Michael Katakis has been writing and photographing diverse cultures and places for 25 years. His photographs of China were exhibited at the Smithsonian. There are two books devoted to his photography: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and A Time and Place before War: Images and Reflections from a West African Town, and others whose medium is primarily the written word. Jim Kasson interviewd Michael in Carmel and the Carmel Valley.
JK: How did you get started on the Vietnam Wall project?
MK: I had gone to Washington to pay my respects to a high school friend. I wasn’t there to take pictures. I didn’t go there to talk to anybody. I went there to say goodbye. I was stunned at my reaction. I looked in the granite. My hair was a little grey. He was 18, and he’d be 18 forever. I started to remember the days in Chicago. Playing football. Remembering the people who had been kind, the people who had been not so kind. It was unbelievable. I found myself choking up, embarrassingly so. A veteran came up, grabbed me by the arms, and said, “It’s OK.” I sat there for the next six and a half hours. I watched people going back and forth and I realized that my reaction was nothing unique. It was then I made the decision to begin.
JK: Was this your first real photographic project?
MK: Yes. It was the first time that I tried to tell a story. What went before was preparation, training. Then, something said, “Michael, use what you’ve learned now.” I had something that I really believed in, so it was worth a lot of time and effort.
JK: You didn’t take any photographs the first trip.
MK: No, I didn’t even talk to anybody. When I got back to California, I met the woman who was to become my wife at UCLA, and she, fortuitously, was an anthropologist at the Smithsonian. We began this long distance relationship. I was at the wall on and off for two and a half years, through all kinds of weather.
JK: Tell me about some of your experiences.
MK: An extraordinary thing happened, one of those seminal moments when wisdom is acquired. I was standing photographing at the Memorial, and this guy walked up to me. He had on his battle dress. He said, “I see you here a lot, what are you doing?” I told him. He said, “I’m a veteran too, why don’t you tell my story?” We sat down and talked for a long time. I took his photograph. One of the veterans who I was getting to know very well came over and said, “I see you were talking to John. Did he tell you what unit he was in? Did he tell you how many friends he lost?” I said, “Oh, yeah.” He said, “You know, he was never in Vietnam.” I felt this incredible pain and anger surge through me. My friend the Marine pulled me back and said, “Why are you upset? Don’t you understand that this guy is alone, and he has some problems, and it’s better to just let it go and play along?” I saw that there were times where empathy trumps self-interest and self-aggrandizement.
JK: Did the experience change your photography?
MK: It did. It did. It changed my view of the world. It changed the questions I asked.
JK: Did any other experience at the Wall change your photography?
MK: I would show up early in morning with a penlight, because people would leave things overnight. One day I found a little assembly, a picture of a soldier, a medal, a Greek flag, an American flag. This guy tapped me on the shoulder. He said, in a heavy accent, “Do you like this?” I said, “How could I not like this?” He said, “This is my son. I only had one son,” and he began to weep. I was there for 18 hours that day. He was there when I got there and still there when I left. He had a stack of pictures, not of his son, but of his son’s grave, and he went from veteran to veteran, asking if they knew his son. In that moment I realized that the ghosts weren’t the names on the wall, the ghosts were the people in front of the wall. They were trying to find closure, but they were never going to find closure. The wall took on a new dimension for me. It wasn’t going to heal anything. It was going to be a reminder forever. That changed my photography. I began to shoot the fleeting reflections.
JK: How did you operate?
MK: When I was photographing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I’d take someone’s picture, I politely waited until they walked away. And went then and introduced myself, and asked them if they’d talk to me for a minute and then told them what I was doing. If they said not to use the photograph, I didn’t use the photograph. I was only turned down once. It wasn’t about photographing, it was about listening.
JK: But you photographed first and listened later.
MK: Because I didn’t want to interrupt what was going on at the wall.
JK: And you didn’t want a posed picture either.
MK: Eudora Welty, the great southern writer and photographer [and perhaps the only person in the world to have an email client named after her -JK], took the most extraordinary black and white photographs in the 30s. Charles Kuralt once asked her about the details of how she created the images. She said, “Mr. Kuralt, I was just trying to listen and be quiet, because life was composing itself around me all the time. The trick was learning to see it.” No, I wanted life to compose itself, just like Welty said.
