virgil dibiase – one man

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Virgil DiBiase

One Man

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“You should not learn your lines, you should not hit your mark, and you should never follow your light. Find your light — that’s my opinion.” — Joaquin Phoenix (actor)

“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.” — Henry Chinaski (barfly)


We’ve seen these men. We’ve seen them as we pass through dilapidated downtowns, probably within a few blocks of the bus station where transients congregate; hard lean men, cigarettes hanging from their lips, maybe a half pint in their back pocket. We’ve seen them under a bridge or pushing a shopping cart filled with meagre possessions through the trash-strewn vacant lots that pollute the urban landscape. The sight of these men makes us feel discomforted, nervous, maybe a little scared. If we have a camera, we are probably tempted to use it on them, if we think we can get away with it.

What do we find so attractive about these men that we want to capture their image? Photographers are overwhelmingly middle class, probably upper-middle class, if not trust-funded children of great wealth; as are most gallery owners, museum curators, publishers, editors and audience for high-end photography. Yet somehow we are hopelessly attracted to images of these gritty “others,” especially when they are framed by staggering poverty. The result is far too many photos that say, in essence, “Look ma, poor people!” Or black people, foreign people, disabled people, mentally disturbed people, and so on. The rough is more pleasing than the smooth. The face with the stubble more attractive than the clean-shaven. Dark skin more pleasing than the light. The unruly hair more interesting than the well-coifed. We want images of people with some kind, any kind, of problem or difference that sets them apart from, if not below, our comfortable middle class existence.

We tell ourselves and anyone else who will listen that we photograph these men to draw attention to their plight, to help them though the publicity the photos provide. Suffice it to say, I’m skeptical, both about the purity of the motive and the likelihood that any help will be forthcoming. Some no doubt see these kinds of images as a career opportunity, a chance for self-aggrandizement. For most, taking these kinds of photos will end up, at best, as a learning experience. Of course there’s rarely a single motive for our actions. But whatever the differing motives for photographing these men; whatever the differing opinions about how they have become what they have become; whatever any of us may think should be done about it; just about all of us share one thing in common: These men should not be as they are. We think something is wrong.

At this late stage in photo history, it’s nearly impossible to make photographs of men like these, or have any kind of photographic vision about them that has not been done before. To shoot the subjects that everyone wants to shoot, the ones that have been done the most, it becomes ever more difficult to produce original work. See what I mean. And it’s not just that the photos we are likely to make of these men are clichés. Much more often than not, the photographers who take them become clichés. Go out and take a picture of a sleeping bum and tell me you don’t feel at least a little embarrassed.

Given all that, when I saw the first photo in Virgil DiBiase’s series “1 Man,” my first thought was “oh no, more pictures of bums.”

But as the slideshow progressed, I couldn’t help noticing the eyes of these men.

Against expectations, the photos did not seem to show men who had lost everything. They were not about men who had become what they had become. They were about men being who they Are. They showed men who had found something. Men who had found freedom. You could see it in their eyes.

And I realized those eyes said something about the photographer as well. These men were not objects of pity. They were objects of esteem. They had found freedom. The photographer was seeking it. Again, you could see it in their eyes.

Their freedom is much more than simple freedom from dull jobs, asshole bosses and office politics; of soul deadening social obligations and the bills that everyone else finds stuffed in their mailboxes every day. These men seem free of regrets, guilt or any kind of embarrassment about their situation, unlike most the rest of us who are, at best, free only to the extent we can choose our own prison. These men, rather than choose prison, choose the open sky. That their faces mirror the trashed out dwellings of the urban landscape through which they roam tells us the price of that freedom was steep. Their eyes tell us it was worth it.

I know Virgil would like me to end this right there. “1 Man” is  about the photographs, not about the photographer. But since I’ve opined at such length about other photographers’ motives, I feel I should tell you something about his.

He didn’t set out to make a photo project of homeless men or drifters, much less to photograph any nebulous abstraction such as freedom in the eyes of “others.” He sought a friend of his who had become mentally ill and disappeared. He made many trips looking for that friend and over many years got to know the seedy downtowns, vacant lots, bridges and underpasses throughout the urban American landscape. Sometimes he found his friend, sometimes he didn’t. Along the way he met a lot of similar people, saw something special in them, and photographed what he saw. That’s the story behind the story. Those are the facts.

