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Documentary Photography

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“There has never been a shortage of bereaved mothers in the sprawling, violent Caracas barrio known as Catia,” writes correspondent Tim Padgett in last week’s issue of TIME International. Caracas, he notes, usually suffers some 50 homicides a week, making it one of the world’s deadliest capitals. As many as a third of them occur in Catia, where gunmen even use hillside garbage chutes to more efficiently dispose of corpses. Few of the killers are ever prosecuted.

The black-and-white photographs of Oscar B. Castillo, a Caracas-based photojournalist, accompany Padgett’s bleak dispatch. Documenting the violence of the barrio put Castillo at immense risk—from both gang members and the police.

“I felt safer when I was with the gangs than when I hung around the city by myself,” he told TIME. Although never far from the shadow of gratuitous violence, Castillo acknowledges that codes of respect and solidarity run deeply through the community.

“The people took care of me and protected me in risky situations,” he said. “When I told one of the guys involved in gang violence about the story, he told me to talk about their bad situation…to tell the kids that inside gang life, there’s no life at all.”

Castillo began photographing the street gangs of Caracas almost three years ago. Since then, he’s endeavored to use his photography as a way to explain to outsiders the complex layers of life in Catia.

“I would like to share a more complete and sincere vision of this moment in Venezuelan history. I am focused on this because it is my hometown, my country, my family—it is my people that are wounding and killing each other.”

Oscar B. Castillo is a member of the Fractures Photo Collective. View more of his work on FracturesPhoto.com.

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In photography, “the road trip,” especially by car around the United States, has been a right of passage for many photographers. Embarking on a fourteen-month world tour however is a bit less common, but that ambitious challenge was taken on in 1959 by the Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken and his wife Gerda. The resulting photographs would turned into one of the most epic Dutch photobooks ever produced, The Sweet Life.

Ed van der Elsken

Ed van der Elsken photographing his exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1966.

Van der Elsken secured the much needed financing for the trip through contracts to make a series of films enroute for Dutch television and at the Royal Dutch Shipowners Association (KNRV), where Elsken and his wife would be provided first class passage on merchant vessels. In exchange, van der Elsken was to make a short film about the merchant navy that would be a present to Princess Margriet of the Netherlands. Additional funding came from Gerda van der Elsken who wrote a series of articles about their adventures for Dutch magazines illustrated by her husband’s photographs. On Aug. 22, 1959 they sailed for Africa.

Their travels would cover West Africa, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, the United States and Mexico. Van der Elsken found his stride photographing in the streets of each major city or backwater; “When I’m working I get up fairly early, cup of coffee, camera, check if the film’s alright, any dust…then I set off to see what I can find. Hunting for luck, hoping I’ll come across people who excite me…I let them know with my eyes and facial expressions what I am doing, that it’s okay, that I mean no harm – and I don’t.” In all he would shoot more than 5,000 pictures, and by the time of their return to the Netherlands on Sept. 19, 1960, they were both completely exhausted and their money had just run out.

If the scope of the trip wasn’t enough of an exhausting (albeit exciting) experience, the ordeal to get Sweet Life published as a book would be frustrating and even more exhausting. Upon his return van der Elsken immediately set to work printing, editing, sequencing and designing a book he thought at first to call Crazy World. After four years of work there were still no book publishers interested that would take the risk on bringing his world project to print yet Elsken continued to rearrange and improve the edit and layout. He employed various improvised means to shape the material including hand drawn “storyboards,” cut up photo prints, variant printing techniques, extreme croppings, images bled to the paper edge, and double-spread pages that linked separate images into a run-on panoramics. Additionally, van der Elsken wrote 26 pages of extensive captions for each of the images with stories of experiences in a hipster voice that recalls the lyrical styling of Kerouac and Ginsberg.

