The seminal catalog of humanistic photography known as “The Family of Man” was published in 1955, two years before I was born. Known as “the greatest photographic exhibition of all time” it was curated by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art. In describing the work Steichen said…
“The exhibition demonstrates that the art of photography is a dynamic process of giving form to ideas and of explaining man to man. It was conceived as a mirror of the universal elements and emotions in the everydayness of life - as a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world.
There are photographs concerned with man in relation to his environment, to the beauty and richness of the earth he has inherited and what he has done with this inheritance, the good and the great things, the stupid and the destructive things.”
Despite liberal use of gender references common to the era, Steichen identifies the essence of documentary photography – “a dynamic process of giving form to ideas and of explaining man to man.” One might also identify the following characteristics of compelling documentary photography. The photographer should…
Reflect commonalities and appreciate nuance.
Hold the space without being boorish.
Tell the truth you witness.
In truth, these are some of the lessons I learned spending time with master photographers Eugene Richards, Roy DeCarava and Dan Budnik. For me, these photographers are the soul of humanistic photography. Their work illuminates and educates without being didactic making the viewer want to learn more about the condition of the people being photographed. Their work is the gentle provocation of a goat head in your shoe; a presence not to be ignored.
I became aware of “The Family of Man” catalog while in high school. It along with Life and Look magazines influence my current work. Life magazine photographer Eugene Smith may be singularly responsible for me being both a physician and photographer. His “Country Doctor” photo essay of Dr. Ernest Ceriani and follow up photo essay “Nurse Midwife” of African-American Maude Callen resonated both cerebral hemispheres. Smith’s use of up close and personal black and white photography with dramatic chiaroscuro was riveting while depicting the love and compassion of his subjects.
One of the first things I did upon arrival to the Navajo nation in 1987 was to build a home darkroom. While I find joy in my work as a primary care physician, my soul satisfaction comes from spending time with people in their homes and having an opportunity bear witness to their lives photographically. Through an unlikely series of events in 2009 I stopped concentrating on gallery shows where the people I was photographing weren’t seeing the images and decided to experiment with a more direct engagement by pasting large photographs along the roadside on the reservation. A muse in this work was Diego Rivera whose public murals celebrated the every person and in so doing he placed the murals where the every person could appreciate them. I also find inspiration in the social activism and humanitarian work of physicians Paul Farmer and Helen Caldicott who embody working for the greatest good for the greatest number. A more radical example of this is the life of physician Che Guevara.
Working as a public artist in an indigenous community while not of that community demands knowing cultural boundaries not to be transgressed. Initially I’d planned to remain anonymous but over time my identity became known. With this came the need to be accountable for work created. Mistakes have been made; however, through interactions with people from the community while pasting images along the roadside I have learned invaluable lessons and would like to think substantive growth is occurring. I also learned that roadside vendors with art on their stands get more tourist traffic which boosts their sales a bit. More substantively, conversations between tourists and vendors are changing as art on the stands is discussed. New friendships are being made and sterotypes are being challenged.
The title of this show, 5 Earths, comes from something I learned while preparing stickers for this show. I googled “fun climate change facts” and came across this information from the National Wildlife Federation…
“The United States releases more carbon dioxide than any other country, though it is home to just five percent of the world's population. If everyone in the world lived the way people do in the U.S., it would take five Earths to provide enough resources for everyone!”
FIVE EARTHS! Ruminate on that. The impact of those data might suggest we’re so entrenched in our privileged patterns of behavior that all is lost. Yet, inspired by Gandhi, my friend Stephanie Jackson reminds me we are the change we want to see in the world.
The photographs in this show are a retrospective of the past 25 years. While the majority of images are from the Navajo nation, there are images from the African continent, Brazil, Cuba and the United States. They represent my mini “Family of Man” catalog.