Spotlight On Jason Arthurs

 

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TID:
 
Jason, thanks for taking part in TID. Please tell us
about this image.

JASON:
 
This image is of Rachel Reich, it was included in a story that I 
photographed for the Winston-Salem Journal newspaper in 2006. 
Her story ran as a daily story for the paper, then a reporter 
named Paul Garber and I decided to pursue it as a longer term 
project. Rachel was battling cancer in her mouth and contacted the 
newspaper because she thought she had a compelling story to share. 
She had battled and fought cancer several times before, even as a 
young woman, and each time hadn’t taken chemotherapy or radiation. 
This time, her doctors said she would have to have a radical surgery 
to save her life. The surgery would have put her unborn baby at risk 
and would have left her unable to eat or speak for the rest of her life. 
These were risks she was not willing to take. She had her baby, but 
by then it was too late to do the surgery. She was hoping that bringing 
her story to light would open up opportunities for more non-traditional 
treatments that would be very expensive.

TID:
 
How did you get access to this moment?

JASON:
 
Rachel was an amazing person and a great subject. She allowed 
me into her home from the first day I met her, and the access that 
she gave us was one of the reasons we wanted to follow her story. 
The other reason was because a lot of things were going on in her 
life. It was a crucial time in her life and there was so much unfolding 
every day. Her house was close to the newspaper where I worked 
(15 minutes) and once our initial story ran about Rachel, my photo 
editor at the paper was very good about allowing me to spend my 
down time between assignments working on this project.
 
After our first story about Rachel was published, there was an 
outpouring of support from people who wanted her to beat this 
cancer. Rachel was going to go to Houston, TX to seek an 
experimental cancer treatment from a clinic there. She basically 
viewed this as her last chance to beat a cancer that doctors said 
would take her life before the end of the year.
 
I told her that Paul and I wanted to go with her on the trip, and 
she agreed almost immediately. Her mom, two kids and best friend 
were already going on the trip with her so I knew a lot of moments 
would be happening and I wanted to be there while they unfolded. 
Throughout the story, which I had been working on for a few 
months at this point, I had a strong connection with Rachel. In 
addition to her cancer, she had a lot of family problems. She was 
being pulled in a lot of directions. She was very sick and trying to 
take care of a newborn baby, as well as a rebellious teenager who
snuck out of the house all the time. I think that she viewed me as 
some kind of therapist. I would spend hours at a time at her house, 
watching her take care of the baby or folding clothes, but often 
times just listening to her and talking. I think she saw time spent 
with me as some kind of escape from the chaos of her life and saw 
me as a way to validate some of the very difficult decisions she had 
made in the recent months. 
 

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TID:

Did the newspaper pay for your travel? 

JASON:
 
Paul and I scheduled a meeting with our editors to pitch the 
idea that we should travel with her to Texas to document her 
efforts to get treated. At that point, her story had run on the 
front page of the newspaper already and we felt our readers 
would have an interest in following up. I remember the first 
pitch to the editors, and how excited Paul and I were, and how 
great of a pitch we made. I also vaguely remember it being well 
received and walking away thinking it was a ‘go’ all we needed 
was a sign-off from our managing editor.
 
Well, that sign-off never came.
 
So I told Rachel the newspaper wasn’t going to pay for me to go, 
and she offered to pay for me. Obviously, I wasn’t going to let her 
do that, but it definitely made me feel like it was something I 
should follow through with. I struggled with the notion of self-
funding the trip. I remember when I found out I could get a 
plane ticket for under $200, and could get a seat with Rachel 
and her mom I seriously considered it as an option. The final 
straw was when I found out my 4 consecutive days off at the 
paper (during a schedule change) landed when the trip started. 
I bought my ticket that day, and decided I would spend my 
days off in Houston with Rachel. From that point on, I always 
viewed this is more of a personal project and I would be much 
more protective of the images I made from that point out.
 

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TID:

What was going on in your mind in the moments
leading up to the image?

