The Engaged Observer
Rob Amberg and Earl Dotter
Vol. 17, No. 2, 1995 pp. 4-13
Editor’s note: In the following pages Southern Changes features the work of two excellent and widely recognized contemporary social photographers–Rob Amberg and Earl Dotter–accompanied by brief autobiographical comments and discussion of photographic strategies. Amberg’s pictures have appeared regularly in Southern Changes, providing complement and counterpoint to a number of writers’ essays. Here we join his words to a selection of photos drawn from projects he has undertaken working from his base in Madison County, North Carolina. For years, Earl Dotter, one of the most well-known of American photographers, has documented the lives and livelihoods of working people. From an early emphasis on occupational health and safety, Dotter has expanded his range of subjects to include environmental hazards to public health.
For much of my twenty-year career in photography I have wrestled with issues of participation and observation: how to play an active role and establish everyday relationships in the rural communities that I photograph. This takes a lot of time. It also makes it difficult to earn a living doing engaged photography.
I was born in 1947 and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, a product of the Catholic school system, the middle class, and the baby boom. My parents worked for the federal government. Montgomery County, Maryland, was the fastest growing county in the United States, with one of the five highest median incomes. I spent much of my childhood looking for a place to get lost–wanting to get away from the suburban sprawl, the congestion, and the noise.
By the time I graduated from the University of Day-
ton in 1969 with a degree in personnel management and a minor in psychology, I had become very involved in social issues–Vietnam War protests and civil rights. In my senior year I had put together a slide/tape presentation that was my first experience with a 35-millimeter camera. I remember my strong attachment to the camera and the control that it gave me. I thought, then, in terms of capturing an image.
After college, I received conscientious objector status, became a VISTA volunteer, and did my alternative service as a pre-school teacher in Tucson, Arizona. I took beginning courses in photography and was very much influenced by the work of Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, and Eugene Smith. I began to see the possibility of using a camera as a tool for social change.
In 1973, feeling like my life lacked cloudy days and greenery, I was ready to move back East. On my way to the I). C. area, I stopped to visit an uncle who had settled in Madison County, North Carolina, which is northwest of Asheville. I realized almost immediately that this was a place that I had wanted to find since I was a kid. So I settled there.
When I arrived, I intended doing the definitive photo book on mountain culture. I had very preconceived ideas of what that meant. I was taken with the romance of the idea of wizened faces, old women in doorways, men plowing into the sunsets. That’s what I thought the place was all about. Those early photographs, as I look at them now, feel like cliches. The misty morning light of hog butchering. I would get out on mornings and see the light with the smoke and the fog and I would drool.
After I had lived in the area for about a year and a half, I had the good fortune to meet Dellie Norton, age seventy-six, and her adopted son Junior. Dellie had adopted Junior when he was about six years old. He was emotion-ally retarded and in bad physical condition when he came to live with her. Dellie was a community elder, a tobacco farmer, and a very noted ballad singer. She helped me and others who came new into the mountains to bridge cultural and generational gaps. She was a mountain person who was very interested in the outside world and in outsiders.
Soon, she enlisted me as her chauffeur of choice. She opened me to the community of Sodom Laurel. We drove around the county, visiting relatives and neighbors. I
would carry her to perform at music festivals. Dellie said I could come to her house as often as I wanted, and I took her up on that. We would sit on her front porch, playing cards, talking.
Most of the people living in Dellie’s community at that time had been on the land for generations and continued to farm, often full-time. The people here had an intimate and tangible knowledge of the land that was difficult for me, a suburbanite, to understand. Land provided a life for them.
The people of Madison County will do most anything to stay on their land. When the county closed its community schools and switched to consolidated schools, many children were riding two hours, one way, to school. They would put up with that to stay put.
Dellie Norton told me of her family’s having to leave now and then to work in cotton mills in South Carolina when she was a child. Once, her father left for two years and worked in a bathtub factory in Pennsylvania. She didn’t know him when he returned. When Dellie was sixteen, she cooked in a logging camp. All in efforts to make enough money to stay on the land and farm.
