VII Photographers Share Defining Moments in their Photography Careers
Education comes in all different forms, so in preparation for VII’s 2018 workshops and masterclasses, we’ve asked the photographers to tell us about defining moments in their photography education — either formal or self-taught — at any point in their career.
Linda Bournane Engelberth
It took a long time for me to find my own voice in photography. At some point, I decided to spend half a year of shooting with no other intention than to find a visual approach. I always had a big interest in film, and at that time, I watched a lot of movies. One movie in particular that really changed my expression and became a turning point for me was “Silent Light” by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. I really loved the aesthetics of this film; the way the narrative was moving so slowly, and the beautiful light was so inspiring for me. The title of the movie “Silent Light” says a lot about the whole movie. After seeing this film, I was really looking for the same feeling of light in my photography.
Join Linda and Danny Wilcox Frazier for their Oslo Diary Workshop >>
I can think of one defining moment in my career that altered how I approached my work and helped me realize what’s truly important. It came from within myself in my mid-20’s, and it was the realization that I had to become a better human being if I wanted to become a better photographer. This especially holds true for the kind of work I envisioned doing and ultimately have done, that of a humanistic photographer and storyteller concerned with issues and themes that are at once intimate and also of universal importance. While I have received great advice from other photographers and have been keenly attentive to other people I admire from all walks of life, to understand myself better and how to be more effective in my life’s passion for work, this realization came from within, from intense self-reflection and determination for self-improvement.
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In 1992 I came to Cambodia, a novice in the theatre of Southeast Asia’s last war. On November 30, together with TIME photographer Greg Davis and Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, I walked down Route 12, Prasat Balang District, Kampong Thom Province with some Cambodian People’s Armed Forces. Along the way, the troops found an anti-tank mine and started haggling about who would get it and eventually sell it on the market in Kampong Thom.
As we continued, my two colleagues, both shooting with Canons and tele lenses and knowing that I was working with normal lenses, let me go in front. We walked single file. The road was mined. At one moment, I raised my Hasselblad to take a picture. That was when I felt Philip’s gentle touch on my shoulder and his whisper near my ear: “The shutter may trigger mines.” The stern humor amidst ruins of people and places, the generousness of my two travel companions (both would become dear friends of many years) to share their knowledge and first-hand experience of the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as the images and stories, were crucial for the work I was able to produce during those days.
The lesson I learned then was that photographers who know what they are doing and why do not have a problem with letting younger ones march down the same road. They knew that we would each find our own images and that paired together, these images would relay the issues we depicted in a more differentiated and complete way.
Join Daniel for his Tribes of Nagaland Hornbill Festival workshop >>
Join Nichole and Danny Wilcox Frazier for their Rising Fast: Africa’s Changing Urban Spaces workshop >>
In 1999, the Kosovo War began. Almost the entire population of Kosovo fled to neighboring Albania and Kosovo. A local magazine I worked for was sending a journalist and I asked what shall we do with the images; wire service was their answer. I insisted on having original imagery so they sent me to Albania and Macedonia to cover the refugee crisis. Somewhere in the middle of the trip, I caught an inner ear infection which caused severe vertigo and kept me bedridden for a month. The experience in those refugee camps also triggered subtle but long-lasting PTSD episodes which didn’t really help my vertigo. That near-war experience triggered my fresh memories of war in my homeland which ended just a few years before. I guess it created the same adrenaline rush and anxiety which fueled my own war childhood. It took me over ten years to get rid of it, and it took repeated trips to Chechnya, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan and Pakistan to get it out of my system. Kosovo was my first international assignment. I was 19 years old.
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I absolutely love photography workshops. It’s how I learned photography. I’d been a writer for years, a journalist working for newspapers and magazines, when I reached a point in my life where words failed me (a longer story, which I save for sharing in workshops when I teach). I picked up a camera as a way of trying to communicate, and wound up taking a workshop with Joel Meyerwitz (another longer story)… which led to a handful of other workshops with some truly wonderful photographers. I fell in love with the medium. It became the language I loved most, more than words. And now teaching photography, in workshops, is another one of the things I love most. These intense periods of exploration, learning (from other students as well as the instructor), connection, and being creatively nurtured and challenged, offer incredible opportunities for learning and growth. The photo above was made during that first workshop in Tuscany with Joel. It’s still in my portfolio today.
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To choose one defining moment during such a long career as I’ve had is challenging. At school, I had the great good fortune to have two remarkable teachers: Russell Lee who was one of the most important Farm Security Administration photographers during the American Depression era and Garry Winogrand, one of the greatest American street photographers. One taught me about respecting subjects and the other taught me about timing, but more than that, about how to look at photographs which led me for a while to be a picture editor.
Like many photographers, I have faced grave danger but also been deeply moved and changed by what I have seen and by the people I have photographed. But it was in photographing a rural farmer’s wife and children in Haiti one day that was a great “aha!” moment for me. I was working on a story on life in a small Haitian village and a woman came and asked me to take a photo of her and her children. These are people who will never be able to afford going to a studio.
So I did and that started a chain reaction of a full day of photographing everyone in the village, wherever they wanted, doing whatever they wanted to do. The next time I went to Haiti, I drove to the village. People saw my car and ran in from the fields, from their homes and I began handing out prints I had made of everyone. People laughed, some cried because they had never seen photographs of themselves. It was such a joyful day that the village killed a pig and roasted it that night to celebrate. Consider that for a rural farmer who is very poor, a pig is the piggy bank. Its babies can be sold at market to buy medicine for a sick wife, a new roof, seeds, send the children to school, buy more animals. It was a huge sacrifice for the village just to honor me. It is not my favorite photograph from 30 years of work in Haiti, but it represents the moment I finally understood the true value of a photograph… not because it wins awards or people go to see it in a gallery but because it meant so much to people who would otherwise never have it. A family heirloom that is a visual memory.
