Deb and I had the good fortune to cross paths with James because of the Blue Planet Run book and Redux Pictures. His images of China’s desertification caught our eye for the book (They didn’t make the final edit). But more than the subject of the photographs, it was the tone, the feeling and what they convey that held our interest.
I’ve always thought that the highest standard for photojournalism is to create images that serve the publishing environment for the day but that remain relevant beyond the day. Another way of saying this is to make images that are as at home on a museum wall as they are on a page.
James’ photos linger in the mind and the eye.
We were able to catch up with James just before he traveled from his home in Japan.
[RT] Share with us a bit about your background. How did you come to discovering photography and what experiences bring you to this point in your photographic exploration?
JWD: Photography hit me over the head like a hammer. I was studying at the University of Colorado, at the time, physics and not enjoying it. I discovered, with the help of a rare books room librarian, prints and books of photographers who would become my guides: Henry Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Andre Kertesz and others. Immediately, my life focused in on photography. That was in the early 1980’s.
By the late eighties, I was living in New York assisting some people who are now the bards of our medium. Joel Meyerowitz who, after 21 years, I met again in Tokyo at the opening for his show introduced me to Leicas. It would take another couple of years to save money and by an old one. Meeting him again was like drinking from the fountain of youth. I felt an optimism well up inside I cannot describe.
I worked with Annie Leibovitz and later in Los Angeles Michel Comte and Greg Gorman and learned how excuses go out the window. You get the photograph. Period. Michel was particularly kinetic. He would climb walls, run down the beach, or across the desert like an enlightened madman (meant in the most complimentary terms!). Nothing was more important to him than getting the photograph. I work the same way.
All the while, I was doing street photography. By the early 1990’s, I concluded that it was time to leave fashion and celebrity work and that is precisely the time when I had the chance to move to Japan, the chance to take my Leicas and perhaps function how Swiss-born Robert Frank had functioned in the United States had while assembling photographs for his mindblowing book, “The Americans”. I jumped at this opportunity be fore it was too late and looked upon that decision as the most important and best move I have made in my life.
[RT] How long have you been based in Japan and what propelled you to relocate to Japan?
JWD: Curiosity drew me to Japan. I will have been based in Japan for fifteen years in August 2008. Time has flown by. I visited the country for the first time in the spring of 1993.
I gave all of my research on the country to a friend, because I had decided to remain in Los Angeles, where I lived at the time for another year. My friend went to Tokyo and when I visited, the country was so far beyond the bullet train, kimonoed women at tea ceremonies in Buddhist temples, and the shock of brightly lit Tokyo nights kind of mythology so actively promoted about this post-modern country. All those things exist but there is so much more organic texture and soul to this country.
[RT] What attracts you about Asia and how has it evolved?
JWD: I found myself in Japan, photographing every free moment and suddenly find, despite what I had been told repeatedly stateside by many photo editors, that it was indeed possible to earn rent doing this sort of work.
I began to send out spokes into Asia. Actually, the first Asian country I visited was not Japan but the Philippines which had turned my head around 6 months before that initial Japan trip at the end of 1992. So, Asia had indelibly branded my psyche. I returned to the Philippines first but then, when all tickets to Bangkok were booked, I decided to explore instead China. I later looked at my contact sheets, back in those pre-digital days, and had never seen anything like the work I had done there. (I still shoot film, btw.)
For the first half decade or so, I took roads into hinterlands as far as they could go, changed to boats, motorcycle, 4WD, horse, mule or on foot to try to find places that were just about to feel the brunt of the outside world, though gave a glimpse into the 19th century or earlier. Change, though, is the only constant.
Around 2000 or 2001, I felt that China in particular had turned some proverbial corner in its development. The loss of heritage explored in Empire: Impressions from China, my first monograph, slowly seemed a fait accompli.
I began to explore the growing pains due to the most rapid develop perhaps the world has ever know. That series carries on and I call it “Dystopia / Utopia: Growing Pains in China”.
[RT] Share with us your explorations of China — Desertification, The Three Gorges Dam… How is what is going on in China similar and different to the evolution of the United States?
JWD: This is an excellent question because I think that you are cuing into what I am doing. Both of these series are part of the “Dystopia / Utopia” series. So much of what is going on echoes of major events and the subsequent consequences of development in the United States. The Three Gorges Dam has many precedents in the US from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to the Hoover Dam and done for similar reasons, for development of the western interior. The lessons learned globally, that mega-dam projects are not a good idea, seems not to have filtered down though.
