Every Rule in the Book

(Cont'd from Aug 19.  All images reproduced without permission.)

 Cornell Capa in 1983, © Petr Tausk/International Center of Photography

Cornell Capa in 1983, © Petr Tausk/International Center of Photography

A few weeks ago I took a workshop at the International Center of Photography. ICP is the world's leading institution specializing in photojournalism and documentary photography. Founded by Cornell Capa, ICP goes hand in hand in hand with that of his brother Robert's legacy, Magnum Photos, the world's leading agency representing the greatest photojournalists we have ever known. This was a pretty serious environment.  So what was I doing here, I asked myself?  I was searching for something.  I was searching for a way to make sense of the last four years of my life.  Walking through those doors for the first time, seeing the photographs mounted in the hallways, I instinctively knew that I was home.  I knew that some of my most burning questions would soon be answered.  HOW DID EVERYTHING GO SO WRONG?  AND WHAT WAS THE RIGHT WAY TO DO IT?  I did what I had to so I could get close to the MC's but in doing so I felt like screwed myself.  Looking back now, I see that I practically broke every rule in book.

    I talked too much, keeping my subjects from being themselves.  Half of the earliest pictures were all contrived and posed.  The other half were out of focus because I was probably drunk or stoned and trying to shoot in pitch black conditions.  I was guilty of experiencing rather than observing and brought some of the people I met into my personal life.  I broke the rules of objectivity by even helping those I was close to.  I took sides and sympathized until their own troubles became mine.  I wanted to see my subjects happy and I saw myself in them.  I was an open book, showing them who I was and exposing all of my weaknesses, my vulnerabilities.  I felt like a misfit just like some of the people around me.  I took everything I saw and heard at face value.  Never once did I challenge what I saw until now.

 Attica Correctional Facility NY, © Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos

Attica Correctional Facility NY, © Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos

    Over the course of shooting The Forbidden Ones, MC I worked in the dark.  I entered this landscape without doing any research on previous works and worked without any prior knowledge of how to go about achieving my goals because I didn't want to be influenced from the outside, or by thinking too much.  I worked without even knowing what my goals were.  In effect, I was blind and ignorant and living out my fantasy of being a photographer and I cursed myself for it, but now I see that this journey was in fact necessary.  No one could have ever taught me what needed to be learned here.  This was life at its most complex, but at the time the only certainty was that I wanted to fit in and I wanted to make amazing images.

    At ICP, our first class assignment was to photograph a complete stranger in their home. Our second was to photograph our class partner in the nude.  Our final assignment was self-assigned.  With 3 assignments due over 5 days, the experience was intense.  We were pushed to the limits of our comfort zones. But despite all of our endeavors, at the end of the class in the final hour I learned its most important lesson.

 Jack Paar 1959, © Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos

Jack Paar 1959, © Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos

    Everyone had already presented their final projects.  Success came in varying degrees. Though nothing was certain, we all succeeded one way or another. The mantra for this class was that "there are no mistakes."  We were on individual journeys whether we recognized it or not, and each journey changed us at our core.  Upon the last presentation, our instructor invited the Teaching Assistants, TA's, to show their work.  Unlike the students of the workshop, our TA's were enrolled full time.  They passed onto us whatever they could--comments, insights, stories, and critiques.  They were living and breathing documentary artists.  But now after this long week, it was our turn to offer them the mirror's glance.

    Our TA screened two film shorts she was working on to document the effects of mental illness.  The first was a piece on a former gang member who suffered from bi-polar disorder.  The second piece profiled a woman who suffered from schizophrenia, which is kind of like having ADD on steroids.  Toss in the occasional violent outburst and paranoid delusion and that is the jist of it--schizophrenia.

 John F. Kennedy 1960, © Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos

John F. Kennedy 1960, © Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos

    We did our best to follow along, but watching this film was like trying to watch a movie with every other scene cut out in the editing phase.  It barely made sense.  The subject rambled from one topic to another and another and another and back to the first topic within 5 minutes.  Each cut from shot to shot seemed disjointed because obviously the subject couldn't express herself in a linear manner.  It was due to no fault of the TA but we mentioned this because we wanted to offer constructive criticism so that she could translate the ramblings of an incoherent person into something the audience could access. But before our TA could respond to our crits, she broke down crying.  We didn't understand but we looked on with sympathy.  Were we too harsh with our criticisms?  Did she take this as a personal affront?  No.  This was of a different matter.  She had gotten too close.

 Nicaragua 1956, © Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos

Nicaragua 1956, © Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos

    Our instructor, who won multiple Picture of the Year Awards, constantly harassed us during our workshop to get as close as physically and as emotionally possible to our subjects echoing the war photographer Robert Capa's famous philosophy that "if your photographs aren't good enough you're not close enough."  We needed to get right up in their faces.  We needed to be as intimately close to our subjects as they were to themselves.  But our instructor also warned us of an important caveat: the farther out you go into your subjects, the deeper you need to go inside yourselves.  This was a matter of self-preservation.  But how do you get impossibly close and stay one step removed?  Both our TA and I had learned this lesson the hard way, the only way.  As photojournalists, we all go through this.  How else could you learn except by experience?  We had gotten too close to our subjects without considering, remembering, and affirming who we were at heart on a regular basis.

 Suez Canal 1967, © Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos

Suez Canal 1967, © Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos

    Whenever photojournalists go into something with all their heart there is the risk of stepping onto an emotional land mine.  In the case of Robert Capa, he died on the battlefield after stepping on a real land mine in southeast asia.  It's a risk endured by all of our kind but if you can go deep within yourself and find that immovable center then you can be at peace with the risks involved in the work.  

    I believe our TA's land mine was getting so close that our incomprehension of her subject affected her just as deeply as if we told her that she was unintelligible.  My land mine was receiving a death threat that had signaled the end of my shooting phase.  I had been accused of messing around with my subject's ex-wife.  There was no undoing that.  Regardless, all of our mistakes were not actually mistakes  but lessons that instructed us in persevering while exploring the different facets of the human condition.  And in doing so, I realized that we had both gone through a rite of passage that's experienced by every successful photojournalist, a rite of passage that cannot be earned in the classroom but out there in the streets of life.

 Old Man Angelo & Me, Brooklyn 2011

Old Man Angelo & Me, Brooklyn 2011

     (This is Angelo.  Former US Marine.  Flipping the bird--I’ll get to that one later.  Stand up guy and practically family to me.  I didn’t quite know him that well back then, but time has a way of changing things.)