Telling the stories around you has always been a powerful and intimate aspect of documentary and journalistic work, but during the time of pandemic, when we are more likely locked down and even quarantined, where travel is either impossible or quite difficult, to hone your skills and awareness of the stories in your home, neighborhood, city, community or state, is not only valuable but imperative.
This lecture event will reflect upon the stories Ed Kashi has told in the course of his career and how he’s managed to continue to work during the pandemic by focusing on hyper-local stories of national and global significance.
0:05 [music plays]
Paul Lowe: So thanks to PhotoWings, were able to offer these sessions free of charge and also the incredible archive that we’re building up. So please do take some time to go on to the VII Insider site and have a look at the past sessions we have including, I think, a great one from before, we had Kashi as well. So I think as we say, without further ado, I should, just before I forget, Ed, our guest, will talk for 40-45 minutes, I assume, and then at the end, we’ll have time for questions. If you do have questions you want to put in put them into the q&a box, and I will field them and pass them through to Ed as we go on. So, Ed the floor is yours.
Ed Kashi: All right, thank you. Um, let me just get this catalog open. For some reason it closed while we were doing the intros. Welcome everyone. Thank you so much, Paul, and Giana, behind the scenes, for making this all happen. I just need to relaunch my Lightroom and then we can get started.
It’s interesting, after all these sessions, we’ve done so many of these online things in the last year. But I’m still I still continue to be flummoxed by Lightroom, and Zoom. They do not play well together. That’s what I’ve found. But what I want to talk about today is this idea of how you know, I’ve spent so much of my career. Hold on one sec. I’m so sorry, guys. I just want to get this right. All right, there we go. Now we can do this. I spent so much of my career over the last 30-40 years working abroad. And okay, hopefully the screen is now shared. And we have an image.
But one of the things that I’ve also kind of prided myself in and found incredibly powerful is the ability to work locally. And the thing about working locally. Paul, do we have an image? We’re good?
Paul Lowe: Yeah, we did. You’ve gone. That’s it. Yeah, that’s full screen now.
Ed Kashi: Okay, great. Okay, technical hiccups are hopefully gone. So, I’ve always found and I think this in some ways, this just is human nature that the challenge of capturing the familiar, you know, that quite often, you know, the people we’re closest to, or the sort of milieux, the environments that we know the best, are often the hardest to capture. And so working locally, or as I say, hyper locally, can really present that, you know, sort of force you to confront that challenge if you like. And there’s also the power of just finding stories close to home. You know, while I’ve worked in over 100 countries at this point, and I love working abroad. And you know, there’s also so much to learn by working locally, and during the pandemic, where we’ve been locked down, or at least curtailed in our ability to travel, finding stories and projects close to home is both a way to stay engaged. And also a way to explore territories that we often neglect or take for granted. And again, this goes for like human relationships, how often we can take for granted the people we’re closest to, or the people that were around all the time. So when you apply that idea of sort of photographic storytelling, you know, it really it’s reflected in that way. And I’d be interested to see when we go to the q&a, of the folks who are here, you know, is this something that you find in your own work, in your own lives, the challenge of trying to document things close to home? So I want to start with— I also want to say that working close to home reminds me of my love for doing this work. You know, how much there is to learn from what is right around you. And instead of traveling around the world, finding value in connecting to people and to stories locally, and also in some way, often serving your local community by doing that work. So I want to start with, I’m going to show you a selection of a handful of projects
over the years and then really focus down on a very large project that I’ve been working on with my wife, Julie Winokur, and Rutger’s University in Newark, looking at immigration on a local level. So, I’d say about 15-16 years ago, we moved from San Francisco to New Jersey to take care of my father-in-law, Herbie, who is in these pictures. And, you know, while I had photographed in my home before, I’d never never had this challenge of trying to document, not just the life of my father-in-law, as he was sort of diminishing, who’s 82 to 84 years old, the last few years of his life with us. But also, while we were what we call sandwich generation, Julie and I were, we had young kids, and we were sort of juggling both caring for an elder as well as taking care of young children. And this story even today, reverberates. We ended up doing two short films, working with Media Storm, and msnbc.com, to produce films, and also photo essays. And even today, we get responses from this work. And it really goes to show how so often, you know, we sometimes, we get to tap into sort of the universal in the stories we tell, and in this case in my was in my own home. And I have to say that I remember distinctly this was 2006-2008. And I had just come back from working in India. And I was— I needed a break from the field, quote, unquote. And then I came home and I had to pick up right—you know, pick up again, and immediately start working on documenting the life in my own home. So, I don’t know for those of you who have either done work like this or are contemplating doing work like this, I can’t express enough how powerful it is, assuming that the people you’re documenting and the stories you’re telling you have their permission, and their, you know, cooperation. It is, it’s really one of the most important works I’ve ever done. Now, I want to shift to covering an event, a news event that is local. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy came and hit the New York- New Jersey area. I live just right outside of New York City in New Jersey. And this was a different kind of local storytelling, which again, had national significance. The only global connection is this idea of climate change and global warming. And the way that it seems to be creating more frequent and much more powerful storms. So one of the things that I did was I covered this for Time magazine on the day of the hurricane and then the day after, and it was pretty horrific, you know, even a neighbor few doors down, their house was destroyed by treated filament. But then a year later and I’d like to talk about this again to get you guys thinking about, you know, the ways we can create stories. So I decided as the one year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy was coming, that I proposed to nbc.com to do like a one year later look. So this next series of diptychs are basically, I went back to the same places I photographed when the storm hit. And then a year later, I went back to the same places. So again, you know, and I know this is—I sometimes feel that this is a, I don’t know, one of the things about photojournalism in particular, to some degree documentary work, but really photojournalism, that we’re— often we we think we need to go far to tell important stories. And, you know, I want to keep on emphasizing, look locally, you know, especially during this time where it is much harder to travel. This was in Atlantic City, the famous boardwalk along the shore in New Jersey, had been destroyed. And a year later, it had been partially replanted, the beach had been replanted. This is my neighbor’s home. And then a year later, their house had been rebuilt. And this is a house on the left that had been destroyed in Atlantic City. And a year later it was being rebuilt.
