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Angel Gonzalez wears a stuffed animal throughout his day as part of parenting classes he is enrolled in at the prison. The stuffed animal will eventually go to his children, one of whom is tattooed on his arm. Snake River Correctional Institution, Oregon.
Beth Nakamura is a staff photographer with The Oregonian. In recent months, she and writer Bryan Denson have toured numerous Oregon state prisons with part of “an occasional series” on the Beaver State’s correctional landscape. Thus far, they’ve visited on Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, Snake River Correctional Institution in Malheur County, Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla County, and Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland. They’ll visit many more.
Denson and Nakamura have uncovered some mismanagement such as a medical records debacle, but generally the reporting has been neutral and non-too-critical. Just gaining access was a massive victory in and of itself.
OREGON’S PRISONS AND EVERYTHING BEFORE
During her visits to Oregon’s prisons, Beth has been acutely aware of her privileged access and responsibility to report faithfully. Often the word and meaning of “faithfully” is confused with “objectively” which is often interpreted as “robotically” or “without personal response,” almost. It is, however, impossible for anyone to be totally objective. Journalists included. I suspect many journalists deny the extent to which their emotional and human response to stories they cover shape the eventual reporting. When Beth and I chatted it became clear we were speaking to this tension between the professional and personal self.
“I feel like I have a right to my own story,” she says.
This Q&A is a long time in production. Beth and I have jointly edited it from a longer conversation. It’s meandering and there are some loose ends. It exists within the wider context of a changing media landscape and the growing expectations of journalists to report and produce 24/7.
With regards timing, it is a thoughtful release. Beth continues to photograph in Oregon prisons and wants to place her professional responsibilities within the context of her life’s experience dealing with all sides of, and many people within, the criminal justice system.
We talk about Oregon’s death row, Beth’s first visit inside a prison, upbringing, family members’ run-ins with the law, prison administrations’ reactions to journalists and, to end, we reflect upon a heartbreaking jail scene that photography simply could not do justice.
I have selected the images that smatter this interview from Beth’s vast portfolio.
Scroll down for our Q&A
A prisoner in minimum security watches television from his bunk, Snake River Correctional Institution.
Stacks of tooth paste in cell block 800, Josephine County Jail, Oregon. Josephine County Sheriff’s Office released 39 prisoners in May, 2012 week from the jail after people voted against a law enforcement property tax levy in a May primary. The measure would have funded the sheriff’s office, district attorney and juvenile justice program. The jail once housed several of the released prisoners, is now being used as an intake area.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Beth, thanks for chatting with me. I got in touch with you soon after your photographs of Oregon’s “new and improved” execution facility were published in the Oregonian. That was a media tour at Oregon State Penitentiary, Salem, right?
Beth Nakamura (BN): Yes. The tour was in advance of Gary Haugen’s scheduled execution, which Governor Kitzhaber intervened and stopped. Kitzhaber is a physician, so here’s a Hippocratic oath guy in office “presiding” over executions. I imagine there was some moral wrestling going on. The execution was indefinitely postponed — against Haugen’s wishes.
PP: Kitzhaber called the death penalty “morally wrong and unjustly administered.”
BN: Yes, but before that happened I toured the chamber. The tour was strangely performative and austere.
PP: The images seemed anemic. The space, flat and deadened.
BN: The warden sat media from around the state and from his podium in a little room *walked us through* exactly what was going to happen during the execution — everything leading up to it, during, and after.
Then we took the tour. “… then we place the bottles on the aluminum table … then we walk to the …” Every step was accounted for. It was one of the most riveting hours of my career. Everything that was described and presented was so ritualized. It had a sterilizing effect. But also consider they hadn’t executed anyone in 16 years. It felt to me like them saying “we got this” and being officious about it, but I have no idea, really.
PP: Sounds akin to the freaky re-reenactment that Werner Herzog specializes in? How many members of the press were there?
BN: Probably ten. Approximately.
PP: You’ve photographed a quilting workshop at Coffee Creek?
BN: The coordinators of the workshop asked me to photograph. Being a freelance photographer and not a journalist, in this instance, was a whole different experience. Much warmer. I was just with them. And once you take off the journalist hat, it’s disarming for the authorities.
PP: Are Oregon prison authorities suspicious of journalists?
BN: I’m not sure suspicious is the right word. I will say the Oregonian has a fine tooth-comb and they know how to use it. That would make anyone guarded, right? A lot of the DOC’s concerns have to do with security, and with pictures revealing too much. Like the concertina wire, stuff like that. It isn’t stuff we tend to consider as photographers. To them it’s a big deal.
PP: Coffee Creek was where the sexual abuse scandal broke in 2012. It’s my impression that the Coffee Creek administration has been doing it’s best to promote a much improved public presentation of itself. For example, a Kaiser sponsored program is funding an organic garden that went into the center of the yard. They tore up hundreds of square feet of concrete. Diabetes is down, violence is down.
BN: Great program.
PP: Have your attitudes toward jails and prisons remained the same over your career?
BN: I’m 51 years old now! With any luck I have a little bit of a wider worldview and insight into all the different layers that are a part of any system. In my career, I’ve had a lot of dealings with beat cops, sheriffs, lawyers — everyone that’s in all the legal layers as you move outward from the prison cell. I see that it’s complex … but it’s always been complex for me, though.
PP: Why is that?
BN: I grew up in a very gritty little town in New England where it was not uncommon that someone would end up in jail. Mostly, people didn’t get caught, but every once in a while someone would get caught and they would end up in jail.
Convicted killer Dana Ray Edmonds, 32, shown in prison with his lawyer the day before he was executed in Virginia. He was the first person in the state to be exectuted by lethal injection. Edmonds murdered a grocery store owner by smashing a brick into his head and thrusting a knife into his throat. He lost last-minute appeals to both the Virginia governor and the U.S. Supreme Court. His final words: “No one can take me from this earth, and I forgive everyone here.”
PP: Was it in your personal life or your professional life you first stepped inside a jail?
BN: Professional. It was a Massachusetts Correctional Institution. Maybe Shirley or Framingham? I was working for a tiny local paper. I don’t even remember the news story.
PP: Describe the experience.
BN: I remember the administration was heavy-handed. I’ll use the word indoctrination, because it really did feel like that. They delivered a weird, scared straight narration. I don’t know if the guard did it all the time or if he preached in order to protect us *little neophyte-media-types*! They’re presuming I’m some upstanding person. It’s like I crossed over.
PP: From your tough upbringing to respected professional? As it is perceived by society?
BN: Yes. I’m crossing over but when you do that you never quite fit in any world anymore.
PP: The position of many journalists, some might say?
BN: Maybe. But they’re saying, “Don’t look them in the eye, don’t do this, don’t do that.” The assumption is that I am somehow different from the people in the cells.
