tv Oral Histories Lucian Perkins Photojournalism Interview CSPAN October 14, 2017 4:23am-5:09am EDT
up next. on american history tv. we hear from lucian perkins. a two time pulitzer prize winner and former washington post staff photographer. he talks about his career and photographs of wars in the former yugoslavia. chechnya. iraq and afghanistan. and a three genere family living in poverty. along with those of other nationally recognized photographers. this is just over 40 minutes. all right. talking with lucian perkins here. at the bris koe center. today is february 15, 2013. lucian, you started out in your photographer career, here at the university of texas. working at the daily texasen and i understand you worked with
gary. in a photo journalism or course here at ut. would you talk about a all that influenced your career? >> it's funny. i was actually a biology major. at university of texas. and also at the dorms. at chester dorm. which i just visited today. 30 years later. hasn't changed a bit. and one of my residents at chester sold me one of his older cameras. i guess he was convinced his parents to get him a new one. and i just became very interested in photography as hobby. and decided to take courses as an elective. and convince dentally signed up for first year journalism. even though i wasn't even thinking about photo journalism. or knew what it was. it was a first year photo class.
i took the course and toward the end of the semester, the ta said lucian there's an opening on the student newspaper cactus yearbook. you should go apply. and i never even thought about photographing as a career. i went and applied. and got the job. and the very day i got the job i said oh my god this is what i want to do. so i started work lg on the cactus yearbook. started shooting for the daily texas. and one of another person that was hired at the same time said you have to take this class by gary. who teaches in the art department. i said sure, and i remember looking at gary's work and not really understanding it. i said why do you like this
class? harly had taken it i think two times already. this is like his third time taking gary's class. and he goes, it's so fun to watch him because he will intimidate some students so much they'll run out crying. he goes, the dynamics are so fun to watch. harly had this straight. so it i said okay, sure. i'll take the class with you. and the first day of class, i walk in and harly and i are sitting in the back. and gary walks in. he's kind of this rough new yorker, character. and he's like okay who's got what to say in this class? he's grumbling and the first day he starts showing works by walker evens. i remember him facing the screen
flipping through the photographs. as he was look at god himself. you could tell he had really loved walker ef vans. after wards he turns around and says okay who's got what to say in this class about these photographs? harly is next to me. i raised my hand and i said i liked a lot of photographs. i thought some were boring. and his eyes narrowed in on me. he says if there's anything boring it's not in the photographs, it's in you. and a 30 minute tirade. it was like two weeks later i realize it was my photographs that were crap. and not his. he totally turned me. moved me ahead in a way that i don't think would have ever happened. he was just amazing.
and my level of skill as a photographer over were very low at that point. i think he moved me ahead at least in terms of how to see. visually. years of where i would have been. had i not taken his class. and working at the daily tex san was like working at a daily newspaper. the paper five day a week newspaper. we shot a assignments every day. and by the time that i got around to applying for summer internship and i applied to like 30 newspapers. one of them was the washington post. which accepted. i got an internship. i stepped in working at the post as if i was working at the daily
texen. they did everything we did was similar to what the post did. >> very valuable experience here? >> invaluable. i look at -- i consider myself very lucky. i didn't come to ut to be a photo journalist. i came here not knows what i wanted to do. but i consider myself a very fortunate person. in terms of not only finding what i wanted to do, but being at a place at the time had one of the best student newspapers in the country. and had one of the certainly in gary and one of the best art photographers. >> you find yourself at the washington post on an internship basis, what early assignments did you under take at the post? >> well, as soon as i got to the post, actually before i got to the post. i was determined that i was going to get hired by the post. i remembered a thing -- i
remember reading it was national press photographers magazine. they had interviewed bob who at the time was the head of photograph ri at national geographic. he always said we're up to our armpits in great photographers and to our ankles in great ideas. and so my idea was when i came to the post, i would start coming up with photo stories. my own stories outside of the ones they gave me every day. and the post when all the summer enterps they brought in they treated you as staff photographers or writers. there was no training period. they just started you. doing assignments. and the very first week that i was there, they sent me to do a story on a sailboat race in
annapolis. and on a boat taking photographs. and there's this woman next to me who was probably in her 60s o or 70s and find out i'm new to washington. she gives me the whole history of annapolis. for two hours. watching the sailboats go by. and towards the end of it she goes you know they just started admitting the first women to the naval academy. they admitted the first women to the academy four years ago. and those women are now seniors and they'll be in charge of the summer boot camp. for incoming. of course lightbulbs are off in my head. i go wow what great story. i contacted the naval academy. the office. and just started photographing
