Leonard Freed’s Police Work, Don McCullin’s Vietnam Inc., Cornell Capa’s The Concerned Photographer, books by August Sander, Robert Frank, Eugene Smith, Gilles Peress, Susan Meiselas and Jim Goldberg. So reads Robert Gumpert’s bookshelf.
Bob admires these photographers for their craft, storytelling and humanity. For want of a better word, they are his heroes; in some cases, they are his friends.
Of all photographers, Bob singles out McCullin as the shining example, “His work didn’t always look very optimistic, but he was an optimistic person.”
“I’m not sure McCullin was overtly political. He was just overtly and achingly human,” say Bob. “He took pictures you cannot turn away from … the humanity of them; they’re unflinching.”
Why do I bring this up? Well, during our interview Bob and I discussed at length the photography we admire and Bob talked about that which we should seek to see, digest and – dare I say it – emulate. Those discussions fell to the cutting room floor during editing, but they are worth mentioning here to offer context to the type of photographer Bob is.
I’ve known Bob a long time but until our latest chats I never realised how sacred he holds the role of the photographer to speak truth to power.
Bob began shooting U.S. labour movements. In 1974, he was in Harlan County for the miner’s strike. A long time before he photographed inmates of the San Francisco County Jails, he was photographing the homicide detectives and beat cops of the San Francisco Police Department. It’s about duty, work conditions, getting up in the morning, taking a pay packet home. “There’s nothing more heroic than working a shitty job, one that might ultimately kill you, to take care of your kids and send them off in a better position than you were,” says Bob.
Photography should never be a prop or illustration, photography should never get in the way of communicating humanity, photography should (despite it’s biases) always avoid objectifying its subject. Photography is about people.
Bob uses the example of Jacob Riis, a man known for his pioneering use of photographs to show America the squalid conditions of immigrant tenements. “Riis was a crusader, not in the George Bush sense, but in the sense he saw a need. He never considered himself a photographer.”
Riis used photography as a tool to address a need. After his campaigning he didn’t use photography in the same way. The issue was primary, “I liked that,” says Bob, “It was a direct action use of photography.”
‘TAKE A PICTURE, TELL A STORY’, IN THE SAN FRANCISCO COUNTY JAILS
The premise is simple. He takes a portrait, they tell him a story. It’s a trade.
View images and listen to audio from the project at Take A Picture, Tell A Story.
Robert Gumpert has made portraits and audio interviews of inmates in the San Francisco County Jail system for six years. He doesn’t describe himself as a journalist or an activist, he is just a human being with a curiosity in stories and a promise to be honest. The tales his subjects tell are as eye-opening as Bob is modest. The project is ongoing and the archive is one of otherwise forgotten stories.
LISTEN TO ROBERT GUMPERT AND I TALK ABOUT HIS EXPERIENCE PHOTOGRAPHING THE THE SAN FRANCISCO COUNTY JAIL SYSTEM
Robert Gumpert is a San Francisco-based freelance documentary photographer. He started his career in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1974, documenting what turned out to be the last three months of the epic United Mineworker’s strike photos from which are part of the Coal Employment Project Records Appalachian Archives in East Tennessee State University.
In 1998 and 1999, Gumpert’s photographs of garment workers Faces Behind the Labels were shown as part of a traveling exhibit of garment workers mounted by Oakland’s Sweatshop Watch
Since the mid nineties, Gumpert has documented many sides of the criminal justice polygon – homicide detectives, courts and public defenders, SFPD, and the inmates and deputies of the SF County Jail system. The series is called Lost Promise: The Criminal Justice System.
Gumpert’s work from the San Francisco County Jails can be seen and heard at a dedicated website Take A Picture, Tell A Story.
Before turning his attentions to these regional issues, Gumpert traveled the world as a photojournalist. Gumpert’s photos have been used in outreach media by the University of California’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. He was formerly a photographer under contract with the California Department of Industrial Relations. He has exhibited his work at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. In 2011, his portraits from the San Francisco county jails were exhibited at Foto8 Gallery show Locked and Found in London.
His website is http://robertgumpert.com/