"Rio de Janeiro," from the book, (based on a true story)
Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven't heard of it, chances are you're familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa's coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr's very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum's members are selected by the other photographers on the agency, so becoming a member is a pretty gruelling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.
David Alan Harvey discovered his love for photography at an early age and was talented enough to turn that love into a career. He first received recognition for his 1967 black-and-white self-published book, Tell It Like It Is, which documented the life of a poor family in Norfolk, Virginia, and he followed that up by traveling the world for years, shooting for National Geographic and picking up the Magazine Photographer of the Year award from the National Press Photographer’s Association in 1978. He became a full-time member of the Magnum family relatively late in his career, in 1997.
Since then, he has continued to photograph all over the place as well as highlight the work of others via his web magazine and publishing house, burn. His new book, (based on a true story), is a beguiling visual story that acts as a sort of Rubik's cube with pictures that can be placed in different orders. I caught up with him to chat about his secrets on life and photography.
From the book Divided Soul
VICE: I’ve read that you started shooting at a really early age.
David Alan Harvey: Yes. Lightning kind of struck when I was a kid. I mean, I was 11 or 12 and light bulbs just went off. So yeah, that was a lucky break—not just for photography, but for life in general, right? I had something to focus on early, so it kind of kept me out of trouble. Although, not completely [laughs].
Do you remember what originally attracted you to photography?
Well, I had polio when I was a child, so I was in an isolation ward in a hospital at the age of six. I was seriously in, like, solitary confinement because polio was a greatly feared disease at that time. The only thing I had going for me was that my grandmother and my mother would send me books to read and magazines with pictures, so that was my escape—books, magazines, a combination of literature and pictures. Pictures were in my life in a very real way early on. At some point, I got a camera—probably like every other kid did—but I also got a darkroom and I realized that I could do anything with a camera.
Rio de Janeiro, from the book (based on a true story)
Were there specific photographers whose work you enjoyed at the time?
I actually started looking at the work of European artists. I wasn't too interested in 99 percent of American photographers, but I really enjoyed European art—the French Impressionists, for example, and the Italian and Dutch painters. All of these people really influenced me early on, just in the way that I looked at stuff.
The people I liked were those who were able to do something with nothing—painters, writers, and photographers. I looked into photography and I saw that there were sports photographers who needed an Olympian, fashion photographers who needed a model, and war photographers who needed a war. [Henri] Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, and [Marc] Riboud and those guys—they didn't need anything. They would just look out the window or go to the garden.
In other words, the everyday life situation became a gold mine for these artists, and I gravitated towards the fact that you could take something right next to you and turn it into art or communication. I liked the integrity of journalism but I was always interested in photographs. Photographs didn't have to communicate a great concept, they could just be.
How did you come about the subject matter of Tell It Like It Is?
I was in college and I got a photo job at the beach. It was six or seven of us who took these little plastic pictures of people, and it was a great way to get a tan and meet women. However, I got screwed up by guilt because I got halfway through the summer and I was kind of leading this hedonistic lifestyle—I felt like I was using my camera for the wrong thing. So, I got in my car and I drove to Norfolk, Virginia, which is 16 miles away but it's on the other side of the world culturally. I went into the ghetto and I thought, I gotta help these people.
I wanted to show what it's like here, because the white people who live in my neighbourhood in Virginia Beach—they don't have any clue what this is like. And, right away, I met a family and stayed with them. I slept on their sofa and went to school with their kid. No white kids did that. I didn't know how to do anything with my pictures, but I was able to publish this little book and we sold it for two bucks, took the money and gave it to the local church to buy food and clothes for the neighborhood. There's only four left in existence, since we dumped most of them when I went off to grad school. I had no sense that someday that would become something.
Pages from Tell It Like It Is
You joined Magnum part-time in 1993, right?
Yeah, I was old when I joined Magnum. I had a flirtation with them when I was about 30; I was named Magazine Photographer of the Year and they did a little flirtation with me. I was married with my wife and two kids at the time, and she—like most wives—was more practical than I was, so she really leaned on me to not think too much about Magnum. I had steady work from National Geographic, which was really the only picture magazine that would send you out for weeks at a time. So she convinced me that I better stick with National Geographic. She saw Magnum as not a very good way to survive, so I went with her decision on that one.
