of the most important of our times. Globalization has placed the conflict between the haves and have-nots squarely on the front stage, and the problems of the latter directly and sometimes very quickly affect the lives of the former.

Currently, I am involved in producing a multimedia version of the cane story, and I am preparing to travel to the bateys so I can gather some oral histories and also record some of the ambient sound—the rustling of the wind through the cane, the cutting of the cane, and so on. These elements will be mixed with some indigenous music, which we call Gagá and which is performed on handmade instruments and found objects to produce a very percussive and raucous carnival music. This new rage for multimedia storytelling is turning us all into soundmen, and frankly I don’t feel too comfortable with that, but I am excited by the opportunity to explore a new way of assembling a narrative. So far the slideshows seem just that, a slideshow with a musical background. I would like to see more film technique employed in the formation of the slideshow—not just the typical Ken Burns-style panning in, out, and around the image (which, by the way, is still a bit clumsy in digital form; the reason that his documentaries look so good is that he painstakingly filmed the stills). I would like to see jump cutting, montage, cutaway or insert shots, and greater synchronization of the sound and the image—the use of sound can be exploited in all kinds of ways: for example, the rhythm of machetes can blend with the percussive instrumentation of Gagá music. I don’t want to violate the integrity of the still image, otherwise I would just shoot video, but I would like to see how far we can go in combining elements or techniques from both media and still retain the power of the still image to fix itself in the mind of the viewer.

This multimedia version will be distributed in a variety of ways, perhaps through one of the websites that specialize in this now, but also by directly approaching a host of institutions in order to motivate certain groups of people who might not otherwise learn about the issues via traditional media outlets. For example, I want to distribute it to educational institutions and libraries, so that young people can learn about what goes on in their own country and how to change it—after all, you want to foment change, targeting students is the way to do it, and this is one of the things that the Open Society’s Documentary Distribution grant has taught me. I am also planning to target law and medical schools, the former to attract human rights activists and the latter to attract volunteers for the clinics down here. As photojournalists we tend to think mainly in terms of publication in a paper or magazine, but why leave it at that? In addition to the usual media, we can also disseminate our work through the web or by entirely rethinking the whole means of exhibition both in terms of strategy and venue, and by targeting specific institutions. Each outlet can be exploited in new ways: an exhibition need not be a high society event or something limited to the art crowd. One winner of the Distribution Grant [Eric Gottesman] is apparently rigging up a mobile exhibit that will travel to various regions in Ethiopia and be presented at village meetings. My own exhibition has already gone through two separate stages and is now being prepared for a third in conjunction with the work of another photographer. And we have plans for a fourth incarnation. Each of the winners of this OSI grant created unusual ways of getting the message across, and I have come to conclude that undertaking exhibitions in this manner can be quite an effective means of disseminating one’s ideas broadly and consequentially. Plus, let me add that there is nothing quite like seeing these images up on a wall; for one thing the viewer reacts in an entirely different manner from that which ensues from the viewing of an image in a magazine. Their attention is more fixed, and the presentation goes a long way toward impressing people with the gravity of the message.

Wayne: How fair is it to say that much of your work seems to be centered on ways of individualizing people whom others might characterize as down and out? You have mentioned your interest in the urbanism, poverty, marginal subcultures, social conflict.

Jon: I am not sure that my intention or purpose in shooting centers on the idea of individualizing people; I am basically motivated by larger social themes, but perhaps as a result of communicating with the people I shoot and hanging around them for a while, a bit of their individuality comes through. It would be nice to think so, but I am not sure: I mean, how much can a picture really tell us about a person? We are really just capturing surfaces aren’t we, though I suppose if an “environmental portrait” is good enough, if it succeeds in creating a photographic equivalent of what Clifford Geertz called a “thick description,” then maybe we do, in fact, learn something about the individual whose contours are rendered so sharply in two dimensions. But I hear the nagging voice of Richard Avedon reminding me that after all a photograph is just surface and as such is a lie. However, I will say this: I agree with Kenneth Jarecke, who said recently on Lightstalkers that “Maybe our goal could be to help the viewer see their own humanity in our subjects.” I cannot think of a better description for what it is we do and what we can expect in terms of photographic communication.