So then the pandemic hits about a year ago, a little over a year ago now and it was last March. I suddenly like so many of you. I was unable to travel. I’m usually on the road eight months out of the year. All of a sudden my life was sort of turned upside down. And, but of course I have this need to engage with the world. And so I immediately started thinking about, well, if I can’t travel, what are the things I can work on, to stay engaged with what was the most important story. And so I started to do like a number of folks, and not only in VII, but throughout the photographic world. And you know, even beyond the photographic world, people starting to keep these sort of visual COVID Diaries. I’m just going to show a few images, this is my wife. Here’s a couple of diptychs. This is her doing yoga. And I find this to be really poignant. This is on our street. And within a few days, we held a vigil—this is Julie on the left—for a neighbor, our next door neighbor who had died from COVID. And then the birthday party of a four-year-old neighbor. This is literally just three or four days apart in the same patch of earth. And this idea of a cycle of life. So one of the major stories I worked on last year, during the height of the pandemic, and this was last, sort of March to May, June, when New Jersey and New York were really the epicenter at that point of the globe of the pandemic, but particularly in the United States. And as I looked around for what could I do, I decided to focus on a positive story about volunteerism, what I called Rising to the Call, and looking at all these organizations. This is a local YMCA, that had this food drive where they were giving out 40,000 meals a week to people. There were three hour long, you know, lines. This is a woman sleeping in her car waiting for food distribution. Blood drives. I wanted to look at all the different ways in this state of the United States, New Jersey, where I live, how were individuals and organization rising to the call in this terrible pandemic when we were locked down. People were dying, hundreds of people are dying every day, just in our midst. This is a local YMCA that was providing free childcare for frontline workers and health care workers. And I have to tell you, folks, like, I left a lot of these sessions, you know, in tears, but in tears of joy. I was inspired to see how people around me who would otherwise never, never know or never come into contact with were doing all this extraordinary work that left me feeling you know, my heart was full, there was hope. And there were so many folks in institutions who are, you know, rising to this moment. These are volunteer emergency medical services. I mean, again, to think about volunteering as an EMS worker, even normal times is pretty amazing. But to do it when they truly are risking their lives was something extraordinary. An elderly Indian man just in the town next to me who had been taken to the hospital. And then you had all these medium and small businesses. This is one of the largest logo manufacturers in America. And he shifted his business to making masks. Local restaurants. This is in Newark, a Cuban restaurant that shifted to making hundreds of meals a day to give out for free to local food banks. This was during Ramadan last year, a local Palestinian organization that banded together, got food donations, and then were creating these care packages for local families. This was a halfway house, there’s a halfway house in Paterson, New Jersey, for folks who are suffering from substance abuse and homelessness, and they rose to the occasion and started take care of COVID patients and handing out food to people.
Local farmers, urban and suburban farmers who, again, were growing food to be distributed, because there’s such an, even today, such a great need. Thankfully, it’s changing. And I say, it’s been the last year there’s been such a great need for food for people. These two women are surgeons, they’re bariatric surgeons. So normally, you know, they’re booked making probably lots of money doing these elective surgeries. But when COVID hit, excuse me, they couldn’t do these kinds of surgeries anymore. So instead of going back home, not working, they volunteered in the ICU units of their hospital to take care of COVID patients. So these are highly trained, highly paid surgeons who could, who would normally be making quite a lot of money and instead, they were volunteering. I mean, when you see stories like this, when you meet people like this, you just realize there’s so much goodness for all the darkness and all the difficulties that we are experiencing. There are people who are trying to make a difference. This woman is a child psychologist. And normally she works specifically with kids who are in foster care. And normally she would do face to face meetings, but because of COVID, she couldn’t. So, she came up with this way of using these different tools, like dolls, to communicate to these kids from the distance she now had to work from. And this is a local therapist who decided to volunteer her time speaking to homebound elders all over the country for free. So, I also covered some of the protests last year, in the wake of the George Floyd killing, and it really was a time of, you know, we felt like a new world order was forming. And while there’s still so much to be done, when it comes to racial justice and issues around diversity and inclusion, we are making progress. And when I went to these protests, it was incredible to see the people who are out, the different age groups, you know, complete, you know, multicultural society that we have in the United States. This picture was from a protest in Newark, New Jersey, which is the largest city in the state of New Jersey. It’s a, it’s a black city. And I just thought this was so powerful in the midst of this protest march for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and many of the other, you know, black folks who’ve been murdered and killed by the police. This one recent graduate, he’s actually an immigrant from Nigeria, just stopped, raised his fist and he was in his, you know, Rutgers University garb. So, alright, so the Newest Americans. This is an example of what I call hyperlocal storytelling of global significance. I’ve been working on this with Julie Winokur, my wife, Tim Raphael, a professor at Rutgers University in Newark, which is the— has the most diverse campus in this country. Over 100 languages are spoken. And about six, seven years ago, we devised this project to basically look at the issue of immigration, but through the lens of the City of Newark, and specifically the campus of Rutgers University. So we thought, well, if we can take this campus that is of such great diversity, and Newark, New Jersey, which is a global city, it is full of immigrants, both new and old, including members of the great migration, when, in the middle of the 20th century, millions of African Americans migrated from the south to the cities of the Northeast and the Midwest and beyond. And so, for the last six plus years, we’ve been telling different stories in different ways, all focused on immigration. I want to play just like a two minute sort of clip or a teaser for this project.
