Andrew Lichtenstein: “I Photograph with a Feeling That Photography Can Change the World”

Documentary photographer Andrew Lichtenstein told Bird In Flight what he values most in life, why he resents celebrity photoshoots and what helps a freelance photographer to survive.

Andrew Lichtenstein 49

Documentary photographer from New York. Lichnenstein’s works have been published in Time, Newsweek, Die Zeit, Atlantic Monthly, Life, Rolling Stone and New York Times. Has cooperated with Open Society Institute and Human Rights Watch. In 2007 he made a book titled Never Coming Home.

I remember the first time I received a check in the mail for a photograph of mine that was published. I think it was for seventy five dollars, from the Daily News, a New York City tabloid. I’d been spending a lot of time in a park in the East Village where there were frequent conflicts with the police. Check or no check, I would have been there anyway. So when I got paid, it was an amazing feeling that someone would give you a little money to hang out seemed too good to be true.

I take an issue, most of the time, with the premise that a photograph can change the world. I hope it can be part of a conversation, or even begin the process of changing peoples’ perceptions around an issue. But this is a long process, and true change involves so many more factors than just photography.

I never feel that a project is ever really finished. There is always more to do, even if I personally have decided that I will not be me doing it. I guess I feel unfinished.

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I have been returning to this one rural county in North Carolina, 1500 miles from the [Mexican] border, where migrant labourers bring in all the crops. Some of them are settling down, making lives for themselves in the southern heartland, and it has been fascinating to watch the area change.

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Now that I’m older, and have mortgage, electric and phone and cable and heat and water and car bills, a nice glass of wine with dinner — I would appreciate a little economic security. No, not even that. Just not to live with the constant reality of sliding backwards on the steep slope of economic decline.

I guess photography offers a chance for me to be me. To have a voice, to express myself, to investigate and spend time around things that I care about. There is a selfish element to all of this. I don’t want to just read about something, or even worse, sit on a couch and watch it on the television. I want that experience of being there, of seeing, feeling, tasting, smelling, touching, the anthesis of the internet age.

Never say never, but I have zero interest in photographing entertainment celebrities. Celebrity worship and all of the censorship and access games around that — I’m not sure how a photographer can get involved and not become a part of it.

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It has been a busy political year in my hometown, New York. Eric Garner was selling cigarettes when he was choked to death by the police. Then after two police officers were murdered, some police showed their displeasure with the Mayor by turning their backs at the funeral. Old New York was sending liberal brownstone Brooklyn a message “you need us to run this city.”

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I am inspired by history, books, people. People who are trying to make a difference and change things, away from the glare of the lights.

All of my stress comes from when I’m not working. I do not get through it. I just suffer.

I’m afraid that my way of life is finished. I love that everyone is a photographer now. Technology has really made the art truly democratic. And the younger professional photographers coming up, so many of them are absolutely terrific, so talented. In many ways, photography has never been better. But at the same time, my personal ability to rely upon it enough to keep going, to go out the door and give it another day, has disappeared. Being paid ninety six cents an image, or nothing at all, just means that the only freelance survivors will be the truly exceptional self-promoters and the independently wealthy.

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I am someone who is just naturally drawn to the beauty of the old rather than the possibilities of the new. So I’m a late arrival to Instagram. But I’ve found photographing with the phone both fun and challenging, whether on assignment in Ferguson, West Virginia, or just walking down the street running daily errands.

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