23rd March 2014
Lee Craker is an American documentary photographer, originally from Colorado but now resident in Thailand where he lives with his wife and daughter.
This interview was conducted entirely by email over the period 12th February to 24th March 2014 and therefore the language, interpretations and nuances have no doubt suffered as a result and may appear to be more formal than they were in fact as a result. I don’t think that this has any material impact on the meaning and content within the interview, and Lee and I hope you enjoy the reading.
Lee was the first civilian photographer to be routinely assigned as Lead Photographer for the US Armed Forces PAO (Public Affairs Office) in Iraq, and the only civilian photographer routinely allowed to work within the Green Zone in Iraq. He is the first American photographer to have an exhibition of his work at the IWM (London Imperial War Museum), which he shared with Mike Moore
Lee’s work shows the other side of modern warfare, those officers and men whose role was not in the front-line combat zone, but the headquarters planners, suppliers and public affairs. They too have a role, a real role, that sustains the men at the front who rarely get mentioned, but who are also in daily danger of being mortared and rocketed and did sustain casualties as a result.
This work has English spellings as opposed to US but this does not in any way change the context.
I followed your progress, via the internet footprint you left, from Colorado Springs through the Pacific to Thailand, but it appears there’s not a lot of material available from you before your break into the Iraqi job, is that through choice or because it was apparently mostly commercial?
I haven’t found any reference to any formal education in the field of photography, did you study the subject prior to leaving the States?
The first real mention of your work is the job you had in Iraq, but I have to suppose that you were producing work for someone to come to the attention of the military as I’m sure they wouldn’t just hand the job to an unknown? Who were you working for and is there any material available for public consumption?
Well lets see.
I started shooting somewhere around 1971 or 72. But the early days were just fun snaps in college.
I got serious somewhere around 1970 – 71 and bought a decent 35mm camera. My goal was to make something good enough to put on my walls. It took a year but I mounted an 8×10 and put it in the living room.
During that time I was managing jewellery stores. I moved with the job to Grand Junction Colorado and somewhere in that time frame I won the Hotchkiss film festival award for best composition of some aspen leaves; I also had a few prints in galleries in the Grand Junction area.
Around 1983 or 84 I took a week-long seminar with John Sexton. After that I spent the next 3 years shooting nothing but black and white with a Wista 4×5 in the southwest USA. I had my work in about 5 galleries, but did not sell much, people said my work looked like Ansel Adams, and they did not want a copy …. I learned the Sexton Style very well … lol.
About this period of time I actually quit shooting, 1986 ish, … I thought my work was looking like a postcard and I just was not shooting anything new.
In the early 90’s I picked up a camera again and started shooting. I finally figured out what I wanted to do and it was a lot of fun again. I learned one morning, in 20 below weather, that emotion was the key to photography, I wanted to make images about how I felt about what I saw.
On my website the oldest image is the aspen grove made in 1999. What’s left of the boxes and boxes of negatives reside in Colorado with my sister, so none of those are in digital form, if they are even in good shape.http://leecraker.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/North-America/G0000wjoXdTBJ45c/I0000P6bE_6zDpSE In those days I was shooting film but had one of the first digital cameras an Olympus C2500L so I shot the aspen in both digital and film.
September 12, 2001 I made the image of the flag flying on a house after 9/11.
I was working for the University of Colorado during this time and also shot a print that I assume still hangs in the housing administration building “Varsity Pond Bridge”
The only one in that gallery of note is the humming-bird, which proved to me that digital was here to stay, that shot was #120 or something, and I knew I would never have put that many rolls of film through the camera to get the shot, also with film I had no way of knowing if I got the shot, with digital if I knew I did not, so I kept shooting until I had the shot. I have that down as 2002 ish.
It was about that time 2002 – that I started shooting for Draglist.com on the weekends. I shot this one at ISO 1600 1/125 sec proving that you could shoot high ISO and make it work.
