Chicago Ideas Week Part II – Photographer Forum Transcript

Photographer Jim Richardson speaking at Chicago Ideas Week 2011

Chicago Ideas Week hosted four award-winning photographers, giving them a platform to talk about their work and share some of their spectacular photographs from the National Geographic, Chicago Tribune, and others. I transcribed much of what they said, although without the images to accompany their words it obviously has much less impact. What struck me about all four was their focus on relationships, whether between human and non-human animal, people of different cultures, men and women, people and the earth. Their images are stunning. I encourage you to check out each of their websites and google them to see more of their photographs. A picture says a thousand words.

Jim Richardson: Everyone is a photographer and it’s the language we speak. Out in Kansas, my wife and I have a gallery and every so often people come through and they walk down the wall and they see all the images I”ve taken from around the country and I can see one of two questions coming. The first one is easy to answer – do you actually go to the places you photograph? Honest to God, that is the question. And I go, yes, that’s the way it works. We actually go there.

The second question is more difficult because they say “what’s your favorite thing to photograph?” They mean do you do sports, weddings, nature, wildlife, culture? I often puzzle about that because I do all these things. I do what is necessary to tell the story and particularly I like unsung stories. I like stories no one else would pay attention to if I didn’t. The stories are the leverage by which I take the photography and hopefully do something that in some remote way might move somebody and provide that fulcrum point to help leverage the pictures into action and impact.

I want to start out our presentation today with how pictures tell stories and how they transmit from one place to another. He shows pictures from the Edinburgh Festival and Fring (National No-Smiling Day)

Image: Jim Richardson

I thought, let’s do this out in Kansas. Then the story grew. It became part of what was in Edinburgh’s culture became part of our culture here as well. That is how pictures work. If you think that pictures can do little things like this in great mass movements, they can. I like to put my energy into images and stories. The images together with the stories are the real leverage points.

I remember going to market on saturday and was entranced by this house on the north coast of Brittany because it tells you the bit of mystery. Who the HELL thought of putting a house there between the rocks? Same with who was putting up the statues on Easter island, or what happened when Mendelssohn went to Fingal’s Cave and it really changed our view of the natural world (he shows these extraordinary events in his photos)

So those are single picture story telling…

What I really have gravitated to in my life is things like this, (multiple photographs)
A Town Dying (story in Nat Geo)

Hunger, food, soil. I learned I had to adapt each story to the content. The first one I did with nat geo was on soil. So what I really had to do was make soil interesting to folks in urban areas and show them there was beauty and drama beneath their feet. What really worked in that story was the connection between the soil and the people. The other things that worked was that we took a forty foot long plant and we photographed it all the way down into the soil, 9 feet below the surface! It really changed peoples’ minds that there was something going on there. The second part of that was heirlooms, saving the seeds that we need to save our agriculture. What I really wanted was that relationship–the kind of relationship they have up in the Andes where they have 1300 varieties of potatoes. What does that have to do with us and why we should save these things? the fact that the irish had only two varieties of potatoes is why so many died. And the wheat blight. I loved being with these guys as they sang, harvesting out in the fields (in Ethiopia) and particularly to be allowed into peoples’ kitchens as they were cooking.

This story on the foothills of Kansas needed drama. Unloved Lands. It really needed drama. I talked with people in Kansas who said “I never knew it was something.” It’s my job as a photographer to put it up on the wall and say look, it’s something. Going out over texado hill in Kansas and chasing the fireflies on the plain. I knew that the pictures needed a flow, graphics, drama and give us a sense of where we were.
greenwood country flint hills Kansas. I lit the tree up with a flashlight in the middle of the night

That led me onto another story, The Death of Night. I had been an armchair astronomer. Eighty percent of the world’s population will never see the milky way again. It’s like putting up a billboard in front of the grand canyon. He shows images of Natural Bridges, national monument, Chicago, Illinois
These pictures had to speak to what we are doing and why. This was up over chicago at 10,000 feet (Chicago awash in man-made lights) or seeing the way the St. Louis Arch is lit up at night. That you could from 100 miles away see the glow from Salt Lake City, or how it is that birds fly around buildings and die from exhaustion. To end, here is an image of a turtle that I photographed which returned to this beach to lay her eggs. I was given the opportunity to name her and I named her after my wife Kathy. Now that she has returned again to the beach, her story has become our story. Thank you for letting me share these stories with you.

