Essay by Donna DeCesare, Award Winning PhotoJournalist
Photo reporters are often treated by the art world as less than full artists and in the print journalism world as less than fully qualified journalists. The democracy of photography, the idea that anyone can pick up a camera and make the kinds of images we see in newspapers—the old saying f8 and be there-- in part explains why graphic journalists have too often been treated as mere camera operators instead of the sensitive and highly skilled intuitive emotional observers that they are. The generous heart and magical juxtapositions evidenced in Luz Elena Castro’s photographic reportage clearly demonstrates the impoverishment of such categorization. Unlike artists who have great lattitude to direct and manipulate or construct an image in order to express an idea, the photojournalist is principally a witness. Yes photojournalists have points of view and make choices about lenses and vantage point and depth of field and the “decisive moment.” But they are also held to ethical standards that set them apart and distinguish their work as visual witnesses. This is why the digital manipulations that are commonplace in the realm of photo illustration provoke such vociferous condemnation in photo reportage. And so they should. Photographers like Luz Elena Castro command our respect and restore our hope because they have earned a sacred trust. Whether in the line of fire, or crossing the frontiers of intimacy with complete strangers, or taking on themes that are emotionally or visually challenging, Luz Elena never loses sight of her obligation to her craft and mission: the vital importance of keeping her fellow Colombians informed with lyrical and honest images. Her photographs of political figures like former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria or of events and social issues made during her newspaper career served to open the eyes of her fellow Colombians daily as these issues unfolded. Her vision and spirit of public service lead her to create an exhibition for the Luis Angel Arango library in 1990-91 and later donate this archive as historical patrimony to the Colombian National archives. A decade and a half later, the existence of this collection is enabling curators Alberto Sierra and Juan Alberto Gaviria Velez to imply if obliquely a meditation on 21st century Colombian reality through the contemplation of Luz Elena’s evocative visual record of Colombia’s recent past. As I prepared to write this essay I telephoned Luz Elena Castro at her studio in California where she now makes her home. The vitality and humanism I have found in her news photography images was matched by the energy of her voice and her spirit. Luz Elena’s latest project, working with immigrants draws on her own life experience as an immigrant and her history of witnessing those who are overlooed and displaced. She is sharing the values and vision she learned as a photo reporter with immigrants who work behind the scenes of the “American Dream.” Her purpose is not to denounce it is to recognize and empower the people who in Luz Elena’s words “open the door in the morning.” Together they are creating a kind of “citizen journalism” in which the overlooked—draw back the curtains which hid them and get a chance to talk back. Moreover this process of collaboration creates vital public artwork.
En el mundo del Arte, los reporteros gráficos no son considerados verdaderos artístas y en el mundo del periodismo son considerados menos que un periodísta reconocido. La fotografía es una expresión de la democracia, la idea de que cualquier persona puede coger una cámara y tomar las imágenes que se ven en los periódicos – la conocida expresión abrir el diafragma a 8 (f8) y estar en el lugar indicado- en parte explica porque los fotógrafos de prensa son considerados a menudo como simples operadodes de cámaras en lugar de ser vistos como personas sensibles, con grandes habilidades que les permite observar con intuición y emoción. El corazón generoso y la juxtaposición mágica evidenciados en el trabajo fotográfico de Luz Elena Castro demuestra claramente la paradoja de esta categorización. A diferencia de los artistas que cuentan con un gran espacio para construir y manipular imágenes para transmitir una idea, los fotógrafos de prensa son considerados principalmente un testigo. Es verdad, los reporteros gráficos tienen puntos de vista y toman decisiones sobre el tipo de lente, el ángulo o la profundidad de una toma cuando es el “momento decisivo” para captar una imagen. Pero existen también los estandares éticos que los apartan y los distinguen de ser simples testigos visuales. Es por esto que las manipulaciones digitales que hoy en día son un común denominador en el mundo