Eugene Richards; Personal Documents Of Our World Page 2

"Cops don't trust journalists and they hit the locks on the doors so I couldn't get out of the car," he says. After some harassment he recalls how he walked in on a policeman, expressionless as he phoned in his report of a shooting, the body lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Richards started detailing things like the cigarette still burning in the victim's hand. He must have known the person or he would have thrown away the cigarette, he thought. "You start putting things together and a picture emerges and then it starts to bother you more when you realize the age of the person and that an hour before we got here he was alive.

"I had covered conflicts before and a lot of photographers can chase violence but I knew I couldn't. I get into a kind of weird daze and feel that I am less professional. My mind wanders unless I am personal with my subject."

Richards' photographs are mostly documentary, dealing with social issues, while others are more passionate. He will tell you that the journalistic experience comes first and in the end it is an odd process because the photographer's job is to go out and attempt to tell the story. After he takes the shots he steps back and soon the story disappears and becomes memory.

Some are sad stories. Among the most poignant are those taken of his own family. Richards photographs his mother's 50th anniversary dress hanging in an open cedar closet. The scene tells us she is no longer there. In another frame, his father sleeps on an old sofa surrounded by boxes waiting to carry his belongings from his home. Richards packed the boxes and photographed the cheerless day.

50th Anniversary dress, Wollaston, Massachusetts, 2000 (from "Evolution").

His images have caught the attention of the world, capturing human emotion and teaching us we don't have to experience a particular situation for it to awaken passion within us.

I ask Richards, so can a photograph change the world? "A few have been major in dialog about human situations, but change it--no. It's asking too much from this complex world," he says, "but we hope that when photographs come from the heart people can relate to them.

"At a recent lecture I showed a video of how war is a personal matter for all of us. At the end a young woman in the military thanked me. `It speaks to what I'm feeling,' she said.

"That's the best you can do," Richards says, "just to leave an impression. You do find a constituency, I guess."

When students asked Richards at a lecture how he approaches people he answered, "First, tone yourself down. Don't go raging with a bunch of opinions and questions! Be open--be respectful--like taking your shoes off when you go to somebody's house. Whether you like it or not, change out of that short skirt--wear a long dress if that's the culture you're going into--take the earrings out of your nose. Don't put up these barriers!

"It's a process of getting to know people," he says. "That's what photography is to me. It's about paying attention, not screwing up and blowing a great opportunity. I take that very badly--we've all done it."

I asked Richards if he had ever stopped photographing and he replied, "I've thought seriously about quitting but the only time I quit was after 9/11. I saw the buildings fall while working in a psychiatric ward in Budapest. They made me leave the hospital because I was upsetting the patients. I got home in four days from Europe.

"I could not cover any other assignments or even go down to look across the river from where I live in Brooklyn. I was expecting something else to happen. I had a young son and I knew right away that the world as we knew it was changing dramatically.

"My wife Janine convinced me that I had to go and photograph there. I needed to get my head together--I was coming apart emotionally. We got on the subway together and I went back to work--like I was on automatic pilot. Janine and I documented the tragedy in our book Stepping Through the Ashes.

"Since that time it has been getting harder. I could never do war photography. When everybody else ran, I would walk. I guess I should write a book about how you discover you're not something.

"I know it is my job. But then, I do question myself. Why do it? There must be a reason."

Eugene Richards
Eugene Richards was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1944. A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English and Journalism, he studied with Minor White at M.I.T. In '81 he became a member of Magnum and worked as a free-lance photographer for numerous magazines, including Life, Time, Newsweek, and Esquire.

His first book, Dorchester Days, was followed by Exploding into Life, published in '86, the story of his first wife's losing battle with breast cancer.

Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue published in '94 won the Krasna-Krausz Book Award for Photography, followed by Stepping through the Ashes, a tribute to those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. The Fat Baby, published by Phaidon, is his most recent book.

Awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Richards has also written, photographed, and directed several short documentary films, one on a Nebraska nursing home, another on a crack infested neighborhood in Philadelphia.

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