“Four Questions on Photography: Ilvy Njiokiktjien in Conversation With…” is a series of events where well-known photographers discuss with Ilvy their responses to the four questions below.
– What is your most important photograph, how did you make it, and what impact do you think it had?
– What is your biggest photo failure; an image you wanted or needed but you messed up somehow?
– What is your dream image or story?
– What advice would you give to your younger self?
For this event and in this episode, Ilvy is in conversation with Ed Kashi.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well, so today we’re here with Ed Kashi, my lovely colleague from VII. Really happy you made the time to be here with us today. And I’m sure everyone is happy to see you as well. I’m going to do a short introduction of you, Ed. Yeah? Can I? Okay?
Ed Kashi: Of course.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So Ed is a photojournalist, filmmaker, he’s kind of everything, a speaker and educator, who has been making images and telling stories for over 40 years, like, amazing to me to keep working in this job. I mean, it’s not the easiest job. And you’ve been doing it for such a long time. Ed is dedicated to documenting the social and political issues that define our times. And the sensitive eye and an intimate and compassionate relationship to his subjects are signatures of his intense and unsparing work. And I know that the images you will be showing will probably kind of show that as well. And I know you quite well, and I know you’re very connected to your subjects, and you’re a very social and loving person. And I think that makes you such a good photographer as well. So thanks for being here.
Ed Kashi: Thank you Ilvy.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So we have four questions. And some of the people we’ve had on this show have been a bit nervous about some of them. I don’t know, if you have been nervous about any of these four coming up.
Ed Kashi: Not nervous, but you know, let’s just say that it’s a challenge after working so many years and making so many images and telling so many stories to sort of find, to answer that, the best, the worst. But it’s also interesting to be, to get that challenge because it forces you to really think about what you’ve done, so.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Okay, well, let’s see.
Ed Kashi: Shall I share my screen?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, please share your screen.
Ed Kashi: Okay.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: And let’s start with the image that is in some way, in any way, your most important photograph. And why it is.
Ed Kashi: Okay. So, not to overcomplicate things, but it was hard for me to come up with one image and you’ve been very graceful in giving me the permission to share two of them. And there’s a reason why I want to do that. But to me, the most important image I’ve made in terms of you know, it’s maybe impact and the the the notoriety of it, or how far to spread like globally is this image on the screen, which was made in southeastern Turkey in the city of Diyarbakir in 1991. And it was a terrorist trial. So this is the PKK Kurdistan Workers Party, I was working on a big, my first big story for National Geographic Magazine, looking at the struggle of the Kurdish people. And this image ended up you know, being, besides winning some awards, it was published double page in the magazine. And when the magazine came out, all the issues were confiscated in Turkey because of this image. And then as I subsequently learned, that those courts, those terrorist courts, shut the media out. So you know, there were multiple impacts made by this image. And then, you know, over the years, NatGeo had used it in their anthologies or you know, best stuff kinds of collections. So it is an image that ended up really going far and wide and on a sort of geopolitical level had an impact, but on a personal level. And sorry, I had to, you know, I couldn’t just pick one, this image for me might have even more relevance or importance. So this is from my long term project, looking at Aging in America. And this is a death scene of Maxine Peters in rural West Virginia. This image won a World Press award and was also published globally. But the reason I sort of kind of waver between these two images is because for me, I guess the distinction I wanted to make is that the Kurdish image had sort of certain kinds of impacts geopolitically in terms of the, as I mentioned, impact of media coverage in Turkey. But this image is more of a universal image that many more people can relate to. And then on a personal level, the experience that I went through in making this image was packed with way more sort of intimacy. So that’s my very long answer, two part answer to your first question.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: And why did you— I’m curious to know why you started working on a project about aging.
Ed Kashi: So yeah, that’s a great question. So in about 1995, I started to feel like I needed to turn my camera on my own culture, my own society, my own country. And so I was thinking, you know, what would be one of the great themes of my lifetime, where I could spend many years producing a huge body of work, and, you know, in the great tradition of documentary photography, and so as I looked about, what what would be one of the great themes, the issue of aging kept on coming up for me. And even though it’s not a sexy subject that most people don’t even want to, especially in America, but don’t want to think about or look at aging, I felt that it not only was incredibly important, and would remain important throughout my lifetime, but also it was imbued with so many of the kind of qualities that I love photographing. It’s humanistic, it’s intimate, it’s a social, you know, very broad, social, so many social issues that are encompassed with an ageing society. And also just the challenges of, as I learned, once I got into it, we worked about eight years on this project. And I worked on this project with my wife, Julie Winokur, who went in the course of this project from being a writer to a filmmaker, but um, you know, there was also the challenge of, in photographing elderly folks, it’s too easy to make them, look, you know, sad, pathetic, vulnerable, all these things. And so I realized that was one of my great challenge, just visually, is how to create a portrait of an aging society that goes from, you know, the very old and people dying and the suffering that goes on to also the vitality and you know, the, the aging rodeo folks in the Senior Olympics and burlesque dancers and all these other ways that people as they get older, and have the gift of longevity that we all potentially have, how they’re using that extra time.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: And how long did you work on this project? Because it seems like you’ve covered all kinds of ages. Yeah. A broad range.
