Gallery Photojournalism: The Work of Caitlin M. Kelly

Caitlin M. Kelly is a veteran photojournalist. Her show, Avantgarb{age} closes at ICANA this Friday the 29th. For this latest show, Kelly did a lot more processing than permitted in journalistic photography, using the recycled fashions of Aidana Baldassarre as a jumping off point.

She arrived in Buenos Aires in 2008 after spending 14 years as a newspaper photographer, then going freelance. Still a freelance photojournalist, Kelly finds the time for projects fueled by personal interests. She seems hesitant to call herself an artist, but we don’t all have the luxury in deciding how we are defined in our creative endeavors and I think I’ll just let the gallery here speak for itself.

Her biggest work in progress is her series “I Am…” Women With HIV. It has taken her more than two years to begin the process, working through agencies and finding subjects — women who have HIV who are willing to be photographed, to say something about themselves and to have the photographs shown.

I caught up with Kelly over the phone and we discussed her roots in journalism, her process, ethics, and the importance she places on communication as well as her recent work.

KS: You started when you were 15. How did that happen?

CK: You know when you’re in junior high and you have to take these elective courses? Well, I chose photography, and pretty much that was it.

KS: So what changed for you when you picked up the camera? Was it the taking of the photographs or was it the darkroom processes or was it all of it?

CK: It was the exploration. It was shortly after I started shooting at the age of fifteen that I knew what I wanted to do. And I don’t think that happens to a lot of people that young… I would go out and explore, but I had to interpret what I was finding and so that made me look harder at it. It made me inspect it a little bit more. It made me find connections because I had to take all that and interpret it for film. At that point I was shooting, my first camera was a Pentax K-1000, which I still have. And so photography, I think, really changed how I viewed the world. It does sound really cliché…

KS: No it doesn’t! Obviously it opened your eyes and your mind and it made you see things critically, maybe for the first time. So, if you talk about how it happened, it’s not clichéd.

CK: I was always a pretty good observer prior to that. It’s just part of my personality, from forever. I was always kind of a watcher. I’d sit in the back and I’d watch these interactions going on… What are the group rules? How does one person talk to another and body language and all this unspoken stuff that I don’t think I ever would be able to see today if I wasn’t a photographer.

Photography makes me look because I have to take these complex situations and boil them down into a photograph, but still communicate the complex situations. How do you do that? You look. And you see what can be read through a photograph and what can’t be.

KS: And so when did you start working as a journalistic photographer?

CK: I was in college at Boston University, ’cause I grew up in the Northeast. So I decided that I was done with the Northeast and I really wanted out of Boston…So I flipped open a map and said, “How far away could I get?” and Southern California was as far as I could get in the continental United States. So I applied to newspapers and I ended up with a job at this really small newspaper called The Desert Dispatch in Barstow, California.

Barstow, California is in interesting place because it really only attracts a certain type of person. It’s a desert town. It’s in between LA and Vegas, you typically need gas. But it was a pretty good introduction into the strangeness of journalism, ’cause I was pretty sure that if Armageddon was happening, it was starting in Barstow. I covered national news. It’s like some guy would kill his wife in Colorado, but he’d commit suicide on the side of the highway in Barstow.

KS: Ha ha ha! Jesus!

CK: Yeah. We had meth labs. We had, well, we had Fort Irwin nearby, so just this large crosscurrent of journalism. So that was my first job and I was there for ten months and then moved on to another newspaper called The Daily Press which was down in Victorville, which is still desert, still the Mojave Desert area. So, yeah. I had planned on spending two years in California, which turned out to be twelve years, and then I finally left.

Those first few years were about learning to be strong as a photojournalist, getting over shyness, being in front of people. I spent years trying to figure out where I belonged in journalism, where I belonged, how I belonged there.

KS: Most of your work is about people.

CK: People are fascinating. I don’t know why they are, they just are. I mean, if you think about the variety of people there are in this world, and we’ve made it this far, but at the same time, it always seems like we’re one step away from not making it any further, as a race.

So for me, these interactions and these codes, the clues and the cultural norms that exist between people, groups, like from a family group to a larger culture or a nation, I find all of that amazingly fascinating because it really informs how we interact or how we’re allowed to interact with one another, and then how we interact with a culture that isn’t ours.

And I think if we understood all of that a whole lot better, then there would be less conflict because we would have a better understanding of the unspoken that happens in relationships with people.