Clip Speaker 1: We’re in the shadows in New York. The thing with the Newark scene is, there’s so much good talent, it just needs to be recognized.
Clip Speaker 2: I’m an immigrant. I’m an artist and organizer. And an instigator.
Clip Speaker 3: A lot of our parents don’t have cars, they don’t have phones. They don’t have all these basic things.
Clip Speaker 4: I am my homeland, and my homeland is me. My love for you is fire in my heart. When am I going to see you free?
19:10 Clip Speaker 5: Every time I’ve said I’m going to stop I can’t.
Clip Speaker 6: Whenever somebody uses … on people, they’re actively dehumanizing a person.
Clip Speaker 7: Let’s say Newark was a place of entry. You come from someplace else. You stop in Neward first.
Clip Speaker 8: For most of my childhood, my father was all over the world, traveling, speaking, writing poetry, doing plays. Your grandson is now the mayor of the city.
Various Clip Speakers: My family is from Pakistan,
I’m the first one in the family to be born in America
Ed Kashi: So, this project has enabled us to, you know, work on, you know, some of this— that was a really quick teaser. So I know, for those of you who haven’t seen any of the work, it probably might not have made sense. But, you know, we’ve done— we did stories on like a Syrian composer who now is, you know, based in the United States and worked with an ood player, who’s a faculty member at Rutgers. You know, we’ve done stories on reverse migration of Guatemalans who are now returning to Guatemala from the United States. So many different, so many different stories. What I want to share is a few of the— and also it’s enabled us to work through our partnership with VII with, you know, great photographers like Ashley Gilbertson and Maciek Nabrdalik and Tomas van Houtryve. And of course, Ron Haviv. So, this has been a great, what we call a collaboratory, and it’s really unique collaboration between the University and the faculty members, Talking Eyes Media, the nonprofit production company that Julie runs, and VII photo. So we’ve we’ve done the bulk of the photography, and the filmmaking. So I want to share a few pieces that I’ve worked on in the context of this project, again, all locally done. So Julie and I decided to look at— this was actually four years ago—the issue of immigrant detention. So I don’t know for many of you, if you know that something like 90% of the detention facilities in the United States are privately run. That means that there’s actually a profit motive to locking up immigrants, the majority 90% or more who have done nothing wrong, they’ve not broken the law, other than trying to seek asylum in the United States, or come as immigrants. Sorry, I didn’t go to sleep. I was just trying to turn the phone off. So we decided to look at this issue through the prism of doing portraits of immigrants who had come to the United States and had been detained anywhere from six months to years. Again, they had not done— they had not broken the law, they were not criminals. So this idea of criminalizing immigration, and then having private companies profit from their detention is for me, despicable, and one of the many ills and evils in this country that we need to address. And so we photographed a number of these folks, and then did interviews with them. And we did a, an exhibition in the city of Newark, where we had life size prints with a barcode next to the print. And if you photograph that, excuse me, if you scan that, then you would get a call back from these individuals telling their story. So you know, we’ve experimented also in the course of this project, Newest Americans with a number of different approaches to visual storytelling. We also worked on a piece called 37 Voices, and it was looking at basically, you know, the working poor in this state, and we focused on the number of domestic workers. This is Ursula, she’s from Brazil. And she’s a housecleaner. She’s 50 years old. She’s raised two kids, you know, all the while — this is one of her son’s birthday parties in Newark—you know, all the while, kind of basically skirting the poverty line. You know, and it’s this idea of it’s, how can it be okay, in this society, if people are working hard, working full time, and are still living in poverty, or near poverty? I know poverty is a tricky one. It’s somewhat in the eye of the beholder. There are statistical, you know, benchmarks that determine it. But, you know, what we found— so this is this woman Marcela, she’s from Mexico. She’s incredible to me, she represents the best of the folks who immigrate to America. She now has her own house cleaning business in the middle of New Jersey, and she employs six other women. So, not only is she working hard raising a family as a single mom, she has three kids, but she is also employing other people.