The desertification project was similar but worse than the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, Southern Colorado and Northern Texas in the 1930’s though the cause is eerily similar. In the 1950’s, Mao Tse Dong ordered the Mongols of Inner Mongolia to end their semi-nomadic ways, which was in harmony with the marginal steppe grassland environment.
People were gathered into communes and the steppe as ploughed, just as the prairie was unwisely ploughed in the 1930’s. This freed the sandy soil beneath it. Now 100m + high (roughly 300ft) sand mountains are advancing like sets of great ocean waves from the heart of the Tengger Gobi Desert advancing east and burying everything in their path. The sand leaps over the Yellow River in southern Ningxia Province where a desert research center at Shapotou. Seen on Google Earth, the scale of the problem becomes so obvious. At Shapotou, is merely the end of wind-driven massive, hundreds of miles long relentlessly advancing hourglass-like glacier of sand.
I have seen several stories recently on desertification in China. Some get it right and some expose lack of research. All sand dunes are not same, or at least their significance is not always the same. What I mean is this. Sand dunes in the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang or at the historic Buddhist site of Dunhuang in the Hexi Corridor, Gansu Province look like the sand dunes of the Tengger Gobi but there is a very, very important difference. For a millenium, at least, these two sites have been desert. They are desert and were desert for a long time. 50 years ago, the fringes of the Tengger Gobi were steppe grassland. Seen from the air, and in the series, are oases surrounded by sand hills, which are nothing but remnants of the 800 lakes in the region, now down to 200, which are themselves rapidly drying up.
It is of paramount importance, regarding preserving the trust between the viewer and photographer, that what you portray is accurate. Only an informed photographer, who puts in the time to get it right, can earn this trust.
[RT] What advice do you have for photographers seeking to tell stories about China or any long term story?
JWD: The response above touched on this subject but I think it is useful to encourage photographers to be mindful of larger issues for which they have passion and going back to them over time and building on them. There are several issues from Japan, China, Islam or the rain forest, that I like to explore and return to. I think they keep the mind focused and helps pull one away from potential visual ruts.
[RT] Congratulations for winning the Best Published Picture Story (large markets) award in the Best of Photojournalism competition. Share with us the background on this story.
JWD: Thank you for the kind words on this. I have been told by my agent and mentor that my second monograph book, I Viaggi di Tiziano Terzani has come off the presses, though I have not yet seen a copy. This book project brought me to Afghanistan, a country where I had long want to go. It is the other side of so much of East Asia. The Silk Routes pass through there. Buddhism made its long crossing through the Karakorum and Pamir Mountains (the big and little headache mountains to Chinese pilgrims), through the Taklmakan Desert along trade routes before eventually arriving in the Chinese heartland and then to Korea and Japan. It was part of the Gandhara Buddhist Empire, which mixed Hellenistic and Hindu artistic traditions a projected them into Chinese Turkestan, before the arrival of Islam.
Tiziano Terzani, who died of cancer in 2004, is a still iconic in Italy. He could have been described as falling somewhere between a journalistic version of Paul Theroux with the affable temperament of Garrison Keillor. British colonials would have described him as having “gone native”. In his later years, he sported a massive Darwinesque beard and donned Neru collared Indian suits and spread his charisma between communitied in Tuscany and northern India. Terzani stayed behind as a foreign correspondent during the fall of Saigon, was kicked out of China after re-education in 1985, was in the Soviet Union when it fell and about twenty other Asian countries, plus Russia and Italy. My own journeys, though sometimes but not always years later, have closely paralleled his. We were bitten by the same sense of wonder and desire to share the special nature of these travels in different, but complementary media, with a western audience. “I Viaggi di Tiziano Terzani” is comprised of almost 200 photographs but I had not yet been to Afghanistan, the country from where Terzani wrote is last great manifesto, “Letters Against the War” which chronicled his anxiety about the war in Afghanistan, though the events he foresaw echoed more what would unfold in Iraq.
