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Seeing History Through A Lens: A Walk With Legendary Photojournalist Eli Reed

Photojournalist and Sony Artisan Eli Reed’s career in the photo industry has spanned over five decades, with his start as a freelancer in 1970. Reed was the first black photographer to join the legendary photo collective Magnum Photos in 1982 and was also a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. His long list of professional awards and achievements include an Overseas Press Club Award, World Press Photo Award and Mark Twain Associated Press Award. With a career of experience and accolades like Reed’s, one thing’s for certain – we can learn a lot from him. Filmmaker and fellow Sony Artisan Garrette Baird recognized the benefit of creators hearing Reed’s story, and he created this short film, “Getting Closer: A Walk With Photojournalist Eli Reed,” to tell it.

Filmmakers Amber and Garrette Baird of the Eyenamics team, were eager to sieze the opportunity and bring the film together. Baird explains how it happened, which was no easy feat during the on-going covid situation. "I've had this idea for a number of years where I want to do a series of behind the scenes documentaries of photographers, but not in a technical way," says Baird. "I want to reach the viewers on an emotional level. I really want to follow photographers, and just find out what drives them. The opportunity came up after I met Eli on a Zoom call with the Sony Artisans of Imagery. Eli is such an amazing photographer and he’s seen and done so much and he has so many stories to tell. I thought it would be really interesting to talk to someone who has lived so many lives like he has."

The film follows Reed as he goes through his day-to-day...a Zoom call with his students (he joined the University of Texas at Austin faculty as Clinical Professor of Photojournalism in 2005), breakfast with an old friend, a kitchen haircut. All the while Reed is sharing the story of his career, peppering in advice important for anyone, photojournalist or not, to hear.

Part of making a film like this and spending a lot of time with the liikes of Eli Reed becomes a journey of discovery for any filmmaker. For Garrette Baird, making Getting Closer: A Walk With Photojournalist Eli Reed was no exception. "Working with Eli and discovering more about his approach over the decades of his career, the biggest thing I learned, and I hope this comes through in the film, is that passion trumps all. His search for knowledge and truth, his passion for that, and to tell the world about what's really going on, with photojournalism, surpassed any kind of technical advantage or disadvantage that he may have had. He did some amazing photojournalism work with equipment that if you gave it to me right now, I couldn't take a photo with it. I wouldn't know what's going on. He just had a passion for finding the truth and he just moved forward. He always just kept moving forward and didn't let obstacles push him back."

Reed's search for the truth is a fundamental part of his character. It drives him on many levels. “Judgments are made on a lack of information,” Reed explains in the film. “Without getting the details of what’s really going on, somebody can say all kinds of outrageous things and there will be a lot of people listening even though it’s far from the truth. How can you make an informed decision if you don’t know what the real truth is? Or the beauty of something going on? Something you can pass on not just to yourself, but to your community, your friends, family. You can help capture those life lessons."

Reed continues, "Powerful photography and powerful films can really inspire you. It's not just self-interest. You want to add whatever you can to humanity. That’s the important thing, you have to look at the world without just trying to decide, ‘Oh, it’s this way now.’ Think beyond where you’re at. If you can just open yourself up to new experiences and new ideas and ways of thinking, and things about different cultures. But you need a balance of truth so people can really understand what’s going on, what’s important here.”

At their core, a photojournalist works to create images that reveal truth and something more. There's an X-factor that is difficult to define. “What’s a good photograph? A good photograph is something you can’t get out of your mind," explains Reed. "I go through the images and I kill off the ones that are OK, but don’t come up to that standard. Too often people will choose pictures because it fits with the way the story is supposed to be. But maybe there are different ways of looking at it. The kind of images I’m looking for are the images I haven’t seen before. But that means you have to work hard. You have to work hard to get an image that sticks in your head.”

While the X-factor can be difficult to pin down, Reed points to the path to that destination, “The whole picture process is about making an image capture in an intelligent way," he says. "It takes an attention to detail, attention to what’s going on around you, attention to how people are reacting. And that’s basically how I go about things in some ways. You get close or near a situation and listen to what’s going on. Even if you don’t speak the language you can get a sense of things. It’s just looking around you and appreciating where you’re at.”

Making the film in the midst of coronavirus chaos added a special challenge. Baird, who is accustomed to working with a very tight kit, kept things very lean. "We used the Sony α7S III for everything. For the run-and-gun out-and-about shots, I used the 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master on the α7S III. I didn't use a gimbal at all. Some of it was hand held, but mostly when we were walking around, I would collapse the monopod down to its shortest and then tilt the camera back as far as it would go, then put the monopod on my shoulder, kind of like a shoulder mount cam. That worked out really well. For the seated interview footage I had two cameras set up. One with the Sony 50mm f/1.4 and one with the 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master."

The people who are the very best at something have a knack for making it look easy. Eli Reed has worked very hard over his career to make images that reveal truth, and make the viewer see things from a unique perspective. He's been enormously successful by always being himself and being present. “It’s a very important element of creativity – being alert and not fighting what you are. If you can do that, you’re going to do much better.”


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