Pulitzer Prize-winning Photographer Speaks on Photography and Life

Starting out as a shoeshine boy in Tucson, Arizona, José Galvez became acquainted with the newsroom at the Arizona Daily Star when he was 10 years old. In high school, he furthered his interest in photography by taking photos of the people and places in his neighborhood with a pawnshop camera. After graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism, he returned to the Daily Star as a staff photographer.

Galvez was the first Mexican-American photographer on staff at the Los Angeles Times. In 1984, Galvez was part of a team of photographers and reporters that received a Pulitzer Prize for their photo series on Latinos in Southern California, the first Hispanics to be granted the award. He is now self employed as a photojournalist. I had the pleasure of speaking with him by phone in his hotel room in Oxford, Ohio.

José Galvez with Tyler Bagwell

Karibu News: What is the main focus of the lecture you’re currently presenting?

José Galvez: We’re living in a pretty crazy time in our country’s contemporary history with all this: “anchor babies,” and “building a wall,” and all this rhetoric. The message that I try to present, that I’ve always presented is that ‘Hey, this is who we are, we are here, we’ve been here,’ I’m talking about Latinos, ‘We actually contribute to everything.’

At the Los Angeles Times, you had difficulty getting stories about Latinos to run in the paper. How did you get them to turn around on that?

I think it was just a matter of having a significant number of Latinos on staff by then. And we weren’t really doing the sort of good stories on Latinos, that was one thing that we kept, as a collective group, wanting to convince management that ‘Hey, there (are) positive stories out there on Latinos in the community, or in California, or nationally.’ So, we finally were able to get the go ahead to work on those articles and photographs and we worked on it for several months. It was a good process. It took a lot of arguing and being patient, but yeah, we finally did it.

A lot of convincing that these stories are important and they need to be presented?

Right, right, and that there is readership out there.

The Times didn’t believe that Latinos were reading the paper?

Yeah, and maybe there’s partial truth to that. But that shouldn’t skirt an organization’s responsibility to the greater community. If it’s the case then why not educate the non-Latinos about the Latino community?

A lot of documentary photographers photograph communities and subjects outside of their realm of knowledge, while your career has focused on documenting your own community.

And people are always saying to me ‘What project are you working on next?’ and there is no next project, this is not a project, this is, like you said, continuing from within.

Talking about your style and your aesthetic, what equipment specifically do you use?

Everything I use is film. That is the important thing, it’s still film and it’s still manual SLR. Nikon and also I use an old two and a quarter Rolleicord film camera which only shoots 12 frames.

How do you think the equipment has an influence over your aesthetic and your overall method of working?

It makes me really think. Really look at the image as I’m looking at it, as I’m framing it, as I’m waiting for it to present itself, before I photograph it, because I only have 36 exposures on the Nikon and 12 exposures on the Rolleicord. So each frame is important. As opposed to digital where you have unlimited image space on those memory cards.

I’ll see some photographers, especially photojournalists, working digital cameras, who’ll just let it run as fast as possible.

Oh sure, if you can shoot six frames or eight frames a second you’re going to do it. The artistry, I think, is missing and the skill set of the photographer is sort of diminished because they’re not really waiting for the exact moment. As (Henri-Cartier) Bresson used to say, ‘the decisive moment, waiting for that decisive moment.’

They’re not waiting for it, they’re just like you said, just [Galvez mimics the sound of a digital camera firing rapidly and laughs]. Whereas I’m waiting and waiting and waiting because I only have so much space. And along with that, I’m paying for it. I’m not working through some grant or some foundation. I’m not on staff for anyone, I’m not freelancing on a project for anyone. When I’m paying for that role of film I’m going to think about the economics of it.

A lot of photographers who work primarily in film or had for a long period of time have said it was constantly a struggle between being able to take pictures or being able to eat. Do you find yourself struggling with that?

I’m not really struggling so much with that. I photograph very economically. So I might shoot no more than 30 or 40 rolls of film in a year. But out of those 30, 40 rolls of film I’m going to get maybe a hundred or a couple hundred of images. It’s very cost efficient.

In terms of you talking about not having a next project and your work being this ongoing body, does it move through different themes depending on the place of your life you’re in?

These last couple weeks that I’ve been traveling I’ve come across tobacco workers in West Virginia, pumpkin harvesters in Virginia, and we’ll see what else presents itself as I continue traveling. By the time I get to Buffalo, hopefully I’ll have several more images that are different to what I had before.

As I go into each different community, even though I might have a particular image already, I still will look and photograph that image as a representation of that community. Like yesterday when I was coming back to my hotel room. There were some workers that were just coming back from a full day of work over on the campus, they were Latinos, and I thought briefly, ‘Oh, I should photograph them,’ I asked them ‘Where are you working’ and they told me (that) they’re working on campus, so I will go look for them on campus today and try to make a photograph of them on that campus.

And what I’ll say with that, maybe I’ll return back here to the Miami of Ohio and I might want to present that image. A working theme of my talk is “Aqui Estamos, Here we are.”  And I would venture to say, a lot of students, as they’re walking around, they probably don’t even notice that those construction workers are Latinos, and they should notice, because like I said, we’re in this national conversation about Latinos and their right to be here. And ‘they’re taking our jobs.’ Well, this is direct pictorial evidence of ‘Yeah, they are working.’ Maybe you want to think about why are they working on this project here? Why aren’t there non-Latinos working on this project?  Why are the non-Latinos not doing this work?

What advice do you have for photographers  who are starting out, especially photojournalists working in the newspaper industry?

The advice I give to the photojournalists or any photographer right now, as they are working in a digital world, is sort of going back to the beginning of our conversation, really think about the image, make it important, wait for (the) right moment to photograph. It will make your photography stronger and it will make your job also easier. You won’t stress as much about having to review all these hundreds of images you come back with. You, I’m talking about the photographer, are the one who is going to have to sit down at that desk and review the images. And I know the turmoil that goes within, personally, ‘Oh my God, is it this one or that one, or that one? Is it this one or that one? Or, this one?’ When you have the obvious choice because you shot so little then you’re going to be much more comfortable with yourself.

Be versatile, don’t get all hung up on the great pictorial assignment, the good documentary feature story that’s going to change the whole world or change your community.  Just be versatile. Be good with kids, be good with feature stories, be good with portraits of all these people you’re meeting.


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