For more information on Jim Richardson, please see

Ami Vitale:

Thank you so much that introduction. Jim, that was terrific. I think some of the things I have to say are similar. I worked in the Balkans, Angola, Palestine, Kashmir and even some places that nobody’s ever heard of… and my job was to show the brutality that was going on. That’s what the audience and my editors wanted. You might think that our job is to illuminate the dark corners of the world, but I believe our responsibility and obligation as storytellers and journalists is to illuminate and emphasize the things that unite us as human beings rather than accentuate our differences. I think it behooves us as journalists to not keep producing horror books. Who goes into a bookstore just expecting to see Stephen King? Our motivations are pretty similar, love, lust, greed or simply joy. I think highlighting the commonalities encourages empathy. But I’m here to tell you that the world is not such a scary place. Here is is one of my first assignments in the middle of gaza. in the upper right corner is a building being blown up. I actually would have been in that building if the batteries hadn’t fallen out of my camera. I was encouraged to get up close and bring back the most sensationalist images of the violence going on. There were literally several hundred photographers only photographing this because that’s what the editors wanted. That’s what they wanted to show. I think it was dishonest because there were other things going on, plenty of stories of love and courage that inspire empathy. I think our role as journalists and storytellers can’t be through one lens. we have to work harder to tell stories with a multitude or narratives and viewpoints.

I applied to a grant from the Alexia Foundation and got it to my delight and horror. I was allowed to work without deadlines. My sister and I spent time together and after my sister left I ended up living there, learning pular for half a year and trying to carry water on my head and eating rice. When the food ran out we all went hungry. The women embraced me and accepted me because they loved my sister. The best stories come from trust. The other important thing is listening to your subjects. Once I started to learn their language, they told me way more interesting things than I ever would have thought to have asked them. I think sometimes we think as journalists that we know what the stories will be before we’ve even left. We need to take time and let our subjects speak for themselves to let the stories unfold.

On my last night I was sitting with these kids under a sea of stars, and they were asking me, do you have mango trees and cashew trees in America? Then Alio asked me, do you have a moon in america? I can’t believe he would think America is a separate planet and we don’t share the same moon. This is the difference in storytelling rather than simply reporting. With all of that I moved to India and I quickly realized the scars of partitions (India and Pakistan were divided in 1947 and they haven’t really healed).

Almost as soon as I arrived rioting erupted between Muslims and Hindus. it was one of the most horrific moments of my life. it was like out of the Bible. i still have trouble talking about it. People were being killed in front of me and being burned alive. It still haunts me today with the suffering–how people could do that to one another.

It’s exactly in that moment that you don’t run away. We have to give a broader view and search for the humanity. There are so many other stories that deserve to be told, the humor of every day life. Some are pieces that help us understand complex political puzzles. It’s not in the headlines as much as other stories. It captured my heart and I stayed. It’s always been described as a nuclear flashpoint that could ignite war. But this human story and long forgotten conflict is destroying an ancient culture. It’s like poetry to me there (Dao lake in Himalayas). These are little boats made for honeymooners and tourists and now look at the reality. The military are using them. Every Kashmiri I talked to only wanted peace.. Their voices were never heard, totally drowned out by the political situation. In Kashmir we weren’t allowed to have mobile phones. Every day I would get a beep about military attacks. I met families on the border and yet there were always tender moments like these that showed humor. (photo of baby in a bucket) When we understand each other’s stories we are transformed. We can empathize.

I went to friday prayers and every day I was invited to a different home to have lunch. It’s really important to tell the stories that aren’t being told. This is Mr wonderful who came every day with flowers to my houseboat. I think we have to see ourselves in the faces of other people. Everybody wants the same things. Everywhere we go people want the same things. I believe we cannot afford to see the world through an optic of fear and hate. I’m doing film in Bangladesh due to the mass migration of people due to rising waters. Climate change is happening now. Every year half a million people move to Dacha. It was raining and all of a sudden these hands lifted me up on top on the train. What I love about this image is look at the joy on their faces. No matter where we go, our emotions remain the same.
Ami has an exhibition at the Chicago Field Museum. You can read more about her through myriad sites on the internet and see her photos on her website

Our next speaker is Alex Garcia. He has one of the most popular blogs in Chicago. Chicago Photography. Please welcome Alex.