*SWEET LIFE* – sweet and sour, sweet and bitter. Who am I to spout about life, love, happiness? About whether all’s right with the world, or whether it’s just a vale of tears, so store up your treasures for heaven. I think it’s unbelievable, fabulous, this life of ours – everything, the birds and the bees, the dear and the antelope, the spacious skies, the foggy dew, the rockabye babies. Men like John F. and Robert Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, Georges Brassens, Fidel Castro, Pope John XXIII. My wife’s embrace, a landing on the moon, space, time, eternity. I don’t understand one damn thing about any of it, except that it’s enough to keep me in a constant delirium of delight, surprise, enthusiasm, despair, enough to keep me roaming, stumbling, faltering, cursing, adoring, hating the destruction, the violence in myself and others.

© Katholieke Illustratie

Article in Katholieke Illustratie #39 from 1959 announcing the departure of Ed van der Elsken and Gerda on their world tour.

Finally in 1965, Andreas Landshoff a friend of van der Elsken’s who had ties to the American publisher Harry N. Abrams, persuaded Abrams and several other publishers into co-publish an edition that would appear in seven different countries (with seven different covers!) totaling 17,000 copies in all – a huge number of copies for a photography title. Borrowing the name from a tramp steamer they traveled upon in the Philippines, the book’s title became Sweet Life. During its printing, van der Elsken stood next to the presses in Japan and ordered the black ink to be applied as heavily as possible resulting in the dense and contrasty gravure images far blacker than his original prints achieved.

Today, for historians and those lucky enough to see a copy firsthand, Sweet Life is admired and celebrated for its cinematic energy, raw style, and gritty in-your-face design reminiscent of another masterpiece, William Klein’s Life is Good & Good for You in New York. What Klein’s New York and Robert Frank’s The Americans did for the genre of ‘personal’ documentary of one country, van der Elsken’s ambitions took on the world.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions. Errata Editions is featuring Sweet Life in its Books on Books series this month.

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On her first visit to the French hospital in 2007, photographer Maja Daniels noticed two elderly residents trying to get her attention through the port-hole-shaped windows of a hallway door. The door, she later discovered, was the entrance to a locked Alzheimer’s ward and the patients who lived there were to become the subjects of a three-year documentary-photography project that recently helped earn Daniels a spot in the 2012 Joop Swart Masterclass — a mentorship program organized by World Press Photo.

The final collection of photographs of the ward and its residents, titled Into Oblivion, is an effort to convey the daily life and struggles of the French Alzheimer’s patients, while also bringing up issues surrounding geriatric care. “I want to motivate people to think about current care policies and the effects it can have on somebody’s life,” Daniels said.

Because Alzheimer’s disease causes memory loss and confusion, Daniels could not get consent directly from the patients she photographed. Instead, she spent nearly two years clearing authorizations with the hospital and the families and legal guardians of the residents. Daniels also had to consider the ethics of documenting subjects who were not able to fully understand what she was doing. “I felt very uncomfortable at times,” she said. “I justified my presence by spending most of the time in the ward with the residents, just like any other volunteer.”

Daniels spent many hours just sitting with residents while she tried to find a dignified way to present them and their situation. The end result of these efforts is a collection of simply composed photographs that are both beautiful and heartbreaking.

Chipped and worn from years of escape attempts, the door through which Daniels originally encountered the ward is a central theme in her photographs. Residents are pictured peeking through its glass, rapping on its windowpanes or jiggling its white plastic handle.

“Sometimes a resident can remain by the door for hours trying to open it,” Daniels explained. “It becomes the center of attention by the residents who wonder why it is closed and why they are unable to open it.”

After completing the series, Daniels shared her pictures with the French ward’s staff and residents’ families. She noted that staff members were surprised by the photographs of the door. “They had never contemplated its symbolic value and had just seen it as a necessity,” said Daniels. “The images led to important discussions around notions such as care and selfhood.”

Maja Daniels is a London-based photographer. She was recently chosen to participate in the 2012 Joop Swart Masterclass in Amsterdam. See more of her work here.

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An Israeli-government appointed committee ruled July 9 that the West Bank was not “occupied” land, something Palestinians who live there — and, indeed, much of the international community — consider it to be ever since Israeli troops seized control of the territory in 1967. The report reaffirms the longstanding view of the Israeli government, particularly the right-wing-led coalition currently in power, and pushes for a number of measures further supporting the presence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It’s news that can only deepen the sense of outrage and dispossession harbored by Palestinians, who have cause to feel exasperated with the current state of affairs: the peace process with Israel has gone moribund; the Palestinian leadership’s feeble attempt to unilaterally bid for statehood at the U.N. was brushed aside last year, all the while as Israeli settlements further entrench themselves on West Bank soil under the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Every May 15, Palestinians commemorate Nakba day, which marks the “catastrophe” that was the creation of the state of Israel and the subsequent loss of their homeland. In the weeks leading up to Nakba day this year, hundreds of Palestinians in jail had gone on a mass coordinated hunger strike in protest of Israeli detention laws. Scores took to the streets once again, clashing with Israeli security forces. As ever, images of burning tires and stone throwers were beamed around the world.

But American photographer Adam Golfer’s images of the West Bank look beyond the hurly burly of one of the world’s intractable conflicts, past what he terms “the theater of war” and the almost “ritualized” scenes of violence that seem to shape the outsider’s view of the Middle East. Golfer, who is Jewish, has an art background and does not consider himself a photojournalist. He spent three weeks roaming the West Bank last November and five more this February. The resulting photographs are, as he puts it, “not a documentary, but rather something far more personal,” tied to his own meanderings across a land over which “every aspect is disputed.”

Golfer’s photos, he says, “are vignettes of an experience.” They are bathed in a painterly glow, dwelling over terrain that is at once stark and desolate but suffused with centuries of accrued history and memory. In one, three foreign journalists stand atop the stony earth, at the center of the narrative they seek to tell. In another, an Israeli  “Center for Tolerance and Human Dignity”—built despite local protests and appeals—emerges from what is the site of a 7th century Muslim cemetery. A gnarled tree rises out of the foreground, its leafless branches pointing limply at the new construction.

A photo poised on a kitchen counter shows three men whose ties date back to this land well before 1948. “It’s a mixture of nostalgia and also a proof of life,” says Golfer. “I don’t want to sound dramatic, but not long ago Newt Gingrich was saying there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people. Here we have a portrait of a family, a sense of roots, a sense of place.”

That idea of place and of a moment interests Golfer, who hopes to expand his work with field recordings and other media. He says he’s not keen on “running into the line of fire.” Too often, says Golfer, our vision of this region gets represented by a “tableau of violence.”  Instead, he is curious about “how the Palestinian way of life has taken shape”: families negotiate real and imagined boundaries; a line of gorgeous woven rugs airs out in the early evening half-light. “There is a quiet about a lot of the stuff I was looking at,” says Golfer. If so, it’s a silence full of meaning.

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The sport of yağlı güreş, or oil wrestlingis at the heart of Kırkpınar, a festival in the Turkish city of Edirne. Thousands of people will come to see these wrestlers—slick with olive oil—compete in the 651st annual games on July 2. It’ll be a familiar sight for Turkish photographer Pari Dukovic, who attended the event in 2010 and 2011.

“I saw that the sport had an Old World charm to it—the festival, the prayers, the music, the instruments, the outfits,” says Pari, who used to watch the festival’s coverage as a teenager. “I am drawn to subject matter that makes you feel as though you are traveling through time and Kırkpınar fascinated me with its history and how it has remained an integral part of Turkish culture.”

As the festival begins, drum and horn players parade through the city with the sports’ grand prize—the Kırkpınar Golden Belt. The community then meets in the grand 16th century Selimiye Mosque, where the imam gives a sermon in honor of competitors past and present. For the young boys participating in the traditional Turkish coming-of-age ceremony known as Sunnet Dugunu, it’s desirable to celebrate it at the same time as Kırkpınar, as the festival represents to many the ultimate in male achievement. The boy in the mosque in slide #10 wears the ornate cape associated with the ritual.

After the sermon, wrestlers pray at the graves of legendary sportsmen and proceed through the streets to the competition field, singing the national anthem. The master of ceremony introduces the wrestlers to the audience, reciting their names, titles and skills in verse. Very few of the wrestlers, who range widely in age, make a living from the sport. Nevertheless, Pari says he got the clear sense that being a part of this event is a dream come true for them. “They train for a whole year and often travel from villages all over Turkey to participate, so becoming a Kırkpınar wrestler is an achievement they take great pride in,” he says. The wrestlers, wearing nothing but short leather trousers, get rubbed down with olive oil. This makes the goal of the match—to throw one’s opponent on his back—all the more difficult. The matches last about 30 minutes each, while the final bout can last up to two exhausting hours.

“I think the dedication that goes into what they do is amazing,” says Pari. “I hope that my photographs stand as visual documents of this tradition and that my respect is captured in these images.”

Pari Dukovic is a New York City based documentary photographer. See more of his work here

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Janet Jarman discovered Marisol, the young woman she has been photographing for more than 15 years, by chance. While working toward her Master’s degree in environmental studies, Jarman took a research trip to Mexico in August 1996. There, activist nuns brought her to a municipal dump in Matamoros, located along the U.S.-Mexico border. Amid the smoke, fires and sewage, Jarman noticed Marisol, then 8 years old, looking for recyclable items to sell with her family, who had dreams of moving to America. “Let the woman take your picture,” Marisol’s mother said. “You might be famous one day.”

They were prescient words, indeed. Jarman’s photograph of Marisol in the dump has received several industry awards and has been published by various publications and non-governmental organizations around the world. Earlier this year, the photographer even discovered that the portrait had appeared in the campaign materials of a Mexican presidential candidate; the country will hold its presidential election July 1.

“I was always upset by how unauthorized immigrants were dehumanized in their depiction,” says Jarman, who has lived in Mexico since 2004. “I wondered what could happen if there was a face to this human issue and people could better understand what was driving immigrants to move across the border.”

The immigration debate won’t just be part of the Mexican presidential elections next month; it will also play a large role in the U.S. presidential elections this November. After the Dream Act—which sought to provide paths to permanent residency and citizenship to immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors—stalled for years in Congress, president Barack Obama announced a policy change that would prevent some undocumented youth from deportation earlier this month. In following Marisol’s life—which has taken the photographer from Mexico to Florida to Texas—Jarman says she’s tried to capture this greater immigration story through the life of an individual. “Marisol’s story represents the story of thousands of immigrants, particularly women in her age group,” Jarman says. “To see her grow up and face so many challenges and still keep a very positive attitude—all while continuing to have this maturity beyond her years—has made me really respect her as a woman.”

Some of those challenges have included unplanned pregnancies that prevented Marisol from graduating high school. Still, Jarman says, Marisol, who lives with her husband in central Texas, strives to achieve the American Dream. “She wants to get out of the poverty cycle, have financial stability and provide a life for kids that’s better than her own,” she says. “And that story speaks to a lot of immigrants, which is why I wanted to follow a family, or individual, over time. One of the best ways to provide an understanding of immigrants is to not treat people as statistics.”

Janet Jarman is a photographer based in Mexico. See more of her work here.

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A woman in a white shirt poses seductively on a plush bed. Across the hall, a handsome doctor stands tall, stethoscope hung loosely around his neck. No, this isn’t a scene from Fifty Shades of Gray. It’s the stage set of the hotbed of telenovela production at the Televisa Studios in Mexico City—and the subject of a new photography collection named after it: The Factory of Dreams by San Francisco native artist Stefan Ruiz.

Televisa, the largest Spanish-language broadcaster in the world, produces nearly 50,000 hours-worth of telenovelas each year and exports them to about 50 countries. These soap operas hold a central place in Latin culture, arguably far more than their mainstream American counterparts. Ruiz had rare access to photograph the stars and sets of Televisa’s telenovelas for the past eight years.

Ruiz says he saw actors, sets and lighting as a fresh lens to examine issues of race, class and beauty that he’d previously examined with traditional documentary portraiture. “I was interested in the various types [of actors], and in how the definitions of beauty and class are often defined by race,” he explained in the book. “Generally, the stars look European. The maids do not. And the villains vary.”

The sets also provided Ruiz an ideal space to explore the concept of fame. “It was interesting that many of the telenovela actors were huge stars in much of the world, but virtually unknown in the U.S. and northern Europe,” he said.

Ruiz’s collection captures the stars in the moments between their public and personal lives. He exposes the “seams between fiction and reality” as an essayist in his book put it. Yes, his audience may enjoy the brief telenovela vignettes that accompany the photos. But fans will almost certainly love Ruiz’s subtle glimpse into the private lives of their stars.

So what did Ruiz find most fascinating about his close proximity to these stars? For one, the Televisa system resembled old-time Hollywood. The soaps were filmed quickly and big-name actors were on set much of the time. “Once I had access from Televisa, the stars were generally pretty accessible and were almost always up to being photographed as long as time permitted,” he says. “There were no agents or publicists on set.” The actors themselves were actually fairly down-to-Earth. “For years the film industry in Mexico was almost dead, and this was the only steady acting work around,” Ruiz notes. “I got the feeling that they were appreciative of their jobs.”

Stefan Ruiz is a photographer and San Francisco native. More of his work can be seen here. The book Factory of Dreams will be published June, 2012, by Aperture.

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For kids and communities across America, prom night is both an enduring rite of passage and a sign of the times. This April, TIME commissioned photographer Gillian Laub to document this ritual in a journey that would take her across the country to Georgia, Missouri, Arizona, Oregon, New York and Massachusetts. In the resulting photo essay, “Last Dance,” Laub captured the bittersweet anticipation and excitement surrounding the annual tradition through a series of striking portraits of teenage prom attendees.

“Last Dance” is, in many ways, the culmination of a 10-year project for the New York City based photographer. One of the schools that appears in the essay, Montgomery County High School in Mount Vernon, Ga., first appeared on Laub’s radar when she traveled there in 2002 to photograph its homecoming festivities, then segregated by race, on an assignment with SPIN magazine. Seven years later, she returned to photograph Montgomery County High School’s prom, still segregated by race, for a project that was published by the New York Times magazine.

That would be the last time Montgomery County High School held a segregated prom, and Laub returned again this April to photograph students getting ready for just the third integrated event in the school’s history. “Naturally the first prom I photographed for the TIME essay was Montgomery County High School,” Laub says. “I wanted to follow the only biracial couple attending the prom. Only three years earlier they wouldn’t have been allowed to be each other’s dates.”

The word “prom” first appeared in 1894 in the journal of an Amherst College student going to a prom at Smith College nearby. In the century since, prom has become a distinctly high school tradition, a last chance for classmates to party together, before post-graduation plans send them in different directions. Today, as Laub’s pictures show, getting ready for prom plays as big a role as the dance itself; it plays out to big business, too. A 2012 survey predicted families would spend an average of $1,078 on prom, including costs for outfits, hair, makeup and manicures. The Dwight-Englewood girls wearing haute designers like Alice Temperley and Roberto Cavalli almost certainly spent much more, while many students from Joplin High School in Joplin, Mo.—the site of a devastating tornado a little over a year ago—arrived at prom in donated attire.

Proms represent other rites of passage too. On May 19 in Massachusetts, the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth hosted its 32nd annual prom—the nation’s oldest for GLBT youth—10 days after Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to endorse gay marriage.

“I love the ritual, the time, effort and thought about every detail of preparation to put their best foot forward,” says Laub about documenting proms. “It’s a moment in their lives of transition and hope.” For the students, yes, and perhaps for their schools and communities, too.

See more about proms in this week’s issue of TIME and on TIME.com.

Gillian Laub is a photographer based in New York and a frequent contributor to TIME. See more of her work here

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In the 1970s Staten Island was undergoing major infrastructure changes and a huge population expansion. It was ten years after the opening of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connected the island to Brooklyn in 1964 and, for the first time, to the rest of the city by land.

It also had a reputation for being provincial compared to the rest of the city and still does today. In the early eighties, photographer Christine Osinski was looking for a new home with her husband after high rents forced them out of their Soho apartment in Manhattan. A therapist she was seeing at the time recommended that Osinski look for a cheaper place on Staten Island. “We used to take the ferry in the summer to cool off but never got off the ferry,” she says. “Once we got off initially it felt like a time warp and it was hard to believe it was part of New York City. It seemed remote and had its own unique character—clearly a working class sensibility.” It was a place Osinski could relate to coming from the South Side of Chicago. She grew up in a house she describes as, “similar to the one Michelle Obama says she’s from. It was a brick bungalow in a harsh muscular area with lots of factories.”

The move to Staten Island came a few years after studying for her Master’s at Yale in 1974. During that time, she recalls the all-male faculty in the photo department was initially dismissive of her photographs of people and often saw them as funny. “Once I got to Yale I began to recognize where I was from,” Osinski says. “There was a contrast between me and my working class roots compared to the backgrounds of the other students.”

Osinski says her professors and fellow students thought her pictures were interesting but found the people comical. “Their response to my photos made me begin to question where I was from,” she says. “I began to question why I was photographing what came naturally to me, specifically the middle class. I also began to wonder if I was making fun of them. So I stopped photographing people.”

Years later, she began photographing Staten Island to explore the place where she was now living. “The Island was a goldmine for pictures. Everything seemed interesting,” Osinski says. “Mostly I went out walking for long periods of time. When I began photographing the people were very small in the landscape, but eventually I moved closer and they became the primary focus of my photographs. There were a lot of people outside, people having block parties, at parades and kids hanging out. People were very curious and having the 4×5 camera on a tripod helped me. It was just nice being outside and meeting people. You just never knew what was going to happen. It was an adventure.”

Osinski says she felt Staten Island was undergoing a big shift and that the new construction always seemed so sad to her. “In the photo of ‘Forest View Estates’, there’s not a tree in sight,” she explains. “The materials were cheaper than the older houses and it seemed like a symbol of what people were opting out for. It seemed like it was in keeping with a certain working class idea of what success is. The ‘new’ is what many people seem to strive for because it seems better.”

In her images, Osinski shows duplexes that aspire to be mansions. “Some of it seems funny, like the man building the Grecian columns on the house. It’s like misplaced grandeur,” she says. She depicts cramped new housing developments and homes separated by brick walls decorated ostentatiously with Putti giving a nod to the Old World and a taste of the Island’s many Italian immigrants. “The photo of the animals shows the clash of the old and new living side by side until the old finally gives way to the new.”

After spending 1983 and 1984 obsessively working on the project, she realized that it was almost impossible to make prints. The work was made with an uncoated Linhoff lens on a 4×5 camera, making all of the highlights totally blown out and almost impossible to print properly. Today Osinski is a professor of art at Copper Union where she’s worked for 28 years. But during a residency at Light Works in Syracuse she began scanning some of the negatives and realized with the new digital scanning capability she could finally achieve the quality she had always hoped to have with the work.

“I generally look to photograph the supporting players and not the main characters,” she says. “I tend to look at the minor players and the overlooked places. A lot of my work is about the familiar so that it begins to take on a more unusual presence. It makes you question your assumptions about things you know. Right under your nose there might be something that you’re not familiar with. Maybe taking pictures is an opportunity to make someone look again.”

Now with the unpublished archive finally scanned and in order she hopes to create a new book and is looking for support on Kickstarter.

You can see more of Christine Osinski’s work here.

Paul Moakley is the Deputy photo editor of TIME. You can follow him at Twitter at @paulmoakley.

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