Boston-born, Brooklyn-based Magnum photojournalist Eugene Richards got his start documenting rural poverty in Arkansas in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “A time of serious social change,” he called it. Since then his work has always been close, confrontational, intimate, socially charged and incredibly candid. Photos from his fifteenth book Stepping Through the Ashes are on display now at the International Center of Photography as part of its Remembering 9/11 exhibition (through January 8). After his recent walkthrough of the exhibit, we talked to him about comfort with the camera—whether you happen to be in front of or behind it—and why he’s not racing downtown to shoot Occupy Wall Street.
L: Did you start out as a street photographer?
Eugene Richards: No, I started out as an I-have-no-idea photographer in college. I liked photography, I was studying English/Journalism and I didn’t think it was going to be a career in any way. I became more of a social photographer in the South during that time and published in a local newspaper trying to get attention to the conditions in Arkansas, the delta of Arkansas.
What strikes me about your work across the years is that you’re able to catch such intimate situations—a lot of people in bed, people embracing—and they all look incredibly natural. I was wondering how you get that kind of access and intimacy and how you just, uh, make your way into people’s bedrooms?
When I started off, I always wanted to try “natural” photography—whatever you call it. I’m the person who wants to, but is not very good at setting up the situations. I’ve done advertising later and all that kind of stuff to make a living, but it’s not something that I wanted to do. So the place where I have in photography is more hanging out with people. That’s where the access comes from—slowly meeting people and whenever I can, and you don’t have much time, but try to let things go on around you without intruding. I’m usually pretty quiet with people when I hang out. I mean, they know you’re there, people always know you’re there to some degree, but after a while, they kind of forget.
Have you ever gotten into conflicts with people who didn’t want to have you take their photo?
I did a book on the drug world which was very tough; a book called Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue. So that one was really tough in that way, but no, on the streets, I mean, if you photograph in the streets you deal with demonstrations or whatever, and I’ve covered some military situations where on occasion people will say no, but not usually. Most of the time people will allow you to take pictures. It’s like a tacit agreement. So in a sense you ask if it’s okay, making your presence aware, and let life take its course. It’s a little harder, and setting it up in a way is a little easier, you take less time, you can organize these things but it’s an investment.
Shooting the Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue series, did you ever feel that you were in danger as a photographer, or were in situations where having that kind of equipment put you at risk?
I don’t think it’s the equipment so much as just seeing too much. I think any time you’re dealing with people with weapons, which a lot of people carried guns, and people who get high, especially on crack which makes people a little nuts sometimes, the potential is there. Equipment doesn’t matter; I always feel that if anybody really wanted my cameras they can have them. You have got to learn and have some experience when to leave without getting melodramatic about it. And I’ve seen people make mistakes. It comes down to common sense a lot. You do what you can, and it’s like any society. I don’t wear a tie unless I go to a funeral or something and you try to adjust yourself to where you’re working to some degree. I never lie, I’m always a photographer, but you have to, you know, understand the limits of the culture you are in. I’ve been with people—it’s so strange, you know in certain communities you can’t wear short shorts and it’s not my idea, but in certain communities you will take abuse for this. And someone right away did and got in trouble. I think that any place you go, you have to understand where you are and make adjustments.
Has there ever been a situation where you didn’t get a shot, where you didn’t take the photo and you had regretted it later?
I mean, hundreds of times. The ones I remember more was when I actually got the picture because I had gone back for it. Especially a picture you see in the Americans We book. There’s actually a photograph in there that stands out because it looks like a simple picture. It’s a picture of a grandmother in a wading pool in Brooklyn, and when I saw that, it was right after I had just come back from photographing in the gym, not very successfully, and I was kind of in a bad mood and walked past, and it was really hot, super hot day, and I was really tired, and I walked past and I looked and I said, "oh if I go to photograph them, they’re going to say no," you know, they don’t want to be bothered. So I went up to the subway station and when I got up there I said, you know, ‘what’s wrong with you,’ it was beautiful what I was seeing. And five minutes before getting on the subway, I was like, ‘shit.’ And I went back down and I asked them, because I knew if I just took the camera it would have changed the dynamics. They would have seen me. And the kids, you know, when you take a camera out in front of kids, they’ll come running at you. So I went up to the grandma and said, ‘do you mind if I take pictures?’ And she said no, and the kid went over and threw a bunch of water at me—I remember that—a big pan and soaked me. And it was all so funny and everything was fine and it took about ten minutes for them to go back to being themselves. So, it happens a lot. You always know that if you were a different kind of person—I know if I was a different person who organized things more I could have gotten a lot of pictures. I also feel that if you don’t take a chance today, you can’t go back tomorrow.
In the drug world, I think that’s probably more what you’re asking. When I first went out into Red Hook housing project in Brooklyn—it was the longest time I’d ever spent on an assignment before I took pictures, which was a couple of weeks. Which is—much of the time the most photographers will spend is like two hours before on an assignment, never more than a day. That was a while ago, and I would see all these things happening—a person shooting a person—and I never took the camera out, because I knew that the people in the projects, the dealers and stuff, were establishing whether they thought I was a cop, and then when they realized that I was just a journalist they thought that was funny. Once they thought I was a stupid photographer, things started opening up because they would see I was no threat to them. So it’s tough, but if I had taken pictures right away I wouldn’t have been able to go back.
The number of photographers has increased exponentially; everybody has a camera all the time and people are constantly aware that they are being photographed. Do you think that changes people’s demeanor in public, how they react to a camera?
First off, more and more people are performing. I see that on the subway, people pull out cell phones all the time and snap each other. So photography has taken on a different level, I mean, you’re absolutely right. And I think it’s changing dramatically, even for the news. Some of these photographs of people who are important, so to speak, the ones down in Libya, wherever they are, are taken with cell phones. I also think personally—I’m sure people are getting fed up. In my own head, there’s a huge over-saturation of images. For a long time I never expected myself to feel tired of seeing so much. In terms of "crossing the line into being a serious photographer," or whatever you want to be, I think it puts a pressure on you too—and not a bad pressure—to try what people aren’t doing. You have to say, "ok, now, that’s the way it is, what can you do to make a contribution that’s different?" And I think that that’s happening more and more because there are so many images. I think photographers still emerge, but they have to think more carefully about what their doing.
I suspect people on the street... I mean, you look at the Wall Street thing and everybody is performing down there. I mean it would be very hard for example to do a story about Wall Street, to do a real story down there because everybody is performing.
It seems like a lot of people down there with signs are ready and waiting to be interviewed, but it’s hard to get a real sense of what’s actually going on.
Yeah, I sympathize and I think the answer is then maybe to go out to a small town somewhere else where they’re doing it, again, but not in such a media-conscious way. I’ve always hated going to parades, to be honest, or demonstrations. I’ve gone to them and most of the time I just don’t like them—I mean, even patriotism is performance. Everything is a performance and it’s very hard to get photographs out of these things. To get “real” photographs that move you, that are genuine, it’s very hard unless you make fun of people.
What’s your advice for photographers?
To try to connect the questions you asked—the question of too many photographs is interesting; the only way that I think people can really make a statement or do anything that’s of any value today is just to not lose their personality. That’s what I think is happening. I see in photojournalism, you look at all these websites, even the agencies, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell one photographer’s work from the other. It’s just a flood of people who been influenced by the generation that came before or whatever it is, and they look the same. So, the only thing for me is to look for people who have maintained their personality. It’s not so easy to do because people don’t want you to. But in my life, you are who you are and you keep going on it.