Long Exposure

How one photojournalist found an unexpected way to process trauma

I’ve been a photojournalist and documentary photographer for most of my adult life; I’m accustomed to shooting news and capturing social issues. But over the past few years, I felt an inner drive to go deeper — to become more of an artist.

I needed to shake things up, so last April, around my 56th birthday, I traveled to the South of France for a workshop led by Antoine d’Agata, a well-known Magnum photographer. His work is honest and hauntingly beautiful. He’s fearless. Working with him, I thought, might challenge me to expand my style.

Photojournalists are trained to be as neutral and objective as possible. D’Agata had a very different approach: He pushed our small group to explore our feelings and emotions, and to take that with us when we photograph.

On the second day, I met with d’Agata’s partner, who has a background in psychology and trauma. She asked me if there was anything in my past that I wanted to explore. I didn’t go into this planning to mine my childhood, but I trusted her.

Like most of us, I’d had some tough experiences growing up: being bullied at school, that kind of thing. I’d also had some experiences that kind of haunted me — as a teenager, I fought off an attempted sexual attack by a mentor — and I was still trying to make sense of it all.

We were supposed to choose three words to keep in mind when we were out shooting, and I chose “pain,” “fear” and “disconnection.”

These photos came out of that week of work. At the time, many of them seemed almost accidental, serendipitous — like the boy in the plaza who looks like he’s screaming. I just saw him, playing by himself and started photographing. But I don’t think the photos were accidental. I think my subconscious was bringing these things up to my conscious mind. The self-portrait where I’m on the ground: I think that’s connected to the incident with my mentor. The parents and child walking away in the dark feels tied to my own family.

I think the changes in our culture over the past few years allowed me more freedom to express these things. Like the #MeToo movement, and the way people in general seem more comfortable talking about trauma. It feels like there’s nothing so bad or secret anymore. People aren’t as ashamed to talk about how things in their lives affected them; they’re revisiting long-held memories and asking hard questions about them. It seems so brave to me, and this project is my small way of trying to be braver. The more awareness and presence we can bring to past traumas, the more healing takes place.

— as told to Whitney Joiner