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Breaking with the system

From: Creative Inspirations: Rick Smolan, Photographer

Video: Breaking with the system

(Music playing.) I just stayed in Asia for about five years and I was very lucky to continue having this sort of little twist that fate and in between lots of other projects, I'd always find things I want to work on on my own. Time Magazine sent me to do a three-day assignment about children who had been fathered by GIs in Southeast Asia and it was a horrible situation. 40,000 children fathered by GIs and abandoned.

Breaking with the system

(Music playing.) I just stayed in Asia for about five years and I was very lucky to continue having this sort of little twist that fate and in between lots of other projects, I'd always find things I want to work on on my own. Time Magazine sent me to do a three-day assignment about children who had been fathered by GIs in Southeast Asia and it was a horrible situation. 40,000 children fathered by GIs and abandoned.

Local government said these are the children of Americans and the American government said these are the children of prostitutes. In some cases, the women weren't prostitutes. In some cases they were, but these poor kids were lost in this limbo. The more American they look, the more hated they were, the more they were beaten up and ridiculed and the more miserable their lives were. So I decided after the Time Magazine assignment of the Amerasians, I would take six months off and find six children in six different countries and go between the children and see instead of sort of just documenting something, I could actually affect it with my photography.

I think a lot of photographers have that feeling that you don't want to just be filling the pages of magazines and doing connect the dot photographs, but you want to feel like you could expose something or shock people or tell a story that would make people want to do something about what you are photographing. So, I found kids in different countries. I was photographing them. I heard in Korea through the Pearl Buck Foundation that there was a little girl that was being raised by her grandmother up on the DMZ between North and South Korea, that being raised by her grandmother and the grandmother never let any westerners see this girl. We went to the village. The social worker went and met with the grandmother and came out shaking her head, and she said, "I don't understand." And I said "What?" She said, "She has agreed to speak with you and she has agreed to let you meet her granddaughter" and she said "This is like the 20th time I have come to her with a request like this and I don't understand why." I hadn't even met the grandmother, so I have nothing to do with this decision. So I met the grandmother. The girl was just amazing.

She looked 98% American. Freckles, blue eyes, just absolutely gorgeous, cute, and funny, and the strangest part about is I could tell that even though I didn't speak Korean, that she didn't have that haunted concentration camp look. All the other kids are going to hunched over and their eyes were kind of sunken in and you can tell they were like skittish animals that were ready to be attacked. This girl kind of walked in the room and made her presence felt and the affection between her and the grandmother was just amazing. At the end of doing the story, I wanted to publish a story about Amerasian children. I took all the pictures of Natasha out of it, but I went to magazines all over the United States and got turned down by every single publications. They said Americans don't want to hear about illegitimate children of American GIs. There is no market for that story here.

So I finally found a magazine called GEO, a German magazine which was for a while publishing here much like National Geographic and they laid out this really powerful story, cover story, really disturbing pictures. I went to the whorehouses with the GIs, I went with the kids, I went with the mothers, I found adopted families. It was the best story I ever shot and just before it went to press, the Director of Photography called me to go over some of the captions for some of the pictures and I realized that she hadn't mentioned like the four most powerful pictures in the article, including the cover and I said, "Alice, what about this picture and that picture and this one and this one?" There was this long silence on the phone. She said "Well, actually our editors were here from Germany last week and we decided to drop those pictures." I said "what do you mean? Those were the pictures that grabbed you by the gut and didn't let go. I mean those were the ones that wouldn't let you walk away after seeing those pictures," and she said, "Well, our advertising hasn't been going very well and our editors are afraid that they will offend the advertisers." I said "Wait, wait, wait, if you run the story without those pictures, you have run the same lame, limp watered down story that every other person that has ever done the story has done and now I can't place the story anywhere else because now GEO has published it." I said "Well, then I want my name taken off the story." She said, "Rick, you spent a year working on the story. I mean it's just as powerful." So I wrote this long, long telex to the editor explaining why, how they were sabotaging these kids and betraying their trust, and I got this very condescending note back saying "You've got way too emotionally involved in the story, and our story is just as powerful as it was with the other pictures." So they ran the story without my name on it and basically that was the last story I ever shot.

I just stopped shooting. I was so angry. I was so disappointed and I felt so much like I'll never-- I needed to learn how to take control of the machine because if I was always at the mercy of some editor and some advertising department, then I was just a cog in the machine and I would never have any control of the finished product. So that sort of planted the seed in my mind that I needed to figure how to do my own projects and publish them myself.

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Creative Inspirations: Rick Smolan, Photographer

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Rick Smolan
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