Video has its place, but mix­ing it with stills on a news as­sign­ment is as wel­come as a chainsaw in a monastery!

Jeff Wi­dener, News pho­tog­ra­pher

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Around the time The Bea­tles re­leased ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, my fam­ily packed up a trailer in Cal­i­for­nia and headed for the desert com­mu­nity of Scotts­dale, Ari­zona. I was pretty bored as a child but my par­ents’ en­cy­clo­pe­dia set lured me from monotony and ev­ery day my head was filled with im­ages of ele­phants in Africa or tem­ples in Asia. One day, my fa­ther came home with a Life mag­a­zine buddy named Leigh Wiener, who of­fered to make some hol­i­day por­traits of my brother and me. When he opened his large metal case, my bub­ble gum dropped on the car­pet. In­side were cam­era bod­ies of all shapes and sizes, a mul­ti­tude of lenses, fil­ters, flash bulbs, bright yel­low packs of film and light me­ters. The im­age was frozen in my mem­ory. I wanted to own a cam­era.

While other pho­tog­ra­phers have trav­elled as widely as Jeff Wi­dener, few have doc­u­mented as many of the world’s ma­jor news events.

The for­mer As­so­ci­ated Press pho­tog­ra­pher has cov­ered wars and con­flict, royalty and celebrity, sport­ing tri­umph and nat­u­ral dis­as­ter in more than 100 coun­tries. An ac­tion-packed life be­hind the cam­era while trav­el­ling the world seemed to be his call­ing from a very young age…

Can you re­call what sparked your in­ter­est in pho­tog­ra­phy?

So when did you get your first cam­era?

Four years later, aged 10, my par­ents gave me a Ko­dak Fun­flash Hawk­eye. The first shut­ter re­lease on the first roll of film was of my grand­fa­ther walk­ing across the front yard of our home in Canoga Park, Cal­i­for­nia. In­cred­i­bly, the orig­i­nal 1967dated print has sur­vived 46 years of moves through Cal­i­for­nia, Ne­vada, In­di­ana, New York, Florida, Bel­gium, Aus­tralia, Canada, Thai­land and Ger­many.

Do you think you were des­tined to be­come a news pho­tog­ra­pher?

Though I was tak­ing a pho­tog­ra­phy course in high school, I felt com­pelled to make im­ages of news events. Dur­ing the 1972 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial cam­paign ral­lies in Los Angeles, I would ride my bi­cy­cle to shop­ping malls to make pic­tures. When

for­mer Vice-Pres­i­dent Hu­bert Humphrey got up on the stage, I re­call with envy how all the news pho­tog­ra­phers were cor­doned off in a spe­cial press area next to the stage. All I had was a 50mm lens. Se­cret Ser­vice staff con­stantly ha­rassed me un­til one sym­pa­thetic LosAn­ge­lesTimes pho­tog­ra­pher hid me in front of him. The pic­tures won my first award in the Los Angeles Photo Cen­ter pho­tog­ra­phy con­test.

So what was your first break?

In 1978 I at­tended Moor­park Col­lege out­side Los Angeles. Most pho­to­jour­nal­ism stu­dents were strug­gling to find in­tern­ships but I de­cided to cut to the chase and rang the Whittier Daily News. I asked the ed­i­torin-chief Dick Singer if he had any staff pho­tog­ra­pher open­ings and he said “Yes”. I had an in­ter­view that af­ter­noon. The next day I found my­self as a staff pho­tog­ra­pher stand­ing on the side­lines of an NFL Rams game in­side the Los Angeles Coli­seum.

What was your first pub­lished pic­ture?

In 1977, a friend and I were driv­ing on the Hol­ly­wood Free­way when we saw a Porsche 911 catch fire. At the time I was work­ing on the Los Angeles Pierce Col­lege news­pa­per The Roundup and al­ways had a cam­era with me. I got out of the car and made an im­age with a Nikon F2 and 180mm f/2.8 lens of a fire­man stretch­ing a hose to the flam­ing ve­hi­cle. The next day, a group of stu­dent re­porters en­cir­cled me as I held up my first pub­lished news­pa­per pic­ture that fronted the Val­ley News and Green Sheet, a ma­jor daily for the San Fer­nando Val­ley.

