Since 1989, the Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography has sponsored the work of 37 artists from around the world. In introducing the Fund’s 1997 grant winners, we asked contributing writer Frank Viviano to survey the winning portfolios from years past—a decade of photojournalism—and tell us what they say about the fate of global culture at the end of the century.
Brazilian street people, 1992
A street urchin in Rio, 1991, clad only in a baggy pair of shorts, his tongue stuck out at a passerby in a gesture of fearless contempt. The passerby is expensively dressed, handbagged, coiffed, Swiss-watched, gold-ringed, and visibly shaken by the collision of these two irreconcilable worlds—hers and the boy’s—on a tiled downtown sidewalk. She is all that he will never be, unless a chance moment of violence puts a Rolex on his wrist and a gold ring on his finger.
This is our choice, the photographs seem to declare: to meet the next century with a child’s uncorrupted defiance, or to surrender ourselves to the elephants’ parade.
Chaos in Chiapas, 1994
A millennium’s worth of failed social gospels is wrapped up in this image from the American photographer Viviane Moos. Yet there is light, even here—thanks to the purity of a child’s fearless gesture. A blindingly insistent light, which is surely what separates the photojournalists honored by the Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography from the rest of us. They force us to engage their images in debate, to understand that our relationship with history need not—cannot—be the passive observance of a relentless march. It cannot be the fate captured by the Mexican photographer Antonio Turok in Chiapas—a frail man, peering in bewilderment at the horizon as two elephants inexplicably rumble past.
My grandfather and his grandfather were among the defiant. They were my namesakes, a first and second Francesco Paolo Viviano before me. There is no surviving image of the first Francesco. He was shot dead on a rural lane 30 miles west of Palermo in November 1876 at the age of 50—my age as I write this, my grandfather’s age when I was born.
A brilliant photograph is a fuse; it triggers a chain reaction in the viewer, an explosion of half-formed ideas and half-forgotten experiences, a shell burst of images preserved from our own histories. It is also the signature on a three-way pact, an exchange of silent confidences between photographer and viewer, and between both of them and the photograph’s subject. A communion of autobiographies.
Only one photograph remains of the second Francesco, my grandfather, taken in his Sicilian childhood. He is 5 years old in 1902, standing ramrod straight next to his mother and two sisters in a Palermo studio. Six years later, he will be alone in America, an immigrant laborer in east Harlem. By the time he is 15, he will have his own business, peddling fruit from a handbasket in Detroit. He will have written his own minor chapter in history.
My grandfather’s grandfather fought in two revolutions; he too was determined to write history. At 39, he had lost his wife and two of his four sons. At 41, he was expelled from his tenant farm by land speculators; for the next decade, he was a fugitive, a brigand who traveled by night in the robes of a friar. Sicilians called him lu Monacu, “the Monk.” He robbed the land barons, who were protected by the sinister new private army known as the Mafia. “And so they killed him,” my grandfather told me.
I see the two of them, over and over, in these photographs. The Monk stares out at me from a gut-wrenching passage through Chechnya with the American photographer Heidi Bradner. But my grandfather is also there. The Russian warriors are not much older than he was when he confronted the immense mystery of America, separated from all that he knew and understood, a boy sticking his tongue out at the elephants. We are not as distant as we believe from the child on that Rio street. A generation or two, an album of faded images. A communion of autobiographies.
The literal autobiographies of these photographers, their accounts of themselves, lie in a pile of typed and handwritten résumés accompanying the photographs they have submitted to the Fund over the years.
Is there a moment, in each life, when the urge to document becomes an irresistible compulsion? When the photographer is “born”?
Czechoslovakia is purged by its Stalinist apparatchiks in the grim winter of 1954; the photography studio of Viktor Kolar’s father, a committed Social Democrat in the city of Ostrava, is closed by the authorities. The father, ordered to work on construction sites, hands the son his weathered Leica.
Everyday life in the Balkans, 1992
Eighteen years later, Nikos Economopoulos is a law student in Greece headed for a lucrative career when a wave of numbness overcomes him in a classroom. He rises from his desk, walks out the door, and leaves jurisprudence forever for the precarious existence of a wandering photographer. “I wanted to stop thinking and begin to feel,” he says.
Ljalja Kuznetsova’s husband, a young engineer, suddenly contracts leukemia and dies in 1977. She picks up a camera and embarks on a 20-year journey across Russia with Gypsy nomads.
