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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Les Stone: How A Photojournalist Used To Work

Untitled (Liberia, Boy with Guns), 2004

This photo from Iraq won second place in 1991 World Press Awards.

I've known Les Stone for years, and hired him several times, including when I was the Director of Photography at Brill's Content and I sent him to cover both the Democratic and Republican Conventions of 2000, only to see the editor decide to use 2 photos of what was supposed to have been a multi-image photo essay.
I wanted Les to talk about his past and the way photojournalism used to be. Those days are basically gone, and it's a crime that so many talented people can't find work anymore and stories aren't being told. Les has won several Picture of the Year and World Press awards among others. He has some fascinating stories to tell, so here goes.

How did you become a photographer?
By chance really, I met another student at Hampshire College on my first day--Doug Dubois, also a great photographer—and asked him what he was going to do at college. He said that he was his school's yearbook photographer, and it seemed like a good thing to do. Well, after previous years of college and screwing around--I was 20 by this time--a giant bulb lit up over my head and I thought wow, that was a great idea. I thought how easy would this be and get me through college without too much work. How wrong I was, I had a lot of catching up to do. I had never taken a picture in my life and it was extremely hard, those days to shoot film, develop and spend all night in the dark room.

The interesting thing is that my father always had cameras with him, mostly I remember the Polaroids, as he was obsessed with the Polaroid. He took thousands and thousands of photographs, which really annoyed the hell out of me when I was a kid, so this was a radical idea, but also a natural fit when I had my light bulb epiphany.

How did you choose photojournalism?

I had always looked at magazines and wondered what it was like to travel, and I looked at the picture stories and was jealous of the people who's lives were not passing them by. They were participating in history and life as it happened. Photography turned out to be many things at once for me as I soon discovered. I was an angry teenager, so photography was catharsis, therapy, and a way of expressing myself without having to resort to violence. It was my way of relating to the world around me. I soon found out I was attracted to violence and adrenaline. While other students were feeling their way through fashion, fine art and experimenting, I was out shooting anti-nuke demonstrations. Getting tear-gassed, maced, and hit with police batons was unbelievably exciting. That's what I became after all the struggle, what I like to think of as a photojournalist.

After school I came to NYC, completely unprepared for work as a photojournalist, never worked for a paper or any publication. I had no idea how to do anything--it was a rude surprise. So I went to work for a series of fashion and corporate photographers, hating every moment of it while learning a lot about the business. Three years later I had the opportunity to find a job through the New York Times of all places for a position as an assistant to the MTA photographer on Madison Ave. He gave me that opportunity and six months later he left me with his job. I was unprepared but grateful, and so for almost 4 years I worked at the MTA photographing the transit system citywide and doing handshakes and learning the corporate role, all the time dreaming of traveling to shoot news stories. In 1987 I saw a blurb in a paper about the upcoming election in Haiti. After three decades the Haitian people had thrown out the Duvalier family and now they had their chance at free and fair election. It was said that it might be very violent. This seemed like my opportunity, as Haiti was close to the U.S. and I was dying to get out of what I was doing.

I landed in Port-au-Prince the night before the election and by 6pm the next day I had seen about 50 men, women and children murdered, had my car almost shot out from under me and been scared out of my wits. This was my trial by fire and introduction to photojournalism in all its morbid glory. I was hooked. Foolishly heading toward the gunfire, I was completely enraptured. I was interviewed by a NYT reporter when I returned from a scene of a massacre, my car all shot up, and was in print the next day-- everyone read it and I felt like a star. Even though embarrassingly, after risking my life and seeing all the horror of killing, I had no pictures in my camera because of a malfunction. Devastating.

This 1989 Panama election photo won a POY Award

Two years later I went to Panama for the election of Manuel Noriega. I was still at the MTA, so I was using my vacation time. Lucky for me I met some wonderful and experienced photographers when I got there--Christopher Morris, Wesley Bocxe, PF Bentley, and others who had been covering Latin America for years. I got Reuters to agree to at least look at my film when I brought it in, figuring that if they used anything I could at least offset some of my expenses. I got lucky and photographed the presidential and vice-presidential candidates being assaulted by Noriega's paramilitaries on the streets of Panama City. Ron Haviv and I were the only ones to get this scene along with a French TV cameraman. Since the US had great interest in Panama and its election, these pictures went all over the world. They were very alarming photographs, and George HW Bush held up my photographs on the cover of the Washington Post at the next day’s press conference for everyone to see--to show why Noriega had to be stopped. Ron Haviv had the same sort of coverage in all the major magazines. We always thought that because of our photographs we were responsible for the invasion of Panama six months later--the power of photography.

