Stephen Shames – Documentary Photographer


– Hello and welcome to
the I3 lecture series hosted by the Masters in
Digital Photography department at the School of Visual Arts. We are thrilled to welcome
distinguished photographer, Stephen Shames as tonight’s guest speaker. Stephen creates photo
essays on social issues for foundations, advocacy organizations, the media, and museums. He is represented by Steven Kasher Gallery and by Polaris Images. Stephen is the author of eight monographs. Bronx Boys, University of Texas Press, Outside the Dream, Pursuing the Dream, The Black Panther all by Aperture, Bronx Boys E-book photo evidence, Facing Race Moravian
College, Transforming Lives, Starbright Books, and Free
to Grow Columbia University. His up coming ninth
monograph will be published by Abrams in the fall of 2016. It an updated Black Panther
photo and oral history, co-author with Bobby Seale. Stephen was named the
Purpose Price Fellow in 2010 for his work with AIDS orphans,
and former child soldiers. He received the Kodak Crystal Eagle Award for impact in photo
journalism for his book, Outside the Dream. If you’ve ever wondered what it means to pursue a documentary
project for 20 plus years, tonight is the chance to find out. So please help me welcome Stephen Shames to our lecture series. (applause) – Thank you everyone for showing up. Yeah, I’m gonna show a bunch of pictures from a number of projects. And really, what I do is long, long,
long term projects. The shortest, I’ve done assignments and regular things for magazines like everybody else. But most of my projects, I think the least amount of time I ever spent
on a long term project was maybe six months. And the longest, which Bronx
Boys spanned two decades, was over 20 years. And I think that’s really important. If you’re going to do
a long term photo essay you really need to take time. Because it really takes a long time to really get involved in a community, to get involved in people’s
lives and to watch, watch people change over time. And you can’t really do
that in two or three days or a week. Because you don’t,
sometimes especially if it’s more foreign to you, if
it’s in a foreign country or it’s culture you really,
that isn’t your own culture, it can take three or
four weeks or even longer to really figure out what’s going on. So the first thing that’s really important is to take a long time. The second thing is research. When I do a project, I really research it. I read. If I’m going into a different country or a different culture that isn’t my own, I don’t just read journalistic things, I read novels, I listen to music. I’ll read poetry. I’ll watch movies. For instance, if I was gonna go to India, I would want to listen to Indian music. I would even go to Indian restaurants. Just anything that kind
of gets you into the mood, that gets you feeling
close to what’s going on. The idea is to try and
understand and look through it through their eyes. To get out of your own culture. All of us live in a
little bubble of culture. And most people aren’t
able to see beyond that. And so people, and that actually causes a lot
of the problems in the world. A lot of the things
America does in the world is because we have a certain set of values and we’ll go over the Middle East and say, well everyone should be doing this. And they’re going like, are you crazy? We don’t wanna do that. We wanna do this. And so we don’t get it. And I’m not judging whether they’re right or we’re right. Sometimes we’re right and
sometimes they’re right, but that isn’t the point. The point is that you have
to try and get outside of your bubble of your culture. And the blinders that
you have and the things that you’ve grown up with. The social values, the religious
values, the other values. It isn’t to say that your values are bad. It’s just to say if you’re
going to be a good journalist and a good photographer
and you’re walking into someone else’s place, you gotta leave this behind and try and get into their bubble. And try and understand it. And if you can do that,
you’ll take better pictures. So that’s the second thing. And so research is really,
really, really important. When I did the Outside the Dream project, I researched it for months. I sipped on, and I’ll
make outlines of what I’m gonna do. And frankly, when I get out and shoot, I throw the outlines away
because I don’t wanna be rigid. I wanna just see what I see. But I make these outlines. I’m doing child poverty in America. What are the components? Well homelessness is one component. So where are there more homeless people? Well it turns out there’s
more homeless people in Los Angeles area than any
place else in the country. So boom, that’s where I
went to do that component. Then once I got there,
you do more research. You talk to people. But the second thing
that’s really important is to find a guide. In foreign countries
that call them fixers, but I call them guides. To find somebody who can take you around. Some cases protect you if it’s dangerous and then some could been
in other cases just to introduce you to people. The guide can be for instance
a social service person. When I went out to do
homeless, I hooked up with Catholic Social Service,
Lutheran Social Services. And they would take me
around and introduce me to their clients. One of the ways I met
homeless people was to go to food shelters where people
were going to get food. Then you just sit and you have a meal and you talk to people. Well can I document your family? And some people said
yes, some people said no. But the guide gets you in there. The third thing and then I really will start showing you some pictures. The third thing is to just be there, to embed yourself. To just listen and observe and just spend time and that’s
where the time comes in. Just a lot of photography is like fishing. You know? It’s just sitting there and sitting there and sitting there and sitting there and then boom, there’s a picture. You know? When you’re doing documentary photography you don’t know when
that moment’s gonna be. So I’m gonna actually start
with the first project I ever did and I like this picture because to me it’s kind
of the picture of America. America’s still run by a
bunch of dead white people and so this picture, that’s a joke. Anyway. Nothing, one of the things
that’s really disconcerting, next year besides being
the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party which was the first project I did. I was a photographer for
the Black Panther Party because of the relationship I made with Bobby Seale who
was like a father figure. Bobby Seale was the chairman
of the Black Panther Party. And one of the two
founders, he and Huey Newton founded the party. And I started when I was
a student at Berkeley. So I was actually 20 years old. I was actually the age of maybe even younger than some of you. And I had been a photographer for, when I took my first
picture of the Panthers I think I had been a photographer
three or four months. I just picked up a camera,
I was really learning. And I learned fast I guess. I had to learn fast because
a lot of stuff was going on. And one of the things,
you know, the Panthers, were a political movement. One of things that,
what I was gonna say is disconcerting is that of
the issues, all the issues that the Panthers formed themselves around which was police brutality,
housing, economics, racial issues, education, the justice system. The only one that’s really changed at all is that there are now more
black and minority officials including the president
of the United States. Back in 1968 Bobby Seale
