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EPF 2010 Finalist

Justin Maxon

When the Spirit Moves

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


Related links

Justin Maxon

Razon Collective


69 thoughts on “justin maxon – when the spirit moves”

  1. Burn Magazine likes to thread the thin line between photojournalistic ‘content’ and aesthetic ‘art’. This essay sums up both, in my opinion, and I love it.

  2. Haven’t read statement, bio or captions yet, just plain and simply enjoyed the pictures. Makes me want to go and rip apart my own stuff.. and go out and work harder.. Thank you!

  3. Fine piece of work. Amazing photography. The multi exposure pictures hurt my eyes a little and I’m not sure that you gain anything from them. The work on your web site is pretty amazing as well.

  4. As we all look at this essay parts of the city of Chester are under an indefinite state of emergency with a curfew and large police presence. It’s pretty much as bad as it gets. Great work, Justin. You were able to humanize the lead story on the evening news. I thank you.

  5. Congratulations on being a finalist here Justin; I really like this essay. Reading the intro I was afraid that the layering of images would distill any message that you had to tell but it works – in no small measure due to the tight captions that give information on the image as a whole and the different scenes in each layer. It could have become just your imagination but it doesn’t and still retains its photo-journal integrity. Very well done.

    Best Mike.

    In the previous essay’s comments DAH writes that

    “the old fashioned and by now need a breath of fresh air a, b, c, photojournalism is on its way out out out and that the evolution of even “straight” documentary photography will be of a more subjective authored nature….the basic integrity of journalism, at least as it is supposed to be, is a good thing…but the freedom of artistic flight takes us into new worlds…and most exciting i think will be the upcoming artists who also choose to take on issues and blend their personalities and visions with an honest documentation…”.

    If anyone doubted what he said was possible well, here’s the answer. Traditional, straight, photojournalism and documentary photography can sometimes seem like a straightjacket due to it’s history and the many iconic photographs that it has produced. It can sometimes feel that you photography is not worthy unless it’s b&w, film, Leica, fibre based print etc. etc. – you know what I mean. I really do enjoy pj work that leaves room for the photographer and photography so I LIKE THIS WORK. Thank you Justin and thank you Burn!

  6. As for the city of Chester and other cities like it in the U.S.A., it beggars belief that one of the richest nations on planet earth can let so many of its citizens live in such hell-holes.

    Here in the U.K. we have a budget deficit of billions of pounds while we spend billions of pounds killing, for the most part, Afghan farmers. Perhaps if both our respective governments brought our troops home we could rid our own countries of some social deprivation, decrease the number of foreign people who want to kill us and strengthen our borders to prevent those who still do from being successful. My two cents.


  7. Photojournalism, art, reportage and poetry all blended together into one exceptionally powerful package. I find it excellent. You have given me much to think about.

    The history of art and literature is to always push beyond the boundaries of what is considered to be acceptable. For very good reasons, today it is considered unacceptable to manipulate a documentary or photojournalistic photograph beyond the equivalent of burning, dodging, and cropping.

    Yet, this is photojournalism, it is documentary and what you have created through your manipulation is not only effective but honest.

    Perhaps it is honest because the manipulation is obvious. At any rate, I think it has worked beautifully. Had I been a a judge, my feeling right now is I would have probably argued for this piece and you as the winner.

    I can’t say for certain, but that is what I think.

    Now, Justin, don’t you wish that I had been a judge?

    The difference in effect between first place and runner-up is immense.

  8. This is excellent, without a single doubt.

    It has left me a bit numb to be honest. As Frostfrog mentions above, with this statement and this subject it would be very understandable if someone objected to it’s very personal style. Multiple exposures and different frames (square, wide-screen etc.)are not seen every day on stories like this. Yet, I liked each one of them. The fact that not all of the photos are multi-exposed works really well and does allow an interesting trick to become the whole point of the essay too.

    What I mostly get from this essay is a deep feeling of “being there”, of getting to know a place and a community that I’d never known otherwise and this contact is full and complex. The issues explored are very complex themselves and I can imagine easily a more naive approach. There are a couple of photos that I’m not sure they add anything and seem trivial (eg. the overview and church images) and at sometimes I felt a bit uneasy with some of the juxtapositions but I think that is me and my personal prejudices. The same goes for the exact wording of the statement and captions.

    But all in all I’m hugely impressed. This is a brand new and honest personal approach on an issue that demanded just that, very impressive work indeed. Many congratulations Justin, the rest of your work in your website is awesome as well.


  9. excellent excellent work.The very few that I found lacking were only so because of the power of those next to them. A very high bar indeed. In feel it reminds me strongly of a book a young whippersnapper photographer made many years ago….what was it called now? ….oh yeah, ‘tell it like it is’ by some guy called david alan harvey, wonder what became of him?


