michelle frankfurter – destino

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Michelle Frankfurter


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Drawn to the frontier edginess and melancholy of the region, I began photographing along the U.S. – Mexico border in 2000, shortly after reading Cormac McCarthy’s, The Crossing. The novel begins with a boy finding a wolf caught in a trap on his family’s Arizona ranch. He treks across the Sierra Madres into Mexico to return the wolf to her native land. The story has every narrative element that’s captivated my imagination since I was about ten years old: a cast of characters that includes sinners, saints, and pariahs, an epic journey across a hostile wilderness, a bond between boy and dog, a multitude of dangers, themes of salvation and redemption.

My project, Destino focuses on undocumented Central American migrants traveling through Mexico in an attempt to reach the United Sates. In many ways they resemble the protagonists of adventure novels and epic tales. In an odyssey of wandering, they travel on foot, often relying on a network of freight trains lurching across Mexico. With their small backpacks filled with essential belongings, they leave behind homes and families to exist in a land of nomadic purgatory. Many are in their teens. Spirited as yearlings, they often appear oblivious to the harsh realities that accompany this journey.

In 2009, the worst economic recession in decades made work scarce for undocumented immigrants living within the United States. As in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are currently plagued by drug and gang related violence and a high incidence of domestic abuse. Crippling trade policies have further exacerbated the situation for the poor of these nations. Central American migration, while slowing down has not stopped entirely.

In Mexico, where racism towards Central Americans is prevalent, these undocumented migrants are vulnerable to a host of dangers: the police who routinely rob and beat them, immigration officials who detain and deport them, and bandits and gang members who prey on them along the train route. Many have been injured or killed falling off moving trains. More recently, Los Zetas, a renegade battalion of a military unit initially deployed to combat drug trafficking, now operating as the armed wing of the Gulf drug cartel, has established a kidnapping ring targeting Central American migrants. From these adversities, migrants find respite in a loose system of shelters run by Catholic priests and through the benevolence of sympathetic Mexicans in the towns and villages along the way.



Born in Jerusalem, Israel, Michelle Frankfurter is a documentary photographer who lives in Takoma Park, MD just outside of the District of Columbia. She graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in English. After graduating, she worked for three years as a staff photographer for daily newspapers: The Herald – Journal and Post Standard in Syracuse, New York. Before settling in the Washington, DC area, Frankfurter spent three years living in Nicaragua where she worked as a stringer for the British news agency, Reuters and with the human rights organization Witness For Peace documenting the effects of the contra war on civilians. In 1995, a long-term project on Haiti earned her two World Press Photo awards. She has worked for a number of editorial publications, including The Guardian of London, The Washington Post Magazine, Ms., Time, and Life Magazine. Her personal documentary work has been featured in juried exhibitions at The Washington Project For the Arts, the Arlington Arts Center, Shots Magazine, and the Photo Place Gallery in Middlebury, Vermont. For the past ten years, her personal work has focused on themes of migration and life along the border region between the United States and Mexico.


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Michelle Frankfurter


135 Responses to “michelle frankfurter – destino”

  • ……..it’s like the criminal that says that he/she was brought up that way and didn’t know better

  • Now should I take up that offer to teach mathematics…..

  • Imants, I understand, or at least understand more. The best photographs come from people that have empathy for their subjects. Let’s put it another way, the best photographs come from people that think that their subjects are at least as good, or better, than they are. I dumped the cameras for a few years too. Not by choice but, it’s personal. it was LIBERATING! But I AM a photographer – couldn’t stay away.

  • I played wag from double-mathematics with “Old Fred” (all teachers are old, right?) but I did learn to scrub the salt stains from the beach off my shoes before going home (laughing).

  • “Your oppressed and outcast masses,” I replied, “are nothing but an abstraction. Only individuals exist–if, in fact, anyone does.” — Jorge Luis Borges

    For me, that quote well represents the strength of this work. The photos do not show undocumented aliens, so to speak (Orwellian speak), passing through Mexico. They show individuals.

    I have great respect for the photographer’s ambition, for the effort and courage it takes to carry it out (though I gotta admit, riding on top of trains through Chiapas sounds like a blast), and the fantastic quality of the finished photos.

    As noted above, I feel there is something missing and on further reflection suspect that much of what’s missing is related to a lack of (perceived by me at least) implicitness in the photos. From her follow up comment, I gather that the photographer feels that the photos imply a great deal that I miss, likely because of cultural considerations, a point which I readily acknowledge as very possible. Nevertheless, as someone who has lived, studied, and traveled quite a bit in South America, Central America, and Mexico, if someone like myself is not sensing those deeper layers of meaning, then the audience who will may be rather small.

    So how to better accomplish that? I would consider losing all of the captions and the great majority of the text. Much as it bothers us, text that accompanies photos is important; it does modify our perception of the work. The captions and text in this case are very explicit — places and names, adjectives and action verbs. Explicitly telling us these migrations are like a biblical journey negates the ability of the photos to show us it’s like a biblical journey.

    To better communicate that idea, I would consider a different sequencing of the photos. As is, I get some sense of a journey, but little sense of the journey. For one thing, there is no picture of either the beginning or the end. The guy at the border fence is the closest we come to the destination. It might help to see more. And the photos give little sense at all, particularly to someone unfamiliar with Central America of where these people come from. Villages in Guatemala? Urban slums of El Salvador? And there’s no sense of continuity in the journey that is depicted. Visually, there’s nothing to tell us if we’re in the jungles of Yucatan or the mountains of Chiapas or the deserts of Chihuahua. I don’t mean to suggest any particular shots, but bringing more visual diversity might be a good strategy for communicating the journey and all, or at least many more of its implications.

    I hope I don’t come off as being negatively critical, my intent is to be constructive. This is great work on so many levels, I’d just like to see it reach that status on a few more.

    Borges again: “My alter ego believed in the imagination, in creation–in the discovery of new metaphors; I myself believed in those that correspond to close and widely acknowledged likenesses, those our imagination has already accepted: old age and death, dreams and life, the flow of time and water.”

  • For one thing, there is no picture of either the beginning or the end…….. but there is it is where the audience start to view the end is when they have had enough viewing

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    Michelle, the third image in this essay is fantastic. A standout among some other thoughtfully made photographs. Very nice.

  • MIKE R…

    you said “the best photographs come from those who care most about their subjects”…that might be an incorrect assumption…certainly does not apply to two of the greatest photographers of the last century , R. Frank and HCB….seems on human terms logical, but is not always the case…i think Frank has disdain for people…certainly not a man to have a beer with….HCB certainly showed no empathy for people he photographed…they were objects in his frame…period…he held himself way above most of his subjects, except for Picasso , Matisse, Sartre and a few close friends….Gene Richards on the other hand cares deeply and maintains friendships of his not so famous subjects for years….both men are great photographers..caring or not caring about the subject probably has little to do with most art….their humanity is another and apparently unrelated story…..we can come up with numerous examples in all arts to either support or debunk the necessity to “care”…..most of the greats care way more about their legacy than they do for the grist from the mill….i am not saying i like this concept, but it is quite clear to me that it can be true…

    good night….

    cheers, david

  • These images are stunning.
    Michelle, I would like to know which camera you’ve used shooting this essay, medium format I assume?
    Congratulations on your publication here on Burn.