How many coun­tries have you been to?

I have cov­ered as­sign­ments in over 100 coun­tries on seven con­ti­nents, in­clud­ing the South Pole.

Are there any places you wish you hadn’t trav­elled to?

Each as­sign­ment I’ve taken has been a

learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. There is a Baby­lo­nian say­ing: “With wis­dom comes a keener aware­ness of suf­fer­ing”. I think to un­der­stand hu­man­ity as a pho­to­jour­nal­ist you have to be pre­pared for plenty of sad­ness. The job is not meant for the weak at heart. I have had sev­eral close calls through the years from hos­tile gun­fire, rocket at­tacks, tear gas, crazy soc­cer fans and de­fec­tive air­craft. Even the French pho­tog­ra­phers have been dan­ger­ous!

‘Tank Man’ is your most suc­cess­ful shot, is it your favourite?

‘Tank Man’ was ba­si­cally a lucky shot. I was in the wrong place at the right time. Though it was a nice mo­ment, I might pre­fer a few other pic­tures more.

There were other pho­tog­ra­phers shoot­ing that scene. Why do you think it was your pic­ture that was used around the world?

The main rea­son is be­cause ‘Tank Man’ was trans­mit­ted to pub­li­ca­tions world­wide on the As­so­ci­ated Press wire. Also, the AP im­age is dif­fer­ent from the other pho­tos in that there are lamps, which adds spa­tial depth. The lone man has a Gandhi feel rather than a de­fi­ant stance and the 800mm fo­cal length com­pressed the tanks. All ver­sions have their own per­son­al­ity.

It was a dan­ger­ous sce­nario. Did you look out for each other or was it a case of ‘Ev­ery man for him­self’?

None of us knew where the other pho­tog­ra­phers were. It was a tense sit­u­a­tion; ev­ery­one was try­ing to keep their head down. Some pho­to­jour­nal­ists han­dled dan­ger more com­fort­ably than oth­ers. I re­call re­turn­ing to my ho­tel and see­ing vet­er­ans drink­ing in the bar as gun­fire rat­tled in the streets. They would ask, “What’s go­ing on out­side?” I would re­ply, “Just some kids play­ing with fire­crack­ers.”

How did you get the film out?

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a mes­sage from AP in New York to doc­u­ment the scene, I con­cealed cam­era gear in­side my cloth­ing: a Nikon FE2 body in my back pocket, a Nikkor 400mm f/5.6 EDIF lens in­side a Levi jacket, also a Nikon TC-301 tele­con­verter and 35-70mm zoom lens. Sev­eral rolls of Fuji 800 film oc­cu­pied my boxer shorts. I rode a bi­cy­cle past a string of burned-out buses and de­stroyed bar­ri­cades. There was spo­radic gun­fire. I was scared to death.

When I fi­nally reached the Bei­jing Ho­tel I spotted Amer­i­can col­lege stu­dent Kirk

Mart­sen stand­ing in the dark­ened lobby. I pre­tended to be Kirk’s room­mate and the ap­proach­ing se­cret po­lice abruptly turned and walked away. Kirk and I went to his sixth-floor room and when my cam­era ran out of film from shoot­ing events in the street be­low, he man­aged to find a sin­gle can­is­ter of Fuji 100 colour neg­a­tive film from a re­main­ing ho­tel guest. It was on that roll that I made the ‘Tank Man’ im­age. Kirk risked his life by smug­gling the film out of the build­ing in his un­der­wear and past the se­cret po­lice. He then rode his bi­cy­cle down al­ley­ways, avoid­ing soldiers, and de­liv­ered the pack­age to the Amer­i­can Em­bassy, who then for­warded the pic­tures to the As­so­ci­ated Press bureau in­side the diplo­matic com­pound. The im­ages, in­clud­ing ‘Tank Man’, were then trans­mit­ted world­wide by tele­phone.

Which other as­sign­ments stand out as be­ing par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable?

