“Stood for those whose voices were unheard, people of the poorest, the most neglected communities and young people growing up in the harshest”
Stephen Shames, born in 1947 in Massachusetts USA, is an award winning photojournalist, who uses his images as a weapon of liberation. He stood for those whose voices were unheard, people of the poorest, the most neglected communities and young people growing up in the harshest, most hostile environment. One of his most well-known work was his journey as part of the Black Panther movement, where for 7 years, he chronicled the daily activities and documented in his images the inside look of this revolutionary organization. We spoke with the man behind the lens on his journeys, his inspirations and his thoughts post-pandemic.
Q & A
What is photography for you?
Photography is art. Photography is a way to express yourself. Photography can be a mirror to the world, a documentation of the reality we live.
How do you begin your photojournalism career?
In August of 1966, after working all summer at a plastics factory, I hitch-hiked across the USA from California to New York City. I ended up in a “crash-pad” in the Lower East Side. I got bored and bought a camera. Taking photos was a revelation to me. It was instant, I knew this was my destiny. Back at Berkeley in the fall, the campus was a center of protest. On day, I was sipping expresso in a cafe on Telegraph Avenue, when the police started arresting teenagers for breaking the curfew. Max Scheer, who was editor of The Barb, an underground alternative newspaper saw my camera and asked if I wanted to work for The Barb. I took photos of the police arresting young boys with long hair, many of whom were runaways who came to Berkeley and San Francisco. I joined the Barb soon after, where I met Alan Copeland who became my best friend and mentor. He introduced me to the Associated Press and I started stringing for them covering Vietnam War protests, campus protests and the 60s. That was my start as a photojournalist. I soon became a stinger for Newsweek, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Liberation News Service.
“WHEN PHOTOGRAPHING ANOTHER CULTURE, IMMERSE YOURSELF AND TRY TO UNDERSTAND THEIR POINT OF VIEW – HOW THEY EXPERIENCE AND SEE THE WORLD”
You have been in the industry for more than 50 years. How do you keep yourself motivated & inspired?
I love taking photos, immersing myself into other worlds, cultures, and meeting people all over the world. It is excited and never boring.
In your opinion, what are the ethical values that a good photojournalist should have?
Tell the truth. When photographing another culture, immerse yourself and try to understand their point of view – how they experience and see the world. You do not have to agree, but you must honestly show their world. Otherwise you are a tourist. That does not help others understand the culture you are photographing.
Describe your friendship with Bobby Seale and how it started?
Bobby was a mentor to me. As my friend the photographer Jeffrey Scales once put it, “Bobby taught you black.” Bobby showed me the African-American community and taught me a great deal about politics. The Panthers were always around in Berkeley. I started taking photos of them and brought the photos to the Panther office. Bobby liked my work and started using my photos in the Panther newspaper. He introduced me to everyone and I soon had incredible access to photograph the public and private moments.
You have become so synonymously with the Black Panther party. What was it about the Black Panthers Party that attracted you to follow them?
The Black Panthers started 60 community-based programs, the most famous was the Free Breakfast for School Children. They also started Free Medical Clinics. I liked how the Panthers were embedded in the communit1y and created model programs that reflected their vision of a just society. Too many movements are talk, talk, talk. The Panthers put their ideas into action. That is what I admired about them.
Browsing through your photos, we can’t help but feel at awe at how each image are not only beautifully taken, but the spirit behind each photo is so in-depth and meaningful. Does a photographer wait around to catch those significant moments, or it is about that one great shot among hundreds of mediocre shots?
Photography is like fishing, you spend a lot of time hanging out, waiting for that moment. Then you have to capture it in 1/500th of a second. It is also true that you take thousands of photographs and only a few are great.
“TOO MANY MOVEMENTS ARE TALK, TALK, TALK. THE PANTHERS PUT THEIR IDEAS INTO ACTION. THAT IS WHAT I ADMIRED ABOUT THEM”
What goes through your mind every time you click that shutter button?
To do the type of work I do, you have to feel the moment, react to it instantly. You do not think about it. You must react. In the milli-second that you stop to think, “Should I click the shutter?, the moment is gone forever. I do a lot of thinking and planning before I start a project, but once I am embedded in a place, I just react. It is instinct not thinking that determines when I click the shutter.
In your opinion, has the world of photojournalism changed much over the years?
Three major changes. (1) Almost everything is online now. There are fewer printed magazines and newspapers and their audience is older people. (2) Advertising and ratings run many of the newsrooms. Television news channels in the United States are mostly talk shows now. (3) Right wing political “news” outlets openly spread misinformation which has deteriorated people’s confidence in facts and reality – many people do not always believe what they see with their own eyes. It is our job to keep putting images in front of them.
Lastly, how do you see photojournalism playing a part in changing the world we are living now?
Photojournalism will always play a part. Vision is the strongest of our five senses. Our brains are wired to remember images. We dream in images. Photographs speak directly to people, transcending culture and language – no translation is necessary. Like music, photographs are not rational, they affect our emotions. They are powerful. People believe photographs. People are waking up to the dangers of climate warming and photographers and the photographs they took are a big part of that. Photojournalists also did a great job documenting COVID. Photojournalists will continue telling stories and hopefully there will be some progress.
“PHOTOJOURNALISM WILL ALWAYS PLAY A PART. VISION IS THE STRONGEST OF OUR FIVE SENSES. OUR BRAINS ARE WIRED TO REMEMBER IMAGES.
Interview: Jem | Translation: Khalisa Johari | Photography: Stephen Shames
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