Ed Kashi: We started in 95, and finished in 2003. And that’s when we published a book and also produced a one hour documentary, besides the website, and all these other things. And, and yeah, and we went to 25 of the 50 states. So it was a time where we were able to get really massive grants from foundations. So I was able to work outside of the media ecosystem, if you like, for a period of time. But it was also a time where I could pitch ideas, you know, individual ideas within the larger aegis of this project, where I could pitch it to the New York Times Magazine and all kinds of publications. And so I was able to not only re sell the work I had created in some cases, but also gained commissions and had my proposals accepted. So it was a way to sustain the project over a long period of time, you know, besides just the, as well as the grants.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Hmm, that’s beautiful, beautiful image. I know that I know there’s a kind of a secret in this image. Or is that a secret, or is it—?
Ed Kashi: Well, do you mean the disappearing person? Is that it?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes. How did you see—
Ed Kashi: It’s a reflection in her old vanity, I couldn’t see it. I was I made this image with a Leica. So, you know, therefore, I wasn’t seeing exactly what the camera was seeing. But in retrospect, I realized there must have been an aberration or some something in the vanity mirror. So in the spot where Maxine rests, it created a kind of, not flaring, but a sort of, yeah, sort of—it’s interesting. It’s like she was disappearing. And I know I’ve said this before, but when I was living in San Francisco, then I was working with Kirk —, this master black and white printer, and when I brought the negative to him, the first print he made, he corrected it because he thought it was a mistake. Kirk, no, no, no, no, no. Keep the magic, keep the magic.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, keep it like this. It’s beautiful. It’s really beautiful. And the other image, can we just go back to the other image. I thought you mentioned that media were not allowed.
Ed Kashi: So, after this image was published in Nat Geo, then the Turkish government stopped allowing media into these trials. And this is what was interesting. And for not just photographers in the group, but in the audience, but what was interesting about this is, I this was my first assignment for an NGO. And just to give you an idea, this was when I had like a 26 week contract, and I went to eight countries. So at that stage in my life, I was in my early 30s. It was by far by far the biggest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done, as a human being, let alone as a photographer. And so I was a few months, a few trips into this project. And I’ll never forget this, I was in Van, Turkey, in the far eastern part of the country. And I was at a pay phone speaking to my editor in Washington, DC. And she was basically, I thought she was going to actually fire me from the job to tell you the truth, even though it was my idea. Well, you know, the standards NatGeo, and especially then we’re almost like inhumanly high. And there was a way that— also because I was untested. It was my first project for them. By the way, it ended up being a cover story. But so basically, she said to me, forget what you’re doing and go back to Diyarbakir and why don’t you—and I give her credit for this, Susan Welshmen—why don’t you find a human rights lawyer to follow? So I was like, okay, so we drove like six hours, and wherever it was overnight, back to Diyarbakir and we, I found a human rights lawyer. And I really credit her with, as an editor, this was a case where she felt, whether she was right or wrong, sensed— I was not failing, but I was not maybe getting what they thought they wanted. So she redirected me. And by doing that, it placed it put me in position to make this image. This young woman was being represented by the lawyer who I ended up spending a few days with. So you know, I always like to say, you know, you never know, you never know, where fate will lead you. Or, or, you know, sometimes we think we have a great idea, we go down a blind alley, and it takes us nowhere. And then other times, you know, we make a decision that ends up bearing, you know, delicious fruit. And that was the case with this.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: An amazing, amazing image and it’s nice how an editor was able to guide you in this way. You know, that it is very supportive.
Ed Kashi: Yeah, although I did have to suffer about 48 hours of like an ulcer.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I can imagine.
Ed Kashi: Like, oh shit, my first my first project for National Geographic and I’m gonna fail. There’s that whole management through fear kind of approach that, I don’t know how it is in the rest of world, but in a lot of American companies and organizations, there’s a bit of that management through fear. Instead of telling you what’s going well, you hear what’s not going well.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So you work harder.
Ed Kashi: Then you work harder. So, but that’s another conversation.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Which they probably didn’t have to do with you. I mean, in general, you’re such a hard worker, they should maybe slow— should have slowed you down. Maybe, in a way.
Ed Kashi: Yeah. It ended up working out, so.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It worked out. And then it didn’t fail. Which brings us actually to the second question. I don’t like the word failure, even though the second question does entail the word failure, because the question is, what is your biggest photo failure?
Ed Kashi: Right.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Again, I don’t really, failures don’t really exist, in my opinion, but let’s see.
