Thanks to digital cameras, photography —once the mysterious realm of those few who understood the secrets of light and ground glass, distance and timing and chemistry —has been made available, cheap and easy, to the masses. So, now, anyone who clicks away often enough is bound to end up with the occasional nice shot or two.
That said, there is still a huge difference between people who can take good photos and photographers who consistently turn out aesthetically and technically excellent photos again and again. And although there’s plenty a photographer needs to know to create fabulous studio photos, I think the real proving ground for photographers is still in photojournalism/documentary photography —that challenging arena where you’ve got to think on your feet and know when, where, and what to shoot. And there are no do-overs. Requirements for the job: a good sense of timing and a good eye, the ability to think on the fly, creativity, reliable equipment, and . . . fearlessness.
Which brings me to a documentary photographer (and good friend) I did a shoot with this week in Taos, New Mexico, Dorie Hagler. I love Dorie’s style (that’s her photo above) and her spunk.
The first time I worked with Dorie was back in 2000, when I was the art director at Santa Fe’s alternative weekly. For a cover story marking the 20th anniversary of a tragic prison riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary, Dorie and I drove out to the State Pen. We met the warden—who gave us a rundown of the rules regarding visits and told us we would not be allowed to photograph the prisoners—then were escorted into the maximum security unit.
The guards who accompanied us removed a prisoner from his cell and put him in a metal cage-type holding “box” while they let us peek into his cell. (Dorie stepped in to shoot some photos and the guards slammed the door shut, locking her in and laughing themselves silly. She took the opportunity to grab photos of their jiggling beer guts through the food slot in the cell door.)
We had been told we wouldn’t be allowed to photograph prisoners, but Dorie asked the guards anyway whether she could take a photo of the man in the cage. They said she could if he gave her permission. Thus began a remarkably normal conversation between this tiny (she can’t be more than 5 feet tall) young woman and the convict in the box. Yes, she had his permission. I don’t remember what all they talked about, but as Dorie asked him about his homemade tattoos, the prisoner stretched his arms out toward her in what almost looked like supplication. She got the photo; we ran it on the cover.
On the way back to town, I told Dorie how impressed I was that she had managed to get the photo we were told we would not be allowed to take, impressed with her persistence and fearlessness. She said—and I think about this often—that it wasn’t a matter of fearlessness; it was just that she knew she would regret it if she didn’t do all that she could to get the photos she went there to get. . .
Photo at top is from Dorie’s website, where you can see a sampling of her documentary work.
Second image is a scan of the Santa Fe Reporter cover that ran after our trip to the State Pen.