I shot the drag races for 3 years and then started shooting weddings. In 2005, which is where I started transitioning to shooting people, I found more of a way to show emotion. I won the Fuji-film award for best wedding photography in 2005. They selected 3 shots: Bride and Veil
Wedding in the Pines
and Sonic Bride
By the time I got word I had won the award, I was already living on the Kwajalein Atoll.
The rest I think you know about, 3 years on Kwajalein, short stay on Guam, 3 years in Iraq, and then on to Thailand
Whilst on Kwajalein you were a journalist. Was this for local publications or international? Was your work all photographic or were you also a wordsmith?
You make a comment that you found emotion was the key to photography, can you expand upon what you mean by this and how you implement it?
I’m still unclear how you made the move from Guam to Iraq. It would seem like an unlikely fit and seems like a big change in your work style and possibly your belief system to move from social documentary to war documentary. What decided you to do this? Who approached whom to get the job? With all due respect to your abilities and talents, I would have thought that there were many other photographers in the USA who fitted that niche of conflict zone photography much more suitably than you, so what do you think you brought to the job that the others wouldn’t or couldn’t?
After your 3 years in Iraq you published a book ‘One Thousand Days in Iraq: The Warriors’ which is now out of print, does this book hold any other images than the 200 images on your site? Did you write any prose to go with that book?
I’ll answer the easy ones first.
The book “One Thousand Days in Iraq: The Warriors” Was on Amazon, I ordered a copy to have a look and they butchered the photos. Cheap paper washed out images colour shift too much contrast – you get the idea. I would be embarrassed if anyone had a copy of that book, so I took it off the market. There does exist 2 copies of a good version of that book, hand-made, by a guy in Hong Kong. The book he made is actually good, it is on photographic paper and hand bound, and the images are good representations of my intention, however the book he wanted to produce was over $275 a copy and after consulting with several people I decided it would not help my image to have a book costing 2 to 3 times what others are selling for. Hilary at IWM has the only other copy of the decent book; and no, I’m not a good writer, the book is just photographs, much like Peter Turnley’s new book – “French Kiss”
Guam to Iraq – I moved to Guam because the contract ended on Kwajalein and I did not want to go back to Colorado. By that time I had adventure in my blood and had/have no desire to move back to the US mainland. I was working as a graphic artist for low pay and very long hours and not making ends meet when I got the call and was offered a job in Iraq as Webmaster/Photographer through a contract with AVISAR Inc. Although my photography got me the job, as the owner of AVISAR loved my work, my webmaster skills were marketable and MNCI (Multi National Corps Iraq) was looking for a webmaster. Col Buckner (18th Airborne Corps) told me later that AVISAR got the contract because they were able to provide a webmaster. Apparently the Col. was under much pressure from the Commanding General (CG) to get up a website. I put together the MNCI’s website in a few weeks, which made everybody happy, that was the biggest reason I was brought to Iraq, photographers are not of high value to the Army as a rule of thumb. I was the command photographer because I had more experience than any photographer the Army had in Iraq, Army PAO photogs have very little training and a photographer is an entry-level position in PAO, photogs are supposed to transition out of that position and take on more responsibilities and move up in rank. In that world it makes sense, the army is about leadership, and the soldiers need to become leaders not photographers. So I was the PAO Command photographer and even taught photography to the PAO photogs, but I usually only did important events like presidential visits and things for the C.G. – things they could have messed up, although I did end up doing a lot of favours for my superiors like dinners and whatnot – It kept me busy. Other routine photography was done by the PAO photogs. I continued to work on the website until MNCI became USFI (United States Forces Iraq) and then the website was done in the US. This will sound strange, but at that point they kept me because the Army liked me, but my official duties were a little of this and that, some graphic arts and photography and if a VIP came in I did that, but seldom anything mission critical.
