Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My Camera Is My Private Ticket To The World

I’m currently preparing a gallery show of my photographs from China, and the process has helped me realize how photography has been a heck of a way to encounter the world around me.

Archbishop Curley Notre Dame, the high school that has commissioned a number of my multimedia stories, invites artists associated with the school to exhibit their work as a way to build connections with the community here in Miami.

Ethnic Mongolian girl gathers grassland flowers at summertime Naadam Festival, Xiwuzhumuqinqi, Inner Mongolia, China. Will be included in gallery show November 5.

Colleague Benjamin Rusnak has exhibited at the school his insightful panoramic black and white work - 23 Degrees, Far From Paradise - depicting hunger in the tropical regions of our hemisphere. Carl Juste of the Miami Herald has displayed photographs from his many visits to Haiti.

At first I demurred that my China photography had no insights as profound as theirs, but I got to thinking as I wrote an introduction to the show. I’m not reporting deep into a nation’s character, but more of a casual observation of human nature. People are people. That’s valid too, don’t you think? We all put our pants on one leg at a time, all over the world, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. 

Visiting China as a photographer for the first time was very intimidating. With a population of 1.3 billion and one of the planet’s most ancient cultures, I worried that my images would contribute anything new. How could I tell the story of the political transformation since Liberation in 1949, the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, an economy that’s moved hundreds of millions of rural peasants to the cities and transformed the nation into world power?
I decided to meet China’s people one at a time, capture a tiny bit of that nation’s character one photograph at a time. I went into the streets and markets and temples with no particular agenda other than to see the relaxed and candid side of people from a culture very different from my own.

After six trips to China I present here no insights into their political, economic and environmental challenges. I simply try to look into a pair of eyes just like mine, accept them for what they are at that moment, make a connection that I can digitize, take home and share. These Faces of China are fleeting glimpses of people that are like you and me, people who are trying to live their lives to the fullest, plan for the future, contribute to their community. And sometimes they sneak a peak at an unusual Western visitor with a camera.

My technique to capture these photographs is very basic: I show my subjects respect, smile, indicate an interest with body language, and treat them as I would want to be treated. I say hello in badly mispronounced Mandarin, “ni hao” throughout China, “sain baina uu” in Inner Mongolia and in traditional Tibetan regions of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai, “tashi dele” brings out the smiles.

All my life photography has been my excuse to experience the world in my own private way, one on one with the people that make this big world go around. As a child I lived in a black and white world I could only experience vicariously burying my nose in Life Magazine.

After being buried alive by erupting volcano, survivor receives aid from rescuers,
Armero, Colombia, November 1985. Tom Salyer/UPI

But from the very first day working as a photojournalist on a small daily newspaper, the Journal-American in suburban Seattle, I found that my camera was my license to enter where ordinary people could not. I photographed a baby being born in a log cabin, triumphant high school athletes and the unspeakable tragedy of auto accidents.

A few years later as a wire service photographer with United Press International, I captured news from Space Shuttle launches to politics to a volcanic disaster in Latin America.

 Fleeing from Fidel Castro's Cuba, refugees cling to overloaded shrimp boat on the way
to Key West, Florida, May, 1980 Tom Salyer/UPI

During the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980, when over 100,000 Cubans fled their island nation on fishing boats, I flew in a helicopter off Key West over the Straights of Florida. About half way to Cuba over the open ocean, we encountered a ship with so many refugees clinging to it’s decks, they looked like ants. We were so close to the water the chopper’s landing struts were lapping the tops of the waves. I told the pilot over the intercom that we just shot tomorrow’s page one photo. And it was, in the New York Times, the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinal and elsewhere. I was there, I got to see a bit of history being made, I got to see things everyday people did not, and my camera was my excuse to be there.

I shared the helicopter that day with Olivier Rebot, a French photojournalist . A year or two later we received word he was killed by a sniper’s bullet while covering the civil war in El Salvador. It struck him in the chest right above the edge of his body armor. As a young UPI shooter I had wanted to see more action, but I slowly realized I was not cut out for the really dangerous stuff. I still got to see some exciting things over the years, and am grateful that I “missed” some of the “real” news stories of the day.

As a commercial photographer and occasional photojournalist, I’m happy with following the work I receive, not worrying about the “big” shoots out there, doing the best job I can on even routine assignments. I’ve meet interesting people on executive portrait shoots, I’ve shared the lives of foster teens, I've paddled down Bolivian rivers with a humanitarian medical team, and I get to visit China. After more than 30 years my camera is still my own private ticket to experience the world.

To view more examples of journalistic photography from China, please visit my Miami commercial photography portfolio site.