Those facts are interesting, but only as a footnote or sidebar. I think they partially explain the success of the work. Only by having no interest in photographing street people, of actually being hostile to the general idea, could he so successfully photograph street people. But that is not central to the story, or even necessary. It’s the realities and fictions we see in these men’s faces and in their eyes that are the tale. That, and how we see, or fail to see, something about ourselves in them. Facts have nothing to do with it.

— Michael Webster


“How many hypocrites are there in America? How many trembling lambs, fearful of discovery? What authority have we set up over ourselves that we are not as we Are?” — Allen Ginsberg (poet)

“What goes through my heart and soul as I meet these guys is my longing for the freedom they seem to have. On the surface we all are so quick to judge. Wouldn’t it be nice to be the rich guy with a house and car. Or how sad to be homeless with no shoes. Neither is true. So we are all on this personal journey to find freedom. Truth is, all we need to do is choose freedom. Anywhere. Anytime.” — Virgil DiBiase (photographer)



Virgil DiBiase is a photographer living in northwest Indiana.


Related links

Virgil DiBiase

Virgil DiBiase was a student in the Miami 2012 workshop. Some of these photographs were taken during the workshop.


98 Responses to “virgil dibiase – one man”

  • “If one can photograph as Virgil did, then one can photograph just about anything.”

    You know, I hear this old saw a lot, but it doesn’t make sense on its face (bad pun intended). All you need to do to get a photographer to move in close is to give them permission. It has worked time and again in workshops I’ve done with even new amateurs. It’s almost too easy to get a strong photo if you move in close. I’m not arguing that most photographer’s photos would be stronger if they are closer, only that getting in close doesn’t translate into good photography in general.

    Getting in close and the resulting much stronger photo is often the easier route. Backing up and shooting complex, multilayered photos as Alex Webb does, for example, is hard.

  • Jim, very interesting point. That’s why I like Winogrand’s comment so much; sometimes getting in close is too easy. What’s really fascinating is that I had this same conversation with Maestro during Look3. I was just a little less than impressed with Webb’s signature multiple layers because his distant approach eventually becomes predictable. Bruce defended Webb qute passionately…but was silenced (uncharacteristically!) when I pointed out Maestro’s examples of close-in, multi-layered, multi-leveled, and multi-planed work contained even greater complexity through compression. Pulling back to get multiple planes is easier to accomplish relative to the close-in shot, the multi-plane structure being equal. Consider Carravagio’s “Deposition of Christ” versus Picasso’s “Guernica” as a visualization of what I’m getting at.

  • Sure, it’s easier to make soulless imitations of Bruce Gilden or Gary Winograd than it is to make soulless imitations of Alex Webb or Cartier-Bresson, but in the end you’re still left with just soulless imitations. Motive and vision are what separate the great photographers, not technique. Wanting to look like someone else or simply using a technique for technique’s sake are not motives that are likely to result in great work. Seeing something that others don’t see, or don’t know they see, and capturing it is what makes great work possible. If the motives are right and the vision is keen then technique can definitely help and the result will not be soulless. imo

  • A shtik is a shtik. I think using the phrase “one trick pony” might be a little too harsh, since I really do enjoy Webb’s work, but as I look through his images –or the images of any photographer who is known for a very specific look (or focal length)– like Jeff said… it becomes predictable. I think the best photographers are the ones who tell a thorough story clearly. This whole thing about good images asking questions is very short-sighted.

    I don’t like these images because they don’t tell me ANYTHING about the individuals that I couldn’t figure out from simply walking past them. You can interpret their eyes any way you want; the photographer did not take the time to investigate the true story behind the eyes and share it with us.

    Yes he is “emerging”. But aren’t most of us? There are so many talented “emerging” photographers out there who go beyond simply aiming their camera at a face and then snapping away. Plus the corny post processing.

    I’m not going to view an essay and then meditate on the motivations of the Burn editors to include it; trying to find some way to appreciate it through their eyes. Overall I respect their judgement. But I think this post was of poor quality.

    I’m tired of the same old photographer names being dropped. It’s not about being close, or complex, or whatever. What’s important is quality of depth, no matter the approach. This just seemed like narcism.

