There are skills to this, its not luck.
Ed Kashi: There Are Skills To This, Its Not Luck by Andre H
Late one morning at a lesser-known tea lounge in San Francisco I was lucky enough to catch up with a long time friend and mentor, Ed Kashi of the photo collective VII while he was in town for a brief visit. Since becoming a part of the wearejuxt family I’ve had the thought of interviewing Ed to discuss his thoughts and opinions on mobile phone photography for quite some time. What I was really curious to know was how a 30-year veteran to the photojournalism & documentary world, and owner/member of a prominent photo collective is exploiting this now not-so-new photographic tool to help make the world a better, well-informed place, and at the same time continue to make a living. After our tea was served and we finished discussing apps and techniques, among other things, we began. The interview was originally recorded with an audio recorder. It has been transcribed, and is here in it’s entirety. So, lets get down to business, everyone, Ed Kashi.
A: Tell us who you are, what you do, and how long have you been doing it?
E: My name is Ed Kashi I am a photojournalist and documentary photographer and I’ve been working for over 30 years now.
Scenes in and around Aspen, Colorado with my photo workshop from Anderson Ranch Arts Center, during the annual Colorado Bike Race on Aug. 22, 2012. (Ed Kashi/VII)
A: When did you first hear about and pick-up the iPhone? What were some of the first things you shot with the iPhone?
E: I started using an iPhone when it first came out. Whatever that was, 2007 or 8. But I really didn’t think of it as a camera for the first couple of years. It was only after I started to see how other people were using it, ok, of course I used the phone originally, the camera part of it, for family snaps and, you know, hey, look were in Nevada or hey look we’re in wherever. But I never used it as a serious photographic device until about I would say, 2011, maybe even 2012. So its pretty recent and it was at that point where then, I went through my Hipstamatic period and then I think that was in 2010, 2011, and then in 2012 is when I really got serious about it, and a large part influences from folks like yourself and then kind of seeing what other colleagues, like Ron Haviv, Balazs Gardi, Ben Lowey, Michael Christopher Brown, younger photographers who were using it in very intense conflict situations and so-forth. And then it was in the summer of 2012 when I was just following my son around in his summer quest for a baseball scholarship to college that I thought, instead of bringing my 5D or my point and shoot let me just use my iPhone because I have it with me all of the time anyway. And that was really where things turned. And then The NewYorker gave me the one-week gig for their feed and then for the first time I was actually getting paid, it wasn’t much, but I was getting paid something. And more than the money I was having a chance to create, post-produce and disseminate in real time and that’s when the “likes” neuroses began. This new psychological phenomenon of the pursuit of likes, or the monitoring of likes. Its intoxicating when you think you can put something out in the world you just created and let people immediately, not only see it, but they approve of it, or they like it. That is awesome. I mean, obviously for me, I take it with a certain grain of salt because at this point I’ve been published a lot so I have a sense of, a very strong sense of having my work out in the world and having it be appreciated, but there’s still, there’s something about this that’s so direct. It’s almost visceral. It must be connected directly to our endorphins. You know, I can often say that I can have the cover of National Geographic Magazine and when it actually, physically comes out it almost feels like it past already. It’s a weird feeling, which is to take nothing away from the honor of having that happen, but on some visceral level its like it doesn’t arrive with a blare of excitement it almost arrives with a dull thud. I think that’s partly because of the way we are over stimulated, we’re also deluged with too much information and too much imagery, so unless there’s something specifically in the print publication you’re looking for it kind of comes and goes. Its weird how that is but on the other hand it stays, actually I should say it comes but it stays, where as the Instagram (IG) pictures, or the iPhone pictures they truly do come and go. I don’t see yet that they have a staying power that a cover story for national geographic has and it doesn’t radiate out in quite the same way in terms of the meaning of it. You can have 40K likes with an image you put up on lets say the National Geographic feed, which is pretty insane, but its still nothing like having your pictures in the magazine. So I’m talking about two different things here. I’m talking about the feeling I have as opposed to the actual impact.
A: Explain a little bit more about that feeling you have, the difference between the satisfaction, or lack of, seeing it online, literally how its here and then its gone as soon as the next image takes its place and actually being published in a print magazine.
