Paris based American photographer Jane Evelyn Atwood is one of the world’s leading photographers. She is featured this summer with a major retrospective of her work “Photographs 1976-2010” at the Maison Europpeenne de la Photographie (until Sept 25). Her work reflects a deep involvement with her subjects over long periods of time. Fascinated by people and by the idea of exclusion, she has managed to penetrate worlds that most of us do not know, or choose to ignore. Atwood is the author of eight books, including “Exterieur Nuit,” on the blind and “Too Much Time,” her landmark 10-year photographic study of women in prison. The exhibition ranges from her first reportage on prostitutes “Rue des Lombards” to her four-year study of landmine victims that took her to Cambodia, Angola, Kosovo, Mozambique and Afghanistan to recent pictures taken in Haiti.
She made these comments about her work.
The project that first brought you recognition was on Paris prostitutes. It was a bold thing to do for a young American just arriving to France!·
I saw them on the streets and was fascinated. I didn’t know anything about photography. I never thought that I wanted to be a photographer. I was completely ignorant that you could even be a photographer. This was not a dream of mine. But I had seen an exhibition of Diane Arbus and what really stuck in my mind was the people she photographed. Those were the people that fascinated me because they were strange and because they were on the edges of society. Arbus photographed normal people who looked bizarre. She saw in them a strangeness. That spoke to me. When I saw the prostitutes I knew that I wanted to take pictures of them and I was lucky enough to meet a woman who introduced me to a prostitute she knew. I started photographing her and that’s how the project started. I never thought now I’m going to do a book or I am going to be a photographer… I never worked that way. I was always turned on by a person or a group of people and then wanted to know them and photographing them became a way of knowing them.
Many times your photos show people who are suffering. Is there anytime you just can’t click the shutter?
There are always times I can’t click the shutter. At the beginning when I was very young sometimes it would be when I was too timid so I had to overcome shyness and learn to know when my instincts not to take the picture were for the right reasons and not just because I was too shy. I have never regretted not having taken a picture. Knowing when not to take a picture is as important as knowing when to take the picture. With most of my subjects the people have trusted me by letting me in, but I remain a visitor until the end. It’s a privileged position, which I don’t want to abuse by throwing my weight around. I am very careful about that. But one needs to be assertive. The reason we are there is to get the picture so one has to be constantly balancing that. You wouldn’t be in these situations if you weren’t taking pictures. You can’t forget that because that is what your role is.
There is a picture in the exhibition of your jeep after it was blown up. How do you deal with fear when you are taking pictures in dangerous places?
I have a naive way of dealing with fear because basically I don’t. If I start thinking about what could happen or what might happen I would never go to any of the places I have gone. When I look back on some of the places I ask myself how on earth could I have gone there. Basically I do a lot of research on the places. You just don’t go off on an adventure to take pictures because it’s too dangerous now. The world is a dangerous place and one has to know where one is going and be well “entouré.” When I was working with Handicap International I had a guy who drove the vehicle who also was a translator and sort of bodyguard. He would give me information about specific places… and whether a village might be too dangerous to visit. These are calculated risks. But if you don’t take risks you don’t get any photos. You have to be ready to take risks, but not foolish ones.
Why do you do this kind of work?
The only thing you can hope to get out of doing this work is that at least you’ve documented a state of being of a place such as Cambodia or Afghanistan or Haiti and you’ve done that with images. I’m not under any illusion that it changes much but I still feel it is important to do it because it is not negligible to document what is going on.
Have any of your photos made a difference?
I am proud to say that in my life as a photographer I have had a couple of photographs that have made a difference. The AIDS photos made a huge difference. Some of my prison photos have made a difference. One photo taken in the States which shows a prisoner giving birth in handcuffs played a part in helping to ban that practice – it’s now banned in the state of Illinois to handcuff pregnant prisoners in labor and there is a big campaign run by Amnesty International to ban that process everywhere. The practice is forbidden in England since 1997.
In recent years France has passed laws restricting street photography. Have these laws about photographing people affected your work?
It does affect my work. I think these rules are ridiculous. Luckily it is only in France. A few years ago I went into the agency that distributes my archives and removed 150 pictures because it wasn’t worth having a lawsuit if the photo was printed in a magazine or newspaper. If I decide to do a book with those photos I will take the risk because I need to be able to show my pictures.
Your projects take a lot of time. How do you know when you are finished?
I know I am finished when I feel that my questions have been answered and that I’ve got a set of pictures that I feel translates the answers to these questions for the rest of the world to understand. I never know how long a project will last. The more I get into a project the more time it winds up taking. There’s always more. With a topic like prisons I could do that for the rest of my life because unfortunately we have so many prisons everywhere that it’s never finished. But there is a point when one says I have enough to say what I’ve experienced in those places and that will tell what I experienced.
Jane Evelyn Atwood, Photographs 1976-2010 at Maison Europpeenne de la Photographie (until Sept 25) 5 Rue de Fourcy 75004 Paris.