I can give an example that illustrates the problem. I have a shot of this guy they called “Mad Mac”—I mentioned this previously. He is seen on his cot, along with his reflection in the mirror and in a third “compartment” of the photo we see the back of woman waiting outside the shanty. In the photo Mac appears isolated, lonely, cut off, and as a paranoid schizophrenic or bipolar personality, Mac was indeed trapped in fantasies that tortured him. So I guess I caught something of his individuality there, and the photo is rich in detail too, so we get a strong impression of the conditions under which he lived. But the photo registers none of his intellect, his adaptability, his ingenuity, and that was something that impressed me after getting to know him. So the danger is that Mac becomes a symbol of an affliction he suffers from, but his humanity, which is something much greater and more complex, is elided or lost in the process. And it may well be that photography works best when it manages to raise whatever bit of humanity it documents to an iconic level, but that means that it requires a certain purging or purification of the elements so that an emotional focus is obtained. But I am not entirely certain: let us compare Salgado and Gene Richards. The former has always seemed to me the kind of photographer who turns his subjects into powerful iconic representations, whereas the latter seems to me more quotidien in his approach—Gene Richards’ people strike me as being everyday real people. Part of that impression stems from the incredible intimacy he shares with his subjects who reveal themselves to the camera even in their most private moments; but also there is something about the compositions in which one sees so much of the everyday detritus of life, tousled sheets, grimy walls, clutter, which make everything seem so familiar. Richards always manages to translate social issues into very immediate human terms: look at his recent series in the Nation, where he focuses on a father’s grief over the loss of his boy. The war, seen from that perspective, is indeed very personal.

As I am very much influenced by novels and the whole idea of narration, I have played around with the idea of having a book about social issues achieve a more intimate perspective by having one or perhaps a few “characters” appear repeatedly in the photos, without turning the narrative into a story about that single individual. So while there are images that deal with the general themes, a subset consistently presents the viewpoint of an individual, and maybe you feel like you get to know this person over the course of seeing him or her in different situations. For example, in one project, “The Good Life,” it so happens that many of the pictures deal with one group of people in a slum near San Juan de la Maguana. Particularly one person named Josefina, or Fina, who appears in several shots. We see her at home, we see her comically trying on donated clothing, we see her being blessed by a witch, and we see her possessed by a “misterio.” Plus we see her daughter and grandkids. So in a sense this individual thread is wound through the warp and woof of the larger narrative, and while I haven't decided yet just what it all means, or what I eventually can make of it, I am intrigued by the idea of having little stories like this, which add another dimension to the book, almost like a subplot. Still, I haven't pursued it very rigorously and that project is on the back burner at the moment.

Wayne: Why do you think you are attracted to this vein?

John: Why am I interested in marginalized people or poverty? Urbanism? The latter is easy: cities are just full of the random accidents of life, and the sheer drama of human life is concentrated there to an extreme degree. Plus, I love walking around and searching for the serendipitous, and a city is a great space in which to do just that. Street photography was born in the city. It is a place where great contrasts exist side by side. Don’t conclude from this, however, that I am not drawn to rural environments. Agrarian life interests me tremendously, in fact I would say the contrast between urbanism and agrarianism is a major theme for me, it is the crux of "The Good Life." But the rhythm and style of country shooting is very different, at least down here. For me to get out to the farm fields I need to drive, rather than walk. The spaces are open, there are fewer people, and shots tend more toward landscape than toward portraiture. Or rather, the earth, the trees, the clouds, the sky are all characters in the drama, so sometimes I have to wait for the light or the skies to be just right before I can take a shot.

The former is harder to explain. First of all, I just like being around poor people, who tend to be more forthright and warm in their human relations, particularly in Latin countries. They are less mediated, less self-analytical and less cautious. They tend to be more dramatic, so, of course, they make for better pictures. (I realize I may be getting myself into trouble by generalizing in this fashion!) There are very few photographers who make the middle or upper classes their subject and produce work that I find interesting. Everyone seems more guarded and posed. Tina Barney is famous in the New York art scene for her large-scale prints of posed upper class life, but on the whole I find the imagery cold and stiff and dull. I am probably in the minority in that, but I just cant seem to find a sympathetic link to the stuff. Dayanita Singh’s portraits of middle class Indians at home is another project that somehow doesn’t quite do it for me, though I recognize the interesting motives behind it. I know that it is supposed to de-orientalize and de-exoticize India, but I find nothing in the images to hold my interest; it is like staring at New Jersey. I prefer her Hijra book. Frankly, I prefer the company of Hijras to that of the average middle class Indian family. The same is true here in Santo Domingo, I prefer the company of the lower classes and most of the time that is where I am found. And believe me the upper classes have no love for me either. One drunk rancher once called me an “imbecile.” Maybe it is because I come from a fairly Protestant, spare and bourgeois background that I am drawn to its opposite. I like ecstatic or arcane religions like Catholicism, Vodú, Hinduism; I prefer emotional drama to the stiff upper lip (though in my personal behavior I hew to the latter, much to the consternation of my wife); and I don’t much like the bourgeoisie, though obviously I owe pretty much everything to that class. I am a member of that class, they feed me, they buy my work, and they are the ones who foster many of the cultural values I cherish.

