Tag Archives: Documentary

Santa 24/7: Portrait of a Year-Round Father Christmas

For most of us, he’s that cheerful, rotund guy who drops by for a quick visit on the same night every December. For others, though, he’s a year-round presence. Or so Touko Hujanen found out in the summer of 2011, while working as a photojournalist for a Finnish newspaper. On assignment in Helsinki and looking for quirky stories, he came across a fully-costumed professional Santa named Timo Pakkanen sitting in a park, waiting patiently for tourist cruise ships to dock.

“It’s 140 days to Christmas!” Pakkanen exclaimed as Hujanen approached. Hujanen photographed the red-coated, bearded Pakkanen for his newspaper. The two hit it off pretty quickly, and so began a seven-month documentary relationship between Santa and photographer.

Hujanen hitched a ride as Pakkanen toured Japan, a country where he is popular, and also hung out with him in Finland. The resulting work he calls, simply, Joulupukki — Finnish for “Santa Claus.”

The portraits that came out of the collaboration are as playful as they are unexpected. After all, we’re not used to seeing Santa powdering his eyebrows, taking a dip or enjoying a cigar. This is Christmas at its most elemental, without the tinsel.

That said, Pakkanen is no novelty act: 68 years old, he has been playing the part since 1961 and has an office in downtown Helsinki. What started as a small gig for local Finnish families eventually saw him become the de facto national Father Christmas — a significant honor in a country that, by some accounts, is St Nick’s home.

“My job for me is bigger than life,” Pakkanen told TIME, speaking on the phone from Japan. “It’s much, much more than work.”

Touko Hujanen

Touko Hujanen

Pakkanen in the Saitama prefecture of Japan. In 2011 he met with children evacuated from Fukushima.

In some ways it was an obvious career, he adds. His mother, Kaija Pakkanen, was a prolific children’s author who told him stories as a child; his sister, Outi, is a writer, as well.

“I lived all my childhood in a fairytale world, and that is very good grounds to be a Santa,” he says, laughing.

Pakkanen often works 12-hour days during the holiday season, and for many years has spent Christmas Eve in a Tokyo hotel room, tired but fulfilled after weeks of hearing Christmas lists and visiting kindergartens. He likes to celebrate with a can of Yebisu beer and a cup of warm sake.

The best thing about his job? It allows him to not only see joy on people’s faces, but to experience it himself. He may seem old, but he claims he feels like a kid.

“First we are children, then we get older, and we return to our childhood,” he says. “That’s the circle of life.”

Touko Hujanen is a co-founder of Finland-based collective Yksitoista. Joulupukki is part of the Suomi/Finland exhibition and runs until Feb., 1o, 2013 in Tampere and May, 5, 2013 in Helsinki

Santa and Timo Pakkanen can be found year-round at santaclausforever.com

Julia Dean: Forty Years Behind the Camera

A dozen years ago, photographer Julia Dean changed my life by asking me to teach at her photography school, The Julia Dean Photo Workshops in Los Angeles. Over the past thirteen years, Julia has taught hundreds of classes, thousands of students, and exposed the Los Angeles community to photographic luminaries and educators such as Keith Carter, Duane Michals, Mary Ellen Mark and many others too numerous to count.  Her school has created a photographic community in Los Angeles, a place to share portolios over a glass of wine, a place to hear lectures, experience wonderful exhibitions, and take a broad array of classes (160 offered each year). Julia’s desire to open our eyes, to see one world, and to bring attention to those who have no voice has been remarkable.  Her generous and enthusiastic spirit is infectious and I feel so lucky to be her friend.  So today I celebrate a woman who has spent a lifetime engaged, enthused, and involved in photography.

Julia has spent the last year revisiting negatives and spending month upon month in the darkroom creating beautiful silver prints in preparation for a 40 year retrospective of her work that opens at the Julia Dean Gallery in Los Angeles tomorrow night, December 15th.  I am featuring work from her General Stores project today — she recently rediscovered the negatives and printed the images for the first time for the exhibition.  Julia is also offering photographs from the exhibition for sale online at a special anniversary price on her site.

Forty Years Behind the Camera: A Retrospective

When I worked as an apprentice to Berenice Abbott’s in 1978, I was 23 years old. Berenice was 80. 

She taught me how to print, among many other photographic skills. She taught me about life in Paris in the 20s, about working with Man Ray, about meeting and photographing people like Eugene Atget, James Joyce, and Jean Cocteau. She even taught me how to do the Charleston. 