    Best, David

  • Michelle, David, Pete, MW, all:

    typed up a long long comment last night (in the browser) and just before i submitted it, i accidentally closed the window….;(((…so upset, i took a walk outside….

    have a lot to say and promise will re-write my thoughts again this evening….including some quotes from beloved Mccarthy and Roth….and yes, indeed, there is extraordinary IMPLICIT stories/content in many many of these images, not the least of which is the magnificent #3….but, i’ll talk about all that when i repost….

    and i did enjoy reading all the discussions above…

    for now, only this:

    please try try to remember that for many photographers, the act of making pictures and telling stories, of documenting and inventing narrative culled from the waking world is NOT ONLY to describe, depict, show, report….no, not at for….

    for many, the act of photographic narration is an act of rumination….and act of inquiry…and act of questioning….ambivalence, ambiguity, contradiction….

    rumination,…not answering/reporting, but assisting in the formulation of questions…probing and wondering…


    for me, as a photographer and writer, making pictures has always been about rumination and excavation, the questions….more so than reporting

    the questions stay with us much much longer than do the answers….for do we not continue to ask the same questions, these past many millennia, though the answers provided have been plentiful….

    much more later tonight about this idea and the specifics of Michelle’s powerful story


  • MW…

    you make some interesting points..and mostly i see what it is that you are “expecting” in a set of documentary pictures….you are pretty much parroting the mass magazine audience approach…or what editors think a mass audience wants….and no doubt that both you and they are correct in your assumptions from that point of view…but alas, haven’t we been there, done that? over and over and over??

    here on Burn and in my personal life, my efforts are to get us past that…..i know surely that your wishes and approach will be around forever…but i am interested in the outer edges of communication, not the daily accepted norms….there are plenty of folks already working on that one…the best of anything will never be the mass version of it no matter how utilitarian….it is funny how we all see things from such disparate angles…personally, i never care about what is not there in an essay, movie, song, whatever…i only care about what IS there……i could care less about showing us “where we are” or having a “complete story” told…or “missing information”..all of that i can get on Google…or from another photo essayist looking at it with another eye….

    what i care about is the magic…the connection….the feel…the ability of a photographer to grab me by my shirt tail and yank me into their world…only their world..their very small world….i know damn well it is NOT a complete world…at that point i really do not expect or even want to see a “complete package”..

    start trying to “round out” a coverage and then you have an encyclopedia…i.e. for me the guy at the border fence is all i need to see of the destination…stop right there….killer picture…just amazing….says everything…his look, his hair, his shirt, that flat hot light…do not mess with it !! throw in an overall shot of the fence and what it looks like from over here and over there and…well,ho hum…DOA…and end of great essay….

    why do we need to see where these migrants come from? and why do we need to know if we are in the jungles of Guatamala or Chiapas? in ANOTHER essay sure…or for NG sure….but why for this one? this essay is on another level beyond information gathering… and why do so many feel the need to roll all of the education of a migrating Central America into one essay and make one photographer responsible for it??

    stick in pictures of slums in El Salvador to “show” where they come from and this essay is then gone imo…gotta see it? well, we can see that from Donna Decesare who has that fine work but not this fine work…in an epic anthology book or exhibition that showed work from say 10 essayists who have been working in Central America , then you might see what you are imagining…put Donna and Susan M and Sarah together in one large exhibition and then you would have what appeals to me personally and just might appeal to you as well…a step beyond the obvious please please…..then you have an “overall vision” made by say 10 individual visions…so so much better that trying to jam everything into one essay….

    i do agree with you that a major improvement in text and captions would help although i do like her opening literary reference…this is all part of the process…i think Michelle is just beginning to roll..she will fix the rough spots….getting the NUT is the hard part…something few can do…she has done that…the rest is just the icing on the cake….

    cheers, david

  • Yes David, I appreciate and share your points, but it’s a literary point of view I bring to these things much more than newspaper or magazine photography. As you are aware, I am relatively unread when we speak of photo books. In my second coming as a photographer (yea Imants, I too put down the camera) I have only studied you and Salgado and now Davidson in any great depth and it’s the visual equivalent of what I consider great literature that attracts me to the art, both as a producer and connoisseur. I frankly don’t give a flying fuck about documentary photography (well, not exactly true but sometimes alliteration trumps truth, eh Bob); I just want to experience great art, most of which is at least borderline fictional. When I look at this essay, I think of Otras Americas. Unfair, many would say (though not you David, I know), but I wouldn’t have commented on it, at least not in this manner, if I didn’t think it already good with the possibility of being much, much better.

    I could tell it was going to come off like that, which is why I noted my intent wasn’t to come up with a shot list. I’ve already belabored the point, but what I find “missing” isn’t any particular shot, at least none that I can identify, but a sense that the shots imply deeper layers of meaning. And that’s not entirely accurate. I think #s 26 and 17 are fantastic; maybe 15 and 16 as well. But as a whole, I don’t think the essay gives the sense of as much depth as the photographer is capable of portraying.

    Circling back, it’s the literary element in this and especially the fact that it’s a consciously literary approach the the photographer is taking that appeals to me. It’s an epic adventure tale with biblical implications full of tragic heroes mired in a nomadic purgatory. An incredibly ambitious undertaking. My comments are intended to address that ambition, hopefully to aid its achievement, certainly not to tear it down. As far as the shot list I’ve inadvertently suggested, consider it more as helpful brainstorming than any kind of editorial assignment mentality. The photographer’s goal is to portray an epic journey in a non-explicit manner unlike traditional documentary photojournalism. It’s still way too explicit for my tastes, which appear to be not all that different than the photographer’s.

  • I guess it’s just not a good day to type in the browser. A paragraph and a big chunk of text somehow disappeared between my first and second paragraphs above, so sorry for the abrupt transition an discontinuity.

  • DAH

    (This ended up being longer that I had thought and it may wander a bit. Please read it all before jumping in with comments. Hopefully it makes sense by the end. If not…I blame it on the caffeine.)

    “mostly i see what it is that you are “expecting” in a set of documentary pictures….you are pretty much parroting the mass magazine audience approach…or what editors think a mass audience wants…”

    It seems to me that maybe you are trying to redefine what people THINK a mass audience wants. How is that any different? It could be the point is that maybe we don’t know what the mass audience wants. It also may not matter what the mass audience wants if that is not the photographers goal. If a photographer wants to just market to a limited audience of people who “get” the photographer’s vision, then so be it. There is obviously nothing wrong with that.

    BUT, if a mass audience is the goal, I would suggest that someone like you might not the best judge of what the wants of the mass audience are. I say this imply because you are obviously more well-read and knowledgeable on the subjects of photography, art, culture and anthropology. Certainly you are more well traveled than the average person in the mass audience. I would be like a person wanting to learn about a certain subject and then taking a 3rd-year college course to learn it. The professor would be talking way over their heads.

    I am not saying that the general public is not that bright, but as an example, coming just from the U.S., I give you G.W. Bush and Sarah Palin.

    While there is nothing wrong with aiming for a more limited audience, a photographer could be limiting their market as far as income is concerned. Of course it may not matter as much to the photographer if they can charge more for prints to a select audience. But additionally, and more importantly for me, a photographer who’s goal is to educate and enlighten people with their work, would probably be more successful marketing their work to a broader audience that quite probably does not have the same knowledge and experience as someone like yourself.