Guam to Iraq Cont. – First as far as my job on paper, I was a Photographer/Webmaster, there was not a PAO web person at HQ, I was it. There were IT people, but not with PAO. Now as far as other photogs better qualified that you mention. The Army is very compartmentalized, The combat photogs you are thinking of are just that, they belong to Combat Camera teams, and are assigned to combat units. Keep in mind that part of my job was to look at almost every “released” and many not “released”, photos taken by Com Cam (Combat Camera), I have a security clearance. My statement above stands. I was the photographer, with the most experience (over 20 years) that was associated with the military in Iraq. Com Cam did get some good shots – but as the guy who saw all their work, honestly I can say I had more experience and was a more consistent photographer than any of the partially trained photographers the military had. There was some excellent press photographers that did come to Iraq as embeds but they were not part of the Army. When you say there are others better “fitted that niche of conflict zone photography” you mean Nachtwey? One of the Turnleys? Remember they had jobs, big time jobs, but yeah, I would agree with that, they had much more experience than I did although I would put my photography up against anyone in a given situation. A bit of ego here, yes, forgive me, but as an artist you have to believe in yourself and I do. One of the things that makes a great photograph is the “Be there” part of “f8 and be there“. James Nachtwey, David and Peter Turnley and other great war photographers had the means and a real ability to be where the action was to use their skills. Some of Peter Turnley’s best stories are how he got to the locations to make those photographs. There was a female photog, her name escapes me for the moment, but she smuggled herself into Iraq by swimming across a river and through hostile territory. When you look at some of those great photographs and even shots from Mike Moore in the exhibition, credit has to be given for getting to the location. For my work in Iraq that was impossible. We (the contractors) worked under strict non engagement rules. We could not leave the compound, we could not carry a weapon. To break the rules meant to go home. None of us wanted to go home. So to answer another part of your questions, yeah it was frustrating. I did want to be where the action was, but also I worked for soldiers that also did not get to go where the action was and you learn to do your job and realize that you job is contributing to the overall success of the mission. So again yeah, it was frustrating, but I was compensated artistically, and photographically. I was the only non-White House, press-corps, photographer on the floor during President Obama’s visit. I was able to pass through, and get to know, the secret service guys and could do anything I wanted, photographically. Same with VP Biden, The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and all the top Generals. Not only was I able to shoot anywhere in areas usually off-limits to cameras, I was requested to make photographs by top generals in restricted areas. So that was the payback. I don’t get the fame of a Nachtwey, but I will say I have had access to, and experienced things, that very few, if any, civilians or soldiers get to do. Sometimes in life you have to take what is given. Just like here, part of me wants to go to Bangkok more often and cover the war in the streets, BUT … I have a family here, my wife goes with me everywhere in Thailand, I also have a 5 YO little girl, that would accompany us to Bangkok. I will not take my wife into a situation where bullets are flying, and I will not take my daughter to stay in Bangkok, especially after 3 children were killed last night. So… I work on my other projects, documenting the poor farmers of Thailand, what can I say. I may get some reaction photos after the revolution, or in areas that are not hot spots. Now if I go to Afghanistan or to another spot and leave my wife here then that is a different story, I’ll put on body armour and be in the thick of it.
“social documentary to war documentary” – I think I answered that but — I photograph people. That is the same photography anywhere you go, different landscape same subject. Gen. Johnson called me aside one day and asked me … he said “you just look at people and wait for that perfect moment of emotion don’t you? That timing you have is amazing.” I was grateful to Gen. Johnson that he understood. I don’t pose people I wait for the right moment, and if you wait it will happen.
