Flying opium to Cambodia - U.S. agreement with Hmong
Code words and photography politics
The politics of aesthetics
Alienation - anti documentary photography
Russell Lee background
Documentary photography - no style
Myths in photography
Photography should reflect reality
Objectivity and focus
Science-ism and cause and effect
André Kertész, photographer
Making statements through photography
Video 7 of "Interview with Mr. Alan Pogue."
armed conflict and persecution
civil and political rights
ethnic and racial discrimination
economic, social, and cultural rights
economic and labor rights
social and cultural rights
laws, justice, and judicial proceedings
prisons and prisoners
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RAYMOND: . . . 2008, and Alan, you were talking about your evolution from being a "word person" to maybe being an "image person," from philosophy to
photography, although philosophy was still there. At what point in your journey did you discover the work of Russell Lee?
ALAN POGUE: I was doing a lot for many social movements and one of the people that worked with
The Ragwas Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale and they were doing a lot of labor history and Glenn, they had formed a People's History of Texas and they wanted to do an oral history of
women in the Texas labor movement in the thirties, forties, and so they came to me because I had done some video.
POGUE: I had done some video for CURE and I also did the still photography so they wanted someone to actually run the camera and videotape the women that
they wanted to interview and take still pictures of them and then copy whatever historical photographs they might have in their personal collection.
POGUE: So I was sort of their perfect choice, so I said, Sure, I'd be happy to do it. But I was ignorant of labor history and I thought, women and the Texas
labor movement in the thirties, gosh it must have been about that big. How many people could there have been?
POGUE: I've never heard of this and of course little did I
know!Buy I knew of Russell Lee had taken pictures during the thirties and forties and fifties.
POGUE: He had gotten a job with the Farm Security Administration, an unlikely title for what became probably the most important photographic survey ever done
in the United States, with this fellow, Roy Stryker, who was an economist from Columbia was — this was during the Roosevelt era and the New Deal --
POGUE: They wanted to document the problems that farmers were having in rural America in order to get them some assistance. But Roy of course had a very deep
economic and sociological understanding. So Russell Lee heard about this group of people and he was in New York and he went to D.C.
POGUE: And showed Roy Stryker some of his photographs. Roy also had Dorothea Lange, later on, Walter Evans, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott and Carl Mydens,
allof these people went on to very distinguished careers and so when we look back, you think, well, of course he hired those people.
POGUE: Well, except that when he hired them, who knew? Nobody knew. So it's really a testimonial to Stryker's eye that he picked these people when they were
new photographers on the block.
POGUE: So Russell Lee in particular though took more photographs than any photographer that worked with the Farm Security administration and worked with the
project longer than any other photographer.
POGUE: He traveled almost all of the time. He'd have the car loaded up with mini-cameras and film and flash bulbs. He was all over Oklahoma and Texas,
Mexico, and parts of California.
POGUE: His famous photo essay from Pie Town, New Mexico, but he took pictures in Corpus Christi, my hometown, in 1939.
POGUE: Just a historical note, the person who showed him around was Dr. Hector García, who later formed the American G.I. Forum to get the rights for Mexican
American servicemen after the second World War and Korea, the Korean War.
POGUE: So Russell Lee -- and then he chanced to meet Jean, Lee in New Orleans. She was a reporter and then they got married and she traveled with him
extensively. So I knew that he had become the first fine arts photography professor at U.T.
POGUE: I had visited one of his classes when I was still an undergraduate, but his classes were booked up two and three years in advance so I never even
tried to be a photographic student.
POGUE: I visited one of his lectures and I asked him for some practical advice but then I didn't talk to him. But now I thought I have a real reason to talk
to him, because I want to find out where I can find original photographs from the thirties and forties of women and the Texas labor movement.
POGUE: And so I went over to his house and I had heard that he like scotch so I brought him a bottle of Glenlivet. He was delighted.
RAYMOND: We have been noticing that up there.
ALAN POGUE: Yeah. Yes, I'm fond of scotch myself and someone gave me this Glenlivet that's older and had been aged in sherry casks or something weird. And so
I gave him the bottle of Glenlivet and he was thrilled. He added it to his collection of scotches and he gave me a lot of good advice.