    I am not suggesting that a photographer “dumb down” their craft, but I am suggesting that while, as you say, newspapers and magazines have a publishing criteria based on what THEY think a MASS AUDIENCE wants, maybe we as photographers need to be careful that we are not imposing on them what WE think it is they want.

    Maybe my argument that the mass audience is not as well-read as someone like a David Alan Harvey is me guessing what they want, so it is also possible that taking my tact would be the same thing that I am arguing against.

    But then how do we know? Where is the line?

    I know that many of the readers here will of course say that we should just shoot for ourselves. Shoot what we feel and see. As you say, give it authorship. I do not disagree in the least. But again, one just has to decide how marketable they want that work to be. Maybe it does not have to be marketable at all. Obviously there is nothing wrong with just shooting for yourself.

    It becomes a bit of a challenge when the photographer has to do both.

    Damn, that was long. TOO MUCH COFFEE. Someone stop me next time!

  • One more thing…

    “what i care about is the magic…the connection….the feel…the ability of a photographer to grab me by my shirt tail and yank me into their world…only their world..their very small world….i know damn well it is NOT a complete world…at that point i really do not expect or even want to see a “complete package”..”

    I think again that for you, and obviously others at your level, that is it harder to “grab your shirt tail.” You have seen so much both in travels and in looking at so much great photography over the years that it is definitely harder to grab YOUR attention.

  • MW

    Your last post above… I agree. Exactly what I was attempting to put forth at the beginning. Better said then when I tried.

  • I thought this was a fine essay, though a little quieter and more subtle, perhaps, than most people might wish to see — more like poetry than narrative doc-style photography. It’s portraiture, not story.

    I think we are used to seeing migrant border-crossing photography either as harrowing adventure (action shots of riding the rails) or religious epic (Salgado’s migrant pictures all seem to reference the Flight from Egypt).

    I like the simplicity here — the informed simplicity, the literary simplicity.

  • Also wanted to say this is one of the best discussion threads ever on Burn, and Michelle, you need to write here more often!

  • MW…

    ok..very well put Michael and i respect this thinking….i am not sure that i completely understand what it is that you want in terms of “deeper layers of meaning”, but i will take you at your word…i think i have told you that literature is absolutely the baseline for all that i do…i.e. D H Lawrence “Plumed Serpent” and of course GG Marquez 100 Yrs. of Solitude formed the basis for my exploration w Div Soul ..along with Carlos Fuentes (who had my prints all over his living and dining room floor) Isabel Allende, Octavio Paz and of course my title came from Jose Camila Cela….so yes, i am a gringo through and through, but with at least a taste of the blood of the original migrations albeit through literature…and just a whole lot of banging around the territory as have you….i think that literature can take us into deeper layers perhaps better than photography at least on the surface….a photograph, or series of photographs, can sensitize you or pique your emotions , but cannot be at all didactic IF you are looking for the same kinds of layers as you would in writing or in film….they are different layers, different kinds of layers…..gut level rather than intellectual…..anyway, interesting discussion…the kind i love the most…thanks for bringing it up…

    cheers, david

  • Correction: should read “Salgado’s migrant pictures all seem to reference the Flight Into Egypt.”

  • Michelle, congratulations on this series.

    I’ve been looking at these images, and reading the comments for the past couple of days. Your comments in particular have resonated deeply with me. The “why” of why we photograph, why I photograph, is something that I struggle with constantly. In particular, I struggle with the whole concept of expectations and intentions. My expectations, and the expectations of the intended audience.

    Your comment to the effect that American PJs seem to be all trying for the same HBC shot of any given situation rings true. I’m not a PJ but, coming from a portrait perspective the same can be said of me and many of my fellow portrait shooters. Wedding albums all look pretty much the same these days. This is not to minimise the skills and sensibilities of the PJ or portrait shooters. In fact I have no problem adjusting my approach to match the expectations of my client, it is an important skill, and a necessary one if one expects to feed your family.

    A related comment you made regarding making prints and putting them away in boxes also resonated. That is exactly what my personal work used to consist of. I made photographs for myself only. I never thought too deeply about why I made them, but I knew I had to do it. I’ve been doing much more personal work these past few years, but, since I started putting them on galleries for public viewing, find myself always second guessing how the viewers will react. I’m working on it.

    What I’m trying to say is that I find great inspiration in your comments, these images, and the work on your site. BTW your wedding stuff is awesome, and NOT like every other shooter out ther.

    Congratulations and thanks for this.
    PS..#3 is amazing. I actually missed that enormous crucifix at first, Jesus just fits in with the rest of the group. I’d love to hear Bobs take on it. Your last image, #26 is very beautiful. The message is almost too obvious, but it is so gentle and sad, and hopeful. It tears my heart out.

    David. Thanks for bringing this, and for your insights.

  • PETE…

    you bring up totally valid points as far as acceptance and income are concerned…and good points about our audience…my missive to “do your own thing” is of course not based on getting paid to do it….i have managed to walk the fine line between art and commerce and it is that fine line that i try to get others to walk as well … you know this and it is just what i try to get photographers to do…even why photographers come to me in the first place…they know that i survive by “doing my own thing” and want to figure out their version of it…i must say that i have never worried much about the audience in terms of trying to figure out what they wanted…at either the Topeka Capital Journal, Richmond Times Dispatch, Natgeo etc..at Magnum we do our own stories and we sell them to who wants to buy them…we do not worry about who does not buy them!!

    here on Burn we have built up an audience of folks who like what we do and those who do not like just it, do not log on…simple…if i had enough budget to give high paying assignments here, i would use the same philosophy and would bet that i could have an audience way outside of the photo ghetto and do it our way…somebody would like it THIS way…we do not need everyone to love us, we just need for some people to love us…OUR WAY…Michelle on the trains, you with an essay on DC, Panos shooting from the floor of a bar somewhere , and Bob doing an introspective..yup we could sell that…easy ..to a mass audience? well to OUR audience ..our audience expanded just a wee bit…

    the problem with print , was that once there was an audience it had to be pandered to because distro was so expensive…trucks, paper, etc etc…here we can ask a whole lot of people to take it or leave it…obviously if nobody liked Burn then we wouldn’t have much, but all we need is a demographic which we do have….17-35 , graduate school education, etc etc….

    listen the other day i had Larry Towell, Paolo Pellegrin, Alex Majoli all in my apartment and all wanting to shoot for Burn….right now, many of the icons want to shoot for Burn…give me just a little seed money, and we would rock this boat bigtime….anyway, i think there is room for all kinds of stories….and i think we can produce them in a new modern way for the iPad without losing any of the integrity that remains the very positive side of the journalistic ethic…in our industry, we do not need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but we do need new bathwater…stay tuned…

    cheers, david


    i hope you are forgiving slight digressions in conversation here….all good and related i hope and all coming out of your essay…all important things to think about…thanks again for providing the stimulus….