I remember using an 8×10 camera with 8×10 film and an 8×10 enlarger. The film had to be processed in complete darkness, one sheet at a time, in 8×10 trays that you lined up just right so you knew what to do in the dark. 

images from General Stores

I learned how to bend light with my hands under an enlarger, how to add light, how to subtract light, how to make a print look just like our eyes saw the subject when the picture was taken. I learned that photography renders 10 tones compared to the hundreds of tones that our eyes can differentiate. I learned that it can take hours to get one good print.

I also learned how to flatten the prints, how to retouch the dust spots, and the patience it takes to produce one beautiful black & white fiber base print.

 I was asked recently what the difference is between the traditional role of film and the digital era. It is very simple. It is much easier to be a photographer today than it was in the past. (Photographers before me would say the same thing!) Though today’s cameras are much heavier than my Leica M6 and have more buttons, once you learn your tools, digital photography makes life quicker and easier.

I don’t look down on those who didn’t learn the hard way. I wouldn’t have minded an easier path myself. But I am grateful for knowing what I know about photography that digital shooters will never know: the craft of the black & white print. 

To me, there is no more beautiful craft in photography than the black & white print from a black & white negative. I learned from a master and for that I am eternally grateful. Printing is a dying art that I hope I never give up, even if I, too, have embraced digital. This retrospective exhibit is in honor of the beautiful black & white print.

Under Mugabe: Robin Hammond Records the Suffering of Zimbabwe

In December 2011 Robin Hammond, then a neighbor of mine in Cape Town, arrived in Zimbabwe for what he’d planned as his longest trip yet to a country, and a story, he knew well – several months documenting that country’s decline. There are worse places in Africa and there are plenty of uplifting stories to be had in Zimbabwe. But in the context of the stunning progress Zimbabwe achieved in its first decade of independence, its collapse over the next two is nonetheless remarkable – and the main reason Robin has covered the country so extensively since 2007. “There are very few countries that have fallen as far as fast as Zimbabwe,” says Robin. “These are educated people with high expectations who are now living in really extreme poverty.”

For months, living on a grant from the Carmignac Foundation, Robin worked his way across the country, getting to know Zimbabweans, living with them, sharing their lives. He discovered a hidden urban poverty that most journalists, myself included, have missed. “Robert Mugabe’s only been screwing it up for 20 years, so there are still some half-decent roads and buildings,” says Robin. “But you get into some of these places and they’re vertical city slums: no power, no water, no jobs. And the atmosphere. I’ve been to Congo and Somalia and all those kinds of places but I don’t think I’ve seen people as scared as the people in Zimbabwe.”

As Robin discovered, there was good reason to fear. In March, as he photographed a farm in the east of the country that had been seized by the regime, he was arrested and held overnight. A few weeks later in mid-April, he was arrested a second time as he tried to take pictures of Zimbabwean refugees crossing the Limpopo River into South Africa. In 2007 I did five days in a Zimbabwean prison in the same part of the country. Robin was held for four weeks. Most of his time was spent in a five-meter-by-10-meter cell with 37 other inmates. The prisoners had a concrete floor to sleep on, blankets infested with lice as their only covering, one toilet between 250 and, for food, slop infested with weevils. Many of his fellow prisoners had been inside for years. Eventually, Robin was deported. “They did a pretty good job of making me feel afraid,” he says.

After arriving in London, then relocating to Paris, Robin began assembling his work. What emerges in these stunning, fearful pictures, now being published in a book and shown at an exhibition which opens this week at Chapelle de l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, is an arrestingly original portrait of a country whose nightmare is far from over. Robin’s pictures lay bare in unprecedented fashion the depth of Zimbabwe’s destruction and how, for millions, there is no recovery, nor even much hope of one.

