tv Oral Histories Lucian Perkins Photojournalism Interview CSPAN October 8, 2017 11:00pm-11:46pm EDT
landmark cases hosted by the national constitution center in philadelphia monday at 8:00 eastern here on american history >> up next, on american history tv, we hear from lucian perkins, a two-time pulitzer prize winner and former washington post staff photographer. he talks about his career and his photos of wars and the former yugoslavia, chechnya, iraq, and afghanistan. as well as a family living in poverty. the university of texas recorded the interview and archived his photograph along with other recognized photographers. this is just over 40 minutes. >> talking with lucian perkins. today is february 15, 2013.
lucian, you started out in your photography career here at the university of texas. working at the daily texan and also i understand you worked with gary in a photojournalism or photography course here at ut. would you talk about how that has influenced your career? mr. perkins: it is funny, i was actually a biology major at the university of texas. also at the chester dorms, this is it today, 30 years later. it has not changed a bit. one of my residence at chester sold me one of the cameras. he convinced his parents to get him a new one, so he sold me his old one. i became interested in photography as a hobby. and then decided to take photography courses as an elective. and coincidently, signed up for a first year of footage i was in.
even though i was not even thinking about photojournalism or knew what it was. it was a first-year photo class. i took the course and towards the end of the semester, the ta said, there is an opening on the student yearbook, you should apply for it. i never thought about photography as a career. i said, that should be fun. i went and applied. i got the job. the very day i got the job, i knew this is what i wanted to do. i started working and shooting for the daily texan. another person that was hired at the same time said, you have got to take this class by gary when a gram who teaches in the art department. i said, sure.
i remember looking at gary's work and not really understanding it. i said, why do you like this class? harley had taken it two times already. they was his third time taking it. harley goes, it is so fun to watch them because he will intimidate some students so much that they start crying. -- but they run out crying. the dynamics are so fun to watch. harley had this straight town. i said, ok, sure, i will take the class with you. the first day of class, i walk in. harley and i are sitting in the back. he walks in and he is kind of gruff, new yorker character. he is kind of grumbling.
the first day, he shows works by walter. i remember him facing the screen, flipping through these walker evans photographs, and it was as if he was looking at the god himself. you could just tell when a gram really loved walker evans. afterwards, he turns around and says, who has got what to say in this class about these photographs? harley is sitting next to me, so i figure i would be a smart ask, so i raise my hand. i go, i liked a lot of the photographs but i thought some of them were boring. his eyes narrowed in on me. he says, boring? he says if there is anything boring, it is not in these photographs it is in you. then he lunges into this tirade. two weeks later i realized it was my photographs that were crap and not his. he moved me a head
photographically and it -- moved me a head photographically in a way that i don't think would have ever happened. he was amazing. my level of skills as a photographer were very low at that point. i think he moved me ahead in terms of how to see visually, years of where i would have been had i not taken his class. working of the "daily texan" was like working at a daily newspaper. five days a week newspaper, we shot assignments every day, and by the time that i got around to applying for summer internships and i applied to like 30 newspapers, one of them was the "washington post" which accepted me, i got an internship from the
"washington post" i stopped working at the post as if i was working at the "daily texan" and the texan was similar to what the post was. reporter: a very viable experience here? mr. perkins: yes. i consider myself lucky. i did not come to you to to be a photojournalist. i came hear not knowing what i wanted to do. i consider myself a very fortunate person in terms of not only finding what i wanted to do, but being at a place at the time, had one of the best student newspapers in the country. and had one of the best art photographers. reporter: you find yourself of the "washington post" on an internship basis, what early assignments did you undertake at
the post? reporter: as soon -- mr. perkins: as soon as i got to the post, actually before i got to the post, i was determined that i was going to get hired by the post. i remembered reading, it was national press photographers and magazine, and they had interviewed bob delco who at the time, was the head of photography at national geographic. one thing that stuck out in my mind which was, we are up to our armpits in great photographers and to our ankles in great ideas. my idea was when i came to the post, i would start coming up with photo stories, my own stories outside of the ones they gave me every day. the post -- all the summer interns they brought in, they treated you as photographer -- a photographer. there was no training period. they just started you off. doing assignments.
