justin maxon – when the spirit moves

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EPF 2010 Finalist

Justin Maxon

When the Spirit Moves

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I’ve heard people say that since America has it’s first Black President in office, we have transitioned into a post-racial society.  If he can succeed, then all people of color can do the same.  This supposed land of the free is at liberty to those that have the wealth to buy it.

Those living in Chester, PA, USA, grow up in an environment where forces everywhere are against them; where gravity seems to be stronger and less forgiving. It is a place where pollution alters cognitive development, violence and crime are commonplace, poverty is oppressive, jobs are virtually non-existent, and people with nothing take from others who have little

If you walk these streets, you pass people in a trance, who speak without being heard. You see children with shallow eyes, with scars deep. Ghosts are everywhere, fading from neglect. There is little for people to grasp a hold of for support, to deliver them through. People are forced into carrying this burden of weight and thus are required to be strong to withstand it.

I was besieged while witnessing the issues weighing heavily on the lives of the people in this community. In experimenting with multiple exposures, I’m attempting to speak to the complexities I felt were so tightly woven into their lives.  With out this approach, my work would not begin to unfold the many consequences that have come out of their collective struggle. In this process of layering interrelated moments next to one other, I’m cautious not to bend or manipulate reality beyond recognition, for the benefit of my own aesthetics or ego. I want these moments to be believable and not just passed off as artistic representations of the truth.

This project is an attempt to bring awareness to the issues that plague many inner city Black communities, like Chester, throughout America. Mostly importantly though, it’s an attempt to show the resilience and strength that is present in these communities.



Justin Maxon (1983) was born in a small town in the woods of northern California. Nothing but trees and hippies sorta thing. He first got into photography at an early age, but then only took pictures of mountains and other woody features.  Today, Maxon is mainly interested in pursuing long-term projects that examine the complexities of human struggle, where he seeks out the hope always present in the shadows of life.

Maxon has received numerous awards for his photography, from competitions like UNICEF Images of the Year, POYi, and NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism. He won first place in the 2007 World Press Photo Daily Life Singles category, along with winning the Deeper Perspective Photographer of the Year at the 2008 Lucie Awards. In 2009, he was named one of PDNs 30 Emerging Photographers to Watch.

His clients include TIME, Newsweek, Mother Jones Magazine, Fader Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and NPR.


Related links

Justin Maxon

Razon Collective


62 Responses to “justin maxon – when the spirit moves”

  • Justin

    So powerfully said! I agree with Mtomalty..multiple exposure in camera while you’re actually in the midst of your project, not just screwing around on a hobby, that’s brave and i absolutely agree with your reasoning..if you can express a more honest reality with the use of multiple exposure i can’t think of a finer, more humanistic justification. I wish you the very, very best of success!


  • hey justin,

    I have been waiting for these images since I first saw the ‘child’s-face-with-the-christmas-tree’ image posted among the EPF finalists. the whole series is quite haunting and dreamy with a few punches to the face—-psychological documentary photography.

    I also appreciate your work from the TL. Having spent too many years down there myself many of the images (especially the man in the SRO sitting with his mounds of clutter) bring back good/terrible memories.

    Your images are right up my aesthetic alley and I’m pleased to see them get such praise.

    While looking through your Mui and Pha series (which I also enjoy) I noticed there is a typo in the opening sentence you may want to fix (these things are always so much easier for an outside eye to catch & I’m probably making a typo right now!)

    I am guessing you meant to write:
    Mui, and her son Pha, lived homeless on the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam, for around five years.


  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    Dear Justin,

    While I heartily congratulate you both for your selection as a finalist for the EPF and for the numerous highly positive comments you have received as a result of this project, I have some concerns which I would like to air. I too was initially drawn into this work – its form, its texture, its intent; it’s all there and it shouts loudly, “I am a really awesome photography series.”

    I am left feeling a little empty on second viewing. But my feelings are not the issue here, though I’m not exactly sure what is. But maybe it gets to something like this: when work by professionals, which you clearly are, is created on the lives of people of the poverty class (and there just seems to be so much of it generated), it is my contention that there needs to be an extra level of scrutiny of both the motivation and the result. The stakes are simply too high and the people whom you portray too powerless to have any control over the work you produce. You, in effect, become the voice, the author of their existences. And while your motivation seems pure, I have to take some exception at the temporal nature of “projects” like these. They begin at a certain point and then they end. And then you are working on a different “project”. Your website has lots of “projects”. But the lives you “authored” and which will remain to us fixed as you have shown them – artful though it may be – have a flux and a future that is simply missing. (Perhaps it is naive of me to think we should have some responsibility for this or any control of it.)

