CD: Lloyd, many thanks for being a part of the FUSEVISUAL project. We’ve known each other for many years….going all the way back to the nineties and the “Shooting Back” project teaching homeless children in DC the basics of photography. I’ve long admired your work and your dedication to long-term personal projects. so lets start with one of the older projects: Jewish Mothers.
Tell us how that project came about, how you shot it, and collaborated with the authors and publisher.
Lloyd Wolf: “Jewish Mothers:Strength Wisdom Compassion” came about as a result of wishing to work with particular writer, Paula Wolfson, on a mutual project. We jammed on ideas and realized that there was a strong desire on the part of Jewish women to reclaim their strengths and counter the somewhat negative stereotypes about them in American culture. We had both worked extensively in the field of Jewish journalism (I have won two awards for photography from the American Jewish Press Association), and were aware of the size and receptivity of the potential audience. We began to visualize what needed to be covered. We decide on an interview paired with photographs format, and just started doing the work on our own. We were given the name of a photography book agent/packager early on, Gary Chassman of Verve Editions. He was very enthusiastic about the viability of the project, and he began shopping the book around to publishers. Early on, the editor of a major Jewish magazine ran a substantial excerpt from the work as a spread, and New York Jewish Week ran it in their Mothers Day edition. This material was useful in convincing a publisher of the size and receptivity to the work in the market. Gary hooked us up with Chronicle Books, and a deal was signed. They assigned us a publicist for the early phase of the book campaign, and we followed up with connections we had in the Jewish Press and organizational world. The book eventually was released in two editions, had several exhibitions, and the work is included in a couple of museum collections now.
Our working method was that Paula would do the interviews (with occasional assistance from me), and I did the photography and final text editing. I used four cameras (Nikon fF5′s , a Polaroid 250, and a Mamiya C33) on the project, all with black and white film, generally Kodak TMax 400 processed in Microdol X 1:3, for long scale tonalities. All prints were made by me in the darkroom on double-weight Ilford fiber paper, and selenium-toned for image tone and for archival purposes.
CD: One of your current documentary projects is in color: The Columbia Pike Documentary Project and scheduled for publication with the University of Virginia Press. Why color? Has thinking and shooting this project in color changed how you go about shooting and documenting this rapidly changing area in Arlington, Virginia?
Lloyd Wolf: I have been leading a team of photographers (Duy Tran, Paula Endo, Alexandra Lagkueva, and Xang Mimi Ho) for several years documenting the neighborhood we live in. Columbia Pike is one of the most ethnically-diverse communities in the United States, and indeed, in the world. There are hundreds of nationalities represented along the Pike – Somali, Bolivian, Mongolian, Russian, Afghani, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Nicaraguan, Eritrean, Nigerian, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian, Bangladeshi, Moroccan, Turkish – on and on, mixed in with an existing African-American and older southern White population. Overall, people get along pretty harmoniously, with essentially no inter-ethnic strife. I find this admirable, and worthy of study and documentation, worth sharing with the wider world.
We got some grants from the Virginia Foundation for Humanities, Arlington Arts, and the Arlington Community Foundation, and are now working on a book, which we are fundraising for through a crowdfunding site http://www.gofundme.com/Living-Diversity. I’ve been the principal photographer, but the others on the team bring their visions and strengths to the overall work. We’ve shown the work locally at George Mason University, two libraries, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and as a projection at Artisphere and through DC’s FotoWeek. The book advisory panel we’ve assembled includes local politicians, economic development officials, School Board members, teachers, business-people, a diversity specialist, the County’s cultural point person, civic-association chairs, and others who can enlarge our perspective and provide community buy-in The book we hope will be used in school curricula, to help teach about our history and about diversity in general.
The whole project has been shot and printed digitally. We chose to do the work in color, and it was a choice, for a variety of reasons. The main reason was the result of my viewing a book of FSA Depression-era photographs, Bound For Glory: America in Color 1939-1943. The immediacy of the color, the way it removed some of the abstraction and distance that occurs in working with black-and-white, profoundly altered the way I see color as a documentary tool. If the purpose of a documentary is to record the real, to record the experience of people, time, and place, then color is closer to the reality of the experience. It makes you feel like you are there. It does have its drawbacks, but overall, I believe it is the best choice for the work we are doing in recording our community’s life. Also, just purely aesthetically, so many of our ethnic festivals are near riots of bright colored costuming, that it’s just fun to work with color. And that’s the bottom line, it makes the pictures interesting to look at. That is what really matters.
We are beginning to wind down the image-gathering phase of this project, which began in 2007, with roots back to about 2001. We are concentrating on getting the book done – fundraising, editing, gathering the writers, working with a designer and printer, and teaming with UVA Press to bring the book to an audience. And by the way, thank you Cameron for your kind help in connecting us to UVA. It means a lot.
CD: Your long-term project on Shrines – Washington’s Other Monuments – is a disturbing look at deaths in Washington DC and how people remember those friends and family members who were murdered. Tell us about the project, how it got started, your emotional response to these sites and the publication of the images.
Lloyd Wolf: For the past ten years, I have been intensively documenting the numerous homemade shrines to victims of murder and violence that appear throughout the Washington DC area. I am deeply compelled by their heartbreaking vibrancy, their sadness, and their all-too-common presence on the city’s streets. Often they are the only visible manifestation left to mark the life of a loved one.
I have photographed many hundreds of shrines over the years. Most are in the District’s risky impoverished neighborhoods, but I have found them at numerous sites in nearby Virginia and Maryland also. They all share a basic characteristic: someone who we care about died here, and we are showing our respect and our pain by creating this public sculpture in their, and our, honor.