Ed Kashi: It could be disappointment or yeah,
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Something that you imagined differently maybe in some way.
Ed Kashi: Maybe someone can look up the synonyms for failure and put it in less sort of aggressive, violent word. So this is another two-fer. I couldn’t just come up with—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Ed.
Ed Kashi: But um, no, you know, after 40 years of image making the amount of misses, they are too much to think about let alone conjure up one image to represent all that. So, you know, it’s almost like there’s this big black hole of muck inside of me that represents all the failures and frustrations and my way of overcoming that is to compartmentalize the bad juju and focus on all the successes. So the situation I’ve chosen to share with you to answer this question is, again, it’s a one-two picture and I hope it helps to make sense more. But I was working in, I think, was 2008, on a story about Arab Christians in the Levant in the Middle East. Another idea I proposed to Nat Geo, and I had arranged to spend the day with this Christian family who had fled Iraq and they were living in Beirut. And this family, they had lost more than 10 of their relatives to tortures and killings by by Islamists. And so, but they agreed to let me spend the day with them. And so I show up at their apartment. They’re insanely gracious. And as you can see from this image, they prepared this, like, ridiculously delicious, you know, feast for their huge, huge family. The man in the middle is the patriarch of this family. And so I’m spending hours making hundreds of really mediocre and bad pictures. And it’s one of those, I don’t know, maybe we’ve all experienced this where you think you have a good idea, or at least you put yourself out there to photograph a situation that you think will render the image you’re hoping to make, which in this case was to— how do you show the pain and suffering of having lost 10 family members? How do you show the dislocation that a family has gone through? So, you know, the feast ends, the afternoon ends—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Were you?
Ed Kashi: Yeah, go ahead.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well, while you were there, I mean, it looks so lovely with the big meal and the big family and looks kind of like a celebration, almost. But I was wondering, were you getting nervous? Like—
Ed Kashi: Oh my God yes.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: About getting the image?
Ed Kashi: Yeah, not like, yeah, anxious, and just, you know, we’ve all been there where even if we’re getting great images, often we don’t know it. We all, we, like, I can’t tell you how often I suffer through the anguish of this work. Even if I’m doing good or great work, I might not feel it in the moment. It’s actually unusual to be able to stand there going, damn, this is going great. You know, so often, it’s like, no, this isn’t good enough. Oh, no, this is not working. And I think, you know, the sort of negative part of that is it can cloud our judgment about what we’re actually producing. But on the other hand, it compels us to keep on working, keep on looking, keep on seeing and so yeah, so there was definitely a lot of, you know, how can I put it forced smiles because on the one hand, these folks are being like, over the top gracious and welcoming and sharing their stories with me and the writer. And at the same time, what I hope they couldn’t see the deep frustration and fear in a way of fear, but the frustration and anxiety I was feeling, because I was— I knew I wasn’t getting anything great. So I chose this one image just because, you know, structurally, its sound and kind of tells the story. And sure you could have a caption with it that would explain what this family has been through that maybe would add layers of meaning to an otherwise, you know, what would we say about this image, it’s perfectly fine, but it doesn’t really say anything, you know. So, if I may, so then as we were taking our leave, and we’re walking down the stairwell, and then the patriarch of family is seeing us out and he lights a cigarette, and there happens to be a cross behind him, I thank goodness had the presence of mind to, I think I might have snapped three or four images. And then the moment was over.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: And this was on your way out.
Ed Kashi: On the way out, we’re literally we— this was right before we shook his hand and hugged and kissed as you do so often in this part of the world when you greet and say goodbye to people and, you know, thanked him for his graciousness, and all that. And then I get back to my hotel room and I’m looking at, you know, the hundreds of really mediocre images, pulling my hair out. And then I come upon this image and I’m like, Yes! I think again with the caption and the look on his face and the lines in his eyes and then just again, this unimaginable, unimaginable experience he’s been through for me ended up salvaging what was otherwise a—would have been a huge failure quite frankly.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: This is a beautiful image, it’s really very strong. Although I must say with the previous image, I think you just called it mediocre. I wouldn’t say that because especially when seeing the other image, you can kind of see the troubled, troubled thoughts. If you look at his face here, you can kind of— now that I’ve seen the other image, I can kind of see it in this one as well. I mean, in a way you feel this is like a happy family. But if you look at his face, and then the face of the woman next to him, is that the mother of the?