    cheers, david


    many many thanks for your words…your perspective is always welcomed since you are coming at it from a different perspective than most…i can imagine you would have an appreciation for the work of Michelle that matches my own…somewhere in your boxes is something special…beyond your commercial work..i can just tell…i do hope to get to Vancouver one day and help you put just that little twist on things that will take your lifetime of portrait photography to another place…gotta run, but assuming you know Disfarmer??

    cheers, david

  • DAH, by all means-digress! This is a great forum. Where else would we have this type of discussion? Our mass culture of photography is compartmentalized into niche vacuums, each with its own stars glowing brightly for its core members to adulate and consequently emulate. There isn’t an avenue for dissent among the ranks. Only applause. Gordon, thanks so much for your comments. My wedding photography pays my bills and has underwritten all of my personal work since coming back from Haiti in 1995, when I learned the hard way that financing personal projects on credit cards was a dumb move. I am bound by the need to live up to my clients’ expectations. I also feel immense gratitude to the people who hire me. I told myself the following story when I made the commitment to set up a wedding photography business: just pretend you are like one of the Impressionist painters, earning your keep through commissioned portraits and painting your vision in your spare time. That’s basically all I needed to simplify my life, my photography, and the meaning, in my mind between work for hire and work for personal statement or legacy. I bring up wedding photography only because the niche influence is so obvious, answering some of the questions of marketability and the commercial influence on art. The dress hanging off the back of the door. The ring. The shoes. The cake. Stock images of couples performing for the camera. Do these images repeated on a weekly basis on blogs all over the world occur coincidentally and independently, or did some business-savvy photog with a motivational speaker’s personality create a workshop from which disciples were spawned? This sensibility does seem to have mass appeal. I’m fortunate that I’m in an area where I don’t have to cast a wide net in order to catch the fish I need to survive. But I wouldn’t be very popular at the local Wedding Photographers Association meeting.

    David R: thank you, and yes-I shoot with a medium format Bronica.

    MW – your comments do sound like brainstorming and since I’m planning another trip in January, it’s given me a lot to think about.

  • I am not a believer in the methods of realism, an artificial genre if ever there was one… Jorge Luis Borges, “The Book of Sand.”

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not leafing through Borges looking for quotes related to this thread, just currently reading “Collected Fictions” and stumbling over them on every other page. Of course it’s hard to imagine writing about anything for which one couldn’t easily find a Borges quote that would seem appropriate. Borges, like Salgado I’ll posit, is one of the great artists of the implicit. Is that true? Yes, no doubt, but now that I’m thinking about it, that might be the defining characteristic of great Latin American art. The explicit is the enemy of the truth.

    i think that literature can take us into deeper layers perhaps better than photography at least on the surface… — DAH

    Yea, but what about beneath the surface? Down there, I’m guessing photography rulz. And that’s where I question my arguments above. Although I’m not so guilty when it comes to trying to fit Michelle’s work into a neat little photojournalism box, I’m not so sure it’s all that much better trying to fit it into any kind of great literature narrative. In literature, an epic journey entails a place of origin and a destination and a series of obstacles in between. If I want to argue with myself, which of course I do, I can see #’s 15 and 16 and maybe 12 as origin stories. They imply Guatemalan villages and Salvadoran slums. But the border fence is an obstacle not a destination, at least not for everybody, not only in reality, but more importantly as a literary convention. And literature would show a series of obstacles being overcome along the way. I see some of that in the essay, but not as much as I suspect is available. I think the essay would benefit by following the literary convention for that type of story better, albeit in unique and unexpected ways. And I agree that it’s wrong of me to publicly speculate how I might approach the subject, but I don’t see any problem with suggesting the subject should be approached, not that it isn’t, but perhaps in a less explicit manner.

    But then I think of Salgado and Otras Americas. It’s been awhile since I studied it, but is there anything even remotely resembling a narrative in that masterpiece? I don’t think so. And nothing whatsoever is explicit. So much more is implied than can ever be comprehended, much less explicated. How does one describe that kind of achievement? I’m at a loss.

    It would be nice for burn to have the ability to divert discussions like this to different rooms, since at some point it is unfair to the photographer whose essay is under discussion for us to go off on these tangents. Although I am unable to adequately verbalize what makes Otras Americas or East 100th Street or Divided Soul the photographic equivalent of great literature, but I’d sure like to read how others here make the attempt.

    Oh well, I’m off work today, trying to take it easy. I think it’s time for me to follow David to the beach and watch the waves roll in for awhile.

  • By the way, everyone should see the movie Good Luck and Goodnight, shows exactly where we are as a society as that now accepts Fox as news and Comedy Central as the voice of Edward R. Murrow.

  • “Although I am unable to adequately verbalize what makes Otras Americas or East 100th Street or Divided Soul the photographic equivalent of great literature, but I’d sure like to read how others here make the attempt.”

    I will try to rise to your challenge here, Michael, since these are three of my favorite photographers and I am greatly interested in photography as literature.

    Sensibility matters. Salgado is a creator of epics, and like Homer he understands that simple human touches (a gesture, a facial expression) are powerful moments. There is a scene in the Iliad (Book 6) when the Trojan hero Hector is preparing to leave his wife and infant son for the battlefield. He dons his plumed helmet and scares the baby – he and his wife start laughing. This is a simple domestic scene, possibly even sentimental, but it humanizes and focuses a story that risks being overwhelmed by its scope.

    Salgado is really good at this. While many of his pictures look as if they had been orchestrated by Cecil B. DeMille, he nonetheless concentrates on simple human interaction. He shows the Brazilian miners in their ant-colony pit, but still manages to find a scene that encapsulates the daily conflict of the place – the worker grabbing the barrel of the guard’s rifle and raising a fist. He also shows a Mexican border crosser lathering his body in soap, taking a quick bath with a can of water. That man’s journey, fraught with peril, still hinges on such simple moments – where will he eat, where will he sleep, how will he bathe?

    Salgado also makes overt references to the Bible, one of the foundations of Western imagery, so his photos already seem familiar. His many pictures of women and infants are obvious references to the Virgin and Child. I noted above that his immigrant families on the move suggest the Flight Into Egypt. I happen to tire of all the birds that descend into his frames, like visitations of the Holy Spirit.

    This is all to say that Salgado knows he is participating in a tradition of Western art and is trying to advance it in photography. The effect is to give his subjects a grandeur and nobility that he believes they deserve.

    DAH, by contrast, has a lyric sensibility. His images are quieter and more intimate than Salgado’s. Their power is in their mystery and sensuality, qualities he explores in the Spanish and Portuguese culture of the Americas. DAH’s photos are not bits of narrative or documentary but are poems – personal and reflective.

    DAH covers ground similar to that of the writers he admires. He just listed them above – Lawrence, Marquez, Fuentes, Paz. We should add Hemingway, of course, for bullfighting, Cuba, drinking, and fishing. DAH’s pictures could be windows into a Hemingway story. So again, as with Salgado, our imagination is already primed to see such images as part of an artistic tradition.

    The sensibility of DAH’s images is similar to those writers, especially in the school of magic realism (which includes Borges). There is sensual mystery to the world and humanity’s place it in, revealed in both Western Christian (Catholic) traditions and ancient, earthy folk religions. This is the Divided Soul. David tries to photograph it.

    Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street encapsulates a dramatic moment in American history. It’s a Civil Rights document, but it also refers back to Walker Evans’ and WPA photographers’ work in the South and West. I don’t think anyone had produced such compelling work from “the ghetto” before Davidson. He gave it its iconic human voice, just as Evans, Lange and others did for those places. The effect was, “This is America; it’s not supposed to look like this.”

    Davidson (like Salgado and DAH) is a humanist, a chronicler of the human condition. This is a task we give to creators of literature.

    But I think the most obvious reason why these three photographers (and the books Michael noted) seem “literary” is that great artists have great subjects. Salgado’s subject is monumental, ageless, timeless – workers and migrants throughout the world. DAH photographs a culture that is derived from centuries of bloodshed but retains a mystery even the Conquistadores could not extinguish. Davidson has focused on seminal moments in 20th century America, an epic story if ever there was one – race relations, the JFK presidency, urban poverty, gangs, circuses, California.

    So, yeah, these are great works of literature.

  • David

    Yes, I do hope we meet up sometime.

    I am familiar with Disfarmer, and have Julia Scullys original book.

    It is interesting that you mention him. Although there is a vast difference between Michelle’s portraits and Disfarmers, the thing they have in common is the direct and un-affected way the subjects present themselves to the camera. We get a glimpse of the humanity of the subjects. We see ourselves.

  • DAH, MW – I’ve spent the past few weeks playing around on Blurb.
    MW, in the book layout, the title page is a point-of-origin photo – both a where from and a why establishing shot. http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/1723262?ce=blurb_ew&utm_source=widget

  • MW…

    i think Michelle is correct…so far this discussion has not really digressed the way some do, so i think there is no need for separate rooms or splinter discussion…it seems the author does not feel unfairly trespassed..quite the contrary, she seems to relish in the chatter pointing out correctly that “where else can one have a discussion like this?”….i am too sleepy to delve into your last comment of merit i must say, but do offer blanket explicit agreement for the moment, and hospitality at the beach…extra bedrooms this time of year…oh yes, i do agree that Borges does indeed have a quote for almost every situation..the beauty of them is that one can invent the situation and they still work..conceptually implicit in his writing…obviously

    cheers, david

  • Michelle, very nice looking book. I look forward to seeing what you do on your next trip. And like someone said above, I too hope you hang out here and contribute to the discussion from time to time. It’s been a pleasure.

    Preston, dude. great analysis. Thanks.

    David, thanks. I just hopped the train down to Coney Island and watched the sunset. Today was pretty much a perfect fall day. The air was crisp but not cold. The sound of the waves relaxing. The wine red. And dry. Keep meaning to take up pier fishing. One of these days…


    very astute my man…many thanks for thinking deep…when you do something you feel is multi layered you always wonder if anyone will notice…it does not matter in a way because you will do it because you MUST…however it is always nice to see that someone has actually taken the time to “read” the work…working on two new ones for you…Family Drive and You Made Me Leave….still a couple of years off i think…why i torture myself like this , i have no idea…..my hero is Martin Parr…he just does it and does it fast….his influence will have me doing one very fast book sooner rather than later..already shot…over 25 years….title: Famous Photographers..no joke..no layers..stay tuned


    how is the fishing Coney Island? fishermen complain here the same way farmers complain everywhere…i can never tell if what they say is true or not…”truth” in fisherman parlance is subjective shall we say..


    15 copies of BURN 01 left in the U.S. for sale…i think 20 or so left in Europe….there will also be an edition of 5 copies signed by all photographers in the magazine…BURN 02, different format, different photographers and special guest designer…..available in the spring…or, whenever we can get it finished..

    cheers, david

  • “Where she ran the cries of the coyotes clapped shut as if a door had closed upon them and all was fear and marvel. He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it…..

    Doomed enterprises divide lives forever into the then and the now. He’d carried the wolf up into the mountains in the bow of the saddle and buried her in a high pass under a cairn of scree. The little wolves in her belly felt the cold draw all about them and they cried out mutely in the dark and he buried them all and piled the rockes over them and led the horse away. He wandered on into the mountains. He whittled a bow from a holly limb, made arrows from cane. He thought to become again the child he never was….”

    -the crossing, cormac mccarthy

    we carry the ache of the world and it and our own wander on the bark of our faces, carry the sound of our lives and lives’ passing like the bow’d snap of wind reaching, just there, over the shirts drying along the limbs of an old Acacia….our lives revealed less so in what it is we do then in the carve and carpice of our faces, our awkward buckling knees, the way we sit among friends, the way we look upon a lens pointed toward us, the way our backs dip over like a kettle pouring water into a cup of tea…..this story, for me, is not the story of people riding trains to cross the cowardly-walled U.S., but is the portrait of people, a portrait of the migration of not only our lives, but our dreams and aspirations and settling….

    When I’d first wanted to write a comment, the one that dried up and evaporated when i’d accidentally closed the Burn window, I wanted to write so much about what seemed to be a terribly wrong mis-reading of this story, of the photographs themselves, that I struggled with what exactly to write, without sounding both pedantic and dictatorial….but then Preston, as he does so often, captured the essence of what I had written and lost and what I shall try to write again…In Preston’s eloquence and sharp insight, he has captured what to me is what lay at the heart of this presentation and the ‘story’ itself….this is portraiture…but personal (of the individuals) and collection (historical, cultural, iconographic, spiritual): it’s all contained in many of these pictures and, dare I say, haunts the Divided Soul of Mexico and C.America….it’s literature and liturgy….

    This is not journalism…it is not an illustration of documenting the plight and flight of these migrant aspirants (though migration and flight is one of its themes, of course), but its refusal to easily and unambiguously document trainriders, it offers us a glimpse into something more essential: the portrait of individual people whose lives are compelled and defined by something much more complex that the easy abacus of stories and ideas that often accompany stories published on people risking lives and limbs to make it to the North….

    A key point, for me, is indeed related to McCarthy and of course The Crossing, my favorite of the Border Trilogy books and along with Suttree and Blood Meridian my favorite of McCarthy’s magisterial books. Though it’s not necessary that readers be familiar with the Border Trilogy, but I wish to call attention to the fact that the ideas that churn and burn those books, the ‘border’ (between USA and Mexico) is not really about the borders and walls the define and divide nations/cultures (though that too) but the border between Life and Death, between eloquence and silence, the border that defines knowing and loss, understanding and confusion, youth and age, man and animal, culture and nature. The Border in those books, and in the pictures of Michelle’s essay, are the same. The border between the nations is the least ‘important’ aspect of this essay, for me, and it is THAT DISTINCTION which makes this not reportage, not journalism, not fit for newspapers and magazines, but for something more ambiguous and ephemeral in it’s reach….