POGUE: He said, "Well, go to the Library of Congress and talk to this fellow, Leroy Bellamy," who was an archivist there and knew all of the pictures
backwards and forwards. So I went to D.C. and in the Library of Congress in the prints and photographs collection, there's a special section for the Farm Security Administration
POGUE: There's a big room full of four-drawer grey filing cabinets that goes on and on and all of the photographs are archived geographically so you go to
regions. I went to the Southwest and then you open a drawer and it's eleven by fourteen piece of cardstock with an eight by ten print on it with a serial number.
POGUE: You just flip through these photographs and take down the serial number and they would make you a print very cheaply, and it would be things like
POGUE: What kind of shoes did people wear? They have all these pictures and it would be of course documentary photographs so people wearing shoes.
POGUE: Or how did people wash their clothes? Well you could go through and see people washing their clothes in the sink, in the backyard in a tub. Some
people would have a new-fangled washing machine or some kind with those ringers you know.
POGUE: So if a person wanted to know exactly how people really lived and did things in any region in the United States in the late thirties and early
forties, there is where you would go to find out.
POGUE: And so he also— there were photographs of union activity, farmers cooperatives-- and I learned from all of this that there was a large amount of labor
activity in Texas and there was a large amount of women's activities particularly in the garment industry, international lady garment workers union.
POGUE: In San Antonio there was Shirley Frocks, there were all these companies. They were making clothes in Laredo and Brownsville and I went to Palacios, I
went to Dallas and from interviewing the woman in Dallas, I found out about the Pullman porters. Her husband was a Pullman porter in the Pullman porter strike.
POGUE: So the other part of that was I would continuously be going back to Russell Lee and talking about what I had found, having him tell me about what it
was like taking pictures back then and how he traveled and this and that. So that was delightful.
POGUE: It gave me a— because I didn't want to go over and just bother him for no reason at all but this gave me a reason to bother him. So we drank a lot of
scotch and talked about photography.
RAYMOND: That's why we're doing this oral history is that we have an excuse to bother you.
ALAN POGUE: Right.
RAYMOND: And have you tell us stories.
ALAN POGUE: I'll pull down the scotch. So he recommended that I go to the Missouri photojournalism workshop, which had been founded right after World War
Two. They would bring in big name photographers from all over the country and you would go there for a week and do a project and you would get to rub elbows with people from the National
Geographic and all of the big newspapers.
POGUE: So I did that and what I learned from that experience was I didn't want to work for any of those organizations. They were very conservative people. I
got into continuous arguments on politics with—
POGUE: I remember an executive from Kodak and I, I just mentioned the fact that when I was in Vietnam, my friends in the Air Force were complaining because
they didn't want to fly opium from Cambodia and Laos to Hong Kong, but that's what they were doing.
POGUE: And one of my friends refused to fly the opium anymore and they threatened to court martial him but they it, they made a gentleman's agreement that he
could go to Australia and drink beer instead.
POGUE: But the Kodak executive didn't want to hear about it. He said it wasn't true.
Butthe photographer for National Geographic heard our little argument and stepped in on my side and said, "Well yes, it was true." He was there also and yeah, we were selling opium for
the Montyards and Hmong people in return for which they would act as counter insurgency agents for the U.S. military.
POGUE: They would supply the U.S. military with a certain number of young men. The U.S. military would fly their opium, their poppy product and sell it.
POGUE: Cut out all the middlemen and in that way they would make much more money and of course the people in the military could keep some of it if they cared
to, because the whole point of the operation was that there not be any oversight, that this was off the budget and not under Congressional supervision at all,
POGUE: -- although it was certainly well known in the State Department and Special Forces who were doing it, and the Air Force.
POGUE: And then I got in another argument with the same photographer for the National Geographic because he was making fun of the Chinese.
POGUE: He was showing these slides of people on bicycles and making fun of it and I said, Well what if every person in China had a Chrysler? What would that
do to our environment?
POGUE: Well here we are in 2008 and this is becoming a reality. What
isit going to do?
POGUE: So this is where the philosophy and the photography come head on because if you are a photographer and if you are working for big magazines -- or
really any magazine in any media -- you're going to have editors and publishers.
POGUE: And the editors work for the publisher and the publishers, the more money they have, the more entrenched their interests are into the status quo, and
so that constricts what the photographer or the writer can do
POGUE: and the shape and direction of their stories, and even what can be covered. Because my idea in this simple little photographic workshop was to
photograph a fellow who did alternative energy.