that story through the summer. i didn't tell the post about it. i wanted to make sure i had the photographs that i needed before i presented it to them. and i would go back on my off days. keep photographing. and i ended up following a woman named sandy. who ended up on the front page of the post. in the photographs her yelling at these freshmen. lined up against the wall with their chins tucked in. and that photograph ran everywhere in the world. and i'm convinced that that story helped me get a job at the post. >> what kind of impact do you think the story had had beyond your career? as far as the theme of women in the military? >> it was really interesting because 30 years later, i --
throughout the years i kept thinking back wondering what happened to sandy. i kept thinking i should find her and do another story. i finally got around to doing it 30 years later. for smithsonian magazine. we found her and we found one of the pleebs in the photograph. and i met them again at the academy. 30 years later. and we had the most wonderful reunion. we hadn't spoken to each other in 30 years. as a matter of fact i never spoke to her after that photograph ran in the post. and i found out that after that when that photograph ran, he received a lot of marriage proposals. she received a lot of death threats. and she received a lot of hate mail. from veterans who really upset that she had joined. she received a lot of mail from
women that were in nurses like in vietnam. and even in world war ii. who were so supportive of what she was doing. and in many ways -- it obviously had a huge impact on her. but i think it had a huge impact on a will the of people. -- on a lot of people. those were the early days and beginnings of women stepping forward. in the military. interestingly enough it was a couple weeks ago that obama approved of women serving in combat. there's a tremendous history that's been occurring since that photograph. >> so it obviously had an impact on a loft different people in different ways. >> it did. it did. that's i think that's one of the wonderful things about photography. and me being a photographer.
hoping that your photographer photographs make a different to somebody. and impact somebody. just by them looking at it. >> we'll pursue that theme here. you were at the post for the next 27 years. >> yeah. >> tell me some of the assignments you covered during the years. you were active in the united states. also in the foreign locations covering stories like palestinian uprising. afghanistan. yugoslavia. all sorts of stories abroad as well as those you were covering in the united states. tell us about those assignments. >> i was really lucky working at the post. i covered every spread of life. in america and over seas. and of course it's a real learning experience. you meet people that obviously
you would never meet. you're in situations you read about. and you become a lot more sympathetic to things that you would never even think about. or even consider. i think a lot of my memories kind of go back more -- not so much the photographs but the events of people i meet in the places. i mean i think some of the things that really stand out in my mind of course is the follow the soviet union. the fall of the soviet union. i covered in russia on and off since 1988. the first time that i had been to moscow was the reagan summit in 1988. and moscow at that time was a dreary, soviet city. you saw very few people in the
street. and over the course of the years today moscow is like new york city. a vibrant, exciting metropolis. obviously russia still has a lot of problems. but it's really amazing to be able to watch a country under go a transition. like that. and all countries have. you think about america going through the civil rights movement. and the vietnam and i was a kid during that. i remember but as a kid i remember those photographs. and how much they impacted me. >> did you sort of develop a tas nation with russians. russian life and the change under going? did it hold a special particular appeal for you? >> a number of reasons. for -- i think to most of the kids today that don't even
remember the iron curtain. the soviet union for so long was the enemy. and to be honest with you i never really ever imagined that the cold war would ever stop. it seemed loik a permanent part of our life. that would never end. and so for me when the berlin wall fell, when the soviet union fell when this iron curtain fell, it was something that i just didn't consider would happen in my lifetime. and then to be able to go over there to former soviet union. and see it firsthand. and see it wasn't necessarily the evil empire that we were told it was. these were just amazing people. as a matter of fact, my connection began with working
with russian photographers. who turned out to be some of the most amazing photographers i have ever met. >> that is what you call an interphoto. is that a thing you and several people -- >> what happened was, i actually it was in washington dc. there was an exhibition called changing reality. which was the best of soviet photography. the curator invited ten russian photographers to america. so that was what i first started talking to russian photographers. and admiring their work. it was very different. it was much more artistic than journalism that you would see in america. there's a bit about it that i like. then when i moved when i started covering russia, i made contact with a lot of photographers.
went into their homes and of course drank vodka all night. and eat food. and look at photographs. and i kept thinking to myself, these are great photographers. no one knows who these people are. and so myself and another photographer who was based in moscow we started inner photo. an annual international photo journalism conference in moscow. and the first year we held it, i remember one of the photographers we had dinner at his house. he was missing one of his cameras. that he had to sell. because he had no money for food. and two weeks later, inner photo happens, and kathy ryan. we invited people like kamy ryan who was photo editor at the sunday new york times.
