Henri Cartier-Bresson, widely considered to be the father of modern photojournalism, once remarked that above all else he craved to “seize the whole essence in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.” Real life, of course, is just that: an unending series of situations that reel before our eyes – unpredictable, unknowable, ineffable. And it is often left to documentary photographers to sort out the chaos of our world, and slow things down into a single moment that not only tells a complete story about a place, a person, or a way of life, but does so in a way that is forever seared in our hearts and minds. Take a good look at the gallery we’ve assembled for our nonfiction-themed issue and keep Cartier-Bresson’s words at hand; these images linger, no matter how many times you look away.
War in Yugoslavia (1991)
Nikon F4, Nikkor 35-70 zoom, Fuji 200 ASA color negative printed in black and white. Developed in my hotel bathroom and transmitted by ripping apart the innards of my room phone!
I had been a professional photographer for all of two years when I took this image at the Slovenian-Croatian border while on assignment for a Finnish newspaper during Slovenia’s short war for independence from the former Yugoslavia. There were rumors of fighting in this location, and the one-hour drive from the capital city of Ljubljana took five hours due to roadblocks. Along with the three Italian photojournalists packed into my car, I arrived to find a small blockade and clearly visible anti-tank mines with trip wires, which we all gently tiptoed over. There was a lot of chaos and running around, but after about an hour and a half, the shooting suddenly stopped and the tanks moved away, leaving one APC on the road and an open casket, into which they put what was left of the guy whose clothes are at the right side of the frame. This experience, and this image, taught me to take pictures that tell a tough story, but not jar people into looking away. I make more in eight hours on a film set than a photojournalist will in Afghanistan who’s actually getting shot at, which I find very sad. The old saying in (news) is that you can’t spell cheap without AP or stupid without UPI. And nobody can spell Reuters!
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle
Ray & Hine Loading the Big Rig (from the series Rice) (2004)
Mamiya 645, 55 mm lens, Kodak Tri-X 320, Imacon film scanner
The Mayes family has been farming rice in Kinder, Louisiana, for four generations. The harvest brings extended family, friends and neighbors together; some taking time off from their careers in other cities and towns to come home and cut rice. I was inspired by the Mayes’ dedication to planting rice despite the difficulties facing family farms in America today. I felt compelled to capture their connection to family, land, and a way of life that is threatened by rising costs, cheaper imported rice, and climate change. In this photograph, Ray Victorian (left) and Hine Unkle (right) are ensuring the rice loads evenly into the back of a tandem-axle grain hauler. Two years after this photo was taken Ray passed away during the harvest season. I dedicate this photograph to him.
Robert G. Zuckerman
Up From a Nap (2001)
Canon A2, Sigma 24-70 2.8 lens at 50 mm, Kodak T400CN film, 400 ASA, f11 at 1/60th
The producers of Training Day, for which I was taking unit stills, asked me to interact with the residents in our inner city locations during breaks in the production. The photos I took yielded a powerful body of work that also made everyone feel included in the making of the film. This image, in the Imperial Courts projects in Watts, is of a 1-year-old boy waking up from his afternoon nap. I found this neighborhood fascinating. Several hard-core gangbangers told me about their desire to find steady work. And Ms. Crouch, a woman in her 80s, walked the streets with a shopping cart, picking up trash and rubbish and appearing homeless while actually owning at least two houses in the neighborhood and having put two of her children through college. I went back several times after filming to give out pictures.
Miranda, laceworker (2010)
Nikon D700, 1/160 second, F2.8, ISO 200, 17-55 zoom lens taken at 55 mm
I went to the city of Aquiraz, in Brazil’s northern state of Ceará, to photograph women working in the traditional “bilro” lacework, which is specific to the region. The women in the Conexão Solidária (Solidarity Connection) share all their profits and work in extremely humble circumstances. Most of them, like Miranda from this image who is in her 80s, are middle age to elderly, practicing a craft that is quickly being replaced by machines and not being taken up by a younger generation. As one of the heads of the collective told me: “We work with unsophisticated and handcrafting producers that find themselves excluded from the marketplace and live in socially dangerous urban areas in the outskirts of a city … slums and rural areas that are mostly aided by the Bolsa Família (Family Allowance) program. In sum, these are poverty-stricken communities that need a great deal of support, self-esteem and encouragement to face their day-to-day realities.”
Maria, Hollywood CA (2007)
Leica M6 with flash, Kodak Tri-X
This photo was shot backstage at a transgender “Queen of the Universe” beauty pageant. I feel it plays with our perception of female Hollywood glamour within a world of shifting gender and personal identity. I’ve been documenting the trans community for several years in an essay that has come to include transitioning teens, activists and stage personalities in their public and private lives. As a female photographer, I’ve been fortunate to be accepted by this community as “one of the girls,” and able to disappear in situations that are sometimes part slumber party, part locker room. By the way, Maria, the lovely Miss Cuba, was not crowned the winner that evening.