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Master of Arts

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Successfully defended my masters thesis at Ohio University this week. More than a year in the making, it was a book of my project on the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Sat in a room for over an hour with my graduate committee Terry Eiler, Stan Alost, and Rebecca Sell and talked about the project, about my process for creating it, and what I hope for it. It was a good time. Thanks a lot to all three for two years of great investigation into what it means to produce documentary photography.

Thank you as well to my class- Matt Craig, Brad Vest, Octavio Jones, Alexandre Mihale, Ty Wright, and Dania Maxwell, a group of brilliant photographers. I learned so much from you guys. We created a hell of a community for ourselves, and the experience of making this work with you all took it further than I could have imagined. Thanks to Bryan Thomas and Andrea Morales for riding along with us too. Congrats to Dania, who defended her project on Dream Act Kids, and Ty Wright, who defended his on a brothel worker, Jade. It was a great experience, and even though I am glad to be done, I know that for this group, it isn’t over.

POYI Editing award for Parlay

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My good buddies and champion picture editors Becky Hanger and Brad Smith of the New York Times pulled a triple double on the Sports Editing category in POYI, winning first, second, and third places. My story on my grandfather that they ran in November got second. I am pleased as can be to be a part of that win, especially sandwiched between Winter and Heisler. They were great, they did an amazing job wrangling my pictures and the two formats into a great spread. And congrats to Brad, who is moving on from the Times to Sports Illustrated. It will be a bummer not to swing by the Sports desk to chat him up, but no doubt he will do great stuff there, but thankfully Becky is still around for me to talk to.

The Inauguration for Bloomberg News

It was a long cold day, but me and about a million other folks showed up last Monday to see Barack Obama stay the 44th President of the United States. Many thanks to editor Graham Morrison, (Papa Bear,) who led our team of Scott Eells (Eagles Nest,) Dan Acker (Nomad,) Andrew Harrer (Point Man), Christian Loeffler, Farah Shulman (Teal Fist), and Joshua Roberts. It was a tight file, and we got ‘er done. It was fun to reprise the Bloomberg Team from the Conventions.

It was kind of a tough day to make a picture. The crowds were definitely less enthusiastic than I expected. Logistics were tough of course, but that wasn’t it either. It was something in the air that was hard to put visually. I guess a sort of relief that everyone was there again. Four more years. It will be an interesting ride with a complicated guy. Election out of the way, he’s running for history now, for legacy. I don’t think that race will be any easier.

Dwayne Quattlebaum, from Atlanta.

Darlene Rainey, from Maryland.

Nika and Sylvester White, from New Jersey.

Dorothy Brown, from New York City.

Abortion protester.

Pamela Cullerton, from Illinois.

Ashley Judd.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still…”

Donna Laws, right, and her cousin Rebecca Laws.

Sam

Me and some friends just spent some days with our friend Sam. His mother, Kim Hua Flournoy, was shot and killed in a robbery attempt on December 30th, in Jacksonville, NC. A group of friends of him and his sister Kim headed down to help them through it. It was hard. I hate violence. It is the nature of the job that I have to report on it sometimes, or more accurately on the aftermath of it. It is important to do, but it was still a strange reversal to be so close to it personally this time. Here is an article they got together on his mother in the Jacksonville Daily News, (thanks to Mike and Lindell for being so professional.) It is a powerful thing to watch people you care so much about hurt so bad, and at the same time act with so much grace. With you Sam, still.

Close to Me

I lost someone close to me this weekend. Susan Spitz was my first girlfriend, we grew up in Raleigh and met at our church youth group. We dated in high school and for awhile after. She was beautiful, a champion volleyball player, a music fan, smart as a whip, and always down for adventure. I was crazy about her. We stayed close ever after. There would be pauses, sometimes for months and months, then we would get each other on the phone and spend hours. A few years ago she had a bad accident, and her arm was paralyzed. She lived with a serious, debilitating, phantom pain that could not be treated due to the nature of the injury to her spinal cord. She was so tough. When we visited she would try to hide it, or brush it away if you asked.

