My freshman year out in the field, I’d learned quickly, on the spot really, most of what I needed to know, what others took years to get: that you have exactly one second to think, not a moment more (or less); that you always and immediately run toward the danger, but never at full speed; that ignorance and naiveté can work in your favor if your instincts are good and motives clear; that you trust no one but are always trustworthy; that no assignment is a dud, but rather a chance to show some ingenuity. That your camera is your precious instrument, and also, yes, your weapon – wielded properly, it’s your ticket in; squandered, your one-way pass to nowhere nice.
These lessons were somehow not difficult for me to learn, and natural. Something about quick reflexes came easily. Reacting is as strong a skill as I’ve got, a basic mode of existence. As is inconspicuousness, flying under the radar. People opened up to me, allowed me wandering rights in their territory. I supposed they sensed no threat, no covetousness (I am a tallish person, but plain-styled and slight). From the get-go, I pushed as far as I could in every situation, and minded my limits.
For me, it’s never been about breaking the story, or exposing the subject anyway. It’s always been about the moment. Freezing time, holding space. The enormity of an instant. Later, when you see what you’ve got, what you’ve managed to seize from time, you feel somehow like the world has stopped turning, everything and everyone suspended, waiting; and the moment you have, there in your hands, before your eyes, it’s spinning out into its own deep and wide eternity.
Everything happens in a moment.
And yet, string them all together and you can still somehow find yourself nowhere. Time and space flattened out into here, there, yesterday, tomorrow. Years gone by in a blink.
The parade of cameras over time was fairly conventional. First, it was my hands— baby fingers curled over into o’s, two binocular lenses to frame objects of interest. The ornate patterns of kitchen-floor vinyl, the cat’s front paws stretched out in front like baby boxing gloves. Clouds. These, my first cropping exercises, everything cast within circles. Then it was the Fisher Price Zoo-Camera. Pre-fab images of zebras, lions, tigers that went click-click, an artificial flash to simulate the magic.
But I was impatient for actual magic; I could smell a rat. So I lobbied hard for a Polaroid.
I was eleven, I think. The world had begun to seem an unpleasant and unsafe place. Magic. Magic was everything. See, click, poof! That first real camera seemed the answer to everything, a revelation—like a crime with no punishment. The world was mine for the taking. From the beginning, I somehow knew: behind the lens, I had my footing. It was a place of instant solitude, and safe.
Looking back, it was probably best that my parents refused my pleas for a complex manual-focus Pentax until I was older. Those first few years I had one variable to work with: the frame. Within such parameters, your eyes begin to work hard. You learn to tilt your head, bend your knees, step back, step forward, look away then look again. You learn to scan. Pause. Wait – for the light to shift, the subject to turn, the wind to blow, your eyes to adjust until texture and dimension come into relief. You learn to always keep your eyes working when they are open, sometimes even when they are closed.
I am on the younger side among my colleagues, in good part because of some luck early on. The thing about luck is that you don’t need a whole lot of it; but it must be well-timed, and you’ve got to be paying close attention to receive its full benefits. Lesson #1—that you have exactly one second to think—applies especially when luck comes knocking.
When I was in college, cobbling together art and photography classes alongside a poli-sci major, figuring out how my life as a photojournalist was really going to work, there were still only a few women out there tromping through minefields wearing bhurkas and camping out in desert caves dressed as men. One of them was a French femme named Eloise Martine, who came to give a special week-long lecture series during my senior year called “Love & Lust: The Concerned Photojournalist” – which, despite its racy title, proved to be a seminal philosophical treatise on the complex morality of war photography. The lectures were subsequently published in photo-essay format by a major art publisher, with blurbs on the back-cover from the likes of Nachtwey, Amanpour, Salgado.