told me there were 50 black elected officials on all levels. From the school board to the
US Senate in the whole country. And now there are thousands. So that’s one area that’s changed. Education has changed a
little bit in the sense that there are now black studies
departments in university. Actually at Berkeley, when
I was a student at Berkeley and at San Francisco
state were actually the first two strikes to
establish the first black and ethnics study department
and the United States. And we actually had a strike
for a whole year at Berkeley. The campus was shut down. The police came in and beat everybody up. And it was like really, really violent. Anyway the Panthers really taught me, got me into the community. And I’m starting this off showing you, these are kind of, these first few images are kind of the images
you’ve probably seen. That’s Bobby Seale who is a
really charismatic speaker. These images are kind of the media images of the Panthers. And what you’re gonna
see is Cathleen Cleaver. One of the leaders. These are at free Huey rallies. But what you’re gonna see
as we move along is that a different image of
the Panthers than what the media portrayed. Because I really spent seven
years with the Panthers ending in Bobby Seale’s election campaign. That’s Eldredge Cleaver. As you can see I was really right there, I could be right next to them. And getting access is
really, really important. And you’ve gotta kind of,
sometimes think on your feet to get access. For example, tell ya, I
don’t have a picture of it, but Martin Luther King
came to speak at Berkeley. And there was a giant crowd
and I didn’t have a press pass. I was a student. I was like a sophomore or junior. At any rate, I’m in the men’s room before the speech and
I just over the side, you know guys who are in the men’s room you don’t really look, but
you have peripheral vision. And who’s next to me
but Martin Luther King. So I’m like, wow this
is Martin Luther King. So we both finished,
we’re washing our hands and he starts talking to me
and suddenly it dawns on me, you know we had a
conversation, we’re walking. I thought, if I keep talking
to him, I’m gonna be able to get right up to the speaker’s platform. So we were just talking,
of course he’s walking and the crowd’s parting for
him and I’m talking to him so no one’s saying do you have a press, who are you? We’ve been waiting here two
hours to hear this guy speak, I’m not letting you come in. I’m talking to Martin Luther King. They figured I’m a friend of his. We walk all the way out
and I sat at his feet. So you really, you know, the
idea is to think on your feet and really get access. Now what happened with the
Panthers is that Bobby Seale liked me, we formed a relationship and they were very media conscious
and they wanted pictures. And so I was working for
the underground press, also the associated press. That’s kind of how I paid
my way through school. It was just constant turmoil. I was just selling pictures
to AP and then later News Week, New York
Times, Washington Post. I was stringer for all those papers because of all the demonstrations and stuff that was going on. This is Huey Newton by the way. Now I talked about the
part of the Panthers you don’t really see. The first pictures are the
images and that picture of the Panthers on
parade is my most widely published Panther picture. I mean, that’s the
picture everybody wants. That’s actually even at the Smithsonian. They just bought that picture. It’s in a permanent exhibit in
the African American Museum. But this is also the Panthers. The breakfast program. And really, I mean look at the intensity. Look at the kids. Look at what’s going on. This is the part that
people don’t realize. The Panthers had a 95% positive rating in the black community. And although J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI in the Nixon Administration
assassinated them and said all kinds of lies,
they actually were feeding, I think at the end it was
like 10 or 20,000 kids and not just black kids as
you can see from the pictures. Anyone who needed to
be fed, they fed them. Then they had a food program
where they’d give away bags of food and they used
that for voter registration. They had a clothing program. Medical program, sickle cell anemia. The Panthers were, nobody was testing for sickle cell anemia
before the Panthers. The Panthers really popularized
that disease which, why? That affects the black community. So the medical establishment
wasn’t that interested. And we know that when AIDS
came in we had the same issue. The medical establishment
didn’t deal with AIDS until some actors got it. It took, just in America
sometimes you have to blast your way into consciousness. And the Panthers were able to do that. These are the Panther kids. They set up a school. And this school became a charter school, one of the first charter schools. Actually got an award from the
California State Legislature, it was such a good school. Now I mentioned trying to get beneath. How many of you, this is
a rhetorical question. You don’t need to answer, but how often do you see an image like that
of black males in the media? Can anyone actually remember
a picture from the last two years that’s seen
any place in the media of a nurturing black male? – [Woman] Father project. – Yeah, no people do it. Photographers do it. But I’m talking about the mass media. I know people do it. But you know, what do you see? You see drug dealers. You see rappers. You see all kinds of things. The media doesn’t show this. And so to me it’s very important when I’m photographing in a community really show the things that aren’t shown. Also women in the Panthers. The average age of the
Panthers was 19 years and the majority of the
Panthers were women. People don’t realize that. Political education class. Anyway. And again something like this. This is a Panther out in the community just talking to people. Now I was able to get this
because I just embedded myself. I was with them. I went to 10 different cities. I actually was supposed
to do a book in 1970 with Huey Newton was the author and he was gonna do a book with me. And Spiro Agnew was the
vice president under Nixon. I know about things
most of you, before most of you people were born, but anyways. Spiro Agnew golfed with the chairman of the publishing company and he said, we don’t want this book to come out. How did they even know
that there was a book? They were spying, right? Anyway the editor got fired. The editor who signed the book. I had a letter of intent
and they just refused to do the book. That was when Nixon was riding high, before he was impeached. There’s Huey and Bobby, the
two founders of the party. And then this sort of thing. I mean, these aren’t
great photos as photos, but they’re really nice. It shows different side of Huey and Bobby. They really were funny. They joked around with each other. You don’t see stuff like this in the media that often. It’s Ericka Huggins. That’s David Hilliard with his wife. This is George Jackson who was killed. And this is the funeral
for George Jackson. This is inside the Panther office. Again, something that I had access to. I guess I was crazy then. There was a rumor the Panthers were gonna, the police were gonna raid the office and I actually spent, they didn’t raid it which I’m glad of because I spent the night in the office. I was crazy. I thought I was gonna get
a picture of the police coming in and 10 years later
when I was thinking about, I said, are you insane? You would have gotten shot. But luckily, they didn’t come in. That’s Bobby Seale, rallies. And then Bobby Seale ran
for mayor and I was on his campaign team and I