Anyway, we get into the prison area and the first thing that happens is someone calls out my name. “Beth.” I turn around and it was Patrick, an old friend.
“Patrick, what the hell are you doing here?” I asked.
Whatever wall the prison staff had tried to erect around me just completely collapsed in that instant. He was in there for a bunch of nothing — many little things. And that’s what a lot of them, in my experience, have done. Parole violations, driving with no license, petty theft.
I don’t remember so much about how I handled the establishment that day but I remember talking to Patrick distinctly. I was in the vortex of these worlds just swirling in me and around me. I looked at Patrick (and I was close) but he just completely went blurry. It was like I was in a dream. I couldn’t carry everything that was happening. I was just happy to see my old friend, Patrick Beaudette.
It was the late 80s. I recently looked him up. He died. What happened to Patrick happened to so many. He must have died in his forties.
Cafeteria and visiting area at Columbia River Correction Institution, which is minimum security, and tries to create a smooth transitions for prisoners before reentering the community.
Jayson Alderman, Ken Strand and Ralph Kautz participate in Moral Recognition Therapy while incarcerated at Columbia River Correctional Institution. The therapy attempts to teach cognitive restructuring habits, or a kind of rewiring of the mind, to the prisoners.
A large mural, painted entirely by inmates, lines a wall of offices at the entrance to Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution.
PP: The 80s were the start of mass incarceration in America. What’s your position on prisons and incarceration, now?
BN: My brother was in in prison. He’d never looked better! He looked clean.
I know there are some really bad people who are better off in prison. I don’t have the instant liberal-Portland empathy for anyone who walks through those prison doors because I also know those people have probably crushed a lot of hearts while outside of that cell. So, I’m not all softy, but at the same time I think a lot of people are in prison for drug addiction and for mental health reasons. These individuals are in the midst of correctional systems that are, now, our de facto mental health institutions.
PP: Hospitals replaced by prisons.
BN: It’s a tragedy. That is an injustice. I don’t pretend to know how to fix it but that’s what they’ve become. A lot of times it starts with people (self) medicating over a diagnosis and creating problems for themselves, compounding problems. One thing leads to another and, however many problems later, they wind up incarcerated.
Some can’t get clean on their own so they are forcibly cleaned up. Sometimes that works. I don’t have a black and white opinion about people being incarcerated but I do feel prisons have become de facto mental health institutions and that’s wrong.
Most of the women I’ve met are locked up for drugs. A lot of the players are male and they’ve got younger girlfriends. You see that dynamic writ large and small all the time, and see how women are involved.
A housing unit inside Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland, Sept. 11, 2014.
Prisoners work as operators at a call center in Snake River Correctional Instituion. Perry Johnson Inc., a south Michigan based consulting firm has employed SRCI prisoners for over a decade. Little has been published online about the SRCI call center in recent years. Here’s a 2004 article about it.
Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, OR, is host to a jeans factory . The business is called Prison Blues.
PP: How does news photography play a role? If prisons are de facto mental health institutions and incapacitate a lot of addicts then maybe prisons aren’t the best place for those groups? Does news photography serve to inform citizens about that?
BN: Not anywhere near enough. I don’t think journalism is doing enough. Journalism can apply pressure in high places and accomplish all kinds of things. But, I see so much documentary photography. It would be much more interesting to me to hear stories from their own mouths and see stories made by prisoners’ own hands; stories not filtered by photojournalists. It’d be more powerful. What do you think?
PP: You’ve got me at a moment right now I’m harboring strategic reservations toward documentary. I’m consciously looking elsewhere so I’m sympathetic to your point. Maybe once I’ve interrogated those other genres or forms or methodologies, then I’ll swing back the other way? If a photographer is invited into a prison, it’s not like they’re doing an exposé. They’ve been invited so with that is a valid argument that they’re an extension of the prison’s power. Well then, for us, it’s incumbent to look elsewhere.
PP: I think it’s the case that photography is not the medium that prison programs use for prisoners to tell their own stories. They use art, painting, creative writing and in some cases they use voice and audio recordings. But photography causes all sorts of problems. A camera is a security threat.
PP: Why do you think journalism isn’t doing enough?
BN: One: It’s a resource thing. Two: These are complex issues that are harder to make a clear narrative out of.
When you look at any (crime) story in depth, often there’s no clear bad guy or clear good guy. There are complex histories, many characters. For journalists, those types of stories are doable and they’re more effective, but they require a lot more resources and higher skill.
What do people want from journalism? That question has got to play into this conversation. In the news, stories about the public school district, whether the streets are being fixed, will likely interest more people.
Inside Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution.
Vance Lee Moody, left, John William Belcher and William Harley Dugger participate in group programs held for inmates at Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland on Sept. 11, 2014.
A prisoner looks over a workbook during a group session on Sept. 11, 2014, at Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland. Prisoners attend cognitive restructuring group programs while incarcerated at the facility.
BN: Stories about people locked up for crimes, whatever the reason and however complicated and however frayed the threads are that got them there, people may just be closed off or uninterested. We can be very emotional and very dogmatic, too. How do you break through the “lock them up and throw away the key” attitude?
PP: For me some of the most interesting photojournalist bodies of work have been when there’s been tension between the rank-and-file and the administration or between the administration and the politicians.
PP: When there is an internal power play and political battle staff of administrations can think, “If we bring press in here then we’ll stoke up some public opinion and force our position.”
BN: If journalists get that window and seize it, they can certainly get a little more done. I mean I’ve been in prisons where your every move is watched and it’s almost impossible.
I love documentary photography, but it doesn’t feel personal to me enough when I think of prisoners I’ve known. I think the narrative is too complex for the typical news photography frame. I don’t know if photography in that mode even hints at who those prisoners really are. I guess I have a preference for other forms or approaches sometimes. I say that with all due respect.
PP: I agree with you. A lot of the time news photography is an illustration (often a silhouette) of Patrick or any prisoner as that body out in the prison uniform, out in the yard. Perhaps with a receding chain link fence.
BN: Years ago when I worked with that same little Massachusetts paper there was news of a person from that area who was shot and killed in a drug-related shootout in Dallas, Texas and his name was Tommy Tito. I knew Tommy growing up. He ended up in Dallas. “He got out!” was my first reaction. But he got killed in a drug deal gone bad. It was terrible but it didn’t shock me. Reporters searched out Tommy in a yearbook. That’s what they reduced the visuals of his story to. I kissed him under the boardwalk and we held hands. Did I tell my colleagues? No. What I brought to Tommy’s story was as limited as what they were bringing.
PP: Facts not stories?
BN: Most of news is just quick and dirty. Experiencing things from the other side you see how narrow and incomplete news can be. A quick pass. Does that fulfill the function of the higher calling of journalism? Not even close. And I’m as guilty as anybody, or even more so.
