Friday, August 15, 2008

Nissa Benjamin: A Photo a Day

Nissa Benjamin was given the challenge of creating one image every day for one year. 365 photos in 365 days is the goal starting on July 11th, 2008. This is a visual diary of sorts with the aim of helping Benjamin understand the art of visual story-telling and the complexity of the visual language. Wish her luck!

This was a day for love. The birds were chirping. The sun was shinning. In a little shop in Coral Gables a bride-to-be picked out her dress. Simplicity was the requirement. Feeding off of my subject, I made a quiet picture. She was reserved, did not talk much and listened intently to her mother’s every word. When she came out of the dressing room it was like magic. She played with the bow. She stared at the trim. She smiled. This was the one.

She shall remain nameless. Her principal would kill her. Teachers cannot have tattoos. This was such a huge piece for such a small woman. Her entire back. The wings of an angel. She clenched a pillow and sucked on a cherry lollipop. She smiled. I cringed. I am good with pain.

I felt stuck inside today. Would have given anything to be outside today. Windows can sometimes be horrible. I liked the architectural design of Downtown Miami. It always catches my eyes. Then the sharp contrast of the silhouette brings me back to reality.

Nude Bathers. Definitely a challenge. I felt very uncomfortable. What I consider so private was a public affair. I used the camera as a mask, which I usually do not do but it was my only way. I still felt that even though they were ok with me making pictures, I wanted to do something that would not be so obvious that they were naked.

I went to a park on my way home looking for something. I found a mother playing with her daughter barefoot. She started swinging her in circles. First she was on her mother’s back. Giggle. Then she was swung by the arms. Laugh. Then upside down. Tears.

Ninety plus degrees and not a cloud in sight. A county auction for old police cars and old maintenance equipment. Men fighting for the right to own them. It was like a secret society. Complete with their own hand signals, slang and initiation. You could instantly point out the members from the wannabes.

My first runway show. It consisted of tents and tents without any space.
Fighting for elbow room. Bathing suits I could only dream of. Rude photographers. Sweaty photographers. Beautiful women. Annoying people who felt they should stop in the middle of the walkway when you have 5 minutes to get to the other side of the terrace. Lights. Trying not to fall into the pool. Security guards who take their job way to seriously. Excitement. All in about 2hours. How time does fly?

I haven't seen a full moon in a very long time. It stopped me in my tracks. I was driving and couldn't keep my eyes off of it. Don't remember the last time being outside just to be outside, or not going somewhere and doing something. I had time to just look up.

The nature of my job? Hurry up and wait. I never liked the swarm of media that was present during high-profile assignments. Competition for space, the story, and the prestige. It is like a dance where the partners fight to lead while the subject watches it unfold.

7-11-08 "Rings"
I looked down and saw these old hands hi-lighted with gold. I found out an amazing story behind his rings. Jose Regueiro was a former political prisoner from Cuba. The number on his ring, 28863, was his name until 1967. He didn't have a name. Regueiro moved to New York and became a dentist after being released. He moved to Miami and in 1988, he founded the Florida National College in Hialeah. The got this ring as a constant reminder of his past. He went from having nothing to being able to afford jewelry, which he sees as a sign of wealth.

7-12-08 "Bubble"
Childhood still exists! Despite computer games and video games, games outside are still around. A relay race in the inflated plastic bubble. The hamster wheel personified.

7-13-08 "Hat"
Outside was gray, yet humid. The day you see the rain coming and pray is hurries. I was just attracted to this hat. It just popped out at me, among everyone else. It felt like it did not belong in this setting. She should be on a sunny beach not under clouds about to burst with rain.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

New Vision: Nissa Benjamin

Nissa Benjamin is a photojournalist for the Miami Herald. She is a recent graduate of the University of Florida, with a Bachelor of Science in journalism with a concentration in photojournalism and design.

Nissa specializes in documentary and feature photography. She has worked at four major newspapers, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, The Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Daily News, and The Myrtle Beach Sun News, as well at the University of Florida News Bureau.