Yet, with a fresh election expected next year, hope persists. Robin says Zimbabwe has taught him a cruel lesson about that: how hope might keep you going, but how it can also be dangerous. Robin learned that for himself in prison. “When you’re told you’re going to be let out that day, then you have to go back to your cell, that can be really depressing,” he says. “You have to set your mind to the idea that you could be there for months.” For Zimbabweans, hope has proved even more perilous, says Robin. A curiosity of Mugabe’s 32-year rule has been how, even as he plundered his country, ruined it, and killed and beat his challengers, he has never extinguished his people’s belief in change. The Zimbabwean President holds elections, shares power with the opposition and negotiates a theoretical transition with Zimbabwe’s neighbors. None of these initiatives have come to anything. But to those who ponder Mugabe’s survival – about why Zimbabweans haven’t staged a second revolution – Mugabe’s repression provides one answer and his careful nurturing of hope the other. Even now, says Robin, “Zimbabweans are eternally optimistic. They always think the next election will be the one to change their lives.” It is a testament to Robin’s art and courage that the way those expectations have been so mercilessly – and so deeply and comprehensively – disappointed has rarely been better captured.

Alex Perry is TIME’s Africa bureau chief.

Robin Hammond is a photojournalist based in South Africa.

National Geographic Magazine will be publishing a story next year that will feature the work from this project. The series will also be on display from Nov. 9 through Dec. 9 at Chapelle de l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris, with an opening reception on Nov. 8.

Michael Mergen: Vote!

Virginia photographer, Michael Mergen, has one of the best series I’ve seen about where and how we vote.  His project, VOTE, shines a stunning light on how “mom and pop” our voting system is and reflects the head-scratching realization that it is truly a miracle that we get anyone elected.  These images speak to the potential of error, but they also speak to the fact that much of America is built on a mom and pop reality, where the corner store is still the heart of the community.

Michael earned a BFA in photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology and an MFA in photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. He began his career as a photojournalist, working for national newspapers and newswire services in Boston and then his hometown of Philadelphia. His current work focuses on ideas and notions of America and its institutions.  He has exhibited nationally and internationally and his work is held in several public and private collections. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Art and Photography at Longwood University in Farmville, VA.

 Photographed on Election Day from 2008-2010, Vote documents the spaces where the ideals of our political system meet the mundane realities of participatory democracy. These polling places in unusual, privately owned locations, pointedly do not live up to the majesty of American democracy, yet still speak to a kind of vernacular Americana. The work suggests a collision of public and private.

When a voter is confronted with the decision to vote or shop, vote or eat, vote or skate, which role is expected of us, the role of citizen, or the role of consumer? What happens when confronted with both simultaneously? What does voting in a private home say about the encroachment of government into private life? Or does locating polling machines in places such as supermarkets and shopping malls make voting more convenient and spur a higher turnout? 

The series also points to the temporal quality of Election Day – the days’ brevity contrasting with the perceived permanence of the space it briefly inhabits. In all works, I emphasize the apparent incongruity between the primary function of the space and the temporal use of the space as a polling place. The voting machines act as stand-ins, set up and waiting for voters to activate them. As if transported from another world, the machines remind us of the often haphazard way in which elections are conducted.

Through extensive research at the state, county, and local level, I indentified the locations I intended to photograph. Using Google maps, I created a map of each state or county to determine an itinerary for the particular Election Day, making edits based on proximity of each location, keeping in mind the relatively short day and sometimes hundreds of miles between polling places.

Eric Breitenbach

Today, and leading up to and after November 6th, LENSCRATCH will be featuring work that looks at our election process. 

We start today with work by Eric Breitenbach, who has created a series, Election 2012.

Eric  has been a still photographer for over thirty years and a filmmaker for more than fifteen.

His still photographs have appeared in such publications as The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Details, Doubletake, Information Week, Labor’s Heritage, Essence, and Orlando magazines. He has exhibited widely. In 2012 he had solo exhibitions of his photography at The Third Eye Gallery in Varanasi, India, and at Florida School of The Arts in Palatka, Florida. Eric Breitenbach is also a Senior Professor at The Southeast Center For Photographic Studies at Daytona State College, teaching courses in photography, film, and video.

 For as long as I’ve been a photographer I’ve been compelled to make pictures of people. My goal is to discover something universal about a person—something viewers can recognize and even identify with. The trick is to then depict that successfully in a photograph. In early 2011, as events surrounding the 2012 presidential election began to unfold, like many Americans I was astonished at the heat of the political rhetoric. It seemed as if angry extremists were running the show.

Dismayed but still curious, I began to attend and photograph campaign rallies, political conventions, memorial services, group meetings, demonstrations, festivals, and other politically relevant events. There were thousands at the largest of these, sometimes less than a dozen at the smallest.

My goal wasn’t to document or explain anything; that, I think, is best left to the journalists. 

