scribbling in the dark - photographer's talks: scribbling in the dark - LOOK3 Richards 2009

The scribbing in the dark series is a group of personal reflection writings on photography gatherings and slideshows. My notes are scribbled quickly in a tiny notebook, usually in a darkened room, so I ask in advance that you read the words below as my own recollections.  


scribbling in the dark -  

Eugene Richards Masters talk at LOOK3 

I could listen to Eugene Richards speak about his work all day. At LOOK3 this year, Eugene presented War is Personal, showed a short film, and shared the multimedia piece from The Blue Room series. Though I had previously heard Eugene talk about these bodies of work, his gentle intensity and powerful sincerity made me feel as if I was seeing everything for the first time.  

Often thought of as a photographer who uses his gift to raise social awareness, Eugene's roots are in health care advocacy and social service. He is perhaps best known for his personal treatment of social documentary books and films on the topics of drug abuse (Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue), his depiction of poverty (Few Comforts or Surprises, Below the Line: Living Poor in America), mental illness, aging and the self published Dorchester Days about his rapidly changing hometown. Eugene is respected and known for his total involvement with the people he photographs.  

War is Personal, begun in 2006, looks at the impact of the Iraq war on the soldiers and their families from different perspectives: A 25-year-old certified medic, home from Iraq, who can't escape the horrors of war. In New Hampshire, the enduring strength of a mother caring for her brain-injured son. The story of how grief has transformed the father of a slain US marine. The anguish of a mother who is bracing herself for her son's second deployment to Iraq. The pain of a young soldier from Missouri remembering the ambush of his unit in Iraq. The project was aided by a $50,000 NatGeo grant, but Eugene and his wife, who was instrumental in the project, faced repeated and countless obstacles to both producing and publishing War is Personal. The project has recently won a Getty Grant for editorial photography, which has allowed the continuation of the essays. 

In working with the people Eugene photographed for the project, he was very honest, sharing his own political views that he is against the war. But Eugene is clear that he wants to tell the story from the perspective of person he is photographing, and that he isn't trying to make any one point. Included in the project are textual essays.  

Acknowledging that it was sometimes difficult to photograph these stories, Eugene remarked that being quiet and doing nothing is much more difficult. "I was asking myself for the thousandth time, “What can I do? Write letters, sign petitions, continue to protest, stop paying taxes?” I was a photojournalist and I had been too silent." He said it is when he is involved in the working on a project that things are much better for him emotionally.  

As an example he spoke about of a very difficult day shooting at the funeral of Princess, or Army Sergeant Princess Samuels. Because of the difficulty in obtaining help in finding stories through the obvious sources, often Eugene would only discover that a funeral was being held when it was posted in the paper. But coming across Princess' funeral was completely accidental, and Eugene says he was emotionally unprepared. He had been driving and stopped at a church to get directions; the deacon invited him in. Through a third person, Princess' mother gave permission for Eugene to photograph. She never spoke to Eugene, but wanted him there for personal reasons. Eugene said his hands shook and he only got a few frames. 

A few notes from my scribbles when Richards showed War is Personal at David's loft back in 2008: 

EUGENE: The project I am working on now is kind of naive; I hit a point and I had to do something. 

That something is his powerful, stunningly meaningful piece War is Personal. He is working with a combination of photos and text to show how war has affected some who are here, at home. 

EUGENE: I find in this case, the photos (alone) don't do it. 

The intensely tender and intimate narratives in text he has included read like a work of literary fiction, but are all too real for those living these stories. The man himself is serene, quietly quick witted, lovely and abundantly sincere, and the room was filled with reverence. 

After an embrace with David, David said to Eugene 

Wow, that's too much.. 

EUGENE: It is too much.. 

DAH: You have to believe you make a difference, putting a brick in the wall at least, and trying. I can't think of a more noble thing when it comes to photography. 

Eugene also showed The Blue Room in multimedia form, with his quietly husky voice reading the text that accompanies his first published color project. Partly funded as an assignment for NatGeo, the images are of the landscape and abandoned houses of the rural American West. Eugene drove across the country, zigzagging in search of the forgotten homes for some three and a half years. He said he almost felt that he robbed NatGeo, because for him it was pure pleasure to be able to shoot as he wished. 

The working conditions were hard with the temperatures at 30 below zero and floors collapsing beneath him, but the freedom appealed to Eugene, and he called it therapy. It was a personal journey and a meditation on the fragility of life. By law, he was trespassing, and in many of the states that meant he could have been shot, so he said he jut had to be careful as he never obtained permission to enter the homes. But finding out anything about any of the houses was difficult despite his efforts. He said he only learned anything about the owners of 2 of the homes; about the home with the snowy bed, and another where there were many shoes. It seems the owner's son died in WW2 and the mother kept all his shoes... 

On one occasion, Eugene gathered up a pile of photos that were scattered on the floor of one house. He took the photos out of the house, found the relatives and showed them the photos, but they didn't want them. In an act that I think speaks volumes about the man, Eugene returned to the home and put the photos back where he had found them.