POGUE: He— it was very interesting. This was back when Carter was president and there was money, federal subsidies for solar -- active and passive -- and
other energy efficient things, and this fellow was putting active and passive solar in a little town that I was photographing in. And he also had super efficient wood-burning stoves.
RAYMOND: Where was this?
ALAN POGUE: Well the idea, at the workshop, each person there was to pick a story, have it approved by three of these hot-shot photographers who would be
your committee. and then you would have three days to photograph it and then you'd have a day to lay out your stories. So it was very intense.
POGUE: It was like you were on a weekly deadline. And so what they encouraged us to do was get the newspaper from the little town we were going to while I
was still in Austin and I would read it and then I picked out this guy who did this. That's how I decided.
POGUE: And so I did the story on this fellow even though my committee said it wasn't interesting.
POGUE: They even said it wasn't "visual" and that's a code word. You talk about code words, to say "it isn't visual" is just a way to say we don't want you
do to it.
POGUE: Because if it's a story that they
dowant to do, for instance on someone who does astrophysics, they'll pull out every trick, they'll do multiple images, they'll do colored lights. And they'll do anything to make it
visually interesting if it's a story they
POGUE: If it's a story they don't want
youto do, they'll say it's not visually interesting.
POGUE: I thought it was very interesting visually and in every other way so I went ahead and did it even though my committee frowned upon it.
POGUE: And just to show you how
badit can get, the person who— The story that was picked among all of the young photographers that were taking the workshop, as the number one story was the guy who did a day in the life
of the most popular girl at the high school.
RAYMOND: Oh my gosh.
ALAN POGUE: I mean this is such a cliché.
POGUE: The most interesting story that I thought was the fellow who found some Vietnamese immigrants in a small town and how they lived their life and how
well they were accepted or not accepted in the community in this little town in Missouri.
POGUE: I thought that was very interesting but there is a politics to photography.
POGUE: There is a politics to
aestheticsin general, not just photography. It can be painting. It can be anything and this is where my philosophy background has been helpful to my photography.
POGUE: It doesn't allow me to be influenced by current trends and aesthetics in photography because the current trend -- and this has been the trend since
World War Two --
POGUE: Edward Steichen was a famous and commercially successful photographer. He did a lot of work for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, was a huge
advertising agency in New York.
POGUE: But he became the director of their photography section at the Museum of Modern Art and he is responsible for the amazingly wonderful and successful
exhibition called the Family of Man that was done I think in fifty-four, fifty-six, where he got photography from all over the world to illustrate the commonality of the human experience.
POGUE: You know, these days you wouldn't say "the Family of Man." You'd say "the Family of Humanity," but the whole reason was to show the commonality. What
human beings have in common, that all of the differences that we see are mainly superficial. That was the point of it.
POGUE: Well after Steichen left, and John Szarkowski became the director of the Modern Art's photography collection, then it seemed to me the overriding
theme was alienation, the depiction of alienation without a critique of alienation. There's no critique.
POGUE: Alienation is presented as a fact and art, the art that is successful, simply depicts alienation as a curiosity more than anything else. And so the
human experience is fragmented rather than explained or connected.
POGUE: It's you could say anti-documentary photography and I found that documentary photography being philosophically— it is a philosophical project of
uniting human experience in a meaningful way to show what's important and what is the direction of human life and experience.
POGUE: Well that's very much out of step with the ruling aesthetic of this past several decades and it is hard to get a showing and even among people who are
politically aware and active in many other ways don't always have a critique of the politics of aesthetics so it's difficult literally to get a showing, to get an exhibit of the sort of work
that I do and other documentary photographers.
POGUE: So Russell Lee, an advantage that he had was that he came from a family that has some money.
POGUE: Back in Pennsylvania where he came from they had industry and he received a certain amount of money every month, and that can be highly destructive to
some people because there is no necessity so they don't do anything, or they don't know what to do, or they can't decide. There's no reason to decide. There's nothing forcing them to
POGUE: But Russell Lee had been interested in painting and visual art, picked up a camera to help himself because he didn't draw very well and realized what
the problem was. He didn't have any talent for painting. He had a talent for photography and when he— he never finished the painting he was working on when he picked up a camera and never
looked back and didn't regret it.
POGUE: He had no regrets, whereas Walker Evans did. He regretted bitterly that he wasn't accepted as a famous writer, for instance, and that informs his
POGUE: So Russell Lee went with it. His very first pictures were of people whose farms where being taken over. They had lost their mortgages. They were
POGUE: People were auctioning off their furniture. It was a bitter time, like now, for some people.
