Perspectives: Behind the camera with photojournalist Eliot Kamenitz

Editor’s Note: For our “Perspectives” series, which talks with New Orleans-based journalists, pod-casters, documentarians, and photojournalists about their place and role in the journalistic world, Renee Peck was interviewed by Talia Abed. Talia and  Renee discussed Renee’s work as a journalist and editor at the Times-Picayune and how that led her to co-creating the arts and culture publication, NolaVie.  

Eliot Kamenitz and his cats. (Photo courtesy of: Eliot Kamenitz)

Who: Eliot Kamenitz

What: Photojournalist

Quotable Quote: “Yeah, it’s funny because when I do write, periodically people always look at me and say ‘Wow, you’re a photographer and you can write too?!’ 

EF: What are the themes that tend to draw you into a story? What do you make of these topics relations to your own experiences?

EK: Ah, well things that actually drew me into a story were mostly those that were assigned to me because I worked on a daily newspaper. Everyday you came and you got your assignment as a photographer, and that’s what you went out and did. A lot of times, the story is really about discovering what draws you into it. There’s an easy way to do something and a hard way to do something. You try to find the core of the story when you’re trying to be drawn into it, such was the Steve Gleason story.

When Steve Gleason was first announced with Alzheimers, a reporter and I went over to his place. Observing, you see that you’re looking at guitars that can no longer be played or other activities that can no longer happen, and you try to get drawn into who the person is. What I noticed most was the relationship of hope between Steve and his wife, who was pregnant at the time. The story became more about not what he can’t do, but what he can do. You try to stick with that story and take as much time as you can with that. Instead of what we used to do called ‘run and gun shoot and get out done.’ There was a point there, after we finished doing our interview, that we all were walking back. We were walking on the bridge that Steve and his wife had gotten married on. Steve and his wife were walking hand in hand, and I backed off and made a picture from there. It’s things like that that draw me into a story. What people are about. What is the situation. Telling the truth about the situation. It can change the situation.

EF: When following your subjects, how do you take notes? Are there ways journalists could be too invasive when gathering information?

EK: Being in photography, I didn’t take that many notes. A lot of times you would take notes after the subject was photographed. I always wrote things down. I didn’t trust a recorder. If you were doing feature art, you would try to take a notice, an approach, and say, ‘this is who I am; this is what I’m doing,’ and try to get their permission. I’m not a great believer of ‘in-your-face-journalism.’

For instance, we were covering the first anniversary of Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward, and, of course, this was a little bit different for us because we lived here, so we’re sort of almost part of the story, part of the difference in lands and part of whatever was going on. However, we got a lot of what we called ‘parachute journalists.’ They jump in, they do a story, and they leave. But you’re still there; you’re subjects in action.

The immediate thing is that your subjects are people; for Katrina, they were people who had lost something and that’s the story. There’s no reason to get into somebody’s face with a 20-millimeter lens — and that’s what all these people were doing as I was standing next to a cop, who was taking statements and shaking his head. All the journalists walked off, and they didn’t take any notes or anything like what’s your name, what happened, etc.

At one point, I saw two African American women crying and holding each other. I used a long lens after everybody else was out of the way. It was more of an intimate type of thing. I isolated the subject, and when I walked up to them, the story was that they hadn’t seen each other in a year. One of them had moved to LA, and one of them was living in Baton Rouge. Then I was able to add those notes and give then to the reporter or you can also find a reporter to expand  on that story more than just, ‘oh a couple of people lost their homes, this is terrible,’ and then the reporter is gone. You try to get close to your subject, but you try not to intrude when all humanly possible as a photographer because when you intrude there’s certain walls that sometimes go up, and you can’t get the pure emotion of whatever the story is.

EF: How do you define alternative and how do you see your work fitting or not fitting your definition?

EK: I don’t know what alternative is as far as journalism is concerned. I mean, when I was getting into it, alternative journalism was Rolling Stone and some of the Gonzo journalists. They sort of have already injected their point of view into a news story really harshly, I think. Hunter Thompson, the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was known as the Gonzo alternative journalist. When I look at alternative journalism now, and I may be wrong, it’s people entering into the story with a preconceived notion of what they want to say. Then, I think, sometimes it loses its subjectivity. I mean maybe their cause is great, but I think they have the tendency to sympathize too much with their subject as if they already know exactly what they’re all about.

EF: What did you feel the differences were between working for The Times Picayune and The New Orleans Advocate?

EK: It’s a touchy subject. I worked for The Times Picayune for 32 years, and I got laid off on my 60th birthday, so there’s that. I felt that when I went to The Advocate that it was more old school. The Advocate was a little less pressure and a little less emphasis at that time on running and gunning with having to shoot and do multiple things at the same time. The Picayune went into an era of this sort of new journalism of pushing the website first. When they did that, they required the photographers to shoot still photographs and shoot video at the same time. Sometimes when you collect a lot of information,  it feels like you’re serving too many masters at the same time.

When I went to The Advocate, their approach was more of refined journalism. My experience with them was, do the photographs, and if you get a video that’s fine, but bring us back a recording of the information first. It wasn’t about just getting it out on the internet as fast as possible.