BN: I cover people with way more issues than I ever had. I’m no sob story. I go into communities and bring it on a professional level. It’s entirely possible they feel something more coming from me, on a purely energetic level, but I don’t tell them my story. I am basically a bartender. I listen to them and I am witness to them.”
PP: Don’t presume you hover above society so you can frame it, you’re in it.
BN: I’m deep in it. My mother was a single mom, a waitress, and a high school dropout. So I go into situations where I probably have a little more understanding. It’s important to have people in journalism, in whatever form they practice, who get that and I worry that increasingly that will just not be the case. I mean if you can afford to practice journalism, if you have the right pedigree, if you code, which is largely a male pursuit, then you’re already separated by class. The days of the copy boy going up the ranks are long gone.
PP: When you accepted my invitation to talk you said out conversation might be “instructive.’ What did you mean?
BN: I guess it would be good for people in my life, in my work life and colleagues to know a little bit more about me, to close the gap a little. A lot of people ask how I get access or how I’m able to talk to people. The truth is, on some level, I guess I do show myself. But I’m not really comfortable with emerging like this; it feels really uncomfortable. But also it feels right.
PP: You don’t see the necessity for journalists to always don the objective cap.
BN: Well, I feel like I have a right to my own story. It’s mine and I own it. And I want to honor the people that loved me and deserve to be known. That’s what I try to do in the better journalism I make. I try to just see people, and by working in a mainstream publication I can somehow legitimize them or help them to feel heard. It’s a really important function of the media and I think maybe I’ve gone a little further to bring that to my subjects and to the readers.
Rose City Graphics, located inside Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland. Prisoners are able to learn photoshop and several other skills while incarcerated in the facility.
The recreation yard at the Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland.
PP: Can I ask how your brother’s doing?
BN: I’ve gone to visit my brother in jail not even knowing what he was in there for! If the average person in journalism encountered me in line waiting to see a sibling and I said,” I don’t know what he’s in for,” they’d think I was out of my mind. Red flag! But when you’re slogging in it and it’s just one thing after another, a million small things and there’s a lot of alcohol and drugs involved and, bottom line, what does it matter what he’s in for? Does he have a court date? Really I’m here for my mother, on and on.
We were out of touch for long periods. I found something online stating in 2008 he was arrested for attacking a person — someone over 60 years old — with a 3-foot metal pipe. He was held for bail and it was the little arrest notice in the paper I found.
He was an amazing guy in his earlier years — very handsome, very smart, an excellent football player — scouted by the New England Patriots, actually. He was heroic to me. He was my older brother. My mother had children from different situations. He was my oldest brother from a marriage my mother had before my father. He became a vicious alcoholic, which devolved into using whatever he could get his hands on. At this point though, he’s almost mythologized. It’s just tragic.
George Dee Moon, an inmate at the Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland, takes in the sunlight after getting his hair braided by fellow inmate Edward Martin in the recreation yard.
Snake River Correctional Institution houses a hospice program inside the infirmary, shown here. The concrete walls were painted over by inmates and feature scenic landscapes.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
BN: Yes, I just recalled a moment I witnessed recently, an incredible scene, pregnant with emotion, and it said a lot about our inability to communicate such unique experiences to readers. You, know, really crucial and telling moments that hit you hard and say everything so instantly, poignantly.
PP: Better than any words or pictures?
BN: I witnessed an intake of a young woman in Polk County. I was on a ride a long with the police and they delivered a suspect to the jail after a multi-vehicle car chase, so I was there at the jail with the officers when they took the guy to jail. A female sheriff’s deputy sits behind the counter. The young girl approaches the counter. She’s waif-like. 18 or 19 years old.
I’m in with the sheriff’s deputies behind the counter and the woman, the female sheriff’s deputy, is asking her the mandatory series of questions. The answers, the voices, the tap of the keyboard recording the information, which is incredibly personal, but it’s a routine deputies go through everyday and it quickly becomes like a drone, dulled.
“Do you have any illnesses?”
“Well I’m pregnant.”
“Are you on medication,” asked the deputy. To which the girl made no eye contact.
“Are you taking any medications?”
“No I do not. I’m on pre-natal vitamins.”
“Do you have any mental illness, any diagnoses we need to know about?”
“No, but, well, my mother just died so I’m sad about that.”
It was just this incredible encounter that was so alive and yet so dulled in that context. I’m looking at the girl as it’s unfolding before me and I feel a little bit like I’m violating her, you know? I’m behind that counter and she’s spilling. I turned around; it was the least I could do to give her some semblance of privacy where there is none.
But then! When I turn around there’s a screen tiled with nine smaller squares running images from cameras inside those cells.
The sensory experience becomes the voice of this fragile waif-like girl and her tragic details prompted by the drone of the female deputy. The visual is nine miniature feeds of male prisoners. One guy is pent up in his cell, pacing like a zoo animal. I think there was meth involved. Mental illness covered with meth, covered with some public act of something that landed him in there for something. Next to him on the screen is the guy they just threw in there who’s sitting on the toilet with two fingers up his asshole trying to get his drugs up out of there. The sheriff’s deputies could care less because they’ve got him; he’s gone for ten to fifteen. Let him flush his drugs.
It was a collage of the most dramatic acts playing to the audio of this young pregnant 19 year-old girl’s story. I’d have loved nothing more than to just press record on those screens and get that audio. That’s how I experienced it and it’s not a single picture. And words don’t come close to describing the experience as it unfolded.
There’s so much happening in the low hum of those little rooms. Below the surface, behind those walls, it’s so very dramatic. But photography remains at the surface.
PP: I wonder what happened to her?
BN: After the questions, she went for her booking photograph. Last I saw, she was posing for the picture, a faint smile on her face.
PP: Thanks Beth.
BN: Thank you, Pete
A prisoner sleeps during the day inside the minimum security section of Two Rivers Correctional Institution, June 1, 2014.
Old jail cells are no longer operable inside the 103-year-old Multnomah County Courthouse, which is in need of upgrades. Portland, Oregon, Oct 9, 2012
BIOGRAPHY AND SOCIAL MEDIAS
Beth Nakamura is an Emmy nominated visual journalist and writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been recognized by POYi, Society of Professional Journalists, National Press Photographers Association, National Black Journalists Association, and many others.
Christopher Onstott is a freelance photojournalist, photo editor, and videographer working out of his native Portland, Oregon. Before he turned to image-making, he bounced around in various jobs — most of the sales. He was once high-interest loan officer, pizza delivery boy and used-car salesman. At the age of 24, he took a leap of faith and signed up for a college photo program.