Apart from the emotional satisfaction, however, there are other motives more noble if not more compelling. Frankly, I am disgusted by the grave inequities of society, and I somehow cannot bear the thought that were it not for a mere accident of birth, some child might have a better life and more opportunities. It is unjust. Now, I cannot set the balance right, I cannot eradicate poverty; but I can certainly show the humanity and character of the poor so that they are not demonized by society or shunted aside without a squawk. I once read in Edith Hamilton’s book on the Greeks that their definition of happiness or success was “the exercise of vital powers in a life affording them scope.” While I don’t think the definition is complete, it is very apt: all of us achieve some kind of meaning and satisfaction by “exercising our vital powers,” that is by flexing the creative muscles, by doing the thing that gives us life, animates our spirit. But there has to be scope for that exercise, there has to be opportunity to develop and grow. Well, it is a crime that so many people will live stunted lives for lack of the opportunity to develop their vital powers. For having been born in a poor village where malnutrition and disease retard one’s physical and mental growth, or in an urban slum where violence and desperation color your whole environment. Oh, plenty of people escape their backgrounds, plenty develop in spite of their obstacles. But that fact doesn’t resolve or absolve the basic injustice of these social inequities. For me poverty and its attendant ills are as evil as war, and the two often stride together. Moreover, there is a tendency to hide poverty, to shun it, to sweep it under the rug. The lifestyle reporting and consumerism that rule our media certainly have little room in that vision of the world for vistas of bleak vacancy and despair. So the poor essentially are invisible. My job is to make them visible and give their humanity a voice or a presence. This is nothing new. Friedrich Engels in "The Condition of the Working Class in England," made a singular discovery about the physical structure of Manchester in its early industrial days. The streets and buildings conspired literally to shut off the poor from sight, to enclose them in a limbo. The very architecture embodied an ideological message: “industrial capitalism creates wealth; our city is a marvel of prosperity and progress.” Engels wrote his book to expose the lie. And that for me is an adequate definition of at least one major aspect of the work that photojournalists do.

Wayne: Can you talk more about the travel writing narrative on which you are working? How different are your influences on the travel writing / photography side from your photojournalism influences?

Jon: Actually the root influence is the same in both cases: Joseph Mitchell, whom I mentioned earlier. As I said it was his essays that inspired my father to take us with him on his explorations of the city, and that love of meeting different people and learning about different ways of life is basically what impels me in both my writing and my photography. I am not the only one that Mitchell affected in this way. Diane Arbus talks about how Mitchell influenced her desire to meet different people and her choice of themes.

That said, there are different influences with regard to each medium, but they do overlap. My writing is very much influenced by a diverse group of authors, particularly Montaigne and other French essayists; a whole bunch of different novelists, Balzac and Dickens, Joyce and Proust; various travel writers, but particularly the older English travelers who mixed in a considerable amount of scholarship with their adventures—I mean, Richard Burton was a real traveller in the best sense—in one hand he carried the Koran and in the other a six-shooter; and some contemporary writers like Ryszard Kapuscinski, in particular "The Shadow of the Sun." But it goes beyond that too: there is the philosophy, history, psychology and sociology that I read as a graduate student. And ancient religion, a very important influence. One thing about Columbia University, they really took the idea of a liberal education seriously. I remember once I went to see my dissertation advisor to update him on my progress. I listed a bunch of titles by Freud I had finished reading, and basically he indicated that I should return when I had gotten through the complete works! If I hadn't quit school when I did, I would never have gotten out of there! When I look back, I realize that I spent many years of my life just reading, reading everything.