I rode a bi­cy­cle past burned­out buses and de­stroyed bar­ri­cades. There was spo­radic gun­fire. I was scared to death Jeff Wi­dener Pho­to­jour­nal­ist

While work­ing on the Las Ve­gas Sun in 1987, I man­aged to get Pen­tagon ap­proval to fly in a USAF Thun­der­birds F-16 Fight­ing Fal­con at Nel­lis AFB. I de­cided to take a pic­ture of my­self in the cock­pit with a Nikon FE2, which was mounted di­rectly in front of me with a Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 fish­eye. As soon I re­leased the timer, my body was slammed into the seat with the force of 7Gs as the pi­lot spun the air­craft upside down and then flew over the Ne­vada desert to­wards Lake Mead.

Stand­ing on the South Pole was also one of my most mem­o­rable mo­ments. An AP re­porter and I were sent to McMurdo Sta­tion on the Ross Ice Shelf to do a story on the Na­tional Sci­ence Foun­da­tion. Though go­ing to the ac­tual Pole was de­pen­dent on a va­ri­ety of fac­tors like weather and crew, we got lucky and spent five days there.

What’s your desert is­land lens?

The Nikkor 28-300mm VR gets top billing. There would be plenty of fo­cal lengths, from macros of in­sects to cir­cling buz­zards, and it makes a great te­le­scope for res­cue ships!

f/2.8 or f/8?

For most reporting I would say a faster aper­ture was es­sen­tial, but for per­sonal work I tend to stop down pretty far and even to f/16 for dra­matic depth of field.

Which Nikon cam­eras you have owned?

Af­ter sev­eral sum­mers mow­ing lawns as a teenager, I re­alised a Nikon would be unattain­able with­out a real job. I talked my way into a night­shift job at a fast food restau­rant and thumbed through

Video has its place, but mix­ing it with stills on a news­pa­per as­sign­ment is as wel­come as a chainsaw in a monastery Jeff Wi­dener Pho­to­jour­nal­ist

cat­a­logues, fan­ta­sis­ing about the day I would own a Nikon FTN. The FTN was built like a tank. It just made you want to make im­ages. When the big day ar­rived, I could only af­ford one lens so my early pho­to­graphic view of the world was recorded with a 50mm f/2 Nikkor.

The sec­ond cam­era I owned was a Nikon F2AS and it’s still my favourite SLR film body. It was a mas­ter­piece of crafts­man­ship with added re­fine­ments over the FTN such as an LED light me­ter and faster shut­ter speeds. A Nikon MD-2 mo­tor­drive was added later in col­lege. It was a noisy beast but that was all part of the fun. The Nikon F4 was a sen­sual ma­chine but weight was be­com­ing a fac­tor in steamy Asia so I switched to the lighter Nikon F-801 and F90.

Which bod­ies do you cur­rently own?

Two Nikon F100s, two Nikon F6 film bod­ies, and two Nikon D700 dig­i­tal bod­ies.

What’s the most un­usual thing in your cam­era bag?

That would be a post­card from Czech pho­tog­ra­pher Josef Koudelka.

What are the big­gest changes you have seen in your pro­fes­sion and how have they changed what you do?

Be­fore dig­i­tal, I fondly re­call the days as a staff pho­tog­ra­pher on the Evansville Press in In­di­ana when we made ex­pen­sive 11x14in Il­ford fi­bre prints for the daily oper­a­tion. Ev­ery evening was like an art show. I of­ten lost track of time as I worked late to get the per­fect print. The ed­i­tors liked my work and of­ten re­warded me with front-page pic­ture spreads. In those days, the broad­sheets were twice the width of to­day’s pa­pers. The newsprint was heavy. The ink would smear. It was magic.

These days, I am go­ing in two pho­to­graphic di­rec­tions, with black-and­white film for the art mar­kets and dig­i­tal for ed­i­to­rial and cor­po­rate work.

Do you shoot video, and can the two be com­bined suc­cess­fully?

Video has its place, but mix­ing it with stills on a news­pa­per as­sign­ment is as wel­come as a chainsaw in a monastery. Qual­ity usu­ally suf­fers on at least one end.

How do you stay on top of work­flow?

Like many pho­tog­ra­phers, my ar­chives look like a mis­matched sock drawer, but things are get­ting more man­age­able.

A lot of your im­ages are taken us­ing wide-an­gle lenses. Is this what makes a Jeff Wi­dener photo dif­fer­ent to the rest?