I made these pictures one day in January 2003, when she came down to visit me in Greensboro. We stomped around in a park in town, had dinner, caught up and enjoyed that familiarity you feel with someone that knows you so well. It was a little while before the accident, and she was studying to be a massage therapist. It was a good couple of days.

Susan took her life on Friday evening. Her brother Bill called and let me know. She left behind her dog Emma and her longtime boyfriend Drew. I know both of them are missing her intensely. Her dad too. The pain she was living with became too much. I think it was impossible for some of us that knew her to really get how much she was suffering. We thought we had an idea of it, but no. We would talk about it, and I would insist there had to be some kind of solution, as if she wasn’t spending all her time trying to find one herself. She saw doctors and psychiatrists for years, but no one could solve the pain. Sometimes we exhaust people trying to fix things that can’t be fixed.

I am not sure how to miss her yet. I fear that I will figure it out. She was one of the great ones, and the things she had to live with were not fair, and they were more than just about anyone could bear. I loved her so deeply, for so long. Like a lot of folks, I always will.

Parlay in The New York Times

My project on my grandfather Dick Taylor and his life in harness racing ran in The New York Times last Saturday. It ran in the Sports section and got a really nice two page spread inside. Thanks to Sports picture editors Brad Smith and Becky Lebowitz and Sports Editor Joe Sexton for getting behind the project and giving it such a great display. It was the best possible home for these pictures, and it was pretty exciting for me. Even if this one is about my own grandad, it still feels like a continuation of how I see my role as a photographer- to tell the big, resonant stories in the lives of everyday folks. I am grateful to have the opportunity to continue doing that in the Times.

The piece also ran as a feature on the Lens blog, where Lens editor David Gonzalez gave my writing some serious spit and polish, thanks as well.

I took my first pictures of grandad Taylor on the farm when I went to live there for some months back in the winter of 1999. I wore the same pair of old skate shoes every day in the barn that winter, and the same quilted jacket. My friend Chris Duncan saw the photos I made then, and asked me to be in an art show he put together. It was the first time I ever showed my pictures in a public context like that. It took a long time and a winding route to make it back to the farm to take pictures. When I was going to Ohio University the last couple of years, I used the opportunity to start photographing him again. I made a short documentary about him, and then started making regular trips there to photograph. After awhile I started taking less pictures, and spending more time clearing weeds, cleaning up the barn, hitching horses. But the slower I worked, the better the photos got. It’s crazy how much I enjoy photographing there. When I show up, usually at night, first thing I do is walk into the barn and flick on the light to go see the horses like I did when I was little. The smell of them always hits me first- warm and slightly acrid, their sweat and manure and the straw dust that clings to them works it’s way into your clothes. I like the rhythms and the pace of the days, for me the smallest activities become events - him yelling up the stairs to make sure I am out of bed, the morning light shooting across the pasture into the kitchen, drinking murky tea and eating peanut butter on toast, the morning news shows. The main event is hitching and training in the morning- combing brushing picking out hooves, trying to remember how the harness goes on, giving the filly a bath and cooling her out after training. Then sitting in the living room all afternoon, both of us pretending to read while we doze off. Getting up to feed and bring in the horses in the evening. Drinking some beers and watching Charlie Rose on PBS.

Every time I go back, he reminds me that my shoes are on the steps and my jackets hanging up in the stairway, 13 years later.

My aunt Ellen that lives on the farm near him got the paper on Saturday. She played it sly, brought it in and tossed it on the couch, told him she heard that Vic had something in it today. He started thumbing through it slowly, page one on back. She tried to hint him along, “I think it’s somewhere in the middle.” She said when he got to the sports section and read the tag line, “The Life of a Harness Horseman,” he got the slightest grin on his face, then opened it up to a spread of pictures of him. Later he told her,”I am overwhelmed by my exposure.” Ha. Here is the piece that ran in the paper…