This is a woman from Guatemala, she suffered tremendous domestic abuse back in her home country, and now she’s here. She’s worked as a horse trainer, she’s worked as a house cleaner, babysitter. Again, these folks, what we see here is they’re working so hard to make ends meet, and pretty much doing everything right. This picture means a lot to me. One of the things she does for one of her clients is darn their clothing, you know, as a seamstress. And so she was just sort of trying this on to see how, how her work had gone. So, as I say, there are— so there’s so many rich stories to be told, if you just you— whether you look, you know, in your house, or just just within, you know, as I like to say within a few square miles of where you live. Now this woman is from Nepal. She’s also a poet, she was working on a one of her poems here. She is also a domestic worker. Here, she’s doing puja early in the morning before she sets out to work. And this is in Jersey City where she is working. She’s very involved in a Workers Alliance to promote better labor practices for domestic workers in the state of New Jersey and also in the United States in general. And here she was having a meeting with a number of other workers and labor organizers. Coming home late from work. And then another project I’ve worked on last year was looking at the one city of Freehold, New Jersey. It’s a small town. It’s actually where Bruce Springsteen comes from. I didn’t know that when I began this project, but uh, it’s now probably of a town of 10,000 people, half or more are immigrants, mostly Latinx. And so we wanted to look at— I work with Mary Ann Koruth, wonderful writer, an Indian woman, also an immigrant to this country. By the way, I’m a first generation American. My parents came from Iraq, from Baghdad in 1942. So I also, my own personal story, I’m connected to these kinds of stories. And so what we wanted to do was look at the impact of the pandemic on this one community of immigrant laborers, because the, the Latinx community in particular has been hit very hard by the pandemic. So we did a number of interviews and portraits, also went to the site in the middle of town where they congregate, the day laborers congregate to get work. This is Rita Dentino. She’s this incredible activist and immigrant rights activist. It’s just again, you know, you get to realize how many incredible people are in your midst doing all these wonderful things that you otherwise would never learn about. And this story was eventually published in The Nation magazine. And, you know, I’ve been fortunate that the most of the stories I’ve been working on on the pandemic have appeared, in the New York Times, The Nation or other major media. So again, this idea of having impact with one’s work, you know, getting getting the message out there is also very important to me. And because of the pandemic, you know, originally I—you know, my goal was to, find a few workers and then spend lots of time with them. And what became clear very quickly was that nobody really wanted a photographer and a writer to be hanging out in the heart, in the midst of this pandemic, in their homes. So we sort of shifted gears and decided to approach it as a portrait with you know, interview and testimony approach.
Many of these laborers, like this gentleman, he got COVID. Thankfully, he recovered, but then nobody wanted to hire him to work and even his housemates kind of shunned him. Some of these folks have been here for 30 years, 40 years. Again, they they often congregate, the labor day laborers, on the railroad tracks in the middle of Freehold, waiting to be picked up to get work for that day. And the last thing I want to share with you here is— and this is an upcoming, a new development from the Newest Americans project. And we are creating what we’re calling the Newark Story Bus. And so we were able to get an NEH grant, a National Endowment for the Humanities, a very large grant over a two year period, so that we could not only continue the Newest Americans project, but create this story bus. So this bus, let’s see if this will play. So we hired these two local, great local artists, actually, they live in Brooklyn, to paint this bus that we acquired. And to basically, it will be a media lab, a roving media lab, where one part of it will be a photo studio, and one part of it will be an audio recording studio. And the idea will be that, hopefully, as the pandemic lifts, and the weather gets better, this— these pictures were taken a couple months ago in upstate New York, so it was still snowing—this great artist is is fabricating the interior of this bus on her upstate New York farm. But ultimately, this bus will go around the city of Newark, and not only have the content we’ve created over the last six years to share with local community members, but also invite them to come into this vehicle and get photographed and also to share their stories so that we over time, will— the goal of this story bus is to create, is to capture and archive the stories of people from Newark today. So that’s it for my presentation and I’ll stop sharing. And welcome back to the real zoom world here. And—
Paul Lowe: Great, thanks. Thanks. So let’s see, we have some questions. Let’s have a look at what we’ve got. So a question from Julio Albarin. You know, how do you decide what stories to cover? You know, even even when you’re working locally, there’s still an incredible variety of things. You know, do you have, you know, a way of, you know, how do you approach this? Or how do you know, it’s a good story? Is it a kind of gut feeling? Is it through research? What’s your what’s your thought process in terms of identifying the projects you want to work on?
Ed Kashi: So thank you for that question. So, you know, for me, I work a lot from the gut. And, you know, it’s partly the mania of the need. And Paul, I know you know, this, and I’m sure folks out there know this where, you know, I can’t help but do this work. It’s what keeps me alive and keeps me moving forward. So at any given moment, I’m always sort of charting and researching what’s out there, what themes, what issues are out there. And then I respond to what connects to me, not just intellectually, not just as a journalist, or a reporter, or an anthropologist, of course, on that level, but also at that sort of heart and gut level. And then of course evaluating, Well, can I do that story? Am I the right person to do it? Am I able to do it? whether it— well generally security issues aren’t going to be a factor domestically, for the most part, for the most part—but it’s really those factors that go into my decision making on what stories I decided to tell because one thing I’ve also learned as a mentor and teacher, is people often get tripped up at this point in their process where they have so many ideas they want to do. And you know, there’s so many things that interest them, that they can never settle down and commit to one and I can’t emphasize this enough. Part of doing this work effectively is being able to commit to something. That means there will always be stories you’d love to do that you won’t get to, but at least you will get to one story or a few stories at a time so that you can accomplish something.
Paul Lowe: And then once you decided, I mean, how do you—another question here from Effie Damon in the Netherlands. How do you actually go about finding people then? I mean, do you have a sort of a, an approach that you’ve you found effective? You know, do you do it through just wandering the streets or through organizations or social media or gatekeepers or or is it different on every project?
