Photojournalist With Soul: Carl Juste
by Arthur H. Bleich—
Red River Ppaper Pro Carl Juste has a personal intensity that permeates every photograph he makes. His images speak in a way words cannot, making an immediate connection with the viewer. He is a master visual communicator.
Juste, 56, was just two years old when his family was forced to flee Haiti to escape political persecution. They settled in Brooklyn, NY, and spent ten years there until they moved to Miami where his father became a community leader in what is now known as Little Haiti.
For the past 28 years, he’s been a staff photojournalist for the Miami Herald covering both local and international events. One of his most recent assignments was to document the Black Lives Matter movement in south Florida. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide and he has won many prestigious awards including a coveted Pulitzer prize.
Here, now, Carl Juste:
AB: When did the photography bug first bite?
CJ: When I was in high school. My first camera was a Nikon Nikkormat that I used to shoot landscapes and pictures of my family. Then I moved on to street photography, taking neighborhood and urban landscape photos. I used to develop both black and white and color film, and printed both. I miss it dearly. I enjoyed being in the dark listening to classical music, jazz, and R&B and watching images emerge from the clear solution of developer. It always seemed like it was magic.
AB: How did you get into photojournalism?
CJ: I majored in Psychology and minored in Photo Communication at the University of Miami and had a lot of photo-related jobs while attending college. After graduation, I worked as a lab tech at the Miami Herald and when a photographer’s position opened up I applied for it and was hired.
AB: Obviously, they thought you had potential.
CJ: If you would have told me that a small boy from Haiti would grow up to meet presidents, record history, travel around the world and, most of all, learn about himself through the eyes of photojournalism, I would have said “you are crazy.” Every day I count my blessings and I try to make the world that I live in better.
AB: Your images show you’ve established great rapport with your subjects, What’s your technique for getting them to open up?
CJ: You must approach the assignment with the understanding that you are willing to listen. People are really savvy and they know when you are not being sincere. If making pictures is more important than telling their story, then your subjects will clamp down on the process and you will not get too far, or your story becomes one dimensional.
AB: On a practical level, how do you accomplish this?
CJ: To begin with, I try to size up my subjects because I’m sure they’re doing the same. If they treat me as if I’m there just to make a photograph, then I insist that they understand that I am not. The aim, I tell them, is to share with viewers, readers, and the public something about them that they have deemed important.
AB: And then…
CJ: Now, here is where being perceptive is extremely important. Most of the time people do have an agenda, and you must be able to see through it quickly. I want to know as much about the person within our time constraint. I carefully look around and try to find something that we can build a conversation on: pictures, books, music, furniture or anything that can create some bridge-building between myself and my subject.
AB: When do you start shooting?
CJ: I generally do not pick-up the camera until I have at least ten minutes of fluid exchange of ideas and thoughts with them. The idea is to make sure that they feel safe. Many times people can come across cold and distant and it is up to the photographer to tap into their humanity. Give them a genuine reason to like you and trust you and then the pictures will take care of themselves.
AB: How do you deal with people you don’t like?
CJ: It’s more important to understand your subjects than to like them. Not everyone I’ve photographed have I liked, but I try hard to understand them. You must always leave room to be surprised. Don’t walk in with the attitude that you have your subject all figured out. There’s a phrase I practice when I work: “Never wear tight shoes because you will not get too far.” Keep your attitude and perceptions loose and give your subject a chance to validate your perceptions or to surprise you.
AB: And what if your subjects don’t like you?
CJ: If you are in a hostile environment, for example, a Black photographer at a KKK rally, understand where you are. There is nothing you can do to change the course of your interaction, but you can still leave with your dignity intact. They might not like you, but they will be forced to respect you. Make the image that is true to the moment and the character of your subject. Let those subjects hang themselves– do not make it your job to screw them over. Everything must be done with clarity and openness.
AB: What effects have your pictures had on others?
CJ: There have been some assignments that have caused people to act or question their positions and others that have helped our readers get involved and become a conduit for change. But for the most part, my pictures have never saved the world, freed the imprisoned, fed the hungry or righted an injustice. People do those things.