Not only do the people in Sodom Laurel have a strong sense of place, they continue to have a strong sense of ritual. For me, being raised Catholic, ritual was something I understood. In Madison County, a community’s sense of ritual isn’t so much interested in end results. It is much more day-to-day. The events that I was invited to photograph were so personal and involved that I had no choice but to get close.
Photographically at this time, I became less interested in control and more interested in spontaneity–photography as a form of visual notetaking. Rather than seeking the perfect photograph, I started becoming more interested in the process of events.
One feature of everyday life in Madison County for the last seventy years or so has been the farming of burley tobacco. Tobacco is a very labor intensive crop — a thirteen month crop. It was introduced specifically to keep people on their land. Of course, one of the ironies of tobacco is that what most people consider America’s number one cause of death has allowed some small rural communities to stay alive.
Historically, tobacco has been worked by families and neighbors helping neighbors, working together to get the crop planted, to get it in the barn, get it to market on time. But what’s happening now is that the young people are not at all interested in working the crop, and large crews of migrant farmworkers are coming in. You don’t see small patches any more; everybody has got at least ten acres.
In 1978, I received an National Endowment for the Arts grant that allowed me to expand my Madison County work to include rural towns and the influx of newcomers into the county. I bought land in the county and homesteaded. Had a son and started a house. I even raised a couple of tobacco crops. But I learned quickly that I didn’t have the necessary skills or mindset to be a farmer.
In the mid-1980s, I began freelance work for the Rural Advancement Fund, a fifty-year-old non-profit organization with its roots in the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. They hired me to document the effects of the drought on small family farmers in the Southeast. Then I stayed on staff to help with the RAF’s fiftieth anniversary celebration, which involved publishing a history of the organization and doing a photo exhibition on small family farms.
My boss at Rural Advancement Fund, Cary Fowler, let me work in my own manner. I would spend days on family farms throughout the region, photographing and interviewing, and helping with farm work. I tried to be-come involved in the lives of the families. If it meant getting up at three o’clock in the morning to milk cows, I was out there. The effect was to build intimacy and trust with the people I was photographing.
I learned that more farms went out of business dur-
ing the 1980s than in the 1930s. Loan policies had forced many small family farmers to get larger when they didn’t necessarily want to be. Planting fencerow to fencerow was the practice: people borrowed money, then land values dropped, cost of production stayed high, and the price they were being paid for their commodities went down. Because of the financial pressures they were facing, farmers were not able to take care of their land. They often, for instance, neglected to plant cover crops.
This was a culture being lost. Farm families ceased to see farming as a viable option for their children. More and more land was owned and operated by retirees or absentee landlords. Daily customs disappeared. People didn’t visit house to house. No one went down in the heat of the day to the country store and talk with their neighbors. The country stores were replaced by Wal-Marts.
I also photographed corporate agriculture for the Rural Advancement Fund. In North Carolina that mainly means poultry. Poultry is a vertically integrated industry, with the large corporations owning everything about the birds, from top to bottom. Even the birds on a farm are not owned by a farmer, but by a company. The company dictates how the birds are to be taken care of, and how much the farmers will be paid. Farm families, again in an effort to say on their land, will borrow hundreds of thou-sands of dollars to put up two or three turkey barns or chicken barns. For this they are awarded the security of one six-week contract. The poultry companies have divided up the territory so farmers have no recourse but to stay with one company. If their contract is cut off, they’re out of luck and faced with huge debt. Sometimes farmers have been forced to foreclose because contracts were cut off, and then the poultry company has come in, bought the farm, and installed the same farmers back on their own places as tenants.
Working with Rural Advancement Fund reminded me of my initial motives for using photography as a tool for social change.
I resigned my staff position with RAF in 1988 so I could move back to the mountains and continue my own documentary projects. I wanted to be closer to my son. I also realized that place had become important to me and the place I wanted to be was Madison County.
In recent years I have supported myself with freelance work for a variety of non-profit and editorial clients, both regionally and nationally. I have begun projects on sustainable agriculture with the Rural Advancement Foundation International and, with the Appalachian Consortium, documentation of the current construction of a corridor of Interstate 26 as it cuts through my county.