Still my taste for the realist novel has had a lot to do with the subjects I choose when it comes to photography. I am not so interested in striking visual imagery for its own sake, and I don’t care for controlled studio work much either. I favor a kind of photography where the shooter has little control over the scene and the accidents of life play a large role. I like surprises, and I very much like the fact that my intentions don’t count for much when I tangle with the object world. I like photographs that give me an almost novelistic view of society in all its registers: the comic, the tragic, the burlesque, the epic. I am big on crowd shots, particularly those that manage somehow to unify all the elements but without sacrificing the diversity of human gesture and expression. I have one right now that I like very much: it depicts the entry into a mountain village of the saint (Espiritu Santo) being carried by a bunch of pilgrims, and the shot as a whole is rather chaotic and uncentered; but I think it holds together and the sheer human drama of it all is quite fascinating to me. I haven't rendered a final decision on that one, but I keep it around for study. Obviously, I love Weegee. Garry Winogrand. But I also love Larry Towell’s work for many of the same reasons. There’s a lot of poetic humanity in his shots. And above all Eugene Smith. His Pittsburg project is sublime; and his Spanish Village essay too. Photo essays like that are almost like reading novels.

The travel narrative I mentioned is something that began as a series of email reflections on the various mishaps I was experiencing here in Santo Domingo after I decided to move. I just happened to land in the middle of the transition from one political party to another, and as a result of the outgoing party’s criminally inept management of the country’s resources, the nation was basically bankrupt, the lights were out all over, and crime was out of control. I wrote a little piece called “al dedo malo to’ se lo pega” (a Dominicanism that basically means “when it rains it pours” though it is in fact more colorful), which recounted what it was like to live without electricity, to have to draw water from a well (in a modern condominium!), and to fight off burglars; and that started me thinking about the possibility of writing more seriously about all the little cultural rituals and conundrums posed by a developing nation and witnessed by a gringo who can successfully navigate both worlds. So I started writing essays in the manner of Montaigne that wandered about, contradicted themselves, and generally “essayed” or “tested” ideas by playing with them, all the while commenting on the way of life here. The first good essay was on sex tourism, and that was followed by a piece on death rituals. Recently I finished another on the public taxi system—which I know sounds like an unpromising theme, but I think it is the best piece yet. I also want to have a series of vignettes on life in the village where my family resides. There are many characters there. We have one guy, for example, whom everyone calls “cali fuiche” which basically means “ass-face” and he literally is a “peon,” he works in the various farm fields and spends his money on beer and rum, so when he is not working he is usually stumbling around reeking of alcohol. We have had feuds too, vendettas, like the Hatfields and McCoys, which provide a real insight into the cultural values and motives of the people. I am slowly developing another essay that deals with popular religion, but I work off a long list of themes, anything from cockfighting to crime, and as the spirit moves me I tackle them sometimes sequentially, sometimes all at once. The book, as I conceive it, will have no very clear or straightforward direction; the essays will treat whatever happens to strike my fancy, much in the same manner as our minds work when we travel, fastening on all the odd little details that one encounters, and the series will revel in its own disorder. It is not by any means a book of journalism, though there will be journalistic pieces; rather it is a commentary on the manners and mores of a people.

Some of the things I write about deal with the same themes as my photographic projects, but in general the themes are more wide ranging. In my writing I can talk about the colonial history of the place, I can describe human relationships more in depth, and I can discuss ideas and values, all of which is basically impossible in photography. So in a way, by working in two different media, I am able to cover a lot of ground and satisfy all my interests.

Wayne: You have said before that many emerging photographers have unrealistic expectations of photo agencies. How so? How should an emerging photographer actually go about leveraging his or her relationship with a photo agency?

Jon: Did I say that? Uh, oh. I don’t know if I can speak about this yet with any real knowledge. I have been promising to mail out a survey of the agencies and summarize the subsequent information in an article that would convey a bit of the history of the system, its present dilemmas and functioning, and practical matters such as how to join an agency, what to expect from them, and how to profit from the experience. However, after working on the editorial survey and writing up a piece on grants, I am taking a break. The problem is that my perspective is rather limited. I have been a member of only one agency, and that particular agency in its ultimate phase does not really serve as a good example of the present agency system. Moreover, I did not exactly shine among the staff there. At present I am switching to a new agency, Anarchy Images, which should be operative some time around the end of May, and its modus operandi promises to be something rather different, a mix of the old dedication to “photographie engagée” with a conscious attempt to create a formula more in tune with the present opportunities and shortcomings of the digital revolution: a streamlined staff, a small group of photographers, a variety of means of connecting with an audience via the internet, and so on. At the very least, and this is no small thing, it is going to be a very interesting experiment, and lately I am all for trying new ventures.