    If you can, take a look at the work of another “emerging” photographer. Jennifer Kacczmarek has been documenting the life of a disabled child named Alyssa. But the pictures are not about her, as it was in Virgil’s case. It’s about Alyssa. To try and do more, Jennifer also started a non-profit to help assist Alyssa and other children with similar disabilities. Quality of depth, not just depth.

    Of course there are other “emerging” photographers out there as well who also try to do right by their subjects and dig deeper into the story, not just into themselves. We all know those people are out there, which is why I feel a little pissed off that a series like this is even on anyone’s radar.

  • There is nothing wrong with taking non-contextual, non-environmental photographs of people. They are called portraits. For an emerging photographer Virgil is off to an excellent start.

    “My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph.”
    —Richard Avedon

  • And of course if that doesn’t work out, there is always Haiti.

  • Tom – Excellent sarcasm! But none the less, yes, that is true. There is always Haiti.

  • I would love to read the responses of any women following this thread. Such a boys club!

  • ….not sure if any of the guys photographed would make the cover of ….. but with different photo shopping process direction they may just make it.

  • The animosity for the this essay feels more and more like an unwarranted screed that has little to do with the merits of the work itself and more to do with something else, we can’t be sure what–thing is I don’t really care.

  • ahhhh …… aaa the same pp school

  • Some times pimped photos of homeless guys are just pimped photos of homeless guys. It’s just that we really don’t need any more photos of homeless guys.

    If you want to shoot ’em, keep ’em to yourself.

  • Sometimes these days I think we photographers are doing nothing more than staring in our own tragic production of “Waiting for Godot.” It’s the last of the second act.

  • I think the critiscm in general on this essay is going way over the top…

  • While I realize DAH can only choose among those essays that are submitted, I think people expect to see the very best photography here. I know I do. There are plenty of “emerging” photographers photos all over the web. Millions of them. If Burn is just a place to see more “average” photos, then what’s the point?

  • Jim,

    Please feel free to submit links to work/photographers that you expect to see on Burn.


  • Eva, it’s not my blog. Nobody would visit a blog with photos curated by Jim Powers.

    Look, it’s David’s blog and he can post anything he wants here. I just don’t think he really has the time to take care of Burn, but just doesn’t want to let it go. Just my opinion. That and $1.29 will get you a cup of coffee at McDonalds.

  • Jim,

    It’s not about having a blog curated by Jim Powers (or anybody else), but for looking at work that might slip by otherwise. Submitting a link does not mean that the work will be featured, but that we will at least look at it.. Tom Hyde for example sent us a link to an essay by Kenneth O Halloran, which gave us the possibility to look through his body of work and publish an essay (which wasn’t the one suggested by Tom, btw.).. makes sense?

  • Jim…

    Give the kid a break!

  • This link is thanks to Jeff Hladum…
    Brilliant advice..

  • Paul, hahaha!

    Credit where credit is due: I stumbled upon this after viewing M.Avina’s photosite. The image below will explain:

    All part of the BURN dialectic, I guess…

  • Jeff…

    Thanks for linking to M. Avina’s site, never seen his work. Great stuff and I’ve bookmarked it for later on after going out shooting a little.
    BTW just in case if you hadn’t see it…

  • JIM

    for sure there are emerging photographers all over the web….and? …well we cannot publish all of them, and for sure we will miss some of the best of them…and we will also get a hold of some of the best as well….yet Jim when i am with a large group of young photographers as i have been the last few days at the NatGeo annual seminar, and i hear so many comments from THEM about how they look to Burn to at least be a place where they can see what others are doing…

    no essay is published here with intent of saying to Burn readers “this is the best essay ever published”…we do not say that…you are forgetting that 90% of the readers here may not know all that you know….and need a place to land and to see how different photographers are doing different things…hopefully this leads them back ..back into the history of photography where many these days are totally deficient…

    the “difficulty” of going in close or stepping back, especially with regard to composition, is kind of a silly discussion imo…anything done really well is “difficult”…these kinds of discussions are generally had by armchair bloggers who do not shoot themselves…..Alex Webb’s brilliant compositions made by stepping back eliminate any emotional context with the subject and yet can be appreciated simply for their complexity…Avedon in American West surely was in close physically and emotionally with his very “simple” b&w portraits…i would view both photographers with admiration any time….