Horseman Builds Career on His Terms

By  Victor J. Blue

My grandfather Richard Taylor has bred, trained and raced harness horses for more than 65 years. He is among the last of a vanishing breed of horsemen. He lived through the Depression, served in World War II and came home to start a small farm in central Indiana. From there, my mother’s father built a career as a small-time breeder and trainer, racing his own horses, living life on his own terms.
In those days, it was mostly county fair racing for Indiana-bred horses and their trainers, before the parimutuel tracks were built and the casino money swelled the sport. He found moderate success in nearby states, raising champion horses that made their mark in Chicago and Lexington, Ky. Some years he trained for other owners, at other operations. His patience with his fillies and his careful training and attention to maternal bloodlines brought him a level of success greater than the size of his small operation.
He still rises early each morning, hitches his filly, and jogs her around the dusty track once surrounded by fields. Now stately suburban homes and their manicured lawns run up to the fence posts. Clutching his stopwatch and holding the lines tight with one leg hanging down from the training cart, he feels, he counts and he listens. He works slowly, building up her speed, hoping it will peak on race day and put her in the money. He tells me: “There’s something about a horse. I don’t know who said it, but ‘The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.’
He’s a character. Tough as nails. Polite, but with a quick temper that doesn’t put up with foolishness. Genuinely warm and interested in others, he can also be circumspect in his dealings with them. His Depression-era cast of mind keeps him from spending money on much of anything, and on his farm there is not a broken harness, a frayed halter or a punctured inner tube that cannot be fixed or saved for a rainy day.
Liberal in his politics, he reads widely and pours over The New Yorker week to week. He keeps a diary, short entries that repeat in a kind of rhythm: the filly’s fastest mile for the day, the bills that got paid, the relatives that called.
When I was a child growing up with my mom and brother at a distance from him and the farm, the horses, the races and the tall, quiet man intimidated me. When I grew up, I was fascinated by him, by the template of a future self I imagined.
When I was 25, I moved to the farm thinking I would learn to groom horses and maybe get into training. We were two stubborn bachelors, one young, one old. I started photographing him then, but after a few cold months I moved on. Eventually I became a documentary photographer and worked around the country and around the world.
Two and a half years ago, I came back and began this project because I wanted to tell the story of his passion for horses. I wanted to create a record of the man at this stage in his life. Photography is about time, and I wanted to hold on to some of it with him.
As he has aged, there have been fewer successful training seasons, but he keeps going, quietly frustrated by the physical limitations of his 84 years. He does not talk much of the future, or how many seasons he might have left. He starts every spring like he did this year, with the promise of speed and soundness. His strategy to win races is not different from his strategy for living life. Quiet and calm, he likes to be fast out of the gate, sit back in the second spot, then get out clean at the top of the stretch and blow by at the finish. After all these years and so many horses, his approach has not changed. “I want to know more about a horse tomorrow than I do today.”
This story is my exploration of my grandfather, of his passion for horses, and of what it means to be driven by the obsessions that keep us alive.

The Election after the Storm for The New York Times

I spent election day down in Ocean County New Jersey, to see how folks got their voting done in one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy. Teamed up with esteemed reporter Wendy Ruderman and we started the day out in Bay Head, then followed the mobile voting bus out to Seaside Heights, and finished up at a polling place operating with generators in Silver Bay. Thanks to the excellent Cornelius Schmid, NYTimes elections photo editor, for sending me down, the Times coverage of the day was hands down as good as it comes. I was on my way back into town to watch the returns with Dolores at the Times when NPR called Ohio, then the whole thing for Obama. I couldn’t believe that it was over so fast. I switched gears and headed up to Harlem to see folks pour into the streets, chanting “Four more years.” I guess they earned it. Above, Dr. Terrance Coleman hugs Roberta Burcz after seeing her for the first time since the storm after they cast their ballots at Bay Head Fire Co. No. 1.

New crews on disaster tour- Ortley Beach.

Silver Bay.

Harlem celebrates.

Election Eve

Election worker Nancy Colavito helps Amanda Rahn cast her ballot in a temporary shelter at Toms River North High School.

Just finished two days on the Jersey Shore covering the elections in the storm damaged areas for The New York Times. I was in Ocean County, one of the counties hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy. Many of the beach communities were destroyed there, and they had to consolidate lots of polling places. I started there on Monday, running around from the Board of Elections out to following this mobile voting unit as it made a stop at one of the Red Cross shelters in town, then back for more early voting. And after all that, Dolores calls from the photo desk and says I have to high tail it up to Brick township to see some trick or treaters, going after the glory a week after Halloween got canceled. I guess in Jersey, they make sure they get theirs.