But it remains to be seen whether it will prosper, since the market is so volatile, the demand for photojournalism has shrunk and changed, contracts are increasingly less generous, and profits are severely curtailed. An agency cannot retain the kind of staff that it once needed to perform all its functions, particularly in regard to maintaining an active stock library and aggressively marketing that imagery. Black Star used to have a crew of about six “researchers” whose job was primarily to sell the contents of the library. Photographers could live off their stock sales. Now we see that agency photographers have assumed more responsibility for the sale of their own stock and resort to online libraries like Photoshelter and Digital Railroad in order to get their stuff out there. Of course, that may work well enough for a photographer whose images on any particular subject are widely esteemed, but stock sales generally depend on a middleman whose job it is to help editors make a pertinent selection and that crucial element is missing now from the equation. Granted, DR and Photoshelterde rigueur and crucial to the survival of a photographer. are extremely innovative and have come up with remarkable technology to facilitate searches and highlight good work. But the present system is still lacking in certain elements that were once

It seems that there is a polarizing trend toward two types of agency nowadays, with various renditions on both. On the one hand we have monolithic conglomerates like Getty and Corbis which have snapped up whole libraries and depend on their almost monopolistic control of these image banks to keep all their other operations afloat. If I remember correctly, I believe the profits that Corbis posted came entirely from its libraries and not from the editorial or commercial assignments. They also have tremendous “reach” so photographers, I imagine, are tempted to work with them for the greater access to global markets that they offer. On the other hand, we have small, elite agencies who depend on marketing the reputations of their award-winning photographers, and they survive, I imagine, by offering high quality, original style, and personalized service. Of these latter, some are owned by an individual and some are cooperative, along the lines of Magnum. The standout example is of course VII, which now numbers 10 members, and states that it will make room for only 14 photographers total. But this trend began a ways back and Contact Press was one of the earliest examples. Of the smaller agencies there are also some new cooperative startups like Veras Images, formed by a bunch of ICP graduates, and other “collectives” that seem to exist in order to promote gallery shows, print sales and so on, but I have no idea really how they work. It might be a good idea to do an interview with the members of Veras Images to see how they are confronting the current market and how they define their ethic.

The misconceptions you mention probably stem from a lack of knowledge about the different types of agencies, how your contract with an agency works (the fee splits and so on), and the basic nature of your relationship. First of all, I get the feeling that most newbies probably believe that once inside an agency, their needs will be met, and that just ain't so. There are people who thrive at agencies and there are people who don’t. There are agencies that will fit you like a glove and there are others where you will feel like a pariah. Eugene Richards’ on and off again relationship with Magnum should indicate to people that the relationship is not all roses. He is with VII now.

An agency is there to represent you; it does not employ you, there are no insurance benefits, you are still basically a freelancer. You need to bring them stuff that they can sell. You need to compete for attention along with all the other photographers, and in the end the agency cannot work miracles with you. If you don’t have much experience shooting travel essays, for example, an agency can’t be expected to get those kinds of jobs if you should desire them. Also, you are still often going to find yourself working on spec, if only to preserve some measure of independence and keep working on the stories that really matter to you. Moreover, within certain agencies there are gradations of representation: at the bottom you have “stringers” or “contributors” as they are often called now. These are not full members, or what we used to call “contract photographers” though I assume that they sign some sort of contract. Essentially, what this means is that the agency is taking you on provisionally and is waiting to see what kind of work you can bring them on a consistent basis to sell. If you end up bringing them lots of saleable work; I imagine you are eventually rewarded with something like full membership status. But you will probably end up having to work a lot on spec, and the full members are going to get the lion’s share of the assignments—unless you happen to be in a place where no other members exist and your work is right in line with what the client is seeking. But I am speculating here; I am no longer sure just how, say, Redux manages its range of photographers. There are many LS members who are currently Redux “contributors,” and they certainly seem busy enough.