Nissa was born in Hollywood, Fl., and has been obsessed with the camera for as long as she could remember. Her obsession turned into a passion during her summer internship with The South Florida Sun-Sentinel in tenth grade. Since then, she has balanced school with internship opportunities to deepen her passion and develop her art.

The definition of photojournalism to Nissa is the power to change. If an impression, view, or thought was changed through one of her images, she has succeeded. She strives to make images that are clean and minimal yet impactful.

Lately, she has been the telling stories of men of color and their passions. Like Max Citrin, an amateur body builder who dropped out of medical school to pursue a professional career. His journey of discipline and structure leading up to his first professional competition left little time for moments of serenity. Also, Chris “Contak” Saunders, a striving rapper originally from Boston but is trying to finish a degree at the University of Florida. His tattoo is Latin for “Let them hate, so long as they fear”, is a motto he bases his life and music around.

Nissa has just completed a portrait series on the many sides of Hip-Hop culture in the younger society of Gainesville. She wanted to show the difference from the culture seen on television and the traditions being kept alive by people who were not born when it began. The photograph of Sauders is also apart of this series This project will be featured in the University of Florida’s gallery this November.

Always looking for new experiences to grow as a photojournalist and person, Nissa is driven by the opportunity to tell stories through images.

Nissa Benjamin
The Miami Herald
University of Florida, College of Journalism and Communications Alumni,
Web site:

Friday, April 4, 2008

New Vision

Iris PhotoCollective is showcasing the work of student journalists who are looking to engage in the visual language of photojournalism. The New Vision blog is an outlet for student photographers to get instruction and guidance from seasoned professionals.

Lauren Pond is a student photojournalist based in Chicago, where she is a senior at Northwestern University. She is pursuing dual degrees in journalism and art and a minor in French.

Lauren specializes in documentary, news, and feature photography and has done several photography projects in East Africa and India. She has worked for The Miami Herald and The Press-Enterprise, as well as student publications. She fluent in both English and French.

Lauren was born in Riverside, Calif., and became interested in print journalism during her high school years. She began her photojournalism career during her first year of college. Her experience as a reporter continues to influence her photography. She sees each photo as a story and an opportunity to make her words into images.

On June 13, 2007, Lauren Pond boarded a plane bound for Uganda, a small, relatively peaceful country nestled in the volatile region of East Africa. Accompanying her were her camera bag and five students.

For the next two months, Lauren did documentary photo work with these students, who were part of a Chicago group called ProjectFOCUS. Her work took her to the district of Lyantonde in southwestern Uganda, where she completed photo stories about a vulnerable family and vocational training centers.

She studied abroad in Senegal in West Africa the following fall and, while she was there, completed a photography project about Koranic students called talibés who are required to beg as part of their education.

The summer and fall provided many challenges. Lauren left Africa with several photo stories and the lessons that her projects taught her. But in Africa she left a piece of herself and a promise to return one day and continue where she left off.

In the next several weeks, Iris will be showcasing the thoughts, words, and images of Lauren Pond regarding her journey to Africa.

Lauren Pond
Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University
Web site:

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


Forty years ago, two Memphis sanitation workers were crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck where they had sought shelter from the rain. The compactor had apparently malfunctioned. The deaths galvanized a spontaneous strike by sanitation workers for better pay (the high end of the scale was about $1.80 an hour), better equipment (the trucks were old and in disrepair, which probably contributed to the worker’s deaths) and better working conditions (no breaks, no place to relieve yourself, no shower to wash the stink of garbage off yourself, 15 minutes for lunch, abuse from gun-toting supervisors and you had to walk through people’s yards, cutting and hauling away trees, gathering garbage, picking up dead animals, because the city did not require residents to put garbage in cans or take it to the curb.)

But a strike about labor issues quickly became one about race. The workers were virtually all African-American and the city’s response was by turns racist, patronizing and brutal.