Kolar, Economopoulos, and Kuznetsova are St. Paul outside the gates of Damascus, struck by a thunderbolt. The moment of photographic birth can be pinpointed to a day and an hour.
For other photographers, the moment is experienced as an unbearable pressure, rising inexorably, that can only be relieved by the click of a camera shutter. Listen to Santu Mofokeng, whose images bring us deep into the intimate life of Soweto: “When I was born to a migrant and a domestic worker, Johannes and Martha Mofokeng, 34 years ago, the address given as home was my mother’s place of employment,” he told the South African magazine Leadership in 1990. “My father had little more than three years to live, in which time he managed to squeeze in two more children…. Angie, our last-born, died in her seventh month, and grandma also. I contracted TB, as did my two brothers and sister. The TB was a godsend. Because of it we were accorded welfare relief.”
The irony—TB as godsend—is not meant to shock. It is a simple statement of fact. Mofokeng is appalled by the photographers, mostly foreign, who day-hop to Soweto in search of images that will shock and horrify.
What Mofokeng wants, he writes Mother Jones, is for us to look beyond the horror to the strength that nourishes survival, to recognize the extraordinary beauty of ordinary lives under terrible pressure. But, he says, “the gut reaction of photographers is to record and report on the violence—careers are made in this way.”
Few of us who have reported from the earth’s Sowetos can quarrel with the charge. We act to meet an insatiable public hunger for the violent clarity of absolute black and white, when we know that the full picture is almost always a study in grays. We play the game by its rules, which are written to maintain distance between “them” and “us,” even when we present ourselves as “their” advocates.
Private life in Soweto, 1992
Says Mofokeng: “There are certain archetypal images of Soweto. Images bespeaking gloom, poverty, monotony, anguish, struggle…. In this vision the township’s topography is reduced to a monotonous sea of uniform houses punctuated by beacon points of violence: the schools, the hostels, police stations…. Lurking in the landscape of fear is ‘the youth,’ an object seen, feared, and endlessly spoken of but rarely heard.”
The boy on the Rio street again.
And yet the photographs mounted in photo albums inside those uniform houses, says Mofokeng, “are similar to the images in albums the world over: weddings, birthday parties, school trips, portraits.” Is this a word-portrait of the next century? Is a bleak corner about to be turned? Are we on the verge of rediscovering the commonality of being human?
The first Francesco, “the monk,” lived and died by a very restricted definition of community. He was a creature of his own moment in history, just as we are of ours, trapped in the frame of a narrow-angle lens. He spoke only a local dialect of Sicilian, barely understood by villagers three miles away and unintelligible to other Italians.
The second Francesco, my grandfather, sold oranges (and told jokes) in Yiddish, Polish, Arabic, and German, as well as in English and a Sicilian dialect. One of the cousins who followed him to east Harlem, and later to Detroit, married a west Harlem Jew; family weekends, from the 1930s on, alternated between confirmations, baptisms, and bar mitzvahs. Their universe was infinitely wider than the universe that killed the Monk—and the one that so often preoccupies us today. We inhabit a time that is at once worldly, “global” by self-declaration, yet parochial, far short of the vision articulated by Santu Mofokeng. The assertion of commonality, at century’s end, is suspect.
Of the 37 photographers who have been given awards by the Fund, 13 focus on Latin America or the Caribbean and three on North America (two of whom are concerned with Latinos in the United States). From Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union we have six photo essays; from Africa five; from the Islamic world three; and from the Chinese mainland two. From East Asia (apart from China), South Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Western Europe—from 43 percent of the globe’s population, in other words—there is a grand total of two. It is a peculiarly American sensibility at millennium’s end, despite the fact that few of the photographers are North American. Yet they lean, in this bird’s-eye view of a decade’s best photojournalism, toward the same perspective that governs my own more conventional corner of U.S. daily newspaper reporting.
Minorities, tribalism, the unequivocally oppressed: 19 examples, allowing for overlap (some images touch on half a dozen themes). Exactly one photographer, Adriana Lestido of Argentina, gives her primary and unambiguous attention to the commonality of human experience, in her haunting portraits of mothers and daughters—photos that are oblivious to tribe, culture, or pathology.
It would have been moving, and deeply instructive, to see these photographs juxtaposed with more images of the middle class, of white Americans and Europeans and—more instructive yet—their counterparts in Bombay and Singapore. To highlight the gulf of separation, yes—but also to engender an imagined dialogue over that gulf, an exchange of autobiographies among photographic subjects. And to remind us that the profound aspiration of most Third World villagers and slum dwellers is to achieve a semblance of middle-class life. That is what makes the child in Rio so heart-stoppingly real, his gesture so eloquent.
