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Photographer Sandy Huffaker was working at his computer one day when his phone rang. On the other end of the line was an editor for the New York Times.

“Why aren’t you shooting for us?” he recalls the editor asking.

“Why aren’t I?” he responded.

The San Diego-based photojournalist had worked his way up through the local publications and had been shooting a lot of work for the Associated Press and Getty Images. Huffaker describes the phone call as “almost a dream.”

Thus began Huffaker’s relationship with the Gray Lady. Today, he is the New York Times go-to-guy for stories in San Diego and the Northern Baja region. Huffaker has chronicled border issues, the swine flu and even captured voiceofsandiego.org reporter David Washburn with his hand stuck up in the air for this profile of our publication. We caught up with him to talk about his photographic style, his views on the media’s portrayal of U.S.-Mexico relations and what it was like to have an F-18 crash in his neighborhood.

What would you say your style is — how do you know a Sandy Huffaker picture?

It’s hard for me to explain, but people come to me and say “I knew that was your shot in the paper right when I saw it.”

I learned from the beginning that I like to elevate people, so I was always at a lower angle. And, if you look in my closet every pair of pants has a hole in the knee from being down. And, my shtick, as you would call it, is to take these people — whether it’s an old lady living in a garbage dump or whatever — and really elevate them.

Another thing I’m adamant about is kind of creating some sort of dialogue with the subject I’m photographing. I like to be in people’s lives, not a voyeur sitting out, but being part of their life. And there’s and art form to doing that. I would say the smallest amount of the time is actually taking the pictures. Ninety percent of it is creating those friendships and relationships.

Now, a lot of work you’ve done has centered around the U.S.-Mexico border. What got you interested in covering that particular aspect of San Diego?

Well, it’s interesting, when I got out of college and I moved, I was originally heading for Seattle and I drove the southern route. And I had family [in San Diego] and I was going to stop in San Diego for one night and then head up north. So I stopped here and thought it was great, but I’d gone down to Tijuana, and that was just an amazing experience to have a first world and a — I used to say third world, but it’s really a developing country — separated by a line. And, I can still stand on the borderline and just be dazzled that two cultures are separated by a fence — just as much today as it was 15 years ago.

And just by going down there a lot I just really developed a love for Hispanic culture. I like the way of life and it’s very, very different from culture in California.

You know, people down there are out, they’re talking to each other, it’s a much more colorful culture. And here, I mean, we all live in suburbs in our cookie cutter homes and we don’t talk to each other. So, the contrasts are just infinite.

So do those cultural differences make you approach your work differently?

Yeah, they do. I mean, over the past 15 years, I’ve learned their culture and it’s helped me to approach subjects. It’s helped me know who to approach, who to stay away from. I mean, for me, really, another thing is that Mexico is all about texture, light, color. You go down there and you have bright blue walls with the gritty old paint chipping off. And I fell like a lot of tourists don’t see it that much. I never put the flash on in Mexico. It’s all about light and texture and, whether it’s the food, architecture, everything.

Reading your blog, it seems like you think that the fears of traveling to Mexico might be a little over-inflated. But at the same time, it seems like some of the photos you get sent down there to take wind up in stories that might make people think that. Do you ever have to reconcile that in your head?

Yeah, I have a hard time dealing with this on an internal level, but when you’re out on a story, you see how a story builds and see how a story grows. You know, especially with the swine flu scare — this is the most over-hyped story I’ve ever seen in my career and I know it’s for ratings, I know we have these 24-hour news cycles, but, a lot of times it just feels really dishonest to me. And, when I went down the first day when the swine flue broke, I hadn’t heard a thing about it — it was a Saturday. And, I called my editor in New York and said, “there’s something called the swine flu.” And, my editor hadn’t even heard of it. By midday, this was on the cover of every newspaper, every website, every TV news show — it had blown up. And, I get down to Tijuana and nobody really knew about it. There might have been one or two people with masks on and I saw it build and build and build and build. I mean, on the one hand, it’s paying my bills; it’s keeping me in work. On the other hand, it just felt very dishonest. What if we have a real pandemic — something that really starts killing people? And, I mean, they’ve already hyped this thing so much that we’re going to be like “yeah right.”

