Looking back on Lucian Perkins’ four-decade-long photographic journey — from his days as a student photographer at the University of Texas studying under the legendary Garry Winogrand, through a photojournalism career that includes two Pulitzer Prizes — it’s clear that there’s no simple way to tag him.
War correspondent? Social documentarian? Chronicler of the D.C. punk scene? Fashion humorist? Filmmaker?
All of the above and more.
As a longtime photojournalist at the Washington Post, Perkins covered a number of international conflicts, from Palestine and Chechnya to Iraq and Afghanistan. During that time, he shared two Pulitzers; his first in 1994 for his work with Post reporter Leon Dash for their long-term project on the impact of poverty and addiction on a D.C. family. Five years later, he and fellow Post photographers Carol Guzy and Michael S. Williamson won the Pulitzer for their coverage of refugees fleeing the conflict in Kosovo. He also earned a World Press Photo award for his work in Chechnya.
His work is displayed in museums worldwide, and he has published several works, including, with Leon Dash, Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America, based on their Pulitzer-winning collaboration, as well as Runway Madness, a humorous look at the fashion industry, and most recently Hard Art, DC 1979, about the early days of city’s punk scene.
Currently, Perkins works as an independent photographer and filmmaker.
He will deliver one of the keynote talks at Focus on the Story 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Mike Lee: So while you were working at The Daily Texan and at The Cactus and taking courses, how did you get into Winogrand’s class?
Lucian Perkins: I was hired along with another student, Harley Soltes, who immediately started telling me about Garry Winogrand and his photography class in the Art department. And he said, “You should sign up for it.” Harley had taken his class twice and loved it. One of the things he loved was how intimidating Winogrand could be to some of his students.
After I talked with Harley, I looked at Winogrand’s photographs and just did not get or understand them at all. But I signed up for his class, and within weeks, I realized that it was my photographs that were crap, not his. He moved me forward so quickly from what I call my “bubblegum” phase of photography to understanding the complexity and nuances that can exist in art and photography.
Lee: What was it like learning from Winogrand? Could you share your observations regarding his teaching manner and techniques to motivate his students? Also, what did you find was the important lesson from his classes that has stayed with you throughout your career?
Perkins: The best analogy I can give of where I was at in terms of art comes from a conversation I had with a wine salesman, during a staff meeting at a restaurant where I was bartending. We asked him if the cheap wines coming out at that time, like Boone’s Farm wine, were hurting the wine industry. He said, “It’s the best thing that could have happened to us.” He continued, “Kids loved the cheap wines because they were so sweet, but as the kids grew older, they got tired of the overly sweet wine and started to look for wine for subtlety and sophistication.
I think that is true with art, too; we start out loving the sunset and impressionist paintings, but at some point, our palate changes and we look for nuance.
This is where Garry Winogrand comes in. He pushed me forward in understanding art and photography in that one semester that may have taken years, otherwise. Ironically, his unorthodox teaching methods would possibly not be tolerated in today’s university environment. He wasn’t afraid to call a student out and intimidate anyone who asked a “stupid question.”
(O.C. Garza wrote a great first person account of being a student of Winogrand.)
Lee: After The Daily Texan, you received an internship at The Washington Post, and shortly thereafter were hired full-time. Tell us about the work that led to you getting that position.
Perkins: While at the Daily Texan, I quickly realized that the best way to make your way into journalism was by first getting a summer internship at a newspaper, so I applied to nearly thirty newspapers and, ultimately, received an internship at The Washington Post.
Months earlier, I had read an interview with Robert Gilka, then the Chief of Photography for National Geographic. He said, “We’re up to our armpits in great photographers, but up to our ankles in good ideas.”
My goal was to make sure that The Post hired me at the end of my internship, so I took that to heart and decided to come up with my own story ideas, even if that meant shooting them on my own time after work.
During my first week there, I photographed a sailboat race in Annapolis where I learned that the first women admitted to the Naval Academy were about to become seniors, and some would be in charge of the boot camp for freshmen that summer.