A lot of my photography centers around daily life as well, not necessarily extraordinary events. I look at the ordinary. I find the ordinary fascinating, what makes us tick, day in and day out.

[In that vein] So, Los  Pibes. First it was quite the experience being from the United States and photographing in a place that has a political ideology very different from where I grew up. They had this big mural that said, “Bush, get out of Latin America,” (in  Spanish) with a big, old hand with black fingernails coming from the United States toward Argentina on this global map. It was a statement, to say the least.

But what I learned was that people are always willing to interact on a personal level. I talked with people who had many questions about the United States, people who had complaints about it, and those who didn’t care. What they wanted to know most was if I was married, if I was dating anyone and what was I doing in Buenos Aires.

It is the personal connection that I valued from my year plus with them. I learned a part of La Boca, of life in Buenos Aires, of the difficulties in survival. I chose to leave the politics of the comedor aside, to treat it as another facet of the personality of the organization as a whole, and focus instead on the individuals that make up the cooperative.

These are everyday people. And eventually my experiences in the Comedor Los Pibes lead me to begin the series Everyday People / La Gente Común.

KS: Do you still think of yourself as a journalistic photographer? An art photographer? A hybrid?

CK: I’m a photojournalist. I mean, I will always be a photojournalist. And the reason why I say that is because for me it’s about communication. And I think I wrote this recently in a blog post. Without communication, I fail. My point is, I love photographing, and I will always photograph, even if I take photographs that are for me and they sit on my computer and they don’t go anywhere, I just enjoy the exploration that comes with photography.

But there’s a whole other side of me that needs to communicate that. I mean, what’s the point? What’s the point of taking a bunch of pictures if I’m not communicating them? And to me, the best service that I can give is to communicate them to as wide an audience as possible and that comes, it has come for me, in journalism, the ability to publish in the newspaper and reach thousands of people or on the Internet and reach potentially millions of people… I don’t just want to shoot things for myself. It doesn’t mean anything to me then.

KS: How has your photography and process changed for you over time?

CK: In the last few years, I’ve come to this understanding in my work and that’s, if at the end of the day, I haven’t sold anything, but I’m really proud of what I’ve done and I’ve managed to get it out there, then that’s important to me.

Kelly discusses her work with a viewer at the opening of Avantgarb{age} at ICANA. Photo: Kate Sedgwick

Avantgarb{age} was just my experiment, just being creative. I think photographers go through phases and ups and downs and when I first arrived in Argentina, I may not have been in the best headspace as far as my photography career, so I’m like, “What the hell can I do? I need to reconnect with being creative.” ‘Cause I felt like I had stopped seeing. Even the obvious could hit me over the head and I wouldn’t get it.

And so, Avantgarb{age} was a way for me to do something different, shooting fashion, which I don’t do a lot of. But then It’s my style of fashion because it’s different. It’s raw and it’s interesting, and so, great… As a journalist, I don’t post-process photos that often. I might unsharp mask a little bit, I might correct for the color contrast, but I don’t do the level of post processing that Avantgarb{age} saw. It’s unacceptable. So I just reconnected with my creative self, as well as having a message.

I guess that’s what all my photography seems to have in common. Most of it with people, but almost all of it has a message.

I think that’s something really important for photographers to do on occasion, just go, “What the hell can I do that’s different?” Shake yourself out of the same thing and see something new, see it from a new point of view. Explore a style of photography that you don’t normally shoot.

When I’m shooting documentary, I’m driven by my subject. I’m reacting to and hopefully capturing moments in their lives. I’m not directing it at all. But in Avantgarb{age} and in The Superheroes, it’s like, “Okay, I have an internal vision. How do I make this a reality?” So it’s a totally different approach to photography — very good and very welcome because it reopens my eyes.

KS: So what about the Superheroes series?

To take superheroes and put them in situations that were less than superhero? So, so, this is why I have Superman hanging out looking like he’s homeless. And then the next one I wanted to do Wonder Woman grocery shopping. I haven’t gotten around to it. I don’t know. It’s just the idea that superheroes aren’t all that super. They’ve got daily lives, and Superman is a homeless guy.

KS: Yeah because he’s Clark Kent and he lost his job as a journalist.

CK: I know. No kidding right? Man. That was the latest cutback. He took the buy-out and it just didn’t last him that long. Poor soul.

KS: So, you seem to have shorter term projects mixed in with long term ones.

