I am in that place again of waiting for a documentary project’s beginning moments and, as always, my stomach rumbles with anticipation. I’ve promised myself that I’m not going to fight the eternal battle that goes on inside of me whenever I am preparing to go somewhere I haven’t been before. I try to imagine what is happening there, and then I wonder how I will, this time, get inside of the place and its people’s lives.
Documentary photography is usually a series of single photographic images brought together to create a vision of someone or something. It may be accurate to a fault, or it could be the faraway view, revealing little but evoking an emotional response. What matters is that moments that are documented by the camera take viewers to places within themselves that they don’t often visit.
A structured documentary essay also means searching for a way to begin, a middle to sustain, and a way to get to a natural ending. It is finding a way to move myself out of the way so I can let the images in. It also requires letting go of preconceived notions and withdrawing from the pull of predictable, safe and reliable images.
Beginnings of photo-essays are usually daunting. Entry into this vast and new environment can feel like hitting a wall of white noise. To break through, I try to locate what I call the quiet core, and this, more often than not, becomes my beginning. When I started work on the Indivisible project, I found this core within the quiet conversations I had with the people I began to meet in Eau Claire, South Carolina.
I research a documentary project by being there. What I learn before arriving is put in a place I call “a compromised compartment” of my brain, considered flawed until proven otherwise. Everything is listened to, looked at, visually poked at and tasted as it gets mixed into this stew of information. Over time, I become immersed in where I am, and the rest of the world begins to drop away as I fall deeper into the mindset of my work in the here-and-now.
When I went to Eau Claire, people at the Indivisible project had given me names and phone numbers of people such as Reverend Wiley Cooper. When I called Reverend Cooper, he suggested we meet at a scheduled Rotary Club meeting. Since meetings never translate into very interesting pictures, I explained that I’d need different kinds of settings to connect with—and eventually to convey through photographs—what was happening in his community.
We did meet that morning at the Rotary Club. What else was I to do? Turns out his idea was a good one. It immediately struck me that the participants were not the usual older white men in suits; they were black and white, men and women who were from all kinds of professions and disciplines. Here they were, together, sharing their varied points of view and bringing cohesion to this community, and the photos I took that morning share this sense of something being different about this group.
Score one for the unexpected. And the project continued in that fashion. As I found myself asked to attend more meetings, I complained again about how static they are for visual portrayal. But then I’d stop by and listen for a while and frequently I’d get ideas of places to go outside of the meeting rooms. Being receptive to the unexpected was a critical component on this project, as was remaining close to the action, even if it seemed, at first, to offer little of interest for my camera.
In the nearly 20 days I was there, I also drove around a lot throughout the Eau Claire area looking for people doing things. Soon, days blended together as I got to know the people at work and in their homes. When my coworker, George King, who conducted the oral history interviews, arrived, I introduced him to the town’s inhabitants. This gave me more opportunities to update and refine some images I’d been making of the residents. The photographs began to seem an almost natural byproduct of our meetings. My slow-paced stroll through Eau Claire, coupled with the generous help of the people there, enabled me to reveal through my photographs something new about their hopes and dreams for their community.
Documentary work can take years to develop and produce. The most satisfying part of the journey might be its quiet conclusion, when the photographer tries to tell a complete story without stumbling over the doubts with which he arrived. Much of the documentary work I’ve done has emerged from my personal interest in a particular subject. Once the interests come, questions are not far behind, and it is these questions that lead the camera into new and interesting places in the hope that more complete pictures—with concepts and ideas springing from them—will reveal themselves.
There used to be adequate time provided to take the photographs necessary for publishing a photo-essay in a monthly magazine. That time is gone. If the photographer receives three days for a photo-essay, that’s a lot of time. Many photographers and editors don’t seem worried about what is lost by compressing this time, or they don’t take the time to recall what once existed and why it is so important to get through the thick layers of the surface and probe inside.
The best stories still seem to be ones the photographer has to fight for from beginning to end. This means finding the story and finding the place to publish it. Photographers are working more independently than ever, by grim necessity.
Though the market has changed, what makes a photo-essay work hasn’t. The human element inside the photoessay has always been the dominating factor, even when the core of the subject was its sense of place. The sense of place and urgency is and will always be what guides documentary photographers.
Eli Reed, a 1983 Nieman Fellow, has been a photographer for Magnum since 1983. His award-winning photographs have appeared in Time, Newsweek, Life, Vogue, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times Magazine, and many international publications. Reed’s two books, “Beirut, City of Regrets,” and “Black in America,” both published by W.W. Norton, contain his photography, text and poetry. He is working on a book about the lost boys of the Sudan and also collaborating on a feature documentary film about the same subject.