The Photographer as Visual Artist: Michael Robinson Chavez on the End of an Egyptian Era

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Photography is usually seen as a way to capture the art around us and to preserve it indefinitely. In a talk given at the Boyden Gallery on January 28th, Michael Robinson Chavez showed that photography (and specifically photojournalism) is also a tool to inspire action and to document history in the making. The talk was a part of the ‘Photographer as Visual Author’ exhibit that showcases five photographers’ work in various places such as Egypt, Belarus and Japan with the idea of documenting stories visually about difficult subjects such as revolution, conflict, and nuclear disaster.  Each of the highlighted photographers have given talks on their respective works and the hard work behind the photos.

Chavez has been to multiple war zones and places around the world that are usually over looked in the news sphere or in the daily lives of Western audiences such as Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Peru. Though he touched on those experiences, the main focus of the lecture was on the Egyptian revolution and the pictures he had on display from those turbulent days of the beginning of the Arab Spring. Two weeks before the Revolution began, Chavez taught several photography workshops in Cairo. He learned of the igniting Egyptian Revolution soon after returning to the United States and requested to be sent back to cover it. The iconic photographs he took are mostly from Tahrir square, where many demonstrations occurred. As he discussed the experience, Chavez mentioned all of the behind the scenes work that has to go into getting stories and being a photojournalist for a prominent newspaper like the New York Times. He emphasized the importance of research within the field, especially in a time where newspapers have shrinking budgets and have to be careful with what they cover in order to ensure financial stability. Before he can even cover a story, he does intense research on the subject and then proposes it to his bosses. Though it is difficult to cover everything he wants, Chavez has been able to cover a wide range of places.

An example of this would be the ‘non-existent’ town of Rinconada, Peru where the government has no hold and basic utilities like sewage are not available. Rinconada is generally recognized as being the highest altitude city in the world. What was once a settlement for a small contingency of miners is now home to around 50,000 people. The town itself popped up due to the discovery of gold in the area. As the price of gold has continued to rise, so has the population of the city. Chavez went because he felt pushed to go explore it. According to Chavez, he “only lasted four days” because of the squalid conditions and the altitude. He showed slideshows of Rinconada pictures in a haunting black and white that emphasized the stark isolation of the town and the terrible conditions of life there. A member of the Student Government Association, Maribeth Ganzell, was “impressed and excited to see photography being brought to SMCM” and was also very impressed that the school was able to bring such a prominent photographer to talk.

The talk was well attended, with most of the gallery filled with professors, people from within the community and students alike. Chavez was able to keep attention on him with an animated, joking manner but also remain very approachable. Senior Jemarc Axinto appreciated “how he was sensitive to photographing people and when they were uncomfortable he backed off.” After presenting his experiences, tips for good photojournalism, and anecdotes, Chavez opened up the floor for questions. One of the questions asked was if he was afraid when he took the pictures in the midst of Tahrir square. His reply was an astonishing and interesting one: “You have to be fearless out in the field but there was this time when my fixer called and said people were riding into Tahrir square on camels and when I went down I ended up in the pro-Mubarek side of the rally. At the time, I didn’t know this but journalists were being imprisoned and threatened with torture. The crowd started to beat me up for taking pictures and a undercover policeman grabbed me up and took me out of there.” By braving such dangers, Chavez has produced photos that offer vivid portrayals of history in the making as well as depictions of human life. Associate Professor of Art Carrie Patterson commented on the exhibit overall, saying “it is wonderful to start the semester with an exhibition that highlights the importance of photography in the 21st century. This show is an excellent example of the cross disciplinary nature of the medium and speaks to the relevance of having photography in a liberal arts environment.” As a side note, Professor Patterson also added that she couldn’t “help but see the irony in having such a strong show and yet we are currently under the second year of not fully funding our photography program.”

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