JASON:
 
I met Rachel at her house as she was preparing for the trip with 
her mother. Everything was happening very fast and I remember 
it was total chaos. Somewhere amid the chaos she told me she 
was afraid of flying, and had actually looked into other options 
for getting to Houston. I don’t really remember considering NOT 
having my camera with me on the plane but I didn’t really have 
a plan for what, if anything, I would shoot from that one vantage 
point I would have on the plane ride.
 

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TID:

 Now, onto the picture. Tell us what is going on, and what you were 
thinking and feeling at the time.

JASON:
 
I remember being concerned that I didn’t know Rachel’s mom 
very well. She would inevitably end up in photos but she wasn’t 
as used to me being around. In one image you can actually see 
that she’s leaning out of the way of the photo, but I wanted her 
in the frame. It was a few seconds early, before she really noticed 
I was shooting that I made the frame that ended up being in the 
final edit.
 
It was an intense moment for me, Rachel was flooded with 
emotions right before we took off and she wasn’t feeling well 
physically either. But unlike some of the other images from the 
plane where she looked very ill, I wanted an image to capture 
her hope that she could be healed.

TID:

How do you handle your emotions while documenting not only this image,
but the entire story, especially in the more trying moments for her?

JASON:
 
I tend to connect emotionally with the subject when I’m not 
actually shooting, and that helps us both feel comfortable 
sharing close physical space.  I remember with a lot of the 
photos from this story, not really wanting to take the photos, 
but feeling like I would because that’s what I was there to 
do. I think that’s how I know I’m making a good storytelling 
image, when I have to break through some mental block that 
says ‘maybe don’t shoot right now’. I just shoot a few frames, 
get what I need for the story, and go back to just being 
around as fast as possible.  I think a good photojournalist has 
to come to peace with being uncomfortable sometimes.
 

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TID:

Was there any moments of conflict or reservation during the 
making of this image? 

JASON:

I remember on one side of me was Rachel’s mom, to my right 
were more passengers who had no idea what I was doing, and 
walking up and down the aisle are flight attendants that probably 
knew nothing about Rachel except that she came in a wheelchair 
and looked weak.

There’s a ‘rule’ I learned at my first newspaper internship. 
“Shoot first, ask permission later.” Of course it’s not always 
the best idea but I think it would have been much more 
difficult to get official ‘permission’ to shoot photos on the 
plane. Mentally I justified this because technically I was there 
on my own dime, with my own camera, so at that moment I 
was less of a media representative and more of Rachel’s 
personal documentarian. I was very selective about when I took 
my camera out and just had one lens with a quieter body (Canon 
10D, I think) so that I wouldn’t bring much attention to myself. 
I didn’t show any of the other passengers or ever point my 
camera anywhere besides Rachel’s direction. I didn't shoot 
much at all during the actual flight, but mainly just during the 
takeoff and landing and a few frames when she was sleeping 
on the plane, which was probably unneeded. And once I made 
the frame of her with her mom before the takeoff, I was able to 
check the back of the camera and see I had a frame that would 
work as a good transition to get her to Texas so I didn't feel 
like it was worth the risk of disturbing her and possibly the 
flight to get more images that would probably land on the 
editing room floor.
 

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TID:
 
What surprised you most while you were with her on the plane?

JASON:
 
Rachel was a religious person, but I wouldn’t call her devout. 
She went to church sometimes, and usually alone. This image 
shows her saying a prayer to herself, something I had never 
seen her do. Throughout the process of documenting her story 
I saw her turn to faith when she felt most alone and most 
desperate (I also documented her attending a miracle healing 
service after she returned from Texas).
 
TID:

What lessons did you learn from the making of this image, and
how does it apply to your future work?

