Eros Hoagland is an independent photojournalist, one of the few photojournalists out there that you might actually recognize as he’s been featured in the excellent HBO series ‘Witness.’ You’ve almost definitely seen his photos – in the NY Times, Time, der Spiegel, and National Geographic. The photos are gritty, grainy and high contrast – unlike most of the work that you’ll see win the World Press Photo awards. His new book ‘Reckoning at the Frontier‘ features shots from his years along the border of the US and Mexico, mostly the Juarez, the city that Charles Bowden called Murder City.
‘Reckoning at the Frontier’ is available now on Amazon. I interviewed Eros via e-mail last week on his photo style and on his thoughts on the future of photojournalism.
In your opening artist statement you say: “It is the nature of journalists to follow the violence. We just can’t help ourselves.” We get called a lot of names for this reason. Vultures, paparazzi etc. Is this just the nature of the profession or do you think we can do something different?
I think violence attracts a lot of people, not just journalists. But journalists do seem to love it so. Not that violence is the only magnet for our profession, not at all. But it does seem to be a central attraction. Are we vultures, perhaps, but vultures play an important role in the ecosystem, so I don’t really see that as a bad thing. On second thought, we behave much worse than vultures in many cases. I think the difference is in why journalists report on violence, that is, context and motivation. If it serves to move along a point of view, or a larger narrative, I see nothing wrong with focusing on violence. But violence as pornography in journalism is pretty dammed low. I have been guilty at times.
You build scenes with the text in the book as opposed to simple captions that one sees in a lot of photo-books. While you have them at the end of the book, it allows the viewer to imagine a bit.
I asked my good friend Myles Estey to write short vignettes about certain topics. Less journalism and more poetry. The one page texts are meant to help unpack the images a bit, to provide more emotional content than captions ever do. So yes, I decided to leave short captions for the back of the book, to leave more room for wonder and mystery.
You’ve said that you’re shooting more and more with your iPhone – why is that? How are editors taking that move – or is it just for personal work?
I like the camera phone because it is discreet, and it’s always with me. I’ll use an iPhone for assignment work whenever I can get away with it, assuming of course that the images will benefit from an immediate, “from the hip” style of photography. I don’t get much assignment work these days, so I don’t really care what editors think of it.
There’s an old school Robert Capa look to a lot of your photos. That’s something that photojournalists seem to have been moving away from in the past decade or so as it now has become technically possibly to shoot ‘non-grainy’ photos in almost any condition. Is that from the equipment you’re shooting with (film/iPhone) or a larger choice you’re making?
I LOVE GRAIN. IF I shoot digital, I’ll either crank up the ISO, or add a film grain layer to the file. I’m just not a fan of the smooth digital look. I came up on Tri-X. And I used to push it a lot, just to get more grain.
Tell me a bit about your editing process for this book. Did you have most of these shots in mind from beginning for the book?
The editing process for this book was half the work. I take editing very seriously, and I really enjoy the process. I collected images for this book over a time span of eight years, so there was a lot of material. Initially I collaborated with Jasmine DeFoore, one of the best editors out there in my opinion. She was my agent at Redux Pictures for several years, and as such, was very familiar with my work, and how I view the world. Jasmine and I began the initial edit, essentially weeding out a couple hundred images. Then I would go to Iraq or Afghanistan on assignment for several months, leaving Reckoning on the back burner. Upon return, I would start to play with selections and sequencing, showing Jasmine from time to time to keep things on track. She was the voice of reason behind many of my choices, but we were so often on the same page that it was all really fluid. A lengthy process, but fluid.
There’s this fantastic shot on pages 70-71 – this divide of police and citizens. What’s the story behind it?
The shot of the police memorial happened in 2008, during the height of the mafia war in Tijuana. I was staying in a hotel near the old tourist strip, and happened upon this scene exiting the hotel one morning. It was right across the street. A policeman had been murdered, and this was a memorial before the burial. I found it really interesting how the frame was cut into almost two separate pictures, with the uniformed police on one side and the civilians, family members on the other. It felt symbolic in a way, of the division between those in uniform, and Mexican society in general. Of course the main focal point of the image is the grieving family members, but I found the rigidity of the cops, and especially the guy in the far left of frame, to be somehow at odds with family members on the right.
“The camera has become a burden. I rarely carry one these days, content instead to see the world with my own eyes, not through the shield of metal and glass.” That’s a hell of a quote to put in a photo book. Are you considering stopping shooting? Moving towards writing or something else?
I have not stopped photographing, nor will I ever. It’s more about the quantity these days. More focus, less quantity. Regarding photo-reportage, I feel like I have dangerously approached my limits of expression without plagiarizing myself. I don’t want to be the guy who takes the same pictures in different locations. Time for a break. So now I am really getting into cinematography. I want to make movies. In fact, I am making movies, with actors and scripts. I just began shooting a short film I wrote that takes place here in the canyons of northern Baja. And I’m writing another story exploring some super heavy themes in the wilderness of New England. In addition to that, I have been working as a still photographer on movie sets. I’ve had the great fortune of working with both Michael Mann and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu. So man, I’m doing all right!
Are you doing a digital edition of the book? If not, is there a particular reason?
No digital edition of this book. I’m just not interested. Photographs shouldn’t be viewed on computer screens. Fucking iPad books. Lame.
As our readership is mostly photographers, I have to ask – what’s your current gear that you’re shooting with?
Mostly shooting on a Canon 5D these days. For a while, I was all about fast primes. 24 and 35. But now I have the 24-70 2.8 version 2. It’s the best one lens solution out there for the way I shoot. I’ve got a Fuji X100 that I’m quite fond of. Fixed 35, f2. A discreet little camera that does very well at high ISO. That one I keep in my car at all times. And yes, I love the fucking iPhone. It’s super awesome, super discreet, and I really love that so many self-righteous photographers out there hate on it so much. Fuck them. It’s all about the final image, and whatever tool gets the job done. The iPhone, when used well, is a solid producer.
About the writer:
Zach Roberts is a photographer and videographer who splits his time between New York and Alaska. His work has been published in The Observer, The Guardian, The Brooklyn Paper, and BBC, as well as Gawker, Portfolio.com and GregPalast.com. He is currently the photo editor of TheMudflats.net and a regular contributor to Truthout.org.