was with him every day when he was campaigning. He actually came in
second and paved the way for Lionel Wilson became
mayor four years later and Ron Dellums who became chairman of the Armed Services
Committee in the ’90s, became congressman from that district. And he was very, very
close to the Panthers. Now this project, I started in 1984. Outside the Dream,
child poverty in America became a book published by Aperture. And this I did a lot of research. I read through all these very, very boring government statistics and books that the government puts out. How many kids are poor and who’s eating and who’s not eating and all these things that they put out that
they don’t really act on, but they put them out. And so I applied for and got a grant, Alicia Patterson Foundation grant and I bought a car and I
started out in California and just spent the whole
year driving across the country really living. So I had some grant money,
but then I lived with people I was photographing. For two reasons. One is that saved me a lot of money. I would buy food, so I
kind of helped the people I was living with by buying
food because I had to eat, but I always buy food. But then people felt good about that. But also because that’s the
way to really get close. Things don’t happen nine to five. So if you’re photographing families, especially families that are under stress, something may happen at six in the morning or three at night and if you’re not there, and if you leave and come back at nine, it takes time to get
people used to you again. So I just found the best thing is to just move in with people. And you just had to, people
are willing to do that and to let you move in. I think the thing is, if
they feel that you’re honest and that you’re doing an
honest portrayal of them and you’re not looking down on them and making fun of them. And I also tell people,
look I’m gonna be here. If it gets to be too
much or you don’t want me to photograph something
just tell me and I’ll leave because people, you know what I’m saying? You have to leave people some dignity. You can’t just be trying to grab, I call it the photographers,
kind of hiding behind trees with telephotos trying
to, you know what I mean. Those kind of photographers. No, if you’re staying with
people and you’re taking pictures, you’re in their living room, you have to give them the option to say, you know what, it’s a little too much. 99% of the time, nobody
ever says anything. But once in a while somebody does and you have to respect that. You’re in their, you’re in their world. This picture was out in California and I bought a tent. I had the car and I bought a tent and went and camped with the people. There were all these people
living out on the beach in a state park. And some of them were in
campers and some were in tents. And this was a family,
the two teenage boys slept in the car. So I just told them, just
leave the car unlocked and I’m going to come by in the morning. I told them I was coming by in the morning before they woke up so
that I wouldn’t scare them. And they left the door
unlocked and I opened the door and took at picture which
to me became kind of an iconic picture of. This was in Cincinnati. Again, you know, when
you structure the things, I structured the poverty
book around kids’ lives. Play, school, family. The big issues haven’t changed
since prehistoric times. Nothing’s really, really changed. Family, the people had tribes
when they were cavemen. And we still have tribes. Maybe we call them ethnic
groups or whatever, but people are still tribal. And in fact, getting out of our, in fact America right
now the biggest issue in the presidential debate is immigration. But what that’s really about
is tribalism, isn’t it? There are white tribes
who came here and took this continent away from the Indians and now we don’t want
the other, some of us don’t want the other people to come here. And when our ancestors came
here from Eastern Europe the people were here
before, they didn’t like us. But it’s really, if you look
at it, it’s really tribal. That’s the big issue that’s in Europe and the United States right now. But if you go back to caveman
times, what was the issue? It was tribalism. Which makes people feel safe, but also in this day and age we
have to get beyond it. So people, so this some souther whites
and poor whites in Cincinnati and obviously poor kids,
a lot of poor kids, especially poor kids
whose parents are working are unsupervised so they do a lot of stupid things like smoke. Kid told me the gun was
unloaded, but he took it to school to protect himself. He said he took it to school to protect himself from the gangs,
but actually if you can see the way they’re dressed,
I never argue with people when they tell you what they’re doing. You’re a journalist, you
just listen to people. But that kid on the right, he’s dressed, he was in a gang even
though he told me he wasn’t. It was obvious, that’s
how the gang members in Los Angeles dressed
with the shirt like that. But they, these kids were nice kids and their parents, this is a little story actually did it is part of the project, I did it for Stern Magazine. I was there with a reporter. And their parents, it was so American. Both their parents worked
at Disneyland as domestics and both their parents were undocumented, but the kids were born here so the kids were American citizens. And I just thought, well
great they’re working at Disneyland, fantasy land,
all America Disneyland. And here are the kids and they’re, the parents came here
to make a better life, but unfortunately the
kids weren’t going to necessarily have a better life here because they got sucked into the gangs and the because of the neighborhood. So that became that story. Family violence was
another thing I documented. And here was family, I
mean these two fought for like three hours. And again, it’s good to have a focus. My focus is always on the children. How does this affect the children? I actually, sometimes I keep in touch. That little girl actually
called me like 20 years, 20, 25 years later. She became a social worker
and she was working in Boston and she called me up and her mom, I think her dad had, I’m
trying to remember the story. I’m getting old. I’m gonna be 70 pretty soon so my mind is going, but anyway. I know her mother died and I think her dad at some point killed her mom. You know, later. They got apart and got back together and she didn’t have a picture of her mom so she tracked me down, called me. I didn’t send her this picture, but I had some nice pictures of her mom so I sent her some pictures of her mom. And one of the things when you spend a lot of time with people, sometimes
they’ll call you later or you can keep contact with them. But anyway, teenage pregnancy. Again, violence. You’ll see there’s a lot of violence in the things that I document. Drugs. And again, it’s not what you, what you always think. I mean here this little kid. They’re doing the drugs
and this 11 year old little kid is just sitting there. When you look at TV there’s this whole other image of drug dealers. They always have their
guns out and this and that, but it isn’t like that. I asked the boy on the left why he helped his friend shoot up and he said, he’s gonna do it anyway and at least if I do it for him, he’s not gonna die. I can make sure that he doesn’t OD. And that was what he felt. And actually we were talking early, I mean talking earlier
there’s a picture I have of a kid jumping between two buildings he asked me about it. One of the things you learn
when you’re doing things is to have a little humility. The road to hell is paved