  10. “A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled.”–James A. Baldwin

    “The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”-Baldwin


    no time to write, really….just want to say, as i know you know, that this is without a doubt a signature song and a blessing….as i wrote u almost 2 years ago, i’ve waited for your work to be shown at burn and when i saw this beauty unleashed at the EPF announcements, all i could do was dance with the fever in the bones…..

    as a photographer who also uses holga and overexposure and lomos and old 35mm and pushes the shit out of film, i can only say that i’ve always felt a gorgeous kindship with your stories and here there is no difference….if Bones of Time was about 1 small boy and 1 large boy, then When the Spirit Moves is about the entire community of what dances in the bodies and hearts of an entire place, children knocking out the light and shadow against the souls of those who love and care and hunger to be better for them….been meaning to meet when i go to philly (annually to see my mom), but all that is dross….this story, and your practice, embodies what i still love best about documentary work that is shaken by the stirring of a violently beautiful heart and a ferocious eye….that you have song their song in the way you know best is what is told first by a good long gospel choir service….

    sing it as if you aint gonna sing nothing anymore…

    and brother, their voice is inside your photographs….nothing i can say that means more…

    big hugs

  11. i meant you are singing their song and that is singing in us….like whet chickory fields along the train tracks of Chester…..

    beautiful, meditative, ferocious work!


  12. Original. Evocative. Respectful. Artistic. Real.

    What we see here is what happens when a documentary photographer allows himself to transcend the medium. Justin doesn’t just show us what his eyes have seen; he shows us what his heart recognized in a people, a community, a city. Truly deserving of being EPF finalist.

    I look forward to following your journey, Justin. We’re going to say we remember you when…


  13. when the spirit moves….
    you click….
    great story telling
    image making……
    lots of layers,
    love the texture
    in your work….

  14. Visual material is a bit above average, for the most part irrelevant to the written caption but it’s OK… the caption itself obviously is way over-dramatised to make picture-story look more serious and relevant… In general, using photography to tell stories, this medium has a lot of limits… and if you don’t make kind of NG style illustrations, your “art” will be just for those who don’t want to tell you the truth or those that do similar things:), or those who at that particular time must to tell you- “that’s great!!!” :))… A new trend in photography – too much concentration on creating stories, and too little on taking strong pictures…

  15. Frostfrog, “The history of art and literature is to always push beyond the boundaries of what is considered to be acceptable. For very good reasons, today it is considered unacceptable to manipulate a documentary or photojournalistic photograph beyond the equivalent of burning, dodging, and cropping.”.

    Two very good and seemingly conflicting points. I wonder what the World Press Photo judges would make of this?

    My hope is that, because it is so well documented as to what the work is and how it is captioned there would be no problem. I wonder?

    Best, Mike.

  16. Hmm, does multiple exposure incamera (be it analogue or digital, if that’s possible?) equate with manipulate?

    Anthony R.Z., can you please elaborate what you mean with:
    “and if you don’t make kind of NG style illustrations, your “art” will be just for those who don’t want to tell you the truth or those that do similar things:), or those who at that particular time must to tell you- “that’s great!!!””

  17. Beautiful…. inspiring… one of the best together with Emily Schiffer and Matt. If they’re in the category “too PJ” I’m out out out but I don’t care, I follow my .. spirit.
    I would prefer it without 9 and 12 but only because these two are hidden by the force of the other (someone else has already told that..)

  18. jenny lynn walker

    Respect is the word that comes to mind. Respect for the author of this amazing piece of work and respect for the people of Chester for their resilience. This is one of THE most inspirational pieces of work I’ve seen in a very long time and in my mind, ranks alongside one other – Chaskielberg’s ‘The High Tide’ (which was chosen as the 2009 EPF grant winner). It struck me like an arrow to the heart, had me fighting to come up for air – so deeply honest, respectful and sincere and at the same time, offers us a whole new way to ‘see’. It is quite simply ‘off the bar chart’.

    I have been wondering how, or if, it would be possible to convey that in the same location and at the same time, there are people who are living and dying, people who are laughing and crying, and that in our hearts we are ‘one in the same’. I have an answer to that question right here in this essay although I know that the thinking in the multiple exposures is a little different here. How can we ever forget that young man on the street pointing his finger as a gun? He is only one, but: ‘a haunting symbol’ of an entire generation.

    This work has taken my breath away. Clapping very loudly here! And thanking you – Justin Maxon – for your inspiration. And so wonderful to see it on Burn!!!

  19. jenny lynn walker

    PS I forgot to say so many things… but what I see so clearly within this essay and that very special title is: a power that lives not only in all of us but, our planet’s rivers, forests and mountains…

  20. Great to see this project on Burn, Maxon. Your multiple exposure technique is an aesthetic breath of fresh air in the field of social documentary. Keep it up.