By that time, Paul and I had been together a couple of years. He was out of graduate school and had just begun working as a civil engineer for a large company, a major government contractor. He was a rising star, the only junior engineer managing his own projects, meeting sometimes with senior government officials whose identities he claimed he could not reveal (I suspected sometimes that he said so for the fun of it, knowing I’d eat up the intrigue). He was very busy, and the difference between my listless, self-determining senior schedule and his heavily-deadlined professional one had begun to set us on different paths. We were drifting, the way couples do, I guess; especially the young and the ambitious.
So I had some time on my hands: I was ripe for something, and searching.
I attended Eloise’s first three lectures. At the third one, I braved up to ask a question—something about how much thinking and planning went into the work, intention vs. instinct—which apparently made an impression, sending her off into a gripping story about photographing women in coca-growing cooperatives in Bolivia, which, many months and even more rolls of film later, eventually got her access to traffickers, their brothers and husbands and fathers—the real story. Afterwards, I lingered at the front of the auditorium as she held court, catching bits and pieces of Q&A. When she began to pack up her things, signaling the end of the session, I headed toward the exit; but then, I felt her turn toward me and point in my direction. In response to a question I didn’t catch, she said, “Ask that one over there; she knows what I mean.” When I looked over, I am almost sure she winked at me.
It was spring term of my senior year. I had a “Totalitarianism and the Modern State” mid-term exam awaiting me, but I thought what the hell—and I had exactly one second to think. In that second, she’d left, and I rushed out the door. I pushed my way through bodies and backpacks, out into the campus square. It took a near-sprint for me to catch up to her, and when I did, she was, miraculously, alone. “Excuse me,” I called. She was a few steps ahead, and walking very fast. “Madame Martine!” I was yelling now, people were turning to stare. She stopped short, did not turn around, but allowed me to catch up. Just as I reached her, she immediately started moving again, as fast as before.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said. She hadn’t turned to look at me, but identified me peripherally. “There is always one. I am very fast, you know, I know how to get away. But there is always one. I am glad it’s you. Viens. I have some time, you are in luck.”
She led me to the faculty lounge, where mostly younger faculty congregated. There, she had stowed her things in a corner, behind a chair. “It’s my camera, really, that I am worried about. It will be ok, you think?” I looked over to see a pile of lumpy canvass bags, edges worn and torn, colors faded. It could have been a homeless person’s life possessions. “You learn to disguise your treasure, your instrument,” she said, reading my thoughts. “Subtlety, always. You never announce yourself as The Photographer.”
Some time turned into an afternoon and then an early dinner at a nearby café. It was like a dream, this bit of luck—my first lesson in what can happen when you act, when you plant your feet in that second and do what needs to be done. She started our chat with this: “Yes, I am glad it is you. Did you notice how many women were in that lecture hall?” I hadn’t, really, though I knew the answer. “You are very lucky that your université has brought me here. In France, in Paris even, they don’t ask me to speak. They would rather silence me. These wars, all of them, they are still about le machismo. Penis wars, you know. We are not welcome in their matters. These nations which are at war, they are nations in the grips of patriarchy. We women work not twice as hard, but ten times as hard to get inside, to earn entrée. We are trouble, we invade their male space, you understand?”
She spoke quickly, as if time was short. And it did feel like time was spinning, releasing for just this moment something wild and mysterious, and I would be waking up from the hallucination very soon. It was a moment, I suppose, of pure youth. The young Rilke had his statue of Apollo—You must change your life. I had Eloise.
“You ask a good question, the kind with no exact answer, and yet one must ask it, over and again. Don’t lose that, it’s very easy to lose your self in all this mess, your sense of what and why. I see you are serious, you want something. I was like that. I will speak about this—le sexisme in journalism—at the end of the week, to that roomful of boys, after they have heard my stories, after they have seen my pictures and I have proven myself a worthy source. But you, you are getting this little talk from me now, entre nous, because I do not like wasting time. Those boys, most of them will not care or understand what I am saying. I am talking about love and lust.
“I think that yes, perhaps women they have a harder time with the physical challenges of field work. We need toilets and hair-washing and the skin of our feet is soft. But enfin, I tell you, what we know better is the difference between love and lust.
