In the worlds hot spots, Ed Kashi finds the simple lives behind the news.
Ed Kashi has been a freelance photographer since 1979, but he is barely a decade into his second career, the one that gives meaning to his life. To page through his portfolio is to watch him slowly abandon the parachute journalism many young photographers dream of, deliberately turning his back on a high-profile day-rate career that was gathering him more than 350 assignments a year.
Now darting among the ruins of breaking news stories, Kashi travels the world capturing stunning images of ordinary life in extraordinary communities. His photos allow us to accompany him as he dissolves into dozens of cultures on six continents, in his quest to understand his subjects’ and his own evolving sense of self.
Whether near a Kurdish campfire, among heroin addicts in Poland, or in a foster home for the elderly in New Jersey, Kashi produces images both understated and revealing. Most often black and white, his work wells up with the loneliness and purpose of people cornered and doomed, but determined to live another day.
Too good, too fast
Born in New York City in 1957, Kashi sprang out of Syracuse University with a photojournalism degree and an international portfolio at age 22. A photo he shot while studying abroad in 1979, of a London rally protesting the beating death of South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, demonstrated his early talent.
Grim and static, the breaking news photo depicts the event accurately without revealing anything personal about the bystanders present. It’s dramatic. And yet, when compared with Kashi’s later work, it seems emotionally hollow. After a few years of news freelance work in San Francisco, Kashi began to break into the national and international magazine world in the early 1980s. Success awaited him at every turn, but real happiness was elusive.
"My dream from the beginning was to be a photographer with Life magazine and National Geographic," Kashi says. "As I started getting very busy I realized that just because I was doing cover stories for Business Week or Fortune, or shooting for Macworld or Time, it didn’t mean I was ever going to get that call from Life or National Geographic.
"By about 1987, after about five years of working intensely, I realized that this wasn’t why I wanted to be a photographer. I wasn’t producing anything meaningful, that would stand the test of time. That’s when I decided I had to do this on my own."
While on assignment in Northern Ireland for the San Francisco Examiner, Kashi happened on a story that would become very personal and ultimately change the direction of his career.
"It set the tone for further stories," Kashi says he now knows.
"I wanted to do something on the (Irish) troubles after 25 years. It was a general view, and in the process of doing that I came upon the Protestant community there. I never had thought about this other incredibly important people. In a sense they were the pariahs, the media bad guys. I seized upon them.
"It came from an assignment, and it sprouted into a three-year project. I made about six trips and spent about six months there in total over that time. It captivated me personally. Not because I had sympathy for them," Kashi says, "but because they were sort of the last white tribe of Western Europe."
After self-publishing The Protestants: No Surrender Kashi won a 1991 WESTAF NEA grant for his documentary work on the Loyalist community in Northern Ireland. Around the same time, a story he did on the fall of the Berlin Wall introduced him to the drug culture in Poland, eventually leading to another side project, the photo story "Heroin Users in Poland."
"Timing has such a great impact on life, and sometimes we don’t know it and sometimes we do," Kashi says, referring to a connection from the Northern Ireland story who put him in touch with a Kurdish woman in London. He was mulling a story about the Kurds when the Gulf War broke out and splattered them all over the news.
"I proposed a story to Tom Kennedy, who was photo director at National Geographic at the time, and he bought it," says Kashi. "And so that also meant working in color. If I had pursued the story on my own, it would have been in black and white."
Kashi’s first story for National Geographic, "Struggle of the Kurds," was published in August 1992. It won him First Place and an Award of Excellence in the National Press Photographers Association’s Pictures of the Year contest for 1993. In 1994, Pantheon published the work as When the Borders Bleed: The Struggle of the Kurds.
Following the Kurds story, in 1994 Kashi focused on another dispossessed community in the Middle East, the Jewish settlers on the West Bank and Gaza. He chose to study the daily lives of two communities: the militant Jewish enclave in the center of Hebron, and the small settlement of Bat Ayin, a hilltop community outside of Bethlehem. In this story, he again explored the theme that now weaves through all his photo projects: the search for identity.
"Like the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, or the factions in Bosnia, the Jewish settlers define themselves by their enemies, or who they are not," Kashi says. "Fear of extinction makes them prisoners of their own history."
What it’s worth
Few in the photojournalism world can match Kashi’s portfolio; fewer still can match his business sense. After all, how does one make a living working on personal documentary photojournalism projects? The odds against even an Ed Kashi can be grim.