Fast forward, I get a call from JP Pappas at Sygma in NYC, (a famous French agency) asking for me to ship all of my pictures from Panama to him. They sell them all over the world and I make lots of money. In the end I end up working with Sygma for the next 11 years until Corbis buys them.
When with Sygma I covered everything from US stories to the red carpet, to wars in such places as Kurdistan, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. I did everything with Sygma and I'm grateful, winning about a half dozen POY and World Press Awards.

What was your scariest assignment?

The scariest assignment I ever had was in Ethiopia, when I got chased down by about a dozen fleeing soldiers from Mengistu's palace guard who jumped off a tank and opened fire on me. I lost (slipped and dropped) all my cameras and barely escaped with my life, turning my head around at one point while running to see the lead soldier slow down, stop, bend down, pick up my cameras, fall on his knee, aim his AK-74 at me, and fire a burst, hitting the wall over my head directly in front of me. If not for dropping my cameras he would have killed me. The next day one of those cameras, with the film still in it, was returned to me from that same blown up tank found by Mohammed Amin, the famous BBC cameraman now dead.

But I have to say, for sustained fear over a long period of time, Somalia was without doubt the worst scariest place on earth, with no break ever from feeling like somebody was going to kill you.

What was the best assignment you ever had?
It's hard to say what the best assignments were, they are all different and incredible in their own ways, even just meeting people and hanging out with them. They were all incredible and I learned from all of them.

What have you done recently?
I had a grant from to photograph health care issues in Appalachia, primarily in West Virginia. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, black lung disease, etc., are some of the worst health care issues in Appalachia. Some areas of Appalachia are the poorest in the United States, akin to the Third World, with no health insurance and terrible diets and disease.

What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?
The best advice anybody ever gave me was never to go out in combat with a crazy photographer who had that thousand-yard stare, they would take too many chances and get you killed. And also, never go out with a greenhorn, because you could get killed looking after them.

What's your favorite country?

I like Vietnam as a country to travel around, love the food and the people.

Where is photojournalism going?

Photojournalism, the way it used to be accomplished is dead, I see it as a losing battle now. For so many different reasons that we all know. Some people have hope in new mediums, I don't. If you NEED to make a living as a photographer, then you’re sunk for the most part. The future of photojournalism is free--look around you. It’s false wishful thinking that it will come around again. Sorry but that's my opinion. I say good luck to all the young idealists.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

ASMP Wants Your Digital Railroad Stories

ASMP is in the process of gathering information regarding Digital Railroad and the status of any unpaid licensing fees at the time DRR terminated business. If you believe that you were owed licensing fees and have not been paid or have been partially paid, please provide that information and any documentation you might have to All information is currently for internal ASMP use only and no further use will be made without your express consent.

I've posted about this before and I hope everyone out there with a story responds to this. Once again, if companies are allowed to take advantage of photographers then no one is safe and the entire industry is threatened. Don't just accept something like this as "the cost of doing business." Stand up and join others to get to the bottom of this. Digg it Facebook MySpace Slashdot Technorati Stumbleupon Twitter

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Summer Photo Contests

I want to list a couple of upcoming, very cool photo contests. There's still time to enter, and I thoroughly encourage everyone to do so.

First up is the En Foco New Works Photography Awards Fellowship JUROR: Anne Wilkes Tucker, Curator, Museum of Fine Arts / Houston

The New Works Photography Awards Fellowship
, deadline July 31, 2009, is an annual program selecting three or more U.S. photographers of Latino, African or Asian heritage and Native peoples of the Americas and the Pacific.

New Works helps artists to create or complete an in-depth photographic series exploring themes of their choice, and provides the infrastructure needed for national visibility and a professional exhibition of their new work in the New York area.

Submissions can be in any photo-based style or genre (documentary, autobiographical, landscape, abstract, digital, pinhole, alternative processes, etc).
Three photographers will be selected from an open and national call for entries to receive a $1,000 honorarium, photo-related supplies, technical assistance, a photographer's page on, an article in Nueva Luz, an En Foco membership, and a culminating group exhibit in New York.