and the very first week i was there, they send me to do a story on the sailboat racing in annapolis. on about, i'm taking photographs, and there is this woman next to me who was probably in her 60's or 70's. she finds out i am new to washington, so she gives me the whole history of annapolis as we are sitting there for two hours watching the sailboats go by. by the end of it, she goes, you know, they just started admitting the first women to the naval academy -- she said they admitted the first women to the u.s. naval academy four years ago. those women are now seniors. they are going to be an charge of the summer boot camp for incoming people. lightbulbs are going off in my
head. i go, wow, what a great story. i contacted the naval academy, and just started photographing that story through that summer. i did not tell the post about it. i wanted to make sure that i had the photographs that i needed before i presented it to them. i would go back on my off days, keep photographing, and i ended up following a woman named sandy erwin who ended up on the front page of the post. the photo is a picture of her yelling at freshman plebes lined up against the wall, with their chins tucked in like this. that photograph ran everywhere in the world. i am convinced that story helped me get a job at the post. reporter: what impact do you think the story had beyond your career as far as the theme of women in the military?
mr. perkins: it was really interesting because 30 years later, throughout the years, i kept thinking that -- wondering what happened to sandy erwin. i kept thinking, i should find her and do another story. i finally got around to doing it 30 years later. i ended up doing it for smithsonian magazine, where we found sandy erwin and we found one of the plebes and the photograph. i met them again at the academy 30 years later. we had the most wonderful reunion. because we have not spoken to each other and 30 years. i never spoke to her after that photograph ran in the post. i found out that after -- when that photo ran, she went -- she received a lot of marriage proposals. she also received a lot of death threats.
she received a lot of hate mail. from veterans who were really upset that she had joined. she received a lot of, now from women that were nurses, like and , and even inetnam world war ii, who were so supportive and what she was doing. in many ways, it had a huge impact on her. i think it had also a huge impact on a lot of people who -- those were the early days when the beginnings of women stepping forward in the military. and interestingly enough, it was only a couple weeks ago that obama approved women serving in combat. there is a tremendous history that has been occurring since that photograph. reporter: obviously, it had an impact on a lot of different people in different ways.
mr. perkins: it did. i think that is one of the wonderful things about photography. and for me, being a photographer, is hoping that your photographs make a difference to somebody. and impacts somebody just buy them looking at it. reporter: we are going to pursue that theme here. you were at the post for the next 27 years, right? tell me some of the assignments you covered during those years. with -- you are both very active in the united states but also in foreign locations, covering stories like palestinian uprising, the war in afghanistan, the full -- the first gulf war, the former yugoslavia refugees. we had all sorts of stories abroad as well as those you were covering united states. tell us about those assignments. mr. perkins: i was really lucky working at the post. i covered every spread of life in america and also overseas.
of course, it is a real learning experience. you have -- you meet people you would obviously never meet. you are in a situation that you read about. you become more sympathetic to things that you would never even think about or even consider. i think a lot of my memories -- not so much photographs, but the events are the people that i meet in these places. i think some of the things of that stand out in my mind, of course, is they follow the soviet union which i covered the former soviet union on and off since 1988. the first time i had been to moscow was in 1988. moscow, at that time, was a dreary soviet city. you saw very few people in the street.
over the course of the years, today moscow is like new york city, a vibrant, exciting metropolis. obviously, russia still has a lot of problems, but it really is amazing to be able to watch a country undergo a transition like that. and all countries have. you think about america going through the civil rights movement and vietnam. i was a kid during that. i remember. as a kid, i remembered those photographs and how much they impacted me. reporter: you sort of developed a fascination with russians, russian life, and the changes undergoing.
is there something that held a special appeal? mr. perkins: appeals for a number of reasons. for some many years, and i think now to most of the kids today who do not remember the iron curtain, the soviet union for so long was the enemy. to be honest with you, i never really ever imagined that the cold war would ever stop. it just seemed like a permanent part of our life. that would never end. for me, when the berlin wall fell, when the soviet union fell, when this iron curtain fell, it was something that i just did not consider what happen in my lifetime. and then, to be able to go over there to see if first hand, and see that it was not necessarily the evil empire that we were
told it was, that these were just amazing people, as a matter of fact, my connection began with working with russian photographers. who turned out to be some of the most amazing photographers that i have ever met. reporter: that is what you call inter-photo, a thing you and several people -- mr. perkins: what happened is -- it was in washington dc. there was an exhibition called changing realities, which was the best of soviet photography. the curator who was someone i knew, invited 10 russian photographers to america. that was when i first started talking to russian photographers and admiring their work. it was very different. it was much more artistic than journalism you saw in america. there was something about it i really liked.
