Mark Clements, from the Chicago Reader.I don’t know. That’s something else I’ve never thought about. I’m always a dude who wears a bunch of hats. Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none kind of thing. So it depends on the assignment. Sometimes I think I am a photojournalist, yeah. That school thing I was talking about for the Wall Street Journal, or for the Chicago Reader, it’s a news event and you’re there to document it in an unbiased sort of way. You just get the best photos without interfering with what’s happening, kind of like fly-on-the-wall type thing.
I guess because I’m not a journalist by trade or for my background, I’ve never really thought about the term. So, yeah, sometimes I’m a photojournalist, sure. (Laughs.)
The approach is always different based on what you’re doing. That’s something I love, being well-rounded, dipping my toes into as many different things as I can. Because you know how the economy is. I was out on a job recently for the Wall Street Journal – I don’t know if you heard the story about a couple girls who got killed in Sterling, Illinois in a corn farm. They were detasseling corn, and I guess the irrigation system had electrified some of the water and they got electrified and killed.
We went out there a few days after it happened, and you know, driving around with the journalist, this guy Doug Belkin who writes for the Wall Street Journal. They’ve got their reporters doing video. I’m asking him, “How does it feel to be asked to do a lot more for not more money?” And he’s like, “You kind of have to wear a lot of hats, otherwise they’ll find someone who can and you won’t have a job.”
It’s a weird time. I think a lot of people are trying to figure it out and are afraid for their jobs, so you’re forced to do a lot of stuff. But it’s something I really like. I like being well-rounded and mixing it up and not sticking to one thing. Whether I’m shooting portraits or journalism or parties, whatever it might be, I’m cool with it.
It is a struggle. Am I doing meaningful work? What am I doing wasting away taking photos of this or that that no one gives a shit about? You get an assignment and the subject is really interesting, and you grow as a person, not just get good photos. You learn a lot of life lessons. Even shooting all these Chicago public schools, you see into a world you had no idea existed. It broadens your life horizon.
That’s one of my all-time favorite things about this job. We don’t go to an office and work in the same spot everyday. Our office is the world. That sounds kind of weird to say, but yeah! You’re always in different environments, different situations, with people you wouldn’t normally have access to. I did a lot of photos for Governor Quinn, Pat Quinn, when he was running for governor. And that was cool, because we were just hanging out with the governor. He drove us to the polling places and I’m in the back of his car. That shit would never happen if I wasn’t a photographer, you know? (Laughs.) It’s interesting to see all these worlds. You get a little glimpse. And I love that.
In June of 2009, I covered the Iranian presidential protests in Chicago. I got in touch with people through Facebook, which was cool, but I don’t speak any languages other than English, so I had to depend on the English-speaking Iranians.
Language, yeah. It’s so important.
You’ve done some traveling now – Is that something you like about photography? That it offers an opportunity to slice into that language barrier?
Yes and no. I mean, yes, because cameras are universal. Everybody knows what it is. But that’s something I struggle with. Wanting to know languages. I hate the fact that I only speak English, a little bit of Spanish, but not enough to talk to anyone. It sucks. There are so many more opportunities if you can actually go places and talk to people.
I’ve been shooting for Hoy a little bit. You know Hoy? The Spanish-language daily newspaper? We’ve been talking about doing more in-depth photo journalism projects. They really like my photos, and they trust that I’ll be able to manage, which is awesome. But in the back of my mind, I’m like, “Man, am I going to be good enough? I don’t speak Spanish.”
One of the stories we’re working on is Mexican immigrants that live in rural places. There are these weird communities that spring up with Mexicans in the middle of nowhere, and they’re doing this big story on it that I might be involved in, and I just wish I spoke Spanish fluently. Is it going to affect my work that I don’t? Are people going to trust me? Especially if they’re illegal, you know? Some gringo shows up with a camera who’s like, “Hey! Let me take your picture!”