Do you feel a personal responsibility to change it? Do you say something to your editor at the Times?

You can’t. I can’t. I have no solution to it. Except, maybe now with the blog. You know, when I posted after I went to Rosarito for spring break, which, there’s usually tens of thousands of high school and college age kids there. I didn’t see a single tourist down there and I saw how it was affecting the economy and talked to a lot of locals. And I went back and I wrote about that on my blog that, you know, it was a very sad thing. And, it got around, it got viral, people saw it. I got interviewed a few times about what was really going on down there and I felt that in some way, I tried to correct it.

We live in a very unique region and it’s interesting when you get assigned for immigration things from your editors in New York and Washington, they’re basically seeing stories on CNN and they’re calling up and saying there’s issues at the border. But they don’t see how vitally linked we are to Mexico, how much industry and business goes on with each other, how our families all live across from each other. And it’s a very special region in that way and I appreciate it.

A few years ago you were shooting Hurricane Katrina and Rita. How did you, as a San Diego photographer, get onto that story and how do you even begin to try to cover something of that magnitude?

I had a bit of a personal stake in that. My wife’s family all lives down there. So when I went down to shoot the hurricane, it was kind of a double reason to go. I went down and shot it and then had to actually help my family move out to San Diego. So I went down and shot the Hurricane, got my brother in law, went into St. Bernard Parish and their house was completely wiped away. We gathered as many belongings as we could, pictures and wedding dresses and things like that and drove back to San Diego. I just personally love that part of the country and I just got up and went. That’s part of being a photographer is just having an instinct to just go. Luckily I had some agencies —Getty Images — that paid for me to go. It was quite an experience. Sometimes you have to go, you just have to do it. And you can’t question, should I do this, should I stay, is it going to be dangerous. You just have to go.

I can imagine that was the same feeling when you saw a plane going down outside your house.

Yeah, the F-18 went down in my backyard last year. And, I immediately knew something was wrong just by hearing the engine. It came down really loud. I ran outside, I saw the pilot eject and the plane careen into the neighborhood and it just wasn’t even a second thought. I grabbed my camera, I jumped in the car and went there and I got there about 10 or 15 minutes before all the fire, paramedics and it was just a scene of destruction. And, I went in and started shooting. Everyone looked in a daze — they were closing up their cars and houses and there was fire and smoke everywhere. … I’ve been on a lot of shoots in very hairy situations and you do have to mentally prepare yourself and say, is getting this story or this photo worth possibly being injured for it. And I make that assessment when I go into a situation. And, it’s not easy, it’s not easy. With the plane crash, it’s just, this is what I do. That’s it. Final.

Did you put on a fire suit?

Didn’t have time. No. In fact, its kind of funny, because I’m shooting and there’s fire and smoke everywhere and a helicopter came by a little later and said, everybody needs to evacuate the area, there’s some kind of nasty chemical, tetro hydros, something crazy that can kill you immediately. And I said, you know, I’ve been here 15 minutes and I’m still alive, so, screw it, I’m not dead yet.

Favorite piece of camera gear: Canon 50 D. It looks like a tourist camera, but its got 15 megapixels, but its got a lot of umph in the body.

3-5 photographers you are influenced by: Sebastian Salgado, James Natchwey, and a guy named Elliot Irwin.

Favorite assignment of 2009: Just had an assignment for Rolling Stone magazine. I got assigned to cover the local punk rock scene in San Diego and it was great. I got to hang out with all these 20-year-olds, but just Rolling Stone, that’s where Annie Leibovitz got her start.

— Interview by SAM HODGSON

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