Though Kashi has published two acclaimed photo collections, rarely do book revenues make a documentary photojournalist’s career. A recent check of Amazon.com’s online catalog showed When the Borders Bleed at number 966,231. That means there were nearly a million books on Amazon that sold better than Kashi’s on the Kurds. Nor do pickup photos in a few high-profile magazines earn much. When The New York Times published four photos last August 29 from Kashi’s "Aging in America" project, the paycheck, says Kashi, paid his bills for only two weeks. He immediately tried to interest the Times in another "Aging in America" package, but the paper was noncommittal.
Kashi’s single-minded pursuit of personal projects can be particularly risky when he plans an overseas story on his own. So he learned when he went to Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, on his own dime in 1998.
He went to Vietnam to shoot a story about the country’s emerging youth culture. But upon arriving there and riding around the city on a motor scooter, he found that the youths were much tamer than in Berlin, Belfast and the U.S. cities he had visited. After what he calls "a brief panic," he realized the story was right under him. He ended up spending six hours a day for two weeks on a motor scooter, creating a photo essay titled "The Motorbike Culture of Saigon."
He is pleased with the photo essay, though it’s the only personal project he’s created that hasn’t yet been purchased for publication.
"It’s part of taking risks," he says. "I’m tenacious. When I decided I wanted to do settlers on the West Bank, there was nothing that was going to stop me other than them shooting me and running me out of town.
"You have to be dogged, not just with the subject matter, but in getting yourself out the door. And saying, ‘I am leaving next Monday for three weeks, and this is what I am doing. It doesn’t matter who calls me with an assignment, this is what I am going to do now for the next bit of time.’ And keep pushing and developing it with the visual narrative. When you pursue things in a single-minded way, generally you come out well."
What it costs
To retain editorial control and a larger share of the revenue stream, Kashi stays closely involved in the sales and distribution of his photos domestically. He has no photo agency representation in the United States, and uses only a few well-placed overseas agencies to represent his work on the global market.
"I cherish having the personal control of my work," Kashi says. "I’m always wondering, if I had my work put out there through an agency, would I make more money? If my work was with a prominent agency, I have my hunches that more of my pictures would sell. That’s the drawback of representing myself domestically. I don’t [use an agency] because I don’t think of photography as a commodity."
Kashi’s current project, "Aging in America," is now in its fourth year. That makes it his longest, and it could end up being his most expensive. To support the story, he’ll seek grants and sell excerpts, as he did to The New York Times. Ultimately, he says he’ll need many revenue streams to fund the projects that more deeply stir his passion.
On edkashi.com, Kashi offers glimpses of his portfolio and hopes to sell stock photos from his archive. He says he averages 8,000 page hits per month, with a recent peak at 17,000 per month. But despite rosier predictions from others, Kashi sees no financial help coming soon from the online world. He has sold a few photos to Excite@Home and Salon magazine. And he has even given away photos to a few other web sites, a practice he is phasing out.
"It’s difficult dealing with the Web," he says. "There is the expectation that I am not going to get paid very much; they don’t have much money. And because the bandwidth hasn’t really gotten that great, they don’t have a great use for pictures. Yet it’s exciting because the potential is great."
A recent round of Northern California fires found Kashi winging his way out of San Francisco on a quick freelance assignment, this time for a Smithsonian Magazine feature on forest firefighters. The story was dangerous, but with personal projects consuming much of his life, he could not pass up a week’s work so close to home. Still, he says, he much prefers leaving home for weeks on assignment, a habit he says works out better for his wife, writer Julie Winokur, and their two children. That way, he says, "I can say, ‘Next week, I am leaving for three weeks,’ and for 24 hours a day I’m working on what I am doing. And there is no confusion on what I am doing with my time."
The toll a photojournalism career takes on ones personal life, he says, is something they didn’t teach in journalism school back at Syracuse.
"There is a great divide between the dream and the reality of the work I do. When I am in the midst of one of my stories, I’ll wake up and I’ll be depressed for a day, I’ll be tired. And at the end of the day, or in a few months, I’ll realize I did a good photo that day. Then one day you wake up and it’s done and hopefully you try to regain your life.
"But even if you have the vision, the eye, it means you’re hanging out in a lot of crappy situations. You’re robbed of sleep, of your relationships. All of these compromises have to be made.
"A lot of people don’t think of that. They think of the picture on the page, the picture on the wall, the stamp on their passport. But it’s really hard — like anything in life that is great."