There was a situation early on with The Picayune’s advent into the new website journalism where I had to cover a murder. They said, ‘get a picture of the police chief, get a statement from him and get it out on the internet.’ A guy was murdered and he was stabbed multiple times. We put that right out with no copy editor, no nothing, right out on the internet. Well, about an hour or so later, it turns out that he wasn’t stabbed to death, he was beat to death with a hammer. 

In the old days by the time you got back and refined the story with an editor, there usually was some catch up. It lowers your confidence in the newspaper if the statement of ‘he was stabbed’ isn’t true and isn’t immediately retracted.

Take, for instance, The First Gulf War. That war predates the internet, and there was a surge in newspapers asking readers what this was. Because television news on the war was breaking instantaneously to try and get information out first, so they would say, ‘…Moroccan attack on Israel. Oh, we’re sorry no it wasn’t. Oh wait we have confirmation that; oh wait, it’s not true.’ The viewer wouldn’t believe what was on TV because it changed every 10 minutes. However, our culture today demands and grants instantaneous gratification in our news, and that sometimes is not greatly accurate.

EF: What advice would you have given yourself or something you wish you knew when you started your photojournalism career?

EK: I think, this is going to be a little bit of a long story.

I’m ready for it. 

I got into what I wanted to do. I liked to take pictures. I didn’t realize, in the beginning, how important what I was doing was. To me, when I first started out in 1973 as a photographer — and I was very young, I was 21 — I was like, ‘oh I’ll just take some pictures what a great way to make a living.’ Free film, a couple of free meals, you get to shoot some sports, this that and the other. Then, when I took my first job in St. Augustine, Florida, one of my early assignments was I had to photograph Walt Disney characters. This is when Walt Disney was actually first coming into Florida. They were coming to, and this is the name of the school, it’s a bit of a harsh name. There’s a school in St. Augustine, Florida called The School of The Deaf, Blind and Dumb. Dumb meaning you can’t speak.

So, I thought, ‘Alright, I’ll go make some pictures of Cinderella, Mickey, and Goofy.

First, we went into a large room where all the deaf children were. I was making some pictures and all the kids were mesmerized. I don’t know if you can imagine this, but they were all shouting with their fingers, ‘ah, ah.’ It gave me this feeling that what I was photographing was not going to make a pretty picture of what it’s like to be deaf, what it’s like to communicate, and what it means to some children to see and experience this kind of joy and then photograph it. All that didn’t prepare me for the next trip because that was the blind children, and they all came forward and just started putting their hands all over the characters’ faces.

That was my paradigm shift. I had purpose, yes, in what I was doing. Now, a lot of other people enter journalism with that you ‘achieve justice of the American way,’ and I didn’t. For me, I wish that I knew that what I was doing was really important. It wasn’t about filling a space and it wasn’t about selling newspapers. It was about subject first.  

EF: Did you ever feel that after you’d taken  photographs and those photos were placed in other people’s writings that they went in a different direction than you intended?

EK: I can’t cite specific instances, but over the years there have been times where my take on what’s going on with my photograph and what the reporter wrote is not necessarily the same. There are good cops; there are bad cops; there are good reporters; there are bad reporters, and not everybody that goes and writes for a newspaper writes accurately or even something that is good. Some of them have to have an ax to grind.

The writer has been deemed as superior to the photographer. It’s funny because when I do write, periodically people always look at me and say, ‘Wow you’re a photographer and you can write too?!’ 

EF: When you got assignments to photograph for specific papers did you ever feel really pressured or unsatisfied with your work?

EK: Well, everyday that you go out and try to get something, it’s pressure. And some of them, you’re in this situation where people died, and it’s hard to do this story. Sometimes you fail and sometimes you don’t. If you’re having trouble, try to find something that both you and your subject have a key to — some sort of meaning.

I mentioned that house burning down. The people that died in the house were travelers, these young people that go from town to town. They’re young; they don’t trust newspapers; they don’t trust nothing. I have to go out there and these people are burnt. There’s these two women and this guy; they’re sitting, and I want to make the picture. They happen to be just sitting at the edge with the burnt-up building in the background. They don’t want to have their picture taken, and they don’t want to talk, and the reporter is getting absolutely nowhere.

One of these kids happened to have an artificial leg. The reporter asks, ‘How did he lose his leg?’ That didn’t go over very well. He told us he lost his leg hopping trains, but he had a sticker on his blue jean jacket that said ‘Tank Girl.’ Do you know who Tank Girl is?

I do not.

Okay, so we’re going back. Tank Girl is one of these cartoons. These comic books geared towards adult kids like you would see at Comic Con or something?

Oh, yes.

It’s a character and several years before that there was a movie out called Tank Girl and it’s a fictional bizarre thing. I said to the kid, ‘So Tank Girl. Do you think that the movie did justice to the comic books?’ and he said, ‘Man, you know, I like the kangaroo characters in the movie, but I think it didn’t really..’ You hit the established point and then they let me take the photograph.  

It got him speaking. It’s about finding the common ground. 

Yes, some sort of common ground. It could be music, a tattoo artist, but if you are running into some difficulty with this in anyway, it doesn’t always work either, but it certainly is a good feel realizing you have something in common.

This interview was completed for the class Alternative Journalism. The interview has been edited and configured for publication.



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