with Alison Stieven-Taylor
Los Angeles Times photojournalist Michael Robinson Chavez talks about his award-winning series on the California drought.
Michael Robinson Chavez is a photojournalist with the Los Angeles Times. He was recently awarded the Robert F Kennedy Award for Journalism for his series on the California drought. He was in Australia for Head On Photo Festival in May with his exhibition The Driest Seasons: California’s Dust Bowl. He spoke with Alison Stieven-Taylor about the evolution of this story into a five-part series, which ran on the front page of the LA Times.
MRC: Thanks! I don’t think I’ve ever come so far and been in such familiar surroundings. It took 15 hours to get here.
AST: (laughing) We know all about distance from everywhere here. So what do you think of Head On so far?
MRC: It’s very impressive that Head On is only six years old – it’s big and really established. I hope the word gets out in North America so it can get a bigger profile. It’s an important photo festival.
AST: I think your exhibition on the California drought is fantastic. It truly resonates because in Australia drought is something we are all too familiar with. I really like the fact that you’ve also approached it in a personal way, teasing out the stories of those directly affected. Can you talk about how the project began?
MRC: When you are pitching projects and ideas in big media institutions like the Los Angels Times you need to be cautious when you mention series or project because it can end up in some quagmire because everybody wants to construct it and title it and do it in a certain way.
We (Michael and journalist Diana Marcum who is based in the Central Valley) wanted to avoid that. It was sort of like a clandestine operation and we just started doing it. I told my photo editor that Diana was planning a story in the Central Valley on the drought and I’d like to go up there and do it and he said okay.
We went up there and reported one story and then another. We had two in the bank as it were and we just started running with it. The editors really liked it and halfway through they went ‘wait a minute, is this a series, what is this and what are you guys doing?’ and it became that, it became the series.
So it was just the two of us going and doing it, finding the people affected by the drought. We weren’t concerning ourselves so much with the politics and the environmental impact as there were other reporters and photographers doing that work because the whole history of California is based on water. We really wanted to focus on the migrant workers, the farm owners, communities without water, on the ground effects that were directly making peoples lives much more difficult. And we were able to pull that off.
We ended up doing a series of five stories, and they were all front-page stories. We ran the first and second stories in black and white and by the third story they were like ‘what’s with these black and white stories, who is this guy, what’s he doing?’ I had to show them the colour and the black and white work and it was obvious I was seeing all this in black and white.
I wanted to have that historic feel to the work because this is an historic drought. It’s a huge story and harkens back to when Dorothea Lange and Steinbeck and all these people fanned out throughout the west United States to document the dust bowl of the thirties for the government. I really wanted to keep it historical-looking in that kind of documentary style. The paper ran all the stories in black and white.
AST: This story really crosses cultural boundaries doesn’t it?
MRC: Yes I think so. California is one of the most diverse states in the world, and Los Angeles is the most diverse city in the world, so I think it really does from big Ag to migrant workers who have just arrived from Mexico, the small middle class farmers, it certainly cuts across all economic classes and the demographics of different cultures and the immigrants that have settled the Central Valley…the entire state is being hit hard by this drought…
The best news is that Diana won a Pulitzer Prize, I was so happy for her as this was her story. Then the photography won the Robert F Kennedy Award for Journalism so we were very happy because this year we are going to keep working there in the Central Valley.
AST: Were the people you interviewed and photographed interested in the idea that you wanted to tell their stories?
MRC: Some are hesitant, but many really appreciate it because the Central Valley is somewhat of a forgotten zone of California. When people think of California they think of the Golden Gate Bridge, or Hollywood or Disneyland, maybe Yosemite. But the Central Valley is an unknown entity and it’s a huge part of the state. So I think a lot of people really appreciated someone going up and caring and wanting to do a story about the hardships they are facing because people in the cities – Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego – they are not feeling it like they are in the Valley.
AST: What do you see as the next piece in the story?