when i moved -- when i started covering russia, i made contact with a lot of these photographers. went into their homes, would drink vodka all night, eat their food, and look at photographs. i kept thinking to myself, these are great photographers, no one knows who these people are. myself and another photographer who is based in moscow, we started in her photo, which became an annual international photojournalism conference in moscow. the first year we held it, i remember one of the photographers -- we had entered his house and he was missing one of his cameras that he had to sell because he had no money for food. two weeks later, when in her
photo happens, kathy ryan, we invited people like kathy ryan who was a photo editor at the sunday new york times. kristen cajole it was a famous agency. they looked at these people's works and they hired them, immediately. a year later, a 20,000 grant. all these people through inner photos started making his connections with the west very quickly. the way i looked at it, it was like people, before inter-photo, assignment and tutors --
assignment editors would photographs russia, but there were all these great photographers here. they started assigning them more and more. it hurt people like me, but it was a wonderful thing to see. a was interesting. in her photo ran for 10 years. to see this transition of the crowds and we first started interphoto, it was like 300 older might -- older white men like me, that were there. i was younger then. 10 years later, the crowds, we had 1000 people attend, and they were mostly kids in their 20's, and half of them were women. it was really amazing to watch this transition take place, not only in russia, but also in russian photography. that was very exciting. reporter: let's talk about some of the other areas abroad that you also covered. i know some of your award-winning work has to do with the wars in kosovo and the former yugoslavia. tell us about what you learned in covering those?
mr. perkins: the war in yugoslavia, in many ways -- i covered the first in palestine between israel and the palestinians. i think the great tragedy of that and also the former yugoslavia is watching not only in the case of yugoslavia, the breakup of the country, but but the breakup of ethnicity. and the blaming of different ethnic groups to gain power. being a veteran journalist, i was able to go from croatia to yugoslavia, to bosnia, to serve you, also. and to see that the process that had built up between these groups and a matter of four years and was whipped up by politicians.
it almost did not exist before hand. reporter: because they had coexisted for decades? mr. perkins: right. i will never forget i was talking to a bosnian pro ed, we were interviewing him. he had been in prison and somehow escaped. he talked about how -- it was a serb person. he was captured. he talked about the horror of what went on in this prison, and people getting killed and beaten. he was terrorized. one day, he looked up and one of the guards was somebody he went
to high school with. he was so relieved that this former classmate was there, and he went up to him. he says, do you remember me? like i turned around and just beat him to a pulp. when he described it, it was so frightening to see how people can so quickly turn against each other. that reporter: is exactly what happened there. one of your pulitzer prizes you have one, you have one two in the air 2000, was for feature photography. it had to do with the plight of refugees in kosovo. can you tell about winning the prize and what it meant to you?
mr. perkins: kosovo was -- i spent a lot of time in kosovo. i spent two months in macedonia when the war started. and nato was bombing the serbs in kosovo. the serbs were pushing the albanians out of kosovo. they would push them along into the borders and out into macedonia. and albania. which is where i photographed these people coming out. which was another tragedy in itself. the first day i was there, we went to a place called blush a, which is where -- i think there were 50,000 refugees. all of these people were middle-class families that lived in pristina, which is the capital of kosovo. they were immediately evacuated
and pushed out. they had no food, no clothing, and they were outside for five days. -- for five days and five nights in this no man's land. that is when i arrived there. and i walked in and photographed a very desperate situation. a woman came up to me, and she said, i will -- i have all our savings. i have $1000. i will give it to you if you can just get my mother out of here, i think she is going to die. there is nothing i could do except direct them to some of these red cross places that were temporarily set up. they were already filled with people. reporter: where were your photographs seen after that? mr. perkins: this was in the early days of the internet. my photographs ran in the washington post, but it was also one of the first stories where the photographs were running daily on the internet, on the "washington post", it and i was amazed at how many people saw the photographs on the internet as opposed to the "washington post." people, especially in kosovo and that area, they would say i saw your photographs on the internet. that was the early beginnings of when i realized how important the internet would be to the future. reporter: do you think that was a contributing factor to your
winning the pulitzer prize for that project? mr. perkins: i don't think so. no, that was different because that was based more on the photography and how we entered it into the contest. i think what was a factor for me, was that understanding that the internet was a future. as a matter of fact, it was a couple of years after that that a writer, bob kaiser who also worked exclusively in the soviet union in the 1970's, we came up with this idea to do the siberian diaries, in which we traveled through siberia and every day would post stories on the internet. it was one of the first blogs, certainly the first blogs that the post did. and one of the very early blogs, period. what was interesting to me was
how effective it was. because all of a sudden, we had thousands of people, not only in russia, but in the u.s. following this and writing this. and people telling us, if you are here, please go to visit this, or visit that. this amazing dialogue that developed was an eye-opener, not only for the "washington post" but for us as a new way to use this media that was starting to develop. reporter: one of the other assignments you did, a project, you did a four-year investigation of a washington d.c. family, and three generations of them. investigating the poverty, disease, crime, illiteracy, all these factors they were dealing with. that also won a pulitzer prize. your first one in 1995.