Today, the strike is remembered for two things: 1) it led to the death of Martin Luther King, who was in Memphis to support the strikers when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet; 2) the iconic images of the strikers wearing placards bearing a statement that was, in the context of the time, incendiary: I AM A MAN.

Forty years later, Carl Juste and Leonard Pitts, Jr. travel the Southeast looking at the state of black manhood in 2008 through six prisms: dignity, education, racial violence, crime and poverty; sports, style. Each prism will be reported from a city with symbolic resonance, but will include interviews and reportage from elsewhere in the country. The overarching title: I AM A Man.

Above is the intial project written by Leonard Pitts that we proposed to our paper, The Miami Herald. Several meetings later, the project was scaled down to covering only the surviving garbagemen of Union 1733 who walk out during the Memphis Worker's Strike of 1968 and the effects of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., on the minds and spirits of those Memphis strikers. The project was reduced to one city and a short stay in Memphis.

It does not take a rocket scientist to understand reasons behind the scaling down of such an important project. Like everything else in the news business, priorities have changed. Many newspapers are under extreme pressures to make high double digit profit margins, reducing cost while curtailing or at best reducing the impact of declining circulation and ad revenues. To The Miami Herald's credit, they did create the space and found the resources to make sure the project got good play, but The Miami Herald is not the average newspaper, nor does it operate in an average market. It took the strength of many staffers, editors, designers, to bring our project to life. Though shorter in stature, it remains strong and still powerful.

Where do we go from here? That is the million dollar question. How do we produce stories, photos, essays, and meaningful pieces about people of color in this current business environment? Editors, managers, and publishers will be the first to remind you their reasons for scaling down without ever offering a single reason why we need to build up, expand, engage, and better inform our readers. In the last four years, many of my friends, and in my opinion great journalists, have either quit, moved on to another career, or just fallen silent at critical moment when newspapers need them the most. Newsrooms continue to shrink, our workload continues to rise, and at best most wages remain stagnent (or have deminished) due to the high cost of surviving and low raises. We will have starved the 'Watchdog' to death and wonder why he/she no longer barks.

However, all is not lost. Just as those before us dared to state the obvious, so must we. We must be prepared to declare our importance not as individuals but as an institution. Big business, big government, special interests, and many other entities would love to see a smaller role of print journalism. They have sold us the power of the internet as 'the second coming' as many of us abandon our faith in order to save our flesh.

It has been forty years since the assassination of King, I find his words more powerful than ever:

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

- Martin Luther King, Jr. 04/03/68

I can only hope we have the same resolve and courage to save our profession, or we will have not only abandoned our past, but have dammed our future.

Here are several links of interest:

Friday, March 28, 2008

Long Live the King

In Washington, DC while working on an upcoming project and my cell phone rings.   I answer in the usual manner, knowing the caller but not the purpose of the call.  Before we can recite our common salutations, Luis Rios, my photo editor, insert a statement that would ursher in memories and expel any hope of denial.  In an assertive and calm voice he says “Cachao has died.  He died late last night and I wanted you to know."  Luis had just arrived to work and editing photos while balancing the needs of the news of Cachao’s death.  I, however, was suspended somewhere between reality and memories, as he excused himself from our phone conversation to attend to the breaking news and other newsroom chores.

Fingers frozen in mid key strokes, my mind went into "Google"search prompting photo after photo, moment after moment, and the fond memories of our thirteen-year relationship .  I met Israel"Cachao"Lopez on assignment at Emilio Estafan’s Cresent Moon Studios in Miami, Florida back in 1995.  I photographed the "El Maestro", the name he was often called during recording sessions, at recording studios in both Miami and Los Angeles, and at various concert venues in the South Florida area.  To hear him record was magical, but to hear him play on stage, to a crowded audience regardless of the venue, was divine.  God has blessed me several times in my life.  One of those blessing was definitley meeting and documenting part of the artistic reign of the "The Mambo King", the late great Israel"Cachao"Lopez. 

