Interview with B.D. Colen
March 12th, 2019
NHD: When I researched your name on Google, B.D., I was impressed by your numerous accomplishments in journalism. You are a Pulitzer Prize recipient. You were a writer, editor, and columnist, first for The Washington Post, and then for Newsday in the U.S. for 27 years. For much of your journalism career you wrote on medical issues, and, in addition, you published 10 books on medically-related topics. You have been a significant voice in informing the general public on leading-edge medical topics such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the right to die, and important inner-city health-related issues. You also taught science journalism and documentary photography at MIT Cambridge, Massachusetts for 19 years. Those are all quite significant achievements for a lifetime.
But B.D., putting all that aside, it is really your life as a documentary photographer that I want to focus on here. You say that you really were smitten with a love of photography at the age of about 12. Can you talk about that experience, and the people or events that awakened that love?
BD: I remember getting a Kodak Bantam camera as a present for my 11th or 12th birthday, and I was hooked. I had no real idea what I was doing. No one was teaching me. I remember being initially drawn to the work of a couple of advertising photographers, one of whom was Bert Stern, whose work seemed to be everywhere in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. But there was a book that my parents bought me that clearly had an impact. It was entitled “Willie,” and was a collection of photographs taken by a New York photographer named Ken Heyman in 1957, when he spent a week following a four-year-old white kid in around one block of Willie’s poor Manhattan neighbourhood. The boy was allowed to walk around the block on his own, as kids were at that time. This was one block between two avenues and Heyman recorded the boy’s street life. I’m sure that work had a formative effect on my photography. People usually describe me as a “street photographer,” by I reject that label because it is so misused today. Instead, I say I am a photographer of the mundane, the little moments that together make up our lives,
NHD: So, at a young age you decided to pursue a career as a photographer. It started in the summer of 1963, I believe. You were 16 at the time, and through a synergy of events which included holding a summer job as a newspaper photographer, you found yourself in Washington D.C. for the culmination of one of the most significant political demonstrations in American history. How did that happen?
BD: At that time, I was just learning to be a photographer. I convinced my editor at a weekly paper in Connecticut to let me follow a group of locals who were planning to travel to Washington for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was to take place five days after I turned 17. I certainly understood that it was an important event, but looking back I don’t think I understood quite how significant it was. I certainly can’t claim to have heard every word of Martin Luther King, Jr’s, “I have a dream” speech.
NHD: What happened after that?
BD: Well, what followed were a number of summer internships writing and photographing at various newspapers in New England. I was focused on a career in photography, but my first day in college, in Washington, D.C., I went into the student paper and asked if they needed photographers. An editor said they did, but then asked, “Can you write?” And answering “yes” to that question ‘sidetracked’ me into a journalism career as a writer, first for a decade at the Washington Post – from years in college until 1980, and then for Newsday, on Long Island. And for 17 of those years I covered medicine and science.
NHD: Were you doing any photography during that time?
BD: I always had cameras. I turned to doing photography of my everyday life. I photographed my family, my kids, my dog; those sorts of things. But in that era newspaper unions were still quite strong, and there were rules in place preventing photographers from writing, and writers from photographing, so I shot outside of work, focusing on everyday life.
NHD: But in 1993 you returned to doing more serious documentary photography with your trip to Somalia.
BD: Yes, that’s right. It was in January of 1993 that I went to Somalia. I volunteered to go. It was at the end of the civil war there, and the horrendous famine. As a medical writer, I proposed going to cover the famine as a medical story, rather than covering the violence and political aspects of the situation, which had been getting all the attention. I took my photo gear, shot as much as I reported, and the photos got good play in the paper. That experience reminded me how much I loved photography, and as I looked at my contact sheets I also remembered that I wasn’t half bad at it.
NHD: About two decades later you went to Liberia and to Haiti to photograph for NGOs – non-governmental organizations. Do you think your experience in Liberia had anything to do with that?
