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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
A single wall representing the meals of men and women executed in Texas, part of Julie Green’s The Last Supper: 500 Plates exhibited at Marylhurst University, Oregon (April 16 – May 17, 2013). Photo: Pete Brook.
In The Make — a new(ish) website that celebrates artists in their crafty environments with dedicated studio visits and conversations — has a smashing feature on my friend and fellow Oregonian Julie Green. It sure beats the 2011 write-up of my visit to Julie’s studio!
I’ve been thinking a lot about productivity and it’s obstacles recently and I think Julie maintains an incredible output. Part of that is the security of teaching for her but mostly it is passion and commitment to connections and getting the work seen. What use is studio time if the products are not then widely shared?
Julie’s The Last Supper which is now 552 plates deep, is broad and grasps solidly the size of the issue it takes on. Bravo to Julie for leveraging the agency she has as an artist.
Pop over to In The Make and read what makes Julie tick. Here’s a snippet:
Shipping and installation of fragile ceramics is quite an undertaking. I am looking for a library or a university or a museum- in Texas would be great—to donate the project on a ten-year loan. The Last Supper is not for sale.
I plan to continue adding fifty plates a year until capital punishment is abolished. A poet asked if I ever get tired of painting lumpy blue food. No, I don’t.
Oklahoma has higher per capita executions than Texas. I taught there, and that is how I came to read final meal requests in the morning paper. Requests provide clues on region, race, and economic background.
Why is this important? It is because the death penalty is applied unequally depending on the race of the defendant and the victim, not to mention access to adequate counsel, jury bias, prosecutorial misconduct and a whole plethora of factors that make wrongful convictions too frequent to dismiss. End the death penalty and we’ll end the murder of innocent people. As Bryan Stevenson brilliantly puts it, the question isn’t so much does a person deserve to die, it is do we deserve to kill?
Coincidentally, I edited a story for Wired about the work of Klea McKenna who is editor of In The Make. Check out Crumpled and Abused Photo Paper Makes for New Landscape Photography
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)
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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Photo: Leah Nash for The New York Times. Plates in “The Last Supper,” a show that features Julie Green’s plates depicting death-row meals.
A couple of years ago, I visited the studio of artist Julie Green. I was compelled to do so because I was convinced that her The Last Supper project was more relevant and hard-hitting than the many, many photo projects about the last meals of the executed.
Kirk Johnson has written The Last Supper for the New York Times:
The underlying and compelling theme of the work is choice. What do people who may have lived for years in prison with virtually no choices at all do with this last one they’re offered? Do they reach back for some comforting reminder of childhood? (Professor Green suspects as much in the cases of meals like macaroni and cheese or Spam.) Do they grasp for foods never tried, or luxuries remembered or imagined? (One condemned man ordered buffalo steak and sugar-free black walnut ice cream; another, fried sac-a-lait fish topped with crawfish étouffée.)
As Green says she won’t stop painting until the death penalty is abolished, there’s a long way to go with this project. It’s great to see it going from strength to strength and pressing the issue to the fore. Bravo, Julie.
Accompanying the show is a 520-page lunker of a book. The Arts Center received sponsorship assistance to publish a full color catalog of the 500 plates. The catalog will be for sale during the exhibit for an introductory price of $50 (after February 16, 2013 the price will go up). To purchase a catalog, please contact Hester Coucke and let her know a good time to contact you during the business week.
Click images for full 2000-pixel wide view.
Kirk Jones is, like many, a photographer with a wandering path. Jones has worked with newspapers, assisted at a large commercial studios, and custom printed Pulitzer Prize winning photographer David Hume Kennerly‘s photographs.
Between 1994 and 1999, Jones freelanced in South East Asia, mainly in Vietnam and Cambodia. Upon returning to the U.S., he concentrated on web design and now manipulates Gigapixel imagery as a Senior Computer Scientist at Adobe. Three years ago, he made a return as a practicing photographer.
“I have slowly been easing myself back into the photographic world,” says Jones. His independent work has been published on CNN.com and NYTimes.com, his images featured in a documentary on Jesse Bernstein. He exhibits locally.
Over the past year, Jones has photographed clearcut logging, the urban growth boundaries that exists near Portland, OR, and the migrant work force that caters to the Oregon wine industry.
Black & White images from Jones’ Clearcut series and colour images from his Farm To Table series.
Prison Photography (PP): You’ve photographed a lot of different places, but I picked these because they were recent, close to our city of Portland and about economics, industry, nature, and the region’s culture. Why the interest in clearcut logging?