JK: Were there changes in style over the duration of the project?
MK: I got bolder as the years went on. You can see it from the dates of my pictures. Initially, I’m far away. As the years went on, I got closer.
JK: Was it Robert Capa who said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
MK: Yes. And there’s a lot of truth to that.
JK: How did the idea for the book come about?
MK: The veterans started seeing some of the photographs. I’d bring some of them back. They said, “These are great photographs, and you need to do something with them.” They started pushing me.
JK: How did you know when you were finished?
MK: The last frame of the last day: I remember it like it was a few hours ago. It was Veteran’s Day, and it was bitterly cold in Washington. Snow was falling. I had walking pneumonia, although I didn’t know it at the time. There was a man standing a good fifty yards from the memorial. He had a big beard, a big hat and overcoat. I saw him, and I photographed him from behind looking at the memorial. I walked up to him and said, “I see you standing here. Can I walk up to the wall with you?” He said, “I come here every year, and I never get too close, because then I can make out the names.” I went home and sat in a bathtub, crying uncontrollably, for a couple of hours. One, because it was the end and I was leaving a kind of family that had developed; two, I didn’t know what was going to happen now; and three, I felt so terrible that the War had happened in the first place.
JK: How did you go about getting the book published?
MK: I was in a black mood. I called Crown Publishers cold. An editor said he would meet me. I traveled to New York. I went upstairs and into the office prepared not to take any crap from anyone, and just threw the photographs on the editor’s table. He said, “I’d like to present this to the editorial meeting tomorrow.” I don’t know why, but I wasn’t a nice person that day. I said “No, I’m gong back to California.” When I got home there was a message waiting for me saying they wanted to do the book.
MK: So now you had to turn a bunch of pictures and text into an actual book.
JK: Yes. I was initially depressed, but then it changed as I started calling some of the veterans. I felt an awesome responsibility to the people whose stories were now in my possession. My wife was a great help to me, and the veterans were greatly supportive.
JK: What were you doing before you became a photographer?
MK: I started out as a staff composer, and I came to California from Chicago. Then Herb Albert and Jerry Moss at A&M records signed me to a recording contract of my own.
JK: You were a performer as well?
MK: I played piano, guitar, and sang. I was 22, and finishing the album A Simpler Time, when I began touring with Joan Armatrading as her opening act. I toured with others as well.
JK: Is that when you started making photographs?
MK: I was introduced to photography by the fine America photographer Ralph Starkweather. He showed me the operation of the camera, and critiqued some of my photographs. There wasn’t much intellectual activity to touring. Instead of going to the record company parties after a concert, I’d pick up a camera and go into the street and start talking to cops, shopkeepers, cabbies, and began photographing, making a record.
JK: When did you turn away from music?
MK: I was on a local television show in southern California. The other two people who were there were Senator Eugene McCarthy and Gore Vidal. I remember sitting there and watching absolutely dumbfounded as these two gentlemen discussed and debated about Vietnam. It was a sparkling conversation. Every sentence seemed to have power: power of ideas, of reflection, of debate, of fact. I loved my music, but I didn’t love the music business. That was a turning point for me.
JK: You had a glimpse of a different world.
MK: Yes, of peaks of intelligence and wisdom. I thought that it just descended on a select few. Then I realized that I might be able to become wise, if I worked at it hard enough. It was like an incredible intoxicant.
JK: Before this, you were playing with the camera. When did you begin to see it as an instrument of truth-telling?
MK: I didn’t know which way it was going to go, the writing or the pictures. I was already writing articles, doing researching, not publishing, just wanting to understand. Then a few years later I realized that I didn’t have to choose.
JK: What did you do after you walked away from the music business?
MK: Shortly after that, I went to the Philippines.
JK: Were you working for someone?
MK: When I was in the Philippines I was on my own.