I may have left Portland, but I still have friends there and interviews in the can, so here is Christopher and I talking about PDX, rural Oregon, disaster kits, the grounding effect of portraiture, setting up a business, and specifically setting up a business with your love.
In summer of last year, Christopher went inside Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) as part of the Oregon Project Dayshoot+30. Our discussion begins there. The two images (above and directly below) are from inside OSP. Other images included are from Christopher’s portfolio.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about your decision to shoot in Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).
CO: It was with Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 which was the 30 year anniversary of a day of photographing Oregon by 90 photographers back in 1983. I own the original book One Average Day and the images that stood out to me were the penitentiary photos. In between the usual ‘day in the life’ shots, vineyards, cattle and farmer photos were photographs of a guy in his cell smoking cigarettes.
PP: What was the intrigue?
CO: Prisoners are the under-represented group in Oregon. If you think of Oregonians, you don’t think of prisoners. But they’re residents here.
PP: There’s 14 or 15 thousand people in Oregon’s state prisons these days. Thousands more in county jails.
CO: The Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 was a good reason to get access to OSP which I wouldn’t usually get access to.
I contacted the public liaison office, told them about the project, sent them to the site, sent them a couple of photos of the book that I’d taken on my phone. “Here’s what they did 30 years ago, can I come and shoot?” essentially. They did a security background check and we set up a time. I had only an hour window to shoot. The rest of the day I photographed around Salem.
CO: When I got to the prison, the gentleman I’d been emailing with was not the man I met. The man I’d been in communication with was off work sick. So, immediately there was this disconnect between what I’d asked for and what was being presented to me.
It wasn’t a good experience.
PP: How so?
CO: I wanted to photograph the residents of OSP with a documentary approach, in the vein of the original project. But, my escort’s perception was I wanted take an updated version of the photo from 30-years-ago!
He asked, “So, you want to take this picture?” as he pointed at a print-off of a camera-phone picture of a image in a book! He walked me to a cell, there were two prisoners. He told me I could only photograph one and he gave me 3 minutes. [Laughs]
PP: You had your own art director!
CO: “The image your holding is an example,” I said. “But let’s look at the whole penitentiary.” He said we were not cleared for that, because all the prisoners were about to move for count. There was no flexibility. My escort was accountable to his boss and he didn’t know what had been said before.
PP: What did the subject think about you photographing?
CO: He was totally okay with it. He thought it was cool. I got the impression he knew he was going to be photographed. He was on LWOP (Life Without Parole). Pretty docile.
PP: You think he’s seen the photograph?
CO: I don’t know. I emailed the prison a copy of the photograph in a thank you email.
PP: when you were in OSP, did you cover your tattoos up?
CO: I wore short sleeves. I don’t really think of myself as being tattooed.
PP: Believe me, the prisoners and staff noticed! Do you think there was more to be seen at OSP?
CO: Definitely, just walking in we passed so many people. There was activity and work details everywhere. I was eyeing pictures everywhere but I couldn’t take them. It’s an entire town in there, right? A cultural complex. There’s a million photographs to be made. But I was only to capture a very slim sliver of life.
Still it’s important that there’s at least a representation of prisoners as residents of Oregon 30 years from now.
PP: Shifting gears. You grew up in Oregon.
CO: Grew up in Portland, spent a year in Texas, went to college in Washington State, spent a year in Texas, worked for 4 years at the Spectrum and Daily News in St George, Utah. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The weather sucks five months out of the year.
PP: There’s lots of buzz about Portland, right now.
CO: Oregon really is two different states of mind.
You’ve got the Willamette Valley and the city of Portland and then you’ve got the rest of the state. The one area that doesn’t get attention is Southeastern Oregon. Not a lot of roads, no freeways, hardly a population density. Very rural.
PP: How do you characterize the Portland photo scene?
CO: I think it’s really supportive. We’ve got ASMP Oregon and Newspace. Photographers will move work back and forth and offer one another help. But, on the otherhand, there’s a lot of photographers, so it can be competitive at the same time.
PP: Journalism, editorial?
CO: Magazines. There’s a lot of international attention on the city so we’ve people coming here asking for images. Those stories tend to lean the way of food, style travel; not hardcore news stories. There’s no tornadoes or hurricanes here!
PP: Maybe an earthquake?
CO: I’ve got my 72-hr disaster kit and spare film ready [laughs].
PP: Have you always been a photographer?
CO: No. I’ve been pizza delivery driver. Worked in my dad’s automotive shop. I was a used car sales man for four years. I’ve been a high interest loan officer. I was a bartender for two years. When my father passed away in 2001, I inherited his camera and I was left with “What do I do now?”
My father always told me to be a salesman. But I couldn’t stomach earning a living by getting one over on people. I’d never been to college, so after he died. I decided to go back to college. I was a freshman at 24-years-old! I did Photojournalism at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.
I took a picture of a girl’s basketball game and they ran it big in the paper and that was me hooked. [laughs]
PP: What’s easier to sell? Photographs or used cars?
CO: They’re both really hard!
PP: How do you feel about photography. Is it as bad as it’s often made out? Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty thinker.
CO: I think the glass is awesome. The fact you can wake in the morning, pick up a camera and go make a living. I don’t care if your shooting fashion or street photography or using your iPhone, you just have to make pictures. We’re a society that is devouring images.
PP: But a photographer still has to package and shape stories. Can’t just churn them out!?
CO: You still gotta be good. My degree was in visual rhetoric; saying something with an image. Manage that and you’ve accomplished something as a photographer. If you’re a one trick pony, then you’re not gonna last.
PP: I recently met Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow recently.
CO: Randy was my mentor at Missouri Photo Workshop last year.
PP: They’re a couple. There’s a few photo couples out there.
PP: Two great photographers. Yourself and Leah Nash are a couple. Is there any element of professional competition between you two?
CO: The secret to being in a relationship with another photographer is to be open to criticism and not to take it personally. If you want to grow, take honest feedback from someone who knows you really well and how you operate.
Leah and I edit one another’s work and we don’t take it personally. There’s no relationship argument to be had over photographs.
We’ve agreed not be chasing the same jobs. We’ve formed a separate company, NashCO (Leah Nash & C. Onstott) outside of our own work stylistically that’s focused on corporate and commercial work.
PP: What you working on now?
CO: Street photography. I’m carrying my camera everyday capturing people in moments.
I’ve been working on a personal project of portraits for 5-years now. Using my Hasselblad. It’s slower. Because when I was at the newspaper I was running around photographing people but not really meeting them, you know? I was encountering into people who … I wouldn’t say were marginalized … but they were people who wouldn’t normally be paid attention to by the news. I wanted to slow down.
CO: In news you’re photographing people in the highest points of achievement in their life, or at the lowest points of their life. The big award, the win at the big race, or the battle with cancer. Most of the time, we’re overlooking the median, the mean of existence.