Ed Kashi: Yeah. That’s his wife.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. Also looks a bit—
Ed Kashi: Yeah, they don’t look celebratory, you know, that’s a pretty, like, low, low key. You know, also, I do like, structurally, I really like— and this is not a highly toned image so, but I like it structurally, with the, you know, Christ in the background, you know, as an image that that informs, it works on a certain levels. But yeah, I didn’t have that, like emotional punch that I wanted, you know, yeah. And there’s also something about—and I thankfully started to learn this in the last five or 10 years, whenever you set up, or when I say set up, whenever you arrange to, let’s say, meet people in their home to photograph them at a meal, in most cultures, they expect you to eat with them. So there’s always that uneasy, uncomfortable moment, where— and it took me about 20 years of working in other cultures to finally smarten up and realize that—because for the first whatever period of 10-20 years, I’d be like, Oh, no, no, no, I didn’t come to eat. Thank you so much. And then they look at you and you know, in the end, I’m being incredibly rude.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: You need to sit down and have some of this food.
Ed Kashi: Yes. And then inevitably, especially if it’s a meal around a table, there’s always like one setting that is untouched, which is—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ed Kashi: They’re not waiting for St. Elijah to show up either. But, um, anyway, so that was a bad joke. But anyway, but so over the years, I learned that the graceful and proper thing to do is you sit down with them, you break bread, you show the respect for them. And then when it feels right, you pull back and you start to photograph. Yeah, but even then, and I did that in this scene. And even then, well, now my belly is full, and my mouth is full of delicious tastes. And, you know, but even then, you know, there is that awkwardness. There’s just something awkward when you’re trying to photograph people when they’re home. And you’re not spending days with them. Yeah, you basically have like, this one set period of time, because in a way, nobody kind of knows quite what to do with themselves. So again, over the years, I’ve learned that the best thing to do is not ask them to do anything, not force it and just sort of try to keep an open heart. Keep an open mind and of course, keep your eyes open for moments that might happen.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I think yeah, that’s so right. I recognize everywhere, just say it’s such an awkward moment to stand up and go like, well, thanks so much for this meal, and then half of my plate is still full, because I want their plates to be full when photographing. So you don’t want to sit through the whole meal. And it just feels so unfriendly, in a way.
Ed Kashi: And here’s the, here’s the other thing— I don’t know about you, Ilvy, but have you ever made a great picture of people eating?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No. That’s the thing as well. And-
Ed Kashi: When are we going to learn?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That is true and they usually don’t like to be photographed when eating. You know, the nice thing about photographing meals is that it’s a real, real family moment. And that’s what I kind of see in this image as well. That’s why I do like it. I like these kinds of daily life images, so—
Ed Kashi: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, you know, and I wish we would see more of these kinds of images now from places like Ukraine, where, for all the horrors and the destruction and all the terrible, terrible things that are going on, there’s still daily life going on. And I feel this way in general from war zones, we often, the media for whatever reason neglects to sort of show how daily life carries on. But, yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s very important to show because that’s the amazing part actually. Also in Ukraine, when I was there a few months ago, I really realized, oh, yeah, daily life is just going on, you know, and you know it, but when you see it, it’s, you realize, oh, yeah, of course people are having dinner, people are going to even go to restaurants. It’s it was really awkward in a way to see and you know, it’s you know, it I know it from experience, and I know it just because you can imagine Isn’t it? But when you’re seeing it, it’s different, I guess. Yeah.
Ed Kashi: You know, and then there’s the challenge. You know, I don’t know, this just made me think of this as well as one of the many challenges of trying to do true pure, you know, photojournalistic documentary work is that we end up, I would say, probably 80-90% of the time, confronted with a situation that is visually totally compromised, we have no control, the light might suck, the backgrounds might be terrible, even the people might be uncooperative. And that’s not even, that’s even not even take into account if you’re in a zone with civil unrest or conflict where then there’s sort of security issues for us, you know, so there are so many obstacles, and I’m not asking for, you know, anybody cry for you, I’m just pointing out that it’s very different to do this kind of work, as opposed to conceptual work, or work where you arrange things where then you could look at this scene, and you could place everybody where you wanted them to be, and, you know, whatever, even set up a light and all that. So, I also, you know, these scenes make me think about that, that so often, we’re in positions that are so imperfect and so challenging to make a great image. But that’s also one of the challenges I love about doing this work. And, you know, and yeah, there’s just something very genuine about it when you can, when you can make it work.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Hmm, I totally agree. Yeah. Thanks for sharing this. And I’m happy that this image and dinner resulted in this beautiful image, which kind of tells the whole story. Must have been a great relief in a way to and also to, it’s very difficult, I find always, to, I mean, sometimes it can be so difficult to show, in a picture, what the horror has been that a person has gone through. It doesn’t happen that often that you can read it in an image or in someone’s face like this. I think therefore, it’s such a strong image. Yeah, it’s really beautiful. Um, please, anyone, if there’s any questions for Ed, he’s here with us. So ask anything, right, Ed? They can ask anything, right? Yes.
Ed Kashi: Anything.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Anything. So please feel free to put your question in the q&a box. I actually didn’t check the chat. Maybe someone accidentally put something in the chat? No, no. So feel free to ask anything. But put the questions in the q&a box. It’s at the bottom. But for now, I’ll go to my third question, which is, What is your dream image or story? And it’s good to mention maybe as well that this doesn’t have to be an image or a story that you can actually really take. It can be something totally outrageous that is not even an option or maybe can be a dream. But what would you like to work on?
