I am dealing with the unconscious in that I don’t think about what I shoot, I just react to what I see. But I am only reacting to what I see and my thoughts about what I want to see. Before I go shoot I have made up my mind about some of the things I am interested in and what I hope to do. Then when I go out and shoot I have already programmed myself about some of the things I am interested in, but I leave myself open to see what happens. Later I think about what it is I have just seen and photographed and experienced.
I was interested in environmental portraiture, the mix between the environment and the person. I didn’t know any of these people, but they knew my face and felt comfortable with me. I had been there with a medium-format camera the year before. I would have little contact sheets to show what I was doing. I would ask questions about what they were doing in the community and their lives. They felt comfortable with a toy camera, they were not threatened at all.
The history of photography in the black community [of Carbondale] was that white students would go in and spy on the black community. The whole association with a 35 mm camera was very threatening to the people who lived in that community because they associated it with the students. No one was brave enough to actually go in and confront those people, introduce themselves and learn about those people’s lives. For me, going in the year before with a 4 x 5 medium-format camera, I would have to ask people to sit down and I actually went into their houses and I got to meet people. The next year, 1982, I used a toy camera because I thought it was less threatening than a 35 mm camera. I took bar scenes too, and that made it even easier, to go into bars with a toy camera.
I realized that people have a really intuitive relationship with photography and most people’s relationship with photography is through their personal documentation of their own history with their family and friends and their trips..That informal way of composing is a really powerful strategy to use as a photographer to draw people in. The immediacy of a seemingly informal composition is a way of really speaking the language of people who have cameras, of the way we see our lives in pictures. I am always fascinated by that and always ready to use photography in that way. There are a lot of other ways people understand photography. We understand photography through advertising and through photojournalism, but the most immediate and the most emotionally enriching way is the way that people take pictures of the people of they love, because of that sort of investment.