Ed Kashi: All of the above, but I would say like for so, just as a concrete example, with the Rising to the Call project, you know, that was a case where there were a few news articles at that point about whatever local companies diverts—you know, like a liquor distillery company decides to make disinfectant or, you know, a seamstress decides to make masks. So we basically just did you know, just good solid journalism of reporting. Brenda Bingham, who works with me, my studio manager, but beyond that she’s just incredible. I basically worked with her as if she was working in the role of a producer. So whether you have, you can do it yourself, you can have a writer you work with, or an editor or producer. You know, that is how I did that story where then we just cast a wide net, using the internet and doing research every day, you know, what were new things going on, you know. We’d see a story about, you know, a local county sheriff’s department has, has decided to disinfect all the vehicles of healthcare workers at a local hospital. Great story. So we reach out to the sheriff’s department, we reach out to the hospital, and it’s just, it’s just basic reporting, really, where you find an idea, you find a story, we find an idea. And then you do the due diligence of contacting, again, whether it’s an individual, a company, a governmental organization, a hospital and institution, and then you know, hopefully getting permission to gain access. Now, there were some things I wanted to do, like in hospitals, that especially back then a year ago, I couldn’t get access to because, and understandably so, they needed to focus their energies in these hospitals, in these health care facilities on combating the pandemic, not on, you know, having, using staff time to bring a photographer around, but that’s basically the approach. You know, some stories, you don’t need to go through official channels, you know, it’s really just a matter of contacting an individual or family. And for other stories, you need to go through the, you know, the hoops of, of gaining, you know, more formal access.
Paul Lowe: And what, how persistent are you? You have a question from Mark Bolton, who says he’s working on a similar kind of project with a hospital. He’s reached out to them, but it just hasn’t got a response. You know, how persistent are you? And when do you realize— what’s the point at which you give up and move on to something else?
Ed Kashi: Yeah, well, you have to, you have to be persistent. And it’s one of the it’s one of the, it’s one of the great talents, you need to do this work. Because that not only goes for finding subjects to gain, access, and all that even goes for, you know, getting work and making contact with potential clients, for lack of a better term, you know, that we need to perfect the ability to be persistent, but not annoying. Because when you’ve, when you when you hit that point, that inflection point where you become annoying, whether it’s to a client or to a subject, then usually you are not going to succeed. So I’m persistent, you know, sometimes with Brenda I’ll play, you know, good cop, bad cop. You know, obviously, she’s the good cop. But, um, you know, there’s a point at times, like with one of the local hospitals, and this was really interesting, where they just kept on deferring. They, they wouldn’t give me an answer. They didn’t say no, but they didn’t say yes, literally, I think like, more than a month had gone by. And then I had shown my, the work I had done at that point to an editor at the New York Times, and he thankfully said, we want the work, we want to do this. But I said to him, I’m not finished. So now I was able to revert back to the hospital, and other upcoming subjects that we wanted to cover. And then I was able to say, I’m doing this with the New York Times, and then voila, all of a sudden, the hospital opened up. So you know, you’ve got to use whatever you can for leverage. But I totally understand if you are working independently, you have no media backing or NGO or foundation backing you that, it definitely can be tough. And there is a point we have to realize, especially with bigger institutions, and especially with health care facilities, you know, that it’s just not, might not be possible. So one of the ways you can get around that, and again, in a particular case, I can’t remember the name of the gentleman that asked this question, I think Mark. But anyway, you might need to devise a different approach. You know, maybe you intended to go to get into the, you know, the under the belly of the beast, the ICU units, or you know, to be able to film, photograph patients, and maybe what you’ll realize is that, the best you can do is get maybe the healthcare workers to agree to come and meet you outside of the hospital to do portraits and interviews with them. Now, maybe that might not at all satisfy what your initial intention is or was. But you know, sometimes we need to rally and figure out a different approach, instead of just giving up.
Paul Lowe: So you’ve answered a couple of questions that were in the pipeline there as well about how to kind of be persistent and working with—how valuable it is to have a publication to help open those doors. But obviously something else that’s very much part of this when you start working with somebody is that kind of process of how you actually begin the relationship and how you set out what that relationship is going to be. So things like informed consent, do you start off by just getting to know the person before you start shooting, you know, again, is that a kind of case by case? So just how you build that relationship. How much time would you spend with somebody typically? You know, obviously, again, it’s a bit of an open ended question. But in an ideal world, what’s what’s the kind of sweet spot, if you like, of how long you could be with somebody to get this kind of depth of intimacy without spending, you know, months and months and months, if that makes sense? So quite a few different questions there. But essentially, around navigating that relationship with with individual people, consent. Do you tell them who you’re working for, who the publication is going to be, and things like that.