Ami’s comments are so well put. The necessity of thinking in a universal way.

The secrets of storytelling – archetypes and symbols. (title slide)

Malcolm Gladwell says if you want to master something you have to spend 10,000 hours doing it. When it comes to photographers, about 20,000 hours. Why does it seem there are some photographs that become more popular and ignite the imagination? What is the secret of great storytelling? As a photographer working at a newspaper, my colleagues at National Geo may spend 500 hours on a single assignment but as a news journalist I may spend 500 hours on 500 assignments. As I gathered information for this lecture I realize a lot had to do with heroes.

Joseph Campbell talks about the prevalence of the hero archetype across cultures. I’m going to talk about how those heroic archetypes get manifested in the daily newspaper. In addition to those hero archetypes there are victim and character archetypes. I want to talk about how these get manifested in some of the long term projects I’ve worked on. We often talk about sports in militaristic terms. I don’t just see sports. I see heroes but conquering heroes coming back from war. Perhaps the epitome of heroes are astronauts. An archetype can become symbol.

I was working on a story in Texas and my editor told me to turn on the tv and I saw the news about the space shuttle columbia. I walked into the backyard of a home of an elderly couple through remains of metal and he showed the soul of the boot from one of the astronaturs. Another symbol is a clock (photo).. the exact time is when one of the buildings fell. it is a reminder that tomorrow is promised to nobody. A building fire represents our worst nightmare especially when it represents a monster. The symbolic concept of the storm common in literature and music and embodies the upending of the natural order. How fragile we are as human beings to the movement of weather.

The question is, if Campbell is right and archetypes are the way we communicate between cultures then if you have a hero of a thousand faces, you have a victim of a thousand faces and that’s why we need heroes.We have the poor and the homeless for whom the american dream is just a dream. There are two things you see at 6 am. You see the beautiful light in Chicago but you see the dark horror from what has happened the night before. We have victims of disease around the world. This is a woman dying in Rwanda
…and we have victims of injustice. I spent a lot of time in the cases that helped lead to suspension of capital punishment in Illinois. The thing that’s interesting and shocking to me as a newspaper photographer is what is behind the scenes. Illegal immigration. This is a problem so complex that it surpasses the idea of the hero. We accompanied the deportees all the way from Chicago to the border of huarez. This was his last view of Chicago before he got on the plane. When they get deported they are pulled out of night clubs, their homes and deported through the fifth most dangerous city in the world. Can you imagine being deported with pink pumps?

I’ve seen a lot of dead bodies and it’s something you never get used to doing.


In addition to heroes there are a lot of characters you find. In Chicago you have those old-style politicians. We have the teen heartthrob. I had less than five minutes with Zack Efron. But with a face like that it just makes it so easy. This was a film director Kevin Smith. This was his idea (sitting on the toilet). Then we also have the good mother, the mom who fights for the good name of her family including her son. we have the unusual neighbor. Who has an unusual neighbor? I love artists because they can’t help but create things, works of beauty. Then we have the loner, sometimes we just want to be alone with our thoughts and the clouds.

So why do some photographs and projects have a greater hold on us? why would you spend 400 dollars or more? For me it is the idea of the Forbidden Island.

My father is from Cuba and I was told that it was illegal for me to visit my aunts and uncles. Year after year I was brooding on that growing up. So after 1994 when people were going on rafts in to the ocean to cross the divide, Ii thought I want to be a bridge. On my 30th birthday i found myself on a plane to Havana. I wanted to know my grandfather and my uncle. He actually was still living on the same property where my Dad grew up.

As time passed and I came to the Chicago Tribune, the first year I spent three months in cuba because the Tribune was the first to have an office in Cuba. That isolation from the U.S. has impacted cuba’s ability to care for its elderly. Some of these photographs were taken in cuba at a nursing home. I sympathized with their situation. This woman was suffering from demenstia and they don’t sell those medicines in Cuba. I saw they were becoming victims but there were also glimmers of heroes too. People who were able to take care of themselves through a variety of ways.

olympic hopefuls

I want to leave you with this story. It leaves you with archetypes of hero. This is a boxing gym in Cuba. If you want to be an olympic fighter this is the place to be. I related to them. Maybe I could have been one of them if my father hadn’t left Cuba. I’m rooting these kids on.

