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Saturday, May 29, 2007 | Don Bartletti, a photojournalist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 2003 for a photo essay about mothers migrating to the United States and the children they leave behind.
Bartletti, lives in Vista, but continues to travel all over the Unites States and overseas, voraciously seeking out new ideas and new subjects for his photography for the Times.
As well as his Pulitzer, Bartletti has won just about every major photojournalism award out there. His photographs have also been exhibited in the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts three times, including last year’s exhibit “The Roads Most Traveled.”
We sat down with him and quizzed him on light, equipment, pixels, time travel and why Orange County teenagers are the hardest people to photograph.
How do you think light, equipment and talent interact to create wonderful photographs?
Those are some of the authors of every photograph — there is light, the circumstances, the timing. You can make a crack in the road look interesting if the light is right, or you can make the most beautiful woman look pretty terrible under the horrible midday sun.
Equipment is important, especially in the hands of a photojournalist, where you’re trying to reach another author, the reader. Equipment has evolved. Computer-ground lenses are super-fantastic, digital capture is accurate and, likewise, transmission through cell phones, computers and satellite phones allows me to get everything where I need it to go by deadline.
Talent is absolutely essential. Talent is not really the skilled use of a camera. A camera is just a mechanical box. But if one has knowledge of the subject and if one brings heart in trying to share a subject with their readers …
I think it was Lewis Hine, a documentary photographer in the early part of the 1900s in New York, who photographed Italian immigrants who were living in squalid conditions in New York. I read once that he told himself, every time he stepped out of his flat: “When I leave here, with my cameras in hand, I am looking for two things: Either to change something, or to have it appreciated.”
I love those two bookend statements.
Of course, there are wonderful pictures in the history of photojournalism that did change things. The famous Iwo Jima picture certainly gave honor and credibility to the horrors of World War II, Eddie Adams’ photograph of the assassination of a Viet Cong suspect helped bring home the horrors of the Vietnam war and the photograph by Paul Watson of the dead American Black Hawk pilot being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu certainly showed the world the chaos and the intensity of that conflict.
But, to try to change the world, in my mind, with a photograph, is probably never going to happen. I think my pictures, especially about immigration, migration, retaliation and backlash, will remain as symbols of our time, but whether I can affect a change, I don’t give myself that much credit.
But if I can make myself appreciate it, I really, really try to do that, whether it’s a photograph of a football player, or a movie actor, or a migrant farm worker, if I can do it in such a way as to get the attention of a reader, so that they read my caption, so that they read the reporter’s story, then I’ve passed on information.
Also, the wonderful, wonderful medium of photography brings to the world a record, and the camera in the hand of a skilled photographer gives an accurate record. It’s a medium to preserve what’s going on in the world today.
If you could go back to any event within history, well, within photographic history, and you could photograph an event or a time, but you had to use the equipment that was available at the time, what would you be interested in shooting?
I would have liked to have been part of the civil rights movement. That was about 10 or 20 years before I really became interested in the field of photojournalism. That was one of the turning points in the photo album of this nation’s history. The pictures done by the wonderful photographers then were so important. And cameras were modern, 35-milimeter film cameras that were fantastic at that point.
But, more important than the gear, it was the history making events that were shaping the way we are today.
What if you could go back to any moment in human history with today’s equipment, where would you like to be and what would you like to be shooting?
I would like to be with the Roman legions as they marched north into England and Brittany and that area.
That was a migration, of sorts, a migration both of artistic and literary concepts, building skills, language change, and I’d like to see the reaction of those that were in those places. I’d also like to live through for 200 or 300 years, so I could see it from beginning to end.
How did the photo essay on the migration through Central America come about?
I titled that photo essay “Bound to El Norte,” and that title means a couple of things. It’s about children under the age of 18 bounding north to try and find their mothers — trying to reconnect with that bond that ties a mother and a child — that unbreakable bond. And the story is about Central American mothers who have left their, sometimes very young, 3, 4, 5 year old, children behind when they left to go to the United States to live there and send money home.
But, in the case of one boy named Enrique, his mother never came home as she promised. She did send money, she kept in touch occasionally.
I found Enrique on the Texas border with Mexico. I interviewed him, understood why he left, where he was going and the route that he took. And I retraced his route, starting with the grandparents who raised him. I rode trains for two to three months, through the belly of Mexico and along the Rio Grande River, with Enrique. I crossed the river several times and I ended up at his house, where his mother lived, in North Carolina.