Ed Kashi: Yeah. So, you know, I welcome this new conversation I’d say, in the last five years or so, of this term, informed consent, because it is a critically important and relatively new element within the way we we must work, quite frankly, the way we should always have worked. But the way we must work now, so I mean, for me informed consent is well, on the most human basic level is that you’ve explained—and I always say this, you need to be able to say who you are, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, if it’s relevant, who you’re doing it for with, and what will happen to the work. You need to be able to answer those questions concisely and clearly to your to potential subjects, because at least then you are being transparent on who you are, what you’re doing. And you know why. And quite often the why is what will hook people, you know, because if you’re if you’re being sincere, and you know, if your idea is not just relevant, but you know, heartfelt like in the case of the the Latinx workers in this town of Freehold, you know, we were clear that we were coming to tell their story because we feel, we see that they are frontline workers who are taking extraordinary risks and have no virtually no support. No health care, no workman’s comp, no unemployment insurance, and yet they continue to go out there and work and get sick, and sadly, in some cases die. So when people see that, you understand their dilemma, you understand their situation, that they then will generally open up more and accept you and then become what I consider willing collaborators. Now in the amount of time that I spend with people. That’s not a tricky bit, but it’s definitely something that I feel has changed over time, even pre pandemic, but especially since the pandemic, and as I said, outlined earlier, where the with the Freehold story on Latinx workers. My intention was to spend, you know, do the classic, you know, deep dive documentary work, I want to photograph everyone in your family at work at home, at play, at church, whatever, whatever it is, and then you quickly realize, like, they’ll let you onto their porch, or they’ll maybe let you into like a room in their house. Maybe they’ll spend an hour or two of you. And then that’s it. That’s it. They’re done. And so, as disappointing, or frustrating as that may be, we have, I mean, there is no alternative. I mean, yeah, we can slightly push people, but I’m increasingly feeling like, I don’t want to be photographing people, especially in stories like this, who— I don’t want to make them uncomfortable, or unhappy, or or feel violated, or put out. And it’s a again, it’s another tricky kind of tightrope that you have to traverse in this— in doing this work. Because there are absolutely times where we need to inconvenience people to do the work we want to do, you know, but increasingly, I’m of the mind, of the heart, that I’m trying to avoid that because, well, it’s a it’s just not a good feeling you know. And so you need to weigh, you know, the importance, the relevance, the potential impact of pushing harder, and maybe inconveniencing people. You need to weigh that to what is the potential impact of the work I’m doing. I hope that answered your questions. I’m happy if you have a follow up.
Paul Lowe: Again, I’m amalgamating several questions here together but there’s quite a few people interested in in how you think about the visual strategy that you’re going to use for a particular project and how much that’s changed over time. So you know, obviously, black and white versus color, medium format versus 35 millimeter, when to use video and when you are going to use video. You’ve been quite innovative in using mixing stills and video together and jump cuts and things like that. So how does that process work? In terms of working out the right visual strategy? Is it organic?
Ed Kashi: Yeah. Did we lose Paul? I hope not.
Paul Lowe: I muted myself to get the question in. So—
Prematurely muted. Okay. Um, so, um, it’s, you know, the first the big one at this point, because I do, I do so much video work. Now, you know, I do so much work as a filmmaker, not as a still photographer. And so probably the most important first decision on visual strategy—and I know, visual strategy is not a sexy term or poetic term, but boy, it sure captures the point—which is when we begin something, we must have intention, we must have clarity of purpose. And so, you know, for me, the first decision is, am I going to make a film, or am I going to make a series of images, whether they’re a portrait series, or a photo essay, or some amalgam of those approaches as a still photographer, or am I going to do both? And so once I decide that, then a lot gets determined. If I decide I’m only going to be working as a filmmaker, well, then I don’t need to wear the hat of a still photographer, I don’t need to think about, you know, what I need to do. And quite frankly, working as a filmmaker is a lot harder, because you do need access. You can’t just have a one hour portrait session and interview with someone. That will achieve nothing—not nothing, but it will not give you the raw material you need to actually make a film, even a short film, I mean, unless you just want it to be a talking head with no visual element. So on the other hand, as I have shown, reflected in the work I share with you today, you know, I decided during the pandemic on these local stories, to work as a still photographer, because I felt that it was you know, it just made so much sense on so many levels, the amount of time I would need with my subjects, the ability to make something powerful without draining my subjects and inconveniencing them during a pandemic. And then also the idea of dissemination of the work. What’s the impact that the work can have? And I still deeply believe in the power of a great environmental portrait with testimony, with the voices of your subjects. So, again, there’s the visual strategy. Is it filmmaking? Is it still photography? Is it a mixture? In terms of still photography, then is it portraits? Or is it reportage, or some combination? I’m sure maybe some of you have other ideas of how you would approach it visually. And I’m totally open to more, kind of, inventive and creative ways of approaching visual storytelling, folks. So please, I’m just giving you basic outlines of visual strategies. But my God, you can do so much now. And especially creating, you know, social media pieces and Instagram stories and, you know, integrating text and drawings and whatever it is, whatever you want to do. I, to me, the sky’s the limit. And we’ve never been in a position where we have so many creative tools at our fingertips to utilize to tell stories, you know, and I look at the work of other photographers now that are working in so many are doing just no such great work in this moment from the hardcore, unflinching, you know, black and white, you know, journalistic work. I mean, Ashley Gilbertson’s work about New York City on the pandemic, boy that sticks with me deeply, you know, Philip Montgomery and a number of other other great photographers that are doing really hardcore frontline work, you know, and then there’s, there’s all this beautiful work being done by you know, I think of Rosa Morton, who’s a who’s a nurse, but she’s also a wonderful young photojournalist. And she did a story about herself as a nurse during the pandemic in a hospital. So there’s so many different ways, as I say, to skin this cat, and I’m happy to brainstorm with you or any of you guys here in this space, if you want, but for me, I think I’ve outlined my, my approaches, and I hope, I’ve outlined my thinking and how I go about making those decisions. And I’ll add one more thing I want to add to it is, thinking of output and dissemination, I’m cognizant of the fact that if I decide to do a short documentary film, then that will close out like a whole range of potential outlets to distribute the work through, but it will then open up a whole range of media outlets that otherwise might not be interested in the work, you know, and then it goes the same for doing only stills.