de la foto ilustración, provocan fuertes reacciones en los foto reportajes. Y asi debe ser. Fotógrafos como Luz Elena Castro cuentan con nuestro respeto y nos devuelven nuestra esperanza, porque ellos se han ganado una confianza sacra. Ya sea en la línea de fuego, o cruzando las fronteras de la intimidad de gente totalmente extraña, o asumiendo temas que son visual o emocionalmente retadores, Luz Elena nunca pierde la claridad de la obligación de su trabajo y su mision: la vital importancia de tener a sus compatriotas colombianos informados con imágenes líricas y honestas. Sus fotografías de figuras políticas tales como el ex Presidente César Gaviria o los eventos y condiciones sociales registrados durante su trabajo en los periódicos, sirvieron para abrir diariamente los ojos de sus semejantes a medida que los hechos se revelaban. Su visión y espíritu del servicio público sirivieron para organizar una exposición en la Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, acerca de los hechos más destacados en el País, entre1990-91 y posteriormente la donación de éstos archivos, como un patrimonio histórico al Archivo General de la Nación. Una década y media después, la existencia de esta colección a motivado a Alberto Sierra y Juan Alberto Gaviria Vélez a realizar una reflexión y una mirada de la realidad colombiana en el siglo XXI a través del análisis de los registros visuales de Luz Elena, que evocan el pasado reciente de Colombia. Cuando me preparaba para escribir éste ensayo, llamé por teléfono a Luz Elena Castro a su estudio en California donde hoy en dia tiene su hogar. La vitalidad y la humanidad que había encontrado en sus fotografías coincidió con la energia de su voz y de su espíritu. El proyecto más reciente de Luz Elena, es un trabajo con inmigrantes y sus historias, atravesado por su propia experiencia como inmigrante y su historia de haber sido testigo de aquellos que son desplazados y olvidados. Ella comparte los valores y la visión que aprendió como fotógrafa de prensa, con la cruda realidad que los inmigrantes viven detrás de las escenas del llamado “sueño americano”. Su propósito no es denunciar, sino mas bien reconocer y valorar las personas que en palabras de Luz Elena “abren las puertas del pueblo en la mañana”. Juntos están creando una especie de “periodísmo cívico” en el que, el sujeto observado - alza las cortinas que lo esconden y tiene la oportunidad de responder.- Más allá, éste proceso de colaboración crea un trabajo de arte público y vital.
Luz Elena Castro Discusses The Art of Photojournalism, with Ramon B. Nuez Jr.
I think that Luz Elena Castro is the first photojournalist that I have interviewed on Latinos Behind The Lens. Why — mainly because my focus is on fine art photographers. And less focused on other verticals. But it was nice to get a perspective for a photojournalist. It was good to see what makes these types of photographers — tick.
You mentioned that, “As a photojournalist, I strive to capture ordinary moments that speak in extraordinary ways.” Photography with all its disciplines and techniques is ultimately about telling stories. But how are you able to turn an ordinary moment into an extraordinary moment? I believe our eyes and mind have the ability to see fast, make a composition in a second, and grasp contrasts that create symbols. So a common moment, can become an image than can be seen by humanity as part of the same subtle universal language, that we all understand. Capturing an instance of truth in one frame, can speak about a simple, apparently ordinary moment in a extraordinary way.
As a photojournalist some fine art photographers would say that you don’t create the story but simply witness the story. Is there an actual a difference? Isn’t the goal of photography to simply tell the story? I think subjects that inspire ﬁne art photographers, are very similar to the ones that a photojournalist witnesses. None of them create the story. Life itself gives stories every second, and there are so many opportunities to capture situations, contrasts, and events. Fine art photographers and photojournalist both approach their work with a distinct purpose, with a personal interpretation, and that can be the difference. The artistic photographer can recreate or manipulate an image, play with it, take his or her time, and use the license that art permits. The photojournalist captures what is happening in the moment, typically with the pressure of a deadline, and with the details necessary to make the photo a piece of information, that often becomes a piece of art. We can see this process in the history of photography. The goal of photography isn’t only to tell a story, its to share images which communicate a message, seen and understood by everyone.