You could not shake a stick in parts of the old city of Kabul and fail to hit a person under the servitude of heroin. The tragedy of it grabbed and held my attention. I found out about, through research, a wonderful, and kind Doctor Qureshi whose passion, tinged with fatalism, has driven him to direct the only government-run drug rehad and psychiatric hospital in Kabul. His hospital ran a severely underfunded heroin detox program but there was also a Dickensian psychiatric hospital on the grounds as well. I sought to depict the Dr. Qureshi’s good work against the background of what was going on outside the walls of the hospital to the vast majority of people who he could not reach. Nothing occurs in a vacuum and I always try to set a context into which an issue or project occurs.
I remember coming to the end of my time in Afghanistan and hearing about these men chained to trees in the grounds of a shrine outside Jalalabad supposedly to cure them of their mental illness. I could not get a translator to join me for the trip down and was advised not to go alone. Taliban were active on the mountainous road to Jalalabad and on the outskirts of that city at times. Lying awake at 3 am, I decided I had to go and would do so by wearing a turban, I had already grown a beard. It made me invisible, as long as I did not open my mouth. When I went down to the street from the hotel and little Afghani boys who would ask for change suddenly walked by me without taking any particular notice. I took a group taxi down, did my business but left without delay before word could spread that a foreigner was in that little village outside the city. Afghanis are very decent people but keeping low key outside town was a good idea. Without having visited the shrine, the story would have suffered. Risks are necessary but should not be entered into without thought, planning and responsibility should anything go wrong.
[RT] For photographers interested, share with us the experiences of getting stories published in non-US publications. What advice do you have?
JWD: I have always admired the desire to understand people in the outside world I have found through my friendships with Europeans. I know this is a deep simplification but the world is somehow seems closer when debating and discussing issues with people from that part of the world. They usually have a greater grasp of history and the fluid passage of time. The past is more often viewed as part of the present, informing the present, effecting the present, providing examples of mistakes best not repeated and 30 years ago is not ancient history. Again, I am certain to infuriate many of my North American compatriots with these generalizations but I sought to nurture my relationships with agents and colleagues in Europe because I felt my work would be better understood there. I believe that time has borne this out.
[RT] Share with us some thoughts about the business side of photography. What top 5 business concepts/ideas/tips should photographers keep in mind when going and being solo?
JWD: This is perhaps the hardest question to respond to coherently. My circuitous path makes this difficult. First, a career in this discipline of photograph is a marathon, not a sprint. I repeat this ad nauseam. On the marathon theme, I will echo the words of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet I once listened to giving a talk describing how she did other kinds of work to which she always gave her “best second best effort”. What I took away from that was that she never lost sight of her ultimate goal and earned rent along the way doing other work while saving her most precious energy for her ultimate passion.
These words help me during the days assisting and before I could go out on my own. Joel Meyerowitz also told me never to develop an “assistant’s mentality”. The lesson is similar to the poet’s advice but adds never to undervalue, set aside or stop your own personal work. Never, ever give up on that.
I diversify my market. Reportage is not an easy road to pursue. Add to that, I work almost exclusively in B&W. I work in color on assignment only. So the self-generated projects I produce, which was the case in every one of the projects discussed in this interview, pares down the market to a sliver. So, I offer work to magazines in Asia, Europe and North America. It is necessary but I grown from meeting remarkable people far and wide in the process.
[RT] There is a great nuance to your images. Images with greater nuance seem a harder sell in the US, why is that?
JWD: I am afraid that this can often be, though not always, a challenge. There are some magazines like Mother Jones, New York Times Magazine and the wonderful editors at Newsweek who support such work. Still, working this way has, over time, drawn me more toward Europe. Japanese editors, too, can respond to subtle, informed work. I learn from people and their points of view from all over the world. Assumed truisms are challenged and a broader sense understand and tolerance results.
[RT] What advice do you have for staff photographers working at newspapers who strive to challenge the accepted “norm” within newspaper cubicle culture?
JWD: I have several friends working in the environments you describe who have the presence of mind to work on their own projects, and find fascinating stories beyond the demands of staff work. They keep pretty busy with their contract commitments but if the passion is there, the stability of a staff position can make it easier to develop stories over large chunks of time. I think that the same principle has permeated through several responses here and that is to take a long view of things, never lose passion and focus on what originally drew you to reportage.
Whether working freelance, on staff or as a wire photographer, there is always the danger of losing track of one’s goals dealing with the present.