Next up is the 10 Best 10

WIN-Initiative is calling for entries for their open international contest, 10 BEST 10, deadline August 5, 2009. It’s free to enter, and they’re calling for up to 10 images of any kind, any genre. It is a juried competition that is looking for the very best contemporary photography. And in the interest of full disclosure, I want to mention that I am one of the five judges. I’m excited to see what photography the world has to offer.

According to the site,
“The winners of 10 BEST 10 will have their work appear in a Gala Event and Exhibition that will kick off this year's Photo Expo Week in the fall. Additionally, interviews and spreads in Resource magazine and WINk magazine (WIN's online photography magazine) will give further exposure and press attention to the winning team of photographers.”

You can check it out here . Keep watching the site as more prizes are being announced all the time, and you can look at the most recent submissions. I encourage everyone to enter, and submit his or her most interesting and unique work.

And from the great folks of the New Orleans Photo Alliance

C a l l F o r E n t r i e s : T h e S p i r i t W o r l d
Juried by Russell Joslin the sole Owner, Editor and Publisher of SHOTS Magazine
Entries must be submitted by 8.24.2009

"Where is the spirit world? It is right here. Do the good and evil spirits go together? Yes they do..." - Brigham Young

The New Orleans Photo Alliance is seeking photography-based works that explore the theme of spirits and the spiritual world during the season of Halloween and All Saints Day. Submissions may include but are not limited to: documentary, fine art, and conceptual images that depict or evoke the spiritual, supernatural and unearthly; including places, people and rituals here on earth which relate to the topic.

Selected entries will be exhibited in the New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery during the months of October and November 2009. They will also be featured and archived in the Alliance’s online gallery and considered for publication in the New Orleans Photo Alliance Best of 2009 Photo Annual. In addition, the juror will award cash prizes.

Deadline for submissions: Monday, August 24, 2009, 12:00 midnight
Notification of acceptance: Monday, August 31, 2009
Deadline for receiving accepted works: Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Opening Reception: Thursday, October 1, 2009, 6-9pm
Exhibition dates: October 1, 2009 - November 22, 2009.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Plastic Water Bottles Really Annoy Me

I recently received an email from the amazing still life photographer James Worrell who made a great little film about plastic water bottles. I have always loved his still life work, so I asked him about his career, and he was gracious enough to respond.
How did you become a photographer?
I have been a photograper for as long as I can remember, since that first instamatic as a kid to the used Watson Press Camera in college. It was when I was living in LA about to start my MFA program at CalArts that I became a commercial photographer. Faced with well over 50 grand in loans I dropped out and started assisting two great photographers in LA and found my calling.

Whose work inspires you (past or present)?
Sugimoto, John Baldasari, Joel Peter Witkin, Vic Muniz, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Craig Cutler, Carlton Davis, Robert Tardio, Christopher Griffith

What brought you to still life?

I had always been attracted to objects and to arranging of objects. In undergrad my work took many elements and contructed them into a single object, usually a group of photographs to be viewed as one image. I assisted pros for about 3 years in my early 20s and of course, we all wanted to be fashion photographers. But I took an immediate liking to the still lifers, less people involved and less attitude. The technical side
of commercial still life really complimented my fine art background and after about 6 months of assisting I knew I would be a still life photographer.

Your work is so clean and your colors so strong. How did your style evolve?
When I started shooting in the early 90s I became obsessed with clean, simple still life. At the time it seemed to me that everything was over lit and over fussed. It was in the days of shooting chrome and getting a clean shot, especially on white, was and is trickier than one might think. I started using color as a natural way to add something to the photos without adding more stuff. This in turn became a bit of obsession with color, monochromatic color schemes in particular. My style is always evolving but always seems to have a bit of those first years mixed in.

What's the best advice anyone has ever given you?
I had been assisting for a few years and was getting burned out, I really wasn't a great assistant anymore but was caught in that classic Catch-22 of not having any money
but needing money to start my own business, etc. One of my regular gigs was assisting Carlton Davis, he sat me down one day and said James, it's time. You need to go out on your own and you need to do it now. If you wait too much longer you will get stuck as a full time assistant. I will continue to hire you as an assistant when I can but it's time.
He kicked me out of the nest in such a gentle, encouraging way, I will never forget it. It was terrifying, it was some of the best advice I have ever gotten.