I set out with my usual strategy in mind—to attend, observe and make photographs. The role may be considered to be like that of an explorer, a finder and provider of artifacts that might one day be useful in comprehending, in this case, the cultural, social, and political mindset of 2012 America.

Witness, a film on HBO tomorrow night

I happened to be in a hotel room in Colorado, watching The Bang Bang Club when I received an e-mail about a 4-part movie presented on HBO tomorrow night. Links backlinks blog comments .  

Witness: Juarez, a four-part documentary series from award-winning filmmaker Michael Mann debuts this Monday, November 5th at 9:00p.m.ET/PT. The film follows combat photographer Eros Hoagland as he explores Juarez, Mexico, the “murder capital of the world” where drug violence has left over 10,000 dead.

Presented in four parts  JuarezLibyaSouth Sudan and Rio  Witness focuses on three determined photojournalists: Eros Hoagland, who explores the gang- and drug-related violence in both Juarez, Mexico and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Michael Christopher Brown, who chronicles escalating ethnic tensions in the wake of Muammar Gaddafis ouster last year in Libya; and Vronique de Viguerie, who follows the Arrow Boys and their struggle against General Kony in South Sudan. Between these three, their photos have appeared in TimeNewsweekThe New York TimesThe AtlanticParis MatchThe Guardian and many other publications.

Alma: A Tale of Guatemala’s Violence

LightBox presents an exclusive look at an interactive, narrative documentary about gang violence in Guatemala told through the story of Alma, a young former gang member.

“In an isolated house, there was a girl older than me. Blond, begging to be spared…my whole body was telling me not to, but in the end I killed her. I knew I would get killed myself is I did not obey.” —Alma

Alma was only 15 years old the first time she took a life. As a member of one of the most violent gangs in Guatemala, the Mara 18, Alma spent eight years of her young life in a world ruled by violence. After a brutal beating caused her to suffer a miscarriage, Alma had enough, but her effort to leave the gang was met with an assassination attempt that left her a paraplegic. Today, at 26, Alma hopes to help stop the kind of violence that ruled her life for so long.

Gang violence is an enormous problem in Guatemala—a country of just 14 million people with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Alma’s story is indicative of a pattern that has affected a generation of disenfranchised youth in her country. She grew up in a cardboard and plastic shack in one of the most dangerous slums in Guatemala City. With a largely absent mother and an alcoholic father, gang life appealed to a 15-year-old girl looking for protection and comfort.

“I feel I have never received love from anyone,” Alma said. “I looked for another family in a gang, in which all members were like me, undergoing lack of love…for the first time in my life I felt loved and respected. ”

Miquel Dewever-Plana—Agence VU

At the age of 22, Alma told her “homies” (the members of her gang) that she wanted to leave. The retaliation came on the same day when two of them attempted to murder her. She survived, but is now paraplegic.

In 2008, Alma met photographer Miquel Dewever-Plana, who has been photographing the violence in Guatemala since 2007. Intrigued by Alma’s beauty and candor, amid such a cruel environment, Plana stayed in touch with the young woman, eventually realizing her story could be a powerful way-in to explain the larger tale of violence in Guatemala.

“I became convinced that her intelligence and forceful nature made her the icon I was looking for,” Plana said in an interview with Le Pelerin weekly’s Catherine Lalanne. “She was the key to understanding the most secretive twists and turns of the gang phenomenon.”

After a year-and-a-half of consideration, Alma agreed to collaborate with Plana and writer Isabelle Fougere. Her story is at the center of a new, multi-platform project centered around an interactive web documentary that presents Alma’s narration in a straight-forward confessional format. Plana’s photographs of her Guatemalan neighborhood and its gangs help to visualize the violent world in which she lived and powerful drawings by Hugues Micol illustrate troubling scenes from Alma’s life.

Working with a team of designers at the French creative studio Upian, Plana and Fougere, say they intended to create a final product—with a sensitive and innovative approach to a narrative— that would be interactive and accessible. The final product, which took two years to develop, is incredibly in-depth—allowing its audience to explore the story through the innovative web piece, two books and a film, all available in four languages. Supplemental materials were also designed for classroom use.

“This combination of media communicates Alma’s reality in the most effective way,” Plana said. “The web documentary was designed to inform young people about the dangers of gang life. That was my ultimate goal.”

Plana and Fougere recognize the confusing emotions that came as their relationship with Alma developed. “I see Alma as a friend,” Plana said. “But I never forget what she did, and it is impossible for me to justify her deeds.”