I was in Morocco recently, Rabat, Morocco. All the shit in the Arab world was going on, protests, revolutions. Me and my friend were drinking tea, and we hear all this shouting coming around the corner. It’s a massive protest. We’re not from there – I was staying with a friend who was from Morocco, but he wasn’t with us at the time. All these people come by, and we tense up. Is the shit hitting the fan? What are they protesting? We have no idea. We automatically assume it’s the revolution.
So we’re following them with our cameras, and it’s really awesome, because we’re getting real life Arab Spring photos. Of course we get back to my friend’s house later, and we’re showing him the videos and photos, and we’re like, “Hey, translate for us.” And he’s like, “Oh, that’s this big teacher protest that’s going on. They’ve been there every weekend.” We were shocked, like, “Man! We thought that was it.” I was emailing my friend at the Journal who’s a photo editor: “Yo! I’ve got these awesome photos from Morocco. Protests!” He was all excited: “Yeah, send them over.” And then I’m like, “Oh, it was a teacher protest.” Because I didn’t know. Yeah, you kind of need to know the language. It helps. (Laughs.)
You have to do two things at once. I’m not a conflict shooter, so I don’t know first hand nearly as well as those people, but in the few things that I have done, yeah – you’re seeing through this lens, and you have to make sure you have good photos, and your settings are all okay, but you also have to keep your eye around and make sure you’re not missing anything crazy, or that there’s someone throwing a rock at you, or a police officer about to arrest you. It’s definitely a challenge. I wish I was better, but I haven’t done a ton of that stuff.
But in this weird way, and I know this is going to sound horrible, but in a weird way situations like crazy parties where people are moshing and crowd-surfing is, honest-to-god, good training for that. I was at SXSW this past spring, and I shot Odd Future, the rappers, and they’re notorious for absolutely destroying everything. At one point one of the dudes jumped into the photo pit feet first and cut my friend’s forehead. Another dude smacked somebody’s BlackBerry out of their hands. At one point they openly declared war on the photographers. They’re like, “Fuck the photographers. We’re gonna break your shit and there’s nothing you can do about it.” And that’s a mini war in a way, you know?
So how do you keep your mind on your work and on your focus when the subject that you’re looking at is threatening to stop you from doing the thing that you’re trying to do?
It’s adrenaline, kind of a learned skill. And it’s a lot of fun. I can see why people want to go to war zones and be conflict photographers. It’s just this rush of energy. A challenge, you know? I can’t really sum up in words how you do it. You just learn to do it. You try to stay conscious of everything that’s going on while knowing what you’re doing with the camera. A lot of times you might just be snapping photos without even looking through the lens, you know? I’ve done that a lot.
Even in the nightlife stuff. 80 to 90% of the time, I wouldn’t even look through the lens. Which is another great skill to have as a photographer: knowing what your frame looks like without seeing it. These are things you learn, tricks you pick up in experience. Experience is the best thing of all, in any art really, unless you’re just some crazy natural genius, which some people are. (Laughs.)
If I wasn’t making my living by taking photos, I would still be looking at photos all the time. This photo is pretty awesome. (Holds up issue of Chicago Magazine.) David Axelrod, this portrait. That’s a great photo. The lighting. The look on his face. The mystery behind it. It just gets you thinking. That’s what’s great about it: it gets you thinking. It’s very noire, you know? And he’s an iconic guy, so that helps. If that was just some random dude, it wouldn’t be as interesting.
Jack M Silverstein is an oral historian working in Chicago. His non-fiction novella Our President about Barack Obama’s inauguration is available at Amazon. Say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.
Check back every Wednesday at Eye on Chi for more of Jack M Silverstein’s People with Passion interviews with Chicago journalists. Coming up next week: Chuck Sudo of Chicagoist.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
August 18, 2011: Rick Telander, Chicago (EXCERPT, FULL)
August 15, 2011: Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader, investigative reporter (EXCERPT, FULL)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)
August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, columnist (EXCERPT, FULL)
August 4, 2011: Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune, columnist (EXCERPT, FULL)