But then, as time went on, it always ate on me that National Geographic was going to be my thing. I don’t disparage National Geographic, because they do what they do and they do a great job at it, but I knew that I wasn't really living up to my full potential by shooting for them. So I had a staff job at Geographic and went through my tenth midlife crisis, got divorced, and quit National Geographic all at the same time.
Did that open up more for you?
Yeah, I just went out there and got this incredible burst of energy. I went down to Chile and started working. Then I went to Oaxaca, [Mexico] and started building up all the work that turned into the book Divided Soul. I guess about five years after I quit Geographic I was nominated into Magnum part-time in 1993.
I went to Vietnam, I went to Cuba, I went to the enemies of the US, went to Libya, went to every place where we didn’t have an embassy and did all kinds of stuff around the world. Magnum was really, really great because it gave me a sense of independence and a sense of validation.
Rio de Janeiro, from the book (based on a true story)
Your assistant sent me a beautiful copy of (based on a true story) and I loved it. It seems like a lot of your work covers Spanish culture.
Yeah, well, Spanish culture is part of it. It's the migration of Iberia into the Americas, which includes West Africa. So you're dealing with four cultures: Spain, Portugal, West Africa, and the indigenous who were in America in the first place. So that was a 25-year adventure that had me all over the Americas and then all over the Iberian peninsula and West Africa.
We built the hell out of that book, and we spared no expense in the physical building of it because it wasn’t easy. I’ve always been interested in making art objects and handcrafted objects. If I weren’t a photographer, I’d probably be a potter or something. So I liked the physicality of that. Now, I think, signed the book is worth—well, it's not worth anything signed if you take it down to the local deli [laughs]. In the marketplace, I think I sold one for $1,200 the other day—really expensive.
How does that feel, out of curiosity?
It feels good, because I’m absolutely not an entrepreneur. It felt good that I made something all by myself. I didn’t have a big magazine behind me, I didn’t have any big company behind me, I just had me. And we spared no expense on building it. We didn’t cut any corners of any kind, like most publishers often have to do. I could give a shit about the money, because the profit I made from that book went into giving away the other one. See, at the same time that I did this, we printed another version of the book on the same paper but without some of the bells and whistles, and we gave that away for free. I just got back from Rio, where we gave away 2,500 copies of the book for free in the place we shot it—in the favelas of Rio.
It’s fun—absolutely fun. It set up a whole way of thinking for me for projects I want to do in the future and gave me a real sense of independence—not backed up by financial wealth, just backed up by attitude, you know what I mean?
From the book Divided Soul
What has it made you start thinking about for the future?
Mostly, I work with other people. That’s the other thing. I bust ass for myself, for sure—I do take care of David Alan Harvey—but I spend a lot of my time working with other photographers. I spend a lot of time mentoring and I always have workshops going on in the loft.
Honestly, it’s really commendable that you—as someone who's been working for so long and could easily just go and relax—have taken on this role as curator, editor, and mentor.
Yeah, I’m busy. The thing is, it's funny—I’ve actually been doing the mentoring thing the whole time. I started teaching photography when I was a grad student, when I was 22—I’ve always done it. I always felt lucky or blessed that things worked out for me. I’ve worked hard for it and I deserved it, but even if you deserve something, it still takes luck that a bus or something doesn’t hit you. I always felt lucky, so it always seemed, like, why not pass it on?
Well, you have good karma going for you.
People you mentor energize you. It’s really nice to get away from yourself. You know, you get so focused on your own thing, and then it’s really easy to get burned out on yourself, so to speak. This way, you get to learn the hand of new photographers and get excited about their work. That’s stimulating all by itself. Then it’s kind of like, OK, now I’m going to do my thing. Then, when you get sick of yourself, which I do easily, you can focus on someone else. You’re not eating yourself up.
For sure. There’s nothing more inspiring to me personally than looking at another photographer’s work.
Absolutely. I had some photographers asking me, “Why are you giving it all away?” I just don’t look at it like that. I feel confident in what I know how to do. I was always successful in college and high school and I got a good newspaper job right out of college—I never had the feeling of needing to go out and compete with somebody. So I was always able to plow a lot of energy back into other people.
Life is all about how you look at something. It’s all attitude and philosophy more than actual reality, because everyone’s reality is kind of the same, but everybody has problems or advantages. So I always worked with my fellow students and told them how to think about it. That was my main thing—I’ve just done that all along.
Click through to see more photography by David Alan Harvey.