POGUE: And then in New York he photographed people on the street, the unemployed. He
immediatelywas doing what he did for the rest of his life.
POGUE: He didn't miss a beat. He was never attracted to current theories or philosophies of aesthetics the way Walker Evans was.
POGUE: He knew what he was interested in and he focused on it and worked really hard. He worked so hard that I remember he would even get stomach problems
and he liked to go fishing, not because he liked to eat fish but just to take him out into the countryside and to get away because he was so serious.
POGUE: He developed all of his own film hotel rooms across the United States because he didn't want to send it back to Washington. He wanted to see right
away what he was doing, things like that.
POGUE: He went beyond what was required. But the economic thing was he was freed from having to work for the big companies.
POGUE: He didn't have to work for Condé Nasta or the New York Times or anything like that. He was happy to have
ajob with the Farm Security Administration but he could have gotten along just fine without it.
POGUE: So the other point of aesthetics is he didn't have to create a signature style because having a signature style is anti-documentary.
POGUE: It is not supposed to be about style. It is not supposed to be about composition. It is not supposed to be about anything in particular having to do
with technique. All of style, all of technique is in the service of understanding the subject so that the viewer can understand the subject and the photographer is supposed to disappear.
POGUE: And the thing about Russell Lee's work, more than anyone else's I think, not just— anyone else's, is that it is like looking through a window.
POGUE: You pick up the picture and you're immediately engaged by the subject matter. You don't even stop to think about composition or how it was
done, you know, process. You're not interested in process.
POGUE: And I guess the only thing that stands out, though, is that he never worked in color but what isn't known to most people was that Kodachrome was
introduced in the early thirties and the Farm Security Administration photographers were given a lot of it by Kodak and well, I say a lot.
POGUE: A few photographers were given enough and they took pictures with Kodachrome and I have a book of their photographs and they are as sharp and clear
and colorful as you would think Kodachrome would be.
POGUE: But in talking to Russell Lee about it, he said, in the end he wasn't interested in the color of the shirts everyone was wearing. Whether it was
yellow or blue or red.
POGUE: He was interested in their expression and he was interested in the relationship of the person to either the other people or to the work they were
doing or all of those things.
POGUE: Their attitudes, their expression, their relation to each other, and their relation to each other in the endeavor, whatever they were trying to
POGUE: And that color was enormously distracting from that, that color was so strong.
POGUE: So what if that person was sad but the woman had on a beautiful dress and people would be looking at the dress.
POGUE: Maybe they would be looking at the fabric or the color or the design or whatever. They're looking at the colors of the surroundings and the colors of
the furniture and the colors of this and that.
POGUE: It's both a distraction from people's expression and what they're doing and also it can be directly contradicting the situation.
POGUE: And I remember seeing a photograph like that that really struck me.
POGUE: I saw a photograph of a woman whose dead husband was in a wheelbarrow covered with burlap,
POGUE: but it was in color so I didn't -- until I had been looking at this photograph for some amount of time did it finally occur to me what is going on in
POGUE: Cause the metal of the wheel barrow, the actual container was silver and her dress might have been red and then the color and texture of the brown
wooden handles that she was gripping onto, and the lush green foliage that was behind her.
POGUE: I mean there was all of this color and texture was going on and finally I realized, well, there's somebody's hand sticking out from underneath this
POGUE: Oh. Well you know, dead relative she's taking somewhere.
POGUE: Well if the picture had been in black and white, I would have immediately seen what was going on and the
pointof the photograph being taken at all really.
POGUE: So I think Russell Lee was correct and one person alive today who I think has broken this barrier on the politics of aesthetics is Sebastiao
POGUE: Sebastiao Salgado was trained in economics, like Roy Stryker, and he was from Brazil.
POGUE: He photographed the peasants movement for land, some of the most amazing photographs of people in open pit sulfur mines, just incredible.
POGUE: In the wide-angle shots, people are like ants, and in the close up shots they look like they're slaves building the pyramids.
POGUE: I couldn't believe it. But he works out of Paris now, he is internationally known and he's had shows in the big museums
POGUE: But he stands out as one of the very few people doing this kind of work who has gotten to that level of recognition and his photographs are
POGUE: They're stunning both in their clarity and the human emotion that is portrayed in them. There will be a show of his work here in Austin on November
the fifteenth at the Austin Museum of Art.