  21. My dearest Eva… internet comments on strangers’ work, for me isn’t the place for elaborations… I say what I want to say, and how I want it to say… sometimes I like to use just implications, sometimes very direct statements… but when I comment on somebody’s work, first of all I always think twice if I am honest with myself… Eva, if you don’t understand my comment it means you don’t even need to understand it, and that’s absolutely fine… believe me… for each their own… Regards

  22. “Eva, if you don’t understand my comment it means you don’t even need to understand it”

    Too easy and too elitist, Anthony R.Z.

  23. Frostfrog,

    The word “too” is too relative, and too subjective… but that’s true – I like to live easy way, and just recently I tend not to waste my time for pointless explanations to people who have different point of view… life makes us to be elitists:))… as well as life makes us whoever we are… Regards

  24. Anthony, if you feel too bothered to further explain, then just say so, or just don’t bother to respond – but please don’t hold yourself up as a superior person and put her down as one who has no need to understand, just because she questioned you.

    If she did not feel a need to understand then she would not have asked the question. She expressed a desire to understand your point of view and you pointlessly wasted your time to answer like a snob.

  25. Frostfrog,

    Emphasizing the difference isn’t the expression of superiority… there are things that I don’t understand either, and I don’t even need to understand them, at least right away… one feels need to understand, the other doesn’t feel need to elaborate… it isn’t a problem, and I am almost sure it isn’t a problem for Eva either… You sound just like a miserable and angry man, and you interpret everything in your own wrong and dirty way… not all people have bad intentions as you might think… now I am really wasting my time:))…

  26. Gritty and arty, yet tells a story. I’m not sure what makes Chester different than Philly, but I suspect that may not be the point.

  27. Justin..

    Complex. Disturbing. Illuminating.

    Its obvious you’ve developed an eye for timing. A jumbled harmony.

    looking forward to see more of your photography Justin.

  28. i love (double, triple, quadruple exposure to the word love) this essay. I love the way Justin used his camera as a creative tool, dancing to its tune dancing to his tune..man and machine dancing the human vision out of Jason’s skull and straight into life. Nigh’ close to perfect. The layering suggests the way we REALLY see..not the way Nikon thinks we see. We see a lot of things at once, straight ahead, at the periphery, slices up and down and all around, bits of this and that. Not to mention our third eye and also, perhaps in neighborhoods like this even with the eyes in the back of our heads. It IS a rich presentation with a high caloric content of gritty subject matter. Not for every essay. And not for every day. But for me, for this day, well, Jason, you done good. Real good.

    Except for two nitpicks..#19 is redundant (see #4)..and, does anybody proofread these essays before publishing? One example out of several glaring abuses of the English language: “Ms. Stewart was struck by a stray bullet while laying in bed talking to her finance”(?) If all i did in bed was talk intimately to my finance i might prefer a stray bullet to the head as well. C’mon Jason, with all these awards, you’re not a naive amateur anymore. Don’t skimp on decent grammar.


  29. Anthony R.Z: ” You sound just like a miserable and angry man, and you interpret everything in your own wrong and dirty way”

    Now you’re just being silly – but the important thing is, Justin Maxon produced one-hell of a strong piece of work, so I will now try to return the focus fully to that.

  30. jenny lynn walker

    Anthony R. Z:

    Happy to say that I totally disagree with your assessment of this essay. But, I agree with you that is a beautiful thing that we disagree. I also don’t see the desperate need that some have to understand and come to ‘agreement’ on here. Let us be happy in our different ways of seeing and happy in our different ways of expressing – but point out when it could lead to perpetuating behaviour that exploits others around the world.

  31. jenny lynn walker

    “This project is an attempt to bring awareness to the issues that plague many inner city Black communities, like Chester, THROUGHOUT America” and “an attempt to show the resilience and strength that is present in these communities.”

    And that is exactly what it does! Thank you. It needs to be seen in Washington where the minds are still more concerned with their own racketeering in the Middle East.

  32. BTW, I’ve met Frostfrog and spent some time observing him, and I’ll tell you, he’s about the last person on this planet I’d suspect of being a miserable, angry man who interprets everything in his own wrong and dirty way. And anyone who looks at his photos and reads his blog can plainly see the ridiculousness and injustice of those baseless accusations as well.

  33. When I ask a question it usually is to learn something. I thought after an answer I’d know something more about the essay above, instead I’ve learnt something about Anthony R.Z., Bill, and myself too, so thank you for your answer, Anthony R.Z.

    Bill :)

    And yes, back to the essay. Still pondering if reading the statment and the captions or not..

  34. Thank you, mw.

    Eva :) and thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you come back often.

    jenny lynn walker: I have reread everything that follows Anthony’s statement and I can’t find a single example of anyone having expressed this desperate need to come to agreement that you speak of. I do see desire to understand, but not a desperate one and I think the desire to understand a viewpoint other than one’s own is basically a good thing. I do agree with your assessment of this essay.

