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Portrait of an Artist of the Portrait
Taking strong pictures of people in tough circumstances is one of photojournalism’s biggest challenges. Eugene Richards sets the standard.

Carver Terrace

I spend hours reading articles on photography and obsessively scanning online portfolios in search of new talent. But when it came time to assign our Fall 2013 feature story on Port Arthur, Texas—a city whose residents, many of them economically disadvantaged African Americans, live in the perpetual shadow of hulking, toxic oil refineries—no one was turning up who had exactly the right mix of qualities for this difficult assignment.

Fortunately, fate intervened. While I was having dinner with a friend, the conversation eventually turned to his memories of having grown up in one of Boston’s most densely packed, crime-ridden, and racially stratified neighborhoods. Listening to his tale, I was able to picture the area perfectly, thanks to a remarkable book of documentary photojournalism: Dorchester Days, by Eugene Richards. At that moment, it clicked. Gene was the one for this story.

Eugene Richards

Gene arrived at his current status as one of this country’s most celebrated photojournalists through a combination of calm, fearlessness, and a rare talent for knowing what’s about to happen right before it actually does. He has an intuitive grasp of what constitutes the “decisive moment”—that millisecond on which action and emotion pivot, the capture of which separates a merely good photo from an immortally great one. When that kind of sensitivity is fueled by a sense of righteous outrage—at poverty, at racism, at squalid living conditions, at injustice in general—the results can be devastating.

OnEarth editor-at-large Ted Genoways had a very clear idea of how he wanted to frame his story on Port Arthur, which has over the decades become one of America’s most noxious “energy sacrifice zones.” Ted wanted to zoom in on Carver Terrace, a decaying public-housing complex that sits hard up against a pair of huge oil refineries whose documented record of accidents, spills, and “emissions events” is long and terrifying. As a hopeful counterpoint to all of the sadness, Ted introduces his readers to the singular figure of Hilton Kelley, a local environmental-justice advocate who has made the demolition of Carver Terrace, and the relocation of its residents to safer housing, his chief goal.

I could already see that one of the biggest challenges would be finding a way to photograph Kelley that was new and fresh. Every picture I could find of him, it seemed, had him standing in front of the downtown Port Arthur diner he owns and operates, a modest building made of orange cinder blocks. But in keeping with his M.O. of going deeper into his subjects’ lives, Gene followed Kelley inside the diner—which is now shuttered, one of the many casualties of Port Arthur’s economic collapse—and pressed the button at one of those “decisive moments” when all of the myriad forces at work in a narrative seem to be operating at the exact same time.

Hilton Kelley

Inside the empty diner, Gene photographed Kelley seated alone at a table as he watched President Obama deliver his long-awaited speech on how his administration planned to address the issue of climate change. Those who watched the June 25th speech may remember how, at one point, the President mopped beads of sweat on his forehead with a handkerchief: a sign of the sweltering summer heat in Washington, D.C., to be sure, but also (to many people) a potent symbol of the urgency that attaches to reversing the trend of global warming.

Gene caught it. And in that same perfect photo, he also caught much more: the stark division—represented by a structural column that splits the whole scene in half—between a city like Washington and an all-but-forgotten precinct like Port Arthur; between televised expressions of hope and gritty, facts-on-the-ground reality; between power and powerlessness. The look on Kelley’s face as he watches Obama’s speech is stoic, guarded, serious. Gene’s photo would still be one of the best we’ve ever published even if it didn’t contain the one element that elevates it to the level of magnificence: the image-within-an-image provided by the framed poster on the wall above Kelley’s unsmiling head of a smiling Kelley shaking hands with President Obama, who had formally recognized the activist’s environmental-justice-related accomplishments back in 2011.

Reporters and photographers leave at the end of their assignments and move on to their next stories. The residents of Carver Terrace, too, have been left behind often, and many feel like they’re being ignored or even forgotten until the next reporter comes along. Gene’s experience in dealing with members of marginalized communities had prepared him for the possibility that he would face resistance—and he was right. Getting Carver Terrace residents to agree to be photographed was difficult, but it couldn’t have escaped the notice of those who did agree that this photographer seemed different than others who had come before him. After taking their pictures, for instance, he made sure to take down their names and contact information: he wanted to follow up, to see how their moves went, to find out what happened to them.

That, to me, is the mark of a genuinely concerned and deeply engaged photojournalist. And you can see it in the pictures.

All photos by Eugene Richards for OnEarth.

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image of Gail Henry
Gail Henry is OnEarth's photo editor. She was previously the dIrector of photography for Yahoo Internet Life and has worked for other national magazines, including Golf, Men's Health, and Sports Illustrated. MORE STORIES ➔