POGUE: But there are some other very good documentary photographers but they just— They're swimming against the tide of photography for photography's sake.
Process for the sake of process.
POGUE: Or myth, creating myths drives me crazy. The myth of the cowboy, they've been making money off of that to this very day and anyone who knows the
history of it knows that it was a myth even when it was created back with the pulp magazines, the nickel and dime magazines of the 1880s and the "Wild West" shows with Buffalo Bill Cody and it
was all nonsense
POGUE: So it's like a nostalgia for nostalgia's sake. There's a lot of that rather than really looking at what's going on, like very few people know about
the cowboys' strike in Texas in the late 1800s.
POGUE: That's the kind of really gritty reality kind of thing, or the Black African American cowboys. Or the fact that the cowboy, the vaquero, that was
Mexican and Spaniard, not Anglo.
POGUE: So not only do we have a nostalgia for nostalgia, we have a bending and a warping and a misconstruing of what actually did happen.
POGUE: So we have like the worst of all worlds in that sort of photography. It is sort of the continuation of ignorance, really.
POGUE: And ignorance is to ignore and to ignore by holding up a false image.
POGUE: That is ignorance. It's not a lack of basic ability to understand; ignorance is
to ignore realityand that's what makes a person ignorant.
POGUE: And so documentary photography
shouldbe just the opposite but there's no end of the necessity of being aware and to
bewarebecause there's pseudo-documentary photography.
POGUE: One of my favorite subjects to illustrate that is Haiti.
POGUE: In the commercial world there is no end of money to be made from depicting voodoo but everyone in Haiti is not involved in voodoo, only a certain
percentage of people and even there, there are all different kinds of voodoo.
POGUE: There's High Church voodoo, but the voodoo ceremonies that I in fact went to in Haiti were like community meetings on a Saturday and community
business would be conducted and people would meet each other just like anything like meetings and a lot of rum would be drunk, a lot of music would be made, a lot of dancing would happen and
maybe some voodoo ceremony.
POGUE: In High Church voodoo, the voodoo priest wears vestments and looks like they could be Episcopalian and they go through highly structured rituals,
ceremonies, but beyond that in Haiti, of course you have Catholics and Presbyterians and just about anything you can think of.
POGUE: So the commercial impetus for a photographer is to ignore reality and play up not only voodoo but the most visually exciting aspects of voodoo and
then to present
thatas the essence of Haiti.
POGUE: Well that's nonsense and so you can have a person go to Haiti and do a supposed documentary on voodoo and the whole thing is warped from the beginning
to the end.
POGUE: So we always have to be aware -- and I call that sideshow photography. It's the whole world as a sideshow: the two-headed chicken, come see the
two-headed chicken. Because what it is in it is sensational and then we get to sex and violence.
POGUE: There's so many photographers who've done one more book on topless dancers or prostitution or anything that has to do with the sex trade and that can
be held out as a documentary
POGUE: But nothing is made clear. Nothing is understood by it necessarily. It's not that they shouldn't be done.
POGUE: It's that it's done poorly and done for commercial reasons and then it masquerades as documentary photography because what is a document? And if a
person wants to be sort of meaninglessly general, they could say anything you photograph is a document.
POGUE: It's a document of whatever happened to be there.
POGUE: Except that human beings have a life and that their life is in a community and the community has a structure and so photographs of people should
reflect those realities in as much totality and in a comprehensive way to make whatever activities that are going on understandable.
POGUE: When I'm talking to young people, to students, when I've taught children and grade school children photography, I say, Well what if you had a pen pal
in France or Bogota or somewhere and you were going to explain to them what your life was like, what pictures would you take?
POGUE: And if wanted them to send you pictures from wherever they are, what would you want to see? What would you want to send them? I mean after you've
taken twenty pictures of your dog—
RAYMOND: That's what Gabe would send.
ALAN POGUE: Yeah, twenty pictures of your dog and your friends, but then I said, you know. Think about it systematically. Okay, the block you live on, the
front of your house, the school you go to, the activities you're involved in, what city you life in.
POGUE: Is there anything interesting about Austin, say, the river, Zilker Park, your parents? Do you go to church? What do you do for fun? Where do you
POGUE: All of these activities are the sort of things that make up your life in the big parts down to the small parts and all of these things together
explain who you are and where you are, and that is documentary photography.