    but a word about Newspapers/Magazines vs. Rumination. Like David, I don’t find the comparison between Michelle’s work and Sarah’s work apt or even relevant. They’re kin projects in ‘content’ at all, but they’re defined (visually and philosophically) by very different apparatus. I too am always surprised when this discussion comes up. ‘Journalism” (here, let us define this by work created specifically for newspapers/magazines/journalistic outlets) operates under very different needs and requirements and I always wince when the ‘journalistic’ applique comes up when dealing with, ostensibly, ‘documentary work. Newspapers use photographs in an entirely different way than what Michelle is doing. As a photographer and writer who has also worked for newspapers (a NYTimes owned newspaper in florida and an independent paper in W.Hollywood), I understand and support the requirements for papers. Newspapers/Magazines use pictures for their (truthful or not) unambiguous simplicity: their illustration of a story. What I like and admire about journalism and newspaper/magazine work is, often, its simplicity (in the best sense), its concision, its ability to give the reader something to digest quickly, easily. Newspapers/Magazine have the goal, a valorous one, to communicate the events of the day, to communicate a clean message: here is what happened. They’re expressions of the ‘appearance’ of events and the readers need, in order to benefit (in the readers’ hope) from that message: clarity. A newspaper/story (written or visual) has as its goal that of ‘informing’ the reader: here is what happened. This, like other forms of communication, is important and it allows many an entrance into seeing something, being made aware of something. But let us NOT confuse exposure with understanding or with depth of awareness. It is not the role of most newspapers/magazines to delve deeply (though it does happen, surely) into the nature and history of an event or people or circumstance. It is about speed and clarity of thought/expression. Make a clear sentence with concrete facts, show the reader what happened, even if you cannot (in it’s limitation) detail why.

    But too often at Burn and endless other places (blogs/communities/seminars/festivals), there is a odd attempt to define ‘documentary’ work by the standard’s of journalism. This is not only unfortunate but nonsensical. Since when do we define books of non-fiction by the architecture of a newspaper. Since when do we define a novel by the standards and practice of journalistic. Imagine defining, for example, McCarthy’s books by the rigors and requirements of a Sonnet. Novels expand, delve, multiply, contradict, confuse, question, repeat. Imagine reading Anna Karenina or Blood Meridian with out thinking of biblical language or the concept of the leitmotif and counter-chords. Senseless. So too with ‘documentary’ work. Just because a photographer’s work looks journalistic (realistic, straightforward, of-a-place, non-conceptual) does not mean it is driven or defined by other ideas of how to use photographs, how to use the moment to delve into metaphor and history. Sarah’s work, to me, looks like classical journalistic work: it meets my expectations in that regard. It’s beautifully photographed and thoughtfully told/organized. But, like nearly all work that is created for that outlet (journalism) it doesn’t subvert what I think it will be/should be. Again, that is part of the role of journalism: it does not subvert it’s legacy or the expectation of the reader but to the contrary gives the reader both what they want/expect and need in order to ‘see’ an event. Michelle’s plays, iconographically, with other ideas (which i’ll try to describe below).

    When I first looked at this essay earlier in the week, I immediately thought of Octavio Paz’s magisterial Piedra de Sol….and of course his essay El Laberinto de la soledad…not journalism but literature….of mexican painting…or the extraordinary icons housed in all those extraordinary Mexican churches baking in the swelter of its White Hot sun….the scarring of landscape ….the drying of lives….Virgins appearing in the desert of flame….lambs hanging from trees….for me, it’s so clear in so many of the pictures…..that i thought, just looking at the photographs, how in the world could someone mistake this for journalism….document, yes…portraiture, absolutely, but not journalism….it’s hunting for a larger catch….a more ambiguous one…

    as i wrote yesterday, it’s about thought and trying to depict the lives of these people within the shades of their faces but also a wider stretch: the spiritual lives which mark their lives, the landscape….it seems really clear that, at least for me, the whiteness that is contained in many of these pictures are the Sun, that powerful god that defines much of the mexican landscape, it’s harshness and thirst…the landscape, to me, is a huge presence in this work, and also very much a part of it’s IMPLICIT story….

    I think those who feel it ‘lacks’ something, seem to me (though i may be wrong) to be expecting a journalistic piece…where the story unfolds in clear/clean ways (their lives around the migration journey, the death, the backstory and the conclusion, etc), which allows the reader an easy narrative…if i saw this piece run in Newsweek or the Post, i would feel the same, in fact, the pictures that deal more with the ‘facts’ of the migration and train riding seem much less successful, in that I prefer the pictures that haunt, those which are rich in aesthetic and nearly religious symbolism/iconography…most of the train ride pictures do not work for me, they seem too obvious, too much about what i already know…I’m thinking of John vink’s magnificent old project where he road the train and photogrpahed the train riders in the western us …those pictures were about the people, Michelle’s pictures (to me) on the train make me think, ‘ok, a photographer is on top of a train, shooting’….but these are minor squabbles, for it is the other visual and emotional story that gets me…that is so intelligent, so articulate, so beautiful in its photographic power….that i’m joined to these people, at least while looking…

    the implicit content: it’s richness is so clear…take a look..

    1) First picture: that extraordinary, heartbreaking portrait….i am drawned by his extraordinary face, and haunted and focused on his right eye (left of the frame), an eye that is mishappen, asymmetric, and appears to be blind…and sine I am also blind in one of my eyes, and have been haunted by this my entire life (both the asymmetry of my own face and it’s unseeing), that I immediately think of him not as a migrant, but as a person whose life i am drawn to, i want to know how has that face, that eye, that blindness defined him and his life, for the truth is that our appearance, more than we ever imagine, often demarks our lives, often renders what happens to us…the events of how our lives are lived and unwind, so often a condition of our bodies, though we so often imagine ourselves autonomous of that, the real agent of our lives and events, we imagine to be us, our desires, when often over the work of time, we recognize something else…i want to know that about this man…and the way he holds himself, slightly awkward, bruised, bent over slightly….an extraordinary and compassionate portrait of a face that seems haunted and still resilient…on of Billy’s horse traders…

    2) the MAGNIFICENT #3….this is my favorite picture of the essay…and god-damned, is it loaded….the visual triangles going everywhere, leading me from the dogs to the sleeping to the crucifix to the tree stump sshorn, the hanging wire, to the extraordinary and startling expression on the bandaged man in the chair….what is he seeing…ecstasy…revelation….transformation….they are pilgrims, are they not…decsiples…it is a profoundly spiritual ‘painting’ photograph…culling up so many great Mexican icons and paintings, but also the paintings of Rennaissance….Tarkovsky’s dog, in reverse, at the end of Nostalgia, the dacha in the cathedral….and his extraordinary face…what is he seeing that we are not priviledged to see, out of frame…ambiguity….mystery….pilgrimage..