E: Well, again print is much more permanent. Whatever permanence is, but print is more permanent. There is something about having it online, particularly having it on the IG feed because there’s such a volume of imagery that passes through IG that it quickly becomes something old. I also worry about how we might be devaluing images. It’s a very exciting time where there’s never been more interest in creating and absorbing imagery as there is today. But I worry that its becoming part of this steady diet of, its like candy, it comes and goes, we get a little rush, and it goes. And there’s something about, I don’t know about you, but you might show me some old family photographs, gorgeous black and white pictures that, you know, our grand parents had gotten, and there’s something so luscious about them and so tangible and tactile and they feel permanent and you want to preserve them and I don’t feel that yet with the iPhone pictures, but as I said, I’ve only been at this for a year, seriously, I think what tends to happen, is partly human nature, partly how we, how humanity absorbs and makes use of new technology. That maybe there’ll be a time in the near future where, obviously I archive my pictures whether they’re with an iPhone or with my canon camera, with equal importance, but, maybe there’ll be a time where there’s a way we can print out iPhone pictures, I mean I know you can already do that, there be some other way of archiving iPhone pictures that make them feel more permanent but right now it just feels like we’re just creating, creating, creating, this tsunami of imagery and then what’s going to happen is that each individual image by themselves might not have the same value.
Scenes in and around Aspen, Colorada with my photo workshop from Anderson Ranch Arts Center, during the annual Colorado Bike Race on Aug. 22, 2012. (Ed Kashi/VII)
A: Describe to us your first assignment shot with the iPhone. Who was it for, what was it of, and did you get paid?
E: The first time I got paid for shooting with my iPhone was with The New Yorker and that was the summer of 2012. They asked me to take on their IG feed for one week. And I was going to Aspen, Colorado to teach a workshop at the Anderson Ranch Art Center and so it was pictures of, kind of the daily life of that week, out with my students in Colorado photographing a bike race, a rodeo, my students on the art center grounds, you know, just anything that caught my eye. What was so exciting is that I could put these up immediately and there was this sense of engagement in real time with my audience. But the real first assignment to me where it was on a whole other level of meaning was when TIME magazine assigned me to cover Super Storm Sandy for two days. And that was just a whole other level of meaning. Not only were they paying me a very good day rate, like significantly better than I have gotten for their print publication, and I’ve been working for TIME magazine for almost 30 years, on-and-off, but also, the idea that I am covering something of incredible importance in real time similar to The New Yorker thing, but its in real time. I’m shooting it. I’m doing post-production on it. I’m spitting it out into the world, and beyond how many likes it might have gotten, which then because it was through the TIME feed, we’d be in the thousands, it was the idea that I was supplying information of something that was happening in real time, that was exhilarating. I mean, I think TIME‘s Patrick Witty and Kira Pollack (editors) the photo editors at TIME, they really pushed things with that assignment. I was one of five photographers, Andrew Quilty, Stephen Wilkes, Michael Christopher Brown, myself, and Ben Lowy, five photographers that received that assignment. It also turned the paradigm of my profession upside down, literally on its head, where the first use was social media and IG, then it filtered out within a day to TIME’s Lightbox blog, online presence and then the following week it was used in print.
Scenes in Montclair, NJ during and after Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard with a fury, leaving many dead and billions of dollars in damage, on October 29, 2012. (Ed Kashi/VII)
A: So tell me, even though it wasn’t your image that was chosen, what were your thoughts when you saw an iPhone image on the cover of TIME?