Cachao always surrounded himself with the best.  He is, and always will be a musical artistic magnet.  He attracts only individuals who understands and shares his work ethic, his kindness, and artistry.  He teaches without oration, he challenges us all to be the best in ourselves by finding our own divine voice, but what I will always remember is his leadership.  It is easy to be an artist when you are in favor.  Cachao, however, has kept his diginity intact never diluting his art for the quest of fame.

Has the world lost another Master? I say no.  Instead the world has gained a King.  His polished crown shines for all to see.  His music transcend all human, cultural, and political barriers.  We are better because we have gathered before him.  I will shed no tear of lost, but will cry a river of gratitude. Thank you, Cachao.

Long live the King.

Long live the King.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


As yesterday was a holiday for Baltimore City public schools, we took advantage of the free time and perfect weather to take a group of students on a photo safari. Seanté Hatcher is the Youth & Community Liaison for the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. I work with her and the students in the Youth Advisory Committee, otherwise known as the YAC, on a project called Photovoice. 

We work with the students to teach them how to express themselves and think critically. Our 
theme this year is the anti-gang experience, and the students have been tasked to come up with pictures that show an alternative to that lifestyle. Students have to think about what they want to say with their photography, make a photo, then write a caption explaining their thoughts about
the picture.

We walked down Broadway from the school campus to Fells Point, and the students made pictures along the way. Our emphasis was on composition and moments, and this expedition was a great opportunity to get out of a visual rut that a lot of the students had fallen into. 
It also gave us a chance to work directly with the students. In addition to Seanté we had help from Colby Ware, a brilliant photographer and associate member of Iris, and two design students from MICA, Jonathan and Alex Pines. 
The students had a good time, and I was glad to see them taking things in a little differently. I really wanted to see them get away from all the posed photos that had been coming in, and move toward moments and uncontrived shots. We were able to take some big steps in that direction.

All the students will continue to shoot on their own, and in the coming weeks we'll be wrapping up the shooting phase and moving toward the editing and captioning of the final project. The students will show their work as they did last year, and more than likely make another calendar. There are also some other ideas in the works, but I'll make sure to keep everyone updated as we move along. 


btw, here is a link to the Baltimore Sun's coverage of last year's Photovoice project.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Thoughts on Photojournalism

Foremost, I need to emphasize that photojournalism, at the upper levels of the practice, is something far greater than the intersection of light, composition and moment. These are academic blocks of the discipline that are a given in any good photograph, but do not necessarily add up to reportage. I am a reporter in the truest sense of the word; I research my stories beforehand, I ask questions, I listen, I make connections with the facts that I know, and I try to determine what the relationships are. For me, the relationships are the key to the formula: discovering what they are and capturing them is what elevates a photograph to photojournalism. How does a person who is infected with AIDS view themselves, or their family? How does that dynamic change if their entire family is HIV positive? What about their entire community? Is a mother's caress more or less tender if she knows that she hasn't infected her baby? How does an eleven-year-old girl relate to a world that does not include parents, education or opportunity?

Good journalism, whether writing or photography, is about the reporting.  My process is not unlike that of the writer. The obvious difference is that we work in a different medium, but there are finer distinctions as well. I work in the present, and I work directly with my subject. That proximity informs the work in a way that cannot be duplicated with any other method. One needs to stand there watching as a seven-year-old boy suddenly grows beyond his years in order to comfort his father's widow. If one bears witness as a boy too young for the task comforts and protects the mother who has done it for him throughout his short life, then their loss can be understood with greater depth and brought into the story. The writer might be there to see it, but the photojournalist will be there, because the photojournalist, myself, cannot do the work any other way.

 The perspective that I bring to a story, whether I use the camera or write, will emphasize the human response within the larger framework. I can do the research that may produce the context, "40 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS, and two-thirds are in Southern Africa". 

But to illustrate how they live with it I will give you quotes and pictures of the HIV positive pastor who has to perform funerals for the members of his congregation that die of AIDS. In this respect the perspective grows out of the methodology, which in turn informs the story. What makes this unique, and ultimately more intriguing is that one does not lose sight of the human component of the story, even when tackling complicated issues.