Emotion. That is what it is all about. A good photo has emotion, either in the photo or a reaction to the photo or both. I have so many stories. I was photographing a volunteer project for a cancer society – the idea was to document the journey of young victims and their journey through the process. I was allowed to photograph a spinal tap of a 7-year-old girl, Emily. Before it started I was concerned about the technical aspects, but after it started I was totally consumed by what was going on. You must realize the patient must be awake during the spinal tap without anasthesia. At one point in the procedure I was trying to see through my viewfinder and the tears were making it so I could not see. I’m not a religious man, but I prayed that day, Please God let this camera focus – I can’t see to focus. People later said those were very powerful images. Good photography comes from your heart. The best photos are made while the photographer is having strong emotions. David and Peter Turnley, and actually so does Nachtwey, talk about the toll war photography has had on their lives. That is because they went through hell to get those photos, sometimes not physically, but always emotionally. Look at any great work of art, if you feel nothing you really don’t think it is good, but if it makes you cry or laugh even just a little, it is good. Ansel Adams had some landscapes that are that way, you just want to get lost in the photo, they invoke emotion. In the studio that is the most difficult thing. That is why I don’t like studio work and only did it in Iraq for reasons already discussed. In the studio you have to take time to get to know the person a little, I want to see what a real smile looks like or what they look like sad, or anything that can give me some depth into the person. If you get the connect, and make the light work, it will be a good photo, sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. Good speakers, and the president is a great speaker, in person, has emotion and they will punctuate the speech with dramatic pauses to generate emotion. Just wait for the punch line and you got the shot, get them with their mouth half-open all twisted, or eyes closed and you blew it.
“Whilst on Kwajalein you were a journalist.” – On Kwajalein I was a Graphic Artist – Should say Command Graphic Artist, and food service worker. My photography was for the local paper, but I was not on staff – there was actually only one staff person – the publisher.
I was doing wedding photography and got a call from my best friend who a few years before was my boss while I was at the University of Colorado. I was Catering Sales Manager for the University Club. He asked if I would come to Kwaj. and he would try to find something for me to do, so I was getting bored with wedding photography – it’s always the same week after week – you know variations on a theme – so I said yes. I was a sales manager without anything to sell so I also became a graphic artist because the Col. needed to make posters to use, good for all concerned – all this sounds humorous, and it was just one of those weird situations one gets into, but it was fun working on a place a normal person cannot even get off the plane when it lands on the island – All passengers without orders for Kwajalein have to say on board the plane. Anyway I cleared my plate with weddings and went to the pacific. There was not a lot to photograph on a top-secret military installation, but I got into diving and made some underwater photographs, and with liberal leave time made a lot of photographs in Bali.
Now really understand what your job was in Iraq and I can see it wasn’t at all what I and my colleagues who went to the IWM Exhibition thought it was and that’s why I think the work didn’t get the review from me it perhaps should have done. Having said that, there are some really good images on your site that I feel perhaps should have been included, along with a clearer description of your role, that would have made your side of the exhibition much clearer and shown things we don’t see, or understand about the Iraq conflict, from war correspondents.
So, having done your three years in Iraq you presumably either came to the end of your contract or you’d had enough(?) and then went straight to Thailand, or did you have a break somewhere else first?
I can see from your work in Thailand that you concentrate on the rural areas, as you say, because of the danger in Bangkok when your wife and daughter are constantly with you. I do think though that the rural choice possibly has the richer vein of for social documentary photography, particularly if it can be contrasted with some urban images.
I think you’ve said somewhere that you’ve been in Thailand for 3 years now, so do you work freelance for anyone, or have you a private practice or what do you actually consider your work to be now?
Well, hindsight is always 20/20. Hilary did know the story of Iraq, we actually corresponded quite a bit while I was there. I think she was very impressed with, and she told me, I was the only person fighting a war that to her knowledge had ever set up a professional portrait studio in a war zone. I don’t know if that is true or not but Hilary is certainly an expert in matters of war photography. As far as choice of images Hilary chose most of the ones from the book I told you about. She did have access to my site, and the decision was hers as to what was displayed. I was, and am comfortable with that. You see a photographer cannot be objective. I know what was happening at the time of a photo, in and outside the frame, and my feelings at the time make me like a photo simply because of what was going on that may or not be what was in the photo, so it is better for me to have someone else select images for display. In other words I can feel quite strongly about an image that someone else may not see it the way I do and did.
