Sometimes you just don't feel like taking a picture.
I'm no exception.
I was going through a tough few weeks, and the last thing
I wanted to do that weekend was photograph in an chaotic
environment with terrible light and staged performances.
I was covering the Taste of India festival in Norfolk. It's a
lovely festival from a participants' point of view, but from
a photographer's it was challenging. The bulk of the event
featured food booths and a stage where children danced.
As I walked around the convention center, my mind felt
blocked and overwhelmed. I thought back to the advice of
Bill Eppridge, who was my coach at a workshop years ago.
When you're overwhelmed, go to one place and sit still.
I think when your mind is not at peace, it's helpful to reduce distractions.
We all have moments where, for a variety of reasons, we can't
see through the clutter either in our mind, or in a scene, the
beauty that is in front of us. The struggle lies in the ability
to remain focused. I think of Bill's words often in such moments.
I walked over to the stage and sat down, and made this early
frame. It's overexposed, I know, but it was just a picture to
get my bearing.
I sat down near the corner of the stage and decided to focus
on the area around me. I was surprised at the beauty of the
light that spilled from the stage - it was filtered from some
of the railings and decorations. I decided to stay low, and I
made pictures while children waited to go on stage.
I started to feel better and my mind was more focused now.
All the clutter and energy I brought into the event was now
gone. I felt more focused and intense.
My mind felt clear.
Around this moment I looked to the right where I saw a shaft
of light pouring through a slit in the “backstage” curtain.
There's where the picture is, I thought.
I moved to the curtain and quickly introduced myself to the
children backstage. They all wanted to pose for me, but I
told them to ignore me. After a few moments of me sitting
in silence, they became bored with me and started looking
out onstage at the performers who preceded them.
And then it happened.
They moved in an out of the light in the following progression
where I made the final image.
It's interesting, in retrospect, to process the path
of moving from a cluttered mind to a focused one.
I'm no different than anyone else. I often struggle with
negative thoughts, or a scattered mind.
But I also keep thinking back to Bill's advice to me:
Stop moving, clear the clutter, and concentrate
on the beauty right in front of you.
Next week on TID, we'll spotlight this wonderful
image by Melissa Lyttle:
And, as always, if you have a suggestion of someone, or an image you
want to know more about, contact Ross Taylor at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For FAQ about the blog see here:
This week, TID takes a look at look at the story behind this image:
Hey Mark, thanks for taking the time to discuss this
image with TID. Can you please describe original assignment?
The picture is from an assignment I had in 1997 when I was
a staff photographer at the Palm Beach Post. The paper wanted
to profile the town of Gibsonton, because a former carny
and accused serial killer, Glen Rogers, was to go on trial for
the murder of a woman named Tina Cribbs.
Gibsonton is a winter home to thousands of carnival workers
and in our story the Post reporter described the town as a
place where, "a carny pays for tires and rims for his truck
with $1300 in quarters."
In addition to the town's transient citizens, it was also the
home of some well-known retired sideshow performers
including Melvin Burkhart, the person in this photograph.
For his ability to drive a nail into his head, Melvin became
known as "The Human Blockhead."
This image stands out, not just because of it's impact, and it's
unique vision, but in the amount of time it took to set this up.
The process that led to this photograph was pretty organic.
Paul and I had spent several days in talking with people in Gibsonton,
and Melvin Burkhart was one of our last interviews.
We spoke about the upcoming trial of Glen Rogers, but the majority
of our time was spent listening to Melvin talk about life in the
sideshows as a human oddity.
Melvin's talents went beyond driving nails into his nose. He could
also turn his head 180-degrees, stretch his skin into unnatural
looking contortions and twist his face so it was a half-smile
In the 1960's, Melvin said "do-gooders" descended upon his
show and closed it, saying 'these poor people are being exploited.'"
"They didn't understand," said Melvin,"That these 'poor people'
had no other way of making a living."
Through our conversation I got the sense that Melvin was a humble
man - a little sad about not working anymore – but, very proud to
have been able to earn his living as an entertainer.
After I asked to make his picture, he took off his shirt and without
getting out of the chair that he had been sitting in during our interview,
started demonstrating how he could contort and stretch his skin.
It was, of course, pretty cool to see his talents but my sense, while making
images of him doing this, was "It's going to be amazing to see what he
does with a nail."
What was his reaction when you brought the idea up?
I think Melvin was open to being photographed in a range of
situations. He was an entertainer, and I felt he was happy, in a
way, to perform again. Also, until you asked about the image,
and I went back to look at the contact sheets, I had forgotten
how much Melvin performed for the camera in so many frames.
