Part 1: Photojournalism

In the 1980s, I began a photographic project that started as a study of an alcoholism treatment program but eventually came to focus on religion; in particular, on the hierarchy and sexism that characterize American religious institutions. I had worked for years as a newspaper photojournalist in Seattle, where the project was done, and elsewhere. At first, the experience and knowledge I had acquired working on daily newspapers were the chief influences on what I did and the results I got. I thought that the only learning I had to do was about the subject as I then saw it: alcoholism treatment. I took what I knew about photography for granted. It was a hard-won skill I could count on. I knew what a “good” photograph was, and I knew good work when I saw it. It didn’t occur to me then that a big chunk of my field work would be an exploration of how to make photographs that communicated my understanding of what I was studying more fully than those “good” ones could.

But my subject evolved, and so did the kind of photographs I made. They had to change, because, in some fundamental ways, the conventions of newspaper photojournalism hindered the expression and working-through of my ideas about what I was looking at. As I investigated religion, I began to develop ideas that were inappropriate as newspaper stories, although they were perfectly good ideas from the perspective, say, of feminist social science. My professional habits gave me no way to embody those ideas in visual images. In freeing myself from the constraints of newspaper photojournalism, I learned what those constraints had been. They were nothing as simple as an editor telling you you cannot do that. Rather, they were built into your idea of a suitable subject and of the right ways to photograph that subject,