I started following one of those women for several weeks and, when I had the photos I wanted, showed them to the Post. The story became the front page lead and then other newspapers and magazines from around the world picked up the photographs. Six months later the Post hired me and I worked there for 27 years.
Lee: You use ironic humor in some of your work, particularly in Runway Madness and your series on tourism in D.C. Does humor open up the imagination in finding stimulating ways to tell a story without being obvious?
Perkins: I think humor is one of the most important ingredients that keep a society going. We need more of it. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves and cry together.
Humor in photography is something that I certainly learned from Gary Winogrand. His photographs had such a subtle humor to them, which I really started to appreciate pretty quickly while taking his class. It was learning the subtlety and complexity of his images that made me grow as a photographer.
Ironically that was anathema to newspaper photography, certainly at the beginning of my career, where photographs had to immediately hit you over the head to draw the reader into the story and because, many times photographs were run small or reproduced badly because of the bad newsprint quality—any subtlety could get lost, so you shot tightly for high visual impact. Therefore, I had a constant internal battle between shooting for a newspaper and wanting to do a “Gary Winogrand” style of photography.
Lee: For instance, that series you did on the D.C. tourists. The one shot in particular that I went, “Oh,” was the two guys in the gallery with the cat flying in the upper right.
Perkins: I remember first approaching the Washington Post magazine with the tourist story idea and they looked at me blankly showing no interest. So I just started going out and photographing the story on my own, and then I brought in the photographs and they looked at them, smiled, and said they loved it. The cover title on the front of the magazine was “They Came From Beyond the Beltway.”
It’s similar to other stories that I’ve done from the standpoint that these people, tourists, are their own culture with their own way of dressing and mannerisms, similar to covering the behind-the-scenes of the fashion shows or even the punk scene. They all have their distinctive ways of dressing, acting and being.
Lee: I see that in Runaway Madness, and I’m flipping through the D.C. punk book. And the one photograph that I see here that strikes me is the guy with the button down shirt with the collar flipped up and the tie. Madams Organ Artist’s Cooperative 2. That particular photograph, I mean, that’s my favorite in the book. And the reason why is because you take such dramatic angle on him at a low angle, but you capturing the emotion. Having positioned the composition that you see the social tribalism. There’s something about that that makes me think of Winogrand and the immediacy.
Perkins: Well, it’s amazing when I think how many people Winogrand influenced. I couldn’t imagine my career unfolding without his class. I have no idea where I would’ve been otherwise. He’s certainly had a huge impact on me and I suspect generations of photographers.
Lee: What motivated you to cover the DC punk scene, which later formed the basis of your book Hard Art, DC 1979?
Perkins: While I was a summer intern at The Washington Post, I stopped by a local bar called D.C. Space—it was underground, very hip bar frequented by artists and musicians. As I sat at the bar, the ceiling above me began to shake as people danced above. I went upstairs to investigate, and saw the all-black punk band, the Bad Brains, performing to a very young and mostly white suburban punk crowd.
Afterwards, I had a drink with the band’s lead singer, HR, and he told me that they were doing a “Rock against Racism” concert in Anacostia next weekend. That sounded interesting, so I went, started photographing the scene there, and that began my journey into the DC punk scene.
Little did I know that some of the groups I photographed like the Bad Brains and kids like Ian MacKaye, who was 17 at the time, playing in his first band, The Teen Idles, would go on to become some of the most influential people in the Punk scene. Like Winogrand, they have influenced generations of kids and adults to this day, forty years later.
Lee: In your career as a photojournalist and documentarian, what was the most emotionally challenging assignment? Where you felt overwhelmed, or edging toward it?
Perkins: In 1991, I worked with reporter Leon Dash on a story he was doing about Rosa Lee Cunningham, the matriarch of eight children and five grandchildren. Leon wanted to better understand the destructive cycles of poverty, illiteracy, crime, and drug abuse, though her eyes. With him, I followed her and her family on and off for four years and it was devastating to watch how poverty, drug abuse and recidivism can destroy a family. At the same time, two of her children, broke the cycle of poverty, primarily by being inspired by teachers they had when they were young.
