In the early 1990s I had big plans to write a book on photography aimed at high school shooters and their newspaper and yearbook advisers. After my inspiring experience at the Missouri Photo Workshop in 1989, I wanted to show how the documentary approach, that is the heart of the Missouri method, could be applied to the high school level and was successful with my students. As things turned out, I spent most of my “spare” time during the last tens years of my teaching career trying to pass a Missouri Freedom of Expression Law to help protect high school journalists in the post-Hazelwood years. We failed to get anything on the books, but it was not for lack of trying by some excellent high school advisors and students around the state.
The only concrete results of my photo book plans, besides lots of notes and outlines, were three interviews I conducted by phone with three of a planned eight or so professional photojournalists. These Q and A interviews were to be inter-chapters in the book, and I was extremely pleased when I was able to interview Jean Shifrin, Bill Luster, and James Nachtwey. The interviews were conducted and recorded over the phone--all lasting 1-2 hours--followed by my transcribing the interviews and sending copies to the three who could edit, add, delete, etc. in order to get the most complete answer possible. This is the technique used in the old Paris Review Q and A's. Recently, I rediscovered my files on the book project and was still impressed with what these three wonderful shooters had to say. I thought I would share some of their comments advising young shooters. Not being one of those myself, I still think their words can motivate all of us to keep looking for ways to improve. See what you think:
Nachtwey: “If you are wondering whether you are good enough, all I can say is try it. And I don't mean try it halfway. You have to commit yourself. I don't know how to do anything any other way. Do it, and you find out. If you ONLY think about it, or do it halfway, or if you want assurances beforehand, it's not going to happen. There are no assurances.”
I then asked him a final question: Howard Chapnick describes you in his book (Truth Needs No Ally, Inside Photojournalism) as one of the most disciplined photographers he knows of, disciplined in a number of ways. Do you think that description fits?
Nachtwey: “For me it's been necessary. I don't really think I am a natural. I had to discover whatever little bit of talent I might have and work very hard to develop it. That required discipline and sacrifice. I had to give up a lot of things in life that other people might take for granted. You should not go into this blindly. You should try to understand the choices you are making.”
Shifrin: “I think what helped me was looking at a lot of documentary work and seeing how it is done. Getting your work critiqued is really good, getting feedback from other people, because if you are working in a vacuum you may think your work is either really good or really bad. For example, when you spend so much time on a project, you get so close to it and it is so personal, a particular image may bring back so many memories to you that you had while you were there--what someone said or what it smelled like or what the light was like--and in your mind you may think you captured that in the picture, but if you show it to other people and there is no response then that's a good indication that you are seeing more in it than a reader might see. You can't take that criticism real personal either . . . And I read a lot about photography all the time. Anybody can get their technical competence, but having your way of seeing, your eye and developing that. I feel sometimes I am forced to go against that to do my job at the paper because there are certain things they look for. So, try not to let someone force out of you your own style. You really need to develop that.”
Luster: “Learn as much as you can about technique, learn as much as you can about computers and the state of the art, but don't forget to learn about one thing--all that mechanics doesn't mean anything. It is what you put on film (remember this was early 90s), and it is what comes from the heart that means anything. The reader doesn't care if the image is scanned on. The reader wants to learn something from the impact of the photo . . . The eye can be developed as can the mind, but the one thing no technique can give anybody is heart. And I think the photographers who give their heart to what they do are the better photographers.”
Finding these interviews again just reminds me, too, that the great photographers--like Luster, Shifrin, and Nachtwey--are thinkers. And it is wonderful that they are willing to share their thoughts on the craft.