I remember that I didn't direct him too much but just let him
perform and waited for a quiet moment. I used the early frames,
with him stretching and contorting, to learn about how he
responded to being photographed.
Was there any point of conflict in this shoot, a moment when he
didn't want to go along with your thought?
If there was any tension in the process of making this picture it was in
waiting for him to let go of his desire to perform. I also checked with him
to see how long he would be comfortable with a nail in his nose.
What was the format you chose for this image ?
The format was Hassleblad 6cm x 6cm, a wide angle lens and
a macro tube. I also used a soft box with an amber gel. It was s
omething I used a lot back then. Warm gel foreground, with a
blue-gelled background. Back then, in the mid-'90's, I also used
medium format for portraits as often as I could because I liked
how the camera's precise optics revealed detail in people's faces.
What did you learn from making this image that you didn't before?
That's an interesting question, and I would love to be a
mountaintop guru able tell you that through the making
of this photograph some great truth was revealed.
The thing is, though, I think every picture we make is informed
and shaped in some way through the photographs we have made
or seen previously.
Regarding this photograph, it was made after I learned (through
Scott Wiseman) that the white underneath a person's pupil helped
attract a viewer to a subject's eyes. I learned (through the photographs
of Eugene Richards) that getting physically close to a subject
resulted in photographs I found to be more engaging. I also learned
(through other photographers) that wide angle Hassleblad lenses
needed a macro tube to get very close to a person's face.
And through my own dumb luck, I had also learned that amber gels
brought out interesting skin tones. Each of those items appears in the
photograph because I had learned or experienced it through the making
of another photograph.
When I look at the photograph now, I see details, that were in that
image because of things revealed through the experience of making
Until you asked Ross, I really hadn't thought of it quite so objectively
so thanks for asking, again, it's an interesting question.
What advice do you have, for photographers, to make images that provide insight to people's character?
Mark Mirko has been a staff photographer at the Hartford
Courant since 2000. For the ten years prior he was on staff at
The Palm Beach Post.
Mark's work has been recognized by the NPPA, the Pictures of
the Year competition and the Society for News Design. The National
Press Photographer's Association has twice named him a regional
photographer of the year and in 1993 the Post photography staff
was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for its coverage of Hurricane Andrew.
He has an MA from Ohio University and in 2003/2004 was the
Knight Fellow for Newsroom Graphics Management at the Ohio
University School of Visual Communication.
We've added a FAQ on TID. To learn more about TID
please go here:
Next week on TID, we'll take a look at pyschology of the
construction of making this image:
Eugene Richards has always been an inspiration.
It's not just his pictures that inspire me, but it's
his access to intimacy.
His work is a beacon - it's a symbol of what I strive
I've read his book, Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue
dozens of times, but only recently did I pay acute
attention to the writing.
It looks as if he's interviewing the people he photographs,
and I wondered if there was a tie between the act of
interviewing and access.
I decided to try something similar with a subject
the next time the appropriate opportunity arose.
When I met this woman, I thought I would try.
One of our military reporters was working on a story
about this woman, whose son served in Iraq. Her son
suffers from PTSD as a result of his combat experience,
and he tried to kill his wife.
He's now in jail.
His mother asserts his time in Iraq caused his breakdown.
"The Army broke my son. They broke him, and then they
threw him away," she said.
Instead of taking the ubiquitous picture of her standing
by a window holding a picture of her son, I wanted to
make an image that reflected her pain.
I asked her if it would be OK to interview her and have
her talk about her son, while I photographed her.
We both knew it would be emotionally tough for her,
but she trusted me. I emphasized that my goal was to
show the pain she was suffering, and she agreed.
You can see her pain in this progression of images.
I hope it touches people deeper than a traditional
We started talking about her feelings.
We probed deeper into her emotional state, and while it
was difficult, it's important to remember this was an agreed
action by both of us.
The more we talked about her son, the more she opened up.
She began to trust me more, and I could feel I was beginning
to make an image that was a more honest portrayal of her experience.
It was intense, and profoundly sad.
As she cried, so did I. I couldn't prevent myself.
It was all just too damn sad.
During the interview, I reminded her that though I was
holding up a camera between us, I was still listening.
I think it helped her in trusting me, even though
we didn't have constant eye contact.
After almost an hour, we came to this point in the interview. It
seemed a release for her, this moment in time.
