Archive for the 'Documentary' Category



Photojournalism: Brought To You By You

Photo by Tomas van Houtryve

Wired’s Raw File blog has a report on  Emphas.is, the new crowdfunding site for photojournalism. In it, acclaimed documentary photographer Tomas van Houtryve  talks about his experience as one of the first to use the site since its much-delayed launch on March 7.

Van Houtryve, who is raising money for his “21st Century Communism” project that documents the remaining Communist countries, seems at the same time excited about the site’s potential and frustrated about all the technical glitches he’s experienced so far — he actually had to start the project on his own site first until Emphas.is could get its act together. Still, he says:

“Backers have started to pose relevant questions. As my project proposal has made its way through social networks and attracted support from strangers, I’ve made some really fruitful new connections. In addition to generous funding contributions, several individuals have stepped forward with key contacts and very precise and helpful advice. I have already managed to make stronger photos due to their input. This is a pleasant shift over the lone-wolf existence.”

The model for Emphas.is is the same as Kickstarter, only it’s solely devoted to photojournalism projects, so presumably you sort the wheat from the chaff and attract people who are very committed to photojournalism. Plus, they’re promising world-class photographers are going to use this platform, and the backers will get to connect to projects in a personal way.

As the site says, “Apart from the satisfaction of seeing an important project realized, you are invited to tag along on the journey.” It remains to be seen whether this model could be a savior of sorts for photojournalism, but it does look like there will be some good journeys to tag along on.

Nixon & His Cronies, Super 8 Style

Photo: Our Nixon

Everyone knows Richard Nixon was a prodigious recorder. It got him into some hot water during the Watergate scandal, and it turns out the FBI confiscated a lot more than just nefarious stuff that ultimately lead to his downfall. The National Archives has been holding onto more than 204 rolls of Super 8 home movies filmed over three years by some of Nixon’s most trusted advisors: Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Chief Domestic Advisor John Ehrlichman, Special Assistant to the President Dwight Chapin and Deputy Assistant Larry Higby.

It’s over 3,700 hours of never-before-seen material — official White House events, visiting dignitaries, campaign stops, the historic trip to China, and even innocuous things like birds and beach time with Henry Kissinger.

The home movies record every aspect of their experience of the Nixon White House, from the prosaic to the profound.  These four men carefully documented their time with Nixon because they believed that Nixon would transform America. And in a way, they were right.

Filmmakers Brian L. Frye and Penny Lane have acquired that footage from the National Archives, had the first-ever digital copies made, and are  now making a documentary film called “Our Nixon.” And naturally they’re funding the project through Kickstarter; they needed $10,000 to get if off the ground and they’ve already raised it (well before the May 6th goal, too).

There probably won’t be any dancing on tabletops, but maybe it’ll unearth the human side to that very cold, calculating White House administration. I’m excited to see how it turns out.

For more info on “Our Nixon,” check out the Kickstarter page, or the film’s website.

F8 Magazine Out Now

The third installment of F8Magazine is out now, and our own Shawn Nee makes an appearance with a selection of his work.

If you’re not familiar, F8 was started by Madrid-based photographer Miguel Moya to highlight documentary photography, and the result is is a cool mix of diverse photographers in a visually arresting layout.

Are You Anybody’s Favorite Person?

Here’s another video from my idiotwork archives called “Are You Anybody’s Favorite Person?”, which was made after watching Miranda July’s “Are You The Favorite Person of Anybody?”

Although, the video has less than 6,300 views on YouTube, the project really impacted mememolly who uploaded her own video to the site, where she talked about the concept and asked people if they thought that they were somebody’s favorite person.  Since her video was uploaded in 2007, it has been viewed more 3 million times and has influenced others to answer the question in their own response videos.

Seeing Both “Sunshine and Noir”

Photo by Thomas Michael Alleman

Lens recently did a post on Thomas Michael Alleman’s “Sunshine and Noir,” a paean to the urban landscapes of Los Angeles and New York. The series was originally created in the wake of 9/11, and the Holga photos have a melancholy bent.

