Monday, July 25, 2016

Forty Five Years On...

I sometimes wonder if our parents thought about time, and the passage of time, in the way we do. Though I can’t recall any conversations with my folks about it, I suspect they were more concerned with just trying to deal with the next day, week, or month, and didn’t have the time or inclination to ponder their aging world and how they fit into it. My whole adult life has been spent taking photographs, for the most part for magazines, as a story teller of the most-decidedly analogue variety. For most of the five decades I’ve been working, film and the necessities it demanded were part of the picture (literally!). But tonight after dinner, I had one of those moments when all of a sudden, the date gave me pause. It’s July 23, 2016, and being a former math major I started doing the obligatory backtracking, and realized that this week is the 45th anniversary of my first TIME Magazine cover story. Forty five years. It’s not Diamond, nor Silver, and probably not even Tin. But it might be The Plastic Stuff Film Cans Were Made From. Yeah, forty five.
A man carries his mother through the rain to a refugee tent cover, W. Bengal
That summer of 1971 I had been living in Saigon for the better part of a year, had more or less become one of the TIME photographers working that bureau, and that is when news started flowing out of West Bengal about the refugees fleeing persecution in East Pakistan. (Six months later, following a war between India and Pakistan, East Pakistan would re-emerge as Bangladesh.) David Kennerly, then working for UPI out of Saigon had just come back from spending a week in India working on the refugee story, and told me it was one of those stories which really needed to be covered. People needed to know this was happening. I had sent a note to Timepix New York for approval to head to Calcutta to cover the story, and the next day a telex came confirming that I was on assignment.
a young boy clings to someone close, Refugee camp, W. Bengal
I arrived at DumDum airport late the next night, my first time in India, and soaked up the amazing, unforgettable sights, sounds and above all, smells. The woody smoke from cook-fires mixed with the myriad sounds creating that first impression that still remains. I took a room at Grand Hotel, and though it wasn’t as Grand as Garbo’s, it was a great place to operate from and featured a bar whose denizens of the Fourth Estate gave unending combinations of fact and fiction over Pimms and Gins. I hooked up with a Bengali photographer from the Statesman (Symadas Basu) and we roamed the border areas for the better part of a week, searching for photographs. You didn’t have to look very far or very hard to find something. There was a virtually unending stream of people, on foot or oxcart, slowly but inexorably heading West. I remember looking at the faces of those people as our paths crossed, thinking that what they were fleeing must truly be awful. Millions would not simply give up all, and move, unless there was something very terrible on the other end.
crowds of refugees seek space to lay down, to sleep, in a W. Bengal camp
Each night when I’d return to the Grand, I would make a packet of film (Ektachrome 64) for New York and through the miracles of modernity, 30 hours later my cassettes would be on John Durniak’s desk. Captions were always rather broad and hazy, but the pictures for the most part would speak for themselves. It was still very much the age of Telex (look it up!) and when I received word that the next week’s magazine would feature my picture on the Cover, along with a four page spread inside, I felt I had done right by the story. It was truly a different time, and while today’s weekly magazines are a slim notion of their former selves, at the time there was satisfaction in knowing that in the week following, some 20 million people would see your story. (This was still a decade before the founding of CNN!)
D.B.  age 24, Khe Sanh, VN  1971  (*photo © Chris Callis)
When you have worked for nearly fifty years as a photojournalist, almost every week offers some modest or major anniversary of some kind. Most are forgettable to all except the few that lived them. I noticed in the last few years that too, too many of my discussions with friends would start with something like “…that reminds me of a story I did 35 years ago,….” and I think that perhaps I’m the only one finding those moments so prescient and full of vibrant memory. We Baby Boomers were given much, perhaps too much, but perhaps the one thing we might be worthy of are our memories of the 20th century. I have worked long enough to see many of my stories morph from journalism into history. That alone has reminded me that a life with camera in hand was perhaps a worthy one. But I’m sure I’ll keep doing the math here and there, finding some little anniversary which will let us focus again, if briefly, on a moment of our times.  We're just sayin'.... David


Debra johnson said...

Thoroughly enjoy reading your blogs! Deb Johnson Scotty's mom (Jordan's friend)

Nico said...

Very nice story, offers an interesting perspective on those events and life as photojournalist.