AB: But, as we’ve seen from earliest times to the present, images can be a powerful catalyst for change.
CJ: Yes, that’s true, but the photographs I have made during my years of work have only magnified the voices of my subjects– neither I nor my images take any credit. My subjects’ courage continues long after the shutter has been pressed and I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to listen to their voices in their time of courage and need.
AB: Have you ever felt that you failed at an assignment?
CJ: I have not ever failed at an assignment. I might have not done the best work, but failure is never a option. As long as you are willing to continue to work until you get it right, then it is a success. You only fail when you refuse to try. There are many assignments I thought fell short, but even in defeat I can still count my victories.
AB: What motivates you to keep photographing?
CJ: I photograph because that is the only way people will listen. I photograph because I can not write. I photograph because I can not sing. I photograph because I can not draw. I photograph because with all my limits, photojournalism gives me strength, faith, courage, and hope to understand the world and the purpose of my being.
See a video montage of Carl’s images followed by his thoughts about photojournalism. If you are interested in this photographic genre, this is a “must see.”
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Red River Paper Pro Carl Juste Shares His Approach To Photojournalism
Pressure can be a great teacher. Some of the best lessons I have learned were when I was literally and figuratively under the gun to perform. Here are some practical, technical, and cognitive approaches to reduce some stress and build your confidence as a photographer.
Know Your Subject
Get some reliable background information from various sources regardless of whether your subject is person, place, thing or event. Try to find out something about your subject that your vision can elevate, offer new insight into, or show in a new perspective. Build on your strength. Don’t worry about not having enough time, wrong time of day, or bad lighting. Try to think ahead and to be prepared to be challenged. Give the subject time to reveal itself (or him/herself, if it is a person). Observe and understand your surroundings. Approach with the observation that the glass is half full.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
You should always have a clear idea of what you want, but if time is an issue, your wants will not come into play, so concentrate on what you need. Ask yourself: What do I need to make this a better picture? Should I change my perspective? Should I use a different lens or camera? Do I need auxiliary lighting? If so, what kind? What are the tools needed to make this work? Should I pick a different time of day? All these questions should be going through your mind before you pick up your camera.
Evaluate Your Environment
How does the weather affect the image, the subject, and the execution of the assignment? Think outside the box. If you are shooting a swimsuit assignment and it begins to rain, maybe it might be cool to photograph your subject under bright umbrellas. Of course you might have to use artificial lighting and it may get tricky, but work with what you have. Try using an external wireless flash and move the light around. If possible set up multiple lights, but most important be true to the image you are trying to convey. You cannot get filet mignon from hamburger meat, but at least you can eat.
Making images or visually telling a story is about problem solving. There are many questions you have to answer before you can begin to press the shutter. How much time do you have? Does the time and place hurt or help the story telling process? What are you trying to say about the subject? Why are you photographing the subject? These and more have to be answered. After you have the shots you need, ask more questions as you continue to shoot: How can I improve on the image? How can I advance the visual conversation? Is this a fresh approach? I could go on, but the idea is keep moving forward. Think in terms of progress not perfection.
Understand Your Light
Decide how to best use the source of light you have available. Low light situations can produce mood, texture, and drama, but you have to have the skills and the thinking process to make the best of it. Place your camera at a angle or shoot from a point of view that best uses the light source. Shoot at a higher ISO speed or use a faster lens if that will produce a better picture. In my world, I usually do not have time to set up complex lighting and sometimes less can be more.
Risk is important in life. Cover all ground and listen to your voice but after that is done, start taking chances. Use a lens you are not comfortable with, move around, try new perspectives and vantage points, and change your eye. Explore with your subject and be not afraid to fail. There are times on assignment I use just one lens and I force myself to make an image with that one lens only. It is scary but it is a great exercise because it forces me to see the image in its purity.
Don’t Worry About What You Missed
Don’t get caught up in the image that you lost. The same attitude applies for your successes. Keep moving. The art of making images is circular not linear. The moment will return. You just have to be prepared.
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