MRC: Well this year I think it is going to get harder and harder for people. We don’t want to be redundant and go back to what we were doing though. I am going to shoot a lot of video this year – I’d really like for the LA Times to put together a comprehensive package with stills, sound, video, written word; documentation that can be used for educational purposes, that can be on YouTube or Vimeo or even more traditional channels and networks. So that when people look up California’s historic drought of the early 21st Century the LA Times will have chronicled it all from front to back.
AST: Is the paper behind that idea?
MRC: Yes they are definitely behind me doing the video. The larger picture is a little bit harder for them to kind of grasp, but they understand that they want to own the story, and the LA Times should own the story. We are the biggest newspaper west of the Hudson River and it is really important that we own the story, because this is our state, this is our story and the people need to know these things and I think we are the ones that can deliver that to them.
I think video is a logical next step and that’s part of the future of photojournalism although doing video is a bit of a paradox because I know not that many people watch the videos. I think still photographs carry much more weight over the long run over any moving picture. When you look back on history it’s always the still images we go to, except for certain iconic films…but I will be shooting both stills and video.
AST: Well good luck with the rest of your story and thanks so much for taking time to speak with me. Enjoy the rest of your stay.
MRC: Thanks, it’s been great speaking with you. I’m going to Coogee Beach today. I want to swim in the ocean.
CR: Yes, my father was in an industry where we travelled a lot…My passion for photography has evolved around documenting culture and I’ve spent 30 years photographing around the world.
I have dedicated my life to what is a race against time to photograph cultures from our past that live in the present and to document them for future generations. These photographs are ‘postcards to the future’ of what we are losing today.
Somewhere along that process I realised there was a narrative that was missing and it was the people that I was photographing, it was their story. Many traditional cultures are storytelling cultures. Of the 6000 languages we have on the planet the vast majority are traditional languages. Many histories are oral and information is passed on in a storytelling fashion and often a visual storytelling fashion. So many traditional cultures are inherently set up to be visual storytellers. What I really dedicate my life to now, above and beyond my own documentation of those cultures, is helping to empower traditional cultures to document their own stories.
We have a number of programs at the National Geographic as well as my own foundation The Last Mile Technology Program, which is about taking cameras and computers and video into places where we are invited, into traditional communities and teaching storytelling. By the storytellers telling their own cultural stories we are putting more seats at the table and creating more opportunities for cultural diversity.
The Last Mile Technology Program is about bringing in the technology and the story telling techniques to communities that are eager and do not want to be left behind on the digital divide. Those who want to be part of that 21st Century story.
CR: Well we have had a number of the successes through National Geographic getting stories out there in the magazine and online. We’ve also done a couple of TV documentaries with National Geographic, and so the word has gotten out about a number of the things we are doing. And I am constantly travelling, lecturing at festivals, workshops and United Nations symposiums on culture and technology. It is really a theme now where traditional cultures are embracing technology to move into a position where they have access to telling their story. The word is out.
CR: Absolutely. There is nothing like a technology that empowers people. Without stereotyping the reaction, we find that most people want to be acknowledged for the story they have to tell. Many traditional cultures, which have been marginalised and told that they are irrelevant, now have a forum in which they can share their stories with other indigenous people and also share that narrative with a broader audience. Without over romanticising the process, I just think it (the digital space) is messy but good and allows people to connect around the world.
AST: Is there any particular community you’ve worked with that were more challenging than others in terms of their capacity to embrace that technology?
CR: I think there are certain cultures that are suspicious because of history. We only go in where invited because there are some traditional cultures that are very closed and there are others who want to assimilate and let go of the past. Many feel the only way to not be marginalised is to let go of the legacy of who they are, but I think you can be both. I’ve got European history and Scottish; we are all kinds of mutts with legacies of cultures behind us. I don’t want to deny any of my traditional heritages and I think it is important for cultures to embrace their identity.
There are still cultures that are potentially shell-shocked (with digital technology), but what I am seeing around the world – from communities in Africa to the Australian Aborigines, Native American communities in North America and other places – is a real revitalisation movement around telling their stories.
You know ultimately this technology is democratising storytelling by allowing everybody to tell their story, including indigenous people, which is very, very exciting.