with good intentions is an expression. And again as we see in
American foreign policy, America always has good
intentions and we intervene all over the world and it often turns out more often than half the time,
it turns out really badly. And not what we thing it’s gonna be. And it’s the same with pictures. If you’re gonna be a photographer, you gotta realize that your pictures have to do the talking
and if you wanna save kids maybe you should try
being a social worker. Not that social workers
always are that successful. If you’re gonna be a
photographer, you’ve gotta realize that what you’re doing
is that your pictures are gonna talk to thousands
if not millions of people and that maybe through
your pictures you can get people to act. And that sometimes happens. Sometimes it doesn’t, but often it does. I could’ve talked to this
kid and maybe got him not to shoot up for a couple
of days, but who knows? Two days later he probably
would have done it again. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t have had
the picture to show people. So I think if you’re gonna
do these sort of topics, you’ve just gotta realize
that there’s a lot of stuff going on in the world. It’s been going on before you were born. It’s gonna go on after all of us are dead. And it’s gonna continue. If you read history in the 1400s the same things were happening. In 500 BC the same things here happening. In the year 3000 the same
things are gonna be happening. And that’s, unfortunately, that’s life. Things get a little better
and then they get worse and that’s just the way things are. I did, part of the project
was to look at kids getting locked up. Kids in jail. The conditions. Housing. This is one of the housing, the infamous housing projects in Chicago. I think this one’s gotten torn down since. This was actually and
sometimes you just take a picture that’s just nice
light and I don’t know what it means, but this was
a family living in Brooklyn in one of the homeless hotels. When was it, in the ’80s. In the mid ’80s there were
all these homeless hotels in New York in Times Square and Brooklyn that the city was paying
like $3,000 a month to hotel owners to house homeless people. Complete waste of money. They should have given the money to people and let them buy a house. They’re spending $36,000 a year. They could have bought
a nice house some place for the homeless family. But we didn’t, you know we just enriched a bunch of slum landlords. This was along the border in US and Mexico on the US side, families
living without water. Again, some of the poorest
neighbor, besides the Bronx. A couple places in the
Bronx which are the poorest. Mississippi and right along
the Texas/Mexican border, are the poorest areas
in the United States. This was again in the hotel. As I said, I’m always trying
to show what people don’t see. This kid just looked
after his little sister in this homeless hotel. I did a project, this was like a, I think I did this over a couple years, but I spent five months
total riding with the police. Really on homicide
youth violence at a time in the ’90s when there was
a spike in the homicide rate and I really wanted to do a story on that. This was in New York coming
up from Times Square. But that picture is in
Houston and that’s a Houston police detective on the right. And I rode with them. I had a beeper, we didn’t
have cell phones back then, but I had a beeper and I
rode with the police all day. And then at night if there was a homicide they would beep me and I would meet them. And then I spent some time
riding with the ambulances. You gotta get clearances. I got clearance from the main hospital that I could just go in and out. I went and talked to the PR people and told them ahead of time. I did it for Texas Monthly
so that really helped because that’s a big magazine in Texas and everyone knew them. And that gave us credibility. So the police gave me
permission to ride with them and the ambulance which
was the fire department. And then the main hospital. So I could just walk in
and, walk in and out. That was at a funeral. Again, talk to people. So I went there early. The night before, I went to the family and I explained what I wanted to do and the project that I
was doing and could I come to the funeral and they agreed. And I explained to them that it might be necessary to
take pictures like this to get the other side and
they agreed, they understood. And then I went the morning
before, I went a couple hours early and I talked to
the pastor of the church. You can’t just show up. You have to really cover your bases. And the reason I went the night before is obviously the family,
I wasn’t gonna bother the family during the day,
but I went the night before and paid my respects and sat
down and had a talk with them and really asked their permission. You can’t just walk in
to somebody’s funeral. But they understood that
it was really important to let people know that all
these kids were getting shot. And people will, if people
understand what you’re doing and you explain what you’re
doing, most people will agree because even families
that are really upset because their child’s dead it’s like, well I don’t want my
kid, at least he won’t have died in vein. Maybe we’re gonna save
some other kid or whatever. But it’s, you don’t need to overplay it. You just need to be honest. Look I’m trying to just let
people know what’s going on and I need to take some
pictures and I understand maybe, it’s not gonna be pleasant,
but also since the family and the pastor know when I showed up some of the people in
the congregation started to get really angry at
me because I got behind and took the picture. And the family and the
pastor just went over to them and told them to shut up. And then the people shut up because they, oh you gave him permission,
well that’s okay then. Again, I got the call, I went in. This kid was an innocent bystander, but he just got hit with a shotgun blast that was meant for the person
who was standing next to him. And he came in and
sometimes you have these moments, you’re taking
pictures, but you also gotta talk to people. So at one point, the
emergency room’s like crazy. They’re all in there dealing with him. They stabilize him. Everybody leaves and this
kid’s just sitting there and I’m there with him and he turns to me and he grabs my hand,
he’s holding my hand. He says, am I gonna die? And I said no. I didn’t know, but what are you gonna say? I didn’t know if he was gonna die or not but whatever. I said, no you’re not gonna die. Everything’s gonna be
okay and we stood there and he talked to me. And I went by and visited him the next day and again when I walked in, his family, some of his uncles, they saw
my cameras and they were like, I won’t repeat the language they used, but they were kind of angry. And the kid went, no, no he’s okay. And then so I went and
talked to the family. So it’s really important to
establish rapport with people because you’re in all these situations and if you’re established
rapport with the main people, then they’ll talk to the other people who might not understand
what you’re doing. There’s a policeman. Again, he didn’t want to be next to her. Just kind of relationships. Then after Outside the Dream I had this idea which
became a project that I did for the Ford Foundation. On solutions. So it’s basically community solutions to children in poverty. This was the biggest project I ever did. It had a budget of $400,000. I mean, we raised. It was really amazing. I got the Kodak Crystal Legal Eagle Award which he talked about so I was down at National Geographic for the ceremony. And there was someone from