POGUE: But for the sensationalist, it would be like if someone got into a fight in the school and you went and photographed somebody that had gotten beaten
up or someone who spent all their time photographing the football game or you know, it can be too narrow.
POGUE: And as we all know, the commercial aspect of news photography and things is what is exciting, what is burning down, all that kind of stuff.
POGUE: So there's a lot to watch out for and what might seem to be simple turns out not to be.
POGUE: And the aspect of our culture which is what is most valuable is what is most valuable in money drives a lot of activity.
POGUE: And it should not drive one's aesthetic judgments and what one thinks is essentially important in the human enterprise.
POGUE: So that gets us back to what is documentary and what it ought to do regardless of what the payoff and money might be.
RAYMOND: What you said about color film is extremely interesting and it reminds me— what it makes me think of is that we are all living, you know, with
masses of sensory information coming at us
allthe time and sometimes we notice it and sometimes we don't and sometimes one sense blocks everything else out.
RAYMOND: But it seems that what Russell Lee said, and what you said about the photograph of the woman pushing the wheelbarrow, is that with that abundance of
sensation can do is blind us because we see everything and so we see— we don't really see
anythingor we can't pick out what's important.
RAYMOND: So what the camera does, what black and white does, is allow you to focus and for us the viewers, on what is essential. But of course what is
essential is also a political choice and an ethical choice.
RAYMOND: Is it football? Or is it the lunch line, that's the same - day after day, week after week, year after year?
RAYMOND: And that's, that's really important.
RAYMOND: It also seems a little bit in tension with what you began today's interview with about
allowingthe experience or allowing what you
seeto assimilate beyond your ideology and beyond your preconceptions,
RAYMOND: because you have to have
somepreconception in order to say what is important here is not the texture of that woman's dress, but the fact that her husband, or some human being, is in that wheelbarrow.
RAYMOND: And so this might be an impossible question, but how do you, how do you make those judgments about deciding what to focus on and then
notdeciding, just being open --
RAYMOND: -- to what presents itself?
POGUE: Because we're not ever entirely open.
POGUE: That would be an intellectualist standpoint. An intellectualist standpoint would be at the heart of the philosophical debate about mind and
POGUE: Historically, and this is from my study of philosophy, this goes back as far as one
cango, the idea that the mind is a separate entity from the body and that the Zoroastrians, the Manicheans, the darkness versus the light, good versus evil, higher levels of spirituality
versus the horrible flesh, the flesh of the devil.
POGUE: All of these ideas are bifurcations of reality, but human beings are part of the natural world, part of concrete reality.
POGUE: We have essential things we have to do: eating, and we have to have water and air, and shelter. We have to have other people.
haveto have other people.
POGUE: Human beings can be so alienated from their essential structure that they never take a moment to think that these words that I'm speaking, I didn't
make them up. I learned a language.
POGUE: I learned them, learned it from my parents and from other people who did the same thing on back. And all of the cultural activities that we have are
also learned,but what isn't learned, though, is that there's this thing about birth and death and people have to be born into the world and human beings have to be brought up over an extended
period from infancy.
POGUE: The ideas that we have, that exist in language, the sort of constantly running background of chatter that we human beings have.
POGUE: When people take it for granted and they think that this thought process which grows into their thought and their personality, their thought about
POGUE: -- that even get to the extreme position of thinking of themselves as a disembodied entity, like a spirit or a soul and you have people talking about
soul travel, and astral projection. I mean human beings are willing to entertain the most astoundingly ridiculous ideas, I would say.
POGUE: I'm being harsh but the point is that anything is not possible.
POGUE: The only possibilities we have exist within the situation we're actually in.
POGUE: Like they say about situational ethics, there is no ethics outside of situations. But I would say, okay relative, everything is relative to what is,
to what actually exists.
POGUE: So I can't jump off a tall building to see whether or not I'm going to float. I'm a realist, totally.
POGUE: Only. There are only the possibilities within what's possible. The other part of that is, if a person decides beforehand that there are reasons for
things I cannot question, the result of that is there are answers you cannot know.
POGUE: You can only have answers to questions if you're willing to look at what exists and allow
thatto lead you to the answer, but if a person will not look at what exists in its own, then they can't possibly obtain the answer.
POGUE: I want to get back to the disembodied spirit part.