The other thing Hilary was trying to show was the different aspects of modern conflict. At the beginning I kept stressing that I was not a war photographer, but Hilary convinced me that war photography is not just about the battlefield, and in modern times a lot of the photography – and soldiers – do not see any action. So in that respect, she was right I was there and what I lived was real, although not filled with battle experiences. The idea from what you say did not come across, I get that. I also understand though that the promoters were trying not to play me down. I resisted many of the wordings they originally came up with that made me sound a little too heroic and important. I think they had a big challenge trying to make me not boring and not misleading and making me out to be a hero. PR is always tough.
During that period of time the US policy was to try to let the Iraqis fight their own war, so the boredom of the every day soldier, was a major concern at HQ. You are correct about the 90-10 of war (90% hurry up and wait, 10% action), and during that period of time the US policy was to try to let the Iraqis fight their own war, so the boredom of the every day soldier, was a major concern at HQ. I spent two weeks travelling throughout Iraq with CSM Frank Grippe, where his speeches to the troops were on how to deal with doing nothing all day for weeks and months at a time. It was indeed a problem.
If I had chosen my own images for the IWM show I would have included images made on that trip and of others made in FOB’s (Forward Operating Bases)- but I did not choose the images for display in the IWM, and I’m OK with that as Hilary knows her job very well and what she was trying to do was show the contrast between Mike and myself, which she accomplished well. She was also trying to show that in modern war photography, a lot of what goes on is not in a battle or even close to imaginary “front lines” I don’t think many people got that point, although the way we fight war has changed the perception of a war has not. As you well know the enemy is being engaged by the foot soldier less and less, with helicopters and drones more efficiently in many cases, engaging the enemy. American combat camera guys spend most of their time today shooting grip and grins and award ceremonies – and those photos only look good in a military paper or website.
I also think your point is well taken, I know the public does not get it. The idea of what a war is comes from WWII and Vietnam. The modern soldier does not engage much at all. I don’t blame them, we have the technology not to engage with soldiers, except on rare occasions, that 10% I mention above, and that is why loss of life is so little nowadays. (relatively speaking) The public however thinks soldiers are in the trenches shooting, and being shot at, and again that so rarely happens. Drones, helicopters, F16’s artillery fired from miles away inflict casualties on the enemy while our boys try hard to stay out of the way. But the public expects photos of battles, tanks, grenades, with blood and guts.
I also think showing how war affects the soldiers is difficult, because of the lack of action. Most of the soldiers I knew were on their 3rd or 4th tour of duty, some did 5 or 6. Now think about it, if the action were hot and heavy you just could not keep sending them back in. In Nam 2 or 3 tours was too much, soldiers could not handle the stress, but in Iraq it was not as stressful as previous wars. So soldiers could go back again and again. Now – showing the non-stress and making it look good photographically is very difficult. Day-to-day life on camp liberty was the same as a camp in the US or other parts of the world. When there is no fighting like for 2 of the years I was there, as we tried to let the Iraqis take the lead, speeches training and eating was all you could make images of. I think the public must have thought we were keeping images from them, but really there was nothing to shoot, I mean how many shots of a lecture or eating lunch can you release?
At the end of my three years it was the end of the war. Yes our contract was up, but so was the war, we could not extend. I was one of the last contractors at Al Faw Palace. We gave the palace back to the Iraqis shortly after I left. There was a period of time where HQ moved from the palace but that time period was short. The Command Groups I was with left a few weeks after I did. The Commanding General left (for the most part) a few weeks before I left.
I did go through CRC at Ft. Benning (Continental United States Replacement Centre, received and processed non-unit related personnel, soldiers and civilians, for deployment and redeployment to and from 34 different destinations) to turn in equipment after Iraq and spent a couple of weeks in Colorado with family, and then it was directly to Thailand and was married a few months after I came to Thailand. I was engaged for a year while I was in Iraq. My only regret was CRC, I could have kept the equipment and the US would have charged me a couple of thousand dollars, and I could use body armour here in Thailand 🙂 .
Yeah the rural areas. I am documenting a last vestige of the rural culture. Bangkok looks like any big city and you are right photographically the rural people are much better.