the Ford Foundation there. Came up to me after
the talk and they said, oh what are you working on now? I said, well I’m thinking of doing this project on solutions. And the guy went, he’s
a program officer there. He said, oh wow we’ve just
been talking about that. And I said, really? He said, yeah why don’t you
come by and talk to us about it. So that started a year of
conversations with them. And I mean my end, the
proposal that I finally put in to put this giant grant was like 80 pages. I had to rewrite it like 10 times and it had a lot of documentation. And I worked with the
community organization. Family resource coalition,
it was called back then. It became Family Support America. I worked with them to write the proposal. So it’s really important to find partners and to find people who can help you. And if you’re gonna do
a project like this, I learned that from Ken Light who’s a wonderful photographer. I don’t know if you know Ken, but anyway he’s a professor now at UC Berkeley. The graduate school of journalism. But he’s done a ton of books. And he always, he’s the
one who taught me to, you wanna do a project on social issues, find an organization who
wants to document that issue and work with them and let
them use your pictures. And let them, they’ll help
you with the research. Put in the grant together. The grant I put in for the Ford Foundation wasn’t a photography grant. It was actually a poverty grant. They were actually doing
it to do a campaign. And actually we had some success. They actually, there was another grant. They actually, after the
book and the exhibit, they actually put together a
program, another foundation put together a program,
a $10 million program in 10 states to improve services
to children and families. And the used the pictures
as a way to illustrate something to policy makers
that was very boring. How do you talk to people about improving services to family? I don’t know if you’ve
ever read any of these reports that people do on social services, government reports. If you’re having trouble
sleeping at night, get one of those reports and read it. It’ll put you to sleep. So the pictures can make it interesting. Anyway, so we went back and forth and back and forth and finally, the defining moment is I
came in with a grant proposal for $100,000 to Ford. And Bob Curvin who was the
project officer said to me, I don’t know that we can fund that. My heart dropped. He said, we need to make sure that you can actually finish the project. If we give you this money,
how are you gonna get money to finish the project? So I started, I was like
oh god, he’s rejecting me. Then I said, wait what’s he really saying? So I turned to him and I say, what you’re really saying to me is I’m not asking for enough money. He said, yeah. I said, I can live with that. So I went back and gave
them a grant for $400,000 and they approved it. So that was the luckiest thing of my life. This was a program,
Friends to the Children, which actually targeted in kindergarten the most abused and neglected
children in Portland, Oregon. And then they stayed with
them through high school. They gave them uncle or an
aunt who they called a friend. Really the idea of an extended family. What used to be in America 100 years ago, but doesn’t really exist so much anymore. Where people had aunts
and uncles who kept them in line and really mentored
them and helped them. And so they give these kids, these are the kids who social services would run in at three in the morning and take them out of the family. And they really sat with
them, and that first kid, this one ended up going to college. But when we first, he
was a tough little kid. When I met him, his mentor
Zack was an incredible guy. But when I met this kid
he was in second grade. He was so tough and his dad was in prison. His mom was on welfare
and he was hanging out with the drug dealers in second grade. And Zack actually went to the
drug dealers and told them, when this kid comes, send him home. And they did because they respected Zack. And again, people have
this image of drug dealers but they’re just people
who live in the community and they realized that
this kid had a chance so they left him alone. This was a program where
they hired kids to, gave them money to paint over graffiti. The Girls Inc. Which has helped girls in math and science as a way of, it was as a way of helping
them but also an approach to keeping girls from getting pregnant and getting in trouble, really. Helping them do really well in school. This is a school in San
Diego where they had all these parents from Ethiopia, Somalia, Korea, China, all over the place. They had, I think, 20. It’s like some of the schools in Queens. They just had parents
speaking 20 or 30 languages. Lastly, we’re almost running out of time, but I’ll go through this fast. We did Bronx Boys. I spent 20 years on Bronx Boys. That kid in the white shirt is Martin. And he wrote the text for the book. This book has a lot of text. The text is like 30 or
40 pages in the book and it’s really his story. Growing up, his mom was addicted to crack. He didn’t know his dad. He was out in the street. He’s now, he’s become a success story. He’s now a vice president. He’s actually a regional president of a national food company
making six figures, a bonus. He’s about to buy a big
house down in Florida. His kids are going to college. Really an incredible, incredible young man. And he tells his story in the book. And that’s really important. I really wanted this
book, not just to be my view of the Bronx, but I really wanted someone from the Bronx
and actually Poncho, who’s, I’ll show you his
picture in a minute too, wrote a little text in the book too. But I really wanted their voice to be, to be in the book. And sometimes in this
case, they didn’t actually help me lay out the
book, but they actually looked at the pictures and
commented on the pictures and had some say in what pictures I use. I often bring pictures back to the people and give people pictures. That’s really a good way to build rapport, is to bring them back pictures. Here’s some pictures of your family. People love that. And actually, so many people in the Bronx, they still have my pictures
in their family albums. They’ll talk to me. And they really try and
show in rich neighborhoods they have basketball courts. Well here, the fire escape
becomes the basketball court. Just kids. When you first go into a neighborhood, he’s kind of half smiling,
do I trust this guy? But then he’s giving
me another message too. So you sometimes get mixed messages. And just the daily life. What’s going on. That’s a toy gun by the way. That was his kid’s, that was his son. That was his. This was the first day. And sometimes you just
gotta take a chance. I was there and this motorcycle
gang was out on the street and they said, do you
wanna get a great picture? Come into our headquarters. And I figure well either
they’re gonna beat me up and grab my camera or I’m
gonna get a great picture. But I realized that if I didn’t go in, they actually would beat me up. So if I went in at least
they would trust me. Now if you’re out in someone else’s turf and you show them you don’t trust them, they can get angry. So I went in, but they
were really friendly. And the guy, this is hi girlfriend and he says, here take the picture. Again, they were just teenagers. That’s Poncho on the left. You’ll see another picture of him. But they’re just teenagers
doing what teenagers do all over the world. That’s Poncho with his girlfriend. And then that’s, Wigi,