JK: And your market was…
MK: At that point I wasn’t publishing my photographs. Later on, I had an agency in New York that was taking the photographs. What I was hoping for couldn’t be accomplished through single photographs. I wanted to truly inform people. I thought the only way you could do that was through books, magazines, and exhibitions. The person who enforced that in me was Sebastiao Salgado . He sent pictures and stories to his agent while he was working on a project to make money to keep traveling and working. At the end of the project, he’d have a 200 picture exhibition, and you walked away from that exhibition with some understanding of the world that you didn’t have before, that you wouldn’t get through sound bites and individual images.
JK: And you relied heavily on words as well.
MK: From an early age, I felt the power of words combined with pictures. I thought it was important not to have the photographer always pretending to be objective. I always felt it was more honest to come forward and say here I am, I’m not merely a voyeur. I am with these people; I am among them.
JK: And after the Philippines?
MK: I went back to school. I finished my Bachelor’s degree in US History at Antioch. Then I got a Master’s degree in Psychology. I wanted to know more. I dressed down, went to restaurants, and asked to wash dishes. From washing the dishes at night, I met all different kind of characters, and I started to find out about their lives. I wanted to get to a point where I would understand. Then I realized that I wasn’t going to understand, that I had to commit some of myself to what was going on. When I started to introduce some of my own life, the floodgates just opened up. I wasn’t there just trying to take something away. There was an exchange.
JK: What did you do differently?
MK: You can’t be objective anyway. Instead of being the voyeur, I owned up to my involvement.
JK: Were you taking pictures as well as writing?
MK: Yes, but they were mostly posed. People standing in front of the dishes, etc. But when the Vietnam Wall project began, everything changed.
JK: You consider yourself a documentary photographer.
MK: Yes. Other people have called me an ethnographic photographer.
JK: That’s a kind of documentary photographer?
MK: It is. What ethnography tries to do is understand. Documentation is just showing. For me to just show you something is meaningless. I must try to understand it as best I can. Without that I’d never pick up a camera again. The camera is a mechanical sketchbook. After I make a photograph I then reflect on this image to form the questions that I want to ask. I’m taking pictures of things that I’m curious about. I’m trying to take pictures the way some people write prose.
JK: It sounds like photography is for you a tool for self-exploration.
MK: The driving force for me has never been that I’d like to be known. I’ve always wanted to know. I would like to be wise. To become wise you transform yourself into something else. I don’t know what that something else is, but I know that you keep moving, and evolve, and understand the world around you. That is a kind of inoculation against cynicism, against indifference, against the loss of humanity.
JK: Then you don’t want to finish being wise, you want to be immersed in becoming wise.
MK: Right. There’s a certain joy inherent in self examination. When I talk about that, I’m not talking about contemplating my navel or solipsism, I’m talking about not me, about understanding that which is all around me, in a sense that doesn’t allow me to easily dismiss things. I can’t imagine a worse thing than not having an open mind, because then my pictures would be dead.
JK: What other documentary photographers do you admire?
MK: W. Eugene Smith, Sebastiao Salgado, and after seeing the Arbus show, I’d have to rethink my views of her.
JK: Let’s talk about Smith.
MK: Eugene Smith was one of those rare people who could make horrible things look beautiful. That was another spark of wisdom for me. Something can be horrific, and still be beautiful People can be beautiful in terrible situations, A piece of art can be beautiful, even though it’s about a terrible situation.
JK: What are your favorite Smith photographs?
MK: The standard is Minamata. But there’s one on a ship on the Pacific during WWII, where the wrapped body of someone who has died is sliding into the sea. That photograph always struck me as terribly moving and sad, leaving a friend behind and pressing on. That photograph is clearly not one of his most dramatic, but it affected me very much. AndSticks and Bones where he photographed the marine demolition team blasting out a cave on Iwo Jima and you see fragments of people in the air. You look at it from a distance and it’s so beautiful, you look closer and then you see what’s going on.
JK: What do you tell your students?
MK: Work at your craft, know what you’re doing, and do what you believe. Have respect for the people whose story you’re telling. No cheap shots, no personal aggrandizement.
JK: You’re not a big fan of photographic technology.
MK: I hated equipment from day one. I found it to be an interference between me and the subject.