CO: I want to give those everyday people and experiences some attention. In Nevada, New York, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California. Any time I travel, I try to make portraits.
Pick out the person who is trying not to be photographed and ask their name and their story. Often they reply, “Why me?” and my response is “Because you’re interesting.”
I’ve been the only photographer at some of the newspapers I’ve worked at. I was shooting car accidents, house fires and high school sports. My way to decompress from that is to take pictures that I wasn’t taking on the job.
CO: Used to Instagram a lot. When I got my [digital] Leica I stopped posting on Instagram so much. I try to follow people who are making good pictures because I want to be inspired. I don’t want to see pictures of peoples kids.
PP: Where do you shoot?
CO: I’ve been shooting a lot around my neighborhood, the Alberta neighborhood, because it is a gentrified ghetto. There’s a lot of collision. Walk up Alberta or Killingsworth Streets and there’s a photograph every 10 metres. But here’s the hub of Portland’s gentrification.
PP: What else keeps your eye busy?
CO: Portland Squared. It’s a project that Leah started a couple of years ago. 50 photographers. one square mile divided up into fifty squares and you spend the day shooting a square and ASMP event. Last year, they did a bigger square. 2 x 2 miles and 70 photographers. for 24 hours.
PP: Whose work do you admire here in town?
PP: Anything else to add?
CO: Don’t move to Portland! There’s too many photographers here! [Laughs]
PP: Ha! Thanks, Christopher.
CO: Thank you, Pete.
EYE ON PDX
Lorenzo Triburgo is creating some of the most enagaging photography coming out of Portland. He is best known for his series Transportraits, portraits of post-transition transgendered individuals, pictured in front of backdrops (that Triburgo himself painted). This is a little strange given that Triburgo doesn’t really like the portrait genre, nor has he any formal painting training. But in the execution of an idea, Triburgo will go the extra mile.
Currently, Triburgo is working on a body of work about correctional officers in Oregon, but I didn’t really want to wait until its completion before we sat down and chatted — there’s too much to talk about! Here we talk about identities, gender, teaching, selfies, jails, rural police budgets, how to make portraits respectfully, and Bob Ross.
EYE ON PDX
Scroll down for the Q&A. Enjoy!
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Transportraits is an old project now, but it was the first body of your work I came across. It was well received. In it, I noticed exciting novel facets. Can you tell us about it?
Lorenzo Triburgo (LT): It is a few years old now and it did get seen relatively widely, but for me, the best thing to come out of letters and messages from trans-guys all over the country — and some internationally too — just say thanks. I did not expect that. I’ve done the thing that I wanted to do; I put positive representations out there.
PP: You showed me one of those correspondences, and I’d like to share it with the readers.
LT: Mostly, the guys are happy to share their lives and thoughts.
PP: Here it is:
I’m generally a person of few words. I certainly am not one to write letters. However, I felt that in this case, I needed to express appreciation to you, Mr. Triburgo.
I have identified as transgender for as long as I have known that such a word existed. For years, I lived in fear of myself and of losing my family to my particular “problem”. I have a husband who has always supported me and my gender identity and encouraged me to take the steps towards transitioning but it wasn’t until seeing your portfolio (via HuffPost) that I actually was inspired to do so.
The men you photographed were so themselves and so proud looking that I realized that I could no longer hide in the shadows of my own self-loathing and let myself be crippled by what my intolerant family thought. I saw the future in those photos and it gave me the strength to take the necessary steps to begin my journey.
So, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your portraits and your vision. They were the final push I needed to live my life.
PP: “I saw the future in those photos…” Wow!
LT: Gives me chills. Just really, really happy about that.
PP: Transportraits is finished now?
LT: Yes. Well, actually, I just had a man who is 65 and just transitioned. He asked, “Are you still shooting because I really want to be a part of this?” I wasn’t / am not really still shooting but heck, why not?
PP: He’s 65! You had to.
LT: Exactly. He’s in Washington State and doesn’t have a community of trans guys really to hang out with. He met some people online who were in Washington but not really close. We all got together and had a luncheon at his house and these guys came from 4 hours away just to hang out. Looking at my photos, there’s such a ragtag criss-cross of people — a Seattleite who transitioned in the 1970s, so and he was 70-years-old; guys in their mid-40s from rural Washington, and Dane (pictured below) who has just now transitioned at 65.
Dane and his husband have been married 40 years. His husband is in his eighties and he said, “Dane will do what he wants and that’s cool with me. My friends told me, ‘Oh man, everyone’s gonna think you’re gay,’ and I thought, well, so be it.” It is incredible! So and I did shoot those guys and I am going to add them into the project.
Dane and husband.
PP: Did you have your backdrops with you?!
LT: Yes. I took them up.
PP: You painted all those backdrops?
LT: I used Bob Ross’s instruction book. Just sheets of plywood. I accidentally got better at painting as Transportraits project went on.
PP: Why the backdrops?
LT: I started the project doing my own transition. Right before that time, I had a phase in which I thought I would never photograph people again.
But Transportraits was about gender identity and masculinity. I knew I didn’t want to create a documentary type project or a really a personal narrative, I wanted it to be more about my ideas on gender and the ideas I was wrestling with during my own transition.
I considered fabricated nature as the backdrop, basically to suggest nature as a construct. I experimented with projections and scans and collage but concluded painting made the most sense. And if it was about masculinity, then I figured using an American icon such as Bob Ross would help keep it about American masculinity.
PP: You’ve recently started teaching at Oregon State University. Your courses are about gender. Can you give us a primer on gender representation in photography?
LT: Photography has had this misconception attached to it throughout its history of presenting a truth, and I think that can be used to both uphold normative ideas of gender. It can also be played with to undermine those ideas. Photography is like a mirror so — in terms of identity based work — I feel like its the perfect medium because it’s a way of representing oneself and the way we construct identities.
PP: Which practitioners’ work inspires you?
LT: In the late 90s, when I was at college, Claude Cahun was just resurfacing in curricula. All of a sudden, learning about Cahun had such a huge impact on my work and my life. Surrealist photographers in the 1920s were thinking about identity and multiple selves and using photography to look at — and deconstruct — the self as one unit, and one unified self. Excitement ever since. Man Ray too, of course. One of my favorite books is Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. It’s accompaniment to Jennifer Blessing’s exhibition about gender performance in photography from its invention through until the 90s.
PP: And since the 1990s?
LT: Well, identity-based work really went out of vogue.
LT: I don’t think people really wanted to talk about it. But I think identity as a photography subject is really important.
LT: Let’s talk about politics in art. I think of the 90s as a time of resurgence for women in music, in the visual arts, and identity-based politics, right? We were coming off of — and still are — creating work around peer culture in the AIDS crisis. And there was Riot Grrrl, a third wave feminist presence and I think there was a backlash against that.
