"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

sally mann + getting ready to return to uganda

A few days ago I finished reading Hold Still, Sally Mann’s memoir. While so much about which she wrote rang true with me, nothing resonated more than her discussion about the true possibilities of the photographic portrait. While discussing her body of work that consists of portraits of African American men, she had this to say:

“The photographer [holds] all the cards. Exploitation lies at the root of every great portrait, and all of us know it. Even the simplest picture of another person is ethically complex, and the ambitious photographer, no matter how sincere, is compromised right from the git-go… Taking the picture is an invasive act, a one-sided exercise of power…  But at a higher level, which portraiture at its best can achieve, the results can also be transformative expressions of love, affirmation and hope. If transgression is at the very heart of photographic portraiture, then the ideal outcome – beauty, communion, honesty and empathy – mitigates the offense. Art can afford the kindest crucible of association, and within its ardent issue lies a grace that both transcends and tenders understanding.”

I’ve wrestled with the challenges of photographing as an outsider and the notion of so-called (and unfortunately named) “poverty porn” for many years. In 2006, when I first traveled to Uganda, the centerpiece of both my photographic and professional work unwittingly became the children who live at an orphanage in the small village of Kajjansi. As you know, I have spent the last nine years documenting them and helping them change their lives for the better. I am forever inspired by the generosity of spirit these children continue to offer me.

In a few short weeks, I’ll travel to Uganda for the 9th time. In preparation for my journey, I have been revisiting pictures made during the last three trips. Some you may have seen before, but many are being printed for the first time. They are portrayals of just a few of the strong, hopeful dignified people – living in one of the poorest countries in the world - who have enriched me as a photographer and as a human being.

I look forward to the privilege of making more pictures along the red dirt roads of Kajjansi. My hope is that the new pictures, like these, will be imbued with beauty, communion, honesty and empathy, qualities which Mann suggests comprise the ideal outcome of photographic portraiture.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

on the street

Walking around Portland early this morning, I was overwhelmed by the increasing number of people sleeping on the sidewalks and in the parks.

It seems like the city is dotted with fallen soldiers.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

outsider shooting

There's a great conversation taking place over on Roger May's Facebook page. (Roger is the tireless creator, curator and coordinator of the "Looking at Appalachia" photography project.) The lively and intelligent FB dialogue concerns a recent article in Vice Magazine called "Two Days in Appalachia," which is loudly and brashly illustrated by photographer Bruce Gilden - in typical Bruce Gilden style. It has offended many people, particularly those who live in Appalachia - and most especially those who make their own photographs there.

Apparently Vice sent Gilden to the area to do the job. He didn't have much time and chose to spend what time he had in churches and at a festival, making what most of the FB commentaries have called stereotypical and unflattering images. It's not unlike the time Vice sent photographer Alec Soth to Nome, Alaska to do a story. Residents of Nome were up in arms over his insulting and ugly portrayal of the place they hold dear.

Shooting a place as an outsider is a challenging assignment. I know. I've done it many times.

When I go to Uganda this fall, even if it is the ninth time, I will still be making photographs as an outsider. Whenever I travel to my home state of Kentucky to shoot in Appalachia, I am an outsider. When I make pictures for Operation Breakthrough in Kansas City, I am an outsider. Pretty much every self-assigned project I've done as a photographer puts me on the outside looking in: identical twins, Holocaust survivors, the homeless in Portland and Black barber shops to name but a few.

I am a curious person, eager to learn about the people around me - especially those whose life experiences are vastly different from my own. Toting a camera has often given me access, and I've appreciated and savored that over the years. I am acutely aware that it's a privilege when doors are opened to me, and in return, I try to treat my subjects with respect.

Robert Frank was one of the ultimate outside shooters when he made "The Americans." Some felt the pictures were made with empathy and a healthy sense of curiosity; others were offended. When Arbus ventured from her upper middle class NY upbringing into the seedy apartments of those living on the fringes of society, some were appreciative of the look inside while others were appalled that she "exploited" her subjects.

As a photographer, I try not to judge. But, of course, I can't help but show my own interpretation of what's in front of me. Put ten photographers in front of a subject or setting, and, of course, you'll get ten different points of view. Many photographers believe their images are nothing more than "self portraits" because they bring their own baggage to each picture, and if they are any good, those life experiences will show up in the pictures they make. I tend to agree with that line of thinking.

So are Gilden's pictures of church and festival going people in Appalachia self portraits? Were Arbus' pictures simply riffs on who she thought she was? Are mine? Are yours?

Last night I landed in Portland, my second home, for a two-month stay. I guess you could say I'm an outsider here, since I wasn't born and raised here and don't live here full time, but I love photographing here. Within an hour of trudging my suitcase to our small apartment, I made the photograph at the top of this post. Her name is Maria, and she sat alone, thoughtfully slicing away at her small piece of cheese pizza at the place Eddie and I went for dinner. She was so lovely, and the air of sadness around her kept pulling me in her direction. I finally went over to her table and introduced myself. Turns out she speaks no English (and my Spanish is very, very limited), but we managed to make this picture. She pointed to her place, and it is right across the street from where my place is. Her building is low-income housing in a fancy-schmancy part of town. Mine is not. I am intrigued by her and want to know her story. Maybe I'll end up wanting to know the stories of the rest of the residents in her building. Perhaps meeting her on my first night back in Portland was the photo-goddess' way of plopping an idea for a summer project squarely onto my plate.

And yes, I'd be an outsider. Even though I live right across the street.

For my money, it'd be a chance to expand my knowledge of the world and its inhabitants and to touch upon the humanity that connects us all.

I heart photography. Even photography that makes me mad or offends me. Because it's that sense of shared humanity - and thoughtful conversations about it - that make me feel really alive. And make me eager to lift the viewfinder to my eye over and over and over again.

Sunday, July 05, 2015


I couldn't have told this delightful tale any better. The following was written by CTT's on-the-ground-liaison, Melissa:

There are some people that are just natural go-getters. They see a need and take the reins with enthusiastic action. Their efforts end up making a true impact for others. Such describes Natalie, who is a GREAT friend and PASSIONATE supporter of CTT. She has traveled to St. Mary Kevin 3 times now and will making her 4th trip in September.

Natalie saw a need within the teenage girls at SMK. Uganda is like most developing countries where sanitary pads are not always readily available monthly. Girls can miss school during these times if other self-made provisions are also not available. Sadly, some girls will even drop out of school, due to teasing from peers or failing grades due to significant monthly absences from school. Sanitary pads here in Uganda are relatively inexpensive compared to America. A package of 8-10 pads can be bought for just under $1. But for families that can only afford that amount to feed their entire family daily, it can be an investment just not realistic.

Even at SMK, it is impossible for the Administration to meet this need for the girls. There are a total of 40 Primary & Secondary girls living at SMK with the monthly need for sanitary pads. CTT is able to provide their sponsored students with pads during the school term, but there is a lapse during holidays. The simple calculations illustrate that feminine products must take a backseat to other essentials, like food and more basic provisions.

That is where Natalie has valiantly stepped in. She learned about an organization called AfriPads. They make washable cloth sanitary pads that girls can reuse for upwards to one year. She began a small campaign of her Facebook friends with the hope of raising a couple hundred dollars. To her surprise and delight, the word spread to friends of friends and beyond. By the end of her week’s drive, she had collected over $1500 for the cause. Natalie will purchase these Afripads sets when she visits Uganda in September. If you would like donate, go to Change The Truth’s website and put ‘AfriPads’ in the byline of your donation.

Thank you Natalie. Your heart is so full of love for our friends at SMK. My hat of respect and appreciation is off to YOU!!