chrissen who was a famous agency. in europe. they looked at these peoples works hired them. immediately. a year later wins the smith grant. a $20,000 grant. all these people through inner photo started making connections with the west very quickly. the way i look at it it was like people before inner photo assignment editors and u.s. would assign americans to go photograph russia. but they're already are all the great photographers there. they started assigning them more and more. it hurt people like me. but it was a wonderful thing to see. and it was interesting inner photo ran for ten years. to see the transition of the crowds when we first started inner photo, it was almost like
3 300 older white men like me there. i was younger then. and ten years later the crowds we had i think 1,000 people attend. they were mostly kids in the 20s. and half of them were women. so it was really amazing to watch this transition. take place. not only in russia but in russian photographer. that was very exciting. >> let's talk about some of the other areas abroad. that you also covered. i know some of your award winning work has to do with the wars in koes voe. and former yugoslavia. tell us about what you learned in covering those episodes. >> well, the war in yugoslavia and many ways the -- i covered the first in palestine.
i think the great tragedy of that also the former yugoslavia is watching not only the case of yugoslavia the break up of the country. but the break up in ethnic, ethnicity. and the blaming. of different ethnic groups to gain power. it was being a photo journalist i was able to go to croatia to yugoslavia. to bosnia. to sto see the stress that buil up between the groups in a matter of three or four years. whipped up by politicians. that almost didn't exist beforehand. >> they had coexisted under for decade. >> i was talking to a bo and
somehow escaped. he was in prison. and talked about a serb prison. and talked about how the horror of what went on the in the prison and people getting killed and beaten. he was just terrorized. and one day he looked up and one of the guards was somebody he went to high school with. he so relieved that this former classmate was there. and he went up to him, he says do you remember me? he said the guy turned around and just beat him to a pulp. it just it was -- when he described it it was so frightening. to see how people can so quickly turn against each other. and that's what exactly what happened there. >> one of your pulitzer prizes.
you have won two. in the year 2000. for feature photography. the plight of refugees. talk about winning that prize and what it meant to you. >> kos voe was -- i spent a lot of time in koes voe. i spent two months in macedonia. when the war started. and basically nato was bombing the serbs. and they were pushing the al bane y albaniaens out. into macedonia. and albania. which is where i photographed these people coming out. which was another tragedy in itself. as a matter of fact the first day i was there, we went to a
place which is where i think there were 50,000 refugees. all the people were middle class families that lived in pristine. a the capitol of cosolve. no food and no clothing. they were oud for five days. and nights. in this little no mans land. and that's when i arrived there. and i walked in there and photographed a very desperate situation. as a matter of fact a woman came up to me and she said, i have all our savings. i have $1,000. i'll give it to you. if you can get my mother out of here. i think she's going to die. there's nothing i can do but direct them to some of the red cross places that were
temporarily set up. and they were already over filled with people. >> where were your photographs seen after that? >> the photographs. this was in the early days of the internet. so my photographs were in the washington post. but it was also one of the first stories where the photographs were running daily on the internet. on the washington post. and i was amazed at how many people saw the photographs on the ente net. opposed to the washington post. people especially in kosovo saw them on the internet. i realized how important the internet would be to the future. >> was that a contributing factor to winning a pulitzer prize for the project? >> i don't think so. that was different because that
was based more on the photograph ri and how we entered it into the contest. i think what was a factor for me. that understanding that the internet was a future. and as a matter of fact it was a couple years after that, that a writer bob kizer who also worked in the former soviet union in the 70s. we came up with this idea to do the siberian diaries in which we traveled tli siberia. and every day post stories on the internet. it was one of the first sort of blogs. certainly the first blogs the post did. i think one of the very early blogs period. but it was -- what was interesting to me is how effective it was. all of a sudden we had sthous of people not only in russia but in
the u.s. following us and writing us. people telling us if you're here, please go to visit this. or visit that. and this amazing dialogue. that developed. was an eye opener. not only for the post but for us as a new way to use this media that was starting to develop. >> one of the other assignments that you did, called assignment. a project. you did a four year investigation of the washington dc family. three generations of them. just investigating the poverty, disease, crime. illiteracy. all the factors they were dealing with. that also won a pulitzer prize. your first in 1995. looking at both of these prize sz that you won, what kind of effect did that have on your career?