“Many photographers, they lust for that moment, the height of violence or terror or destruction, when they can swoop in with a camera and shoot—like a gun, you know? But listen, we are not combatants in the war, we are not there to crave and consume violence. War and violence, these are male adolescence, unenlightened instincts—don’t forget. You love your work, you love the art, the craft, of capturing those instants…” she said these words with drawn-out vowels and dropped consonants, savoring them, “…because the world and all humanité exists in an image. But at the same time, you hate it, you must always also hate what you do, you make your living off of suffering and ugliness and despair. You musn’t love that. If you do, then you are mercenary, you have built your work on lust. You may get away with it, perhaps even make money. I don’t know you, I don’t have time to know you— but I have my instinct…you asked me about instinct, and so, here you have it…I gamble here and there. Try to do something real. I tell you, it will not be easy.”
We drank, she smoked, and the whole evening I had the strange sensation of seeing everything, for just these few hours, through a telescope. And simultaneously feeling as if the two of us were the image inside the telescope—participating in the immensity of the stars and the sky and the planet. Time spun, a glorious whir, and when I stepped back, beholding the image, a shape of a life presented itself to me; and it looked something like my own shape, but also the shape of everything.
It was both terrifying and exhilarating—that someone expected something of me, like being anointed and picked out of a police lineup all at once, God and the law pointing her finger: You. Eloise was in fact not much older than I—about ten years—but seemed a lifetime away and ahead. She was petite, muscular, with frizzy auburn hair, pale freckled skin, watery blue eyes. Isabelle Huppert with a shot of testosterone.
When we parted that evening, she told me to send her my photos when I was ready, but not before. I told her I would. I was 20 years old, she had me by the collar, and I wanted to say something like “Thank you” or “I won’t let you down, Madame Martine,” but instead, possessed by a sincerity which seems all but impossible to me now, I said this: “I hope to learn what you mean by ‘love’.” We were standing on a street corner, it was late on a warm spring evening, the nearest streetlight was just far enough that we were mostly in the dark. A distant brightness illuminated the space between us. Eloise held my face in one hand, very close to hers, and kissed both cheeks. My headless Apollo, from every edge exploding like starlight. “You will, Jeanne. I believe you will.”
I did not attend any more of Eloise’s lectures but instead spent that time and the bulk of that semester finishing my senior portfolio—Asian American kids with money, bankers and lawyers, dressed to the nines, shooting up and snorting coke in brightly-lit, marble-countered club bathrooms (Henry got me in, a friend of a friend). It was shock-value stuff, but the photos themselves were understated and had a warmth to them which I knew somehow worked. I sent prints of the best ones to Eloise. The series won an award in the senior exhibit, which meant my own one-week show at a scrappy gallery in an up-and-coming neighborhood. I sold one photograph, and had enough money to tide me over that summer, so I went to work on another series: Chinese prostitutes in Queens. This one I got on my own, through one of the subjects of the first series who came to the show and liked it. The girls let me shoot them while they passed time, smoking dope and giving each other makeovers, during off-hours. No clients, they said, the johns would never allow it. I explained that I would be discreet and didn’t want any faces, they said I’d get myself killed if I tried. I believed them.
I sent these to Eloise as well. I was so hopeful, I sent originals. When I didn’t hear back for a long time, I grew listless and despondent.
“She’s probably traveling,” Paul assured me, always the level-headed optimist. “Give it some time.” When finally I did hear from her, it was an e-mail, and not much to go on: “Jeanne, come to Paris, Your work is good. Come right away.” I had exactly one second to think.
She’d included an address, which meant nothing to me, since I’d never been to Paris. But I went right out and quit my respectable entry-level job in the photographic preservation department of the public library; Paul and I discussed it for all of two minutes for formality’s sake (“I’ll be back soon enough, who even knows what this is about”); and off I went.
That was it. That was the beginning.