Ed Kashi: I love your qualifiers, because in the exam—in what I’m about to say, in a perfect world would not be, would not be necessary. But anyway, but my. And this might be really naive, but that’s okay. You guys can all pile on me if you think so. But given everything that’s going on, not in the world, but specifically in America, and in my home country, my dream story be to create a visual examination of America today that would shed cynicism and the hype, that would show the inherent goodness and vitality of American society and how much more we have in common than in is what is dividing us. You know, I I lived through the Nixon years and Watergate and the Vietnam War. I mean, I was a kid, but I lived through that. And it was a it’s a firm part of my foundational feeling and understanding of the world, my political and social being, you know, and so to see where we’re at now is not only horrifying, but I also feel because I’ve had the good fortune and the privilege to work in all, throughout my whole country, that you know, most Americans are good people, and in like in so many places in the world now. I mean, Russia would probably be an example where the people of Russia are good people, but the leadership is well, I’ll speak for myself, is horrible. And so, in America, we don’t have horrible leadership at the moment, but we have this brewing divisiveness, we have too many politicians that are willing to divide us to gain power or money or whatever it is they seek. And so I would love to figure out a way to tell a photographic story with text, of course, that would sort of show more of what we all have in common than what is dividing us. Because what I’ve seen through so much of the work I’ve done, and I continue to do in the United States is there are so many incredible people and great initiatives at the grassroots level, that if you knew about it, it would give you not just hope, but it would inspire you, it would make you feel like, it would cause you to feel more like there’s hope, as opposed to where we’re absolutely screwed. So that, that, you know, maybe that’s more of a human desire, and then a photographic one, but that would be, that would be it right now. And also in the broader context. And in the context of this conversation that we’re having in, in media in general, but particularly in our profession about representation and who has the right to tell whose story or more than who has the right, like, what are the stories that I, Ed Kashi should tell in this moment, you know, and, and, and there are a gazillion stories I would love to tell all over the world, because I care about so many things, but in reality, so much of that is outside of me in a way, and the requirements to do it are are tremendous, you know, tremendous. So that’s another thing about wanting to look inward, but looking closer to home, if you like, and trying to figure out how can I use my skill, my talent, my energy, to decipher some of this, what I consider a real sort of dangerous problem that we have right now.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Sounds like you’re going to be very busy the upcoming 25 years, Ed.
Ed Kashi: That’s right.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No, but those are two really beautiful examples. I do wonder with with the first one, yeah, like you actually said, if it’s not a human desire more than because photographically, it would be so difficult. I feel if you can pull that off, it would be amazing. Right? Show what? What bonds, like the similarities between people and that we’re all human. It will be beautiful. I just wonder how—
Ed Kashi: Yeah. Sorry to interrupt, but and maybe this is where another talent or you know, skill that I have a filmmaking would come into play, where then I can use that medium to actually capture the voices of the people to actually hear in their own words, what they think, what they feel or what they are doing, you know, but this is a it’s a tall mountain to climb what I’m suggesting, but I just know that in my in my heart that it’s, you know, the part of us as photographers that are seekers, right, that have this insatiable curiosity about things. It’s that part of me that wants to, and then the part of me that just cares so much about this country, as well as the whole world that I feel that you know, the United States in ways like the incubator for humanity of where we’re going. And I’m not saying that it’s chauvinistic way at all. Not at all. I’m a first generation American. I’m saying it as someone from experience who’s had the privilege to work in over 100 countries, and as well as working throughout my own country and kind of seeing that, you know, America is made up of everybody from everywhere. And it’s this big social, political experiment. And if it fails, it’s a scary thought.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I think it would be beautiful, if you would somehow be able to show this. And I agree, I think video might be the right way to do this because you will need words to this to show how much like people are actually and there’s so much division. I think social media, of course, doesn’t help with this, although there are now a few good initiatives that show more the human side of things. And yeah, I think I think there are slowly changes being made in this kind of storytelling as well. But it could go faster. So please work on this project.
Ed Kashi: Okay, good. I’ll save America if you save the world. Okay.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Okay. Deal. Deal. There are a few questions coming in in the q&a box, you’re probably seen them as well. Let me see. The first question is from Sharon. Oh, yeah. Oh, but that is. The question is, what advice would you give your younger self, but that is our fourth question. Sharon also mentioned that. So we’re going to get back to that one after the other questions. Dominique is asking, Ed, have you been yourself facing the death of a close family member and has this changed your perspective to take images of this hard subject? In what way has your eye or your approach might have changed.