looking at both of these pulitzer prizes you won, what kind of affected that have on your career? a high accolade among your professionals, but what impact it have on your career? mr. perkins: i worked at the "pot -- "washington post." i think it was more in the sense that people recognize you for winning a pulitzer. but in terms of my career, i was already doing what i wanted to do at the "washington post." my assignments with the post did not ever really change. it did not affect me in the sense of my career. i think it did, but it was not obvious to me. because i kept doing what i always did. but that was a very important
story for me, because as you mentioned, we spent four years with that family. with four generations. of the family. it was an eye-opening experience in terms of the issues that poverty, illiteracy, drug abuse, in a not only a family, but in a neighborhood, in america, and why it is so difficult for people to break out of these cycles. rosalie, they may track of the family, had a two children. two of those kids did break out of it and had normal night -- normal lives. in their own families -- and their own families. in both cases, it was because of teachers who they looked up to
and who motivated them to do something better with their lives. rosalie, as it turned out, she was a drug addict, a prostitute, illiterate, yet as i got to know her, she was very, very smart. part of the reason she allowed us in her life was she wanted to figure out why her life turned out the way it did. toward the end when the story did run, she was speaking to church groups and to mothers and families about hiv, and how her life brought her down and trying to help other people. sadly, she died six months later from hiv. reporter: i remember another poignant detail, in the family, one of the younger boys who you met early in the project grew up and then was killed in a gang of
a shootout, or something. mr. perkins: that was something that really affected me. when we first started the project, one of rosalie's grandchildren, rico, he was nine years old, was it just the sweetest, cutest kid. his mother would not allow us to photograph her or her children for the project. but i would still spend time with him. i photographed rico's elementary school graduation just for them. just after the story ran, i learned that rico, who -- i think he was like 13 or 14 years old, he was very young, was killed in a shootout. he had become a lookout for a gang. that was an example, timmy, of
this kid, with any other family, would have been a wonderful kid. his life was wasted. reporter: i want to explore -- i can't remember who the interviewer was who was talking about your sense of social justice. what you're trying to achieve in a lot of your photography. what you hope your photography does to the viewers, arousing a sense of wrong, of oppression, of the need to change. when you talk about how you felt -- would you talk about how you felt about your work and what you hoped it would accomplish? mr. perkins: if there is one thing i have learned, it is that photographs are not going to stop wars. for example, i remember naively thinking -- i grew up during the vietnam era. just missed getting drafted into the vietnam war. i remember thinking, there is no way we will ever have another vietnam, especially when you
think of all the photographs that came out of vietnam. there is no way we will ever do anything like that again. here i am, going into iraq, following our troops into baghdad. i think photography can emotionally motivate people. i have been very lucky. i have had some people come up to me and say, i will give you an example, a woman who is a curator in washington dc, she puts together things. she says, ia -- i am embarrassed to tell you this, when i was in college, and i saw your photographs from bosnia, she goes, they moved me so much that i decided i was going to do an exhibition on yugoslavian artists and bring them to
america from all the different countries, as near, serbia. and do a cultural exchange. of course, i'm like, oh, my god. the reason i mention that is if any of my photographs can affect somebody to do something like that, or do something -- to help other people, then i think i have accomplished something. one of my photographs actually speaking of a former yugoslavian artists, we did a story on a family, a young girl who during the war in kosovo, her family was lined up against the wall by the serbs and shot. the only reason she survived was that the bullet hit her cheek and ricocheted off, and she
played dead. they thought she was dead. the photograph ran on the front of the sunday magazine. a plastic surgeon in washington contacted us and said, i will bring her over here and do surgery on her, which he did. it is my hope -- i know that photography can be powerful. i think as i grow older, and i see so many people doing so many amazing things, that it has become a passion for me to tell their stories. for example, right now, i am doing a story on a place called joseph's house, which is only five blocks from where i live. it was started by an activist
doctor who i actually photographed for in the post in 1986. i found out years later, that he had this big home where his kids grew up, he turned it into a hospice for homeless people dealing with hiv. so i contacted him, went to there, and was amazed that 20 years later, they are still doing the same thing. my story is focusing on the volunteers there. every year they bring four kids in their early 20's who spend a year there. how does it change them, and it changes them in dramatic ways. social justice is something that i see in places like that. and in a lot of people are trying to effect change. and help people who go through life totally unrecognized and
are not looking for recognition. they are doing amazing things that we do not know about. my hope is that as i do stories like that and people see what other people are doing, it will inspire them to do the same thing. reporter: you are also involved in more recent years with a project called "facing change," which has been likened to what the foreign security administration did back in the 1930's. sort of, exploring america's present in bringing it to public light but a lot of people may not appreciate. talk about what that project is doing. mr. perkins: it was a brainstorm that happened during the obama inauguration. that was a very exciting moment historically.