Another thing about an agency is how well they manage their editorial relations. Do they have strong relations with the big magazines? Then you are likely to get assignments. If not, then they may not do a very good job selling your work. In a sense the agency is only as good as the people who do the assignment hunting, and if the agency is in bad odor, for whatever reason, its photographers will suffer even if individually they are professional and consistently deliver quality work. While an agency can be a tremendous boon to a busy photographer who has no time to hustle work, chase down bills, protect against misuse of his imagery, and so on, there is no clear-cut answer about their benefits. Some people do better on their own, over time they develop good editorial relations of their own, and they don’t need to split their fees. But others like the resources offered by an agency, like being part of a team perhaps or a group of photographers, and figure that the fee split is well worth the services that rendered in compensation.

As far as leveraging goes, well I am the wrong person to ask about that! I never did a very good job of leveraging and at a certain point I just didn’t care, I was too devoted to my personal projects and doing OK on my own. I think the only real leverage you have is your work: if you consistently bring in good work that sells, the agency will likely be disposed in your favor and ready to accommodate your wishes to an extent. But I wonder today just how much leverage photographers have. I get the feeling, perhaps unfounded, I really cannot say, that some agencies treat their photographers as if in fact they were mere employees and thus the agency mandates rather than cooperates. But again, I am not the person to ask about that.

Wayne: You have said that you believe that many of your projects are emblematic of larger, more global issues. What advice do you have to emerging photographers who are looking for subjects that will resonate with them in the same way yours have for you?

Jon: Well, I mentioned, I think, that my projects, though focused on local trends occurring on a small Caribbean island, were emblematic of the larger forces compelling population movements and development globally. Two points occur to me: first of all, when thinking about the big issues, it is probably best to think locally, to think very specifically, and as Jack Picone put it, “look at the foot of the mountain” instead of at the top. It will be easier to make a good start, it will be easier to describe the issue in convincing detail, and it will be easier to finish the project. Second, I don’t want people to think that I would recommend only tackling “big” issues or sticking to the headlines of the day, though of course that is a good way to get published. Rather I think one has to look about one’s immediate environs and find what is at hand or look inside you and see what it is that moves you. Some do better when they travel in utterly foreign circumstances; others do better at home. Ultimately, I think one should be guided more by one’s heart than by some abstract calculation to provide the media with what it wants to see. Sure, read the headlines, keep abreast of the times, and pursue the stories you find there. But the really lasting projects, the ones that will be remembered, are so rarely the result of a newshound following his nose for a headline. More often it stems from deeply personal motivations. Think of Gene Smith’s Pittsburgh project, Frank’s "The Americans," Ackerman’s "End Time City," Larry Towell’s "The Mennonites," Abbas’ "Return to Mexico," Richards’ "Dorchester Days"—the list of memorable works with absolutely no news value is just so long.

Though this will not be true for everyone starting out, I personally think that concentrating on a long-term, deeply felt project is the best way to establish yourself as an original photographer with something to say, and though it take years to achieve decent results the wait is usually worth it. In the meantime you grow and change and mature. And hopefully in the end you will have images that you can live with. That is the real test: do the photos you took several years ago still move you, still surprise you with their serendipity? If so, you probably have a winner there. Anyway I should hope so, because if you are going to work on a project for a long period, it damn well better be compelling enough to hold your interest and fire you up.

I think that if one goes deep inside, one finds inevitably that the material connects with society and with larger social concerns. Why should that be? Probably because we are all social creatures and our individuality is formed within a social context, so even our most private feelings are after all general human property and not a solipsistic fantasy. Even Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was not so cut off that we can’t spot the many ties that bound him to an entire generation of disaffected intellectuals who eventually became the motive force behind several lamentable political movements of the early 20th century. Or look at Nan Goldin’s "Ballad of Sexual Dependency"—who would have thought that an intimate look at a circle of bohemian friends in New York would have found such an overwhelming public response? But of course her book is not singular; its antecedents are found in Larry Clark’s "Tulsa." Interestingly, that book was not greeted with much enthusiasm initially, and it remained almost a cult classic for years. It was ahead of its time I guess. It would seem that a book has its historical moment, when society is primed for its ideas.