obviously high accolade among your fellow professionals. what impact did it have on your career? >> i think because i was working at the washington post, it didn't really that people recognized you for winning the pulitzer. but in terms of my career i was already doing what i wanted to do at "the washington post". my assignments with the post didn't never really change. it didn't effect me in the sense of my career. i mean, i think it did but it wasn't obvious to me because i just kept doing what i always did. but that was a very important story for me because as you mentioned we spent four years with the family, with four
generations of a family. and it was an high-opening experience in terms of the issues that poverty, the drug abuse, in not only a family but in a neighborhood or in their -- and why it's so difficult for people to break out of these cycles that occur. rosa lee whose the mate yark of the family had eight children. and two of those children did break out of the cycle and become -- had normal lives and their own families. in both cases it was because of teachers who -- who they looked up to and who motivated them to do something better with their lives. and rosa lee, as it turned out, she was a drug addict, a
prosecute, illiterate. yet as i got to know her over the years she was a very very smart woman who, i think part of the reason she allowed us in her life is she too wanted to figure out why he life turned out the way it did. and toward the end with the story did run, she was speaking to church groups and to mothers and families about hiv and why -- how her life drug her down in trying to help other people. sadly, she died six months later from hiv. >> i remember another poignant detail in that family, one of the younger boys who you met earlier in the project grew up and then was killed in a gang shout out or something. >> yeah. and that was something that really affected me was that,
when we first started the project, one of russell lee's grandchildren, rico who was 9 years old, was just the sweetest cutest kid, his mother wouldn't allow us to photograph her or her children for the project, but i would still spend time with them. as a matter of fact, i photographed rico's elementary school graduation just for them. and just either, i think just after the story ran, i learned that rico who was then -- i think he was like 13 or 14-year-old, i forget how old he was, was killed in a shot out. he had became a look out for a gang. that was to me an example of this kid with any other family would have been a wonderful kid. >> i want to explore something
sort of underlies a lot of your work i think. i can't remember who the interviewer was, was talking about your sense of social justice, but what you're trying to achieve in a lot of your photography. what you hope it does to the viewers in arousing a sense of wrong, of oh presentation, of the need to change and things. would you talk a bit about how you felt about your work and what you opened it would accomplish? >> well if there's one thing that i had learned is that photographs aren't going to stop the wars. for example, i remember naively thinking -- i grew up during the vietnam era, as a matter of fact just missed getting drafted into the vietnam war. i remember thinking there's no way we're ever going to have another vietnam after, especially whether you think of all the photographs that come out, there's no way we're ever
going to do anything like that again. well, here i am going to iraq, following our troops into baghdad. and, but what i think photography can do is that it can emotionally motivate people. and i -- i've been very lucky, i've had some people come up to me and say, and i'll give you an example, a woman who is a cure rart in washington, d.c., she puts together art expo sixes, she come up to me and said lucian, i'm embarrassed to tell you this but yet when i was in college, and i saw your photographs from bosnia, they moved me so much i decided i was going to do an ex hicks on
former yugoslavia artists and bring them to america and do a cultural exchange thing. of course i'm like, oh my god. but the reason i mention that is that if any of my photographs can effect somebody to do something like that, or do something to help other people then i think i've accomplished something. one of my photographs actually speaking of a former yugoslavia, a young her her family and her were lined up against the wall and shot. and the only reason she survived was that the bullet hit her cheek and ricochetted off and she played dead so they thought she was dead. the photograph ran on the front
of yugoslavia magazine. they had surgeons in washington contacted us saying i'll bring her over here and do surgery on her, which they did. so, i guess that my hope -- i know that photography can be very powerful and i think as i grow older and i see so many people doing so many amazing things that its become a passion for me to tell their stories. for example, right now i'm doing a story on a place called joseph's house, which is only five blocks from where i live. and it was started by an activist doctor, who i actually photographed for "the post" in 1986. it was a cover story. he ran a clinic for the poor in my neighborhood. i found out years later he had
this big ole home, when his kids grew up he turned it into a hospice for homeless people with hiv. so i contacted him, went there and was just amazed at 20 years later they're still doing this same thing. and, but my story -- so i'm doing the documentary on it -- but my story's focusing on the volunteers there. every year they bring four kids in their early 20s who spent the year there. what does working in a place like this, how does it change them, it changes them in dra dramatic ways. but it is -- social justice is something that i see in places like that, and a lot of places in a lot of people that are trying to effect change. and help people and go through life totally unrecognized,