As identity-based work became commercially less viable it didn’t have the focus it would need in the art world. What do you think?
PP: In both Britain and in America, under Clinton and the Democrats, Blair and New Labour (before Blair went into an illegal war with Bush), the 1990s were a time of peace, a time of economic growth, a time of optimism in many ways. Now we’re all cynics and in reality or perception, under the kosh of wider state controls. Our governments didn’t listen when we refused post 9/11 policies that have torn the world apart.
We are looking inward trying to figure out our place. A lot of identity politics are self made, about the self, but specifically about the anxieties of self. There were no iPhones in the 1990s. We’re in the age of directed advertising. Everything is slick — even, the same — including our own individual forms of production
LT: But this play might lead us to new discoveries? Perhaps identity politics are just getting amplified, again? To me, it’s really interesting now! It’s out-of-control, you know!? The selfie is here.
LT: The selfie is just so interesting. Photography has imbedded itself in this immediate way in how we present ourselves.
PP: Selfies have been dismissed, by many, as the narcissism of the generation of millennials. They’re not just that; there’s more but I don’t yet know what selfies ‘do.’
I have to presume that there’s nothing inherently bad or damaging about being able to represent the self more readily. But, I am not seeing people use selfies in a way that has the same impact as artists’ self-portraits of the past did. Think of Nan Goldin’s portrait of her black eye after domestic abuse.
People are using the selfie to promote; a selfies is akin to brand identify. We’re like infants just working out what we are doing. I want to see something more “real.”
LT: It could go another way where it just gets less and less real. People might put up more and more facade, but if it goes that way then we’ll there’s a potential for us to lose that “reality” and that gravity.
Still, with the selfie, we are revisiting the very immediate past … immediately. How are we relating to ourselves differently? Who are we when we are in a state of constant reflection of our selves? As that speeds up, it will be interesting as the self and the reflection of the self happen simultaneously.
PP: And what that mean for portrait photographers. What does a portrait provide a population in which everyone has a camera in their pocket? Can you imagine doing a portrait series in like 2020?
LT: In my studio practice, my subjects are there, knowingly, as representations of my ideas.
PP: So, in some ways, you’re portraits maintain a distance?
LT: It would be different if I went to these people’s houses and was photographing them there.
PP: What photographic works dealing with gender and identity has impressed you?
LT: Cass Bird for the way she’s interested in various genders; Lyle Ashton Harris was a great influence on me when I was younger — I love the staged elements of it, and that he was fabulous and aggressive at the same time.
Nikki S. Lee for her during the 90s for which she dressed as various identities and immersed herself in different subcultures. Perhaps a bit problematic work but fascinating all the same. Carrie Mae Weems, of course. Adrain Chesser, for the way he shares such intimate moments.
As I’m American and I’m of this [younger] generation, I can’t get away from Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston — their work is part of the patriarchy, right but I can’t help it. I am super influenced by their use of color and humor they employed and underlies their social commentary.
LT: Eight years ago, before I did Transportraits I wanted to do something working with prison system. I drafted letters. The warden at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) was interested, but I was talking about doing a portraits of the prisoners and their family, but he told me there is actually something of a photo program at OSP that is prisoner-run. It wouldn’t really help to replicate that project. I thought about my proposal some more. While I’m waiting to get prison access and a project brief, I created Transportraits.
PP: A very successful project.
LT: It took over! But now Transportraits is complete, it’s time to re-address this prison issue.
PP: How are you doing that?
LT: Again I put out some letters and a couple of facilities [jails] responded — in Clackamas County and Josephine County.
PP: Both in Oregon.
LT: I’ve coordinated some meeting and toured the facilities. In Josephine County in particular, I had some eye-opening conversations about their funding crisis and the additional stress that is put on their staff and the officers consequently.
My partner works in industrial psychology and conversations she and I had were about current psychological research on law enforcement officers, particularly correctional officers, and the stress and the PTSD they suffer. I realized that these serious workplace health concerns often go overlooked by society.
PP: In photography certainly.
LT: At the same time that I was thinking about that I was also thinking about privacy issues for prisoners.
PP: They relate?
LT: Absolutely, inasmuch they dictate who and what I am comfortable photographing. Within photography there are issues with privacy … and with power relationships between photographer and subject. Who controls what is seen? Who makes that call? Who’s point of view is being shown?
I felt like photographing prisoners would become problematic. My thinking was solidified during my first tour of a jail — seeing the complete lack of privacy for a prisoner was astounding. Twice every hour, an officer goes down the tier and looks in everyone’s windows to check upon them. To see them being watched in that direct way had an impact on me.
PP: You couldn’t be another person staring down, separated?
LT: It was a danger.
PP: And so instead?
LT: The stresses on officers, and how those stresses are overlooked, hasn’t really been discussed in popular press or art/photography projects. In-depth. In a way that deals specifically with the officers.
PP: I can only think of two or three photographers who have imaged staff sympathetically. Fiona Tan’s Correction is probably the best example, but even that wasn’t solely officers.
PP: How do you introduce yourself and the work? Are correctional officers open to it?
LT: I talk about the negative stereotypes of officers that are portrayed in popular media. Likewise, the assumption among many that police forces are corrupt. I suggest that my project is potentially something to boost morale. They agree. They’re enthusiastic particularly in Josephine County where they’ve had their budget go to the ballot and be rejected. The taxpayers in Josephine County don’t want to fund the Sheriff’s deputies in or out of the jail.
PP: It’s been national news.
LT: People know they’re not going to get arrested for petty crime because there’s not enough staff at the jail to even process you. The Sheriff is interested in bringing that to light.
There’s another part to it. These officers have the most contact with the prisoners, right? My presumption is that the better they feel about their work and their position — the more they feel valued and respected — in the same ways anyone else would, then positive benefits develop. Consequently, we’d see more respectful interactions between deputies and prisoners in their custody.
It’s still early stages, this is “industrial organizational psychology-light” because I haven’t done near enough research.
PP: How does this fit in with your personal feelings about criminal justice and incarceration in America?
LT: I am challenging myself to approach this and to be open. What is a correctional officer? What makes them? Why are they here in our society to begin with? What are the ways in which these they’re contributing? What are the ways in which maybe they are not? Are there ways in which they try to help prisoner? I’m not interested in taking sides or forcibly portraying correctional officers as either victims or heroes.
PP: You want to get beyond the badge and uniform it sounds like?
LT: It’s about looking at the system as a whole. Officers are part of a system. Right now, I don’t personally know the answer to those questions and so I must ask. I’ll be using audio as part of the project. Officers and their attitudes are an integral piece of the criminal justice puzzle; they’re the people who, at the end of the day, are locking the doors.