POGUE: All throughout the history of philosophy, or philosophy, religion, people have entertained all kinds of ideas and as I was saying about Calvin, the
idea that the human souls were dedicated to heaven or to hell from all eternity in the past and that we're only going through this sort of life cycle so that the soul can go onto wherever it
was going to go onto anyway.
POGUE: That is very absurd and it leads to all kinds of bad consequences in this life because it says that a person's goodness has nothing to do with what
they do. Well, then there's no social interaction.
POGUE: But there are a lot of ideas like that that people entertain so it's anti-scientific for one thing, utterly anti-scientific because people believe
things that are untestable but, I'm getting pretty off into the ozone here but on the other hand, I am not scientistic or -- I don't believe in scientism.
POGUE: Certainly science is into analysis and so you cut up reality into smaller parts trying to find what is essential to answering the question you're
posing. So you have to be able to cut to the central issue.
POGUE: I mean a good example would be in China. They discovered if you powdered the back of a certain frog and then put that powder into pills or whatever
and took it, it would cure a certain kind of illness and it
POGUE: But with science, you can take the powder and you can break it down into smaller and smaller elements until you find the chemical compound within the
back of the frog that is the active ingredient and then you can stop eating frog backs and start just eating that chemical and it will cure the disease.
POGUE: So from observation of cause and effect, somehow they stumbled upon— There's a joke about who ate the first oyster. Well who ate the first frog back
and discovered by simple experience, cause and effect, it had a disease-curing property?
POGUE: But then all science really is is the ability to observe in levels of magnitude that are smaller or larger plus a certain methodology.
POGUE: But what science doesn't give you is a reason to do anything.
POGUE: Science can tell you how to build a bridge but science can't tell you whether you should or where.
POGUE: So scientism, the belief in science, like capitalism, the belief in money, that won't get you anywhere.
POGUE: You have to be able to not only have an analytic view. You have to have a synthetic view and synthetic meaning putting things together.
POGUE: How do you put things together? How does it get to be a whole? And how do you look at that whole?
POGUE: And that's where you get
valuesand that's how you decide where to build a bridge or
ifto build a bridge or if you have a certain amount of resources for education or welfare or medical, where do you put the money?
POGUE: Where do you put the people power? How do you deliver these things in a good way and how do you decide how to do it? Well then you have to have a
holistic approach. Well that holistic approach derives I think essentially from a person's view of human nature. What is human nature?
POGUE: A lot of people will flippantly say, "Oh, it's just human nature to do thus and so."
POGUE: Well they're being anecdotal and so in a way if you apply your analytic abilities to human nature and you think about what is the most important
thing, the most important human activity, I would say that of course beyond having air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and some shelter, the most basic elementary survival things,
POGUE: and the next thing is human community because without human community we couldn't exercise our most fundamental drive, right after not starving to
death, is communication, communicating with people.
POGUE: And to communicate with people is part of who we are as human beings. Language is developed because we're a social animal and because we simply have
the brainpower to have this level of symbolic communication and language, or in photographs, or in art, or dance, or anyway we can give other people our understanding because what we all want
is each others' understanding.
POGUE: So languages developed and language only has any
worthinsofar as it tells the truth.
POGUE: That the ability to tell another person the truth, whether it's the mastodon is over the next hill, or water is over here, or watch out for the
falling rock, or, you know, I'm hungry or whatever.
POGUE: If only because
mostof the time tell the truth as far as they can understand it, is language even possible to exist.
POGUE: If - if it were human nature to be a con man, a person who takes advantage of people's confidence, if it were in our nature to always seek what was
best for us no matter what the cost was for anyone else, as long as it was good for me, if that was the driving force beyond- that drove my communication, then communication would become
impossible quickly, because no one would be telling the truth.
POGUE: Everyone would only be saying what is to my certain very narrow interest in this moment, like certain politicians way up in Washington, which have
caused our current credit meltdown and housing bust and all of that.
POGUE: If everyone acted as they do, our whole civilization would grind to a halt, and as a matter of fact, because of what they did, a lot of our
isgrinding to a halt.
POGUE: And that's a perfect example of taking the philosophy, their philosophy of human nature, applying it to the broad society and the horrible
consequences it comes to.
POGUE: So if you back that up and you say well, okay, then the driving force of each human being is to communicate
truthfullywith other human beings. Then that would lead to an extremely smooth running of society at every level because everybody would be looking after what they see as necessary
POGUE: So every form of communication would be geared toward that and in reality that is why we have forms of communication, which in the end unfortunately
can be taken advantage of by these confidence men.