they're not looking for recognition. but they're doing amazing things and we just don't know about it. my hope is as i do stories like that, and people see what other people are doing, they will inspire them to do the same thing. >> you're also involved in more recent years with a project called, facing change, which has been likened to what the farm security administration did back in the 1930s, sort of exploring america's present and bringing it to public light that a lot of people may not appreciate. talk about what that project is doing. >> well, facing change document in america is a brainstorm actually during the obama administration. that was an exciting moment historically and thousands -- well thousands, god knows how many people were coming to washington to be at the inauguration. of course i had photographers
and friends that wanted to stay at our house, because there's no place else to stay, so our house became like a little grand central station of photographers. and also cue raters. we had allison who just recently lest the eastman koe deck house, she was there, in an expert on the nfa. e just started talking about photography and the history this time how important it was. especially with the back drop of obama's inauguration happening in our backyard and it hatched this idea of documenting america again. so, that's something we're doing today, we got the support of the library of congress. and we've gotten some funding and we're just trying -- we're just going out as much as we can
and photographs issues in america. >> okay. you may have answered this somewhat already, but tell us about how you decided to place -- first of all, you're a urinate of texas graduate so maybe it's not an obvious thing, but how do you decide to put your photo archives here at the briscoe center? >> well, some of it was for very selfish reasons. a lot of my archives were in my basement unprotected. when allison and the briscoe center offered to take my archives it was a no brainer. this stuff needs to be protected and saved. and, and i just -- i thought it was a fabulous idea and very important. i also -- it -- as i think about it more its becoming even more
important today because as we transition to an all digital world, this archive is in effect one of the last tangible archive of photography where you can actually touch and feel negatives and see newsprint. that doesn't exist anymore. and i was reminded of this just a few days ago, i was talking to a friend of mine from new york and she goes, you know, a year ago you're on the subway in new york city and everybody's reading the "new york times" or the "new york post" you see all these newspaper in the subway. she say today everybody's on their iphones. the physical newspaper no longer exist. and i think what the briscoe center has, they've got the last
physical evidence of photo journalism. and i just wished now i had saved even more because i think it's going to be so important, not only now but 10, 15, 20 years from now. this collection i think is going to have -- it's going to stand out historically as a very unique collection. because, this is the last generation of -- of that era of physicality of photography, and how we see and view or news. none of that will -- it's already almost non-exist talent now but that's the importance of it. >> i want to go over one last thing real quick. you're famous photograph of the young boy on the back of a
refugee bus in chechnya won an award that year, and tell me about taking that photograph and why that had such meaning for you to take that? >> i was in chechnya, all wars are scary, this one in particularly was very scary probably for the same reasons. russia of course went into chechnya and but they went in with very -- soldiers were untrained, as a matter of fact they reminded me of what it was like for american soldiers. they were in over their heads, it was a very nasty dangerous explosive situation. and we had -- we were in the
capital of chechnya which was almost total destroyed. you'd have to see it to believe it. that downtown area when i was there in '95 was flattened. with you we had driven out into the hills and there was a lot of fighting. it was approaching nightfall so we wanted to get back to the city for safety. and, as we're heading back there's a lot of refugees on the road. i remember we turned a corner and there was this bus with this young child pressed against the window. it just almost -- my heart just like froze because you could see the fear of this kid and what -- i don't know what he had seen or been through but obviously it had been pretty bad. just seeing what i had seen around there it was a horrendous situation.
and that was right in front of us. i just remember kind of tries to take that photograph because we were driving in the car behind it. i remember it wasn't until a week later that we saw the photograph because i drove back to moscow and flew back to america but that image kept sticking in my head and a lot of times when you take a photograph you never really know if it's what you think it is. but, i was -- when i had physically saw it it was like wow, this is what i was remember. >> that was the world press photo of the year that year. >> yeah, which was quite an honor. >> yeah. well it's also quite an honor to share your story. lucian perkins thank you very much for giving all the insight in your photography, the work and collections here. >> thanks. >> thank you. everything was devastating
for him at the end. he was really isolated and alone. sunday night at q & a, author and professor at the college william tar visit. >> he trusted the russian, the soviet people. he trusted them to follow him where he had never gone before. he trusted them to follow them as he moved the country to a market economy to a command economy. he trusted them to follow him and trust him as he made peace in the cold war against the ancient enemy, the united states. so he trusted them too much it turned out. sunday night at 8:00 eastern on c-span's q & a. next on american history t.v., david valdez talk about his photographs of george h.w. bush which he took as the
president's white house photograph. and the white house auto director from 1989 to 1993. we'll see his behind-the-scenes photos. of gulf war and with the bush family. this interview was recorded and -- this is just over 70 minutes. you know all the presidential photographers come to that job in a different way. most of them come in having impress photographers covering the campaign. i didn't. it was 1983 and i was actually a government photographer and had been a government photographer since day