I'm very grateful for her in trusting me, and for
her being open to sharing her emotion with me
and our readers. We don't always get such an
Afterwards she was exhausted, and very emotional.
I think it's worth mentioning though, that she
thanked me for listening, and for asking her
the questions that led to that moment.
She told me no one had listened to her
to this extent.
I think the lesson learned is to give the
people you photograph space. Give them the chance
to reveal their emotions.
Don't only depend on writers to interview -
you may miss out on a chance to better understand someone.
Next week on The Image, Deconstructed:
We take a look at one of Mark Mirko's pictures
and we'll learn how he made this arresting image:
In this week's posting, we take a look
at one of Matt Eich's images from his
Baptist Town project:
(Editor's note: TID stands for the blog)
Hey Matt, thanks a lot for being open to this.
Can you please describe your original assignment,
which brought you to Mississippi?
I was sent to Mississippi by the AARP Bulletin to work on a
story about rural healthcare. We (the writer, audio reporter
and myself) had 3 days to document the major players in
healthcare throughout the state. Although we gathered
enough content to satisfy the editor’s needs, we knew
that the story was far from done.
After returning home I pestered my editor, who understands
the necessity of time to allow stories to evolve, and I asked
for more time. He agreed and sent me back for 5 days.
I later returned on my own three times. In all, I’ve
spent 14 days working in Baptist Town.
This image is part of a larger body of work that is still
in progress. What are your goals with this project?
When on an assignment, time constraints dictate adhesion
to a narrative, or a presumed storyline. I dislike going
into situations like this though.
In an ideal world, you are just there and the story
becomes clear over a period of time. People will
tell you what the story is, if you simply listen.
Now I know the story is about this resilient community
of people whose ancestors were freed from slavery only
to be segregated, then supposedly de-segregated only
to live like lesser citizens.
They don’t drink from different water fountains or ride
the back of the bus anymore, but their neighborhood is
geographically separated from the white community by
train tracks. There is a chasm between rich and poor.
My goal is to explore the Baptist Town neighborhood, and
I'm looking to answer the question - what creates this
pocket of poverty, crime and violence? If I can better understand
that, my hope is that the images will help to bridge the gap
between these two worlds. I'm also planning to document their
more affluent neighbors to better understand the adjacent
communities and how the two compare.
Can you talk about some of the background of what brought
you back to Baptist Town on this trip?
In late October I found out that one of the kids I had
photographed in the Baptist Town, Demetrius “Butta”
Anderson, 18, had been shot and killed by a man he’d
had beef with in another neighborhood. He was the third
person in his family to be murdered and was incredibly
popular in Baptist Town.
At the time I had $54 in my bank account and had no idea
how I was going to get there, but was determined to be at
Butta’s funeral. With the help of some incredibly supportive
friends and colleagues I made it down in time for his wake
and attended his funeral the next day.
By this point I had a strong rapport built with the community,
from the churchgoers to the drug dealers. There wasn’t a
word of objection to my presence, and everyone was so warm
and open to me that it honestly blew my mind.
After a full day of making pictures, I was physically and
emotionally exhausted by the evening and had serious thoughts
about calling it a night instead of hanging with Butta’s friends
who planned to go clubbing late. Over a quick bite to eat I
consulted with a friend, Amanda Lucier, who told me to “stop
being a pussy, get back out there and keep making pictures.”
I rolled back to Baptist Town and waited for the kids to mount
up for the club. A guy I didn’t know caught a lift with me because
I decided to follow instead of riding along. I’ve learned to assume
that the guys in the neighborhood are carrying a gun most times,
but I didn’t ask as he got into my car.
The caravan eventually departed and flipped a U-turn on the way,
heading back to a gas station where we idled for a while. Finally
they hit the road again. The car in front of us stopped long enough
for someone to get out, pull apart the door paneling and stash what
looked like drugs and gun shells before they pulled out. I followed
the lead car down darkened back roads until we ended up at a club
called Scruples Sports Bar sometime after midnight.
Now, lets talk about the moments leading up to the image.
The light in Scruples was pretty difficult, but occasionally in
the corner by the door it would get a little bit lighter. I'd been
waiting for the light to change while photographing a couple
of the girls who were pseudo-dancing and just hanging out.
A guy with a cigarette stepped into the frame as some people
walked through the door behind everyone. The disco ball cast
just enough light to make everything come together somehow
as smoke rose from the cigarette.
Was there any point of conflict in this shoot, a moment when
people didn't want you there?