[RT] We were fortunate to have heard Daido Moriyama speak at the Portland Museum of Art last year. Do you know his work? If so, how do you connect with his work? Are you familiar with the Japanese photographer, Yoshiyuki Iwase?
JWD: I have often said I believe that Moriyama Daido, as he is known here, is perhaps the best living Japanese photographer. That is not something I say lightly with people like Hosoe, Kubota, Shibata and others around here too. His gritty street work is the Japan I most appreciate and understand. There is this dark side underlying all the colour and apparent order. It is Druid, pre-Buddhist and Jomon. The energy comes from the forests and mountains and bubbles up through the absolute concrete of post-modern, urban Japan and radically blurs the line between reality and the surreal. This is what feeds my work here too. Moriyama is supremely unapologetic, strays from cheap gimmicks or kiddy sleaze, and has cut out territory all his own.
[RT] How often do you look at the work of other photographers? Whom do you admire?
JWD: I do often look at others’ work. I get exceedingly excited when I discover work that
energizes the imagination. It is kind of like finding a new band that has found a new sound using the same simple elements of lead guitar, vocals, bass and drums, which gave us Cream, Led Zeppelin, U2 and Nirvana, all with such different styles derived from the same simple instruments.
I hope I do not offend any friends I might leave out. I deeply admire Antonin Kratochvil, Paolo Pellegrin, in my own generation and am glad to be in contact with them from time to time. Chris Anderson does wonderful work as do some younger photographers like Balazs Gardi, Philip Blenkinsop and Teru Kuwayama.
I love the work of Martin Parr, Edward Burtynsky, Joseph Koudelka and again, Moriyama Daido. I have mentioned a lot of reportage photographers because of the company I keep but my interest extends beyond the confines of one way of seeing.
Cross-pollination can fortify work.
[RT] Your book, Empire: Impressions from China was released in 2004. Share with us your experience in gathering your work, editing and producing the book.
JWD: The “Empire” series grew rather organically. There was a moment in 1997, when I realized that series had grown into something with great possibility. It was not ready yet as a series but I began to realize something was beginning to happen. I remember, before coming to Asia, seeing Antonin Kratochvil’s work from the 1980’s in Eastern Europe and realized that I had not yet encountered a force of history and a source that inspired my eye and mind as it had him. At that moment in Yunnan in 1997, although the idea did not quite gel at the time, I began to get that feeling about my work in China. It was and is such a remarkable point in history and I have been lucky enough to observe social eruption and photograph it. “Empire” was merely the first chapter.
My experience with publishing I believe has been perhaps more positive than some other photographers. Grazia Neri, my Italian agent and dear friend, has made certain through her force of personality and intelligence that we work with publishers who have allowed creative freedom and freedom from some of the headaches I have heard about.
This positive feeling extends to the new book project as well.
“Empire” came out on time and was an altogether positive experience. My gut feeling is this. If a publisher likes the work, they will produce the book without hesitation. When a photographer is met with hesitation creatively, production-wise and, frankly, the publisher is not willing to take the financial risk to publish the series, I believe it may be better for a photograph to walk away. This is where problems begin.
If the project is going to happen, and be carried through positively, the push and pull will not only fall away but may never happen to begin with. Any long term project usually is the result of several years, even a decade, of effort on the photographer’s part and a photographer needs to be sure that their years of work are nurtured, not diminished.
[RT] Your work in black and white seems so different from the color work. In black and white, the subjects engage first and foremost while the color images feel more like statements about color in its environment as an aspect of the subjects. Would you talk about the difference between making black and white and color images for you?
JWD: My basic philosophy is this. I work in black and white. I enjoy color but work in color on assignment only. I really enjoy color but work on a deeper level in black & white.
[RT] Do you see an evolution in your work that has a predictable path from here forward?
JWD: Yes I do constantly work to evolve. I like to insinuate myself into situations I am not comfortable or have not been before to see how I react visual and personally. If I could be invisible and not create a single ripple to upset or modify a situation by my presence, that would enrich the work. The Kabul series and Paraditas done in Tijuana, Mexico speak to this. I truly hope that there is no predictable path. I would like to show more often in gallery setting because I want each individual image to stand on its own as well as it might in a series. Each photograph should be its own little psychodrama. I want cohesion, divergence and staying power in the work, but most of all an out of the corner of the eye transience that burns in deep.