By way of contrast, I now reside in the county where Rob Amberg grew up — Montgomery County, Maryland. From there I head out to my assignments. I think Rob is fortunate to work where he lives. But a different set of challenges meets photographers who must travel to the locations where their subjects are.
My artistic development began during my teenage years. After a boating accident, I was confined to bed for several weeks. My mother gave me a John Nagy art book to pass the time. I started to draw covered bridges with three point perspective, portraits of Abraham Lincoln, and so on. As I discovered my natural ability, I began to study art. My real enthusiasm for it developed when I saw the impact it had on my social life. I had been an extremely shy child and an awkward adolescent. By drawing pictures of the weekly football stars and having them posted on the high school bulletin board, I suddenly got the kind of recognition I had never known before. Sketching a portrait of the homecoming queen led to a treasured friend-ship.
I graduated from the University of California at San Jose with a degree in graphic design in 1967. My design instructor encouraged me to get the full Madison Avenue experience by en-rolling in the School of Visual Arts. So I moved to Manhattan. One of the courses which I took was intended to acquaint future art directors with photography so that they could direct a photographer to execute a visual concept. My instructor was a successful but disenchanted advertising photographer who insisted that we take pictures that expressed a personal point-of-view. He wouldn’t talk about our pictures unless they did.
After several meetings, somebody finally took a photo that really did say something in a heartfelt way and the teacher spent the entire class talking about that one photograph. I learned from that experience and started to take pictures in a very active way. My instructor put me in touch with graphic designer Milton Glaser who was then redesigning New York magazine. Soon, my photos appeared on a couple of New York covers and some double spreads. What better encouragement for an emerging photographer?
A pivotal moment for me came in that same year. In another course at the School of Visual Arts we reversed roles, the students giving assignments to the teachers. One night we were meeting on the top floor of the Young Rubicam agency on Madison Avenue. We had as-signed our instructors to respond visually to the Bob Dylan song “Something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” One of the teachers interrupted our session to announce that Martin Luther King
had been killed in Memphis. Immediately the class broke up. As I headed home on the subway I read a message in big red letters on the wall: “The last of the nonviolent men are gone. Arise and kill whitey, the eternal target.” I can trace this as the moment when I decided to put down my advertising tools and begin to become a photographer engaged in social issues.
About this time I received 1-A status from Selective Service and faced the probability of a tour of duty in Vietnam. Instead I was able to select alternative service and was sent as a VISTA worker to the Cumberland Plateau region of Tennessee. The coal fields were facing particularly tough times as heating oil was replacing coal as home fuel. Mines were shutting down. Those who could leave Appalachia for the auto plants and steel mills of the North did, leaving the young, the old, and the less educated. As VISTA workers, our job was organizing grassroots programs to develop cooperatives to provide basic needs, such as housing, Head Start, and adult education programs. As I photographed these efforts, I met the people of this region in their homes and communities.
I met many coal miners who were dissatisfied with the state of their union. Disabled miners were not getting benefits, miners who had retired were not getting pensions, or if they did, it was fifty dollars a month. The United Mine Workers had become known for murder and mayhem. I was invited to become a full-time staff member for the Miners for Democracy campaign in Charleston, West Virginia. With the election of the reform candidates, I moved to the union’s Washington, D.C., headquarters to work as the UMWA Journal photographer. I traveled the coal fields, documenting occupational health and environmental hazards and the rich traditional culture of mining.
The camera allowed me do work which was meaningful on a daily basis. From the coal fields, my photography has taken me into a wide variety of working lives throughout the United States. My goal behind the camera is to celebrate the accomplishments of workers and community activists, to emphasize their pride and skills, and to document the satisfactions of their jobs as well as the dangerous and dehumanizing aspects. I look for workers and community activists who are taking steps to improve their lives and, with photography, seek to encourage their achievements.
For people to reveal themselves before the camera, I really feel I first must let them know who I am and to explain why I want to take their picture. After you have become acquainted, folks are more apt to live out their lives rather than act them out before the camera. Because so many of the people whom I photograph endure brutal working conditions or impoverished lives which can victimize, I am careful to look for the common ground that workers share with the viewers of the photographs. Often this is simply the desire to be treated with dignity and self-respect. Motivated by my own concern for their situation, I try to photograph in a
way that will touch not just viewers who are already sympathetic to their plight, but will reach out and get the attention of people who might normally pass them by. I try to achieve this by taking a picture that has visual power, that has a graphic and clear beauty. It is this aspect that often appeals to viewers who are not initially concerned with the subject itself, bringing them back for a second look.