A terrible ambivalence hangs over this landscape, rooted in conflicts that have left much of Africa, Latin America, and Asia in flames over the past decade.
Iran during and after the war with Iraq, 1996
War, in 1998, is the Armageddon of the traditional peasant ethos, a final desperate battle, against elephantine odds, to survive the march of postmodernism and all it entails. Coldly dispassionate materialism, the antithesis of the Haitian voodoo priests of Jean-Claude Coutausse. The need of the “new” Russia to control oil pipelines to the Caspian Sea, set against the ancient insistence of Bradner’s Chechens that they remain masters of their own land.
The Fund’s work frames the central, contradictory metaphor of our waning century: a dull and omnipotent sameness (invariably in a suburban American idiom) at war with distinctive traditions that are no longer tenable. The human spirit is too rich for one, the earth too small for the other.
Huichol Indians in Mexico, 1995
When the modern and the traditional are not openly embattled, they are fused together in an unsettling mix. In one image from the camera of Mohammad Eslami-Rad, Iranian villagers hold traditional horns aloft, in what appears to be an effort to bring down the army helicopter that hovers over them. Huichol children, pictured by the Mexican photographer José Hernández-Claire, stand in a floodlit jungle clearing, one of them wrapped against the cold night in a tattered poncho that bears the image of the American flag. In a photograph by Turok, Zapatista guerrillas disguise themselves in ski masks that were meant for the slopes of Aspen.
Religious ecstacy in Brazil, 1991
This is one fruit of the postmodern-traditional conjunction: bizarre caricature. Another is fanaticism. How else to describe Coutausse’s Haiti, where a woman lies submerged in thick, black mud, one hand protruding to wave a yellow voodoo candle? How else to explain the terrifying euphoria of Ed Viggiani’s Brazilians as they invoke their gods?
The fuse, once more, strikes home.
In the winter of 1996, at the height of the Hamas suicide attacks, I met a Russian émigré at the site of a bombing in Jerusalem. He was a medic, part of a hospital team sent in to remove the awful human evidence of the bomb’s power. The bodies lay strewn, dismembered, in concentric circles around the ruined hulk of a bus.
The medic realized, he told me, that in leaving the collapsing Soviet empire for the Middle East, he had emigrated from one madness to another, “to many others.” Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was already dead, killed by a young Orthodox Jew who smiled angelically from his cell in press photos. Rabin’s assassin wore Levi’s and sneakers, just like the Palestinian kids who carried satchels full of explosives onto the bus and blew themselves and their fellow passengers to bits. Just like the medic. Just like the Chechens, Haitians, and Brazilians.
It has to be said that the medic was also somewhat unhinged, which seemed only normal under the circumstances. He wasn’t even sure what to call himself when we traded addresses and phone numbers; he had a Russian name, a Yiddish name, and a Hebrew name, and switched back and forth among them according to whim and mood.
One Friday evening, unexpectedly, he knocked on my door, a bottle of vodka hidden under his coat. We talked through the night. He began by telling me, lecturing me, that an Israeli could never be safe as long as there were Arabs alive in the Holy Land. But as the night wore on, he grew ever more despondent, until he wept and said that he hated Israel, hated being an Israeli. Then the bottle was empty and he left, saying that his heart was like his name. “It changes, every day, every hour, because I can no longer understand, as I once did in Russia, what I should believe.”
An ominous version of Mofokeng’s connecting tissue links the assassin and the suicide bombers, the woman in the mud, the Chechens, the Brazilians and their gods. Theirs is the protest of the irrational against the great deadening sameness, and its moral logic is unassailable. They will not passively allow the elephant to lumber over them. But how far can the protest be carried? How can we distinguish, in the end, between the premise of the Chechens (or the Irish Republicans or the Basques) and the premise that drove the Bosnian Serbs?
Czechoslovakia after communism, 1991
Can we accommodate the terrible beauty and power of the past, with its minutely specific references—the narrow frame of my murdered namesake, the Monk—in the age of the Internet? How can we understand what to believe?
As documentary photographers aim their cameras at the children of a new millennium, this will be their principal subject, the question they must raise for all of us: Can we resurrect our faith in the universality of human experience, without surrendering to the elephants?
Frank Viviano is a Mother Jones contributing writer and a foreign correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in Paris.