In any large crowd there is always one or two people who don’t
want to be in pictures. I’ve found that most of the time they are
assertive enough to come up and tell me, “Hey man, don’t make
my picture.” And I totally respect that – I’ve got plenty else to
see and photograph. So conflict is avoided by just being respectful
and listening to people.
It's important to read body language when you can. More often
than not, if I’ve got enough time in a place, the people who start
off not wanting their picture made will change their minds later
on when they start to feel like their friends are getting all of the
attention. I hope in time people see that I’m not there to exploit
them and that trust begins to break down barriers.
What were people’s reactions to your presence in the club?
I was amazed at the openness of the people at the club. They were
there to celebrate Butta’s life and they wanted me to be there to show
how much he meant to them. The kids I knew told the doorkeeper
that I was there to make pictures, I got frisked just like everyone else.
The place quickly filled, mostly with Baptist Town residents and friends,
who danced with one another facing a mirrored-wall. The light was a
constant challenge, but you just try to absorb the feeling of the place
and let the technical side of things sort itself out in your subconscious.
The music is blasting, everyone is drinking, passing blunts and smoking
cigarettes in the dim light. At one point Winky, one of the more
respected young men from the corner comes up and puts his arm
around me. Familiar faces checked in on me from time-to-time to
see how I am doing, and asked me to make a picture of them. I wonder
what is done because I am there, but it doesn’t matter – I am a part of
it, celebrating Butta’s life while simultaneously mourning his death.
It’s such a fucking waste.
What did you learn from the process of making this image
that you didn't know before?
It wasn’t anything I didn’t know before, but it was certainly
reinforced: if you’re not there, you can’t make the picture. I
try to read the people and the environment. It’s hard to know
when to stay and when to go sometimes – I always try to lean
towards staying, but you’ve got to set boundaries too. The idea
is to always say yes, to be vulnerable and open. But I have to keep
my family in the back of my head at the same time and know
when to step away.
Matt, you were quoted in an interview recently as saying:
“I'm a photojournalist because that is the label applied to the kind
of work I do,” adds Eich. “But in truth I'm just a curious person with
a camera, seeking out intimacy with strangers and striving to increase
understanding and dispel fear, not only for others but also myself.”
We thought the phrase "increase understanding and dispel fear" was compelling.
Why did you feel it was important to bring this up?
This is relevant in my recent explorations of Baptist Town, but it also
translates into something intrinsically human. Maybe it’s an animal
instinct, but we fear things we don’t understand. This affects the way
we interact with one another, as well as the beliefs we hold.
I’m searching for a commonality that ties us together, so people on
the other side of the tracks can visually meet their neighbors. My hope
is that instead of seeing their tattoos or their poverty or their guns
or the color of their skin, they see something human.
Before we close, I want to ask you a question about your approach
to documentary photojournalism. You seem to be able to blend well
with subjects, almost to the point they don't seem to know you're there.
Do you have any advice for photographers about gaining deeper
access into people's lives?
If it hasn’t come through in what I’ve written thus far, it is to understand
that objectivity is dead. It's important to be vulnerable, open and honest
with the people you photograph. Make it a two-way street - build
relationships. In Baptist Town I think I’m commonly seen as the
neighborhood photographer because I’m just there, wandering from
place to place, making pictures and hanging out with people.
I bring back prints which reinforces a trust. I also brought a printed
a book of my work, which unexpectedly was shared with a good
chunk of the neighborhood. That experience helped to open more
doors than I could’ve imagined, when I feared it would have the
You never know how people see themselves and if the way you see
them will jive. If not, then they choose to let you continue photographing
or to send you home. It depends on trust and egos and I am so fortunate
that the folks in Baptist Town seem as happy to have me around, as I am
happy to be there.
Thanks Matt, any last thoughts we didn't bring up?
Nah, man – those were some great questions. Thanks for getting my wheels turning!
This project will soon be open to crowd-funding via Emphas.is
View the video trailer at: http://vimeo.com/17795354
Matt Eich is a documentary photographer and founding member of LUCEO
based in Norfolk, Virginia. Eich's images have been internationally recognized,
published, and exhibited and his work is rooted in memory, both personal and
collective. Matt's two long-term bodies of work, Carry Me Ohio and Sin and
Salvation in Baptist Town, both focus on rural American communities, their
daily life, joys, struggles, and sense of identity.
You can see more of his work here:
Next week on The Image, Deconstructed:
We take a look at the delicate situation of a mother who is fighting
for her son, who is in jail and suffering from PTSD from his time in Iraq.