An Interview with Michael Kamber of the New York Times
A seasoned photojournalist acclaimed for his brilliant and sensitive coverage of conflict zones around the world tells the amazing story of his evolving career and his Leica connection
Q: You are a contract photographer for the New York Times—that’s quite an achievement in the world of photojournalism. You very modestly described how you ended up in this position as a result of perseverance, putting yourself out there, and honing your skills. You also mentioned that you were influenced by a couple of great photojournalists, namely Bruce Davidson and Robert Frank. Can you say something about that?
A: With Robert Frank, I kept reading about his work so I finally found a copy of his landmark book, “America,” a gritty portrayal of life in the United States in the ‘50s. I wish I could say I understood it immediately, but at first it went completely over my head. I also clearly remember looking at Bruce Davidson’s searing photographs of Brooklyn street gangs, which are very powerful. What I took away from Davidson was the idea that you have to spend time with people to create an authentic document. To get to this level of work you’ve got to become part of the scenery. You have to be there—that’s what stuck with me. Robert Frank’s work is harder to describe. He’s just a genius. He’s aesthetic has influenced so much of what we do today.
Q: When did you first start shooting with Leica M cameras and what were some of your reasons for doing so?
A: Again it was in the mid-80s. There were a few serious photographers I was hanging out with— Lou Friedlander, Ben Fernandez, Claudio Edinger, and Angel Franco—and these guys were serious photojournalists who were using Leicas. The Leica M had the reputation as the best camera for street shooting, and if you wanted the really sharp lenses, this was the place to go.
New York was a different place then, kind of run down. I knew a marginal guy named Ralph who lived behind the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He sold me my first Leica, an M2 with a 35mm Summicron, for only a few hundred dollars. It had been around the block a few times, but it worked. Eventually I got an M4.
I was living and working in the Bronx then. I quickly fell in the love with the Leica and began using for all my shooting. I had been a mechanic and transmission rebuilder to finance my move to New York, so I love mechanical things. The Leica is a beautiful object and mechanically it’s extremely well made.
In addition to the 35mm f/2 Summicron I also used the 21mm f/3.4 Leitz Super-Angulon—it was also a great lens. I hate to admit this—Leica fans may want to excommunicate me—but at the time I also I had a 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor screw-mount lens with an M bayonet adapter. However I was very impressed with an early 28mm f/5.6 Leica lens I had acquired and I used it a lot. I also owned a 90mm f/2 Summicron, but I hardly used it. My “live in the environment” approach naturally favored wide-angle lenses. It’s all about working in close. Eventually I got an M6 and bought the M7 when it came out. I’ve still got most of the Leica stuff I’ve acquired over the years–it kind of sticks with you
Q: We know you’ve been shooting with a Leica M9 on your last couple of assignments, but do you also shoot film?
A: Yes, I still shoot 35mm film in my Leicas, mostly in black-and-white but in color as well. I’ve also been working on a series of portraits with a Hasseblad and shooting on Tri-X 120 roll film. I used to do my own darkroom work, but I’ve been on the road for the last 2-1/2 years, so I’m kind of homeless. I don’t have a place to set up my darkroom right now but I will as soon as I can.
Q: In the course of your extensive travels for the New York Times you’ve covered a lot of conflict zones. What are the most memorable locations?
A: Well I’ve been in and out of Iraq for 6 years now. That’s the place that stays with me. I have friends there and I’ve gotten close to the people and their struggle to survive and developed some understanding of their cultures. I was working in Yemen earlier in the year. It’s an amazing place. It’s larger than life, and you have to resist the temptation to portray it as an exotic location and reveal its human dimension.
Q: What exactly were you covering in Iraq?
A: Maybe 50% of my time was spent embedded with the U.S. military, covering military operations and combat and the daily life of soldiers. The rest of the time we were covering how the Iraqis live, but kidnapping is a big threat so it’s hard to stay there long. We’d stay in peoples’ homes for brief periods, try to shoot pictures that capture their daily life, and then leave.
Q: As an embedded photographer who is also trying to convey the experience from the Iraqi side how do you perceive your mission?
A: I think what you’re trying to achieve as a photojournalist is setting things down for history. They’re going to study these events for decades to come, and the images photographers create will be an essential part of that reality transmitted to future generations. I strive to connect people to the war, to connect Americans at home and other to the Iraqi people. My mission is convey the reality of everyday life in Iraq and to bring it home to Americans. Iraqis are real human beings, “20 killed and 75 wounded” doesn’t mean anything. Photography brings humanity to the situation.
Q: Yemen is perceived by most Americans to be a failed state that’s a source of radicalized anti-U.S. terrorists. Do you think Americans don’t have a real sense of that country?
A: Very little, and it’s a real problem. The Yemeni government controlled me very closely. I wasn’t allowed to leave the capital. We did the best we could in that city. As I implied, the country is too exotic and picturesque. You want to present Yemenis as normal human beings but the looks so different than the US people tend to focus on externals. What bro0ught me to Yemen is the Christmas Day “underpants bomber” story that created a media frenzy in the U.S. We traveled around to universities and mosques to try to present a more realistic overall picture of the country.
Q: You mentioned that you’re very pleased with the Leica M9 and that you used it on your most recent assignments in Jamaica and Dominican Republic. How does shooting with the M9 compare to shooting with the 35mmm Leicas you are so familiar with?
A: The experience of shooting with the M9 is very close to that of shooting with, say an M7. I’m trying to think of what the differences are, but it pretty much feels like the same thing. Obviously you’re not winding the film to the next frame but aside from that, it’s basically the same experience.
Q: Which lenses are you using on your M9?