E: Well, you know, perspective is a funny thing. It really shapes how we interpret things, so the fact that I was a part of that endeavor I thought, “oh, that’s great. That’s cool.” I thought great. Now maybe if I had not been one of the five photographers I would have looked at it and gone “what are they doing putting an iPhone picture” or I might have been a little more judgmental about it but because I was a part of it my perspective is somewhat clouded by the act that I was part of that initiative and I was excited about it and it was meaningful to me. But in general, look, we’re living in a time of tremendous change, and I know that goes without saying, but what you have to constantly keep that in mind when these sorts of things that have never happen before, happen. And so, yes, we should step back and look at it and go is this a good thing or this not a good thing, but on some level its also just is. It just is. And we have to deal with that. So I thought this is great that they tried something different. It worked out, multiple mediums, the pictures look good in print, I’m very open-minded about these things, where I am in the profession, I have all the right in the world to be completely knocked off my feet by these changes. I worked my butt off for 30 years to reach the top of this profession and the last thing I want to see is all of the standards and thee structures in which I worked my way up through, I don’t want them to be destroyed because then it reduces all I have done to nothing, and its just not me, I have a family, there’s a greater responsibility I have now in life, its not just about me and my little career, its about much more than that its about my family, its about my kids, its about my studio, employees, you know there’s a lot riding on my work and so on one level I resent, and I am very angry about how convulsive the changes have been and forms of income and certain standards I became accustomed to, are, if not destroyed, they’re disintegrating or going away, but on the other hand, there’s nothing I can do about it, so instead of complaining about it, I’m going to put my energy into creating and trying to take advantage of these new tools and these new opportunities because that’s not only fun, because I have fun making pictures, beyond the money part I-love-making-pictures I love the way photography allows me to interface with the world, I love the way it enriches my life, the way it makes me see things. Not only do I love the creation of it but it also problem solving, so while something is going away, instead of sitting in a corner crying about it “I want it back the way it was,” no, I’m going to say “cool. What’s this new thing? How can I use in a way that is good or comfortable for me?” so I’m not only enjoying the creative process like I always have but I’m also able to survive and continue to make a living. And again, I always feel like every few years I’m repeating this, but, we have to always remember that photography is absolutely the offspring of the industrial revolution and technology so its only fitting, I really feel like I say this every few years, its only fitting that as technology advances and changes and morphs photography will do the same thing so while you can still shoot with a pinhole camera, literally, not the app pinhole [laugh] or you can use film or you can shoot with a 4×5 or an 8×10 camera or an iPhone, whatever device its all part of this continuum of what photography is which is truly a reflection of they industrial technological age, so its only fitting that now we would have these incredible little devices called smart phones that make beautiful photographs, its all part of the natural evolution of things. And so, I guess, if you look down the road, and if we ever, and I don’t want this to happen, if we ever become robots, or bionic, its only natural to think that we’ll cameras implanted in our heads or something. I’m not saying I want that to happen, but I mean, I guess we didn’t need to go there, but… I did go there.
A: So you’ve covered a lot over the last 30 years. Are there any events in your history where you wish you had what you have now, in regards to the capability of the iPhone?
E: That’s a great question. I guess no because I don’t tend to think of what could have been. That’s not my nature. I accept that the devices I had at those times were the one’s I used, what I would say is: I would have loved to have had a digital capture device in many situations. Whether it was a phone, or one of the great new canon DSLRs because then it would have allowed me to shoot in lower light, use less artificial light, have a higher ISO with image quality. All those things we now take for granted.
A: Tell me your thoughts about IG, and more importantly share your thoughts on the image you posted of your son in the hotel room on the National Geographic feed, and your reaction to the firestorm of comments and critiques that erupted from it.
E: There are aspects of IG, and the whole phenomenon it represents that I absolutely love, and its almost like a narcotic. I’m sure I’m not a lone waking up and going to sleep with it possibly being the first and last thing I do in the day, not everyday, its become quickly another touchstone of a kind of communal reality that we can live with this digital revolution and social media so as a photographer IG, at this point, reaches a height of what social media can be, as a photographer. But what’s so exciting is that there’s apparently 90 million other people who 99.9 % of them are not photographers that feel the same way, like my kids. Like so many other people that love to take pictures and use them to share with their friends and family and the public. Its interesting, this phenomena, IG in many ways captures the moment of social media, were living through no other form of social media, and again, as a photographer there’s obviously a particular importance and meaning to me. On the kind legal, professional implications side of it, I’m very concerned. I’m concerned as I said early how its devaluing the individual images both monetarily and almost in a, not a spiritual sense but, uh, the gluttony of it. Each morsel doesn’t mean as much, so that’s a concern, and of course the copyright issues are a concern and the issues of compensation and what IG and FB might decide to do, but as they learned, they’re not going to get away with it. And I might add, it wasn’t just the professional photo public who was part of that backlash, it was civilians as I call them who said no, no, no. I just ran into someone yesterday at Palo Alto high, a student, a high school kid who basically shared the same reaction as national geographic magazine, and professional photographers like me shared when IG announced the rights grab, they cancelled their IG account, a high school kid so I mean they have to listen to this people are not stupid.
