Photographer Eugene Richards has been creating powerful, challenging images of some of the most overlooked people in America and beyond since 1968. His approach to storytelling also involves getting to know his subjects deeply. While his striking images provide a poignant look at racism, poverty, addiction, violence, cancer, family, aging, and wounded veterans, incorporating their stories into his many books of images broadens the picture.
In collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Eastman Museum, through October 22, is presenting the first retrospective of Richards' important work in photography, and screenings of his short moving-picture films. A series of events surrounding the exhibit are also planned; for more information, visit eastman.org.
Richards was born in 1944 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. After tearing up his draft card and sending it back, he joined Volunteers in Service to America, a government program that aimed to assuage extreme poverty, in 1968 and embarked on his social reportage photography.
While based in eastern Arkansas, Richards co-founded a community newspaper, Many Voices, which reported on black political action and the Ku Klux Klan. Since then Richards has published 17 books of photography and created seven short films that provide intimate looks at a range of challenging themes.
His images bring us into the room with addicts shooting up; into the emergency room while medical staff rush to save the lives of victims of violence; through the streets of Manhattan in the days after September 11; and along the journey of his first wife's battle with breast cancer.
CITY spoke with Richards in advance of his exhibition opening. An edited version of the conversation follows.
CITY: How would you describe your objectives as an artist and social documentarian?
Eugene Richards: Going back, initially you don't have one. It sounds strange, I guess, but life sort of happens to you. My direction came when I was in college and having to confront the Vietnam War, trying to understand the nature of conflict and what our role is in it. Our responsibility. And I think out of that came questioning, and that's carried on since then. Ultimately I think the objective, in one way or another, is keep the focus on issues of human responsibility and on people who don't get much attention.
In the beginning, how did you gain the trust of your subjects?
My initial photography was of people who lived down in the Arkansas Delta, kind of a segregated place — not legally, but in fact. It was the year after Dr. King was killed. We were just trying to provide legal services and food. But when the camera time came it was very tenuous, and the people were very shy. You had to be careful you didn't exploit your position, because people would treat you in a particular way in a divided society. But I had the same habits as now: just meeting people quietly and asking people about their lives, not so much talking about your own unless people asked you directly. You'd take your time and then slowly someone invited you in.
In many of your images, particularly those from "Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue," you're shockingly immersed in high-tension scenes. Did you have trouble gaining such access to these scenarios? I'm thinking especially of the image in the back of the police car, crime scenes, and sex scenes as well as the emergency room images from the "The Knife and Gun Club" project.
It's not a lot of fun, some of these situations. First off, you have to remind yourself that you're doing a job, so that sort of forces you forward a little bit. In the drug world, it forced you forward, because you want people to keep talking about the damage done by drugs. I wanted to see what it really meant, and what these things — you mentioned the sex worker, what does that mean?
I think if you look at movies — I always think of "Pretty Woman" — there is an eroticism naturally in sex, because sex is fascinating for all of us. But in the real world of a lot of sex workers, they're driven into this by all kinds of things, including being made addicted, being forced or bullied or brought into it by poverty, and it's a long way from being glamorous — 12-year-olds who are selling themselves for a couple of dollars. The drive is to show a little bit of what that was really like.
There's always, always people who don't want you around. You have to find some sort of sympathetic way in, and then decide what your job is. It's very seldom a pleasant process, you just grit your teeth and go.
It's hard to fathom divorcing emotion from these situations, but you present your subjects empathetically yet without telling viewers how they're supposed to feel about it. How do you navigate what you're feeling when you work on particularly dark topics?
The camera is a sort of protection when you're photographing. If I had an objective, as you asked before, I think it's to give a person a feeling of being there. But the pictures, compared to reality, they're really quite modest. Particularly pictures of people who are dealing with poverty, they're usually much milder of course than the situation itself. You can't photograph the feelings that people have when they're hungry. It's a delicate balance, I don't think I've conquered it, I don't think anybody does. What you're seeing and what you're feeling, and then how to translate it to somebody else — it's a tough thing to do.
In a sense, your work serves to affirm the existences of people living a hard-scrabble life that aren't our picture of America in the media. But how did you develop a faith in an audience for heavier subject matter among people who don't have these experiences?
How do you get people to look at it? Not very successfully. I think there is a very small space for the kind of things we're talking about, in the media or in people's attention span. And I think that's because if you look at work like this or you read books, you find yourself not knowing what to do.
More people live on the other side of the line than on the side that we're part of. When you travel, even in this country, you see that there are more people having a tough time of it. I become very aware of that when I come home, because I live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, but you never lose the fact that the bulk of people out there have a different kind of life. That's the conflict. And you can't preach that, especially now with so much media — people get irritated. But aside from getting irritated, they're forgetting that it's true, that incredible numbers of people have quite difficult lives.
It's a very hard time to try to express your feelings without putting massive guilt on other people. And that's not the intention. The intention is to share lives. The audience is going to be very small. It's tenuous, but the alternative is worse, I feel. And today more and more creative people and particularly writers are being deemed dangerous, so it's an increasing battle to keep speaking up.
Can you speak about a specific instance when your preconceptions of a situation were altered drastically after immersing in the project?
None of us like to think that we're biased, but we are. And these things affect photography — you have to be really careful. I've made many, many mistakes. Or I've been afraid of people who turned out to be just the opposite when I approach them. We did a little film recently that involved a man I met on the street in Oklahoma — just a rough looking guy full of tattoos — he looked frightening, and he was one of the former directors of the Ku Klux Klan, but now very sick with lung disease. I assumed right away he wouldn't speak to me, and it turned out he wanted to. He wanted to talk about the end of his life and the mistakes that he's made.
One of the worst ones — one that I got told off for — I met this woman sitting in a corner and people told me she was very slow, and so I put a caption in the book. I met her years later and she was waiting to tell me that I implied she was mentally disabled, and she wasn't at all. She was just going through serious depression over something.
It doesn't happen that often, but the potential is always there. It's why I try to speak with people, to get a little underneath the surface, so you don't make those kinds of mistakes.
I read your blog in response to Donald Trump's comments about soldiers who aren't "strong enough," where you reference the wounded vets you've met through your "War is Personal" project. Is there a specific thing you'd want people to know about a certain population or situation that many people just have wrong?
I think the secret is to get away from simplicity. When the vet issue comes up, people want them to be necessarily brave, straightforward, to be patriotic, and they don't understand that people who go into military service can have the same experiences, but their responses are very different.
One vet was a medic who had to deal with a lot of death, a lot of loss of civilian life, and he's got terrible PTSD. Conversely, another vet has terrible facial scarring, and is conventionally patriotic, and he doesn't have the nightmares. Nothing is simple.
People aren't simply poor — they're poor for a whole range of reasons. Girls selling themselves on the streets are there for a whole range of reasons. You're on drugs for a whole range of reasons.
Has there been a particular response from your viewership that heartened you regarding your work?
The only thing that's ever heartened me is the people in the pictures — that they're okay about them and all the text. It doesn't get any better than that, when people feel that you get it right. People can come after you, say you're too graphic, too down, but the biggest excitement for me is when the subjects say the material is right.