Paul Lowe: Um, do you think after spending a year shooting hyperlocal— and when things open up again—do you think you’ll kind of be desperate to just go out and shoot other stories around the world? Or will you try to keep this hyperlocal approach? It’s interesting thing. No, no, it’s what’s your response going to be post post pandemic? Assuming there ever is a post-pandemic of course.
Ed Kashi: Yeah, no, it’s true. It’s not something to actually laugh at. Well, you know, just just for, you know, clarity here in the past year, I’ve also worked in Rwanda, and I’ve worked throughout the United States on different other projects. So I’ve continued to travel, just not at the pace that I normally travel. And also, but also what’s happened is I’ve had many projects either postponed or unfortunately killed, that would have sent me around the world, around the country to work. So, in the course of this last year, I have continued to work and travel, just to be clear. And I fully intend to continue to do that. I’m leaving this Sunday for Los Angeles to work on a film for the next week. So I think, to answer your question, you know, candidly and accurately, is that in the same way that I’ve been working, both locally, and internationally for the past 20 years or so, I hope to continue to do both of those approaches. Because there is something as I say, you know—there was a period of my life, probably in my 30s, definitely in my 30s, and maybe in my 40s, where there was that sense of, you know, I have to go to Iraq, I have to go to Afghanistan, I have to go to Nigeria, I have to go to, you know, these places, where, where I was keenly and genuinely interested in stories, you know, and but then I thought, you know, but then when, like, I’d have an assignment in the United States, I’d be like, oh, you know, not that this is boring. But, you know, somehow it didn’t feel the same. Well, that’s all gone now. And I’m happy to say or not happy, but I, you know, I love that this has happened within me at least, that I can go around the block. And I can still bring the same sense of open heart, open mind, like, what am I going to see today? What am I going to discover? Who am I going to meet? You know, what story is going to unfold in front of me? And quite frankly, I know that some of you will not believe this. But something like New Jersey can be as exotic as Rwanda on some level. And exotic is a lame word. I’m actually sorry, I even used that word. Erase that one. What I’m saying it’s not exotic, but can be, can make you feel like you’ve been transported somewhere else. That’s really what I mean.
Paul Lowe: Amazing. And how do you think people are going to look back on this pandemic period, you know, in terms of photography, and in terms of the importance of it? Is it, you know, in 20-30 years time, how important do you think it is, in comparison to other things we’ve lived through, other situations we’ve we’ve experienced?
Ed Kashi: I don’t know. It’s an interesting question, Paul. And I’ve started to compile articles in, like, books that were written about the pandemic 100 years ago, because I’m—if I could find some time, I’d like to kind of get a sense of what was written, you know, how it was characterized, then and is sort of historically contextualized? Because I’m sure that there will be yard markers back then that will give us some idea of what we’re in for now, post pandemic? Like, will there be another roaring 20s? But and then will there be another stock market crash in 2029? But anyway, I’ll tell you that on a visual level, the whole like, mask wearing thing has presented—I don’t know if it’s exactly answering the question, but it’s presented a bit of a conundrum. You know, you know, over the past year, when I’ve worked on projects that are not related to the pandemic, there’s been this conscious, kind of, you know, like, need to sort of, you know, some cases to say to someone, can you please take your mask off, as long as it was in a safe environment, of course, and they were willing, because I knew that, you know, or we knew the work that what we were creating is not meant to be about the pandemic and that if people have masks on, then it it really sort of places it within a kind of constrained time period and that It’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, it’s also honest and true. But you know, in some kinds of stories, you know, like next week, I’m going to go to LA to do a film for UCLA, the University of California at Los Angeles, about diversity in their, in their sciences. And so this is not a film, that this is not a film that should be that should appear to be done during the pandemic. But we have no idea we might go into these labs with these students. And they might be like, we’re not taking our mask off. Well, then so be it, that’s how it’ll be. But in terms of how, I think the broader question of the spirit of the question you asked, I think people will see this time, as a pretty hard and rough period, even even if you’ve been fortunate enough to skirt the disease itself and your loved ones and your friends and your co-workers, that you know, even if you haven’t been, you know, intimately hurt or damaged, by loss from the pandemic, it will still be a period of, I think, a period that will feel kind of dark and difficult. But I also think that many of us, many people will feel gratitude for things that they otherwise wouldn’t have recognized. You know, because in the, in the sort of frenetic lives we live, most of us live, it seems, in this modern world we’re in, you know, things happen so quickly. And there’s such a turnover of, of experience and information and with social media, that we often don’t stop enough to kind of take stock of, of not only who we are, but who is around us. You know, like, for instance, in the past year, I’ve spent more time with, with Julie than we have in the previous 28 years of our relationship. And for us, it’s been like a reawakening of our relationship in terms of appreciating each other and learning to work even better with each other and all that sort of stuff. So so, you know, I’m not saying it’s all good, but you know, so I guess to answer the question, I think people will look back on it in a variety of ways. But I think one thing we will all agree upon, is, when it’s over is thank goodness, it’s over. And we can go out again, and we can hug each other and we can shake hands, and we can kiss and we can talk with each other and not have to have masks on in each other’s homes and all of those kinds of things. That was a long answer.