Ed Kashi photographs his son, Eli, in Chapel Hill, NC during Eli Kashi's summer baseball trip in July 2012 (Ed Kashi/VII)
A: so please share with us your reaction about that [picture] did it change your perspective on what IG is, or, the people who use it?
E: through a series of communications between myself and a photo editor at National Geographic last summer when I was photographing my son as I went with him around the country to baseball tournaments or showcases um I had made a picture of him on the bed in a hotel room on his phone and I was reflected in the mirror taking the picture and I was just in my bathing suit, basically, or boxer shorts, um, the photo editor at the geographic said oh post that one on our new IG feed and it was literally one of the first images to be posted IG Geographic feed and I didn’t think about it. I wrote a caption, on the road with my son following his baseball dreams, or something like that, and within an hour there hundreds of comments a lot of them very nasty like “oh, what’s that man doing with that boy” or “this isn’t the sort of thing that I’d come to the National Geographic for” or like “eewww” things like that, and the final straw for me was “ I don’t want to look at that man’s ugly body” and so I then took it down and because I, you know the thing about the digital domain is its very easy, this is the bad part of it, its easy for people to be incredibly abusive. It’s basically cyber-bullying. I mean really, in its essence is what cyber-bullying is. You don’t know me and I can say whatever the hell I want no matter how painful or hurtful it may be no matter how much I misrepresent you or the image you’re looking at. And so thee impact, the comments to that picture reflected that sort of negative aspect of that sort of social media, that people feel like they can say whatever they want and I wasn’t prepared for that emotionally, and also showed me that people on IG don’t read the captions so I made the decision to take the picture down because it was too hurtful and I had shared something very personal. Since then I have also come to not only witness some work my colleagues have done particularly John Stanmeyer of VII but also I’ve recently done where you use IG as a form of raising awareness for an issue to fundraising and taking a very serious issue that I’m reporting on and photographing using this as an additional platform to communicate to a broader range of people I might not otherwise reach, and, but that endeavor is predicated on a very rich caption with strong meta data and hash tags so the reaction to those have shown me for all the people who don’t read the captions there are people who do. And so, in a sense we get back to the essence of doing this photojournalism or documentary work or any kind of informed reporting is that if you have a powerful image and you contextualize it with strong relevant data you will reach people. So for all the idiots who don’t look at a caption, not that they’re idiots, who just don’t care about that because they’re just into the pictures, there are those who will read it all, who will respond and comment and not comment with stupidity but comment with “wow I didn’t know about that” or “where can I, how can I get involved?” “How can I help?” So lets build on that positive stuff.
A: Do you still use IG especially after the TOS debacle?
E: Well, I still use IG. I did pause for a few days there after that, as you say, debacle of theirs, basically trying to make a rights grab. Which was also illegal for them to do because they didn’t have model releases so how could they use a picture of someone recognizable for commercial purposes, you know it was like a triple stumble on their part. You know, legally, ethically, and morally.
Car accident scene in lower east side of New York City on 10/8/12. (Ed Kashi/VII)
A: How has the mobile phone changed the way you shoot and or see life?