    3) the burning bush in 9

    4) the powerful 10, the dog as the lamb beneath the tree of knowledge…

    5) 13….the mexican civil war…Alvarez Bravo…..zappata between the crossing

    6) the extraordinary 16….not only her remarkable hair, but the bow of her body, the easy of the combing, and counter intuitive to a portrait, and that which is stowed beneath her shirt, again a complete mystery….which again forces us to think, to wander, to want to know more about her…

    7) 19…again, the bow of his back, the scar and the hurt and haunt-d gaze, removed from the train’s crucifixion…..El Greco…

    8) all those children’s faces, and the power of their faces and expression culminating in the magisterial portrait of the child/man boy in 23….this is one of the most haunting portraits i’ve seen on Burn, period….like a child pulled from the coal mines of Whales….no fear….the power of his hands and how he holds the dirty pole in his hard-worked, soiled hands and his remarkable face and they he is staring at YOU, at each of us with such august bravery, how is it possible for a child so young to have more character then most of us who laze away the days in ease and drift….i had to show my 16 year old son this picture as a reminder to him, for him….as he, just this past week, he was hospitalized after being assaulted by a gang of 20 teens, 5 staples in the back of his skull, knocked out for 2 minutes, cold….revived…..how to sustain belief in the world in a 16 year old who has been assaulted……so i show him this photograph…

    these are pictures that tell a story of the living…of past lives, of the honest, simple strength of belief that it takes to journey this life, to fly the rails knowing it involves a border crossing itself much greater than the arrogant bigotry that so often defines the US toward these people, the border of living and dying, the border of what accounts for our lives and drives us, defines us, aches us and washes us into exhaustion, and ecstasy of hope that the crossing will count for more, much more than us dollars and jobs….count for something that most of us, ridiculously, take so much for granted…

    what implicit content….it’s there in their faces and in the frame, the lives, the spirituality, the armed, long, of history and flame….

    as Preston pointed out magnificently, this is portraiture of the highest standard….portraits filled with beauty and loss, portraits that beg more questions that answers rendered….ambiguity…uncertainty….unfinished….like our lives, until they go away beneath the inevitable push of land and air and dirt over our forlorn and lived selves….

    and Michelle, why do you have to countenance the notion of ‘tight edit’…is there a tight edit to life….CaseHistory is a book of hundreds of pictures and one of the finest i know and a cherished one….

    then again, i’m longwinded…in prose, in comments…and in my own photographic ruminations…..

    the working through of things…

    that is the edit of our lives….

    thank you for sharing this powerful and beautiful series…


  • ps. Michelle: THE BOOK LOOKS FABULOUS! :)))…..

    AND love love every picture in that edit…and the back cover….the shine of the songline….

  • last comment for a while:

    MW: borges’ work is a clock-calendar by which many of us have navigated the Babel library of life, isn’t it :))))..

    here one of my faves, for u:

    “The original is unfaithful to the translation.”


    NO SEPARATE ROOM….though i dont have the time or energy at the moment (bigger things to grapple) to follow/continue, but i’ve thoroughly loved reading all the comments and arguments….above all, the dream i once told David when Burn went Live: that the photographers who publish would jump in and push the readership, countenance and argue and spill out all the ideas…Michelle’s been a keen and articulate defender of not only her work but unafraid to offer ideas and discussion….wish it were that way always….tried to do that with Bones, will try again when Nova Scotia piece gets sent, but, it’s been a real pleasure to read, from Pete/David initial bowling alley chat (even in total disagreement with Pete’s original posts, i applaud him for starting the discussion) to MW’s borges dream scatters to Preston’s take on 3 photographic scribblers to all the stops in between….

    ok, gotta go now, for real….family to heal….
    Jorge Luis Borges

  • Bob, I appreciate what you do, and I would definitely put you among those I would most like to write my obituary, but for all of the eloquent words you wrote about Michelle’s essay, not a bit of it is the least bit constructive. You seem to imply that this essay is perfect, or at least as good as it can possibly be, which is as good as any photo essay ever produced, and should be hung in the Louvre toot sweet. Is that how you really feel? Is there no possibility whatsoever for growth or improvement?

  • Then again mw whoever you are maybe if you become part of the audience as opposed to being the resident photography critic/historian/theorist the essays may open up a whole new world for you.

  • Ojalá buddy, ojalá.

  • mw:

    well, that’s far the intention….(sorry, broke my last comment for a while rule, though i’m a rule breaker by nature)….hardly a perfect essay…nore my favorite, by any stretch, at Burn…my reaction/comment (which is itself far from perfect, as it was a long bold of emotion this afternoon)….it’s failures, for me….i dont like the train pics at all and thought they were too predictable, as opposed to some of the other portraits and pictures with objects/landscapes/emptiness….and michelle is not reinventing portraiture nor the story, metaphoric and literal, of migrants in search of a ‘better’ and safer life…my comment was meant as a way to work around the imagery and see the story and what it implies, visually and emotionally….

    constructive criticism, a way to ‘improve’…well, the book (as linked) is pretty sweet…i’d ditch all the pictures related to the trains but deal with them through implications…the man bowed over the tracks (who was injured), the 3 men with the dog, the light shining on the rail, etc…and continue with the interior shots too, in contrast to the outside work, which sets up a nice contrast and narrative….

    most of the portraits are ‘classic’ but there is some surprising and inspired details in many and therein lay the strength…and my read on the pictures, narratively, is born on the back of the book that so inspired this work….

    i guess mw, we have too different understandings of what commenting on work suggests…face to face with photographers/friends/students, i prefer talking about what works/doesn’t work, what might aid constructively or not….here in the blogosphere, and particularly to a photographer as aware and as acutely articulate as Michelle, i find the pointing out of failings of little interest to me….let that be your, or others, role…i’m more interested in searching for meaning, more interested in what makes a piece work, individually or as a whole….for as i’ve said before, there is nothing ‘successful’ or ‘perfect’ about any work at all, the imperfection, the failure, the working through is what gets me going, as a photographer/maker of things, and as a writer….a jazz riff MW…

    possibility for improvement?….possibility for transformation and continued growth/change, yea all of our work…

    i offer a contra-reading to your and pete’s initial reaction, that’s it, nothing more….neither, in truth, of any real importance…it is the work that sustains, not the comments

    why i’ll not be commenting for a while….must devote the next 2 months to finish 2 major projects and to help heal – mend real things

    take note of the borges’ quote, it is, ironically, even more appropriate now for you ;)

    and no, i’m writing noone’s obit….who needs that shit


  • MW…

    i wonder what you would think if i had popped in the pictures from Salgado’s “Other Americas” under a different name , and you did not know this work, as you did not 6 months ago, and if you would have decided he needed “improvement”…of course the Salgado work (using your reference) needs “improvement”…everything is flawed…i know i make myself a little crazy sometimes trying to get it right…coming to grips with the fact that i won’t…sure Sebastaeo feels the same…a satisfied artist is not an artist….who gets it right?

    however, in the process for some sort of perfection , some come closer than others…that is all we have to go on either here on Burn or anywhere where we are purveyors of photography or any other art…

    the one last thing i will say about Michelle’s essay is one very simple thing……….and it sums up all my thoughts about it ………….I DO NOT SEE WORK LIKE THIS VERY OFTEN… period…and i see a whole lot of work…yes, it is in the classic genre and yes there are other ways to work on this subject…i hope a million different ways…but for this particular way, she is right on it imo, and with her final push coming…of course of course with dedicating editing and specific picture details to be worked out…but this is detail work stuff and not critique of the BODY of work and of the TALENT displayed herein….two totally different things…

    please know that i live in a world of intense critique….there are few if any “pats on the back” at Magnum…so i do not expect songbirds in the trees when work is shown or a book is opened….but i also live in a world of well educated reference….when i publish an essay here i do know that 95% of it is still a work in progress….some of it will move forward, and yet most of it will not….i am guessing this will move forward…maybe Michael Webster Jr. will see this as his Other Americas :)

    ok, Michelle, if you are reading this, you now have a mandate…ha ha, clever huh??

    now, the nature of what we do , if we are going for the highest levels, is that few works can “make it”…i think everyone knows that…we are NEVER going to do constructive criticism and then magically the work will come up to some “mean level” of acceptance…any “mean level” is not by any definition anything other than a mean level…

    so what we are looking for here on Burn is rare air…we cannot find it most of the time, but seeking it will at least provide an inspiration….and the most important thing to know of course is that the effort itself will be enriching…..

    i had a treasure map i got out of a cereal box when i was a kid….i never found the treasure….but i sure loved the map…..

    cheers, david

  • David, yea, regarding slipping in a Salgado, I often ask myself that kind of question. I also find it healthy to consider what I’d think of a photograph or essay if it were one of mine. That often results in a finer appreciation. Regarding the Salgado test, if it were an essay, you’re probably right that I might think there were possibilities for making it better. I think individual photos, however, can be perfect. What could one possible say about the dead kid with the coins in its eyes? Would it be better with a larger denomination coin? I’ll have to revisit Otras Americas with this discussion in mind. I didn’t think of it as a linear narrative. Should I?

