Eli Reed is one of the most prolific and impressive photojournalists in the modern history of photography. The Sony Artisan of Imagery has been at the vanguard of the greatest generation of photojournalists in history. Reed is a gentle soul, even soft spoken, whose photographs give voice to the truth of what’s in front of his eyes and his lens. His list of accomplishments, accolades and awards is legendary and even in his mid 70’s, he’s not done.
When he speaks of the tools that make for greatness, it is not a discussion of technique and craft but rather a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be a good human. Above all it is compassion that comes through in his work and in his words. It’s the superpower that has guided him through life-and-death situations and keeps him coming back, camera in hand, to this day.
“Every single person out there is going through something,” Reed says, “or having a difficult time. What’s their life been like? I feel for people. I am me, and they are they, and we are all together in a lot of ways. We don’t really realize that we’re more alike than not. Once you get that, and you look into their eyes and you’re honestly interested in who they are and what they are, that’s when you can start to truly understand. I’m not faking that. I don’t know how to fake that.”
“At the base of everything, human beings really want to be treated like human beings.”
Reed began his career as a newspaper photographer before turning personal work into global assignments and ultimately an invitation to join the legendary Magnum photo agency alongside a who’s who of the greatest photojournalists of the 20th century. Reed’s body of work shows he is deservedly among them.
As a young photographer he had no aspirations for greatness but he knew he needed to make pictures. That compulsion has been a guiding light throughout, and it’s the skill he suggests the next generation of photojournalists cultivate in order to find their way. He reframes a pessimistic take on the decline of the industry with a decidedly glass-half-full view. The Internet has evened the playing field, he says, so it’s as likely as ever that anyone with passion, empathy and vision can make important photographs and get them seen. The recipe remains the same for young photographers today as it was for Reed 50 years ago: do the work.
“If you want something badly enough,” he says, “it’s logical for you to want to try to figure out how to do it. My logic was to get there and take the picture by any means necessary. If you want to do something, then you have to put in the time for it—and you may not be comfortable with the time you get.”
Reed’s fundamental photographic goal is to live a good and interesting life in service of others. Worry less about the bigger picture and more about what’s going on in the viewfinder.
“I was so gung-ho and wanted to see for myself,” he says. “A lot of research you do comes to seeing it with your own eyes. I tell students, the experiences you’re going to have, you can’t even imagine! How do you prepare for that? One way is always being a human being first. You have to be a human being first, without thinking ‘Oh, I’m doing this because I want to make sure people know who I am.’ It doesn’t work that way. Everybody has feelings like that at some point or another, or you might feel disappointed because you’re passed over for something, but you have to get over it. Live a life. You should live a life of what you really want to do. If you’re not sure, or if you just want to do it because it sounds like a great job or a romantic job or something, it’s never going to work. That kind of thinking never entered my mind. It was life for me. I wanted to carry on working on things and showing things that should be shown. And to do that, you can’t play games. Because it’s not even about you so much.”
“I tell students, you’re lucky to be alive right now and doing what you’re doing,” he continues. “Because things are going to change, art’s going to get better. There’s too much that I see now that’s like searching for your drive, like hunting for your belly. But I don’t believe you have to hunt for your belly, it’s already there if you just let go of some of your expectations. Things are changing, and you might look back at history and say, ‘Oh, I wish I could’ve been there.’ I understand that, but it’s not right. I thought that I had missed the civil rights movement. But I didn’t because guess what? History hasn’t ended yet. It’s still going on.”
In 1997 Reed published the book Black in America, an essential visual record of the Black experience in the United States during the late 20th century. As the first Black photographer at Magnum, he continues to document the struggle for civil rights to this day. He does not, however, raise the camera to his eye with this—or any other—agenda in mind.
“You can learn so much from those moments if you’re ready to accept them,” he explains, “and not try to put your own stamp on them. The thing is, when you get close, the photograph is going to take you. Or the experience is going to take you. And hopefully it will take you to some places that are memorable, that you can learn from, that you can pass that on to people.”
“The primary thing I try to do is to get out of my own way,” he says, “because we have these preconceived notions going all the time. If you can do that, you will see a moment that you won’t even consciously know about. You’ll end up capturing a moment that encapsulates the whole deal. It’s like going into a Zen state, really, where you see everything, you feel everything, and yet you don’t get into your own way by trying to decide ‘What’s my motivation?’ The only motivation you should have is that you should kick ass starting with your own ass. If you can do that it really is amazing what you can do. I think a lot of people have problems thinking that way. They think, ‘Oh, that’s not focus.’ I say ‘No that is focus!’ It’s a really different kind of focus than many Westerners are used to. But if you can understand that concept, that’s the thing.”
“Eugene Smith said it best,” Reed adds. “He did a monograph called Let Truth be the Prejudice. That’s the thing. Let truth be the manifestation of what you believe, what you see, what you feel.”