A Conversation Between Derrill Bazzy and Carole Kismaric
By Carole Kismaric
Derrill Bazzy, a Boston-based photographer, received a Mass Productions Grant from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities in 1988 to produce a book of his photographs taken m Nicaragua and Guatemala from 1982-1989. He is currently working for Oxfam America, and teaches documentary photography at the Massachusetts College of Art.
Carole Kismaric spoke with Bazzy this summer about his involvement in photographing refugees in Central America. The interview turned into an extended conversation; SPOT is publishing one part of it, and a second part will be published in VIEWS, the journal of the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University.
Carole Kismaric: What has always interested me about photography is thephotographer's relationship to his subjectso fundamental, yet so complicated. It seems to me that it is this relationship that dictates everything that follows - from what a picture looks like to how it is pumped into the image system of the world. What do you understand to be the relationship between the photographer and his subject?
Derrill Bazzy: The subject comes first, followed in importance by photography. The photographer uses the medium as a tool that reveals his subject, communicating what's going on by spending time with the subject. But the critical issue is to communicate, and for that I feel that words are as important as photographs. Each is powerful in its own way, but the two together can be intensely dynamic, communicating an informational and experiential whole.
Q: Does that mean you feel or accept photography’s limitation as a descriptive medium?
A: Of course there are limitations. Photography is not necessarily objective just because it's photography. What's objective is how photography is used. The old phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" may have some truth to it, but there are only a few photos in the world that are actually worth a thousand words - pictures that can speak as well without words and with words. I'm talking specifically about documentary photography.
Q: Tell us more about what you mean by "speak," about what a photograph can "give up."
A: I believe photography is a language, and any language is based on the need and ability to communicate. Documentary photography is meant to communicate, so when I refer to “speaking," I refer to photography’s language being parallel to the language we are speaking right now. Photography is a dialect of everyday language, but since it is not our common, main language, sometimes it falls short in fully communicating to people. At such moments, words can be more effective than photographs.
Q: What then do your photographs, “speak about?”
A: For the subject I am essentially dealing with - refugees - you have to consider the situation as a whole: how a group got where it is, the fact that they are a group at all; how many they are; and what their needs are. But when you’re there in the camps photographing the subject "refugee," it really boils down to the one person you are photographing. How did that one person get there? What is his story? What happened to her child? What's going on to the left of the photo that you couldn't fit in? What‘s happening behind you while you're taking photo. What happened yesterday to these people; what's going to happen tomorrow?
Q: What are you saying? That all those things just described, which are not literally in the picture, are the facts that are available to the photographer - facts he must somehow incorporate into hisrepresentation of the subject?
A: Such facts make the picture deeper. I think, for someone to…and again, we are talking about how the viewer sees...communicate the "facts" of an event there has to be an intense communication between the photographer and the viewer. I was there. I saw this; I smelled it; I heard it; I sensed it. The viewer wasn't. They just see what's in the 35mm frame. For them to understand what was going on, probably 99% of the time words are needed to prod and get the viewer past the frame, both in time and in space.
Q: OK, but if you were to think of a photograph as a layered experience, with information embedded in the picture, how does that information make its way from the photograph, through you, to the viewer? What is the first accessible level if there are no words? What do you as a photographer try to communicate first?
A: The first level is hard to describe. Certainly in dealing with refugees, I want to convey people's dignity - not that these people are victims. In one sense they were forced out of their countries and have suffered tremendous hardship, but they have dealt with their lives in the best way that they could for themselves and their families. They are survivors who are trying to move in a positive direction.
Q: In that sense your photography is determined to be humanistic. The first
thing you are concerned about putting across is the human quality.
Q: Let's trace the evolution of how you come to understand your subject. Where does, the idea of refugees enter your life; when do you decide you want to picture them? What derisions do you start to make?
A: The critical period for me was a summer spent studying Spanish in Colombia, South America.
Q: Had you ever been in that part of the world before?
A: I had never been outside the United States before. After class each day, I would walk around the city, going to as many places as I could. Some were cardboard and tin shack villages. Anywhere you went there were people on the street, in need of help or medical care. That really affected me. I had led a very sheltered life and never knew such poverty existed.
Q: Were you walking around as a person, or as a photographer?
A: As a person- l had taken a few photography classes at the University of Florida, so I was starting to think about photography. But the experience of walking around and taking things in as a person was the important contact. The other fact I realized was that Colombians did not like the United States. So, there I was part of an oppressive force. I was totally shocked, because I had been raised to believe that we Americans were the good guys, that everything we did was for the benefit of those around us - we were truly a "Christian nation." On several occasions I was hustled out of a movie theater or a concert hall because the audiences were ready to erupt into an anti-American riot.