BD: Absolutely. It’s not that before going to Somalia I was unaware of what life was like ‘outside the bubble’ of privilege that is the “developed world.” But having seen the conditions in Somalia – which at the time I went had absolutely no functioning government services – and no government to speak of; it was like the world in the Mad Max movies, I was much better prepared for what I found in Liberia and Haiti. In Liberia, where I went in January 2014 – exactly 21 years after going to Somalia, I photographed in the schools for three NGOs, one of which was the Canadian NGO CODE, which is focused on advancing literacy in Canada and around the world.
NHD: And what were you doing in Haiti?
BD: I’ve worked in Haiti four times now, for various NGOs. My first trip was in August of 2014. For the first week I photographed for an organization outside of Boston that supports an orphanage down there. And the second week I was doing work for Project Medishare, out of Miami, that ran part of a hospital in Port-au-Prince, and send US medical and nursing students on trips to Haiti to do rural health work. The next two times I went with my wife – who is a photographer, as well as a fibre artist, and we documented the work of Midwives for Haiti, which trains midwives down there. And the last time we went to document the work of another group that supports a hospital on Haiti’s north shore.
NHD: In your return to doing more photography, you worked on some personal projects. Can you tell me about your Boston Subway Project? There is no doubt that the photos from that project will have historical significance, especially as they have been done over such a long period of time.
BD: Well, yes, I had been photographing the subway for 13 years. From 2005, when I began riding the Boston subways to work and back, up until last May actually, when I retired from teaching at MIT and commuting weekly from London, Ontario, to Boston, I photographed subway riders for a project I call “Alone, Together,” focusing on the concept of isolation in the midst of a crowd. It was really about how people manage their isolation in a public space. Over the course of the project I used various cameras – both film and digital – though the great bulk of the images were made with digital equipment. In this project you can really see the influence of the Ken Heyman book that I mentioned, but more importantly it reflects me as a “photographer of the mundane.”
NHD: It is interesting that you continued documenting your transit life in the two-year commuting experience you had travelling from Ontario to Massachusetts while continuing to teach at MIT.
BD: Yes. I found the images and landscape out the window to be compelling in my ride by train, by plane, and then the subway. So, I photographed that experience.
NHD: You are now here in quiet, conservative London, Ontario. How are you fitting in? Are you continuing with your photography work?
BD: First of all, I am here because my wife is a long-time London resident, who before she retired was an audiologist at Parkwood Institute. As I said earlier, she is a fibre artist and photographer, I now know some of the London arts community through her. I still have connections with the States. My three kids live there, for one thing. And I’m leading a workshop in New York City in early May. But there are interesting photographers here as well, and London has an active photography community. There is the London Photography Club and the London Photographers Guild. Steven Slack, who does amazing things with Photoshop, is the driving force behind that organization. I have met some outstanding photographers here who I did not know before. Ian MacEachern, for example, a stunning photographer who documented the destruction of traditional neigbourhoods in Saint John, New Brunswick – in the name of “urban renewal “ in the 1960s and early 70s. And Paul Lambert , a painter who has moved into photography and is producing – not surprisingly, painterly work. Of course, there are John Densky and John Ulaszek in the documentary realm, and Will Kuryluk and Rob Nelson, outstanding fine art photographers. I reconnected with Scott Gregory, who I had known through an email list of photographers who used Leicas. I was at the Fall Fotofest in Bayfield a few years ago, and out of the blue Scott came up to my table, asked if I was B. D. Colen, and introduced himself. And then last fall I taught two 12-week documentary photography classes out of our home, which I now call the Dining Room School of Photography. I continue to do private documentary photography of families, and documentary wedding photography, truly documenting the wedding day, rather than doing traditional wedding photography in a “documentary style.”
So, yes, I am becoming part of the community in London, photographing every day, and documenting the world around me.
Interview by Nida Home Doherty
All photos are published with the consent of B.D. Colen
See more images/photographs by B.D. Colen at bdcolenphotos
Here’s a link to a number of B. D. Colen’s documentary projects:
See more of B. D. Colen’s photography on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bdcolen/