Essentially, how do correctional officers uphold the system and in what ways does the system screw them over?
PP: I’ve always said jails and prisons are toxic spaces and they negatively effect everyone in them, staff included. An honest investigation of jails’ and prisons’ labour-force is long overdue. Best of luck and keep us posted. Thanks, Lorenzo.
LT: Thank you, Pete.
Lorenzo Triburgo’s photographs have been exhibited internationally. He holds Bachelor of Arts from New York University in Photography and Gender Studies and a Master of Fine Arts in Photography and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts in New York. He has work in the permanent collection at the Portland Art Museum. He is recipient of Aaron Siskind Grant and most recently a project grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council to complete his forthcoming project working with correctional officers.
Bryan Wolf, “Eclipse watchers” (Grid M9).
On Saturday, my article The Grid Project: A Photo-Survey of Portland was published in The Oregonian. It was my first ever piece for The Oregonian, a paper which was founded in 1850 and predates official Oregon statehood which came about in 1859.
I wrote: “In 1995, Christopher Rauschenberg assembled a team of a dozen photography enthusiasts. Together, they sliced up a AAA map of Portland into square mile segments and resolved to hit the streets of each corresponding square and photograph, once a month, until no more squares remained. By 2004, they had documented all 89 squares within the city limits. At that time, the only thing to do was to start over. In September of this year, the Grid Project will complete its second full photo-survey of the Rose City.”
I wrote the article because The Grid Project is raising Kickstarter cash to replace its old, limited-function website with a new-spangly site with full on search, more images and happy-wide-eyed-users. With four days to go, just over $600 more is needed, so it looks like it’s going to make it.
When I arrived in Portland 18 months ago, folks at the Grid Project were some of the first I wanted to meet. Even though I don’t shoot photographs they let me join them for a meeting and look over images. Many of the Gridders are now friends.
The Grid Project is amazing. Here’s why:
1. It’s all about community.
2. It’s done for the love of photography; no one’s getting paid.
3 It’s a simple premise, but collectively 20 or so photographers have documented a changing Portland over nearly two decades. The estimated 40,000 images they’ve made is an incredible resource.
4. The Portland Grid Project invented the formula. The methodology has since been repeated around the globe in towns and cities such as Bradford, England; Toronto, Canada; Vancouver, WA; Victoria, BC; Rome, Italy; Providence, RI; Eugene, OR; Central Oregon; Napa Valley, CA; Philadelphia, PA; Forest Grove OR and Santa Fe, NM.
If you fancy a fancy print you should throw some money in the pot. Here’s some fine Grid Project images to stroke your eyeballs
Ann Kendellen, Pendleton Park, SW 53rd and Iowa, January 2011 (Grid N6).
BlakeAndrews, 2007, (Grid J12).
Bruce Hall, Kid on the Sandy Blvd overpass for the 205 freeway, (Grid J12).
Carole Glauber. “Frankie’s Franks” SE 82nd, 2011.
Christopher Rauschenberg, SE 15th Avenue, 2008 (Grid L9).
David Potter. “Inside of Marci MacFarlane’s car” North Interstate Avenue and Going Street, May 29th, 2005 (Grid J8).
Lisa Gidley. NE 42nd Avenue near Sumner Street, September 2011.
Nancy Butler, “Untitled” (Grid N9).
Bruce Hall, Off NE Fremont, (Grid K11).
Mark Barnes, “Jessie”
Mark Barnes, “Foster Rd”
Patrick Stearns (one image in a set of three) (Grid K8, 04/99).
David Potter, (M14, August 2000).
Patrick Stearns (one image in a set of three) (Grid G4, 04/00)
Flood: “I generally dislike separating photography from a larger art scene, but I feel that distinction in Portland much more than in New York. There are a lot of Portland based photographers and few spaces to exhibit their work alongside other mediums, and even fewer spaces that have a collector base. It creates a line between artists and that of hobbyists, amateurs and straight photographers.”
© Teresa Christiansen, from Trace Psychedelia.
The Eye On PDX series continues with Teresa Christiansen.
Blake Andrews asks the questions most others might shy away from. Read the full interview on Blake’s blog.
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BA: I love Trace Psychedelia. What is your experience with psychedelic drugs?
TC: The word “psychedelia” in the series title refers less to drugs than to the genre of music and art associated with that term. I also wanted to allude to the experience of seeing everything in immense detail through a heightened perceptual state of mind. I experienced this when I first moved to Portland after living in New York City my entire life. During my first spring here, I walked around with my camera, in awe of the dense greenness of everything. I painted onto the surface of the photographs that I took not only as a way to recreate this experience and the excitement I felt about being in a new place, but also as a way for me to put my photography in dialogue with painting.
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The grind and hustle of daily news photojournalism is no joke. Some people can be a bit sniffy about news photographers. Screw them.
As much as possible I try to ignore the haters and the artificial boundaries they construct in the photoworld. True, my interests primarily lie in documentary, participatory, vernacular and some fine art photography, but in every interaction with photographers I want to explore and understand the contexts in which they make work. Therefore, it was a pleasure – for the latest Eye On PDX feature – to chat with Thomas Boyd.
The lifestyle and work-style of news photographers has always intrigued me. Unfortunately, often my discussions of news photography begins with iconic or controversial images, images’ subtexts and imagery’s distribution in our larger ad-fed visual culture; rarely do I get to ask nuts-and-bolts questions to the individuals who create the widely-circulated images we see daily.
An avowed Oregonian, Boyd is a news shooter through-and-through. He is a staffer with The Oregonian, the state’s biggest paper and as such has important insights into journalism (past, present and future). Here, Boyd talks frankly about his experience with the paper; what makes a good image; the peers he admires; and the rise of the amateur.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
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Prison Photography (PP): How long have you been in Portland? How long have you been with the Oregonian? What’s the deal with this town?
Thomas Boyd (TB): I came up from Eugene five years ago, but before that I lived in the Portland area for about 10-years. I grew up in North Bend on the Oregon Coast and Portland has always been a special place for me. I find it endlessly fascinating.
PP: Day to day, what do you shoot?
TB: I shoot assignments! I shoot between one and three assignments a day and I never know what they’re going to be until the night before or even an hour before. Yesterday, I shot a basketball game in Eugene, today, I shot a portrait of a documentary filmmaker and an overweight police horse. Tomorrow, I’ll shoot a cat show. That’s a typical random week. I also shoot a lot of Duck football, Portland Timbers and track and field.
PP: I understand the photo staff has shrunk at The Oregonian in recent years? Tell us about the changes at the the newspaper.
