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Here’s my last installment of interviews with my great photographer friends. Last summer I profiled a group of men and now it’s the women’s turn.
April Saul has been a staff photographer at The Philadephia Inquirer since 1981. She is certainly one of the most dedicated, socially-conscience photographers I’ve ever known. She has boundless energy for helping and caring for other people and it shows up in her photographs. I’m so fortunate to know her and proud to call her my friend.
Here, in her own words, are her thoughts on life and photography. (April also wrote the captions under the photographs.)
My passion has always been to do pictures stories and longer documentary kind of work. I’ve always been drawn to documenting families—all of the problems and crises that families face—families trying to survive.
One of the projects that’s been really close to my heart is a handful of families that I’ve followed now for over a generation. One of the things that’s restrictive in newspaper work is that you’re really called upon to spend a lot of time on story and find out what really happened to someone in the long run. My American Family project has really enabled me to follow my dream.
In the 1980s I did a number of pictures stories on different families and then it occurred to me several years later to find out what happened to these people. I wanted to go back to see how they’d done. It really intrigued me—the thought of following up with these people. It really wasn’t a case where I was following them continuously but more that I just went back after not seeing them for five or ten years in some cases.
In 1980 I was working at The Baltimore Sun and I decided to do a story on a pregnant teenager—an African-American girl—she’s seventeen. And I spent a year following her and right as I was about to publish the story she got pregnant again. We published the story and a lot of angry readers wrote letters about how irresponsible she was and they were really upset by this. And when I went back I found that she had really been a good mother and the father of the kid kids was very responsible. He was working two jobs to support them. Things are not what they seem.
So I went back years later to see what had happened to the daughters —there were two of them. Were they going to do the same thing–were they going to make the same mistakes? Would they graduate from high school? I was there when the first one graduated from high school. She doesn’t get pregnant—they’re so proud of her. Everything is great. I said wow this is a perfect ending to my story. They broke the cycle. And then the second kid had three children by the age of twenty-one—I was so upset. I thought to myself this is terrible. I should have realized. You can raise two children the same way and they can be completely different.
The longer that I’m doing this kind of work I realize the world is not black and white. It’s all shades of gray. And I feel that by following these families I’ve learned to embrace gray. It’s just been really interesting. It was not what I expected. Life is full of surprises.
One of the subjects I photographed is a refugee. I met her when she was seventeen years old. She just arrived from Cambodia. I followed her after getting off the plane in Philadelphia and I followed her as a family took her in. She became Americanized and when I reconnected with her years later she was becoming a citizen and she was married and settling down. I wound up going to back to Cambodia with her to see her birth family in the village. Eventually she got breast cancer and died. And she believed until the day she died that she wouldn’t have gotten cancer if she’d stayed in Cambodia. But she was still glad she’d become an American.
These different families have been so fascinating to me. This has all been very rewarding to me. They surprised me, they’ve made me laugh, it made me cry,
I did a story last year a kid who was shot and blinded in Camden, New Jersey. I talked to him a couple times a week now. We’re buddies. The story did good things for him. He and his grandmother wound up getting a new house in a better neighborhood. Good things happen to them because of the story. I hope that I’ll always know him.
In terms of being a better photographer and getting closer to the people that you photograph—whether they are the subjects of a newspaper story or your neighbors or your nieces and nephews—whoever it is—it has everything to do with really enjoying other people. It needs to come from your heart.
People are always asking me how you get so close to subjects, how you gain their trust? I think it’s has everything to do with being open and being willing to give of yourself. You need to be accepting. There are all kinds of different people in all kinds of different situations. Openness.
Photojournalism has given me this incredible chance to meet people that I never would I have gotten to know otherwise. Recently I’ve been doing a story on a seventy-seven-year-old man who had a sex change operation and became a woman. I never would’ve gotten to know her and now I really enjoy that connection and friendship and sharing her journey. It’s amazing
My assignment editor said to me a couple minutes months ago, “April you get these weird attachments to your subjects” and I said yeah! I just don’t think that’s weird. Having a family of my own and my kids only made me more empathetic and more able to understand other people and their families and their problems.
I think photography has made me a better human being. Being a photojournalist certainly has because you feel so responsible. It forces you to be a better person. It’s made me more humble. I just try to make people understand each other better. If you can just make little differences in people’s lives it’s worth it. If a kid who’s been shot and blinded gets a new house out of the story then it’s all worth it.
