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Friday Books: Ed Kashi and the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Photographer

By David Schonauer   Thursday April 19, 2012

On October 13, 2000, photojournalist Ed Kashi was in Gladesville, West Virginia, working on what would become his much-lauded project “Aging in America: The Years Ahead,” an examination of the different ways people grow old in our culture. Kashi, whose photography is known for its wide social scope and emotional depth—uncompromising is a word that has been used to describe it—had just spent the night in a nursing home, sleeping in a room with Arden Peters, a man he’d been photographing for the project. “More accurately, next to his two piss bottles,” wrote Kashi in his diary. “The acrid odor permeated each breath through the night.”

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        Kashi recorded his profound fatigue—the result of a wakeful night and the sight of life coming to an end. Just 24 hours earlier, he’d photographed the passing of Peters’s wife, Maxine. Then it was time to move on from loss. "This morning I walked outside and embraced the fresh smells of the country, the smell of the cows in adjacent field," he wrote."The sun shone brightly as the crisp air made me feel alive, wishing to be with my children, so full of life, joy, potential…sweet smelling. Being here reminds me of the end of life, without potential."

        The diary entry from that day in West Virginia is included in the VII photographer’s new book, Ed Kashi Witness Number 8: Photojournalisms(Nazraeli Press). A collection of photographs and entries from private journals Kashi has been keeping for the past two decades, the book provides a glimpse of the inner life of a photojournalist traveling to places he would sometimes rather not be, to take pictures of things he would sometimes rather not see. The diary entries, filled with triumphs and turmoil both large and small, can at times be shockingly personal, even raw.

        “I tend to be that way,” said Kashi when I spoke with him recently, “much to the dismay of my teenage kids.”

        In fact, the missives Kashi wrote in his journals were never meant to be seen by anyone except his wife, the filmmaker Julie Winokur. Kashi began keeping diaries during his months-long trips around the globe shortly after their marriage in 1994; he would present them to Winokur when he returned from an assignment—as Kashi writes in the book’s preface, the journals reflected his “deep-seated desire, more like a need, to connect to Julie and let her know with some urgency what I had seen, felt, heard, and sometimes recorded in images.”

 

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   Gladesville, West Virginia, October 2000 

        The idea to turn the diaries into a book began brewing several years ago, after the International Center of Photography included some of Kashi’s work in an exhibition. “They wanted all the photographers in the show to write something to go along with their pictures, and because writing is not my strong suit, I thought immediately of my diaries,” he told me. “Maybe I was just being lazy. But it seemed to work.” Later he started thinking of including them in a book. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got 20 years worth of these things!’”

         Fate then took a hand. The lateHoward Stein, a mutual fund pioneer and ardent supporter of photography, had years earlier launched a series of monographs by the likes of Lee Friedlander and Martin Parr. Kashi was approached to do the eighth in this “Witness” series—the last one Stein approved before he died last July.

 

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       Iraq, April, 2004 

       Paired with Kashi’s images from Madagascar, Vietnam, Pakistan, Brazil, Syria, and other points on the globe, the diaries describe the isolation felt by someone balancing a desire to view the world first-hand with an equal and opposite yearning for home. “There were many times in the field when I would say to myself, ‘You’re not cut out for this work,’” Kashi said when we spoke. Also palpable is the creative insecurity familiar to anyone faced with the challenge of finding and telling stories—the fear of failure, of returning to a hotel room and thinking, “I’ve got nothing.” For instance, this entry, from Aracaju, Brazil, where Kashi was on assignment in 2002:

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        "This story is questionable from the start. I’m not clear it’s really a great story or one worthy of the investment the magazine is making. It’s one of those ideas that sounds great but, in the flesh, is filled with imperfections and questionable facts. Nonetheless, we will plug along and make a great story.

         “Those are the kinds of things you tell your diary, not your editor,” Kashi told me, laughing as he spoke. He could also reveal to his diary his personal political viewpoints about the stories he covered. Kashi traveled to Iraq shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March, 2003—his parents had been born in Baghdad, and he wanted to see what the country was like now that it was out from under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. But by November he already saw what was coming: “America has made a mess thus far,” he wrote. The occupation had “opened a Pandora’s box.” Kashi went to Iraq six times between 2003 and 2005—twice on assignment, and four times for personal projects. “I sent myself,” he said.

        Kashi is now finalizing a multi-media app version of the book. “There’s the lure of adding bells and whistles, so you have to control yourself,” he said. Technology has also changed his diary habit. “For years I would create these precious little hand-written journals with words and drawings, and then I’d come home and present them to Julie. Now we email every night. And if a day goes by and I don’t hear back from her, I’ll be sending emails saying, ‘Is anything wrong? Did you get my last message?’ This kind of technology can bring the neurotic out in you.”

All images © Ed Kashi

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