When I walk through a plant or work site, I will sometimes encounter that individual who exudes a sense of personal worth, who illustrates the notion of the human family, and I always jump at the opportunity to record them. When I experience tragedy in the workplace–death, disability, and exploitation–I use the camera to record not just the person or event, but also my own reaction to it. If I am successful, then the viewer will be able to stand before the photograph and feel the intensity of the moment that I felt.
I take care to avoid distorting or altering the scene for the sake of “art” whose result simply panders to viewers. Although I strongly identify with the underlying issues of the photo I am creating, I try to let the subject guide me with suggestions, ideas, and point of view. It is not enough for the photographer to convey his or her own point of view, as you often see in so-called “objective” photojournalism. Such voyeuristic photography is, in fact, not objective but is geared toward expressing only the photographer’s perception. It ignores or underemphasizes information that runs contrary to the photographer’s particular perspective. Although there is some merit in showing viewers the world as the photographer sees it, it can twist or not tell the full story.
To photograph in a way that lets subjects communicate with viewers, you must take time to learn the way subjects present themselves to the world physically, in their body language, their gestures and motions, and their looks. You draw from that information to develop a picture-taking strategy before you start taking the actual photos. You begin working in a candid way, letting the
subject lead, and gradually work into a more posed mode to intentionally capture nuances you have observed in the process. Sometimes, when a subject freezes up, I will discuss mannerisms and gestures that I have observed him or her make, and suggest that the individual recreate these natural poses for me. For example, I might say “a moment ago, you put your hand under your chin and just rested your elbow on the table there.” It’s something the person has probably done thousands of times, but before the camera a little guidance is needed to recreate it.
I want to capture the moment clearly, in the midst of the action, and in response to the smell, the atmosphere, the three dimensions, and the physical proximity. That’s not to deny the value of other approaches. But, for me, it’s the most effective means for creating images of telling beauty and artistry, of transcending the commonplace.
If the photographer has rapport with the subject, the subject will let the viewer into the personal realm, overcoming barriers — such as the invasion of space — that normally exist. To be an effective photographer in the most delicate of situations, you have to be sure you are welcome.
The camera allows certain features or characteristics of the subject to be emphasized in a way that cannot be captured with the human eye. There are unlimited ways to freeze the moment. While you draw from reality, the way in which you use the camera and the extent of your visual vocabulary make a personal photographic statement. I try to learn from my experience of happy accidents and how to repeat them in another context. A good photograph draws viewers in on levels that range from the obvious to the symbolic to the concern with details of foreground and background.
I try to photograph a subject in several different ways. In the leisure of the darkroom, you can look at the proof sheets and compare the images, finding the ones which resonate more powerfully. If you don’t explore the subject fully behind the camera, you can’t learn what is there.
Photographs have the capacity to bear witness at the most gut level and to uniquely distill information and feelings. This is true as much for the snapshots that make up the family album as it is for professional photojournalism. We return to these still shots year after year, to savor and remember.
The proliferation of magazines makes the still photograph as much in demand as ever. Although magazines have emphasized the color image (I have slowly enlarged my work to include more color), there is a continuing interest in the power of black and white photographs. In fact, many of us “older” black and white photographers are enjoying a renaissance of appreciation.
In looking at my early work and comparing it with my more recent work, one of the greatest differences is that when I was young and free of family and other responsibilities, I was able to allocate long blocks of time, even years, to a given subject. Although I do not have that freedom today, I have built steadily and consistently on that early body of work, by continuing to focus on occupational subjects and environmental-related issues, trade union activity, and workplace health and safety concerns. By retaining my focus over the years, I have been able to build a professional reputation that I do not believe I would have accomplished had my subject matter been more scattered. I have also developed an understanding of my subjects that can only come over time. This has been key in my ability to succeed as a freelance photojournalist, and to make a contribution in which I can take pride.