They are tears and prayers made visible.
I first became aware and interested in street shrines when the young formerly-homeless photographer I mentored, Dion Johnson, lost four of his relatives to murder in the space of one year. I saw the toll it took on him, the anguish it caused. I learned to see the markers that were erected in the city’s rough (and not-so rough) neighborhoods as representing the powerful emotions of people – real people, distraught and grieving – who lost a son, brother, father, aunt, neighbor, lover, or friend to violence. The shrines – cascades of plush toys, balloons, handwritten prayers and reminiscences, flowers, T-shirts, liquor bottles, photographs, food, candles, and other paraphernalia – seemed to me to manifest the secret, but highly visible – representation of the wounded heart of our community.
As a nation, we rightly mourn for those who have been killed overseas defending our communities. It is also sad though, that we have become numb to the ongoing slaughter in our own area, indifferent to the many thousands who lose their lives to violence right here at home, and the untold thousands more who suffer in the wake of each death. We are so used to it that we rarely notice anymore – murder doesn’t even always make the back pages of the newspapers nowadays.
The shrines call to me, to us, to notice, to remember, to be aware – and hopefully, to act.
I have taken to engaging a visual approach that heightens the emotional and structural aspects of the shrines. I pay close attention to bringing forth the often electric colors, and balancing the chaotic arrangements of objects, the admixture of the deeply personal with mass culture references, the holy laced with ‘gangsta’ iconography, and the physical relationships of the shrines to their environment. I have taken this strategy for each individual image, applying it also to the entire body of work. The camera gives these spontaneous ephemeral folk sculptures some permanence, and some cogency.
The creation of this body of work has been my ongoing process; my action.
CD: For many years you worked with one of the young men who you mentored during the Shooting Back project. He is a grown man with five children. Why did you continue with the mentoring and how has that impacted both of your lives?
Lloyd Wolf: I still am in pretty regular touch with Dion Johnson, and am the godfather to his kids. His older son Justin’s middle name is Lloyd, after me, and I find that deeply moving. Dion and I are pretty close, we understand and respect one another.
After Shooting Back, I worked with Dion in a program called Streets to Skills, run by a caring and energetic social worker, my soul sister, Ella McCall Haygen. She calls me her Jewish brother. She shepherded Dion and a coupe of other Shooting Back graduates through more photography, and helped with their personal growth and other necessities, and helped counsel me in working with Dion. His world was cry different than mine- fatherless, addicted mother, dangerous neighborhood, but his good will and moral compass called out to me.
Dion and I bonded over photography, and as time went on, I felt that my job was more like being an uncle to him, and shouldered that responsibility happily. Working with him was enriching to me also as a person. Plus, for several years, his photographs grew in strength and meaning, and I enjoyed shepherding that process along. A couple of his pieces are included in the Corcoran’s collection, and serve still as source of pride for him. He does not work in photography now, though he did work at Chrome, a quality DC photo lab running an E-6 line for many years. He now does rap as his creative outlet, and is quite good at it, with some successes. Mostly I am proud of him for taking care of his kids, having a successful marriage, and being a provider for his family- something that was outside his childhood experience. His daughter Jazmin is now thinking about nursing school, and we are very proud of her.
Plus, he’s just a great guy, and I adore his family. Photography was the hook that began and extended our relationship, and deepened my connection to doing community-based visual work
CD: How do your personal documentary projects shape you as a photographer?
Lloyd Wolf: I often tell people that my reputation is made doing documentary work, and it provides part of my living. I do general commercial and editorial work, especially working with a variety of non-profits – unions, hospitals, education groups, non-profit housing providers, religious organizations, social service providers, colleges, local governments, and the like.
I have learned to be flexible technically and emotionally, to respond to the people and situations I am covering. It has taught me patience, and how to shepherd my emotions. It can be a bit overwhelming.
I find I can make effective images in almost any situation. It’s dance between knowing your gear, how an image comes together aesthetically to communicate, and respecting and reacting to the environment I m often a guest in.
I have learned a lot- covering folks in homeless shelters, in AIDS hospices, in social-service situations in Ukraine, in schools in Morocco, at checkpoints and terror situations in Israel and Palestine, in Appalachia, on DC’s rougher streets, in operating rooms, in classrooms, prisons, in the US Senate, in a wounded veteran’s eyes – it opens ones world. I believe we were put on earth to learn. It’s been my way of learning, and passing my learning on.
Documentary work has given me a ticket to see a lot, to be associated and promote causes and values I care about. I like to say I have had a lot of field trips, that the camera has been my entrée, my ticket to see things others don’t often have access to. This has enlarged my life. The larger documentary projects have embedded me, in some cases rooted me, in a community or location, to have become part of the eyes of a group that wants to communicate its experiences, or needs its situation shared with the wider world.
It’s privilege, a blessing for which I regularly give thanks to the Powers That Be, Baruch Ha’Shem
CD: What advice would you give a young photographer about to embark on a career in photography?
Lloyd Wolf: Learn to be a good artist. This is the bottom line. You need to know how the medium works, both technically and aesthetically – what it takes to make an effective picture, regularly and reliably. That’s the fun part. You also need to be able to promote yourself, which often feels uncomfortable to many, but is a critically necessary aspect of sharing your work, your vision. Take a marketing course if needed, learn to do your account books. Talk to other photographers and listen to their advice on this, and then develop a strategy that is comfortable for you, that showcases your finest work. You’ll be a small business, and need to operate as such. Be reliable, on time, fair and honest to your clients, get your invoices out on time, learn to negotiate, and understand that you will need to re-invent your skills and business a couple of times during your career. Network network network, and keep developing your chops.