E: well, what’s so exciting about mobile phone photography is that I can now take pictures, I can have this visual diary of my life in a way that’s so much easier and less cumbersome than when I had to bring the camera with me. And then also, its allowing me to shoot in square format, well at least that’s how I’m choosing to deal with it because I’m generally working towards, shooting towards my IG feed, and I’m loving that, again you know what I love, you know, really, this gets back to the essence of when I was 18 years old and I was 3 months into learning photography, and I was in the dark and I had just learned about Imogen Cunningham, this is 1977, and so she was in her 90s living out in California, and I was like oh my god, you mean if I could live into my 90s I could still be taking pictures, like I could be taking pictures of nude women in redwood forests of California after having done 4×5 portraits and square format still lives and photojournalism or whatever you know, or fashion that photography is a series of endless opportunities to create in so many different directions now I have chosen a very focused direction and I have no plans to change that but this model photography is such a perfect manifestation what originally got me hooked on photography which was if I get to live a big long life that I’ll never run out of creative ways of utilizing photography so in a sense, in my rudimentary knowledge when I was 18 years old and I had just learned about black and white film processing and I thought “well I want to be like a photojournalist, but wow, I could take 4×5 nudes of people or 2.25 square pictures of people when I get older or do landscapes, this in a sense is, in a mid career now, so here it is I have a new thing. It’s not just a 35mm camera it’s a square format, it’s a different approach to things. Its also much more haphazard, for instance, were out in a sunny day, when I had to shoot in these situations I could barely see what I was getting on my screen unless I get all these accoutrements to outfit my phone which would destroy the purpose of what I love about this which is this little thing in my pocket and I just pull out and start shooting, but on the other hand its part of the magic of photography is that unknowing of what you’re getting its all great man and then I’ve since then shot my third sort of paid gig with the phone was in Burma in December for Global Post where I had been working on a project about income disparity and I shot in Connecticut and Bangkok, but the Burma piece I shot on the iPhone. And that was sort of interesting because I had to shoot in a sort of a shanty town area that was adjacent to a super fancy golf resort and on the golf resort we basically had to sneak in and shoot on the sly and that was a case where having, shooting with my iPhone didn’t telegraph immediately to security people and all that, what I was doing.
A: As a member/owner of VII, how do the iphone images play into overall scheme of the collective?
E: Ok. That’s an interesting question. The spirit of VII is such that while there is a very cohesive vision of how we want to look at the world in terms of looking at the world in a serious manner, and a meaningful manner there’s also the very strong edge of activism in many of the member’s photography and purpose that we’re not just there to make photography just to make photography we’re there to improve the world and advocate for certain issues and all that. So in that sense the iPhone has become yet another tool of expression and an effective tool of communication and again I go back to John Stanmeyer over the summer he did this big project for MSF in South Sudan on neglected diseases he maintains that through social media while he was there he reached an additional 500K people and so that’s powerful. So that not only raises the awareness about the issue he’s reporting on but it also raises money for the organization, you know, its all good. So that’s great. And I just experienced a much smaller version of that in Nicaragua. I’m working on a project about the epidemic of kidney disease among sugar cane workers in Central America. I decided to post a couple of portraits of sick sugar cane workers on my IG feed and within 24-hours the organization I’m working with started to receive some donations and people saying “how can I help? This is terrible.” Even like another photographer saying “I’m working on the same thing in Burma.” Its amazing the way we can get connected with each other. So to me, going back VII, its all a part of our purpose, and one of the main purposes of the agency, the cooperative is to do documentary photography and photojournalism that is not only meaningful but has an impact on the world. And then more over, we have a current group show called, iSee, that is touring its been in Boston, its been in New York, I don’t know where its going next. It may be in Italy, Stefano de Luigi, who’s based in Italy, he had a New Yorker piece called “Idyssey” where he followed along the Mediterranean Odysseus’ journey with the iPhone, Davide Monteleone another Italian photographer has done some beautiful work with the iPhone, Ron Haviv and Gary Knight two of the founders, you know, so, we’re totally into this, we’ve embraced it. Not everybody, we’re not autocratic in that way either, we’re not uniform. So VII is very well positioned in how its using the iPhone, or mobile photography both in artistic self-expressive sense but also in one of our main missions which is in a journalistic advocacy sense.
Hassidic man at the beach during the Polar Bear Club annual swim in Coney Island on New Year's Day, Jan 1, 2013. (Ed Kashi/VII)
A: What does the future look like for Ed, the collective (VII) and does it include mobile phone photography?