We begin our interview with my asking if she agrees that because of the depth of the narrative “Dante’s Inferno” is perhaps darker or more contemplative than her previous works that include Don Quixote and The Princess and the Pea.
VV: “This text is certainly very different from those I had faced previously, but they all have very different atmospheres and meanings. As I was carried away by Dante’s verses, I lowered the tone, searching for a “muddy” coloration and abandoning hues that were too colourful. Dante’s Inferno opens a different phase to the previous one – after my very first works, the planning stage has become more intense and reaches a final result which is undoubtedly more reflective. Also, my experimentation evolves and changes in every work, where often the rarefaction and solitude of the elements becomes more present.”
VV: “Dante is a meticulous narrator, able to dazzle the reader with detailed particulars. During this journey into the other world, he offers us a very credible description of the space that we traverse – what is on our right or left, the sounds, colours and smells – and with this narrative strength, he sweeps us away into his world, which we are able to have a very clear, almost concrete, image of…I believe that Dante’s Inferno is a profoundly aesthetic work that very much lends itself to being enunciated in images.”
VV: “Whenever I am working on a literary piece, I start with an in-depth analysis of the text, which leads me to identify the parts I find most suited to my personal vision of the story. After this first phase, which is dominated by a serious schematic study, my imagination is riper and I can finally let it go and get itself lost in discursive digressions, which I bring together in a series of sketches. Then, I can proceed with my reconstruction of the story, achieved through the creation of storyboards in which I redraw the images that I will go on to capture in my photographs”.
Often Vannicola works with people from her hometown of Tolfa north of Rome, but regardless of where her story is to be created she prefers to engage locals.
VV: “When I am working in the town where I was born, I am helped by my cousins, my fellow townspeople, my relatives, and my grandmother on the sewing machine, whereas if I am in a place I don’t know at all, I always try to work on getting others involved. Believing in the project and feeling involved is the fundamental ingredient to the final result”.
Q: What level of involvement do your ‘actors’ have in the enactment of each scene, or do you direct them?
VV: “The people involved are not only participants in the staging phase but also often in the planning stage, irrespective of whether my relationships with those people are consolidated or new. The final work is the fruit of a community that is often busy finding materials for the scene or suggesting locations.
The overriding mood of the moment of the staging of the shots is generally very cheerful, and the non professional actors who are involved feed this climate, stimulated by what for them is an unusual situation. And yet, in the precise moment of the shot, when everyone has taken their pre-established positions and I try to guide them in the story with my voice, for a few moments, a profound silence descends and everyone is perfectly in character or the elements are in perfect balance. For me, it is right at that moment when the image I freeze in the photograph happens.”
“The photograph is the final act with which I stop fundamentally a much longer and more elaborate creative process. From the moment in which I have a clear idea of the image I want to recount, except in sporadic and specific cases, the staging phase is the quickest part. In this, what perhaps takes me most time is the stagings, because from the two-dimensionality of the idea on paper, I move to the three-dimensionality of matter, where I deal with weight, gravity, and even the force of water, which often I still cannot assess beforehand and which I therefore have to solve in the field.”
Q: What kind of time investment do you make on a project like Dante’s Inferno?
VV: “Time is a very relative idea. The duration of a project depends on a myriad of factors – whether it is an entirely personal work or is commissioned; on the area and the people I am working with; on inspiration and concentration; and often on the weather. Each project, respecting the complicated limits of the possible, establishes its own length autonomously.”
Q: As our interview comes to a close I ask what she is currently working on?
VV: “The last few months saw me working on a new project, which I have just finished, called Riviere. It was a commissioned work which was born in collaboration with the Bellaria Film Festival, and which developed with an artist’s residency in the coastal town of Bellaria, in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. In this case, I did not start with a literary text to refer to, but from a process of an in-depth study of the area and its history. From this, a story of mine was born, first in text and then in images, beginning from a historical investigation into something which actually occurred from the 1950s/60s, then weaving in with the story of my grandparents and their photographic archive from 1990 to 2000, and concluding with my arrival at Rimini Train Station in January 2014.”
Istituto Italiano di Cultura
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