Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

The knot in the heart

PHOTOGRAPHY / For almost 50 years, the photographer Eugene Richards has documented a variety of destinies, from crack addicts to people in emergency rooms and psychiatric hospitals. What has driven him?
Eugene Richards

The award-winning photographer Eugene Richards is sitting in front of the audience, 74 years old and talking about his pictures in this winter’s retrospective exhibition in The International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. He comes across as warm and composed – but according to himself, he has a temper.

In many of the writings about him, you can read about how it all started when Richards was called to serve in the Vietnam War, returning his draft-card to the sender torn to shreds. Pending a reaction, he took up a year’s study in photography at Minor White at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

This was the time characterised by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. But what exactly led Richards to devote 50 years of his life to documentary photography? Is it the age-old knot in the heart some of us longs to untie – whereby life’s paradoxes, inequalities, and destinies led to an existential curiosity and a desire to document? An urge to question what we perceive as injustice, power abuse and human decay?

If so, it’s essentially a documentation of how misled a society can become – the American society in particular. But to be able to open your heart also requires a longing for beauty – or a distant dream of a kinder society for everyone.

Taking photographs can also, as in Richards’ case, be about conveying personal stories. A therapy of sorts, perhaps. In this, he can be compared to his namesake William Eugene Smith – known for his photographical essays. Both W.E. Smith and Robert Frank are photographers Richards’ acknowledges as his forerunners, although he has developed his own style of photography in the unique closeness to his objects. Individuals who open their lives to us – often with Richards’ camera so close it almost touches their faces. He is known for using wide angles and short lenses, as opposed to telephoto lenses, which he found too distancing.

(Photo Books published by Richards)

The people who are photographed and interviewed do not seem bothered by his level of closeness; he has already spent a significant amount of time with them – even days – before the camera surfaces. His photographs often show faces halfway in frame, or have unusual angles or the rounded edges typical for short lenses. This is a conscious decision according to Richards: With these partially warped images, he wishes to disclose that these are photographs, and not the whole picture. He knows his photographs are only snapshots of reality and time. Therefore, he prefers fragmented portrayals, individual stories, short and gripping narratives from people whose lives he catches a glimpse of – but no more.


The retrospective exhibition at the ICP is organised according to theme, with subtitles such as «Metaphor to Document», «A Personal Vision», «American Lives and Socioeconomic Realities», «Health and Humanity», and «War and Terrorism». Curator April Watson (from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) and Lisa Hostetler (from the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY.) chose this approach over a pure chronological presentation.

As you stroll through the exhibition, the black and white pictures of African Americans from the southern Arkansas Delta are as communicative and present as faces can be. The poor socioeconomic conditions the subjects are living under, shine through Richards’ portrayal of the individual destinies, where poverty and misery can lead you to the back alleys of drug abuse.

The people who are photographed and interviewed do not seem bothered by his level of closeness.

In Arkansas, Richards also co-founded the newspaper Many Voices, which came out every other week for a few years, aiming to shed light on the dire conditions for black people in America. But eventually they wanted him to leave: This was their struggle, not the struggle of a white man. Richards continued working for the oppressed in his hometown Dorchester in Massachusetts. He often sought out environments where crime and violence were the norm, but he found, as he shares with us at the ICP, that some people gladly received him and protected him. This enabled him to depict with his camera the inside stories of the many homes he was invited into.

Richard constantly struggled to make ends meet, so he took on commercial assignments for various magazines – among others, New York Times Magazine – from the early 1980s. From this work, and especially using the pictures they chose not to print – such as a gay couple with their young child in the middle of the bed – he made photo-collections in his own publications (see above).

Eventually Richards took photographs of urban crack environments, populated by black people. These pictures became the book and series Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue (1994), for which he was hated and labelled a racist by many in the 1990s.

(From Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue © Richards)

He was accused in the press for only portraying black people as crack addicts, while many white people also suffered this fate. Politically correct criticism? He defended himself in The New York Times, where the series had been printed, stating that his aim was to show the consequences of drug addiction, and how especially black people with little means and opportunities are pushed to the fringes of society. But the label «racist» was hard to shake, and for a period Richards was met with a cold shoulder wherever he turned. It seems you can’t become a legend without a few bumps and scratches on the way.