But each day I spent with Rosa Lee or her family members, I would come home emotionally exhausted and traumatized. For example, I first met her 9-year old grandson, Rico, and photographed him at an elementary school graduation. He was a wonderful and beautiful child, but six years later he was shot and killed while serving as a look out for a local drug gang. The eight-part series touched off one of the largest community responses of any story The Washington Post every published.
Rosa Lee would go on to speak to communities and at churches to help other people like her. The day that her story won a Pulitzer, Rosa Lee was admitted to a hospital for pneumonia. She died several months later after a long battle with HIV/AIDS.
Lee: In the course of your career, what work or experience changed the way you had previously seen the world the most?
Perkins: Certainly, Rosa Lee’s story had a huge impact on me. Also, in 1998, I covered the Palestinian Intifada uprising from both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. After spending time going back and forth, it was hard to cross the line to the other side because of the fear and perceptions you developed being on a side. I learned, quickly, as journalist to cross lines or barriers when possible to witness every side of a situation. In today’s polarizing environment, that is more important than ever.
Also, I think, as a journalist, when you witness a Rosa Lee story, or the impact of war and the plight of refugees, you can’t help but develop a larger compassion for the voiceless in our society.
Lee: You’ve done a lot of work on refugees. Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, which you won an award for. That story alone, and also the story you did about the village in France.
Perkins: Sadly, I think most Americans still see refugees as a faceless, uneducated people invading their country. For me over and over again, I’ve meet people, who like us have a family and, perhaps, they are a teacher, doctor, or salesman who one day is sitting at home having dinner with their family, and the next day, find themselves and their family homeless and on a road to nowhere. Their whole lives upturned in an instant.
For example, in 1999 when I arrived to the border of Macedonia and Kosovo, there were 50,000 people crowded in a no-mans land between the borders. Most of the families had been standing out in the elements for nearly a week.
This was in Europe. These were middle class people, and they literally were forced out a week earlier from their homes with no warning. I had one woman come up to me and tell me that she thought her mother was dying, and she would give me all the money they had, a $1,000, if I could help her. The only thing I could do was point them towards an already crowded Red Cross nurse’s station. In situations like this, you wish you could do more.
Many Americans believe nothing like this will ever happen to them. I’ve been to many countries where other people thought the same thing.
Currently, I’m filming stories about refugees who have made a new life in America. We just did one story on an African refugee who spent 20 years in a refugee camp. He came here, worked at a meat processing plant, started going to school, and he is now a police officer in Phoenix.
That has always been the history and success of our country—the story of immigrants. And my concern is that we may lose our greatest gift and strength as a nation, because of the current myths and fears about them being propagated by politicians.
Lee: Could you tell the story about the donkey? It’s such an incredible photograph and tells such a story.
Perkins: While covering the Gulf War in 1991, I ended up in Kuwait city after the Iraqi soldiers retreated. On their retreat they set most of Kuwait’s oil fields on fire, creating an inferno around Kuwait City.
I ventured out to the Al-Burgan oil fields just south of Kuwait City and saw a young donkey, blackened with oil, oblivious to the fiery landscape surrounding it. I stood and photographed the animal as it playfully picked up bedding from an Iraqi trench and threw it up in the air. As I walked back to my car, I felt that I was being followed and turned around to see the donkey standing nearby, gazing at me. With a wave of guilt I thought to myself that there was no way this animal would survive long out here in this oil soaked and burning desert.
About a year later I received a call from John Walsh of the World Society for the Protection of Animals. He had seen my photograph and told me that he was in Kuwait at the same time to help save the zoo animals in Kuwait City. He too had driven out to the oil fields. And he too had seen the donkey. He had put it in the back of his pick-up truck and later had given it to a family in Kuwait City. That was one call I never dreamed of getting.