RAYMOND: It sounds like from what you're saying, then getting back to the question of aesthetics and ethics, really, we're talking about ethics not just
POGUE: that the
bestphotograph or a
goodphotograph would be the one that connects.
RAYMOND: The best photograph at any moment would be the one that is most
effectiveat connecting an idea to another human being or group of human beings and I—
RAYMOND: So that when you say for instance that Russell Lee's photographs are beautiful and that they're stunning, we're not necc — I mean, you know there's
something that's pleasing to the eye, but there is something also deeper going on in a good photograph according to the documentary tradition,
RAYMOND: which is about telling the truth. So it's not—
ALAN POGUE: Yes.
RAYMOND: Is that it?
POGUE: There was a funny story.
POGUE: Another photographer I like a great deal is André Kertész. It looks on the page like Kertez: K-E-R-T-E-Z, but it's pronounced Kert-esh. He was from
Hungary and he went to Paris in the twenties, late twenties.
POGUE: I call him Cartier-Bresson's older, wiser brother.
POGUE: He eventually fled to Manhattan. I think he was Jewish and like a lot of people who saw the Nazis coming, he got the heck out of France and went to
Manhattan where he ended up working to make money with Condé Nast Publications, but he said that one editor told him that his photographs talked too much,
POGUE: that his photographs had too much to say.
POGUE: They wanted photographs to illustrate a ladies' garment magazine or whatever. They didn't want the photographs to also be making statements about the
conditionor to make people think about other things other than the products that they wanted to sell.
POGUE: So they said to Kertesz that his photographs talked too much.
POGUE: But like Russell Lee, Kertesz's photographs are kind of
quietbecause they also don't reach out and grab you.
POGUE: They aren't propaganda in the negative sense because I mean everything is, I guess you could say making a case for something. But in the propaganda
photograph, you want to strip things down, make them very simple and they want one response from the viewer.
POGUE: And they have tried to figure out what image will evoke the response that is
wantedfrom the viewer on a specific thing and so the photograph is set up that way. But the problem with Kertesz, for some people, and for Russell Lee is there's a
POGUE: that the photograph is an object of meditation.
POGUE: It's something that will give you more the more you look at it and the more you consider it, that there are layers of meaning.
POGUE: I don't know who said this first, but it's certainly true, that no one in the act of creation could possibly know all the meanings of what it is
that they're doing and that's because you're acting out of a holistic point but instantly, in the instant, you're reacting to the totality.
POGUE: So if the photograph in this case, the more successful it is, the more layers of meaning it includes.
POGUE: So when you look at some Russell Lee photograph, it's always about something very obvious. Someone is washing their clothes or plowing the field or
building a barn or something, but his level of understanding encompasses so much that—
Alan Pogue is a photographer who has documented movements for social justice and the problems those movements seek to eliminate for four decades. In Video 1, Pogue explains his entry into the Texas prison reform movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s via civil rights, anti-war, and student organizing. A member of the Austin Prison Coalition, he soon met Pauline and Charlie Sullivan, founders of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE). Pogue's commitment to prison reform paralleled his growth as a documentary photographer: in Video 1, he describes photographing prisons in connection with Ruíz v. Estelle, the longest-running prison lawsuit in U.S. history. In Videos 1 and 2, Pogue mentions specific people on Death Row. In Video 3, Pogue discusses the philosophy of incarceration and capital punishment as a form of human sacrifice. In Video 3, Pogue also addresses the conditions on Death Row; general access to prisons; prison reform and anti-death penalty movements; and the theological doctrine of predestination in relation to criminal justice policy. In Video 4, Pogue discusses Vietnam and his personal intellectual growth. In Video 5, Pogue discusses documentary photographer Russell Lee and the purpose, politics, and aesthetics of photography. In Videos 6 and 7, Pogue shares what he saw in numerous Latin American countries when he traveled on behalf of CURE, which produced a 2006 evaluation of prisons in member nations of the Organization of American States (OAS). This interview took place on October 8, 2008 at the Texas Center for Documentary Photography in Austin, Travis County, Texas.
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Virginia Marie RaymondRole: Interviewer
Gabriel Daniel SolisRole: Videographer
Kimberly Ambrosini-BaconRole: Transcriber
Kimberly Ambrosini-BaconRole: Proofreader
North America--United States--Texas
North America--United States--Texas--Austin
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