A: I’ve got a 35 f/2 Summicron, pre-ASPH version, a 50mm f/1.4 Summilux, and a 28mm f/2 Summicron. The 28 and the 35 are the lenses that I use most often. The 28mm just feels right especially when you’re working in close and it’s the 28mm f2-ASPH so the performance is outstanding. My old 35mm f/2 certainly does the job but I’ve heard that the new version 35mm f/1.4 Summilux M is an amazing lens. I’d love to get my hands on one since we’re doing more and more night work, as well as shooting at dusk and dawn. With the M9 I don’t push the ISO setting past 1250. I find that ISO 2500 is too noisy, and this is the main area where there’s room for improvement. Leica’s answer is to use their magnificent super-speed lenses—a valid point. Overall, the M9 is a superb instrument for what I do.
A: Can you tell us something more about your latest projects covering Jamaica and the Dominican Republic? What did you find memorable about those experiences?
Q: I was covering, Jamaica shortly after 75 people were killed when the government stormed a neighborhood to track down a notorious drug dealer, resulting in back and forth fighting. It was pretty grim. The story on the Dominican Republic offered me a welcome respite from war and conflict, and the chance to work on a positive piece about a Dominica. The story was about a factory that restored the lives of the workers and brought them dignity. It felt great to cover a positive and heartwarming story and I thoroughly enjoyed it. People were super welcoming and nice. It was wonderful to be able to focus on the positive side of the human drama.
Q: What are some of the projects you’ll be working on now and in the immediate future?
A: I’m editing a couple of book projects on Iraq now and I’ll probably go back there in September. I’m also headed to West Africa for month or two to for a project on child trafficking. It’s poverty related. People are too poor to take care of their kids. The traffickers come around and tell them that they’re going to take care of their kids and educate them, and then they sell them as slaves or sex workers. My goal is to expose this through investigative reporting, to track the networks and provide visual evidence of what’s taking place.
Q: You mentioned the violence you’ve encountered in Jamaica and Iraq and your conflict with the government in Yemen. Do you ever fear for your personal safety?
A: Sure, I mean, it’s just something that you deal with everyday. You’re not going to get the picture if you get hurt. So you try hard not to get hurt. Everything’s a calculated risk. That’s the point of going to conflict zones; it’s not to be a cowboy. The point of going is to get the picture.
Q: You mentioned that you dropped out of art school to pursue you passion as a photographer. What school was that, and did you get anything out of your experience there?
A: I attended Parson’s School of Art & Design for year and while I was there I was exposed to some notable photojournalists. Yhe place was full of creative people doing creative things. Danny Lyons–I always looked at his work, and the work of other photographers who covered the Civil Rights movements in the ‘60s. Whether or not you have a degree you still see these things and internalize them.
I was exposed to photojournalism pretty early on because my mother was a photojournalist for a few years. There were always photos around our house, and I vividly recall here story on a mental institution that was published in the Maine Times. In going through these images in her scrapbooks it became clear to me that photography was evidence, documentation. The Vietnam War photos of that era were much more present then war coverage is today. It was much more controlled. There were fewer photos but they were more significant. The number of picture outlets was far more limited—Life Magazine, Time Magazine—but they carried more weight. Today we’re overwhelmed with all of these things.
Q: We can well understand why you see your photography in terms of evidence and historical documentation but do you also see it as creative expression?
A: It is most definitely a form of creative expression…if there’s something aesthetically jarring in an image, it simply won’t work effectively. Today people are awash with visual noise. That’s why it’s essential to create photographs that stand out. They have to make people stop and say hey “look at this dramatic photograph” It has always been about creative expression and emotion.
Q: What does it mean to you to make a statement? What is the essential quality in an image that achieves this goal?
A: I am sure that there’s a long history of images that attain this level, and I believe that the term that describes it best is “the sympathetic eye.” I hope that all good photojournalists strive to honor that tradition. True, we have to be objective to an extent, to show things as they are, and to expose things that need exposure. We’re not setting anything up of course, but we also need to have a sympathetic eye, a connection to our overarching empathy with those we photograph.
Q: What is it about the Leica that let’s you do your work most effectively?
A: I think that it’s really boils down to this: It’s a smaller quieter camera and the lenses are phenomenal. You’re not putting this people bulky machine between you an your subject. With a Leica there’s very little between you and the subject either physically or emotionally and that’s one of the main reasons you can get great photographs with it.
Q: The Leica M is also a rangefinder camera with a multi-frame viewfinder. Does that have anything to do with it?
A: Yeah, absolutely! You’re not just getting what the mirror box in an SLR is showing you. You can view continuously even at the moment of exposure, see beyond the frame, and make decisions on composition using the frame lines. Being able to look through that window is very useful indeed. I think SLRs have their place and I use them on occasion, but I mainly shoot with a Leica— because I want to.
Q: Where is your career going from here?
A: Gee I wish I had a great answer. I’m going to continue to do newspaper work. I want to publish books. I definitely want to do more multimedia. Most of all I want to continue to so more solid documentary work and to find new creative ways to disseminate the evidence.
I’m currently working on two books on Iraq: The first is a collection of other people’s photographs that includes an oral history. The working title is ‘Movement to Contact,’ a military term for patrols that move into unknown territory until someone fired at them. The second book is based on my own work, images I’ve created while working in Iraq from 2003-2010. The theme? I don’t have one yet because I’m still going though untold thousands of photos.
Another thing I’ll be doing going forward is documenting the human condition with my Leica, and I plan to be shooting with the M9 for a long time. Why not? I have the best job in the world. I get paid to do what I want to do every day.
-Leica Internet Team
For Michael Kamber’s website, please visit www.kamberphoto.com. For more of his work, please visit Mike Kamber’s New York Times topic page and click to see his Photographer’s Journal: The War in Iraq featured on nytimes.com.