As far as work I haven’t made a dime in 3 years. I’m really trying to find something. I have a government pension, but that is not enough, so I’m looking for something. Book sales are slow, and so are print sales. I have stuff on a few of the freelance sights, but so far that has not netted results, as you probably know newspapers are looking for free stuff, so are the local papers here and not good to work for. We are leaving Afghanistan, I have feelers out there but so far no returns. I’m just hoping I get lucky and run into somebody who likes my work and can either hire me or come up with an offer of some money. So that is the sad but true money situation.
It’s an interesting observation you make about the way the modern US military engages in conflict in their use of arms length tactics and weaponry, whereas the British army still relies to a great extent on close combat and territory annexation. I’m sure Hilary had her editorial reasons for wanting the exhibition the way she did, and I’m sure the point she wanted to make was very clearly made to the majority.
I’ve just watched your video of Victory Base Complex (VBC); it kinda makes you wonder what sort of victory it was when you see the starkness of all the blast walls and the limited living conditions, and I really do wonder how long it’ll last once all the coalition forces finally leave, or will it just fall into anarchy and the insurgents win in the end anyway?
I hear what you say about the problems of making a living from photography these days, it makes you wonder where it’ll all end for the professional when the numbers of local amateurs providing free material is rising exponentially. I’m just glad I’m not going to have to start a career after uni, for me it’s just fun.
You say you’re documenting the last vestiges of rural life in Thailand; is it really as bad as that? I was under the impression that Thailand’s economy was still based on its rural activities and tourism?
Moving on to that side of things. How do you decide what projects to follow, what criteria do you have when selecting, how many do you have at any one time that you actively follow?
How long do you typically follow a project for before you consider that you’ve either run out of ideas to follow or you think that you’ve covered it sufficiently?
When you interface with the populace how do you make the breakthrough? Do you speak enough Thai to be able to converse or does your wife help you in this regard? Is it instinct that tells you when the time is ripe to make images or do you have some sort of formula you follow? Do you let the project develop organically or do you try to make it follow your plan?
All Good Questions.
I disagree with your statement “British army still relies to a great extent on close combat and territory annexation” The British are just as technologically savvy as the Americans, or any other modern fighting force. You use something similar to our MRAP’s (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles) for troop movements, and I think your goal is the same as ours, to limit casualties, you use air power, rockets and anything you can to keep from having to engage the enemy 1 on 1. The British troops I met on VBC were just like us, and had not seen any combat at all, and that is one reason this whole thing got started, as I was asked to make portraits of British soldiers with rifles to make them look like they were battle hardened soldiers. The 10% rule applies to you guys also.
Let me start with VBC. Victory, Liberty, Striker, and more are some of the names chosen for camps in Iraq. It’s just a military gung-ho way of looking at things. Had the camps been named at a later date they would have reflected the situation and the time, VBC would have probably been named Partner Base Complex, or something to that effect. There was a lot of political embarrassment after the role changed. America wanted to be seen as helping the Iraqis and not conquering them, “Partnering” with them, all politics. After Bush, and the lies about the weapons of mass destruction (I think they were lies, but that has, and will never be, proven), America was back peddling trying not to just pull out and suffer a defeat like Viet Nam. We all knew the political situation in Iraq would deteriorate as soon as we left, but the war was unpopular, the only way to “win” would have been to set up Iraq as a territory of some sort and stay indefinitely. Your question “will it turn into anarchy?” I would answer by saying it already has, there is just as much violence there today as ever and no end in sight. There may never be an end. The first recorded war in the history of the world was in an ancient area that is now Iraq. So those peoples have been fighting off and on for many thousands years.