Ed Kashi: So well, if you’ll allow me to be really kind of candid and emotional about that in my answer. It’s, so, it’s interesting. I, so yes, I’ve faced it actually, just, just about five, six months ago, my sister’s husband died of cancer and I was thankfully around to be with him many times in the last month of his life, including the night he passed away. And, you know, and in some ways, my sister is 10 years older than me, so they were kind of like, surrogate parents. So that was a very, not just heavy, but you know, very, what’s the word? You know, it’s humbling. It’s humbling when you, when you’re with someone so close to see them pass because it brings you closer to death in a way. And then, in 2008, Julie’s father, we moved back to move to the east coast to take care of her father, and when he was older, and he passed away, in our home, with us around him. So those would be the two kind of, you know, very deep and real examples of me witnessing that. I’ve witnessed so many other deaths through my work. And you know, what, like any experience in life, they, if you’re, if you’re alive, and you’re paying attention, and you’re keeping your channels open, and not shutting down, allow allowing yourself to feel, allowing yourself to see these things, to be with the people and to be, to have empathy and all of those things, then it’s impossible not to be changed by it. But not to get too heavy here, but I have to go back to something when I was 10 and my father died. And back then in 1967, they wouldn’t allow a 10 year old to be with someone dying. So I actually never got to say goodbye to my father for the last few weeks of his life. So what I realized what happened then, especially when I was working on the project on aging and I photographed four death scenes, I would be often the one crying the most in the room. And I kept on thinking, like, what is wrong with you, man, like, you’re not part of this family. And, you know, I don’t want them to think I’m something bad about me. But I realized afterwards it’s because I was, I had not had a chance to say goodbye to my father. So when I was with people in this intense, intimate moment, it brought all those feelings up. So it’s impossible to do this kind of work and not be touched by it. And frankly, that is one of the beautiful reasons or outcomes, if you like, of doing this work, is you, we get to have these experiences that are so deep and so beautiful, even when they’re difficult or troubling. They’re so, it’s what it’s what life is about, quite frankly.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Totally. I also feel like you can’t be —if you’re not touched by these kinds of stories while shooting them, you can’t really do this job.
Ed Kashi: Yeah, you shouldn’t probably do this part, this kind of work.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s yeah, yeah. You have to have an open heart and open mind. But that’s a different story, to be able to do this right?
Ed Kashi: Yep.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thanks for sharing, sharing that, Ed. Let’s see, there, oh, wait, I think there’s a question.
Ed Kashi: You’re Lily now.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, wait. I’m Lily now. Yeah. Chad’s calling me, Lily. Oh, why not? Let’s see, Chad is asking, I’d love to know how you go from having a concept of aging to being in such a close and intimate personal setting with the family photographing their loved one passing away? Is it just spending the time with the people and becoming comfortable with each other?
Ed Kashi: So you know, it’s a mixture of just, you know, good old fashioned journalism reporting where, you know, so this, for instance, the image I showed of— it’s still on here of the Maxine’s death scene. You know, so in this case, this was in rural West Virginia. So we knew we wanted to— just as an example, we know we knew we wanted to cover rural hospice care, okay, hospice care for people in rural America. We found through research, this wonderful organization, the Hospice Corporation of America based in West Virginia. We contacted them thankfully, they said yes, you’re welcome to come. They brought us to maybe 10 or 15 different families who had an elder, an elder person in a hospice care. As you can imagine, I think about 80% of them said no, like, which I understand, like, why do we want a photographer around us. But thankfully, thankfully, three or four said yes. One of them was, you know, Arden, the gentleman in this picture with the check shirt. And anyway, and so once he gave us permission, then we spent about a week with them. And also we went there two times. And the first time we went there, we actually brought our young kids with us at that stage, and they must have been like five and eight or something. Anyway, so we were very human and very real in this moment. Now, I can’t work that way all the time, this is a very extraordinary situation. So but in general, it’s about working in the proper way of, you know, reporting, being a journalist and doing your research, figuring out how to, who to gain access to, and then once you have access then behaving in a way, that is, you know, proper, which encompasses so many different things from cultural mores to how you dress to how you speak to how you carry yourself amongst them, so that you make people feel comfortable and you allow them to, in a sense, relax around you. And then that’s where things open up more. And even then just connecting on a human level. So that was, that’s basically how it works. And, you know, and it’s exhausting. It’s energizing in some way and inspiring and beautiful, but it’s also exhausting, because you know, the easiest thing is hitting the shutter button.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, but everything that goes on before that and after that,
Ed Kashi: Exactly. That’s the other 99.9% effort,
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Especially the after I feel now. I’ve been doing this much shorter than you have. Only 15 years. But the amount of people in my life, you must have a massive amount of people kind of going along with you that I’ve photographed throughout the years that I mean, I don’t stay in contact with them every week or month or— but so many of the people I’ve photographed in the last 15 years in intimate scenes like you are now talking about—
Ed Kashi: Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: —you still kind of stay in contact. At a certain point, you kind of lose contact again. But so many of them, you kind of, I don’t know. Do you do the same? Are you in contact with?