Q: When was this?
A: 1976, our bicentennial year.
Q: Were you talking to people, as you were walking around, as a means of penetrating the first layer of experience? Were you consciously trying to move through the obvious?
A: I was very much on the outside. I had no real contacts to get inside. My reaction was visceral.
Q: Did what you see frighten you in ways that ultimately were incorporated into the pictures you made? On one hand, you could have decided to make obvious pictures of "victims of poverty”, or you could have tried la depict your reaction to this powerful experience. Which did you do?
A: What I saw just shocked me; it shook me. It shook two of my major, fundamental beliefs: that life was good out there, and that what the United States did as a nation was good. People were willing to accept me as an individual, but not as a U.S. citizen. Instead of doing good for the world, my country was an oppressor. To suddenly be an oppressor, and not the good guy, disturbed me tremendously.
Q: What did you do with this new knowledge?
A: At first, I can’t say I did anything in particular. I continued to walk around, rolling these ideas around in my head, trying to talk about them with others. Eventually I made the decision to change my direction. My map had been charted to make me a professional architect, living a good life with a wife and kids. Then I realized that being from the United States, seeing what I had seen, left me with a huge responsibility.
Q: Your first trip really led to such a dramatic change of direction?
A: Yes, I call it my conversion experience.
Q: That's amazing.
A: It took a long time for it to all become real - another four years of marking time, of hoping I could get involved in work that would be humanitarian. I saw things very generally; I wanted to help people who needed help in a very paternalistic way . Eventually the opportunity opened up to go to Honduras. I had to look on a map to find out where the country was.
Q: Let's pause before you go on with the Honduras trip. What was your relationship to photography in 1982? You'd taken a few photography courses, been to Colombia, and been hit between the eyes with an over-whelming subject for picture-making. Were you taking pictures? Was photography of any use to you?
A: For about two years after the trip, I printed photos, from negatives made in Colombia. Jerry Uelsmann had opened my eyes photographically and made such an impression on me. I actually dropped out of his class, because I was so overwhelmed by what he was saying.
Q: He is supposed to be a remarkable teacher.
A: He is. He went right to the core of what I was stuck on and was able to help me past. So I basically did these blends, that represented my inner struggle between what the Colombian trip was and my values which had been challenged.
Q: Whet were the negatives that you were working with from the trip? Did they have anything to do with the experience you described earlier, or were they just benign images?
A: Very few had people in them. They were mostly of religious architecture which as a subject – to get back to that idea - reflected my inner struggle. They were not directly related to the issues I was moving towards, but there was a glimmer. That went on for a couple of years. Then, I went back to architecture school to get my graduate degree.
Q: So you did get am architecture degree, then began photography seriously?
A: Actually, I started photography within the architecture program. For my thesis I decided to go the Yucatan and photograph people, something I'd never done before. I'd never really had the courage to point my camera at people. I felt a connection to the Yucatan having been there before, so I went, and I felt strongly about the images that came out. But again, I wasn’t really dealing with a specific issue or subject as you would call it. I was just one more step along the way - breaking down my barriers.
Q: Is that another way of saying you were trying to find your subject?
A: In one sense, I didn't see the Yucatan as a subject; I saw it as a place where I could probably feel free to photograph people. I wasn’t going there because of an issue. I went there because it was cheap to get to, and because I enjoy the area. After making that trip, my purpose became to find something humanitarian to do, and it was during this period that I applied to the Peace Corps and to several other groups. Nothing worked out. I finally got to go to Honduras. When I went, I almost did not bring my camera, because I was going to work in a refugee camp. I was not going to be a photographer. (Once, prior to being in Honduras, I had given away my camera, because I felt that it was getting between me and trying to help people.) That's why, though I consider myself to be a photographer, I consider myself primarily to be
someone involved with refugee issues. The camera has become the tool to deal with an issue that I feel very strongly about.
Q: It makes sense, and it's really an unusual thing to admit, because many photographers who work on different projects never consider they might by helping by making a photograph. Clearly, you feel a different alignment; that is very interesting.
A: Photography is a very important tool, but it's one of many. We're talking too much about me.