The series is great and mesmerizing especially since they were shot using a toy camera. If you know Los Angeles — and I mean know it, beyond the glossy veneer of freeways and palm trees — you will really recognize the city’s quirky and incongruous tableaus.

Mrs. Brandywine

Made this a long time ago under my old pseudonym idiotwork.

Interview: Ara Oshagan’s “Juvies”

Interview by Shawn Nee and Julie Haire

Ara Oshagan is a Los Angeles-based documentary photographer who delved into the  world of the juvenile criminal justice to make “Juvies,” a moving series about the bleakness and despair of kids who are caught up in a broken system that has nothing to do with rehabilitation.

The project was developed in tandem with  filmmaker Leslie Neale, who created her own documentary on the subject. Oshagan graciously submitted to a long interview with us, and he has a lot of good insights on getting access, his process and the state of documentary photography today.

Leslie Neale’s documentary Juvies focuses on juvenile offenders in an LA County detention center. Can you tell us how you became the set photographer for the film?
Leslie had seen some of my work from Armenia and she invited me to shoot with her. From very early on in the project, I did not consider myself to be a set photographer but in a sense a collaborator, a documentary photographer working in parallel with the aim of developing a parallel project, a book that would be about the same kids and same topic.

For a project like “Juvies,” we’re always interested to know how the photographer was able get to permission to photograph such a difficult subject that involves state government and the prison system. It seems like you must have jump through a lot of hoops while cutting endless strands of red tape. Can you explain how you were able to gain access?
Leslie Neale was a magician when it came to access. She was politically very well-connected in high places (for instance she knew the DA well), and she had some very key people in Corrections supporting her work. She also had an assistant who dealt with access on a continual basis. Often we would get shut down during a shoot and then we would have to wait in a waiting area until Leslie or her assistant made some calls and then we got clearance to shoot again. It was a HUGE and tireless effort on her part because, as you know, no one wants to give you access. I was supremely fortunate to be part of her crew.

What was the routine like that you went through each time you entered the prison?
We came with a cart-load of equipment—camera man’s equipment, sound person’s equipment, myself with my camera gear. A list of all our equipment would have to be sent in ahead of time and then at the entrance to the prison, our equipment would be checked against that list. Then we would be allowed in. Always one or two corrections officers would be with us the whole time we were there.

Photographers are artists who are generally allowed to be creative and free-flowing, so was it at all challenging to photograph inside a place where there are many rules and restrictions?
This was the most challenging part of the work for me. My usual process is to wander and photograph whatever interests me in, for instance, a certain region or around a topic. And I tend to spend a lot of time with people until they are comfortable with my camera and myself. To make the kind of images I am interested in, I need people to be in their natural way of life and ignore my presence. My book Father Land is based on this process. And I always work alone. So, in prison, not only are you not allowed to wander too far away from the two corrections officers who are accompanying you, but you also have to deal with a film crew shooting at the same time and basically shooting the same thing you are shooting. And when you are in the yard for instance, all the prisoners are interested in you and looking at you and want to speak to you. Plus to be able to shoot anyone besides the youths who were in the film, we needed to get signed releases. So, the whole process was very cumbersome and not at all intuitive.

Did ever you feel as though your access was being limited, or that you were being censored regarding the people and things you could photograph?
Due to Leslie’s magic, we went in as a documentary crew and were able to shoot in places very, very few people can—in the yard, in the dorms, in the eating areas, pretty much everywhere. But every once in a while we would get shut down as I wrote above. I personally was not censored on any specific occasion—like someone never told me “Do not photograph this.” But there were ground rules, which were: do not wander away from the officers who were accompanying us and no photos without releases. As long as we stuck to those rules, we were fine. If they felt you respected their ground rules, they respected us in doing our work. This was in the state prisons.