Somewhere it in Africa Richards photographed a 93-year-old grandmother with her dying great-grandchild, whom she later buried. In Safo, Niger, he found a 15-year-old girl who didn’t know she had Aids, which led to her young child dying.

Woman with Child. In Safo, Niger. © Eugene Richards.

On the other side, the exhibition shows Richards’ wife Janine and their son Sam, where baby and mother are lying exhausted in their beds, as well as a picture where the same greedy little boy is breastfeeding. Richards lights up when he comments on this picture (look at the presentation).

Sam and Janine, ©Eugene Richards

But the exhibition also shows the series with Richards’ previous wife, Dorothea Lynch, whom he met at university, and who later got breast cancer. It was her own wish that Richards should document the process. We see her laughing as Richards snaps the picture, upon her doctor asking if she still feels like a woman after one of her breasts has been scraped for cancer cells. The exhibition also contains several audio tracks – one of which is available online, where Lynch talks about getting cancer. She later died.

Eugene Richards: The Run-on of Time
Dorothea Lynch. © Eugene Richards.

Like the couple Dorothea Lange and Paul S. Taylor (An American Exodus, 1939), Richards has often worked with his spouses. Later, it was Janine Altongy who brought him to witness the 9/11 tragedy; she was also the voice or the words to the book Stepping Through the Ashes (Aperture, 2002.). This tremendous loss was expressed though the images of emergency workers, next of kin, and other citizens.

In his books, Richards has chosen to supplement his pictures with words spoken by the object, or ones that he himself or his wife adds. In the section «War and Terrorism» in the exhibition, several war veterans have been interviewed. Not just the young woman in the coffin or the bare-chested man with fatal injuries, but also the man who has had half of his head shot off, bending over his mother.

Richards’ photographs are fragments or snapshots of reality.

In the accompanying text, she says she has chosen to care for him and as his mother. She will never give up. With these pictures, Richards conveys fragments of the consequences of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sergeant Princess Samuels. © Eugene Richards.

In the section «Health and Humanity», we find pictures from the time Richards spent in an operation room of a hospital emergency wing. He took pictures of an unwashed corpse – which he himself addresses during the ICP presentation, responding to a question about ethics.

(Men’s ward, Ocaranza, Hidalgo, Mexico. © Richards)

He also addresses the pictures from when he followed Doctors Without Borders, and his photos from inside a psychiatric hospital in Mexico. The latter had such appalling conditions it closed down after the photographs were published. This is perhaps one of Richards’ more ethically problematic zones: photographing mentally challenged people who may be unaware of what he is doing, and unable to refuse having their picture taken.
(As Richard told me later, they really discussed this (lawyers, activists, psychiatrists) – and then decided to photograph to reveal the terrible conditions there.)

From the heart

Melvin Cook, snapshot from the film. ©Eugene Richards.

So where does this journey end: with colour photographs of women’s shoes, a burnt down church, or abandoned houses in North Dakota? No, gradually Richards started producing films.

Discomfort is also a part of the journey, but let me mention the American Melvin Cook from the Ku Klux Clan: He is overweight and ill, and is now being nursed by his foul-mouthed sister. Cook talks about all the people he shot, stabbed or beat up. Well, because of his hate crimes he spent 28 of his 52 years in prison. After one photo session, Cook wanted Richards to come back, and this time he was filmed. Instead of the oppressed, the perpetrator is now allowed to tell his story: «I truly regret what I have done», we hear, before the man in the bed died.

Snapshot from the film Thy Kingdom Come. (We will do a review of this film later)

With his films, the desire to document is still the driving force. In Richards’ new film, Thy Kingdom Come (2018), Richards again addresses people who struggle – a woman ill from drug abuse and a black prison inmate. But here, Richards uses the actor Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, 2007) dressed up as a priest (Richards’ alter ego?) meeting vulnerable people. Doing so, Richards consciously mixes photography journalism, documentary photography and artistic photography.

But what about the woman who died a few weeks after being filmed, or the imprisoned black man? Both of them were aware of the fact that Bardem was an actor in disguise. However, this fact is soon forgotten or overlooked, as they are given the opportunity to open their hearts.

At least, some subjects (and photographers?) are given the chance to loosen their knot.

See presentation video from ICP: On the Run of Time

See also: website Eugene Richards

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Truls Lie
Truls Liehttp:/
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review.

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