Q: Actually, we're not talking just about you, but about you at you understand your responsibility as a person who uses photography as an expressive form. It's important to discuss because many photographers don't think about their responsibility to their subject. But back to Honduras, to the time when you almost didn’t bring your camera. How would you describe the difference between yourself as a human being facing the grinding poverty, who wanted above all else to alleviate the misery in front of him, and the person who might want to get a thrilling photograph? Clearly most photographers are driven in one direction or another - toward one kind of subject over another. Until you've connected with the subject that obsessed you, imagine how a truly, authentic, original picture can result.
A: Sometimes that connection can happen spontaneously. When I got to Honduras in 1982, I still didn't know what a Sandinista was. I had no sense of the politics in Central America. As far as the distinction between myself and my work as a photographer, the camera stayed in the bag for about two months. That time was spent getting to know what was going on; I needed to get to know these people before I had any right to point the camera at them.
Q: Did you know you were going to be there for a length of time?
A: Yea, it was a one year commitment. When I arrived I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life.
A: My first week was really hard. I barely spoke Spanish. Morocon was a horrible place. There was nothing but mud and rain, and dysentery. We ate rice and beans three times a day, which, coming from a middle-class situation, was a shock. Now I look back and realize it was the best experience I have had in my life. But then I questioned, “What am I doing here?” No roads led to the village, it was out in the jungle. The only way to get there was in a small plane, which flew only when the runway wasn't so muddy that it couldn't land.
Q: Do you remember when you had learned enough, felt familiar enough to relate to the experience as a photographer?
A: I can't really remember when I sensed that. There just came a point when I decided, “Today I'm going to pull out the camera and go into the camp." Because I think l had a day off. I do remember the day when I felt my photography was accepted in the camp. That was the day when the leader, Wilfred, and one of his children came running up to me and said, "Look, get your camera. Please come and lake a photo for us. So I grabbed my camera and ran off to the camp. One of his nieces had died, and the family asked me to take one last photograph of them sitting around the casket To me it was very significant. All of a sudden it was like, here's something I can do for them. For once I'm not “taking" a photograph. To me it's significant that the verb we choose to use about photography is “take”- you "take" a photograph. Who really benefits when someone takes a photograph?' The person in the picture or the person taking the photograph?
Q: Did it make you feel more connected to your subject, to be needed by them? Or by having their confidence?
A: It did, but by that point, we had all been through so much in Honduras, the staff working in the camp, and the refugees that there was a sense of camaraderie.
Q: Describe who those refugees – your growing subject – were.
A: I was at a camp of Miskito refugees, who came from the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, near the border, along the Rio Coco River. They had fled Nicaragua during the intense fighting between the Contras and the Sandinista government. They fled because the Sandinista army cleared the border area of villages so they could develop a free zone to fight the Contras without fear of shooting innocent civilians. They located these villages inland from the border in camps called, “Tasba Pri," which is Miskito for "the promised land." Unfortunately, the people really did not want to move (part of the indigenous tradition throughout the world is a real connection with the land.) So about 15,000 to 20,000 fled into Honduras to avoid going to those new camps.
Q: So for that reason they were refugees.
A: They became refugees justifiably so. The relocation of these people and their villages was too brusque, and it was against their will, though it was not like Guatemala where the army came through massacring whole villages. At least the Sandinistas were respecting people's lives. In one sense the Miskito relocation was intended to be for the people’s benefit. The Contras had spread rumors that they were all being taken away to be shot, and many people fled into Honduras - at that point because of resentment over their relocation. So In the refugee camp there was considerable Contra activity. In fact there was training with arms going on in the camp while we were there, as well as forced recruitment. There was really nothing we could do about it, because the U.S. State Department, the Honduran government, and the army were very much in support of what was going on.
Q: What was your job there?
A: I just did a lot of odd jobs. After about four months, I became responsible for a region called the Rio Patuca and helped move some 2,000 people from a muddy river area to a place where they could rebuild their houses and villages and try to lead a normal life, while they waited to go back to Nicaragua. In the camp we were becoming aware of the political situation, but we were still very naive. We thought that if these people could have land to farm and live in villages similar to their original ones, they would be less interested in fighting for the Contras. It was a naive theory, and one that was doomed to fail because the Contras were determined to recruit people by force.
You asked before about the interaction that happens between myself and the person I am photographing versus what I'm experiencing when I'm a refugee worker. In one sense I don’t really see a distinction. I'll be speaking with someone, trying to find out what their needs are or about something that happened, or just to hear their story. All of a sudden, I'll see that it's an image, and because they know me, I can reach into my bag and pull out the camera and they don't have to stop talking. I can take photographs, and they know I'm listening because they know me. Oftentimes, there is an unknown quality that comes through. When I was in Guatemala recently photographing for the Christian Science Monitor, there were times when I had to turn off in terms of being involved in people’s lives, just because I only had "x" amount of time to take a photo, something that needed to go off to Boston the next day to get in the paper. I didn't enjoy working that way.