So, it’s a photographic epic of one of this continent’s most heavily traveled, most desperate and most lethal migratory paths.
In photojournalism, one thing that has become a divisive debate is the manipulation of photographs using software like Adobe Photoshop. Photographers can now do all sorts of things they once couldn’t. Where do you stand on that debate?
Well, the benchmark for digital photojournalists is to treat the raw image, which in the early days was the negative, on your computer screen, with no more adjustment than you could do in the darkroom. You can correct the color. You can maybe brighten up the dark points, lighten up the shadows, crop it, and that’s it.
The temptation is tremendous, and the ability is there with this powerful software, to actually move pixels around. The requirement that all credible journalists adhere to is “Move no pixels.” You can darken them, or lighten them, or cut them out, but you can’t move them.
There are limitations between the way your brain perceives light and dark in a real scene and the ability of a photographic device to record it. Our eyes instantly adjust to the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows, giving us the perfect detail that we see in real life. If a photograph is going to be somewhat of a representation of what we saw, then it is absolutely essential to have the finished product look something like reality.
You’re not going to publish a picture of Condoleeza Rice visiting Camp Pendleton looking like a raccoon because the sun is so strong that her eye-sockets are shadowed. No, you need to lighten those up so that it’s something that you’re familiar with, that’s real.
One always hears that some models are better to work with than others, and that it’s not simply about a model’s good looks. Is that true of the Average Joe?
That seems to be the case. I find the most difficult people to take photos of to be teenagers, especially teenagers in groups.
Why is that?
Well, they seem to be so aware of themselves. I think they’re affected by the media overload that is all around us, on television, and the Internet and all the YouTube-type sites. Teenagers are always looking at themselves and they generate a huge volume of this stuff.
Well, photographing teenagers in real life, especially in Orange County, where there seems to be this incredible self-interest that people have in themselves, it’s really difficult to get a really good picture of somebody.
Then at the other end of the spectrum there are the very wealthy, who know that they’ve made it. They know that they’ve contributed to society and they’re really, really open to creative portraiture. Also at the other end of the spectrum are those who are really under-represented in society: The homeless, migrant farm workers, immigrants on the border. They could care less how they look. They’re absorbed in what they’re doing and they’re very easy to photograph as well.
It’s interesting that you say that people who are self-absorbed are difficult to take good photos of. One might think it would be the opposite.
I think we all have an idealized image of ourselves. We look in the mirror and we’re thinking about who we’d like to be or who we want to be.
People who are heavily made up or in outrageous costume, maybe they’re not hiding anything, but maybe they’re just trying to fit in somewhere, with another group. But is it really that individual? But then again, maybe that visible persona is who they are, and who they’ll always be. But I don’t find it real, and I can see through people with tattoos, and earrings and all that — but that might just be my age.
Any good examples of people you have found it particularly easy or particularly hard to photograph?
The easiest people I’ve ever photographed were a group of strawberry pickers who were living in the canyons near Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad.
I would visit them in their camps, and the hardest thing about photographing them was getting from one end of the camps to another, because they would invite me in for something to eat, or a soda, or a beer. I could sit down next to them, and once they were satisfied about how much my camera cost, and how much I made and so forth, they became themselves and it was very easy to record their daily activities.
Then, some of the hardest people. There was one guy, a famous dancer, a modern jazz dancer. He arrived at a hotel and he had his retinue of PR people, and stylists and makeup people and handlers. He didn’t want to have one side of his face photographed, he was worried about the background, and he didn’t give me enough time. Five minutes is not enough time to connect with a person and to make their portrait. But I just thought, hey, if this guy doesn’t care that one or two million people are going to look at his picture, then I don’t care either. So I just decided to end the photo session with a quick snapshot in front of a piano, and it really didn’t satisfy me.
When you photograph people, it’s a symbiosis. There’s an interaction between the subject and the photographer, and I think we have to admit we’re both looking for something.
The photographer is certainly looking to make himself look skilled and look reputable and honorable and sensitive to society by making a good picture. But then, really, the subject is trying to say something too, and then he’s trying to use me.
But, if those two work, and we all understand each other — yeah! — I want to make a good picture. Well, if you’ve got something to say, I’m the best person to show you, and I’ll help you say what you want to say.
Whether it’s struggle or fame, I can do that very well, but it does take cooperation.
— Interview by WILL CARLESS
(Correction: Due to a transcription error, the original version of this story misquoted the passage that reads: “Our eyes instantly adjust to the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows, giving us the perfect detail that we see in real life.” We regret the error.)