This experience humbled me and has stayed with me all these years and reminds me constantly that photography is not about us, it is about them. The people in our photographs own the photographs, and we are nothing without them.
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Very early in my career, in Cambodia in the late 1980’s, I passed through a small and remote village deep in the sweltering jungle south of the Dangrek Mountains. I was on a long range patrol with a unit of Khmer guerrillas who were fighting the Vietnamese-backed government in a protracted civil war. The village was very primitive; life had not changed there in centuries. It was so remote that some of the villagers thought I was Vietnamese. They knew I wasn’t Cambodian or Thai and they knew of no other country or people.
I asked a local woman about her personal experience living under the multitude of regimes who had fought over Cambodia in recent times, they include the French colonialists, the playboy Prince Sihanouk, the Military Dictator Lon Nol, the maoist Khmer Rouge, and then — as now — the communist Government led by a former Khmer Rouge cadré called Hun Sen. I asked her which regime had been the worst for her community.
All contemporary histories of Cambodia I had read were clear that the Khmer Rouge was the most violent regime in that country’s history, indeed, it was one of the most violent regimes the world had ever seen, responsible for the murder or starvation of between one and two million people in three years from a population of less than nine million. While the other regimes that had ruled Cambodia were brutal, it seemed clear which was the worst.
The village woman told me that the Khmer Rouge were the best of all for her community. I was shocked. This contradicted everything I had read and experienced in Cambodia. I should not have been so shocked. During their dystopian agrarian revolution, the Khmer Rouge empowered rural people at the expense of urban people, whereas all the other regimes had brutalized the peasantry. It was perfectly understandable that the experience of these villagers and others like them challenged orthodox narratives. When I shared this story with my journalist colleagues in Thailand, they were all dismissive. No one wanted to hear that the Khmer Rouge were liked.
Stories like these were never reported, the voices of villagers were never amplified, and we are all poorer for it. I do not believe the Khmer Rouge were anything other than a criminal and brutal regime, but this experience awoke in me the need to seek out and listen to the poorest people in society, to hear things that challenged my prejudice and challenged orthodox thinking. It is not possible to understand Cambodia and its current tragedy without listening to the experiences of the majority, of people who don’t write books, make films or get interviewed by the media. It is not possible to understand any country if we don’t listen to a multiplicity of voices.
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When I started out as a photographer about 12 years ago, my mind was always on traveling. I truly believed I could take better pictures if I could go out of my own country, and go as far as possible. When I got an assignment to photograph the Dutch culture, I almost panicked. I was so used working in Africa that I thought I could never take any interesting pictures in my home country. But while working on this assignment, I learned that there is a lot to learn from ‘boring subjects.’ I photographed 140 birthdays, and after photographing about 20 of them, I started to see the beauty in them. I realized the beauty was not in the astonishing surroundings, but in the small things, the details. Ever since I worked on this assignment, I now pay more attention to ‘boring details’ and day-to-day life, as I realized that when I put the book together, all these day-to-day life scenes actually make up a pretty interesting look at the Dutch.
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I used to think about my photographs and almost try to imagine them before I would start working on a story. When I took this photograph, I learned that all the plans you can think of don’t matter and the most important is to invest time and open yourself to serendipity.
Every morning I would go to a village called Stracholesie to have a cup of coffee. In front of the local shop, there would always be several men standing, drinking alcohol.
One of them saw my camera and asked me why I wasn’t taking any photos. I told him I came for a cup of coffee. He came closer and told me about the tourists who jump off the buses, with cameras in their hands, to take photos and leave without a word. He said that in such instances they feel like animals in a zoo, or inhabitants of a conservation park who should have gone extinct long ago. He introduced himself as Aleksey, an undertaker. He invited me to a funeral the following day. And so I walked though the village with the funeral procession. During the reception, Aleksey picked up the phone and found out that Ulyana Prokopovna died. It was sad news because I wanted to meet her — she was the oldest inhabitant of that village. I asked if we would go to her house. He didn’t feel like going because they just brought vodka to the table but I managed to persuade him. As we entered the cottage, a simple coffin, nailed together from raw planks, was being brought into the room. The deceased was laid on the floor and her daughter-in-law, Nina, was informing the family about the funeral. I could never have planned this.
It taught me to be alert, but also open, and accept what life brings.
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It was a definite change when I began to be supported by people who believed in me and could give honest and constructive feedback. A supportive mentor can make all the difference. I remember going through my images in the early days of my career, looking at and really liking a dazed image of a girl running along a street in Istanbul. I kept looking and trying to understand, is it actually a good image, am I the only one who would like it? I had no one really to talk to. This is why it is incredibly important to be around people who will support and guide. And it is even more important to be around people who build you up.
Join Anush and Ed Kashi for their Storytelling in Istanbul: City of a Million Tales workshop >>
VII’s full schedule of workshops and masterclasses can be found here >>
In case you missed it …
Check out our other posts on Medium: “What’s in your bag? VII photographers show us their gear,” “Ethics in Photojournalism,” “All About Gear,” “World Press Freedom,” and “Fake News”.