We can say with all certainty that Steve Cagan is one of very few photographers who has found his purpose in photography. It all began when he was just a boy surrounded by a creative group of people. As time passed by, he became more and more fascinated with photography and photographers who used their talent to engage in many social issues. It took a lot of courage to use photography in a way like this, but Steve was determined to make changes- real, actual changes in the society. In this interview, he talks about the challenges he has faced during his career and reveals what makes a memorable photograph.
Hey Steve! Welcome to Lomography Magazine! How did you get into photography? What inspired you to embark on this photographic journey?
In my early teen years, I was in a circle of creative friends—writers, musicians—and when my family acquired a good camera, as I describe below, I quickly realized that I had found the area of creative work that I liked and could be good at it. Then, as I began to learn about photographers whose work was engaged in social issues—people who in those days were sometimes called “photographers of conscience”—I saw a route for combining my creative urges and my desire to contribute to the movements for social change and justice.
Why documentary photography? What attracted you to it?
The history of documentary photography is laden with some serious problems—attitudes class, racial and gender superiority at times, services of colonialism, lack of engagement with the real issues of the very real people in the images and among them, and there are other ideological problems that occur—perhaps this is not the medium for going into them in detail.
But documentary photography also has a rich history of photographers who have tried to use the medium to contribute to the lives of the people in the images, to support movements for social changes, to help illuminate issues of importance. These are the visual workers who have been my heroes and models, and this is the side of the documentary that has attracted me.
Still, with all the historical baggage it has, and with a tendency to call an awfully wide range of work “documentary,” (I have written about this elsewhere), I have looked for another term to describe what I want to do—sometimes I think of it as solidarity photography, sometimes as socially engaged photography, but generally I use the expression “activist photography” to describe what I am trying to do.
You are also an activist and it seems your photography is associate with a lot of social and political events that are happening in this world. What's the most valuable thing you learned doing this type of photography?
Of the many things I have learned, there are perhaps two that are most important. The first is that it is indeed possible to make a contribution to the struggles for justice that organizations or communities are engaged in—but that making such a contribution depends on first understanding the issues and developing a relationship with that organization or that community.
Without that organization, you can, of course, make very good photographs, but you can’t have confidence that your images will serve as contributions to those struggles. The “contributions” I’m thinking about include: providing images to communities and organizations to use in their efforts, both in internal and outreach work; raising consciousness in other areas about the issues, to win connections and solidarity with the people in the images; and more.
The second important thing I’ve learned is how critical it is to take into account that photographs (like many other images) are polysemic—that they lend themselves to many meanings. Once we understand that the meaning that a viewer takes to form an image is the product of an exchange between the image and her or his life history, their social position, the context in which they see the image, and more, we become aware of the critical importance for this kind of work ( not for all photography, but for the work I’m talking about ) of making sure that the meaning we intend to communicate is conveyed to the viewer. This opens up a series of questions about the contexts in which we show our photographs.
You once said that sometimes the work you are doing might seem more like journalism than a form of art. Do you feel different about this now?
It may indeed seem that way to some viewers. In reality, I have the privilege of generally being free of some of the pressures that photojournalists face, especially the pressures of deadlines and the need to move from one story to another quickly. I think my work lies stylistically and regarding content in a sort of limbo between to some extent being part of art, documentary, journalism and social science, especially anthropology.
That's one of the reasons people in art and other institutions have trouble understanding what to do with it and explains part of the reason I have had a great deal of difficulty exhibiting, and especially publishing my work. In the end, it is what it is, not fittingly easily into any category or genre, and my satisfaction comes from seeing it used, especially by the organizations and communities of the very people in the images.
What was your very first camera?
As a boy, like many kids, I had a Kodak Brownie—the first camera I used has long since disappeared, but here’s a picture of the second one:
The first serious camera I used was acquired by my family when I was about 14 years old, in 1957. It was a fixed-lens Voigtländer viewfinder 35mm camera. Within a short time of getting this camera into my hands, I was developing film and felt very attracted to the activity—though still just a hobby.
After years of doing this, what would you say makes a memorable photograph?
This question has some importance, particularly as we live in a world in which we are subjected every day to a tidal wave of images, in which those we produce have to struggle to be seen, really seen. The first thing is that the image has to be technically good enough that it won’t simply be skipped over.
Then, for me, the memorable photographs are those that engage the viewer aesthetically or formally, that is, that reward being looked at, and that suggests that we want the viewer to engage with some real content that goes beyond “the good picture.”
What were some of the challenges you have faced doing this job?
I’ve hinted at some of the critical and social issues in doing this sort of work (I’m working on a final version of an essay on this topic that I have presented and published in various versions in a number of venues). But there is another challenge that can be very demoralizing and depressing: although thirty years ago the situation was different, these days, at least in the USA, there is very little interest in this sort of work from the photo, art and publishing institutions whose support makes it possible for the work to be seen widely.
This sort of work does not come to life if it is not widely seen, and the lack of support for that—not to mention the lack of financial support—has been a major challenge for me. On the other hand, the great satisfaction that the work provides is to see it being used by the organizations and communities whose issues one has engaged with in hopes of contributing to their struggles.
Your work is really focused on integrating photography with social and political activism. How did activist photography influence you as a person as well as an artist?
I’d say it has been the other way around—it was my many years of activism, and my interest in and love of photographic practice and creating images came together over the years to allow me to create a social and artistic role for myself, what I think of as activist photography.
Do you have any exciting projects coming up you would like to share with us?
I am going to continue working in the Pacific rainforest area of El Chocó, Colombia, collaborating with the communities there as they resist the threats and the real injuries they incur at the hands of armed groups and the government, with a particular emphasis on the environmental and social damage being done by mechanized gold mining and indiscriminate logging.
Currently, I have a retrospective exhibit of some of my activist photography projects over the years, the at SF Camerawork gallery in San Francisco, California. I’m hoping to expand that exhibition into a book, and I very much hope that other venues will be interested in mounting the exhibition.
All photographs shown in this article were used by the permission of Steve Cagan. If you want to see more of Steve's work, check out his Website.