How did you get started in photography?
I discovered photography as a freshman in college at Syracuse University. My actual dream was to become a novelist. I was disabused of that notion at the tender age of eighteen by a harsh poetry teacher. I turned my sights on photography and within a few months of learning the craft, I was hooked. When I learned about Imogene Cunningham, who was still making pictures into her 90s, and then saw the photo series Ward 81 by Mary Ellen Mark, I knew this was how I wanted to spend my life. When I graduated from the university, I moved to San Francisco to begin my journey. Once there, I began freelancing and gradually moved from local magazine assignments to national and international work. My goal was always to become a storyteller.
Why did you found a documentary storytelling nonprofit?
My wife, Julie Winokur, and I formed Talking Eyes Media in 2002. We had just completed our seven-year-long project, Aging in America, which received a large amount of grant support. It became clear to us that doing this kind of in-depth, serious visual storytelling was not going to be supported by mainstream media. Having a nonprofit would allow us to seek funding directly for our projects. Julie is the executive director. She has grown it into both a wonderful storytelling organization that meets our humanitarian goals through client work and a production company that is taking us in new directions. We have a very exciting three-year collaboration with Rutgers Newark University, VII Photo and Talking Eyes to work on multiplatform stories related to immigration.
These kinds of collaborations allow us to create work that is not dependent on the media industry, yet enable us to work with that world to disseminate our projects and reach a broader audience.
How do you find inspiration for your series?
I drew inspiration for the Aging in America project after I had worked abroad for years and finally felt I should turn my camera on my own society. In the spirit of the Farm Security Administration photographers and advocacy journalists, I cast about to find what would be one of the great themes of my lifetime. I realized I could explore aging as a theme to create a timeless body of images that would last for decades in its relevance and usefulness. After completing that work with Julie—who also became a filmmaker during that time—we transformed from print journalists to multimedia practitioners, and we realized we had to take care of her aging father. So we moved our family from San Francisco to New Jersey, where he had been living alone. He lived out his last two years in our home, with our kids and caregivers, and died surrounded by us. It was
a beautiful experience, and I can attribute this to our work on aging. As I like to say, being a journalist made me a better human being.
Why did you publish your deeply personal journal entries and letters to your wife?
This project was born out of a personal desire to stay connected to my wife and family. I had started to keep a journal prior to the digital revolution, and it was a way to capture my feelings, thoughts and impressions from working on the road for more than half the year as I witnessed history. I also recorded intimate moments to share with Julie. I never intended to make a book or film from these journals, but in 2008, I was asked to take part in an International Center of Photography faculty exhibition where they wanted not just captions, but personal musings around the images. I realized my journal entries were a treasure trove of material. With the support of the fantastic photographers Kristin Reimer, Marjorie Steffe and Michael Curry, who were working in my studio at the time, we organized and filtered through nearly 20 years of journal entries and then matched the best with images from related trips.
Do you have any advice to photographers about balancing work and life?
For photographers who want a family, but are dedicated international documentarians and visual storytellers, make smart choices in the mate you choose and the projects you develop. Always listen to your mate. Never take them for granted, and be sure this is the life you want. It’s gut-wrenching at times. You’ll miss so much while seeing too much. You’ll need to be strong and tough, yet soft and sensitive. You’ll need to compromise on your work and your family.
How do you balance personal work with assignments and commissions?
I’ve always had personal projects, either in the background or foreground of my working life. The personal projects are the sustenance of my creative soul. Over time, I have found ways to combine the two. In most of the work I’ve produced with National Geographic, the ideas were mine, so that is a perfect example of finding commissions that support my personal work. I even did a crowd-funding campaign last year for my project on sugar cane workers with kidney disease.
At this stage of my life, with two kids in college and a studio to support, I can’t be as carefree as I once was. Earlier in my career, I would routinely invest large amounts of time and personal money into getting a project off the ground. In the future, I hope I can pursue an idea without having to connect it to money.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession?
Find what you want to say and how you want to say it. Be open-minded to all the new possibilities, but find solid platforms to explore. Develop your voice. Be clear on what you care about and dive in. ca