that’s my Wigi picture. Wigi had a famous picture in the, when I say nothing ever changes. There’s pictures from the ’50s,
I think it’s from the ’50s, the wigi picture. Maybe it’s from the late ’40s of a family out on the fire escape in New York. And here it’s still going on. Some kids were living in
an abandoned building. And these kids were resourceful. They actually went to the utility pole and pulled the electricity
into the apartment and so they had electricity
and everything in there. Drugs. Again, guy’s selling drugs out in the street. Everyone’s just hanging out. That’s a gun someone stole from, actually these kids. Some drug dealer took
this or his cousin took it from an army base. That was originally a US army gun. They smuggled it off an army base. But then the kid stole it from this guy who was a drug dealer,
but they ended up having to give it back. There’s Poncho again on the right. And baseball, the all American game. But in the Bronx you can make a statement about poverty and baseball
and the whole thing all in one picture. So we’re and there’s Martin again. So some pictures like this
could have taken any place. And that’s what I like to do. If you’re gonna photograph a community, you really, you want to show everything and it’s really important to try and get beyond stereotypes if you can. The media loves stereotypes. But as photographers,
especially in personal projects the idea is to get behind it. Now I’m just gonna quickly
show you some other projects. I did a project on multi-racial. This is what Moravian College published and these are multi-racial Americans. I wanted to make a statement on race, but I didn’t wanna just do black and white which is what most people
do because America’s becoming a multi-racial country. And I really wanted to just
show this and I thought well what could be a nicer
way to visualize this. And what I actually did in the book is we actually put all their
ethnicities as the caption. So some of the pictures will have, I think the most is somebody
had 10 different ethnicities. Some people just had two. But it was, race, as you all know, race is a myth. There’s no such thing as race. Race is not scientific at all. But ethnicity and culture is real. And so what I did is focused
on culture and ethnicity and let people self define. So some people said, I’m American Indian or
some people would give their specific tribe. Some people would be very
specific and some people would just say, I’m African. I think you all know who this guy is. Doesn’t he look young. That was when he was campaigning. You may know that golfer. It’s Tiger Woods. That’s Miss Universe. So I got some, this also
became as I got into it I realized this became a US history thing. So two descendens of presidents. Emily who’s back there is the fifth great-great granddaughter of
President Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Heming. And then this little kid is a descendant of President Franklin Pierce. Sometimes you get into stereotypes. Asians playing instruments
is kind of a stereotype. And the guy got out the thing
and I asked him about it. He said, I know it’s a stereotype but that’s what I wanna do so that’s fine. Sometimes, I mean just because
something’s a stereotype doesn’t mean it isn’t true. If someone’s a high achiever
and they like music, you know what I’m saying? There’s a, it’s just to be aware if it’s a stereotype but that doesn’t mean you
have to shy away from it. I don’t need to be politically correct. What’s important to me
is that the people feel comfortable with the picture. And it’s what the people wanna do. And then sometimes you have to think. It was my idea when I
talked to these people, they said they had a boat. And since their ancestors
came over the Mayflower, I thought well can I go out on your boat and take a picture? And that’s kind of a cliche,
but it’s a visual cliche but whatever. And then this kid is a
son of a Tibetan lama. When I did this project of multi-racial, when I started doing it I
also photographed someone who was descendant of the Tuskegee Airmen. You find that multi-racial goes way back to the founding of the country. And this myth that we
have that some people, like this real estate guy have that we had this kind of pure country
and all these people are coming to pollute it. It’s like maybe we should have
stopped letting ancestors, immigrants come when his
grandparents wanted to come. Maybe we’re too late. Look at how beautiful she is. I just wanted the pictures
to just speak for themselves. The people to just see the beauty and not to really make a big statement. Then I did project on five continents and 10 different countries over. I started in 1994 and
kind of finished in 2006. I wasn’t working full time on it, but I would just keep going back to it. I’d go to a different
country on street kids. Street children all over the world. So this is in Brazil. That’s in Romania. Gypsy kids. Again, you see violence is
really a theme in my work. That’s in Bangladesh. There are some gypsy kids. So you have the violence but then also how kids band together. Then I did a project which I
did for the Casey Foundation on dads, low income dads. And how important dads
were to children’s lives and to the community. The backstory of this is that America in the, when Nixon was
president, even before, when Johnson was president, they started welfare and all
these programs for women. And they actually drove the
men out of the families. And I remember the police would go raid if a woman had a man in
the house and she wasn’t married to him, they would
actually stop her welfare and they’d go try and arrest the guy. So the men left the house. Some government policy
actually drove the men out of the house. They were trying to be nice to women. That what I say when
I say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. They had the good, well maybe they didn’t have good intentions. Maybe they were just
trying to placate blacks so they wouldn’t be
revolutionary and buy them off. If you’re a cynic,
that’s what you believe. If you’re a good liberal,
you believe the government was trying to help poor people. You can make up your own mind
depending on your politics. At any rate, they really
left men out of the equation. And so finally, 20 or 30
years later the people were starting to realize, wait a second boys really needs their dads especially. Girls need their dads
too, but they realized that all the boys were
growing up without these dads and all kinds of bad
things were happening. They were shooting each
other, all kids of things. So we did a project just looking at dads and programs that were helping dads in low income communities. These were some HMONG,
H-M-O-N-G from Cambodia. And again, I’m always interested. Here’s the rock, they’re
eating, they’re immigrants and they’re eating a hamburger. Those sorts of things are
always really interesting to me, how we Americanize everybody. This was a program for dads and I think this was Indianapolis. And sometimes it leads to something. So I did an exhibit at Open
Society on the dads project and someone from the
city saw it who worked for the human resources under Bloomberg and so they hired me to do an ad campaign which was in the subways. And you notice that’s Poncho. Remember I told you Poncho helped me. Well I still am in contact with him so I put him in the ad and then there’s a, they made bus boards and
subway boards out of this. So sometimes your documentary project can lead to something else. And then the last picture. This is just a picture from Brazil. Some beautiful women which is also okay. So that’s that. I finished two minutes early. How was that? – [Man] Fantastic, thank you. (applause) We have time for Q&A. I’ll pass around the mic