Lee: How did you end up covering the Soviet Union and the organization that you formed with then-Soviet photographers? And I was wondering what the status of the group.
Perkins: Back in 1991, my wife and I met a group of Soviet photographers here in Washington, DC who were part of a photography exhibition at the Corcoran Art Gallery. The curator, Leah Bendavid-Val, asked me if we could show these photographers around Washington. So we took them to the White House, and then to a Mexican restaurant where we introduced them to tequila. We had a wonderful time and exchanged photographs; many are still hung in our house today.
About a year and a half later I ended up being sent to Russia for the Washington Post and while I was covering a massive rally on Red Square, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was one of those photographers I had had in my home, Alexander Lapin.
The next thing I knew, he’s inviting me over to meet with Russian photographers. And I started meeting many of the contemporary and older Russian World War II photographers like Yevgeny Khaldei over countless night of vodka drinking and wonderful hospitality.
I quickly appreciated Russia’s own history with photography and how unknown it still was to most of the West at that time. So I came up with the idea of doing a big photo conference in which we would invite photo editors from around the world, like the New York Times Magazine, Time, Agency Vu, or museum curators from places like the George Eastman Museum to see the work of these photographers. With co-founder Bill Swersey, who at the time worked for Gamma Liason, we put the first one together in six months in 1995.
It had a huge impact. Vladimir Syomin, a photographer who literally had to sell one of his Leicas a month before the conference because he didn’t have any money, received a major assignment, and then a year later won the Eugene Smith Grant. Ljalja Kuznetsova would go on to win the Mother Jones Grant. Her daughter, Vlada, worked for us and is now a distinguished photo editor in Moscow. Liza Factor, who also worked with us, is now curating major photography and art projects around the world. And many Russian photographers are today working for major publications internationally. We weren’t responsible for all of their successes, but I think we were a spark.
We kept doing it for 10 years, from 1995 until 2005.
Lee: Why did it end?
Perkins: We had done what we wanted to do. Looking back on our first, most of the crowd were older men in their 40s and 50s. And by the tenth year, it was mostly young men and women—about 50 percent women. Moscow was growing and there were now many opportunities for them. Ten years was a long time to do something like that, and I think we all felt it was time to move on.
Lee: Tell us about Messengers, which is about Joseph’s House. Considering that and the myriad of documentaries you’ve produced what do you find that is different working in this medium that you would share with other photojournalists interested in creating film and video works?
Perkins: Film offers me the opportunity to tell the larger story. In a way it is like combining still images and writing. Still photography freezes a moment and reveals something about us, usually an emotion we all understand without the need for language. Film allows us to expand that moment into a story.
They both have their advantages. In The Messengers I was able to tell the larger and complex stories of two young women volunteers, who spend a year at a hospice to care for dying people. In the end, however, it was the dying people who helped the young volunteers grow and leave with a better understanding of life and who they were.
What struck me is the multiple narratives that you had going and how beautiful the hospice is. The rooms, of course, are relatively small. Everything there just seemed to be very tight. The kitchen was tight. The porch out front was tight. But it was very beautiful. And what I found striking were how the narrative of the two girls combined with the people that they were caring for, and how you can actually see the personal growth. Not just with the volunteers, but also the people they were caring for.
That’s a good point. One of the most important narratives of The Messengers is watching the personal growth not only of the two volunteers at Joseph’s House, but also of the dying residents, who in the end help the volunteers mature spiritually.
Lee: Could you tell us about what you intend to talk about at the conference.
Perkins: I want to talk about the process of doing stories from my personal experiences and reinforce the importance of being on the lookout and staying open to the possibility of a story—meaning, sometimes a story finds you—to give the audience a jump start as they do their stories. I also want to discuss the historical implications of anything we shoot today and how that may changes 20, 30 or even 100 years from now.
Finally, I want to explore how we can harness the massive amount of new technology we have to tell better stories.
Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.