They had to cancel halloween because of the storm. So on Monday, they had kids trick or treat in a parking lot in Brick. Good fun.

Roosevelt Avenue Queens for The New York Times

Last Sunday a piece I worked on with Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir about Roosevelt Avenue in Queens was the lead story in the Metropolitan section of The New York Times. It was good to spend some time shooting the story and have the chance to return a few times and understand it better. The story centered on the intractable forms of vice that can’t seem to get sorted out along the avenue, among them prostitution and false document mills. It’s been cleaned up considerably since the 1990′s when it was the dark labyrinth of brothels that one of our guides, a 40 year old woman that was once trafficked on the avenue, recounted to us. Nowadays it’s mostly taco trucks, two-dollar dance bars, and cheap stores. Thanks to Metropolitan editor Niko Koppel for the time and great editing. Here are some pictures and some outtakes from the piece.

Yellowed Journalism

Decades of drama, screaming headlines in a tabloid town. The wall of the press room at One Hundred Centre Street, New York Criminal Court.

EsFotoPeriodismo

Otto Perez Molina presidential campaign rally, Guatemala City, October 2011. From the series “The Return of the General.”

I am excited to be included in the catalog and exhibition EsFotoPeriodismo_12 in El Salvador this month. It’s a yearly collection of photojournalism from the region by Central American photographers as well as foreigners who work there a lot. You can click through this years catalog here. There is some great stuff by photojournalists (and homies) Rodgrigo Abd, Daniele Volpe, Moises Castillo, Luis Soto, Jorge Dan Lopez, Saul Martinez, Juan Carlos, Lisette Lemus and Johan Ordonez. They have a big exhibit at Foto Cafe in San Salvador every year, that one day I hope to make it to. I look forward to seeing this catalog each year, it does a great job of showcasing a lot of important stories by really good photographers in a region that most of the world just doesn’t care about. Keep fighting guys, la lucha sigue.

El Diaro de Hoy, San Salvador, 9/08/2012.

The End of the Finale

Two weeks of programmed political pageantry, and it comes down to the one guy on a big screen. The grandiose plans for a redux of the Caesar- like taking of the mantel by Obama like they did in ’08 got scrapped by threat of rain. So we all got cozy and crowded into the Arena for the last big night. It was like being in a hamster cage. You couldn’t stop walking, or someone came and told you to move on. If you paused for more that 5 or 6 seconds, they were on you. The fire marshalls closed down the floor early as well, so you were stuck if you wanted to be out there for the big moment. No escape. It was surreal. The circling, the pacing, walking past the same people dozens of times a night.

Again, I went with what I know- searching the crowd, the faces, for a clue to the nature of the event. Why were they here? What did they hope they would find? What animated them so, and why had they invested so many of their hopes in this one person? How did they feel now, four years later, a millenia in political time? Did the hope from then last? Was it reborn now? Or were they, like most of us, now just hoping for the best?

The Humanity of the Delegates

Day 2 at the Democratic National Cheerleading Festival. It was Clinton’s big night, and he brought the ruckus. So, the whole spectacle being overwhelming and more than a little confusing, and myself having a reasonably limited skill set and not a ton of know-how about what pictures are key to feeding the beast, I tend to concentrate on the parade of humans that pack into this big room to get all riled up. All shapes and sizes and types of folks. Phrase coined by Graham Morrison, our guru and head editor, who at one point in the evening told me to switch gears, that we had enough of the “humanity of the delegates.” Well there you go. That’s my stock in trade.

Lilly Ledbetter. Fighter.

Open Wide

Michele Obama set it off for the opening night of the Dem’s convention. She certainly got them jumping in Charlotte. Jesse, Madeline, the whole crew showed up. A different feel than Tampa- a little more excitement, a little more salt of the earth. In- different colored folks, stacked up Obama flare, and sluts. Out- coordinated outfits for the states, multiple sign changes for the television audience.

Sandra Fluke, not a slut.

Obama County Fair

They had like a festival to kick off the Democratic National Convention. Like an Obama County Fair type of thing. There was a fake nascar. The Dude played a set, then it rained like hell.