if you wanna ask questions. The mic is not gonna
make your voice louder, but it’s necessary for
us to record the video so please use it. – Just remember, Donald
Trump threw someone out who asked an embarrassing
question so just. – [Man] That’s a lot of pressure. Thank you for sharing your work. I think you really eloquently spoke about you gain and maintain
access, but I’m curious as to how you know when a project is over? – Hmm. That’s just very subjective. I’ll answer it this way. My wife’s grandmother used to make this wonderful bulk eye,
it’s like cinnamon bread. And so my wife asked her, how do you know. You put in this, you put in this. How do you know how
much cinnamon to put in? She says, when it’s enough
that’s how you know. Right? How long? So I guess my answer is the same. You know when, you just. Sometimes you’re just sick of it. Sometimes when it’s enough. When you’ve just kind of got it. There’s no real answer to that. I can’t give you an honest answer to that. You just gain experience. It’s just like, I’ve got it. And part of it, the part that I will say is part of it depends
on what you’re doing. Obviously, if you’re doing
a book it’s gonna take a lot more for it to be
over than if you’re doing a photo essay for a newspaper
where they want 10 pictures. Well so if they want 10
pictures, once you’ve got 30 good pictures, you’re more than done. If you’re doing a book
and you know you need 200 good pictures, well then
you need 500 good pictures before you’re, you know what I’m saying? So part of the only answer
I can give is part of it depends on what you’re trying to do. What your intentions are. Are you doing a class
project for your teacher? Or are you doing a book that’s gonna be your magnum opus that’s
gonna make you famous as a photographer? So that’s really the only thing. And then you just, the second thing I’ll say
is have you told the story? You look at your pictures, what’s missing? What have I left out. I’m doing this story,
oh my god, I don’t have pictures of this. That’s really an important component. So it’s really a subjective thing, but it depends on what your intentions are and then what the story
is you’re trying to tell. Do you have all the components. Think of it like a movie. If you were doing a movie,
an hour and a half movie and it has to have three
acts and 20 scenes in it, do I have all the transitions? Do I have all the scenes? Is there something missing? Is there a beginning? Most projects have a
beginning, middle, and end. Not everyone does, but most projects are kind of structured that way. So that’s really the answer. Is to look at it and is it finished? Is this really something
I wanna show other people? Am I proud of this? Are the pictures good enough? And really, I often show
it to other people too. It’s really hard sometimes
to judge your own work. It’s really good to find some friends who can be honest with
you and find a friend that’s a close enough friend to tell you, that picture stinks. We were talking earlier, before I started, sometimes you’ll spend a lot of effort. You’ll climb to the top of a mountain and you’ll spend two
days taking a, preparing for a picture and you’re
really invested in it. And someone else looks at it
and goes, doesn’t make it. And you’re like, god I
worked so hard on that. Well it doesn’t matter. In the end it’s not, in the end it’s someone
else looking at the picture and do they get it? Does it communicate with other people? So show your project to some other people and don’t let them judge it. You’ve gotta be the judge of it. Because I’ve done projects
that when I did it, the Bronx project is a perfect example. When I did the pictures,
they scared the hell out of people. And a lot of people,
nobody would publish it. I mean it took 20 years
to get that published. No one would publish it. Even the heroin picture. I tried to get magazines
to do something on drugs coming back, no one was interested. No one wanted to deal with it. And they finally dealt with it when drugs, when drugs got into the suburbs. Then it became something
they wanted to deal with. Which is sad, but that’s the media. But then all of the sudden for
some reason 20 years later, the pictures I guess were
less scary to people. Or they had seen a lot
of movies or whatever. Whatever. For whatever reason, people
could deal with the pictures. So you show the pictures to other people, but don’t throw it away just
because they say it’s no good. I’ll just tell you one
other quick anecdote. I did a story, you know Mary Ellen Marks, really famous book. Well actually I did that
story before she did. No, I did. And I start, I did a
story on Times Square, child prostitute in Times
Square and I showed it to Life Magazine. And the editor at Life Magazine said, okay we can’t do this
story because it’s all, he actually said this. I’m not gonna tell you his name,
he’s a famous photographer. I’m not gonna embarrass him with his name, but we was an editor at Life. He said, they’re all black
and Puerto Rican kids and nobody cares and so
our readers don’t care. We’re not gonna do it. Do a story on white kids. So I was working at Parade
Magazine at the time so I actually went out to
Seattle and discovered the story on these white kids in Seattle who were living on the street. So I came back to Life
Magazine and said, okay you wanna do the story. I still wanna include the other thing, but you want white kids so let’s
put some white kids in too. Well they didn’t do the story,
but the writer saw my notes. Mary Ellen Mark was a
friend and I actually talked to her about it
and she said she didn’t actually know that the writer came up with the idea of the story. So the writer actually saw my notes and the writer went to
Life Magazine editor and did the story and then
they hired Mary Ellen Mark and sent her out to do the
story and they did that story. But the point I’m trying to make is that I gave up doing the
story because the editor told me no one was interested. And that was a big mistake
because it turns out it actually was a good
story and I shouldn’t have listened to the editor. So show your story to other people, but be your own judge of what, if you think it’s
important then just do it. That was a long answer to your question. – [Woman] So how do you decide and pick a project or a topic? – How do I decide what topic to do? I just find things that interest me. Sometimes, you start a project and then you find it takes you in another direction. I just read and listen
to things and when I see something that peaks
my interest then I just investigate it further. I think the best thing to do is to just follow your interests. You’ll do a better job if you do something that interests you. And also, when you’re starting out it’s really good to do
something that you really know. For instance, if you know horses, do a story about horses. Why? Because you might not be
the best photographer, but you might be the
best horse photographer because you know more about that topic than anybody else. The fact is it’s really
hard to do stories. And it really takes a lot out of you. I come back exhausted when I do stories. And not just physically. People now a days,
because everyone has their little iPhones and they snap pictures and everyone thinks it’s
easy to take pictures and everyone thinks
they’re a photographer. Right? But it to really take good pictures takes a lot out of you
physically, but also emotionally. When you’re photographing