Kirk Jones (KJ): Witnessing the clearcuts along the Western Oregon highways recently, I experienced the same emotions as it did when I was young and gazing from the car window. Most of us that live here, and those that visit, at some point witness these open landscapes – often behind the veil of trees left standing along the roadside.
Photography is a medium to express what I observe happening close to home. Logging is an multi-faceted issue and something that contributes to our economy here in Oregon.
I have a long history of considering nature and my place within it. I grew up in the Midwest and lived in Northern Minnesota until my junior year of high school. The area is known for lakes and forests and natural beauty, but it is also an area known for timber and for massive strip mining.
Attending college at Evergreen in Olympia, WA – around the time of the spotted owl movement – sparked my affinity with the environment. Evergreen College was, and remains, a magnet for environmentalists and environmental theory.
I recall during trips to the coast that the lumber companies left a thick row of trees along the highway to mask the reality of what was going on behind; I felt like they were trying to hide something.
Click images for full 2000-pixel wide view.
PP: This work is in the legacy of Robert Adams, Eirik Johnson, Christopher Lamarca and many others who look at the Pacific Northwest landscape with wry, open eyes. How should we be relating to our natural resources, in life and in photography?
KJ: Without a connection to your natural surroundings it is difficult to connect to feelings of being alive. We are fortunate to live not only in an area of amazing natural beauty, but in a country that (hopefully) will continue to pursue the protection and respect for nature. It’s a fight.
I’m not advocating that natural resources shouldn’t be consumed around us, but I believe there are right ways to do this and wrong ways. I don’t think strip mining and clear cutting are responsible short or long term.
If photography can help illustrate, change or illuminate crisis, then I have faith that imagery can be a catalyst for crisis management.
PP: How do you characterize the Portland photography scene?
KJ: It has been quite a while since I was more entrenched in the photo scene. During the early 1990’s I worked at a large commercial studio in Portland as well as at The Film Lab located on the NW Park (gone now).
At that time there was a lot going on and you could feel Portland growing. I traveled and worked abroad before returning to the region a few years ago so I am just now reconnecting with photography in Portland.
I’ve gone to strobist shoots, stay active on a few mailing lists for local photographers, and test equipment for the teams at Gigapan. I look at local work when I can. The Portland photography scene appears to be healthy and there are a ton of cool things happening. I’ve been working on individual projects over the last few years and look forward to connecting with others.
On September 1, 1987, while engaged in a protest against the shipping of U.S. weapons to Central America in the context of the Contra wars, S. Brian Willson and other members of a Veterans Peace Action Team blocked railroad tracks at the Concord, California Naval Weapons Station. An approaching train did not stop, and struck the veterans. Willson was hit, ultimately losing both legs below the knee while suffering a severe skull fracture with loss of his right frontal lobe. Subsequently, he discovered that he had been identified for more than a year as an FBI domestic “terrorist” suspect under President Reagan’s anti-terrorist task force provisions and that the train crew that day had been advised not to stop the train.
Mark Colman has lived in Portland, Oregon for five years. In the past 12 months, he has been working on a portrait project called Faces of Occupy. Each portrait is accompanied by words from the sitter; many of them thoughtful, loving and persuasive statements.
In addition to many original Portland Occupiers, Colman has photographed international figures including Ralph Nader, Dr. Vandana Shiva and Chris Hedges.
Please spend some time with each of the individuals upon whom he has trained his lens. As we know, Occupy touches upon many complex issues, and these are issues that deserve time. Any summary from me would be reductive. I did just have one question for Mark though. I asked what Occupy meant to him.
“Occupy is a way to spread awareness of many things that are wrong for 99% of Americans,” says Colman. “Whether it’s corporate personhood, Wall Street bailouts, illegal bank foreclosures, the government’s increasing attempts to take away our freedoms and constitutional rights with legislation such as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), police brutality, lack of a livable minimum wage. The list is long, but the sooner people wake up, the sooner we will begin to solve these problems.”
So far, Colman has made 43 portraits.
“I plan on having 99 people by year’s end,” he says.
Chris Hedges: “The Authorization to Use Military Force Act, the Patriot Act, the FISA Amendment Act, you know it’s just one piece of legislation after another to strip Americans of their most cherished constitutional rights. I mean even the Obama Administration has not found it within itself to restore habeas corpus. All of this was put in place by Bush, but it was codified by the Democrats. In some ways Obama is worse because he’s used the Espionage Act now six times to go after whistle blowers and leakers.”
“A united educated public is the biggest threat to those that seek to exploit us for power and profit. We are learning and evolving. Where Occupy is headed is up to those who take a stand and get involved. We can take care of each other and work together to improve our quality of life.”
“My first civics lesson came at five years old: I couldn’t watch any cartoons – the Watergate Hearings were on every channel.”