thousands upon thousands, who knows how many people coming to washington at the inauguration, i had photographers and friends who wanted to stay at our house because there was no place else to stay. our house became a little grand central station of photographers. it -- and also curators. we started talking about photography, and history and how important this time in america was, especially with the backdrop of obama's inauguration happening in our backyard. and we hatched this idea of documenting america. that is something we are doing today. we have got the support of the
library of congress, and we have gotten some funding. we are just going out as much as we can and photographing issues in america. reporter: you may have answered this someone already, but tell us about how you decided to -- first of all, you are a university of texas graduate. maybe it is not an obvious thing. how did you decide to put your photo archives here at the prisco center? mr. perkins: some of it was for selfish reasons, witches and a lot of my archives -- which is a lot of my archives were in my basement, unprotected. when the prisco center offered to take my archives, it was a no-brainer. this stuff needs to be protected and saved. i thought it was a fabulous idea. and very important. i also, as i think about it
more, it is becoming even more important today because as we transition to an all-digital world, this archive is in effect, kind of the last of the tangible archive of photography, where you can actually touch and feel negatives and see newsprint. that does not exist anymore. i was reminded of this a few days ago, i was talking to a friend of mine, and she goes, a year ago you were on the subway in new york city and everybody is reading the new york times or the new york post, you see all these newspapers in the subway. today, everybody is on their iphones. the physical newspaper the
longer exists. i think what the briscoe center has is they have got to the last physical evidence of photojournalism. i just wish now i had to save even more. i think it is going to these so important, not only now, but 10, 15, 20 years from now. this election is going to have -- this collection is going to have -- is going to stand out historically as a very unique collection. this is the last generation of that era, of the physicality of photography. and how we see and view our news. it is already almost nonexistent now. that is the importance of it. reporter: i wanted to have one
less thing, we are about out of time. you are -- you're famous photograph of the young boy on the back of a refugee bus in chechnya won a award that year. tell me about taking that photograph and why that has such meeting for you to take that? mr. perkins: i was in chechnya. all wars are scary. this one particularly was very scary. probably for the same reasons. russia went into chechnya, but they went in -- the soldiers were untrained. it reminded me a lot of what it was like for the american
soldiers. it was a very nasty thing and dangerous situation. we were in grozny which was the capital of chechnya. which was almost totally destroyed. you would have to see it do believe it. the downtown area of grozny was flattened. but we had driven out to the hills and there was a lot of fighting. it was approaching nightfall. we wanted to get back to the city for safety. as we are heading back, there is a lot of refugees on the road. i remember we turned a corner and there was this bus with this young child pressed against the window. it just -- my heart, you could see the fear of this kid. i don't know what he had seen or what he had been through, but
obviously it had been pretty bad. just seeing what i had seen around there, it was a horrendous situation. that was right in front of us. i just remember kind of trying to take the photograph. we were driving in the car behind it. i remember, it was not until a week later that i saw the photograph, because i drove back to moscow and it flew to america. that image kept sticking in my head. a lot of times, when you take a photograph, you never really know if it is what you think it is. but, when i physically side, i was like, wow, this is what i
remembered. reporter: that was the world press photo of the year that year. mr. perkins: yes. >> that sunday we continue our series featuring oral history interviews with nationally recognized photojournalist. you can watch our programs anytime at our website at c-span.org/history. you're watching american history tv, all weekend, every weekend on c-span3. >> american history tv is in prime time, starting at 8:00 p.m. eastern, monday night in philadelphia, discussions on landmark supreme court cases including brown ford that versus ward event -- board of education. when say, the life of buffalo bill cody. and tonight, the anniversary of
's high schools. and a discussion on the 19 picks 70 forced desegregation of little rock high school. friday night, from the oral history series, interviews with prominent photojournalist who documented major event throughout houston -- throughout history. watch this week in prime time he spent three. long, american history tv is joining our mid-code cable partners. to showcase the history of pierre, south dakota. to learn more about the city's on the current tour, visit c-span.org/citiestour. we continue with a look at the history of history of pierre. reporter: describe the state of south dakota. gov. daugaard: south dakota is an agricultural state.