some of these things you come back and it hits you. I mean, it’s like, you see things and it affects you. The point is if you’re doing something that’s of interest to you
then you’ll keep doing it. If you’re just doing
something because you think it’s gonna sell or because
you think someone else wants to do it, you’re not gonna be you’re not gonna be able to keep it up. So really the thing is to just read a lot, keep your eyes open, go
around, talk to people. And then just find
something that interests you and it doesn’t matter what it is. It can be a small little thing. Sally Mann got, you know her work? Do you all know Sally Mann? She photographed her family. It sounds stupid, right? What do you do? Oh I photograph my family. Well that’s kind of dumb. Really? She did great work. So you can photograph your family. Photograph your boyfriend,
your girlfriend, your husband, your wife, your children. A bunch of photographers have
photographed their children, done great work. Other people travel half
way around the world. It doesn’t really matter. What really matters is
that you get in there and you really do something with it. Do you know what I’m saying? The topic doesn’t matter. What matters is what
you bring to the topic. Frankly, every topic in the world’s been covered by somebody else. You’re not gonna find anything
original in the world. It’s all been covered. But it hasn’t been done the
way a great artist might do it. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s like literature or movies. Some people joke there’s
like three plots in movies. There’s a love story. There’s the, that kind of
action, hero, violence story. There’s only two or three kind of plots. It’s the same with photography. There isn’t anything in
the world that hasn’t been done before either
in a novel or a movie or another person, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it better. So that’s really the idea. – [Man] Hi, thank you
for sharing your work. I had a question. You talked about intim– Well you talked about spending time. Your images definitely showed a intimacy. So I guess my question to
you is how do you deal, because you talked about emotions, how do you deal with your mental health in regards to being
close, getting close to so many subjects. You’re dealing with
human suffering and pain. And then finding out, like
the one success story, well I don’t, I’m sure there’s
a lot of success stories, but you have like Paco
was a success story. But what about the ones that
end up a little sketchy. – Yeah that and in jail. Yeah, exactly. Well and like in Bronx Boys, I mean, more than two thirds of the
kids that I photographed were dead or in jail. It was really, really a high percentage. You just. I mean, you deal with it the same way you deal with it in your own life. You just have to get over it. The good news is you get close to people, but they’re not your mother and father. Do you know what I’m saying? You get close to people,
but humans are wired that your immediate
family, it just resonates with you more than somebody
else even if they’re a friend. So all I can say is you’re doing a story on somebody and something bad happens and you’re gonna get upset
and maybe you won’t get as upset as you would
if it was your own son because that’s just the way we’re wired. We wanna believe that everyone’s equal, but your own mother and
father affect you more than your best friend’s mother and father. Do you know what I’m saying? So all I can say is
obviously it’s not as intense as if it’s your own family. But it’s a lot more than obviously someone you don’t know at all. They’re people you get to
know and you just get upset. That family that was fighting. The one where the woman
was giving him the finger. I went home and I kind of got
under the covers for two hours and just kind of curled
up and just lay there. And kind of got into a zen state. Sometimes you get over it
and sometimes you don’t. I know a lot of war
photographers come back and they actually get, what is that? Post traumatic stress. Photographers do suffer from that. And some people are more
susceptible to it than others. So that’s all. I actually did a photo project on Holocaust survivors, portraits. And we did, I was part of
project and we did their stories. And what was amazing is that some people have a mechanism that
they’re able to let stuff go and they’re able to not dwell on it. And so when I photographed some
of these Holocaust survivors and they were so positive and so, it was amazing. And others were still
living back in there. And I photographed Stephen
Hawking, the scientist who has Lou Gehrig’s
disease, and he actually is an incredibly positive person. And he actually said
to me when were there, he said, actually it’s kind of a good, teachers aren’t gonna
like this, but he said it’s actually a good
thing that I have this because they let me do
this research and I don’t have to teach and deal with
students and everything. He actually thought it was a positive, he actually made, had
made a positive out of what some people would
have been depressed about. And so all I can say to
you is all you have to figure out yourself how to, as all of us have to, how
do you deal with trauma in your life, how do you
deal with your parents dying? How do you deal with a
brother or sister dying? How do you deal with
your best friend dying? How do you deal with losing a job? How do you deal with flunking out of school? How do you deal, you
know, any of the things. You know what I’m saying. Any of the things that happen to people. And some people just pick
themselves up and go on and some people don’t and I don’t have, I’m not a zen master. I don’t have an answer, an
easy answer to what you do, but all I can say is it’s the same with being a photographer. You just have to try and figure out a way to just move on and not get, not let it bog you down. That’s all I can really say. And that’s something to do in life. Not just as a photographer,
but in your personal life too. How is it that some
people are able to just pick themselves up and just keep going? People like Martin who had so much trauma in his life and he just kept picking
himself up and going. One of the, this is the
last thing I’ll say on that, is one of the things sometimes
is to just have a goal and to focus on something
bigger than yourself and a bigger goal. We ran a program, at one point
I started an NGO in Africa and we put kids in school. AIDS orphans and former child soldiers. And one of the things
we did is just got them to focus on their future, not
to think about their past. And when they were able to do that, they really were able to
really achieve a lot of things and get to the best
schools and really make their life for themselves. And I think that’s what
Martin was able to do. Is focus on the dream that he had, rather than focus on how
fucked up, excuse my language, on how fucked up his life was. And if you’re a
photographer, I think maybe you do the same thing. You focus on this
project’s really gonna help a lot of people. This is really gonna be a positive thing. I’m focusing on that not, anyway that’s. It sounds, I hope that doesn’t
sound too trite, but it’s all I, does that help? Or does that answer your question? – [Man] Yeah. – Okay. – [Man] All right well
thank you so much Stephen. That was a great lecture. Thank you everybody for coming. And see you in two weeks. (applause) – Okay, thank you.

3 Replies to “Stephen Shames – Documentary Photographer”

  1. I wished that he’d talk about his picture of the young white boy doing heroin … this picture really touched me and I’d like to know the story …

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