Q: Were the pictures any better or any worse?
A: It’s hard to tell. I would say they were acceptable. I was dealing with a fairly horrible situation.
Q: What were the pictures of?
A: One was a village where a massacre of twenty-two people happened Last November. It was difficult because we were interviewing people about how the army massacred people, and the people were being more open than they should have been. The army had presented a version to the international press that it was the guerillas who did the massacre. It was a story that came unraveled at every point. But the army told these survivors that if they didn't hold to the official story, it would happen to them, too. They were really in a tenuous situation. But they were also tired of covering for the people who killed their husbands. They didn't want to tell the lie anymore. So there we were in this really intense situation with about ten to fifteen minutes to talk to these villagers. To make things worse, there were other people around whom we didn't know. Afterwards, there was the question of what to do with the photos. Could we really show them, because if the quotee we were using got identified with the photo, the person could be in very serious trouble.
Q: Well what does that tell you about the manufacturing of news? For the most part that's how journalists move through an event. The reporters have to extract information from circumstances in perpetual flux. Most of the time you can't even think through a viewpoint.
A: I don't know what it says. I know the press is often guilty of feeling that "getting" the news is more important than protecting someone's life. And in one sense, we probably were good journalists because in the end we decided against using certain photos. It was hard for me not to be able to spend more time with these people. And maybe that's a personal thing that says I don't want to be a photojournalist in the traditional sense. And maybe it says that photojournalism is wrong, that photojournalism has to somehow gear itself so that it spends more time with people rather than rolling into a situation for fifteen minutes and then presto!
Q: But it's not just a problem for photojournalists. It's about how information gets manufactured. You get just so near and no nearer. When you're away from the event, you stare at this raw material and have to "report" on what's happening. So you fill in the gaps, maybe not with the truth, but according to predispositions, prejudices that may be conscious or unconscious. To say that it’s imperfect is a joke. It's more dangerous than that. But let's get back to the subject, and how it describes itself to you as you move through the point in time when you recognize it as your subject to when you started pursuing and then describing it to yourself. Let's talk about your transition from the Miskitos in Honduras to the Guatemalan refugees in Mexico.
A: In one sense I never really thought about what I was doing as a cohesive document until maybe four years after I'd first entered the refugee camps. My experience with the Guatemalans was, once again, more than photographic. Things began to change for mc when I realized what was happening politically. I began getting involved with the Catholic church, trying to help the refugees however I Could as they came across the border. This was mid-1983, the worst time in Guatemala.
Q: Did you really think you could make a difference to the situation?
A: We had to do what we could. We obviously couldn't deal with the whole situation because that included some 50,000 people. But in the camps we had access to, we felt we could help in a material sense. Involvement with the Guatemalan refugees started as a fundraising effort more than a photographic one. Though in Guatemala and Mexico I started taking photographs as soon as I arrived.
Q: Was there more urgency to make pictures?
A: Arriving there, yes. Every time we'd go into the camps, we thought it would be the last, because if we were caught we would have been deported from Mexico. And indeed, after two or three visits we were caught. But we managed to persuade the authorities, after an hour or so of yelling back and forth, that we were, in his words, "Good guys."
Q: Imagine a situation in which there was a choice to act on behalf of the subject or to make a photograph of the subject that could have a powerful effect on how people thought of the subject. Is there any doubt in your mind what you would do?
A: This is a Catch-22. The importance of the picture of the kids running down the napalmed road in Viet Nam changed viewpoints all over the world. It's hard to tell how you would react at the moment.
Q: Actually forget the moment. React to the question intellectually.
A: To tell you the truth, I'd say I would have to opt for the individual. I think you'd just have to put down that camera and…
Q: You'd help first, then see if you could still make a picture?
A: If I were in a refugee camp that was attacked by the Guatemalan army, and in front of me someone was shot; I have a choice between taking the picture and putting a tourniquet on someone to save his life. I would obviously have to act to help the person. Otherwise it would be exploitation. Think of it: trying to get a strong photograph at the expense of a person’s life! Only if I knew there was someone to put the tourniquet on would I have no hesitation about taking the picture.
Carole Kismaric recently published Forced Out: The Agony of the Refugee in Our Time, available through Random House, Inc., New York. She is currently working on a series of books, The Picture Library of Everyday Life, with Marvin Heiferman, to be published by Vintage Books in the fall.