CK: Yeah. Right now, definitely the most important one is the Women With HIV. That has a lot of potential for me in terms of being able to make a difference, and it’s generating a lot of interest.

Just looking at, I guess it was, the UNAIDS Report last year that I read. And they said that over half the population in the world with HIV are either women or girls. The majority of that population is in Africa which is most afflicted. The UNAIDS Group has a goal of zero new cases, zero new infections, and they feel like the only way to get there, as well as combating the spread, combat the discrimination.

And so the essence of this project focuses on the discrimination… I didn’t want to attack the stigma and discrimination from a negative point of view. I wanted to attack it through commonalities. I wanted to look for commonalities amongst the differences. So…the reason that these women have to write words for me is because I didn’t want you just to look at these photographs and see this woman on the wall and think of an object. I didn’t want to objectify the women because that’s very easy to happen with photography and it’s easy for that to be the only thing — you create a thing out of a person.

Mariana Iacono, Activist, 28 HIV+ 9 years as of December 2010. Read more about this photo in the gallery at the bottom of the page or by visiting Kelly's website.

So I really wanted the words that these women write to be very true to who they are. So my only rule is you have to answer the phrase, “I am…” and you have give me between one and 50 words. You could say, “Yo soy mujer,” or give me a brief synopsis. It doesn’t matter and I leave it up to the women to kind of say what. And some of them are pretty revealing and others a little bit less so, but that’s fine.

The point is when I have these photos, and the purpose is to publish as well as newspapers, magazines, or Internet, it’s also to do galleries. I kind of want to exist in both those worlds… And I want the people to stop in front of the picture. I want them to have to read their words.

And so for example, Mariana who talks about swimming in the ocean, except if there’s no jellyfish, I want somebody to have a connection with that and go, “Yeah, yeah. I understand.” Or see Mariana sitting in her bedroom with all these posters behind her. It’s fantastic. I mean she’s 28 years old and there’s gonna be a lot of women that same age group that are going to identify with what’s behind her and identify with her words…

I don’t want you to leave thinking, “Oh, these women are HIV postive.” I want you to leave thinking about the posters from Mariana’s wall or the jellyfish or the smile on Rosa’s face. Or the girl — I photographed this 18 year old who plays drums, and it’s great. I love that picture.

So I don’t want the work to focus so much on the discrimination and the stigma as much as I want it to focus on the commonalities between one person and another across cultures.

KS: Right, they’re individuals, they’re not cases.

CK: Right and they’re not just HIV positive, they’re women, they’re mothers, they’re swimmers, they’re students, activists, whatever. They’re drummers. They’re actors — the things that you and I are as well.

And at some point, I’d like to take the project much more global as we have comparisons of different regions of the world. My theory is that you’re going to find teenagers that like to play the drums in the middle of Europe, as well as the middle of Africa as well as Argentina.

KS: One body of work of yours that really struck me was when you followed the woman that was homeless.

CK: Oh, Kat? That was in Southern California by the river. I freaked out any number of editors one weekend with that project. I got my project editor in trouble because I spent the weekend down there. I slept down there and I lived with her in the tent next to her to photograph her. My project editor said okay, my photo editor said okay, but the guy above him didn’t know about it until after and flipped. Because it could have been slightly dangerous, but I had been following her for six or eight months and at that point in time, we had a really good relationship and I’m like, “Okay. Nothing’s going to happen. Hopefully,” and just spent the weekend down there. And some of the best photographs came from that.

When you can spend large amounts of time with the person, some of the best photography and some of the most telling moments when you get the opportunity to really tell someone’s story happen in the in-between time, when someone’s not necessarily paying attention to you and life just kind of continues and you just need to be there for it. Sometimes it’s just the amount of time you spend.

You asked me what kind of photographer I am and I said I’m a photojournalist. I definitely see myself as a photojournalist and not as an art photographer or documentary photographer but I don’t think I’m limited to just printing in news publications like newspapers or magazines.

I think my other avenue that I’m exploring, and that I really like, is the idea of galleries. So I don’t think a photojournalist gets stuck in a certain format. I think communication avenues can be varied. And I don’t know how new it is. Are photojournalists permitted to be gallery artists as well? Am I going to be taken seriously on a gallery wall? Or can I even get it? Because I’m finding it’s a whole different ball game.

[box type="info"]Click the thumbnails to open a full-window gallery. Photos provided by Caitlin M. Kelly © Caitlin M. Kelly, all rights reserved, unless otherwise noted.[/box]

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