Ed Kashi: It’s hard to stay in contact. With this family, what was extraordinary was that afternoon she passed I think around 2:30 in the afternoon, after her body in the hospital bed and everything was removed from this room, her husband Arden had been sleeping on a little day bed next to her. He asked me to sleep next to him that night. Oh, wow. Unbelievable. So I was I was the whole time I was thinking Maxine, please don’t be jealous, no, looking down upon in that room in the room, and thankfully not in the bed she had passed in, they put in a regular bed. And then the next day or I went with them to pick out the coffin. And then a couple of days later, she was laying you know, you know, they do viewings, and I was there. And then when they had the church service a few days later, they asked me to speak and I’m like, Who the hell am I to be speaking to this community in rural West Virginia. Yes, I’ve spent time and I’ve gotten close to these people. But you know, again, this is the, these are the parts of doing this work that you need, you should be prepared for and embrace, because it’s also possibly one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in my life, where you’re asked to really come through for other people. And then after that we kept in touch with his kids and, and, and Warren, the man on the far right for a period of a few years, but ultimately, it’s it’s it’s very hard to keep in touch. You know, this is where Facebook, one of the few things that Facebook is good for this is like I’ve had people from Belfast, I did my first personal project back in the late 80s in Northern Ireland. I’ve had some of those young what were 18 year olds who are now in their 50s come out. And you know, Hey, how’s it going, Ed? And so, you know, it’s interesting, just recently, someone from Cairo, I worked on a project there. So yeah, there’s something— but it’s hard. It’s hard to maintain these relationships. And there’s some photographers I know that are amazing at it, that are just, like I bow down to their ability to remain in touch and not just in touch in a cursory way, but in a really genuine, heartfelt way.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, it’s not easy. I’m not really good at it. Sometimes better than others. But yeah, but the group, of course also or the, yeah, the group of people gets bigger every year. So yeah, Facebook, I guess. There’s one last question in the q&a. As a photographer on assignment, we are tasked to capture an image that shows the pain and trauma that a person lived through. As a sensitive person, I find this really difficult. Do you have any advice or words of wisdom?
Ed Kashi: Yeah, well, it’s a tough one. And again, this question is connected to a relatively new conversation that we’re having in the profession. This is in media in general, which is this issue of re traumatizing people, by when we—because our job is to get their story, you know, the classic is, whatever, the CNN guy or person, you know, asking the dad who just lost their son in school shooting, how do you feel. It’s like, sorry, but how the fuck do you think I feel? And I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But it’s like, can we not come up with something better. I mean—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Human or more human.
Ed Kashi: Right. Right. Or don’t ask that question, because I pretty much know the answer. So anyway, but this idea of re traumatizing people. So what’s interesting, my response to this question, Arky, is that over time, especially like, in the last three to five years, I am less likely to push people than I was earlier. And because we do a lot of interviews for our films, where, frankly, up until recently, you know, that’s almost one of the, I hate to say, goal, but it’s one of the things that you sort of want or need is that dramatic moment where someone cries or whateverif it’s appropriate for the story you’re trying to tell. You know, and now I look at that, and I think that it’s kind of creepy. And can we again, can we find a better way to, to, to give voice to people who have been through trauma, so that they can impart to us the things that are important for us to hear, the things that might be instructive the things that might touch our hearts, without having to damage them further. And I don’t have an answer to that, other than saying, Don’t do it. But if you— but then, it’s like one of the tenants of storytelling in, not just in photojournalism, in storytelling period. You know, I once interviewed a great novelist, Russell Banks, this Canadian novelist who’s done major novels that have turned to major films. And he turned and took a drag of a cigarette and said, Ah, yes, every story must have sex, death, and violence. And I was like, Oh, I’m screwed. So anyway, so it’s unfortunately a part of, you know, whether you go to the Grimm Fairy Tales, or whatever, you go to the, go in deep in history, and almost every culture, it’s part of how we tell stories to each other, for better or worse. In our work, because we end up, when we’re doing it well, are so intimate with people, we need to hold their hearts, we need to hold their pain in a way that’s precious and try as best we can to protect them, while at the same time trying to, you know, getting them to tell their story. I wish there was a perfect answer, but short of just not doing it, there is no perfect answer.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That was really beautiful answer I feel. Arky says the same in the chat.