We were taught as young photographers that we were supposed to be a fly on the wall, don’t become friends with any of the people you photograph, stay objective. And I found it to be impossible. I feel like you have to give something of yourself.
Sharon Wohlmuth and I worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer together in the early 80’s. While she was at the Inquirer she did a book called Sisters that became a publishing phenomena. It’s one of the best-selling photo books of recent decades. Here are some of her thoughts about photography and life from an interview I recently did with her.
Being a photographer—what does that mean? Who am I as a photographer? All those years of taking pictures for a newspaper or of my family or my books–as a person, how I perceive the world? How do I perceive people? How do I perceive myself.
Way way back when I was growing up my father photographed our family using a box camera. And he used an to 8mm movie camera and is quite profound to see all those images now. I think that’s what photography is all about. I think I inherited an appreciation of that from my father. He had an incredible observation of people and he always asked questions. My father actually started a newspaper and it lasted for two years so he was actually in my mind the consummate journalist. He always asked questions and people just opend up to him. And he always carried a camera. (And dog biscuits because he loved animals.) I have some unbelievable photographs taken by him. I found a little picture myself taken with one of his Brownie cameras and I’m wearing a camera with a rope for a neck strap. I have my hands on my hips and I have this attitude that I still have and I’m observing. I was about seven years old.
Thinking about my father made me think about how I became an observer. It’s amazing for me to think about that point in time and all the years that have gone by now.
I went to art school and started out as a painter. There were some critiques of my paintings that left me devastated and I decided that I would major in photography. I had a mentor who really believed in me. I’ll never forget the first time she said to me “this is an amazing picture!” And I said, “it is?” That was the beginning for me. I never looked back.
The Sisters book came about when my mother had been sick and she was at our family home in Connecticut. We decided not to put her in a nursing home or to hire nurses aides. So I took a leave of absence from the Inquirer and I went back to Connecticut and my sister did the same thing—she’s a nurse—and the process of being in our home together brought back a lot of memories. My sister is eight years younger than I am. That’s a huge span of years—we were very different. I got married very young and she was still at home playing with her puppies. I became almost like a mother to her. We really had nothing in common. Here we were thrown back into that environment that as young children we had shared our mother. So we took care of mom together.
At one point my mother needed adult diapers. So my sister and I went to the medical store were you buy that stuff and we were told there are different kinds, different sizes. So we went into the dressing room and we tried them on. They were diapers! She tried on one brand and I tried on another. We were naked with diapers on! Looking in the mirror was a moment I can’t even describe. I think it was at that moment I said to myself “oh my God, she’s really my sister! I’m not her mother! She’s my sister!” And that was the first time that I really perceived her that way. It was truly an aha moment for me.
I was fascinated with my feelings. I’m a very visceral kind of person. I have very physical reactions to my feelings. That’s good because when I shoot that’s what I get. I can feel that a good picture in my stomach. And it’s a good feeling.
So I realized that having a sister was amazing. I came back to Philadelphia and I had sort of “sister radar” going on. Everywhere I went I could tell women who were sisters. I would hear two women talking and I would say to myself “oh, I’ll bet they’re sisters!” and they would turn out to be. And then I realized I wanted to do a book about sisters. It’s such a unique relationship. They’re not friends, they’re sisters! There are sisters who hate each other and have tremendous conflict and there are sisters that have tremendous love and affection and everything in between.
I started to question these people. I kept a little notebook and I would ask questions and take notes. It could take place it in a department store or in a parking lot. It was really quite amazing. It came from my heart and my soul.
We got an agent in New York who really believed in us–me and Carol Céline the writer. No one was interested in Sisters. Every large publisher said no. It’s been done they said. What a nice idea. We don’t want it. To make a long story short, Running Press in Philadelphia finally did publish it.
The feeling I got when I first held a copy–it was like having a baby. I thought to myself “I did it! I completed something that I truly loved! Even if it sells two copies I’m happy.” (Note: It has sold over 1 million copies.)
What happened was that women just wanted to know about other sisters. In the book there are sisters who don’t get along very well, and some that didn’t even speak to each other, famous people and not famous people. The book is full of conflict and love and just about every emotion you can think of.
