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
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