Lucian Perkins

Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova

Lucian Perkins is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (1995 and 2000) who worked as a staff photographer for The Washington Post for 27 years. In 1996, his photograph of a boy in war-torn Chechnya was awarded World Press Photo of the Year, and in 1994 he was named Newspaper Photographer of the Year by National Press Photographers Association. Most of his work has been in the United States, but he has also covered wars in the former Yugoslavia, Russia, Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, Perkins is an independent photographer living in Washington, DC.

SB. How and why did you learn photography?

LP. While majoring in biochemistry at the University of Texas in Austin, I was a Resident Assistant (RA) at one of the dorms. One of my residents sold me his camera, an old Pentax Spotmatic. That initiated my interest in photography and soon after I took a photography class as an elective. There, one of the class’s teaching assistant suggested that I apply for a job opening on the university’s newspaper, The Daily Texan. That job, along with a photography class I took by Garry Winogrand, then teaching in the university’s art department, inspired me to change directions and become a photographer. While working on The Daily Texan, I applied to nearly thirty newspapers for a summer internship.

The Washington Post hired me. My goal during that internship was to persuade them to hire me full time. I was convinced that the advice I had read in an interview with Robert Gilka, then the Chief of Photography for National Geographic, would help me do that. He said, “We're up to our armpits in great photographers, but up to our ankles in good ideas." I took that to heart and decided to come up with my own stories while an intern at the Post, even if that meant shooting them on my own time after work. One of those story ideas not only ran on the front page of the Post but was also picked up by nearly every news organization around the world. The Post extended my internship for six months, and then hired me full time. I ended up working there for 27 years.

SB. How did you develop an interest in human rights projects?

LP. As a photographer for The Washington Post, I photographed every aspect of life and culture. One day I would find myself at a glitzy political party. The next I would cover a soup kitchen; an event at the White House; or the funeral of an innocent bystander killed in the crossfire of a drug gang shootout.

Many of these stories provided me an opportunity to understand the disparities that people often live under in our country. For example, Leon Dash, a reporter for The Washington Post, and I followed a mother and three generations of her family in urban D.C. in an effort to better understand how poverty, illiteracy, drug abuse, recidivism, and racism moved from generation to generation. One of her grandchildren, Reco, whom I first met when he was eleven years old, was a sweet and loving kid like any other child you might encounter in this country. Four years later he was involved in a gang shoot-out and killed. I often thought that in another environment that child might have had an opportunity to blossom and become a valuable member of our society.

Overseas I was confronted with more overt examples of human rights violations as I covered wars in Chechnya, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. For example, in Kosovo I listened to and photographed a 14-year-old girl who was lined up with her parents and siblings and then witnessed her family being executed. She survived because the bullet meant for her, hit her cheek and allowed her to feign being dead.

The realty is that once you have experienced first hand the innocent victims who never had the chance that many of us take for granted to pursue our dreams, the concepts of “social justice” and “human rights” become very important.
Rosa Lee Cunningham was the subject of an eight-part series by the Washington Post which told the story of a family's struggle with "destructive cycles of poverty, illiteracy, crime and drug abuse. Here Rosa Lee was hospitalized from pneumonia brought on by HIV. She is comforted by one of her sons, Richard, who was frequently in and out of jail. Rosa Lee died of HIV/AIDs soon after the series ran.

 SB. How do you understand the mission of photojournalism?

LP. I remember as a child being deeply affected by photographs taken during the civil rights era of, for example, police setting dogs on black demonstrators in Alabama, or later, by war images from Vietnam that made me wonder if I were going to be drafted. Photojournalism can move us to reflect on what is happening in the world around us and even take action. More recently, a Washington, D.C. art curator told me that when she was in high school she was so inspired by photographs I had taken in Bosnia that ran in The Washington Post. Years later she spearheaded a joint exhibition of work by emerging artists from Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and helped bring them to the U.S.

What makes photojournalism stand out is the ability to freeze a moment in time and capture a revealing emotion that affects us. That emotion transcends race, religion, gender, and politics. And it is because of that that we can take the place of the person in the image and imagine that it is us being chased by police dogs; us consoling a dying comrade; or us being that Bosnian child confronted with war. That connection can begin to strip away the prejudice or lack of understanding any of us may have once had toward people outside our immediate lived experience and provide a gateway to better empathizing and appreciate the world around us.

That is my ideal of what photojournalism can do and it is certainly what I strive for as a photographer.
Six-year-old Eldin Isovic, who lost his hands and eyesight after he picked up a live grenade, blows bubbles while convalescing in a Sarajevo hospital

SB. In 1995, you won your first Pulitzer Prize for telling the story of a family's struggle with destructive cycles of poverty, illiteracy, crime, and drug abuse. Did the attention of the Pulitzer Prize impact the subjects of your winning story?

LP. This eight-part series touched off one of the largest community responses of any story The Washington Post has published. The resulting book is to this day read in journalism classes throughout the country and I’m amazed at how often I’m approached by students who have read it.