I photographed Coretta Scott King. I had to photograph her and her sister in a hotel room. The environment was deadly. I thought to myself “there’s no way–I only have ten minutes.” I saw that there was a balcony and I took a sheet from the bed and I made a backdrop on the balcony. She came out with her sister and I just said “Could you just tell each other a secret?” I’d never seen Mrs. King smile–she was very serious. I backed off with a long lens and just stood back and they started talking to each other and they started laughing. It was one frame. I shot one frame and I got that feeling in my stomach and I said “thank you very much”. That was it.
As a photographer, I’ve learned so many things about myself. I’m passionate, I’m a participant and an observer. I think it’s important to be both. I’ve never been a technical person. It’s okay. So I concentrate on who I’m photographing. I think the blessing working at the Philadelphia Inquirer way back then was that we didn’t have digital cameras. When you use film you can see what you’re photographing. But I always felt like I could–it was in my head. It was in my stomach.
PART TWO in a recurring series of interviews with some of my good friends.
I attended the University of Missouri School of Journalism with Ann Yow-Dyson. She eventually ended up as a staff photographer at the Seattle Times for many years and then a professor of photography at the University of Washington. She now lives in Bellingham, Washington.
Here’s Ann’s voice:
It’s a great exercise for me to reflect on how I do what I do. It becomes so intuitive after a matter of years that you don’t really think about the process behind it. I guess if I had to distill it down into one thing I think any photography, whether it’s families, kids, the guy in the street—it’s really some kind of conversation. It’s not a one-way street.
And as much as you engage in the visual or emotional conversation with your subject the picture is really going to come in the silences in between.
My advice is to really maintain the integrity of your subject by engaging them and making sure they don’t feel like they’re being assaulted or railroaded.
For me, it’s about communicating what a gift and a wonderful exchange this can be. Photography is just a bountiful gift to give somebody and it’s a treasure and I do my very best to never forget that. It’s really important that photographers do try and listen to those moments of silence. It’s a bit like an awkward conversation when someone isn’t saying anything. Whether it’s in a relationship or in therapy or whatever, that’s where you’re going to learn the most. You need to have the confidence to slow down and let it happen. Be still and let it evolve.
I have one daughter and when she was young I became the thirty-seven-year-old mother with a camera and I didn’t do it any more gracefully than the gal next door. I was just a snap happy mother and I treasured every single photograph I shot of Lauren. They don’t all have to be perfect, you know. Do your best to communicate what you’re feeling.
I can’t make much of a distinction in my approach between my own family and my professional work. I think I have less confidence when photographing my own family because I feel the responsibility to do it well. I feel like I’m a good photographer when I’m on assignment and I don’t feel like I have to justify it very much but when I’m with my family I need to go above and beyond my usual standards that I’ve set for myself professionally.
When I’m on assignment I feel like I have a lot more power and authority. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I have the same responsibility to my family that I have to my outside subjects. It’s a fine line to walk.
Photography for me is a way of life. One of my favorite quotes about photography is from Dorothea Lange she said something like photography is a tool for learning how to see the world long before you pick up a camera. Whether I’ve got a camera in front of me or not I if I’m photographing from the minute I wake up in the morning till the minute I close my eyes at night. It’s changed the way I look at the world.
But I try my to let go sometimes, too. I try to make it about celebrating the world whether it’s my family or someone I just met—even if I don’t have a camera.
For me, the medium just happens to be the camera and what it can do.
Last summer I got together for a weekend with several of my Men–Men–Men photographer friends and ended up sharing their advice for amateur photographers with you. I received some comments asking if I knew any women photographers. Well, yes, I know several incredible photographers that fit that description.
So over the next couple weeks I’m going to share some interviews that I did recently with female photographers and dear friends that I’ve worked with over the years.
Today I would like to share the thoughts of Rebecca Barger. Rebecca was hired at the Inquirer in 1985 and served as a staff photographer for twenty years. When she was working there she bought a horse and needed some extra cash to pay for it; she started shooting weddings on the side. That soon turned in to a full-time career as a single mom with one daughter—she left the paper. The predictability of shooting weddings fit with her lifestyle better than the random assignments of news coverage for a big-city paper.
I interviewed Rebecca and put her thoughts into a stream of consciousness dialogue that you find here.