Paul Lowe: There’s a joke about that. In a couple of years time we’ll put, we’ll put a a hand in the pocket of a jacket we haven’t worn for a while and pull a mask out and say, Oh, remember those times, as we then put in our hazmat suits, and our full, you know, sort of get into a vacuum sealed vehicle and go out because it’s gotten even worse. But anyway, we’re gonna end on one last question or set of questions, which is, obviously we get a lot, which is what advice would you give to your younger self, as it were, if you were starting out in photography now? But I think just to give it to keep it focused on this, what two or three pieces of advice would you give — how you could use this kind of hyperlocal storytelling, because often people, when they’re starting out in their careers, they think they have to go and tell some extraordinary story in a faraway land in order to be able to break into the industry. What lessons do you think you can pull from your experience, particularly recently, of doing the hyperlocal stories that you could give people who are beginning their careers—how to produce compelling work from these sorts of situations.
Ed Kashi: Yeah, it’s such a great question and an important question. And I don’t know, of the 100 plus people who are on this, you know, where you all are. But you know, one of the beautiful things that has transpired or evolved in the last, again, five years, in particular, you know, started maybe a little longer than that, is a more of a— not a regionalization of work—but, you know, that now, people in you know, in Africa and Asia and Latin America and the subcontinent all over the world, that you’ve never had access, you’ve never had, you never had the ability to have access more than you do now, to storytelling and getting your work out there. Part of that as a function of social media. Part of that is the media has changed. And I know this from experience where you know, editors will now much rather, you know, find a photographer in Nigeria than send me to Nigeria, that kind of thing. So while you know, boohoo for me, because I still love going to those places. I totally understand why. So the point being that wherever you are in the world there are great stories to be told and more than ever, people are interested. They want to know they want to know what’s going on in your backyard, maybe what’s going on in your home, maybe even in your bedroom, like in your, in your room, what is going on. And so don’t feel you need to take crazy chances and go to conflict zones or, or whatever it may be, to, to get ahead, right. The most important thing is that you tell a story you really care about, and that you commit to it. And you’re patient with yourself, and you’re patient with the story. And you give it time to evolve. And you give yourself a chance to experiment, experiment with with your your approach or visual approach. And, and work on it for a while. Months, if not years. And then if you’ve created this great body of work, I promise you, good things will come from it, I promise you, and it does. And then it won’t matter whether you whether you did it, you know, of your neighbor in Iowa, or Botswana, or wherever, or whether you traveled halfway around the globe, you know. I hope that is a, not a lesson, but I hope that’s a message you, you all, for those of you that it’s relevant, that you’ll take is that, you know, don’t think that because you’re doing something that is familiar or telling a story about someone or something that is familiar to you, or that is near you, that it’s not relevant to other people. I think that’s the biggest takeaway I hope you’ll take from this is, you know, believe in your instincts believe in those stories and the people around you. We are we are, I think we’re really hungry for stories about other folks. And again, to finish on this. What’s so beautiful now is that you, increasingly people can tell the stories of their own people and their own places, and then share it with the world.
Paul Lowe: And that’s been the real lesson from the pandemic, because they’ve been so many amazing bodies of work that fit exactly the criteria that you just outlined, because people, by necessity have had to turn their attention on their own environment. And it’s incredible, the outpouring of creativity, emotional, psychological storytelling, that’s happened, you know, I mean, I’ve said quite a few times now, but the pandemic obviously has been this global event that’s affected everybody. But in the history of photography, it’s a unique event, because practically everybody that has a camera, and I’m using the term camera very loosely, to include phones and so on, has turned it in some way on their own life. And I think it’s, people should take great heart from that, because I’ve seen so many amazing projects that people have shot, as you said, literally inside their own four walls, nevermind on their street, or whatever it might be. And I think it’s very encouraging how amazing those projects have been, what incredible variety and also how successful they’ve been. So as always, it’s been…
Ed Kashi: Oh, sorry to interrupt. I just want to say it really outlines how much incredible talent there is out in the world.
Paul Lowe: Absolutely.
Ed Kashi: And how much, how much love there is for photography. This is not a dying medium.
Paul Lowe: And also how much a lot of that, you know, with things like Instagram, we’ve been able to communicate, you know, almost unmediated without having to go through a major media organization or a gallery or an art gallery, whatever it might be. Wonderful. Well as always, Ed, it’s fantastic to spend time with you. You’re such a rich and deep thinker about the medium of storytelling and documentary and great pleasure to have hosted you again today. Thank you very much to the audience and for so many great questions and great feedback. Once again, thanks to PhotoWings, our partner, for helping us make these happen. And a huge thank you to VII Insider. Keep coming back. It’s fantastic to see lots of familiar faces, or I should say familiar names, but they’re becoming part of our crew, which is wonderful. I’m so happy we as a group, so happy that the feedback from these sessions has been so positive and really great that we have your support. So thank you very much Ed.
Ed Kashi: Thank you everyone!
Paul Lowe: Thanks again as well and see you the next one. Thanks very much, everyone. Bye bye.
Ed Kashi: Bye.