TB: Like all newspapers, the business is eroding. With that came layoffs three years ago and buyouts before that. We now have three less photo editors and the staff is down to 10 with two part timers from 19 full timers five years ago. They hire very few freelancers. However, in a recent meeting the we heard the paper met it’s financial goals for 2012 and merit pay raises may be possible. The paper is making money.
But, even with these changes, the way I work really hasn’t changed. I pitch story ideas and I shoot assignments.
I actually see more change with the organizations I cover. I’m seeing them keeping us out of situations so they can document it themselves and drive traffic to their own websites. I’m seeing this with all types of organizations from non-profits to professional/college sports teams. We are essentially competing with the organizations we cover.
Reporters are also being asked to do more with photos, video and social media. I’ve found myself competing with them on stories as well. It’s really awkward for the people we cover. They don’t readily understand what our roles are.
The amount of bloggers covering events is big change too. If you look at the amount of journalists just covering the Timbers, you’ll see that newspapers and television stations are drastically outnumbered. It’s really strange to me. As far as I can tell, none of them are making any real money. If there are two dozen photographers on the field, maybe only four of us are actually getting paid. They do it because they are fans and have day jobs. It’s a head-scratcher for me.
PP: Do you make images outside of work?
TB: I shoot outside of work quite a bit. I take as much commercial and editorial freelance as I can, shoot a few weddings here and there, and pick away at my personal projects.
PP: Do you have time to follow the news, blogs, discussions online, or are you too busy being a producer and filing stories?
TB: I wouldn’t say I’m too busy because I somehow find the time…but I don’t follow all that stuff as much as I used to. I probably spend as much time online reading about motorcycles and home remodeling as I spend reading about photography. I also write for a blog called ApertureExpert.com.
PP: Does a lot of the gas-bagging (I’m being self-referential there) online affect the daily life and work of photojournalists? If so, how?
TB: Good question. I suppose photojournalists are influenced by influential work. We see a trend and try to emulate that or be inspired by it to some degree. I’m probably more influenced and more interested in talk about the photography business than actual shooting. As far as my daily work, I’ve become pretty good at sticking to my approach and not preconceiving a situation. It took me a long time to get to that point. When I first started I was all over the map stylistically and how I approached a story. I’m much more methodical and disciplined now, but I do still like to try new things and experiment.
PP: How do you define a successful day/shoot/assignment/image? What brings the smiles at the end of a day?
TB: The only thing that makes me happy at the end of the day is walking away with a photo I like. And, that is a rare thing. Starting out I was more into the experience of making the photo. The results were not as important to me, probably because I couldn’t differentiate between an above average image and a great one.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy great experiences on assignment and that happens all the time, but making a great image is where it’s at. I will forget all the suffering I experienced, if I end up with something worth looking at.
I really love the rare times when I’m in the creative zone and everything falls into place. I have an idea, the circumstances are ideal, and I get lucky. The thing about photojournalism is, you never really know if what you are doing will work until it’s too late to do anything about it. It’s all about anticipating what will happen instead executing a plan. If what you are striving to create is spontaneous, real and in the moment, there’s a huge amount of luck involved. It’s all about putting your self in a situation to that favors luck. I’d compare it to hitting a home run or a hole in one. The more you do it, the luckier you get.
PP: Are photo editors important?
TB: Good photo editors are important in that they can take great work and make it better. Mediocre photo editors get in the way of good work.
I rarely sit with an editor and have them go through my work. I mostly work remotely. I’ll send in my top picks and they take it from there.
I seek out advice on projects, but I believe photo editing is as important and creative as shooting. For that reason, I like to do it myself. I like the idea that I have more authorship in the final product. We make online photo galleries for the web and that’s really what I’m shooting for these days.
PP: How do you characterize the photo scene in Portland?
TB: By my estimation, there are way too many of us. Worse yet, there are too many mediocre photographers that manage to get work by under-cutting better ones. I suspect they won’t last much longer than their trust fund, but that can’t be too soon. That sounds harsh, but I’ve stood in the rental line at Pro Photo and watched a Craigslist wedding photographer rent $400 worth of gear to shoot a $800 wedding. That’s happening in all sectors of photography on different scales.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are some great, highly accomplished Portland photographers that deserve everything they get. Dan Root, Lars Topelmann, Steve Bloch, Sol Neelman, Chris Hornbecker, Bruce Ely, Jamie Francis, Brian Lee, Leah Nash, Chris Onstott, Thomas Patterson, Jonathan Ferrey, Ray Gordon, Anthony Georgis, Craig Mitchelldyer, Andy Batt, and many more that inspire me with solid, professional work.
PP: What lies in the future for you?
TB: If I could have my way, I’d retire at The Oregonian doing what I’m doing now. I’m a newspaper shooter and have been since I started stringing for the AP and The Oregonian while I was still in college at Portland State in the late eighties. I’m a home grown Oregonian and I don’t want to live anywhere else. I’m hardwired to shoot newspaper assignments and I love it.
The future probably won’t turn out the way I want. If it doesn’t, I see myself launching a successful freelance career, starting a business and riding motorcycles.
PP: Anything else you like to add?
TB: For the first time in my career, I’m worried for the future of the photography business. There are just so many forces out there driving down the value of photography and there doesn’t seem to be a bottom. At the same time, there are so many people wanting to do it and schools are cranking out more and more photographers. I’ve always believed that with desire, hard work, a bit of talent, and a little help, a person could make a go of it. I’m not so sure anymore. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it now.
The internet has created a huge demand for photography, but it hasn’t translated into more work and money for photographers.
The challenge is to avoid thinking about all the negative stuff, and keeping my level of creative energy up. At the end of day, I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to do it this long.
PP: Thanks Thomas.
TB: Thank you, Pete.
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All images: Thomas Boyd.
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Blake has posted the latest in our Eye On PDX series. He spoke (at length) with Jason Langer. The conversation swoops over the achievements of Langer’s career beginning with his apprenticeship with Michael Kenna. Much of the conversation is Langer passing on the wisdoms that Kenna passed on to him.
Langer says, “I wrote a postcard to Kenna every year with my photo on one side and when I was ready to graduate in 1989 he was ready to hire his first assistant. I jumped at the chance, moved down to the Bay Area and got paid $6/hr. to babysit, mop floors, wash dishes- anything he needed- and of course all the photo related things. Souping film, making contacts, drymounting and matting prints and getting them ready to ship.”
“Kenna told me was that it takes about 10 years to figure out what you want to photograph- what your subject is- and it takes that much time to get good at it- and in the meantime, don’t show your work, until it’s ready- keep the photos under your bed and keep working. There is no rush. That’s a lesson which shocking (to me) has gone out the window- people don’t take ANY time to let their images stew in the pot. It takes AT LEAST this to create a signature style and subject matter- or so I thought. Now – seemingly- it doesn’t matter.”
Read the full conversation: Q&A with Jason Langer
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