    if i am doing my own work, i have less time for Burn comments than i would otherwise…i spend an incredible amount of time working on Burn, just do not have time to hang out here in comments much…..and for sure there is an ebb and flow of my attention here…yet working on Burn and responding to comments on Burn is two totally different things imo..

    i think you will see soonest some essays that i have gone out and found that are not out there on the web anywhere else…you are also about to see our archive nicely displayed with thumbnails to all essays, many thanks to Eva and Haik…and the new rules for applying to the EPF will make that grant even stronger…

    it is sort of strange that you have always had a very negative view of Burn from the beginning even as we have garnered honors on every front…the view of Burn by the “outside” world is definitely different than is yours…at the same time i have always welcomed your “devils advocate” role..yet you overdo it a bit imo….when one never compliments , but only has a negative view, the view becomes well “oh it’s Jim again”….you would have more cred here i think if you at least occasionally recognized the good things that have happened to us…

    i will let Burn go the minute i do not think we can make improvements or have a place to grow….it is not my nature to hang on to something that is not working at all…Burn is for sure a hard thing to maintain because it is a train that never stops…so it is not like finishing a book or whatever where you can finally lay it down on the table…so Burn will be better on some days than it is on others…the very nature of publishing a periodical…

    by the way McDonalds has a pretty good cup of coffee these days..i mean way better than when i worked there….coffee in America was always pretty embarrassing….that watered down colored water so prevalent 15 yrs ago or so is at least improving because of the gourmet outlets…

    cheers, david

  • David, I’ve complemented both essays here and burn in general. If anything, my expectations for Burn have probably been unrealistically high.

    I don’t put much stock in awards and recognition, but I’m sure Burned has earned those it has garnered.

    The photographic pasture has become choked with weeds. Just hoping somebody will cut a little trail to walk through.

  • David: Not sure your Alex Webb comment was your own or that of a fictional armchair blogger (apologies) but I would like to say (or reiterate) that even from the distance he shoots I never get the feeling he is not emotionally connected with the people in his frame. That strong consistency is what initially drew me to his work.

  • David, I’m afraid you lost me at ” McDonalds has a pretty good…” Unless you were going to follow “good” with bathroom you can use for free in an emergency, I can’t imagine what could possibly be good about Macdonald’s. I haven’t eaten there since 1978 and have never taken my kids there either. To them, hopefully, it will always be yucky donald’s, though I understand how that kind of thing can backfire.

    Anyhoo, regarding Virgil’s essay, I pretty much said what I had to say, and at great length at that, and I don’t want to repeat myself, but I will add that the guy who wrote the intro did over-emphasize the drifter nature of the overall work. Although that’s what originally caught my eye and that’s what I mostly addressed, it should be acknowledged that not all of the subjects are bums/homeless/mentally ill/drifter types. There’s much more to the story than that. I didn’t mean to limit it as such. Of course we should also keep in mind that the intro is not any kind of official explanation of the work, nor any kind of burn sanctioned blessing, but simply one person’s idiosyncratic take with the intention of spurring further thought not defining it.


    as y’all know, i’ve been a tireless promoter of Young photographers and for the last 4 years have again and again been a kind of scout for BURN…much to my joy, many of the young photographers I’ve alerted BURN too have shown up here :))..(jukka, maki, aaron, ian, etc)….so, again, i will do you guys (and ummmm, Jim Powers, a favor)…

    check your email. I’ve just send you guys a link to a young Chinese photographer (woman) whose work is fucking extraordinary…..she just moved to London from Beijing….

    her work, will appease the old man from texas with the jaded eyes and heart, as well as cynics like Robert L, etc….

    big hugs

  • Well, Bob, my wife says that like Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance novels, I have hourglass eyes.

  • “Jim…

    Give the kid a break!”

    Paul he is not a kid he is a Leica touting neurologist and photography is not a fleeting activity.

