“My work as a photojournalist is not to publicize the numbers–reporters do that–but to show you the faces and the real life experiences,” LA Times photographer Don Bartletti told a group of middle and high school students during a recent trip to Madison.
In 2003, Bartletti won a Pulitzer for his work on Enrique’s Journey, a story about a Honduran boy who immigrated to the United States in order to find his mother. His pictures for that story, as well as other visual narratives on immigrants’ lives, are remarkably visceral and captivating. Somehow, in the starkest conditions of abject poverty, he’s able to capture one small detail to remind us we are witnessing human spirits frozen in time. His recent work has focused on Mexican and Central American immigrants, but he’s crossed the globe to cover similar topics.
It’s delicate work that defies sentimentalism. Bartletti’s journalism, I’d argue, is work that can–and maybe should–speak for itself. And I’d venture that after he left Madison, the photographer agree with me.
Bartletti came to Madison after former UW chancellor Biddy Martin chose Enrique’s Journey for the Go Big Read program, a project designed to get people reading and talking about the same book.
Earlier in the day, Bartletti had presented his photos to a group at UW-Madison. That audience–mostly university students, professors and interested adults–was receptive, listened respectfully, and asked question about the photos.
But later at Centro Hispano, the photojournalist found a much different reaction. When Bartletti finished showing students and Centro staff members his slideshow and gave the audience the chance to comment, the conversation turned a little tense.
“Question,” said Eugenia Highland, a Centro Hispano program coordinator. “The purpose of your work is to show and share the stories, right? Show the faces and all that. Do you have any political…do you have any further purpose with your work? Are you trying to change something?”
“If you’re asking me if I have an agenda, I don’t,” said Bartletti. “I can’t make up my mind. When I’m in Mexico or Central America and I see the way people live, I can totally understand why they would ride freight trains to leave Honduras.
“But when I’m here in the United States and I’m with my gabacho friends and I’m looking at the budgets of the school systems of my town, and I see that now every teacher has to be trained as a bilingual teacher, every student has be given a free breakfast, and sometimes a free lunch, well that’s costing me a hell of a lot of money. Why? Why is that happening? Well, I understand, because I was on the other side. And I saw the human need for people to leave.”
Centro Hispano program director Mario Garcia Sierra paced the floor, held his chin, and waited for Bartletti to finish.
“I think it’s a little more complicated than that,” said Garcia Sierra. “There’s a lot of data to prove that what immigrants bring outweighs what they take. And it’s a little offensive to suggest that immigrants are a burden on society.
“And I urge you to be cautious about how you talk about these issues without adding to these myths that Americans hold. Especially when you’re talking to a group like us, who may be a little more connected to these issues than you.”
After the discussion, neither Bartletti nor the folks from Centro Hispano said goodbye to each other. I got a few more quotes, and headed to my car.
I met Bartletti outside. He looked rattled and upset, but said he’d be willing to talk with me a little more. He was headed to the Old-Fashioned to meet some friends for dinner, so I offered him a ride.
On the way I asked him if anything like that had ever happened to him before.
“Never,” he said. “I feel like I was completely ambushed.”
I understood. Here was a Pulitzer Prize winner, a man who had more respect and notoriety in journalism than I’ll ever have a chance to experience. But the scene at Centro Hispano…well, it was a little embarrassing.
I do think he made some poor word-choices during the discussion. Out of respect I won’t include the podcast, but at one point, while defending his lack of agenda, Bartletti asked Highland if she knew how to read a newspaper. Yet, I think his intentions are noble, his work is phenomenal and the sacrifices he’s made for the profession are unquestionable.
This Los Angeles photographer, well-versed in immigration-reform rhetoric, had no way of knowing that Madison is in the middle of a racially charged debate over how to address our educational achievement gap. He didn’t know that before his presentation, Garcia Sierra had just educated his students about recent repeals to the Dream Act or that he regularly encourages young Latinos to stand up for themselves when they feel their identities are threatened.
“At Centro Hispano, we try to instill in students high expectations, we try to share our stories with them, and we try to teach them their own history—all the contributions Latinos have made to U.S. history. We try to help them understand why they’re here in the Midwest,” Garcia Sierra later told me.
At the Old-Fashioned, Bartletti ordered a beer. Not long after, it seemed, he was feeling a little better. Don told me a story about his father growing up in New York City and how, before he left the house, his dad would tell him that when he walked into the street he was no longer Italian–he needed to protect himself from people who might judge him for his nationality.
It seems like Bartletti has always had an inherent understanding of the subtleties of discrimination. Maybe that’s what motivated him to cross the desert, ride trains, and take pictures of migrants’ faces. He’s been at the tail-end, but also understands the plight of the angry American taxpayer.
And this might be the most interesting dynamic of the entire issue: in a country formed by immigrants, who gets to decide if it’s time to close and bar the door?
I don’t think any of us, regardless of our profession, has the luxury of feeling detached on this one. After all, actively or passively, we’re all involved.
The best I can do as a journalist is to admit, like Bartletti did, that I may know how I feel but I can’t decide on what to do. I guess it’s a question for all of us.
So…I’ll open it up for comments. Where do you stand?