Tell me about the “West Marin Literacy Project.” And why is it important to use photography to teach literacy? In 2004, Gallery Route One at Point Reyes Station, CA, invited me to document members of the Latino community who lived and worked at the dairy Ranchos in West Marin County. The idea was for the American community to reach out to the Latino families and get to know them through my photos. Instead of simply taking their portraits, I asked the gallery to give basic digital cameras to the families and I taught them how to document their own lives in photos. Family events, church celebrations, life around the ranchos, their homes and children, and more, were represented in the many images that they captured. During the process, volunteer teachers tutored my students, using their photos as a base for learning English. They also learned how to take photos and describe them, all in English, so the passion they were putting into their new photography skills was a perfect way for them to grasp the meaning of the words, and use them in conversation. At the end of the ﬁrst year of the project, I exhibited my photos documenting their lives, along with pictures that my students took. The students became good photographers and were very proud to see the result of their work exhibiting in a Gallery of Art. They are part of a community that embraces and supports their culture and talents. Language isn’t barrier anymore. They often publish photos in local newspapers, raise money selling food at different events, and were able to buy their own laptops to keep working independently as a photographers. Some of them are now teaching others Latinos how to work with digital photography. I served as a bridge between the two communities, and developed a series of projects that empowered the students to be part of the town through photography and literacy. Point Reyes Station established a yearly Latino photography exhibition, and Gallery Route One continues to sponsoring and supporting the projects.
You were the personal photographer for César Gaviria during his presidential campaign. How did that experience prepare you for future photography projects? During 1989, I was part of one of the most dangerous Colombian political campaigns ever. Four of the candidates were assassinated. The risk of being around the target of a plot was obvious, but winning the elections was the goal of the liberal party. Nothing could stop the candidate, César Gaviria, and our very young campaign team traveled the whole country, to introduce a new face, that didn’t have the proﬁle of his assassinated predecessor. But Gaviria had the tools and the right people, and we created the image of the leader that Colombia needed in extremely difﬁcult times. When Gaviria was elected President of Colombia, I became his personal photographer, and managed his image in the mass media for his four years of government. Being so close to him and experiencing what was happening in my country in those days gave me a good, clear mind to know what was important, what was urgent and what was a waste of time. I was able to connect with people at all levels, knocking on doors whenever needed, and gained the trust of newspapers, magazines, and news agencies. It was a great training for my profession and a very deep personal experience. I traveled all around the world, and developed an universal view of the main topics and challenges facing modern life on planet earth. Thanks to that formative time, I’m able to observe and create projects that involve individuals and communities with a good sense of their needs, creating impact through my photos and words, and helping people to understand and support socially responsible action.
As a Latina photographer with over 2 decades behind the lens — what is your advice to the younger generation of photojournalists? With the many advances in equipment and technology, along with the changing needs for magazines, newspapers, news agencies, and almost every other traditional form of media, photography as a career in the way that classic photojournalists did, almost doesn’t exist anymore. These days, everybody is a photographer, and millions of images have been taken and uploaded as you read this. Many of those images remain at a personal level, but a good number of them get to be published, printed, and exhibited. People still look at them to seek information, to trust, to enjoy, to be transported to unseen worlds. Some people posses the eye with which to capture the right moment, and create an iconic image that speaks in the subtle languages that communicate things we never thought existed. Moments of truth always create memories. In spite of the speed at which technology is being developed, photography is still the best way to capture life and time, and digital photography allows us to do this in ways we never thought possible. So my advice is to be up to date with the new technologies, knowing how to achieve good images by working with the computer as if it’s a darkroom that will further your work. To take pictures everyday, to go see the work that is done by professional photojournalists, to educate yourself in the ﬁeld. Today, it’s possible to take a picture of a baby while it’s still in the womb of the mother, and it’s all due to the great advances in technology, but the essence of an image like this gets attention because at the center of the photo there is a feeling, a human interaction, a life. It’s also important to create visual stories that can help to raise awareness about situations that touch human lives. Life itself is full of so many realities that deserve to be seen, to inspire communities, to move resources and to look for real changes.These are moments where photography is a great tool in the hands of a photojournalist. Look for ways to identify conditions that affect the evolution of the human race. Keep a notebook with your thoughts in it, and with the thoughts of others who can help you to ‘see’. Be aware that in many occasions you must practice patience, and have a great capacity for compassion. It’s not always fun: it requires the ability to adapt to difﬁcult conditions of which misery can be part of. It’s good to plan ahead, make proposals, ask for ﬁnancial support from an organization, corporation or individuals that care about others. Use the camera as a tool to explore and bring back stories to share. The combination of committed assignments, a self actualized, disciplined practice, up to date information and the ability to live in the present will make you succeed.