Featured Photographer: Interview with Social Documentary Photographer Ken Light

by . March 3rd, 2015

Patrick: You have been taking pictures for a long time and you have published a lot of books such as Valley of Shadows & Dreams, the Texas Death Row, Coal Hollow and many more. and many more. You are also a professor and curator of the Center for Photography at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Where do you get the energy to do all these work?
Ken Light: Part of my job at the University is to actually be productive, reach into the community and also continue with my own work as a photographer. So my colleagues at UC Graduate School of Journalism all continue to write, create multi-media, radio in he real world. So, I am lucky to have the privilege to be a University Professor, but it is also deeply tied to my own work ethic to continue to tell stories and find time to travel and photograph. I continue to love photography and witnessing the world. And I have curiosity about who we are and that seems to propel me!

P: As an educator what is one thing that people who don’t take up formal photography schooling are miss?
KL: I think they are missing making connections, a safe haven to experiment, you are able to make mistakes, and also learn directly rather than thru youe own mistakes or missteps in the real world.


P: In your opinion as a curator what makes an image iconic?
KL: An image that resonates the truth about a moment, and holds the viewer breathless with happiness, sadness or makes them what to change something. It’s a photo that doesn’t let go, like a tune running in your brain aftre you have heard it on the radio. You just can’t get it out of your mine. You recognize that it is sympolic of the moment in the real world and somehow captures It in a way that pulls you in with its mysterious power.

P: With the explosion of interest in photography and the ever growing number photographic devices, what do you think about the images being published nowadays compared with back when everything was analog?
KL: Its hard to keep up now with the constant flood of images. What’s especially difficult is that the news/web cycle is 24/7 so one hardly gets to sit with an image before it is replace by another strong photo. I’m not sure it is about the photo as much as the speed in which stories appear and disappear. In the analog era, one could sit with a daily paper, a Life Magazine and go back and think about it. The web can be so distracting.The pace of Facebook hardly allows one to sit and contemplate the rush of images. I might like it but do I really take it ..in the hurry to be social we often forget the quite moments of contemplating what we see, or even to enjoy an image before we hit LIKE.

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P: Do you think there is now an over saturation of images?
KL: Yes.…a flood of images is over whelming, and serves no one, especially not a great photographer who has worked and thought about their practice and have crafted photos.

P: Would you consider using social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram to publish your work and to voices to those who needed and create a discussion?
KL: I have used social media for my kickstarter, but I really find a book or a nice portfolio printed or on-line is a much better way for people to see my images. I have seen some conversations that are exciting, but the speed in which they last on line or even in my conciseness, it seems to be very short, we are always onto the next new!

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P: I borrowed a copy of Texas Death Row back when I was still in college and it moved me. You once said in an interview that you wanted to humanize these people  in the hopes of creating a discussion about the death penalty. You said that “how are we to discuss the death penalty if the people on the death row are already pathologised?” Do you think your images served your aim? Did they stir the pot?
KL: I think the photos were part of a broader conversation that continues. The photos were published in magazines world wide, and they continue to be used in stories about the Death Penalty. So in that sense I have added my voice to the conversation, and that has been rewarding. In the end the photos are a historical record of one man’s witness of capital punishment in America. One day when we no longer execute people, but choose more humane forms of punishment, like life in prison for horrific crimes, people may look back to try to understand the process, and hopefully they will see what I saw and photographed. It is very hard to disrupt what people have ingrained in their minds, especially aorund this issue.

Ken Light
“An image that resonates the truth about a moment, and holds the viewer breathless with happiness, sadness or makes them want to change something. It’s a photo that doesn’t let go, like a tune running in your brain after you have heard it on the radio.”

P: When you are working on your books such as  Texas Death Row, Valley of Shadows & Dreams, Delta Time as well as Coal Hollow among many others, was there ever a time that you felt the need to stop being a photographer and be a human first and make genuine connections with the people you are photographing?
KL: I always try and be a human, making connections, talking to people, trying to hear their voice, but I always know I am a photographer. I am there because my passion for change and my passion for Photography have taken me to have this interaction in the first place.I hope that people understand that. I come from the Humanist tradition in photography and try to hold to that value.

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P: You have this new book called What’s Going On: America 1969-1974 for funding on Kickstarter and it is about photographs of America during the time of Vietnam, Nixon, Woodstock, campus unrest and the Women’s Liberation movement. What do you think is the one image you took that perfectly encapsulates that era?
KL: That a hard choice, as there are many movements in the work. I guess it might be the image of the tear gas being thrown back or the National Guard taken in 1970. Images that show how the State tried to suppress the movement of young people. They ( the status quo)  had really had it with all the social change, music, politics, women’s liberation, Black and Chicano power, fighting for the poor and underclass. It was a big response to these movements, and it scared people.

P: You mentioned that you were able to travel with President Nixon. What was it like traveling with one of the most hated presidents in history?
KL: It was exciting and scary at the same time. I remember being across from him with my long hair and 60’s beliefs as I photographed thinking that this is the man that had supported the Vietnam War and represented and hated all that I loved and believed in. I guess I have always believed in Gordon Park’s famous quote “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.” – Gordon Parks

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P: Your journey with photography started in 1969 when you were 18. Is photography something you dreamed of doing, or did something happen then?
KL: I had been around photography, my Father an amateur always photographed us, but it wasn’t really until I went to college and got a 35mm SLR and started shooting the world around me, that it became evident that this is something that nurtured my love of seeing my times. I would have never imagined at 18  that I would have books, be teaching at UC Berkeley etc. I really had not planned a career path.

P: If you could go back to 1969 and talk to your younger self, what advice would you give to him?
KL: Shoot more. I photographed a lot, hundreds of rolls of film, but I could have worked some of the events better. I would tell myself to try and push outside the box more. To have experimented. I didn’t take photography in college so maybe if I had, I would have had a greater sense of our history. I learned photography from friends and spending time with photo books and seeing what photographers in earlier generations were doing.


P: Since we are on the subject of time travel, do you have an era and a place that you wish you can travel back to and photograph?
KL: I would like to go back to the Great Depression and travel across America and understand how we could have let this happen. I am sorta trying to do this now, as we come out of the Great Recession. But it was an easier time to photograph. People were less conscious of the camera, and their were fewer photographers.

P: Lastly, where do you see yourself ten years from now?
KL: Hopefully still photographing and doing more books. Despite having 8 books, some of my early projects were never published and I would love to go back and put together stories around the various themes I invested huge amounts of time on and in sitting in my archives.

You can find more of Ken Light’s great work over at his website and don’t forget to support his latest book What’s Going On: America 1969-1974 on Kickstarter!

All photographs in this interview are by ©Ken Light and used with his permission