The starkness is a story all in itself. There are aerial maps and photos I have seen showing the Al Faw area just prior to the invasion. It was a beautiful place with trees, water, swimming pools and even a race track. It was an area reserved for the elite and Bath party, and the poor Iraqis could not even stop their cars and look around. It was a play area for Saddam’s children and relatives. Some parts were horrific where executions for sport took place, One of Saddam’s relatives executed an entire soccer team after they lost a game that he had bet heavily on, in one of the buildings. But it was lush. After the Americans took over there was no one to take care of the place and everything died in the desert sun. That is the starkness you see. Al Faw is a huge area with several palaces. All being used by Saddam’s sons for different things, the perfume palace for example was so named because of the smell – it was a type of brothel.
I posted the vid of VBC basically for Hilary, some historical footage of one of the living areas and T-walls.
On Thailand, yes I do see the end of an era ahead. I have been watching it happen everywhere I go for 20 years. One thing I admire about your country is you value the old ways, buildings life style etc. It is not that way in most of the world, the world is rapidly becoming one culture – blue jeans and T-shirts instead of traditional clothing for example. Very few ox drawn carts here now and they will disappear in favour of John Deer tractors. Supermarkets instead of open markets. So visually what I’m capturing today will be gone in 20 years. A Thai farm will look like a Nebraska farm, people will dress the same and the only ethnic differences will be in the faces. Tokyo, Bangkok, Los Angeles, London – people all dress and look the same. No more peasants walking cobble stone streets in London. No more gas street lamps – except of course in people zoos that are set up to preserve history. So that is what I mean by document a vanishing way of life. There will still be farmers in 20 years but the methods will change, the construction will change. We are globally becoming one people visually.
Now all that is good modern stuff is good, but I think it is important to document today – kind of like if you look at what Henri Cartier-Bresson was doing, not only great photos of people but documenting a time and culture in history.
On the projects. The long-term projects – the rural Thailand project just fell into place. We moved to a very rural area and living here I am shooting people I know and they know me. That project got a lot easier after my photos were chosen for display in Bangkok for the US embassy show. There was some feeling that I was making photos because, as an American, I thought people here were an oddity. But after I got the recognition they understood, they know I am making beautiful photos of them, because they are beautiful people, so I have no problem today going anywhere and shooting. Sometimes a new person will come along and be shy and the people here will tell them it’s OK, he is a great photographer, and it puts the new people at ease.
Thai Buddhist Monks – a project documenting the Buddhist Monks of rural Thailand. I have a substantial number of images 279 to date documenting the monks of Thailand.
My goal is to document the monks of Thailand as they are, in day-to-day life. There has not been much work done in this area, as most studies of monks are very stereotypical and don’t show monks as the ordinary people they are. With my work I want to show monks as ordinary men choosing a vocation for a period of time that is not often fully understood in the west. It is my hope that by showing monks in common situations as well as performing their duties I can dispel some of the misconceptions and show these men as more than the common perception, and in that sense give a better understanding of the men, and what they have chosen to do.
On other projects – the elephant project was something I got pretty excited about, and after I got into it, it became much less excited. The personalities are media savvy and want attention, in some respects they were playing me for their publicity and money-making. Which is necessary on their part, but I’m not getting anything original that way. So the elephant thing is cooling off somewhat.
The next project I want to do is human rights, human trafficking. There is a big problem with that in this part of the world, I just read yesterday where there are more slaves today than at any time in history. My problem is 1) Financing, research trips, hotels, meals and all the associated things I don’t want to do out-of-pocket. (Actually I can’t – my savings have to last for my daughters schooling) and 2) figuring how to do it without endangering my visa. Thailand does not take kindly to people saying bad things about their country. Right now two reporters are being prosecuted for talking about the Thai Navy’s involvement in the slave trade. Those two reporters will go to jail for a few years, if convicted. Under Thailand’s internet laws, you can’t defame (lie about) the Thai Government on-line. The reporters only defence is that it is true, and that defence will never win in court. So with all that going on the safest bet is to go to Burma and cover the trade from up there. That means establishing contacts, a safety net, escape route and getting to know the people well enough to be able to get the story. So I need probably $40,000.00 and 1-2 years to do a good job with that.
How many projects? Depends. 1 or 2 probably, but with news, especially breaking news, you just go. If we have flooding bad here again I just put everything on hold and go get the story.