In juvenile hall, it was totally different story. The same respect was there, but you absolutely could not photograph anyone’s face besides the kids who were in the film. And there the corrections officers did not want to be photographed either. And in juvenile hall, we met the kids in the film in a “video production” classroom and rarely went anywhere else. When we did go to shoot their “dorms,” for instance, it was just us and our kids, no others.

Continue reading ‘Interview: Ara Oshagan’s “Juvies”’

Spike and Duke

Shawn Nee / discarted

“Shelter in Place” Exposes Big Oil’s Big Waste

London-based photographer Zed Nelson (who we hope to have an interview with up very soon) has received a lot of acclaim for his projects Gun Nation, Fat Nation and Love Me, among others. Recently he’s turned his exacting eye to the documentary Shelter in Place about the small Texas town of Port Arthur. Port Arthur abuts oil refineries that emit toxic waste we don’t even understand, except that the residents, largely poor and black, get sick from it. But who cares, right? Because Big Oil pays for your congressmen’s reelection committees, so we need them.

For more information about the genesis of the project, which is billed as “a battle against unstoppable corporate power,” you can read this Guardian piece. The movie will be screening at Curzon Soho on January 26 in London, followed by a Q&A with Zed Nelson and producer Hannah Patterson.

Chasing Photographs

Photo by Shawn Nee / discarted

It’s hard to remember this day, but it was sometime during the summer when it was still cold.

For the most part, I had been wasting my days in Hollywood photographing my friends that lived on the streets or in their cars. What had started as a documentary project about three years ago had turned into a lifestyle. And around mid-day, if you were looking for me, I could most likely be found at a friend’s van, overlooking the 101 Freeway.  Each day we’d cook a little bit of food on his propane burner and watch the rush-hour traffic pass below us, bullshitting about whatever helped pass the time. My friend is a skilled tinkerer and obsessed with cars, so the conversation would often involve him describing in great detail what he would do to fix up some shitty box-car like the Toyota Scion if he ever had some money.  I took a strange pride in pointing out his favorite cars before he had a chance to find them among the hundreds crawling below us.

Then Meg showed up.

Before then, I had never talked to Meg, but I would catch glimpses of her as she wandered Sunset Boulevard. I learned quickly that she was someone you wanted to be around because you knew something was going to happen. But then she would ditch you for the next random thought that burned through her head.

Throughout the summer, I would occasionally see her walking alone in the distance glancing at cars here and there as they crept by her—their break lights abruptly turning red and then blacking out as the car drove away.  One day, I saw her walking with some black guy I had never seen before. I asked around about him, but nobody knew who he was. Shortly after that, Meg disappeared. And as the weeks dragged on, rumors spread that she was clean. But people say all kinds of things out here, and you learn not to believe anything until you see it for yourself.  Since the only way anybody leaves this neighborhood is by going to jail or dying—and jail is only a temporary, yet cyclical, vacation.

Being attracted to the girls on the street who consist solely on meth and crack, is admittedly, a peculiar feeling that can’t be explained or understood.

It’s a habit that creates an oily, crumbling abyss that destroys smiles which most parents tried to perfect when these women were still just little girls.  With meth, open sores will often appear on the body, as tiny drops of yellowish liquid percolate through dime-sized scabs dotting the face.  And with crack, all it takes is a five-minute hand job or a dollar for some “short change” in order to see the “crack man dance.”

On the other hand, meth combined with the limited consumption of food will also often transform the female body into an architectural and biological phenomenon that would make Aphrodite jealous, and cause some men to digress.

I would describe the sensation of flirting with these impulses as similar to holding a rattlesnake or a loaded gun, or poking a black widow with your index finger in a way that actually pisses the thing off, so it wants to bite you. The rush of adrenaline and energy that stampedes through the body while your mind wrestles with every possible “what if” is insatiable. It’s addictive and no matter what you do after that, you’re always chasing that feeling and the roar of that shutter clicking.



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