ER: I think I’ve been profoundly
self-conscious [about that] for
a long time. I always feel that
if you do something on tough
issues or troubling subjects, the
photographs should trouble the
people looking at them. If you’re
making a photo of a tragedy, I don’t
want people to be comfortable
with the photographs. If you do
a photograph on drugs, you can
really romanticize the situation,
but I’d much prefer it to be ugly,
because it is ugly.
That’s what people object to.
They say, “It is ugly.” Well, it is ugly.
When I did the photos
with Dorothea [Lynch], people
said, “They’re kind of rough.”
[Richards and Lynch, his first wife,
collaborated on Exploding into
Life, which chronicled Lynch’s
treatment for breast cancer and her
approach to her impending death.]
PDN: Are there bodies of work or
certain images that were left out
of the show or the book?
ER: It’s interesting, I have got a
lot of photos but not a whole lot
compared to other photographers.
I realize that’s because my
assignments have always been
very short. I’d go to some place
where you should spend a long,
long time—for example Niger—but
my assignment would be a week
and a half. That’s all. In a week
and a half, you’re just scratching.
Over and over again I found that,
particularly the international work,
wasn’t as deep as it should be.
It feels strange to me. There were
three or four photos of a place
and there should be a lot more.
Years ago, I used to win
these journalism awards for
projects that regretfully I only
worked on a short time. If I’m
a good photographer, it’s only
because I’m a good desperate
photographer. There are some
people who need a lot of time.
I can accomplish something
quite quickly. But the downside
is, the work doesn’t always have
the depth I feel it should have.
I have a photo from this place
and that place, and to me it feels
frustrating. There are places I
wish I’d spent [more time].
I photographed a woman in
Niger, in a place called Safo, a little
town [in 1997]. I had no idea she
was 82, because the average age
people die there is way under 60.
She had a baby, a young boy, on
her back. I wanted to photograph
the baby, who I thought was
healthy. That was totally wrong:
He was actually close to death
by starvation, he just had this
beautiful, fat face. I asked his
great-grandmother through a
translator if I could photograph
them. She said: “Please do.”
This woman was so brilliant, as
a storyteller and a human being.
She walked seven miles to the
hospital. When the baby died,
she walked seven miles back. It
was 120 degrees. She buried the
baby herself. At the end of the
whole thing—she’d never seen
a newspaper or anything—she
said, “You’re leaving the village, I
would like you to take a picture of
a fat baby.” She meant she wanted
her village to be remembered as
having a fat baby, not a dying baby.
They found this kid, a little plump
beast. She put him on her lap.
When I was ready to leave,
I said, “I gotta go home.” She
looked at me and said, “At your
age, you’ve got old parents. I’ll
come with you now because I
can’t take care of the children
now. I can’t run after them. So I’ll
take care of your parents.” She
just wanted to be of service, and
she would have left her village
right then and there. It was
heartbreaking to say to her: You
can’t come with me.
PDN: I’ve often heard you talk
about how hard it is to leave the
people you meet.
ER: I think that’s inherent in
ABOVE: “Mariella, Brooklyn, New York,” 1992, from Cocaine True Cocaine
Blue. Richards believes photos of troubling subjects should make viewers
uncomfortable. “If you do a photograph on drugs, you can really romanticize the
situation, but I’d much prefer it to be ugly because it is ugly,” he says.
TOP RIGH T: “Gravediggers, Marion, Arkansas,” 1971.
LEF T: “Safo, Niger,”
1997, from The Fat