© STEVE SIMON
Walking home: Students persevere against the wind and through a rainstorm, near Maseru, Lesotho.
Photographer Steve Simon could rattle off a list of photographic milestones dating back to his childhood in Montreal, Canada, that would include ten years as a staff photographer for The Edmonton Journal. But Simon, now 47, considers 2000 the beginning of his photographic life. It was the year he moved to New York City and devoted himself to shooting his own personal projects.
Amid the piles of books and papers in his home office high above Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, the affable Simon casually chalks up his newspaper days to “good practice” but becomes noticeably impassioned when he talks about his own projects. Images from his first photo essay flash on the screen of his laptop: pilgrims submerging babies and parts of themselves in an expansive, ominous lake, Lac Ste. Anne, in Alberta, Canada, which is thought to have healing properties.
Simon’s desire to delve deeper into his subjects was awakened by a life-changing workshop he took with renowned documentary photographer Eugene Richards, a strong advocate of personal projects and defining one’s vision. “Once I worked on that project,” says Simon, noting it was made into a book called Healing Waters, published in 1995, “I knew right then that it was the beginning of the end of my newspaper days.”
As a window cleaner slowly descends outside his office window in a quintessential New York moment that makes him chuckle, Simon fiddles with his laptop to show “America at the Edge,” a series of crisp, compositionally striking images in black-and-white, about Americans just below the Canadian border. Simon had taken a leave from The Edmonton Journal and traveled across the entire length of the Canadian boarder, capturing diverse images that range from a drive-in to a Canadian on death row to neo-Nazis giving a salute straight into the camera. “It is the job of the press, photographers, to keep tabs on things that are happening,” says Simon, referring to the jarring image of the neo-Nazis living in Idaho, “or else it will come up and surprise you. I think we’ve all experienced that. Perhaps with 9/11—no one saw that coming.”
Since 2000, Simon has had five books published and a robust list of prestigious solo and group exhibits all over the world, from the Leica Gallery in New York City to Escuela Argentina de Fotografia in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Despite his publishing and exhibiting success, Simon cobles together a living combining teaching at the International Center of Photography, giving workshops around the country, doing occasional commercial work, shooting stills on documentaries and photographing for non-govermental organizations. Simon isn’t frustrated by not being able to work full-time on his own projects, as he considers just surviving in the business of documentary photography being equal to success. “I mean, I’ll work a week on this book,” says Simon of his current project, “and then months on everything else.”
Simon adds, “When I moved here, I did have that bank of money [saved from prior jobs], which I was able to deplete.” He continues, laughing enthusiastically, “but I have no regrets!” His cheery demeanor is in stark contrast to that of many documentary photographers today who dwell on the latest (perceived or real) injustices they feel have been perpetrated against them by an editor or the photo industry at large. “This is a choice,” says Simon of being a photographer in today’s challenging economic climate. “The good and the bad come with that.”
Flipping through Simon’s books The Republicans and
Heroines & Heroes: Hope, HIV and Africa, it is apparent
Simon is a storyteller. The 2004 Republican Convention was a
photographer’s gold mine of man’s folly, bursting with power
brokering and zeal. Yet Simon’s black-and-white images don’t merely
mock by focusing on vulgarities, easy to find at any type of
convention. Rather, they tell a story through visual anecdotes: the
numerous, dense walls of press photographers, the omnipresent
protests outside the convention, the despondent faces of CNN’s Wolf
Blitzer and Judy Woodruff off camera, close-ups on teleprompters
revealing scripted speeches with “Almighty God” and capitalized
words to stress.
Likewise with his images on HIV in Africa, a subject on the other end of the spectrum. The viewer is allowed into extraordinarily private worlds. Some subjects are at their worst and most vulnerable moments, yet one never feels intrusive while looking at the photos, as Simon has given them space and respect. He has combined innocuous landscapes dotted with people, devastating images of corpses lying on floors next to coffins and schoolchildren giggling at a blown-up condom during a sex ed class, to illustrate the broad ways in which HIV is affecting the community.
Simon’s enthusiasm is infectious—he eagerly passes on any wisdom he’s gained and doles out encouraging words to new photographers. During the course of his teaching, which he’s been doing for years, as he finds it both rewarding and invigorating, he’s often asked, How does one financially survive being a documentary photographer? Should a budding photographer photo assist? Intern? Have a day job and shoot on his or her own? Work at a newspaper in any capacity? Try to freelance? Align himself or herself with a wire service?
“All of the above,” answers Simon, as there is no one formula for survival. But what Simon stresses as essential is to always work on a personal project, learn from criticism, never give up the copyright to photographs and be persistent—adding with a wink, “There is a fine line between persistence and a restraining order.”
“I think it’s always been hard,” says Simon of the photography business. “People often have an ideal that it was easier back in this day or that day.” True, the days of being sent abroad for months at a time with a hefty salary by LIFE or National Geographic might be over, but Simon points out that there are new opportunities available through the web and multimedia.
With glee, Simon cites his fantastic “Susan Sontag story,” one that landed him in the New York Times’ Bold Face Names column as an example of perseverance. He had sent a book dummy with images he took of onlookers grappling with the aftermath of 9/11 at the World Trade Center to then neighbor Susan Sontag via his doorman, as a last-ditch effort to getting a book published. The act resulted in an eight-page spread in a commemorative LIFE book on 9/11, but not by any doing of Sontag’s. The book dummy was taken to LIFE by someone who bought it for $4 on 7th Avenue—it had been picked out of Susan Sontag’s trash. “I think the people who are working professionally are the ones who just persevere—a combination of dogged persistence and having the goods to back it up,” he says.