JK: It’s OK to hate it, but you’ve got to know it really well so you don’t have to think about it, especially in what you do, where you’re documenting a relationship between you and your subject. You can’t have them distracted by your concentration on your camera.
MK: The important thing is that you don’t want your subject to see you fiddling with your equipment. I tell my students to learn to use one camera with a 50mm lens. If you need another lens, have another body with the lens there. Don’t change lenses in the thick of it.. Be looking in people’s eyes. Be talking to them. Don’t fiddle. Don’t fiddle.
JK: Let’s turn now to the CPA exhibit.
MK: The story begins with Kris, the woman who was to become my wife, who was an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. She had lived and worked and studied with the Kono people of Sierra Leone. We were living in Philadelphia and she was finishing a book for the Smithsonian. She asked me to go back with her and to document her work and the people there. We flew to Sierra Leone, and the village chief provided us with a house, and we spent the next two or three months on the project. I never carry a camera during the initial phase of a project. I spend time just walking around trying to make myself invisible.
JK: You become invisible by becoming present.
MK: That’s correct. I don’t want to be seen as someone who is trying to take things. I was trying to learn, trying to listen, trying to joke, and trying to become a part of someone’s life. I spent time with Kris, listening to how she interviewed people. I had a step up with everyone because of my association with Kris. They were so excited that she had come back, and that she had brought her husband along. They thought this was a great honor. It’s primarily a male-dominated culture, in spite of the fact that the women did most of the work and had a great deal of the power.
They were subsistence farmers, people who loved their children deeply, had an extraordinary self deprecating sense of humor. One in particular became my friend. Sahr was our protector, and slowly we became friends. One of my earliest pictures was of Sahr, who was an incredibly muscular, handsome man with a great smile and great attitude. There he was on a Sunday morning, washing his three goats with the same kind of joy that an American kid would have washing his new used convertible. There’s a picture in the book of this huge wide road with elephant grass on either side and a huge tree in the distance. Sahr and I were walking down this road to the Manjama clinic and he tried to tell me about the invisible cloak that his Grandfather used in the war against the British. I said “Oh Sahr, you don’t believe that.” He said, “Yes I do,” and he was very adamant. I don’t know how the conversation changed, but I tried to tell him how people had landed on the moon, and he fell into the elephant grass laughing hysterically. So there we were, both representing the conventional wisdom of each of our civilizations, both thinking the other was quite mad and both convinced that what we were telling each other was the truth. That’s when I started pulling out the cameras. The people were just glorious.
What makes this project unique is that, sadly, many of the people in the pictures are probably dead or maimed. We don’t often see what precedes war, what is lost by it. What this project does is show what a heavy price is paid in human terms, not as some abstract statistic, in terms of people that other people would have liked to have sat down and talked to, to have gotten to know.
JK: It’s the specificity that makes it so powerful. There’s that Diane Arbus quote: “The more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.”
MK: What I’m trying to say in the show is: weren’t these people worthwhile? Weren’t they wonderful? Weren’t they in so many ways like us? They wanted to strive for things. They were in difficult straights. They wanted to enjoy their families as best they could. I don’t agree with how their society was run to a large degree but that’s not my call. But their lives still had worth and meaning. Can’t we at least agree that what happened here was sad?
JK: There’s a political message as well.
MK: One of the things that the show is about is the interconnections. The connections between the purchases of US companies and individuals directly contributed to the killing of these people.
JK: The US exclusively?
MK: No one buys more diamonds in the world than the US, but it’s not just the US. It’s England, France, the De Beers Corporation. Without going into particulars and specifics in the show, what we’re saying is that the world is interconnected, and that we as consumers have power. Whether we use it or not is our choice. These people, who didn’t benefit from the sales or purchases, were gravely affected by decisions made far away. We don’t specifically accuse, but the question is left open. There is a causality that is not only explicit but quantifiable. If the world is in fact interconnected. If we wield a great deal of power in that interconnected world, what are our responsibilities? And beyond that, can’t we at least discuss, if we’re as powerful as we say we are. We might be able to direct the world in many ways, not merely for our own self interest, but for the greater good. It’s a question of our own humanity.