The Digital Journalist
Fun, Fun, Fun, Shooting In The USA
February 2005

by Peter Howe

I've been in New York for 26 years; why I have no idea, but it's the longest I have ever lived anywhere continuously. To live here is to be in close contact on a daily basis with people in varying stages of mental derangement. On the same corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue on consecutive days a man in an inflatable yellow chicken suit and a six-foot banana assaulted me. I'm assuming that there was a man inside the banana, or else genetic modification has gone further than we fear.

In my daily walk through Central Park I frequently see a rather plump woman in full athletic gear doing a passable imitation of a dying pigeon by flapping her arms in the air in a random manner. She is obviously under the misconception that this marginal activity will ensure her health, wealth, longevity and a firm butt, and she's sadly mistaken on all four counts. Another of my fellow park walkers is accompanied by a small monkey in a green knitted sweater that she transports in one of those front-loading baby pouches that are designed to confuse your child into thinking that it's still in the womb. The creature chatters continuously, but whether this is from fear, cold or because it is of a sociable nature is not clear.

Then there are the more mundane, but more frequent examples of sociopathic behavior. These include cars honking at the sanitation trucks that block their path despite the well-established fact that if you honk at sanitation workers they slow down, not speed up. Add to these the jewel-encrusted matrons and their shopping bags who are transported by their chauffeurs in the biggest, blackest SUVs in production, vehicles for which an off-road experience is driving the side streets between Madison and Park, and you will understand why there are days in New York when I wish I was still in the womb.

It was on one of these days that I got an e-mail from Arnold Drapkin, inviting me to participate in this year's Fotofusion in Delray Beach, Fla. Apart from the attraction of the dramatic increase in January temperatures possible through this offer, it also meant a respite from the frenzy of New York Life. Now you may think that looking for sanity in Florida is akin to looking for a really good lap-dance bar in Vatican City, but I felt that being among my peers would be good for my state of mind. Of course there are people who think that hoping for sanity from the company of other photographers is also an unbalanced activity, but I am not one of them.

Fotofusion is a curious but not uninteresting mixture of young professionals and older amateurs, and one of the duties that each of the presenters must perform is portfolio review, something that I look forward to with the same enthusiasm as root canal. The work varies immensely. At the high end is extraordinary photography, such as the personal project of a staff photographer at a health facility who has been working with people who lose children either in childbirth or shortly thereafter. His work is both powerful and compassionate, and is now being used as a tool for grief counseling. Counterbalancing this inspiring effort was an older woman with a Ziploc bag of 4x6 prints, about which I could think of nothing to say. Then you have the oddities that fall somewhere in the middle, such as the French man with a portfolio of portraits of very young women clearly influenced by Jock Sturges. The unnerving aspect to reviewing this collection was not the quality of the work but the fact that the photographer's wife stood behind him throughout the entire review, nodding when she agreed with something I said, and frowning when she clearly didn't. She frowned a lot. Having said that, I realized that after all these years I still get an immense amount of pleasure out of looking at photography, although I still can't think of anything to say about the contents of the Ziploc bag.

But the real delight to being there was to be in the company of photographers, many of whom I've known for 20-plus years. Whether it was being impressed by their passionate intelligence during seminars, or having riotous evenings in some unfortunate restaurant, I also realized, as I have many times before, that these are the people I most enjoy being with. Looking back on my career, I've had so much fun doing photojournalism in one form or another that it's surprising to me it's still legal under the Bush administration. Yes, the pay sucks, the working conditions contravene most OSHA regulations, you have to fight for the least bit of respect and recognition, but having said all that I've been places, seen things and had experiences that no poor boy from South London would ever have expected to happen to him. And it has been fun.

The great thing about being at gatherings such as Fotofusion is to see it happening all over again and witness another generation of photographers launch their boats into this sea of uncertainty that we call a profession. Some of them seem incredibly self-assured, at least on the surface, and others are as confused as I was at their age, but they all have a common enthusiasm and appetite for experience that they share not only with each other but with every generation that has preceded them.

One of the panels that I moderated while I was there was titled "Photography as a Social Stimulant" (which I know sounds a bit Viagra-ish.) The panelists came from widely diverse backgrounds - Ed Kashi, the perennial freelancer, Stephen Marc, a professor at Arizona State University, and John Isaac, who until 1998 was a staff photographer for the United Nations. What they all shared, apart from a passion for their craft and the ability to clearly articulate why they practiced it, was a level of commitment that compelled them to work on personal projects because of a driving need to discover for themselves, and then to communicate what they had found to other people. They didn't do a P&L (profit and loss) chart, or work out the ROI (return on investment) before proceeding (have you noticed that MBAs only communicate with each other in acronyms?) They did it because their work and their lives are a unified whole, and not two separate segments.

The other thing that was apparent was that each of them clearly views the photography as the starting point of the process of communication, not as an end in itself. This meant that they would do lectures, make posters, or donate prints for causes associated with the subject, and generally take control of and feel responsible for the life of the photography after its completion. You don't hear the word activist as much as you used to in the '60s and '70s, but that's what they were. Whether it was for the plight of the aging, the history of African-Americans, helping the underprivileged children of the world or preserving the White Tiger, each of these three photographers was committed to being actively involved in their issues long after they had photographed them.

Even after this worthy (in the best sense of the word) discussion we ended on a lighter note. John Isaac, who despite the sound of his name is from India, came to this country in the late-'60s with a 12-string guitar and 75 cents in his pocket with the intention of becoming a threat to Bob Dylan. The closest he got was to appear on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour where he yodeled - yes, you read it right, yodeled - for approximately two minutes. Now although there's not a lot of competition for yodeling Indians, apparently there's not a lot of demand for them either, and this turned out to be the apogee of his career. He shared this precious moment in the history of entertainment with us at the end of the seminar through a video clip of it on his computer that was given to him by some people who were making a documentary of his life. Believe me when I say that photography's gain was greater than music's loss.

The fun continued even outside the portfolio reviews and lecture theaters. One of the reasons I love visiting the "red" states is that they're nuts in a different way from New York. Their insanity is slower and less neurotic than the inhabitants of the Big Apple, but just as strange. I'll give you an example: On Southern Boulevard in Loxahatchee, Fla., there is a Hess gas station with the obligatory convenience store attached. In front of this simple emporium is - guess what - a LIVE BAIT VENDING MACHINE. I kid you not. This is taking convenience to levels previously unimagined in my world. Because I know that my audience is a bunch of hardened cynics who only believe what they see with their own eyes, and probably think this is just another attempt on my part to become the Molly Ivins of photography, I photographed it, and here it is above. Just imagine how being able to get night crawlers 24/7 would change your life. Is this a great country or what?

Keep your eyes open. You never know what you'll see next.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor