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The Arting Life | You’d Be Arrested if You Tried to Take These Airplane Photos TodayLike wearing shoes through security before Richard Reid's failed airplane bombing, setting up a telephoto lens at the end of an airport runway wasn't a big deal before 9/11. Photographer John Schabel did just that between 1994 and 1996 for ...

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<< Previous | Next >>Webster City

Alazar "Junior" Soto lies in the Des Moines River while tubing on Sunday, July 15, 2012 in Lehigh, IA.
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When the Electrolux washing machine factory left Webster City, Iowa for Juarez, Mexico almost two years ago, it effectively knocked the town’s middle class to its knees. A sizable portion of the town’s population worked there, and they quickly found themselves scrambling to figure out what came next.

A couple of months after the plant closed down, photographer Brendan Hoffman first visited Webster City, which sits about 75 miles north of Des Moines. He was following former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty who, at the time, was campaigning in the Republican presidential primary. The plight of the town presented itself to him as the bigger story.

“It was a story that I felt conflicted about and those are the kind of stories I’m most drawn to,” says Hoffman, who is a member of the Prime collective. “Sure, some of the people in Webster City are going to tell you that they got screwed over. But at the same time if we are going to consider this country to be a free-market democracy, whose is to stop [the company] from deciding that they can be more efficient by moving production to Mexico?”

Hoffman also knew he could follow the story beyond Iowa. One of his colleagues in Prime, Dominic Bracco, has been working in Juarez for years and could help him find the people who now work the jobs that used to belong to the residents of Webster City.

“This was a solidly middle class job when it was in Iowa and I’d like to see if it’s creating the same kind of jobs in Mexico,” he says.

Hoffman has been back to Webster City three times, putting together an ethnography of the town. In the spring he hopes to travel to Juarez to document the new Electrolux factory and have the story done by 2014, in time for NAFTA’s 20-year anniversary.

Instead of focusing on just one family in Webster City, he’s chosen to look more broadly at moments that slowly weave together a complicated story about a place in transition.

“I don’t think there is any way to ignore the fact that this is a major blow for the town. I wouldn’t be doing my job of being objective if I tried to gloss over that,” he says. “But at the same time it isn’t a surprise that companies have the option to move to a lower-wage country. The question comes up about whether the company has any responsibility to the town. I also don’t see why people aren’t more prepared for this kind of thing.”

While the Electrolux plant didn’t employ the entire town, Hoffman says the closing still had a seismic effect on everyone there. For those that did lose their jobs he says the Federal Government has stepped in and helped many of them go back to school through the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. Some former employees are also still living on unemployment while they look for new work. Others have ended up losing everything.

Showing this complexity in photos is difficult. Hoffman has the photo of a Webster City resident on his lawn with all his possession lined after being evicted and the photo of the shuttered plant. But he also has the photo of a dad joking around with his kids as they lay out under the stars on a summer night.

The dad, Steve McFarland, actually shows up in several of the photos. McFarland was never an Electrolux employee (he builds houses and frequently works outside Webster City) but for Hoffman he signifies someone who has found a way to work through the general economic problems in the town. Within the context of the story McFarland helps show the viewer that not everyone has thrown up their arms in despair.

“He’s not someone who worries about this future at all,” Hoffman says. “That’s probably unique in some ways, but he manages every week to have a couple dollars left over and as long as there’s something left over it’s all good.”

Some of Hoffman’s photos are more ambiguous. This summer, for example, he shot photos during the county fair, including the fair queens and the local parade. While people still lined the streets and dressed up for the contest, he says the whole event felt a little forced.

“It all kinda felt like an attempt to remain stoic,” he says. “They were trying to stay straight faced and let people know that everything is fine because look, our daughters can still be beauty queens.”

Struggling towns are nothing new in the United States, but Hoffman says he hopes that by visiting Juarez his work can provide a more three-dimensional view of an ongoing story that has affected much of the country. He’s been pushing to get an edit of the photos out before he heads to Mexico because this is an election year. Politicians on both sides love to toss around the word “middle class,” and with his story, Hoffman has provide them with a picture of what real life in the middle, or former middle, class really looks like.

“In the end I think people have to take responsibility for their own lives,” he says. “But imagine that you’re 50 years old and that’s the only job you ever had. All of sudden you have to find something new to do and maybe move somewhere new. That’s a really difficult decision for some people.”

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<< Previous | Next >> Katie Khouri

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When photojournalist Tim Hetherington suffered a mortar shell wound to the groin in Libya in April of last year, he ultimately died of massive blood loss. His death, according to friends, may have been prevented.

“Tim was my closest friend,” says Michael Kamber, founder and director of the Bronx Documentary Center. “He bled to death because he was surrounded by photographers who didn’t know how to stop the bleeding.”

In response to this assessment, Hetherington’s other close friend and co-director of the Oscar winning documentary Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, founded Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC), of which Kamber sits on the board. The organization simulates real war-injury scenarios at the Bronx Documentary Center, complete with pools of blood, contorted limbs and frenetic movement amid smoke-clad air, in order to train photographers and journalists in potentially life-saving techniques. “We go to great lengths to achieve the feel of war,” says Kamber.

“My adrenaline was going after I finished shooting the drills,” says photographer and Bronx Documentary Center volunteer, Katie Khouri. ”There was a real sense of urgency once trainer Sergeant Sawyer Alberi threw the smoke bombs and the CD of wailing and sporadic gunfire started. The trainees — all of whom are experienced conflict journalists – are a fun group of people but when the simulation began everyone switched into go mode.”

The need for medical training among journalists is especially desperate now as news outlets are employing freelancers — many without insurance or institutional support – to deliver stories.

“The industry is closing down bureaus. Increasing we are relying on freelancers for photographs. Look at the images from Syria, almost all of those are by freelancers, many of whom are without medical training or medical kits. It’s a recipe for disaster,” says Kamber, who has reported from over a dozen conflict zones during his career and even admits that he was unprepared in the past.

In recent years, the deaths of several photojournalists have reminded us of the extreme dangers faced by reporters in conflict zones. Getty photographer Chris Hondros died in the same mortar explosion as Hetherington; Anton Hammerle was killed by Gaddafi loyalists in April 2011; and Rémi Ochlik died in the bombing of Homs, Syria, in February of this year.

Prior to Hetherington’s death, he and Kamber were in the planning stages of a center devoted to video and photo documentary work.

“The Bronx Documentary Center is in Tim’s honor,” says Kamber. “It is dedicated to exactly what he believed in.”

Producing still and moving images for news, for film, for art spaces and for education, Hetherington believed in and practiced an approach to visual journalism that broke through the traditional confines of genre. The Bronx Documentary Center described by Kamber as a “community space, but not a hangout space” is devoted to serious application of skills and engagement. That extends from practical and vital training to exhibitions, lectures and workshops.

“We’re inventing new ways [to support documentary] and finding new outlets for documentary work, now that traditional media is dying and the public are distracted by a million points of white noise,” says Kamber.

Kamber lived in the Bronx during the eighties and says the support form the local community has been only positive, even during the conflict simulations that spill smoke, noise and blood onto the adjacents streets.

“Hundreds of people come by to stop, watch, comment, take photos and encourage us,” says Kamber. “Last year, when some neighbors heard the recording of the gunfire, they called the police, which is understandable. This year we’ve been very conscious to reach out to the NYPD.”

Unlike general hostile-environment training, RISC is focused on exclusively on medical training and on the procedures that will sustain someone between injury and the hospital front door. Tim Hetherington was only minutes from a hospital when he was struck by mortar fire in Misrata, Libya.

Through fundraising, RISC covers the cost of training which is approximately $1,000 per journalist. Following successful programs in New York, RISC plans training in London and Beirut. The response has been overwhelming. Kamber says, ”We’ve waiting lists. Journalists are desperate to get this training.”

Rookies, veterans, untrained and partially trained alike, there is a very real need for RISC’s type of training and photographers know it.

“You could see in some faces that it was taking them back to some bad memories,” says Khouri. “The reality is that potentially having to save an injured fellow journalist is a very real possibility when you report from the front lines. No one there took that responsibility lightly.”

RISC has an ongoing fundraising effort at Global Giving. Visit the RISC website and follow RISC on Facebook and Twitter

All images: Katie Khouri

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New York winter self-portrait
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Like many photographers who struggle to find subject matter worthy of photographing, Sandy Kim turns her camera on a subject with which she is intimately familiar – her friends, her love and her life.

“I use what I have, and since my life is readily available that’s what I shoot,” she says.

Kim, now 26, came into the public eye a few years ago when Girls, a San Francisco band she had befriended and was photographing religiously, started to make it big. Suddenly her photos were in The New York Times and Fader. Her unique style garnered praise from both audiences and other shooters and she was name-checked in an interview with art photographer Ryan McGinley.

Her photos continue to appear in Fader – the mag calls her their “BFF” – and her latest project ties together the last two years of her life through sexual degrees of separation.

“I started making this map of sexual relationships between me and my friends,” says Kim. “Once I started mapping it out on paper, I was surprised to see how big and complicated it became. We live for sex, and because of sex we’re alive. The photos represent the different intersections on the map. There are portraits, feelings, and special occasions, kind of like different stations on a subway map.”

Sex Degrees of Separation Rail Map. Image: Sandy Kim

Kim is not the first photographer to turn the camera back on herself, and its rare to have conversations about her work without hearing references to Nan Goldin and McGinley, among others. Yet her work is more carefree and loving than Goldin and less contrived than McGinley.

Her photographs allow viewers to be voyeurs in lives they may or may not ever lead themselves. The images deflate the youthful fantasy that people never have to grow up and that summers are forever endless. Viewers watch her grow up, watch her fall in love and, by proxy, get to re-live their own versions of these moments. Her pictures of her relationship with her boyfriend, Colby, are intimate and genuine in a way few photographers accomplish, if for no other reason than they are a document of tender moments, pure and simple.

“Sex has always been present in my work,” says Kim. “Especially because I started shooting more after I fell in love. I think sex is beautiful and ugly at the same time and I try and show both sides, mostly the beautiful part.”

Kim grew up in Portland. In 2004, at age 18, she moved to northern California where she found herself exposed to a world she never knew existed.

“When I lived in Portland I lived in this little bubble and didn’t really look past it,” she says. “After moving to San Francisco I was introduced to a badass music scene where artists were so talented, inspiring and beautiful, I got excited and wanted to photograph everything around me.”

She befriended artists and musicians, and was asked to tour with local bands. That’s when she hooked up with Girls.

Though she’d been taking pictures on her own, and got her BFA in Graphic Design from the Academy of Art in San Francisco, Kim started to take photography more seriously through the external pressure of friends. Girls bassist JR encouraged her to shoot more, and photographer Bryan Derballa (who shoots for Wired), built her a blog to use as a platform and pushed her to use it.

Kim uses various point-and-shoot cameras purchased at thrift stores, from Yashica T4s to Olympus Stylus Epics to her favorite Contax T2.

“I didn’t consider myself as a serious photographer, or even photographer at all, so I couldn’t justify spending more than 10 bucks on a camera. I still prefer film over digital. It’s changed my process because when I edit digital photos it takes me a lot longer to edit and look through. With film you’re kind of stuck with the photos you get and have to make it work. Sometimes I get unexpected surprises that come out to be pleasant in the end or used to my advantage.”

While the camera in her hand has an impact on how the images ultimately look, her pictures are less about the tool and more about the events unfolding around her.

“I think my friends enjoy being photographed by me because I’m capturing a time of their youth and just like for me and everyone else 10 years from now things are going to be different but we’ll have photos to remind us of our wild youth,” she says.

Her work is a reminder that photography can be used not as a means to experience, but as a means to remember. Her photos are reactionary rather than anticipatory, composition and lighting not meticulously thought through or planned. Her exploration of themes in sexuality, tinged with love and naïveté, are painted with a brush of carelessness and mild sentimentality.

“I find that I’m constantly changing. Even by the day. I also feel that I’ve matured over the last year. I used to go out and get wasted every day so I would be taking photos of crazy situations my friends and I would get into because of us being drunk. But nowadays I find myself wanting to hang out with my boyfriend all the time so I end up photographing him. Also I’m madly in love, which helps. He’s a beautiful person inside and out. Sometimes I find myself just staring at him, watching him, learning him, the way he plays a guitar or the way he peels an orange in bed and eats it. And while I find myself in this trance I realize, why don’t I just take a photo and remember this moment forever.”

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