    And so this is a message to myself and for us all as people using a medium and Art and the force of our privileged place in society, which it seems we have as educated, intellectualized makers of photographs and commentators here, when we make work of this nature; when we look down the socio-economic ladder and make some record of that. This is no new story but I felt it deserved vetting in the context of this series; perhaps particularly in the context of this story. In very many ways, this series seems so much more about the photographer than the people who happen to find themselves in the way of your camera.

    I want to make a case in point regarding your series on Mui and Pha which is on your website. I also had the privilege and opportunity to meet and photograph her. The last I saw her, she was no longer homeless and was healthy and still swimming down in the Red River with her son and niece. She looks great – http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamagram/3259857297/in/set-72157606725877995/ . But if we are left with the “project” as it stands on your website, she is still homeless and living that subsistence existence. The pictures are great. The words, sincere. But there is a dire responsibility that we hold to do it right that escapes me in a great deal of work that focuses on the lives of the poor and destitute made by people who are not and have never been. I see sympathy but there is no empathy.

    On the other hand, you have some work on your site in the “people” part of your portfolio that, though I dont know who they are or who they are to you (friends, acquaintances or strangers – I dont know) but they feel closer to who you might be (again, I dont know) than the rest of the body of your work. Why are we always photographing that which is least familiar to us, about people’s lives and places where we are simple visitors; tourists, if you will? This is rhetorical but I also mean to ask it specifically.

    I do not excuse myself from any of the comments I have made in the context of your work. I simply wanted to raise the issue here in the light of this good photography. All the very best to you and continued successes in the flux of your future. Jamie

  • Hello Jamie,
    I would most definitely agree that some of your points are very valid. Their needs to be extra scrutiny when it involves photographers documenting disenfranchised people who have little voice of their own. I also agree, there can be too much of a focus in photojournalism on photographers documenting realities that they are strangers too. Photographers can be but shadows in the lives of people revealed in their images; never getting invested enough to truly feel what people are enduring.

    I would like to respond to your comment that photographic projects are documenting life in a stagnant form that in reality is in constant flux. I agree that my projects and many like them do not represent the evolving nature of the world. Life changes form, people change, and things are never truly as you saw them once before. I never was audacious enough to claim my work attempts to speak to this. My work is simply a slice of what the world looks and feels like the instant I documented it. A preservation of that moment in time will most definitely change shape as soon as I take my camera away. To expect anything more from the still image is not realistic. Though, I have seen and know the benefits this slice of history can have in this world. Photographic projects have helped change public policy to the benefit of the disenfranchised communities it documents. While granted, there are many versions of this craft that never reach its altruistic form. But, if 1 out of 10 or 1 out of a 100 projects makes a tangible impact, then I would think all the work that is done is well worth the effort. The nature of the world and of this industry is too fickle to judge the essence of photography on the simple matter of whether or not a project ends before it becomes a significant part of change. People could have the purest desire in making a difference and not have the resources to realize their hearts intention.

    The place where I stand my ground is in this. You are assuming many things about me in your message. You know nothing about my background, my motivations, or why I choose to photography the things I do. I could have had a serious addiction problem in my past, and know a slice of the pain and suffering people on the street in the Tenderloin of San Francisco know. I could be currently working on a project about my own life, documenting the healing that I must do for myself to continue to move forward. I could have spent so much time in Chester that the people I’ve been documenting consider me part of their family. The point I’m trying to make is that you don’t know. And you never took the time to ask. I would have most definitely responded to any questions you had about my background or motivations. I do not wish to get into further discussion on this matter. I simply want to point this out.

    I do appreciate you taking the time to raise a number of important insights to consider when viewing work like mine. I also value the healthy dialog it simulates. This type of work needs to be viewed from many points outside of its artistic merit.


    tough serious question and well composed brilliant answer…surely what this forum is all about….thank you both…

    cheers, david

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    Justin, hey – many thanks for your response. Actually I do believe I said ‘I dont know’ about your relationship to the people in the photographs and to the work itself. That question isn’t really for me to ask in any case. For me those questions are ALWAYS for the photographer (myself included) to ask him or herself – “What is my relationship to this work?”.