Rosa Lee Cunningham, who was the central character in the series, was pleased with the story when it finally ran. I really believe that the reason she allowed us into her life was because she hoped it would give her answers as to why her life and the life of many of her children had led to crime and drug addiction. In the months after the story ran, she found her voice and became an active speaker at public meetings, drug treatment programs and churches. Strangers would approach her after seeing her photos in the paper and tell her that they learned something from reading her story.

The day that her story won a Pulitzer, she was admitted to a hospital for pneumonia. Sadly, also on that day was the funeral for her 15 year-old grandson, Reco, whom I mentioned earlier. Rosa Lee died several months later after a long battle with HIV/AIDs.

SB. You photographed extensively in the former Soviet Union and helped organize the first ever photo conference in Moscow in 1995. Where did this interest come from?

LP. There was an exhibition in Washington D.C. curated by Leah Bendavid Val at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1991 entitled “Changing Realities,” which featured some of the best work by photographers in the Soviet Union (it was still the Soviet Union back then). Five of the photographers came to the opening and were in the U.S. for the first time. I was asked to show them around Washington D.C. and became good friends with them as we toured the White House and The Washington Post and I introduced them to tequila at a neighborhood Mexican restaurant. A year and a half later, I found myself on Moscow’s Red Square covering the dramatic upheavals of that period, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and it was Vladimir Siomin, one of the photographers I met in Washington, DC. I became reacquainted with him and soon with many other photographers in the Russian community. I was awed by their work and saddened that it was unknown outside of Russia. After one long night of vodka toasts, the idea of creating a photo conference in Moscow was hatched. Later Bill Swersey, who then lived in Moscow and worked for Gamma Liason, joined me to co-found InterFoto. At the very first InterFoto in 1995, Photo editors such as Kathy Ryan of The New York Times Magazine saw the work of many of these photographers and subsequently, would hire them to do assignments. A year later Siomin won the Eugene Smith Grant. Soon after, Ljalja Kuznetsova, another photographer I had first met in D.C., would win the Mother Jones award. Her daughter Vlada and Liza Faktor would go on to help us run InterFoto for ten years. It grew into a large international photography festival that I believe made an impact and help nourish a rich tradition that suffered greatly during the difficult times in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

SB. You are one of the photographers participating in "Facing change: Documenting America", inspired by the project created by a group of U.S. government photographers and the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. What do you photograph now for Facing Change and how this is similar to FSA project?

LP. Facing Change: Documenting America is a project that I’ve been working with Anthony Suau and a small group of photographers and writers for two years now. Our mission is to document the issues confronting our country and to create an in-depth record of America during what we consider to be one of the most challenging and divisive times in our history. We were certainly inspired by the FSA and I believe that Roy Stryker, the FSA project director, who described their project as a way to introduce “Americans to America” is what we hope to achieve with Facing Change as well.

Currently, one of my focuses for FCDA is the obesity crisis. I’m also documenting people who are making a difference in our society by their finding ways to solve some of the issues confronting America.

SB. You had a role in "Propaganda and Dreams," an exhibition that compares government-sponsored Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography created in the US with Socialist Realist photographs produced in the USSR during the 1930s. Can you compare the images, produced now, by Facing Changes with the reality of a post communist Russia?

LP. Actually I had no role in “Propaganda and Dreams” except that a friend of mine, Leah Bendavid Val, who also organized the exhibition “Changing Realities,” created the exhibition and book. The book should be part of any photographer’s library.

As for comparing Facing Change with Russian photography today, that should probably be left for a future curator or photography historian. But as I said in an earlier answer, Russian photography is doing fine today. Recently, I held a multimedia workshop in Moscow and was very impressed with their work and dedication. More importantly, contemporary Russian photographers are doing an amazing job covering current issues given the growing repressive atmosphere under which they are working.

SB. What advice would you give to young photographers who want to dedicate themselves to documentary photography that helps social changes?

LP. It has never been easy to fund projects about social issues or human rights. I’ve found that many times I’ve had to start my projects first before I can get them funded. That is true with two that I’m working on now. Ultimately, it will be your passion and understanding about the subject that will move you forward and offer funders and organizations interested in your topic a preview of your vision.

Finally, I personally believe that being a good photographer is no longer enough in this day and age to survive in the emerging markets being created by the internet and new devices such as the iphone and ipad. These technologies require photographers to also have writing skills and the ability to incorporate sound and video into their projects to fully take advantage of these new platforms.
Seven months before 9/11 Afghanistan stood isolated and in ruins after 22 years of war and the worst drought in memory. By 2001 700,000 Afghans streamed toward the borders. Many had watched their crops and animals die. Many were caught in the middle of the long-standing civil war.
Mohammed Essa holds out his hands. They are encased in thick dirt. "Isn't the cold killing me? Isn't the hunger killing me?" He points to his wife, who looks back at him with a frightened expression. He points to his sons, one 8, the other 6. "I want to leave this place," he says.