If you’re looking for a wedding photographer in the Philadelphia area, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who does better work and makes brides and grooms happier than Rebecca Barger. Here’s her website.
So here’s Rebecca:
I’m very involved with how the day is going to pan out. A lot of my job is planning the official photo sessions.
I try to shoot all of the photographs on the day of the wedding. For 95% of the weddings I shoot I go to the locations days before the event and scout. I want to know what kind of windows the venue has. I want to see what the wallpaper looks like. What’s the lighting? Do they have recessed light fixtures? Is it florescent? I need to check it out. What am I going to do if it rains? It builds my confidence and that’s important.
Photographing a wedding is a very intense fifteen-hour day. I always prioritize and I have to keep in mind that the most important thing I’m going to do that day is have the little photo session with the bride and groom. It seems obvious but that’s the most important thing. One of the things is I try to do is get them away from everyone else. I don’t want everyone else interfering and making them—and me—uncomfortable.
Once I get them alone I really don’t give them that much direction. In fact, I take the opposite approach and given very little direction. I give a lot of hand signals. I signal with my hands to get closer, for example. I don’t really say “put your arm around her waist”. Things seem to be more spontaneous that way for me. I want them to be comfortable with me—that’s really important.
I always spend two hours with the bride before the wedding so I’ve had an opportunity to get very comfortable with her. We have a relationship. They need to like me. It’s a personality thing.
For 95% of my weddings I go out with another photographer. They’re called a second-shooter. I have some awesome second-shooters that I work with. They keep me on my toes. It’s like “oh my God, I never saw that!” They keep me on my game. I want the best ones I can get. They’re going to make me better. And they make me look good. That’s really important. It keeps the enthusiasm level high.
I have an eleven-year-old daughter. When I go to her school dance or something like that I elect to be a part of it rather than document it with a camera. I was never very good at differentiating between experiencing the moment and documenting the moment.
So I frequently don’t take my camera to those events because I don’t want to go into photographer mode. I want to be a mom! This is my kid!
So I rarely have pictures of her blowing the candles on the cake. What I do is I have a little photo session with her near her birthday. Or I take some photojournalistic things of her and her friends spontaneously. But when she’s blowing those candles out I want to be a mom. It’s a decision I made.
I don’t want to become involved in the technical stuff when real life is happening. Stuff like “can I go down to a fifteenth in this lowlight level” is just a distraction. So I let go of it. And it’s taken a lot to learn to do that.
And I rarely take a camera when I go to a big school event because all the other parents are like “hey, can you shoot some pictures of my kids while you have a camera here?” And I don’t want to get into that either. (laughing)
On the other hand, I’m doing some volunteer yearbook photography for her school but I’m showing up with one camera and one lens and get whatever I can get. I’m not coming in with lighting and a bunch of lenses. I keep it low-key.
I don’t think most amateur photographers trying to start a little neighborhood business charge enough money. I think they need to figure out how they can do better photography so they can charge more. I think sometimes they are devaluing their photography.
I think if someone calls one of these people and says “hey, I need a Christmas card photo and some individual head shots of my kids” they should be charging about $750 to $1000 for that photo session. I would suggest they try not to sell people a DVD full of photos but they should be selling prints instead. If they can put an online gallery up and people can order through that it keeps the value of photography up and it’s a very professional way to operate. I would try to set up an incentive to have the same family come back every year.”
My advice to young photographers is to keep the camera on your shoulder all the time. It makes you look for images. I’m not talking about an iPhone. If you’re carrying a camera on your shoulder you’re going to look for things other than the obvious.
Even now, at each wedding I say to myself “oh, I could’ve done this better! I can’t believe I didn’t see it that way!”
Squirmy kids can be a problem. My approach is to not even try to get them to stop squirming. I try to make the squirming work for me. I just let them do what they’re going to do and hope for the best. I think if there is a uncooperative two-year-old in a group shot it’s okay for them to make faces. One day everyone’s going to love it. I learned there’s things you can’t control. One of them is the weather and the other is other people.
I’m totally blessed to be a photographer. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Here’s a short video lecture about photographing flowers by one of my best friends in the world, Dr. Henry Domke. Henry lives in central Missouri and photographs flowers on his property for a living. It’s pretty much as good as it sounds. (And he’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known.)
You flower photographers are going to love this.