    I’ve never been sure what’s expected for comments on essays. I generally only comment on essays or photographs I think are very good and about which I think I have something constructive to contribute. Don’t always live up to that intention, but that’s the goal. In this case I think I’ve done pretty well by those standards. I like Michelle’s work and think I added some constructive comments.

    Others seem to think that the comments are a place where they should provide either a thumbs up or thumbs down. A subset of that group seems to think it should be a thumbs up or nothing. I’m pretty sure that from your perspective, David, there are no rules and each comment thread is appropriate or not on its own terms.

    And sometimes we get involved in these incestuous little spats to the detriment of the person whose essay is on display. In this case Bob wrote a lengthy rebuttal to my approach to which I made a not-quite-so-innocent reply that goaded him into telling us what he really thinks, which turned out to be a much harsher criticism than the one I offered. I feel kinda bad about that.

    I like to think that to a large extent we offer the kind of criticism we’d like to get. That explains me on good behavior and everyone who is joyously positive, but I’m not so sure it represents the “I don’t like it, just because” crowd. And there’s quite a bit of selfishness involved as well, at least in my case. Writing makes us explain ourselves and justify our beliefs. I’ve learned a lot about photography here on burn and I’d wager at least as much knowledge and understanding has come from writing about photgraphy as looking at it.

    So what’s the right way to comment on an essay?

  • MW “Writing makes us explain ourselves and justify our beliefs. I’ve learned a lot about photography here on burn and I’d wager at least as much knowledge and understanding has come from writing about photgraphy as looking at it.”


  • “I don’t find the comparison between Michelle’s work and Sarah’s work apt or even relevant.”

    OK, maybe I needed to be a bit more clear as to what I was trying to do when I brought up Sarah Voisin’s essay. It was not my intention to directly compare them. My intention was to illustrate by example some of what I thought was lacking in the story element. Of course, now since it has been made clear that it is not necessarily a “story” in the strictest sense, that my points probably do not apply well.

    I do have another thought though and Bob’s long post above made me want to question something…

    Why do people feel the need to look at a photograph or essay and then dissect it into things it reminds them of? And Bob, I am not picking on you, just using some of your post as an example.

    ” paintings of Rennaissance….Tarkovsky’s dog”
    “Octavio Paz’s magisterial Piedra de Sol….and of course his essay El Laberinto de la soledad”
    “the burning bush in 9″
    ” the powerful 10, the dog as the lamb beneath the tree of knowledge…”
    “13….the mexican civil war…Alvarez Bravo…..zappata between the crossing”

    Now don’t get me wrong, I know that photos are inevitability going to trigger memories and feelings, but if we dwell on that aspect of it so much, do we not take something away from what the photographer has created?

    As far as the photographer goes, if they are using the same references in their creation of their work, is this not in some way imposing another meaning over the one at hand. I am only asking this question in regards to either journalistic or documentary work specifically.

    If Michelle is using a book like The Crossing to influence her work, is there a danger that her feelings about the book and its meaning to her begin to turn the photography into more of an illustration of that book than HER interpretation of the story in front of her?

    Interested in hearing views on this…

  • MW:

    “to which I made a not-quite-so-innocent reply that goaded him into telling us what he really thinks, which turned out to be a much harsher criticism than the one I offered…”

    let me just iterate that i loved this essay, that i found in powerful, intelligent, emotional and filled with great depth, visually and emotionally. i think the portraits are not only magnificent but very very astute, but more importantly, the conceptual framework is worked with an important depth, including the notion of Border beyond national/geographic, as i wrote in my long comment. the ONLY criticism that I have is that i found the train pictures too obvious with regard to the story. In other words, if this were journalism, i would stay stay/get back on the top of the train. I don’t need a lot of train pictures and for me, most of them, are the ‘weaker’ of her pics…and i say that in quotations simply because her aesthetic and sensibilities are so strong as to make it comical to write ‘weaker pictures’ at all.

    why i was pissed about, is that, again, your jovial notion of suggesting that if someone takes the time and effort to actually write about anothers work, at at length, why in the hell would this be considered ‘not constructive’….i never once said what you or pete had written was ‘not constructive’, i simply offered a different perspective and a different way of looking at the old boondoggle of journalism vs. documentary work, initiated by Pete. to the contrary, i enjoyed reading this discussion, even though i get frustrated by the iron-masks that the photo world still clamps down on it’s practitioners…stupid, narrow, myopic, but there it is, and so i write against that AND i make work to go against that…

    and yes, it is important for photographers to look to look to look and to write to write to write to talk to talk to talk about work, for themselves, it is an exercise and a building of one’s own ideas….

    you asked david, how to comment on an essay. i would say, from my perspective and i’m not David, all a reviewer can do is to offer honestly and openly what it is that moves them or not about work. they’ll always be others who differ. our eyes and sensibilities are open by this, by the connection and combat of our ideas/thoughts with others….we grow….

    i don’t at all care about others perceptions of me as being the ‘man in the white hat, all the time’ as Joe was said….if i am not moved by work, i rarely comment, as why should i, as there will be others who will say their peace…i will, always, however write and support work that moves me or work that i like….i love photogrpahy, that is why i am a photogrpaher….i love books that’s why i am a writer….to be anyone else would be an act of cynicism….and i am many things, but i am not cynical…

    again, for the record, as if it weren’t obvious at first, i love this work, i find it intelligent, humane, loving and photographically-speaking, rich and aware….what more could one ask from a photographic project?…

    from me, nothing more needed….but time for it to develop as Michelle wishes…

    and lastly, there were many people here who had no idea when Ballen was published who he was or his work…and he got creamed by many…..for me, and example of the lunacy of when people think they’re being clever/constructive by talking about the failing/negative aspects of work, they’re being helpful….maybe the failures are not about the work at all….but the opening of all our sensibilities….

  • DAH, “i wonder what you would think if i had popped in the pictures from Salgado’s “Other Americas” under a different name ” …. yes, do it! With the permission of essay authors and the “known” photographers, slip in a photograph every so often – you have many colleagues in the industry who would be willing to include a photograph. It would be most interesting to see if anyone notices.

  • I’m thinking just a little lighthearted fun here – nothing heavy.

  • Michelle, a book I’ll buy once you’re finished!

  • I don’t have anything to add here one way or the other, I just wanted to be post #100. As I’ve mentioned, I am easily entertained.

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