Ed Kashi: Yeah. Great. And I will also say, sorry, really sorry. I would also say that, you know, there I mean, I can’t speak for anyone else. But from experience. What I’ve also found is sometimes it is cathartic for people to share their pain, you know, and who the heck knows when this person will feel catharsis and that person will will end up breaking down and being re traumatized short of bringing a psychologist with you and even that would be absurd. You know, how can you know. So that’s why I always feel you need to tread lightly. You need to be hyper hypersensitive, hypersensitive to people and really listen and really sense what is, what’s going on as best as we humanly can inside of them. And sometimes it’s by beginning your line of questioning in a gentle way, kind of teasing out and then feeling like okay, Hey, is this starting to be too much for them?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, yeah, you have to, I think the more—well, for me personally, the more, or the longer I work as a photographer and I kind of sense you, kind of, yeah, you kind of mentioned the same as that I push less than before because I’m less afraid to not get the shots. It’s, I used to be a bit more— I don’t think I was ever pushy. It’s not in my nature, but I really wanted to get the shots. And yeah now, I’m so sensitive. So I really wouldn’t— I think the question also from Arky is really, really something that I, it’s a question that’s also on my mind, so.
Ed Kashi: Yeah. And I’m convinced that’s why, especially in the younger generation now, more photographers that might have gone into, you know, photojournalism, or, you know, reality based documentary work, are working more conceptually. And are working more in portraiture and testimony. Yeah, cuz it, when I say it makes it easier. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, you know that, in some ways, it makes it easier and simpler. And you have more control over the narrative where, you know, instead of going for the, you know, for the heart, so to speak, you know, we have this—well, I think she, I don’t know if she’s still alive. Barbara Walters, she was this famous television interviewer. She was on 60 Minutes and all this stuff. And it was like, there was actually a point where it was like, Oh, we’re trying to get the Barbara Walters moment, which meant when she made someone cry.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah.
Ed Kashi: On camera, you know, and I would say now, that idea probably wouldn’t go over so well with a lot of, especially with the younger generations. And hats off to them. And hats off to you.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s a good move, I think in the right direction.
Ed Kashi: Yeah. Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: We have a last question, Ed. And oh, sorry, do you want to add something?
Ed Kashi: Oh, no, no, no, go ahead. Go ahead.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: You can. I don’t think there’s any last questions in the q&a. Let me check, because I do have the last question. The fourth question. Oh, no, there is a last question. Okay, Ed. And we have four minutes and two from—
Ed Kashi: From Deb.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. From Deb. Do you want to read it?
Ed Kashi: An amazing talent in India, who I just spoke to about an hour ago. So no, this is not a question from on my side, but I would like to thank you, dear Ed, for saying that we should think about the question in some other way. I may be wrong and exact words, would hope you understand. Oh, thank you very much, this particular question. Okay. Just he’s saying this is a comment. I think it’s a question that continually comes up, ya know, and, and it always will, it always will. But I would hate to think we would, we would shy away might not be quite the right term. But you know, that we would stop trying to get these essential human stories. What we’d have to do is find a different, better, more creative way of doing
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Beautiful, I agree. Okay, it brings us to the last question. Curious to know what you’re going to say? What advice would you give your younger self? The younger Ed.
Ed Kashi: Right. Don’t do it. No.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Get a real job,
Ed Kashi: Go into banking. No don’t go into banking. Banking is stealing too many of our great young minds. The advice I’d give to my young self would be to start taking risks sooner. I waited until I was almost 30 to truly begin making documentary work. And while I have no regrets about that trajectory because I learned so much spending the first seven or eight years covering Silicon Valley and for magazines, and learning about how to how to set up a freelance business, because it is a business even if you don’t guys don’t like that term. It is a business. You know, how do you survive? How do you function as a freelance photographer, but I would say, while I have no regrets, I would have wanted to start my documentary journey sooner.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s beautiful. And I think that’s a good advice to others as well, not just to the younger Ed, because well, I know you are teaching a lot of workshops and you’re mentoring people. I’m also teaching some workshops and a lot of the times I really think okay, just do it. You know, the students will ask questions like, so, a lot of time goes into preparation, which is very important, but sometimes that very thorough preparation can kind of—is stagnating a word, like stagnant? It can kind of
Ed Kashi: Yeah, or stifling.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, like, then a person will never really go shoot. And sometimes it’s just, take the risk, take the camera and just start shooting. It’s yeah.
Ed Kashi: Yeah,exactly.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Take the risk and do it instead of waiting for the right moment. It’s never gonna happen I guess.
Ed Kashi: Exactly, exactly.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well, thanks, Ed. Thanks for your beautiful words and for sharing all of this lovely advice and for being so sensitive. Oh, now you’re a lot bigger. So thanks for making the time. And thanks to everyone who was with us in the last hour for sharing. There’s a lot of love, Ed, for you as well in the chat from everyone. A lot of people really like the fact that you’re being so open and yeah, being so personal. That was really lovely. Thank you. And for everyone that’s watching, please check out the Seven Insider website to see other events that are coming up. And I hope to see you on the next four questions. Thanks, Ed.
Ed Kashi: Thank you, Ilvy. It’s always great to see you.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: You too.
Ed Kashi: Bye everyone. Take good care.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thanks, everyone. Bye.