Plana has worked and studied in Guatemala’s since 1995 and has documented the country’s gang violence since 2007. It was this experience—which included extensive interviews with mareros in prison—that prepared him to understand and contextualize Alma’s situation.

Despite the risk of exposure and the discomfort of reliving such painful experiences, for Alma, the project was an opportunity to bear witness to her past and to attempt to prevent other youth from choosing the same fate.

“It was very painful for Alma to talk without feeling judged, to empty her haunted conscience of all these gruesome memories and guilt,” Fougere said. “This web-documentary is her path to redemption.”

Watching Alma speak on screen, it is difficult to connect the words with the woman. Soft-spoken, with long black hair and soft features, Alma slowly describes in brutal detail taking the life of another woman and enduring beatings at the hands of her “homies.” But it is precisely in this disconnect that the power of this project lies—it emphasizes that Guatemala’s gang violence is not the result of a few crazed individuals, but a tragic consequence of social problems so endemic that they can turn a young girl into a brutal criminal.

“Alma’s extremely violent story seemed emblematic of the desperation of youths from shanty town, totally abandoned by a society rife with corruption and impunity,” said Fougere. “[she is] Both victim and perpetrator of this endemic violence.”

Today, Alma lives a quiet life. Confined to a wheelchair, she works as a gift-wrapper  in a shop and lives with her boyfriend, Wilson, in a rented room. Further retaliation from her former gang is a constant threat, but she focuses on her dream of going to college to study psychology.

“I hope that [one]day I have the means to help these young people fascinated by the world of gangs,” she said. “And to finally break this chain of violence which only leads to a certain death.”

Miquel Dewever-Plana is a photographer represented by VU’. See more of his work here.

Isabelle Fougere is a French journalist, writer and director focused on human rights.

Alma: A Tale of Violence was released on arte.tv on Oct. 25, 2012. It was produced by Upian, a French creative studio that has won numerous awards for their web documentaries including First Prize in World Press Photo 2011.

All quotes by Miquel Dewever-Plana and Isabelle Fougere are from an interview with Le Pelerin weekly’s Catherine Lalanne, which is a component of the Alma project.

Brian Van de Wetering and the Space Shuttle Endeavor

Last week, Los Angeles was all a twitter about the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s final journey from LAX to the California Science Center, a museum that sits on the edge of downtown L.A.  The trip had been planned for months–there were street closures, trees cut down, pathways opened, so that the shuttle could make it’s slow (1 mile per hour) trip across the city, in some places with only a 3 inch clearance.  Photographer Brian Van de Wetering managed to capture the action, arriving on the scene at sunrise and witnessing not only the aircraft, but the desire to document the excitement in a variety of ways.

Brian  also included a picture of the Graf Zeppelin taken by his  grandfather at Mines Field (now LAX) in 1929. It is a tiny snapshot that
he found in a box of family photographs many years ago after his  grandfather passed away. The second airship in the picture is the
Goodyear Blimp. “It seemed to me that there is something of a connection
across time between his photograph and those of the people I was
photographing even
though he doesn’t appear in the photograph himself.”

Early on the morning of October 12, 2012, along with hundreds of other people, I went to witness the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s journey through the streets of Los Angeles from LAX to the California Science Center. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect but, as a photographer, I knew that I couldn’t let this event pass without trying to document it in some way. What struck me even more than the grandeur and size of the shuttle itself was the behavior of the people that came out to witness the event. Everyone had some sort of image capture device. Smart phones, point-and-shoot cameras, iPads, and DSLRs were all represented. But people weren’t just taking pictures of Endeavor, they were taking pictures of themselves, family, and friends with Endeavor as a backdrop. Many people were asking complete strangers to take their photograph. I was so fascinated by this social phenomenon that these moments became the focus of my camera for the rest of the day. 

Later as I worked through these images, I was reminded of a tiny snapshot I found in a shoe box among my grandfather’s belongings. It is a picture of the Graf Zeppelin that he had taken when it visited Mines Field (now LAX) in 1929 after the first-ever non-stop flight of any kind across the Pacific Ocean. What connects these pictures is a shared desire to witness a moment in history and to preserve a personal memento of both the event itself and our witnessing of it. What is different is our ability to immediately publish that memento and share it with the world and our circle of friends through the Internet. But will these digital photos survive to be found in some virtual shoe box by our grandchildren and great-grandchildren?