    Why is it being made? Who is it for?

    Realizing all the pressures of the marketplace and the influences of peers, colleagues, editors, etc., I know it is a challenge to produce the kind of original and provocative work as you clearly have here. Keep working. Keep asking the questions.

  • maybe it gets to something like this: when work by professionals, which you clearly are, is created on the lives of people of the poverty class (and there just seems to be so much of it generated), it is my contention that there needs to be an extra level of scrutiny of both the motivation and the result.

    But there is a dire responsibility that we hold to do it right that escapes me in a great deal of work that focuses on the lives of the poor and destitute made by people who are not and have never been. I see sympathy but there is no empathy.

    I get these kinds of questions regularly regarding some of my own work. I don’t mind at all when subjects, or potential subjects, ask those kinds of questions. Why do you want to photograph us? Fair enough. Legitimate question. Nobody wants to be the subject of ghetto or poverty porn. But I find the questions more questionable when it’s well-meaning outsiders asking them. I’m generalizing here and explicitly not making any implications about Jamie Maxtone-Graham’s background or character, or yours. It’s just that in my personal experience, I’ve found that the people most concerned with scrutinizing the motivations of those of us who photograph the inner city tend to be people who live very segregated lives and, not coincidentally, people who have strong racialist views. Racialism, btw, is not a synonym for racism. A racialist is one who filters everything through the scientifically debunked concept of “race.” Of course by the same token, and this I think is Jamie’s main concern, a photographer who wants to photograph people solely because they are “black” has an equally racialist attitude. Throw in “poor” along with “black” and I understand the concern. Still, if it’s not the subject scrutinizing the photographer’s motive, the question becomes “who the fuck are you?” And what exactly are you scrutinizing? (I use “you” in the generic sense, of course. I’m not talking about you you) And in the end, it doesn’t much matter what the photographer says, or what the scrutinizer brings to the scrutinization. The photograph has the last word.

    Beyond that, the idea that one has to be poor to photograph the poor is just plain silly. Or that one’s skin has to be a similar hue. Does one have to be a politician to photograph a politician? Or a soldier to photograph a soldier? Or a whatever to photograph a whatever? Nah. photography’s a skill, not some kind of skin we’re born into, or uniform we don.

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    mw – cheers. I actually had to look up ‘racialist’ in the dictionary. That’s a new one to me.

    One point I might offer just as a continuation of the discussion and not really as a rebuttal – how many inner-city photographers have you seen traipsing around upscale neighborhoods and exploring the lives of the privileged? That is a series I would be very interested in knowing about. There is no shortage of the converse. So I feel the question is legitimate and requires discussion in light of this and many other series of this nature. I also framed the question in socio-economic terms and not racial(ist) ones. That is your own projection.

    My concern remains – both for myself personally and towards the work of others presented – what is the photographer’s relationship to the subject and the work? And, again, each of us with camera in hand must answer that for ourselves.

  • Honestly Jamie, I wasn’t projecting onto you, just making generalizations off of issues you brought up and my own experience fielding similar questons. I, too, would love to see inner city photographers explore the lives of the privileged. The idea is much like “White Studies” in anthropology, a controversial field which apparently never gained a lot of traction, but is I think fair and necessary nevertheless. I think Martin Parr does interesting work along those lines. I would like to see a lot more.

    But back to the question of scrutinization. What are some examples of possible relationships between the photographer, the subject and the work? Concern for social issues? Photographing life as one sees it? Ghetto and/or poverty porn? Racialist fascination? Although I agree those are questions every photographer (writer, artist, whatever) should ask him or herself, and of course I’ve no problem with subjects asking the questions, I’m much less comfortable with that kind of scrutiny coming from other directions. Cause at that point, I think it’s fair to turn some scrutiny on the scrutinizer. What are his or her basic assumptions? What motivations are acceptable or not acceptable? What makes anyone qualified to judge? And what does any of that matter beyond what is captured in the photograph?

  • And just to emphasize, if my tone comes off as contentious, I don’t mean it to be. You do a good job of raising the topic in a non-confrontational manner and I too find it interesting. There are so many grey areas and ideas that are hard to pin down that my opinions are nowhere near being fixed. I don’t remember if you took part in the “Black Girls” discussion? Lots of interesting back and forth along those lines in that one.

  • Isn’t the ‘how’ more important than the ‘who’?

  • All stories are cool if presented the “right” way…

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