I have al­ways car­ried more gear than was re­quired. I have used just about ev­ery lens and cam­era that Nikon has pro­duced. One of my favourite wide-an­gle lenses is the man­ual fo­cus 18mm f/3.5, which has very low dis­tor­tion. In many sit­u­a­tions I have used a Nikkor 16mm full-frame fish­eye

by shov­ing the lens through an­other pho­tog­ra­pher’s armpit, then crop­ping the edges. I used this lens in a bunker in north­ern Sri Lanka dur­ing a fire­fight. But I also love long tele­pho­tos, es­pe­cially the 600mm f/4 lens, which is per­fect for Pa­pal vis­its. The light­weight man­ual fo­cus 400mm f/5.6 EDIF, which recorded the ‘Tank Man’ im­age, is still a great news lens. It’s light and you can eas­ily con­ceal it. Re­cently, on as­sign­ment in An­gola I used the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8.

Among your peers and press col­leagues, who do you most ad­mire?

Mag­num pho­tog­ra­pher Joseph Koudelka has had a ma­jor in­flu­ence on my work for over 40 years. His pho­tos have an emo­tional pres­ence that few oth­ers can match. Koudelka em­braces the soul of his sub­jects and trans­lates this to film. Brian Lanker had a pro­found in­flu­ence on my de­ci­sion to be a news­pa­per pho­tog­ra­pher. Oth­ers in­clude James Nachtwey, Eu­gene Smith, Garry Wino­grand, El­liott Er­witt and Robert Frank, to name a few.

What do you re­gard as your great­est mo­ment as a pho­tog­ra­pher?

One morn­ing in Evansville, In­di­ana, I was stand­ing deep in snow at a pay­phone across the street from a 24-hour su­per­mar­ket. I had just spent two hours at a cof­fee shop wait­ing for word from Char­lie McCarty, who was the United Press In­ter­na­tional pic­ture edi­tor for Europe, Mid­dle East and Africa, in Brussels. I was work­ing on a be­gin­ner’s salary as a staff pho­tog­ra­pher on the Evansville Press and strug­gling to pay my bills. I re­alised that to get to where I wanted to be, a po­si­tion on a ma­jor wire ser­vice was es­sen­tial. My phone had been dis­con­nected for non-pay­ment, so ev­ery week I made a nightly pay­phone pil­grim­age with a pock­et­ful of coins to call Bel­gium. Stares from the shop­ping cart guy al­ways made me won­der if he would re­port me to the po­lice as a pos­si­ble drug dealer. Fi­nally in the win­ter of 1981, McCarty came back with an an­swer: “Okay kiddo, I guess you can give your no­tice.” I just held the phone over my head and shouted with emo­tion! McCarty com­mented years later that my per­sis­tence fi­nally won him over.

So, what is the best piece of ad­vice you can give to some­one start­ing out as a press pho­tog­ra­pher to­day?

You al­ways hear the busi­ness is chang­ing. The bot­tom line is, what do you re­ally want out of life? What are you will­ing to sac­ri­fice to get it? I re­cently told stu­dents at Ohio Univer­sity that they should not worry too much about what their fu­ture holds be­cause if they re­ally want it they will have it. If you want to be a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent, some­times you just have to buy a plane ticket and see what hap­pens, other­wise you could be wait­ing a long time. The worst-case sce­nario is you will have some mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ences to share. If noth­ing else mat­ters in your life, em­brace your pas­sion. Other­wise, study law.

From Long Beach to Ham­burg, it’s been quite a jour­ney. What next?

Dur­ing the film­ing of a se­cret BBC doc­u­men­tary in Bei­jing on the 20th an­niver­sary of Tianan­men I met a pretty blonde Ger­man school­teacher named Corinna, who is 22 years my ju­nior. Old guys al­ways think they have a chance so af­ter risk­ing the stan­dard brush-off hu­mil­i­a­tion, I asked her to lunch near the For­bid­den City. That evening we took shel­ter from the rain and dived into a de­serted can­dlelit tea­house where I made my five-hour pitch. We were mar­ried on a Hawai­ian beach the fol­low­ing year. Corinna and I now live in Ham­burg. We travel ex­ten­sively through Europe cour­tesy of her gen­er­ous govern­ment va­ca­tion al­lowance and I am cur­rently work­ing on two book projects and a ma­jor solo ex­hi­bi­tion in Italy. Three ma­jor gal­leries rep­re­sent my work and I am work­ing on my ex­ten­sive ar­chives. I’m hav­ing fun!