What made you do the water film? Was it your first?
I have been a fan of stop action and fast cut video for years. With the economy in the tank and the rise of the internet it seemed a perfect time to experiment with new ways of using photography. How are we going to stand out in the crowd in this economy? The regular forms of promotion are not working and nobody has any money. So I have begun experimenting with unconventional promotions and it has been a blast. I started last year by doing a poster, something everyone tells you not to do. Then I began self publishing my own "magazine" on a really great way to make a substantial promo for a reasonable amount of money. I have made magnets, bookmarks, greeting cards and have just published a blurb book. The stop action video is one idea I have been bouncing around for a while and has turned out to be the most rewarding of the things I have tried this year.

What was your aim?
I began it purely as a promotional vehicle, to show what I can do, but I am an environmentalist and a music lover so I just did something I wanted to do. Plastic water bottles really annoy me.

How hard/easy was it? How have you promoted it?

it wasn't that hard but video editing is time consuming. The 1 minute 17 second film took me 3 days to storyboard, shoot and edit. I have promoted it on line via email to my existing clients and friends, to hopeful clients and to other cool blogs. It's on YouTube, my website, various blogs, etc.

Are you going to do more?

Yes, I had so much fun with this one I am already working on a new one.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Whose Photos Are These?

I wanted to write about the phenomenon of social media distributing news we can’t get anywhere else. By that I mean the way YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter were used to see exactly what was happening in Iran a couple of weeks ago, and most recently, the way Twitter photos of the riots in Xinjiang, China turned up on the front page of Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper.

We live in amazing times, when even the most repressive regime cannot keep news from getting out to the rest of the world (although North Korea may be the single exception to this). The idea that government brutality can be exposed to the world thrills me, and allows me to support people half way across the globe. If everything can be exposed, then governments will have to change the way they do business.

One thing that peaks my interest is the way Western media has appropriated these images. I understand that when people in Iran uploaded their cellphone videos to YouTube they were looking for the broadest exposure possible. And when people sent photos to CNN they were calling for the world to be witness to what they were doing. But I can’t help but be angry when large media outlets (CNN, Reuters, etc.) use these calls from out of the darkness as a way to make more money for them.

I want to know how Reuters took ownership of those photos from China that they sold to the Canadian newspaper. I’ve put in a request for information from Reuters, and if they respond I’ll add it to this post. I hope they do, especially since they recently put their Handbook of Journalism online.

I’m not accusing Reuters of misappropriation, but I wonder exactly how the mainstream media is addressing this new phenomenon. It’s hard enough for traditional media to figure out how to use information when it cannot be independently confirmed, (I’d love to know how that’s being addressed), but since these avenues for information are so immediate and so fast paced are they just allowed to take them as their own?

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

I'm Holding A Contest

I’ve been thinking about magazines lately since I can’t pass a newsstand without scoping out the covers. Now I don’t buy magazines like I used to (no more expense account), but I’m always looking to see if something catches my eye and hooks me.

Magazines pretty much tell the same story over and over again: a feature on a business owner, a designer, someone who did something newsworthy; or maybe it’s about how I can lose 20 pounds in an hour and a half; maybe the best clothes, hair, makeup, life I can buy from the starlet of the moment—it doesn’t matter, it never really changes. Maybe that’s why magazines are failing—nothing they offer is new.

It got me wondering how a photographer approaches shooting something that we’ve all seen over and over. The best photographers renew the genre, offering some extra insight in their image that makes it stand out. The journeymen just make it look good.

I want to challenge whoever is reading this blog post to enter into a little contest I’m proposing. Find someone with an interesting story to tell and shoot him or her as if you’re on assignment. Imagine you’re shooting for a cover story. There are no limits, I’m curious to see what shows up. Here’s the challenge: Can you make a compelling portrait that tells me all about this person without any words to tell me who they are?

Send entries to The limit is 3 images per person and the deadline is August 1. I’ll be publishing and commenting on what I like. There is no ultimate prize, except a chance for you to challenge yourself to do something creative.

I hope you all take me up on this. Digg it Facebook MySpace Slashdot Technorati Stumbleupon Twitter