Central American and Lebanon wars. The 1986 coup in Haiti. These are just a few of the events captured on film by Texas photojournalist, documentarian and filmographer Eli Reed. He became the first full-time African-American to join the Magnum agency, which is a pretty big deal in the world of photography. Now, this man who’s seen so much of the world through the world of the camera’s lens has an new book, called “A Long Walk Home” that highlights much of his life’s work. Eli Reed stepped into the Standard’s studio to give us some insight into his decades of witnessing humanity at its best, and worst.
You grew up in the civil rights era and you saw photographs of political events in Time and in Life magazine and that kind of helped inspire you to get into photography?
“Yeah that inspired me. And also things like “Lawrence of Arabia” — wanting to be there and see for myself what’s going on. And the movie “Z,” which is about a photographer and a reporter righting some wrongs that change people’s lives. So that’s one of the things that this book really is about: is what it means to be a human being.
You describe in your book that your life was a “series of accidents” from being a kid in New Jersey, to being an oil painter, to studying at Harvard, to traveling the world taking pictures. You call it luck.
“Luck is something that, if you practice hard enough, you’ll get lucky all the time. That’s what my life’s been like. Knowing when to say ‘Yes’ because a lot of times people [have] all kinds of reasons why you can’t do things. Choosing the right moment and going for it — which I’ve always done.”
What kinds of insight have you reached about humanity and the human condition through witnessing all of these tragedies?
“The terrible thing is — or the wonderful thing is — that people are the same everywhere in certain ways. When given the chance they’ll be good to you, they’ll be nice to you. Because of time, circumstance and everything else we’re just trying to survive. It’s like someone could be a great painter and they could give something to the world that’s really amazing, but people raising their children can be just as amazing. I’m always looking for that. I’m always amazed at the kids that I see and how they’re still basically kids. And here we are in this experience that’s a very dangerous place… it’s like a free fire zone, so just to go there, you know, to actually step into that thing you really try to experience what they’re feeling and the fact that they’re trying to be human.”
What was it like looking at pictures you took as a young man versus ones you may have taken more recently?
The interesting thing is you learn as you go. I’ve been looking at these pictures for a lifetime. Because the pictures don’t go away — they stay in your head. They stay in your head. Whether they’re beautiful imagery or they’re terrible experiences… so it’s like it is always inside you waiting to be put out there.”