How long. Well breaking news is as log as it lasts. The Khlong Toei fire was 2 days, so that just depends on the story. On other things you don’t run out of ideas, once you commit mentally to a project the ideas find you, you just have to be open to whatever develops. I think you do have to be committed to spending some time on a project for the story to develop. Right now for example, we are between seasons, the farmers wont plant again until it gets closer to the rainy season. So I have followed one season through from start to end, and half of another. I will do another, and look for different things, different angles, it’s dynamic always changing, the ploughing is the same but what can I do this year differently? I won’t know that until it begins to happen and the ideas flow. You can’t over plan you just to go with the flow of ideas as they happen. The Bangkok protests – I’m waiting. I want a people angle. Everybody is grabbing the shots of Suthep and the marchers, but my story will be on the effect of camping out for many months on the streets of Bangkok. They will lose, and how will that affect their lives, their hopes and dreams – for me it is always about the people, the individual stories that make up the bigger story. So I wait ….
On a big project you never cover it sufficiently. You may choose to stop at some point but the story goes on. Chernobyl, the Tsunami, those stories are still going on, the effects are still being felt, and there are still people covering the aftermath, so it is never-ending, you just choose to move on. In the Khlong Toei fire, I only had two days, the night of the fire and the day after, but I could have stayed a week and covered how the people cope with their homes gone … you see it never ends, but at some point you just move on. Newspaper articles end but life goes on. You did however ask a good question and I hope I answered it. You should not have preconceived ideas, or yes, you will run out of ideas. I let the ideas come, you just walk around and keep an open mind and heart, the ideas will slap you in the face – well not that dramatic, but the ideas will come, if you are there.
How do I interact with people? No I don’t speak Thai, but I do speak compassion and I do speak the language of smile. You have to make photographs of human beings with compassion. They are not objects to photograph, they are people. In most cases I am photographing good people, everyday people, I speak their language of laughter, of a sparkle in my eye. People know when you are using them and they know when you care. My camera is not their enemy, they know this by the way I act, and the way I say thank you, by the way I say beautiful (Sawai – in Thai). If they don’t want their photo made it’s OK, I smile anyway. Lots of times the second time through they will change their mind and let me photograph. I sometimes take stupid photos – people run up to me and say take a photo of that woman and she is going no no no – the way people do, and I get them laughing and make the photo, then the man is happy – the photo is terrible – but I made someone happy – what the heck. It seldom happens but if am photographing someone I don’t like I put that away in a compartment someplace and concentrate on the moment. Will Rogers said “I never met a man I didn’t like” he must have been a photographer.
Lastly it is mostly instinct. I follow the light and watch and wait. I know when someone will smile, I know when a bride will cry, I know when they see a friend their eyes will sparkle. So part of it is studying human nature and knowing what will happen next, and part is instinct. Lastly I am not afraid of going anywhere with my camera. I’m not embarrassed and I’m smart enough to know if I am intruding, and I back off. I’m not intimidated by power, and not afraid to kneel next to the poorest of the poor, and I am never ever to proud or important not to say thank you and bow. Many times when an important person is there I will be asked to back off, I always do so with a smile and usually get my – 1 please? It’s easy, I don’t hide or pretend, I have a camera and I make photos. I smile, I like people, and they know it. People like me. I’m a photographer.
I want, for the most part, my photographs to stand alone and speak for themselves, but since I have tried to explain some of them, I hope my explanations are understood, and my meaning comes across, given the dyslexic challenges I face with the written word, and I do want to thank you for taking the time to put this interview together.
Thanks Lee for the time you’ve taken to answer my questions over the past few weeks and for the very detailed and candid answers you’ve provided. I hope that your idea to follow the slave trade story comes to fruition, but I must say that ‘you’re a braver man than I Gunga-Din’ if you do, as I can see that being a very dangerous story to follow.
Good luck to you and your family in the future and I hope everything works out well for you.