With archetypes, symbols and metaphors, I think they are our friends and ways we can teach the universals. I want to leave with a thought. I encourage you to tell the stories of the heroes around you. Whether it is for your family or the publication you serve it will inspire you in the process. This is a world that needs more heroes.

Superhero Christopher Reeve had this to say. “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

Our last speaker is Vincent J. Musi – Photographer, National Geographic Magazine
He’s the host of Look 3 in Charlottesville VA every year. Great place to go. Top photojournalism festival.

Taming the Wild
thanks mike, alex and ami. it’s a real honor to be up here with you guys and hosting this mega talk. The national geographic has specialists in everything from bugs, underwater…under no circumstances do they play the theme song behind me
i like to take the readers inside our hotel room for a great view of the parking lot. if i had previously photographed an animal it was make believe or paper mache it came with a cherry coke and a side of fries. so the notion of me becoming an animal photographer is all mike hughes fault. so with the unwavering support of national history editor kathy moran pitched me a story on animal minds, smart minds. you know, i’m thinking, lassie a was a smart animal and good thing for little timmy because he was always getting in trouble. so here i am on this story of animal cognition. to do these portraits of animals. now i don’t know a damn thing of animals. most animals are food motivated. you can do this. well mistakes were made. never never feed feed a pig right before you photograph them. if you’re going to photograph an animal you pretty much need to know where its head is. i think you ought to know cuz he knew where my head is. the screaming of animals is deafening, even under water. this marmoset is s. this prairie dog was rescued after he was hit by a car. his name is speed bump and he’s screaming of me for four hours. this is the one where i got desperate. i started talking to him. mr. bump, how does it feel to be living in wabash after. i got into this doolittle thing and they started to pay attention. animals will poop on everything. elephants have self awareness. they have self awareness. we wanted to create a set of photographs with eye contact and make it look like they were shot on the same day. betsy knows over 300 words. she is an extraordinary dog in vienna. this is whack a new caledonian crow. he spent two days trying to poke my eyes out. they are extraordinary animals and use tools. what i learned is that just like dealing with animals, body language is crucial. if i never looked at the lemur
this ape lives in des moines and communicates with laminated mats and can ask question respond to things. he wanted some starbucks grande drinks for him and his bonobo friends. in the scientific world these animals are more colleagues than subjects. they in every case they are truly the super stars of this world. this is alex born in chicago in 1977 and when i went to brandeis to photograph him they just gave him to me to photograph him in a hallway. i sat with him for three hours and at the end he said why don’t you tickle me. would you tickle me. and i said sure. these animals teach us the boundaries of human. we’ve learned so many things..maya the dolphin. i want to show you another body of work. they gave me this story about the domestication of plants and animals

we know nothing about it and i’m fascinated by this to how does an animal go from being hunted to being raised for food or from the dining room to the living room. this whole relationship with animals. there is a genetic marker that explains why some animals can domesticate.. these rats are friendly and nice and in the other room they have these rats that are not so nice. now, i adore dioramas in museums. they’re frozen in time and theatrically lit and that was my approach to this. to set up dioramas in everyday life. my assistant had a big light to create daylight wherever we went. we look at the differences in what’s happening with dogs. dogs are evoking more quickly than
we went to khazakstan to photograph horses. probably the most domesticated animal in the world is the chicken. 24 billion chickens worldwide. some of the purest ones are in the united states. what are we breeding for and what are we after
this is a story that will run in december on big cats and it will be a pull out in the magazine. this is a clouded leopard a jaguar. none of these animals are under our control. they are in a zoo, a cheetah and siberian tiger. are they stressed out should we go. it’s





About naturestage

Miranda Loud is the Founder and Artistic Director of the non-profit NatureStage based in Waltham, MA, and is an interdisciplinary artist - classical singer/organist/filmmaker/photographer and environmentalist. She writes about the vital need for education to include a more heart-centered approach to studying other species that leads to a sense of stewardship. Naturestage creates works that foster empathy and kinship with other species, using the emotional power of storytelling in different art forms, mainly film, photography and music. She is also a public speaker on art and social change. Her current projects include The One Language Project, Park Dreams, The Elephant Project, and Elephantasia which all use different art forms to encourage a mind shift in how we relate to other species by asking "How would the world be different if we viewed other species as someones instead of somethings? If, instead of drawing lines, we drew circles?"
This entry was posted in arts, Chicago Ideas Week, empathy, environment, social innovation and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.