E: The future for myself and for VII the agency is extremely exciting and I prefer to look at it as very bright in an optimistic way. But make no mistake about it we are going forward through a lot of booby-traps and mine fields. It is not easy. It’s not straightforward, and there’s no assured success. Specifically, the twin pillars that were the underpinnings of our profession that held up the profession of photojournalism were editorial assignments and archival resale. That’s a photojournalist survived. Ok? And they’re both under threat. Those pies are getting smaller. Particularly archival sales, and that’s across the board. What its forcing us to do both individually and collectively as a company is to find new sources of support to commission, to help produce the field work, and then finding more innovative, new ways to disseminate our work. Disseminating the work isn’t the problem. There’s lots of ways to get our work out there all over the world like there never were before what’s difficult is how do we get renumerated for it because how we are able to survive. So that in a sense is the minefield, or lets just say, the challenges. The challenges are how do we remake the economic structure of our profession? Any iPhone can be part of that.
A: How has or is mobile photography changing the industry for photojournalists and conflict photographers?
E: For photojournalists and conflict photographers the iPhone, or mobile photography is presenting new opportunities to actually work more safely and more covertly and then on the other hand, its becoming more accepted as a form of image capture that magazines are willing to publish it. I just recently won a couple of awards and it was not an iPhone competition. So my iPhone pictures were along side Paulo Peligreen’s 35mm classic black-and-white pictures. So there’s an acceptance increasingly among picture editors and art directors and photo buyers. And as with everything, as the march of technology goes forward the image quality will improve, everything will improve, you know, like, the whole quality issue will not be an issue anymore. I see it as a meaningful and productive part of our future, and absolutely exciting too.
With the super storm Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the New Jersey, New York harbor, the scene at the Hudson River waterfront is ominous in Jersey City, New Jersey on October 29, 2012. (Ed Kashi/VII)
A: Any final thoughts or anything burning on your brain right now that I didn’t ask?
E: Well it’s just that, photographers have to be able to grab opportunities. And mobile photography is just another opportunity that is being presented to us. That doesn’t mean you have to do it. But think about that this is a cool new way to make pictures and potentially make some money. And I wanted to add, one of the aspects of monetizing this, and its still untested except in isolated cases, is if you can increase your following, then that’s something you can bring to the table to a client so you’re not just saying “hey, I’m Ed Kashi and I have all this wealth of experience under my belt, I’ve also got X number of thousands of followers.” So you know if you work with me I now can bring this audience along with me. And that’s something that I think we’re talking about at VII and other places. This is a moment that is insanely exciting for creativity, bringing worlds together that we could never have imagined doing in the print analog world, but damn its tough. And there are going to be a lot of photographers who don’t make it, there are all ready who have not made it. There are going to be individuals and organizations and institutions that are part of our world that won’t make it, and that’s sad.
A: So in the end a lot of working photographers, semi-pros, pros all worry about how the iPhone has eliminated the professional market of photography, yet in a sense what you just said, would you agree then, that actually, its actually helped to separate even more? And that really, as a professional photographer do we really have anything to worry about in regards to the moms-and-pops, soccer moms and your 12-year old son having a camera?
E: Citizen journalists and the casual photographer might on occasion make images or be in the right place at the right time where their work ends up being the work that show that situation but in the long run, in the aggregate, the larger picture citizen journalists cannot replace the professional photographer, they just can’t. They’re not going to go spend weeks or months with a homeless person or in a conflict zone or telling the story of a child with a genetic disease. They’re not going to do that. So only the professionals, and the really dedicated journalists and documentarians will do that. So that alone separates us, besides the fact that, you know, ya, I went for TIME magazine to cover Hurricane Sandy for two days, sure you could have handed a smart phone to somebody who’s a mom or a pop and said go cover it, and sure they may have taken a picture here or there that was good. Maybe even better than what I did, who knows, in the grand scheme of things they may not have been able to fulfill the assignment that the desk at TIME magazine could not have necessarily relied on them to know where to go, to know how to get there, to get the information to know the right place to be to show what’s going on to contextualize what they’re seeing in a proper manner so that’s its good reporting and then to get back and send it off all in time and all that. There are skills to this, its not luck.
A: So in the end can we agree that the iPhone is not a magic key for everyone to become a photographer over night with just because they have it, that in the end its still just a tool?
ED KASHI PHOTO LIBRARY / 110 Montclair Ave. Montclair, NJ 07042 USA / tel: 973.746.9096 fax: 973.746.9612 / email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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