Besides choosing in-depth projects and growing into them, the best advice I can offer is from the clarinetist and band leader, Artie Shaw: “If you don’t ever make mistakes, you’re not trying. You’re not playing at the edge of your ability.”

Wayne: A lot of fine photographers have benefited from grants and government programs over the years: Edward Weston’s Guggenheim and the Farm Security Administration photographers, for instance. There has been some controversy as well, however, such as Mapplethorpe and the National Endowment for the Arts. What misconceptions are there about grants? How have they been both beneficial and detrimental to you?

Jon: I would have to say that the few grants I have gotten have been thoroughly beneficial and I am deeply grateful for them. I can’t see anything wrong with them, only with their dearth. Yes, there has been some controversy about funding and perhaps some grantmakers are more conservative now than they might otherwise have been, but on the whole grantmakers fund a whole bunch of unpopular or unsupported projects that would never have seen the light of day. In a world of shrinking opportunities for documentary photographers or photojournalists, the grants are a godsend and can provide the means to achieve independence and freedom to pursue one’s goals in one’s own manner. Think of all the great photo projects that were realized with grant money: Robert Frank’s "The Americans"; Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh project; Garry Winogrand’s cross country tour of the States; Eugene Richards’ "Knife and Gun Club"; Bastienne Schmidt’s "Vivir la Muerte"; and among our own LS members currently we have Jonas Bendikson working on Third World slums, David Holloway on American White Supremacy, Balazs Gardi on Gypsies and on Iran, and Marcus Bleasdale on his Congo project. My own Dominican projects are alive and kicking largely thanks to the Open Society and the New York Foundation for the Arts, among others, and given that these projects deal with a small island that rarely beeps on the media’s radar, it suggests that such grants really do offer support for alternative themes.

Of course, there are few grants all told, though more have surfaced in recent years. And one cannot depend on the chance of winning a grant if one is to forge ahead with one’s work. The competition is tough and there are many variables involved in the decision making. But for me, grant writing is practically a reflex action these days, because that is how I put myself through school, and academics are more or less primed to apply for these things. Still, I get rejected far more often than I get accepted. And those rejections, however much you prepare yourself for the bad news, are big disappointments. One must bear in mind that the decision is not always a judgement about the quality of one’s work; rather, these decisions are usually reached by committees who must compromise and select from many excellent proposals a single submission or a handful of them, and of course that is a very difficult thing to do.

Now the Farm Security Administration deal was a different matter, less of a grant and more of a social welfare program conceived in the days when government had grand ideas about fostering a better life for its citizens and open communication about social realities. I don’t know enough about the details to comment usefully on the topic, but I do know that the program had many different facets: there was an educational arm aimed at teaching farmers to become self-sustaining; there was a development arm concerned to buy out failing farms and set up communal homesteading settlements; there was a financing arm that made loans so farmers could upgrade equipment; and, of course, there was the photography initiative, which was part and parcel of the whole emphasis on education. The office was called The Information Division, run by Roy Stryker, and its goal, apparently, was to “introduce America to Americans.” Nicely put. Well, in a way I guess the grand Governmental grants of the recent past, like the NEA, were an extension of this idea, (and they were born in a second wave of grand social planning, Johnson’s New Society), because as everyone knows the FSA is far more famous for its influence on American art and photography than it is for its social welfare programs. And while you might think that such success would virtually guarantee more programs of this ilk, that is, governmental initiatives to introduce “America to Americans” (or perhaps in this global economy, the “World to Americans”), it seems that the government no longer thinks in terms of fostering either large scale social programs or artistic endeavors. And it certainly desires to steer clear of controversy of any sort, but that bothers me less than the lack of more funding opportunities. Probably most grantmakers prefer to avoid controversy: I don’t imagine the Guggenheim people favor mavericks much, and I know that they have sometimes been displeased by the results of what they have funded, because the material was so strong.

The NEA funding was curtailed in 1996, but apparently since 2004 the endowment is something like $121 million, so the program seems to be going pretty strong. My only complaint about the NEA is that while it provides individual grants to writers, it does not do so for photographers. Mostly, the NEA funds programs and organizations, so for example in 2006 it gave $20,000 to Nueva Luz, a magazine that publishes Latino photography. As I understand it, the idea is to have the regional organs, such as the New York Foundation of the Arts take charge of the individual grants in the area of visual arts. Time for me to think about applying for a literary grant.