  • JIM

    thanks for your reply….i never entered any contests or awards in my entire career (others have always done it and i did not even know) and don’t put much stock in awards per se either EXCEPT for the often nice effect it has for the team effort…that’s all…any awards i received personally over the years were in boxes in the closet or attic….

    however, for Burn i feel a bit different….again, for the collaboration we have had…and for some of the rather extraordinary honors we have had that in fact i do not even mention here and perhaps you do not even know about….at the same time, for sure i always want to improve this magazine…and you will see one super improvement coming very shortly…a really visible archive….in any case, Burn is a collaboration and not a dah only effort…

    i am sure we will never quite live up to your expectations, nor ours either…still i must say that all of us who do put time in here are doing it with as much nobility as i think you can find people doing….we do this because we care…we are not doing this as an income producing “job”…

    in any case, a pleasure to have you here Jim…and again, as always, agreeing or not, i support your right to say whatever the hell you want….

    cheers, david

  • That archive should make all the difference especially as a reference and seeing how holistic burn is

  • Hey Imants, if you knew me you would know full well I’m just a kid.

  • Nah more goat than kid

  • Imants, yep, a Leica touting goat:)

  • Virgil
    Some of your images are getting too hard, yes I know it is a style but with the people you are photographing softness is also needed. I feel there is too much emphasis in the highly structured harsh mid tones that you are producing at the cost of some nice blacks and subtle white tones. Your PP work seems to undo what those great Leica lenses can produce.

  • Hey Virgil,

    Are you really a Leica-touting dude, or merely a Leica-toting one?

    Your inquiring photographic blog public demands to know!

  • MW

    sometimes i do find myself at McDonalds…when driving …and they do have a new gourmet coffee menu that is not like the old stuff…still far from perfect, yet not so horrible either….

  • I look forward to the archive module, but wish to state how much I’m missing the “Dialogue” at the bottom of the homepage. As this particular page shows (McDonalds coffee?), while it is possible to make some associations with Virgil’s essay, these typical and beneficial digressions tend to take the spotlight away from, and the respect deserving, the essay published.



    oh i am sure you will never find any magazine where you go and find everything perfect to your own personal taste every time…fact is, we publish essays here for many different reasons…and as you can read, what you dislike ,others like…and for sure i cannot be the editor of this magazine and try to figure out what everyone will like because that is impossible and not my goal anyway……however, you may not want to stay away too long…if you know me at all, you will know something totally different is coming…i tend to publish two or three of a certain genre at once, and then move in another direction…as you will soon see if you are still here….

    cheers, david

  • JEFF

    the intent of Road Trips was to replace how we did Dialogue posts on the “front page”…but yes i guess that extra click somehow makes this not happen…let me think about that one….OR i just need to do the old Dialogue style posts over on Road Trips…let me try that first…if that does not work maybe we come back to the way we did it before….mostly the comments on this thread have dealt with the essay at hand and i think has been a pretty good discussion overall…

  • Thank you all for your comments and insights. Good, bad and ugly I appreciate them all. The honest criticism is refreshing.
    Carlo, Niel Young was my first musical hero. And that video I’ve never seen. Thanks.
    Bob B, love love love the frank ocean piece. Thanks.
    Paul, great clip, even greater advice.
    Imants, I’ve thanked you already via email.
    David, thank you for having me here.

  • “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
    Martha Graham

  • Leica toting goats and work that is fucking extraordinary without knowing that extraordinary has the clap. You know, sometimes this place reads like a Bunuel movie.

  • Virgil – you will go far in this business with your attitude about the criticism. Best of luck.

    My hat’s off to my former colleague, Dave Harvey, for being so civil in his running of the comments section. You, sir, are a fine teacher and a true professional.

    “We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is there. We have been conditioned to expect…. but, as photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs.” – Aaron Siskind


    perhaps “emotional involvement” is the wrong term….i am a huge fan of Alex Webb, and of HCB, and of many photographers who make compelling people photographs but who i do not think “meet” the people they photograph…however, this does not mean they are not emotionally involved of course….

  • David: Of course I’ll still be here. I wouldn’t have had such strong feelings if I didn’t give a damn. If I give a damn, it will take a lot more than that to loose me.

  • We were talking about the habit of being critical—discussing a person we both knew who was caustically critical (and often entertainingly insulting) about everything. She said she didn’t quite approve of that attitude, because it was so safe.

    I was surprised by that word, and asked her what she meant, and she said—more or less—that hating or criticizing everything was safe because it meant you don’t have to take a stand. Liking something means you are opening yourself up; if nothing is good enough for you it’s another way of saying you’re superior to everything. Very smug, very snug. Being insulting and critical is actually a position of retreat.

    -Mike Johnston, Cheap Criticism

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