  35. I want to thank everyone who took the time to share their opinions on my project. I haven’t shown this work around much so it’s a wondrous pleasure to have it on Burn.

    Honestly, as I read through the responses, I got emotional. The rocky road that is my life often diverts me from the reasons why I do this work and hearing people’s reactions to it really helps me gain the needed perspective to keep pushing forward. That means a great deal to me, so I am true in my sincerity in sharing my appreciation. Thank you for this!!

    The heart I have for this community, In my opinion, doesn’t nearly come across as I would like it too in my images. I know that I have a tremendous amount of work ahead of me to represent the community in the manner I wish. This is a start, one that has very much enriched my life in the process. Chester, as much as it has its share of deprivation, is full of spirited empowered people standing up to those winds of oppression that blow every so swiftly As I continue to develop this work, I want to push myself to focus more on documenting the lives of those who fight to keep their community alive and strong.

    Bob: I love that James Baldwin quote you wrote down. These words will stick with me for a long time. The poetry of your own words is always a delight and an inspiration.

  36. Thanks for taking the time to reply Justin, I really enjoyed your essay and wish you well with its continuation.

    I hope that you are able at some point to have an exhibition of the work, preferably at a venue where the people who make decisions that effect the people of Chester meet. I’m sure your exhibition would help concentrate minds and bring some good to your subjects.

    Writing this reminds me of Bruce Davidson’s work, East 100th street. The residents were able to use some of the photographs from the essay to back up their claim for better housing. Something to think about.

    Best wishes,


  37. jenny lynn walker


    I feel bad because I wrote a note to Frostfrog and had not seen your comment above. My sincerest apologies for that. Please, please continue to push on with this work – not only for yourself and the people of Chester, but to share with the world and us! I am almost in tears myself.

    Wishing you whatever help you may need to take this forward.

    Good luck!



  38. Excellent work, Justin, with some powerful visuals.

    If you check back in, could you touch on the multiple exposure concept ?
    Were these done in camera at the time of capture or it it a technique involving digital
    assembly to better clarify a situation for the viewer ?

    In more cases than not, I find that the composited frames almost contain too much information
    and wouldn’t see why in the case of frame #4, for example, where three separate frames might
    not better tell the story.

    Not a critique,btw, just curious as to the motivation especially for documentary or PJ work
    where ordinarily even removing a dust spot could land one in a shitstorm.

  39. @Anthony R.Z. I never met Frostfrog but if your opinion of him based on what he wrote is anything to go by, then your opinion is nothing to go by. In other words you just totally made a tit of yourself.

    By the way I think this work is really interesting. Thank for sharing Burn.

  40. Mike: I agree, my intention for this work is to eventually benefit the people of Chester.
    As I develop it into a fuller body of work, I will most definitely share it with people who can make a difference in this community.

    Jenny: No worries, my response was in the neverland of waiting for it to be approved. Thank you for your warm wishes :)

    The multiple exposures are all done on film in camera at the time of capture. My reasoning for choosing to experiment was simply that I had been working on the project for months and months and never felt like my images reflected the complexities I felt were so tightly woven into the lives of people in Chester. Growing up and living in this community, there is a tremendous amount of weight that people must endure to survive. So much so, I wanted my images to reflect that weight, and carry a weight of their own, so the people viewing them could get a small sense of what I felt working there.

    In addition, I feel that moments in time are so complex that a single image at times doesn’t do them justice. We as photographers capture moments, but those moments are often only one dimensional versions of that reality. I mean, if I take a image of a women looking sad and people see this image, they think that this women is in a state of despair, which reflects on the overall perception of the community. But what if, 10 min before that one moment of sadness, this women was playing with her children and had a huge smile on her face. We may choose to take the image of her sadness, because it may speak to the mood we are wanting to create in our project, but in all fairness that image doesn’t truly represent this woman’s life. I wanted to create images that had layers of understanding in them, where one could see more of the true complexity of life. I hope this answers your question.

  41. Nice to read your comments, Justin.

    Again, I think you did something incredible here. You took big chances and forged into new territory and it worked.

    Jenny – hugs are always nice. Thank you.

  42. Yes. Thanks for that, Justin.
    Interesting, in concept, and in execution.

    That you could visualize the placement of three separate components, in camera,
    as in frame #4 is stellar.

    You must be a whiz with a Rubik’s cube !


  43. Justin

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


  44. hey justin,

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

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

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

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

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


  45. Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    Dear Justin,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  47. Jamie Maxtone-Graham

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

    Why is it being made? Who is it for?

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

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

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

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

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

  49. Jamie Maxtone-Graham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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