The inherent tension and contrast in James Whitlow Delano’s photography sets his work apart.
American-born reportage photographer James Whitlow Delano has lived in Asia for the last 20 years, documenting stories in this region and beyond. His extensive body of work on social, cultural and environmental issues has covered everything from China’s rapid rise to the global sex workers industry and stories from the United States/Mexican border. Delano is distinguished by his high contrast black & white style, imparting a dreamlike poignancy to his photographs. He works simply, armed only with a Leica M camera with a single lens, a 35mm.
“That means I must be very close to my subject, enter their world. This means that respect plays a huge part in my way of working,” he says in an e-mail interview ahead of a masterclass in Klang, Selangor next month.
The 53-year-old’s photographs have appeared in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair Italia, among others, and he has exhibited around the world. Delano is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award, Picture of the Year International and NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism. His latest book Black Tsunami: Japan 2011 is a haunting record of the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake, capturing the disaster’s impact and consequences on the people and landscape. Here, the Tokyo-based photographer speaks to The Star about his work process and experiences as a photographer.
What got you interested in photography?
I was at university and completely uninterested in the engineering course I was studying. In the library’s rare books room, they had work by masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Robert Frank and others. I felt thunderstruck. The work spoke to me. I immediately committed my life to photography. It was that simple. I felt I had found there was something to which I could dedicate all my energy.
How did you get your start? How would you describe the way you work?
I got my proper start by moving to New York in the mid-1980s. I began assisting people who had been abstract heroes/ icons up until that time like Annie Leibovitz, Joel Meyerowitz, Deborah Turbeville and others. They, and others like Michel Comte who I would later assist in Los Angeles, established the high standard by which I knew I would have to work to. Also, I would see that these people produced great work every time, no excuses. They got the job done. This became burnt into my psyche. Michel would also climb on tables, climb over walls, run like a lunatic after the subject down the beach in Santa Monica, out in the desert or wherever. He showed me that the photograph is important and never worry how it looks making it. I carried that lesson away and it is still at the core of how I work.
You have a very strong, but dreamy visual style. How did you develop it?
I developed my style in the darkroom during my New York/California days. You can see a similar style in my street photography from Europe in the late-1980s after I got my first Leica. It just felt right and I now like the continuum of time it creates in my photographs. The style has evolved, as has the way I work, but I decided that I would rather be known for my own style, for better or worse, than to become a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.
How important is it for young photographers to develop their own style?
Personally I think this is of paramount importance. It is particularly difficult today to develop your own style. I still make prints in the darkroom, scan the prints and then share the work in digital form. So, the work still has an unique grainy feel to it. Now, with so many one-touch apps that can take an amateur image and get 80% the way to a professional-level image, the skill part of creating an unique style is pretty much taken away and mimicry is too easy. It can hurt both sides of that equation by arresting the development of the person mimicking the original and it can steal any originality from the person who has been copied. That is why I have always respected people like Cartier-Bresson or Frank. Their work was about capturing unique moments and energy. You cannot knock that off. So much of what we see now relies on technique, not vision.
I’m sure you have many interests that often tug you in all directions. How do you decide on a project and stick with it?
Generally I like to connect dots and tell stories globally or at least comprehensively and how they relate to larger issues. With Black Tsunami: Japan 2011, as a resident, I would listen to what was going on up there, after the initial shock of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster and I would try to communicate each phase of the challenge to the people in Tohoku. I would try to tell the story in a way I felt was not being told internationally. My goal always is to place the viewer in the photograph so that they can feel like they gain a visceral understanding and empathy with those who are living that moment. As a freelance photographer, I cannot realistically concentrate on one subject over time and manage to publish the work. I have to document a subject and then come back to it later, when magazines or other media are ready to address an issue again.
One of your long-term projects is in Malaysia. Can you tell us a little about it?
Multicultural Malaysia has one of the oldest, most diverse environments on the planet. I have long been fascinated with the various Dayak people in Sarawak and how they interact with the forest. They are so hospitable that I feel like I am going home when I visit them. Likewise, the Batek Negritos of the peninsula are one of the most fascinating people on the planet and may have been some of the first humans to walk out of Africa. I have shown photographs of the Batek to Africans and they cannot believe they are from Malaysia. There is an endless amount of interest to be found in Malaysia.
Due to the nature of your stories, whether it is covering a disaster or documenting a social issue, do you get emotionally involved with your work?
We are only human. There are times I find it difficult to imagine what people go through every day. During the tsunami, victims looked like my family. My wife is Japanese. It also showed that all of us are only one bad day away from refugee status. In other words, we are all the same. I always remember why I am there. That way, I can strike a balance between empathy and documenting what is critically important. Photographs can give people a voice they would not ordinarily have. For the first time in my career, I felt like photography directly aided in bringing more relief funds to Japan during the tsunami recovery because the world could see what Japanese survivors were bravely enduring.
What is your next big project?
I am considering a return to China. I have not returned there for about 18 months. My plan is to combine recent photographs with older photos I plan to print from the early and mid-1990s. They look like they were made in the 1930s, not the 1990s. The comparison will be fascinating.
James Whitlow Delano will be at The Monsoon Masterclass from Dec 3-7 at Starsound Studio, 27, 3rd Floor, Wisma PAL, Jalan Tengku Kelana, Klang, Selangor. The five-day workshop (outdoor and indoor) will cover such topics as style development and project analysis, complete with daily critiques and practical experience. Website: www.masterclass.my/.