• A ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion of Jeff Wi­dener’s news pho­tog­ra­phy is planned, and will be held in Italy.

Bei­jing, China 1989 A woman is caught in a scuffle with se­cu­rity po­lice and PLA soldiers near Tianan­men Square the day be­fore a bloody mil­i­tary crack­down which left hun­dreds of people dead. Pic­ture taken with a Nikon F3 Limited and Nikkor 18mm f/3.5 lens

(Top) Honolulu, Hawaii 2004 Zel Bodie takes a swim at King Manor apart­ments. The shot was used across two pages in Amer­ica24/7. Pic­ture taken with a Ko­dak DCS-14N full-frame D-SLR and Nikon 28mm f/1.4

(Be­low) Holes and one, 1999 A crew mem­ber hoses down the ex­te­rior of a lux­ury cruise ship docked at the Aloha Tower Cruise Ship Ter­mi­nal in Honolulu, Hawaii. Pic­ture taken with a Nikon D1

Barely comp osed, 2001 A strip­per named Chaz en­ter­tains some ladies at Club Venus in down­town Honolulu, Hawaii. Pic­ture taken with a Nikon D1

(TOP) EA ST TI­MOR 1995 Demon­stra­tors go on a ram­page in down­town Dili. Wi­dener was ex­pelled from the coun­try af­ter the im­age ap­peared in Time mag­a­zine. Taken with a Nikon F90 and Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8

(ABOVE right) BATTAMBON, CAM­BO­DIA , 1988 Viet­namese of­fi­cers take their seats prior to cer­e­monies mark­ing the pullout of Viet­namese troops from Cam­bo­dia. Shot with a Nikon F3 and Nikkor 24mm f/2

(ABOVE left ) CAM­BO­DIA /VIE TNA M BOR­DER 1988 Viet­namese troops wave to cheer­ing crowds as they cross the bor­der back into Viet­nam dur­ing troop with­drawals. Pic­ture taken with a Nikon F3 and Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 lens

(LEFT) JA FFNA , SRI LAN KA 1987 Troops from the In­dian Peace Keep­ing Force show off cap­tured mor­tar shells from Tamil Tiger gueril­las in Jaffna. Pic­ture taken with a Nikon F3 and Nikkor 18mm f/3.5 lens

CHI­ANG Mai, THAI­LAND 1988 Princess Diana strikes a clas­sic pose for the pho­tog­ra­phers dur­ing a visit to an um­brella fac­tory in North­ern Thai­land

Kailua, Hawaii 2003 Ac­ro­batic pi­lot Hank Bruck­ner flies in­verted over Kailua in a 1984 CAP-108 air­craft. The pic­ture ap­peared in Amer­ica24/7. Pic­ture was taken with a Ko­dak 14N full-frame cam­era and Nikkor 15mm f/2.8 lens

(ABOVE Left ) Pink, 1999 Sun­bathers re­lax in a jam of pink in­ner tubes at the Hawai­ian Wa­ters Ad­ven­ture Park in Kapolei, Hawaii. Pic­ture taken with Nikon D1

(ABOVE right) KOBE, JA PAN , 1995 A man walks past a col­lapsed home fol­low­ing one of Ja­pan’s worst earthquakes, which killed over 5000 people. Pic­ture taken with a Nikon F90 and Nikkor 18mm f/3.5 lens

LAS VEGA S, NE VADA 1980 A 113 year-old Na­tive Amer­i­can poses for the cam­era at her home in Las Ve­gas

(Top) SEO UL, KOREA 1994 Dur­ing an anti-govern­ment protest in Seoul, a man tries to hold off an army of riot po­lice. Pic­ture taken with a Nikkor 24mm lens

(ABOVE) Misr ead, 2002 A child sits on an over­sized chair at the Chil­dren’s Dis­cov­ery Cen­ter in Honolulu, Hawaii. Pic­ture taken with a Nikon D1

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