JASON:

The main lesson was the importance of documenting transition 
in people’s lives. I remember my newspaper editors talking 
about sending the reporter and I down for a day or two to check 
in on her in Texas because of a scheduling conflict with covering 
shifts at work. And I felt like it would be better to be a part of 
the trip, and part of the transition to her life there. It’s hard to 
explain to ‘non-visual’ people why you have to be there to 
capture those moments. The reason is because usually we don’t 
actually know what we are going to see. Good photojournalists 
will put themselves in the situations where they can expect to 
be surprised. 

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It's very easy to get frustrated in that situation when you don't 
see eye-to-eye with the editors. But over the course of time, if 
you can repeatedly bring back images that stand out, the editors 
will begin to trust your judgment.

TID:
 
What mental advice would you have for other photographers 
who want to work in this type of situation?

JASON:
 
With Rachel, I knew that this story was also a learning opportunity 
for me. I was up front with her about that, that I was learning from 
her and learning how to use my camera to tell these complicated 
aspects of her life. Since this story, I feel much more equipped to 
tell difficult and complicated stories.

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As far as advice, I think you should be able to clearly explain to 
your subject exactly why you want to shoot a moment before the 
moment happens. It makes your intentions clear, makes them less 
surprised when you shoot, helps them understand how you are 
processing what they do and gives them the chance to explain why 
they may be hesitant to allow you into a certain space. It also does 
something that I didn’t put much value on until much later in my 
career. It lets your subject know what you are thinking and gives 
them a chance to correct you. Giving the subject more of a say in
how their story is documented, and giving them a chance to explain 
their actions gives them more buy-in to the story and in the end 
makes it more truthful and hopefully more compelling.
 
I don't remember the exact conversation I had with Rachel about 
this, but I can imagine how it would go if I were to have it now. 
Probably something like this "Rachel, I'm very interested and I 
think our readers will be very interested that you are taking this 
trip to Texas for treatment. If I were able to travel there with you, 
I think I could be able to get a very good sense of the emotions 
that you'll be going through on the trip and help show the effort 
you are putting in to beat this cancer." Essentially, every ask of 
a subject should be followed by an explanation of why. 

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TID:
 
In the end, what happened to her, and how did her life
impact you?

JASON:
 
Rachel lost her battle with cancer a little more than a year after 
this image was taken. Her last effort at a cure was chemotherapy, 
but it was too little too late. I remember sitting with her and 
talking while she was having chemotherapy one day. I couldn’t 
shoot in the area they were giving it because there were too 
many other patients around. Rachel asked me if I would come 
help her set up her video camera to record a message for her 
youngest child who probably wouldn’t remember her. I did, and 
that was the last time I remember talking with Rachel.
 
I moved away from Winston-Salem and started a new job. A few 
months into my new job, after Rachel passed away, I got a phone 
call and “Rachel Cell” came up on my caller ID. I scrambled to 
answer it only to hear the voice of her husband on the other 
end of the phone.
 
He was the breadwinner of the family, and not around much. 
He didn’t much like my camera, but he liked me. He said he 
was going through some of Rachel’s stuff, and found her phone, 
and saw my number and just wanted to call and chat. I don’t 
remember exactly what he said but I remember his gruff voice 
saying something like, “I just wanted you to know, Rachel 
always liked having you around and thought of you as a good friend.”

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Jason Arthurs is a documentary filmmaker and photographer based in North Carolina. His work has been repeatedly recognized by the National Press Photographers Associated, Pictures of the Year International and he was twice named North Carolina Photographer of the Year. He worked in newspapers for 5 years, and now freelances for editorial publications including the New York Times, Washington Post and TIME magazine. He also produces short documentary films for non-profits, and is currently directing his first feature length documentary film.
 

You can view more of his work here:

http://www.jasonarthurs.com/ 
(has Rachel’s story and the accompanying video)

http://www.chasingthemadlion.com/ 
(a full length documentary)

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Next week, by request, we'll take a look behind this photo illustration. 
We'll talk about the beginning concept to it's construction:

picnic
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want to know more about, contact Ross Taylor at: ross_taylor@hotmail.com.

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