Issue #6 “I’m troubled, I’m anxious, I’m angry as hell, but I remain hopeful that we will prevail”

A conversation with renowned American photojournalist and filmmaker, Ed Kashi.

Photo by Yarden Haddi.

Ed Kashi’s work has appeared in publications like National Geographic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. He is a member of VII Photo Agency and Co-Founder of Talking Eyes Media. We reached him in his hometown of Montclair, New Jersey to talk about his photo-series, “Rising to the Call”. And, he details his views on the current political climate in America amid the pandemic.

🔊Listen to the full discussion here.      

Ziv: How are you doing, Ed? 

Ed: So far so good. I’m not sick, knock on wood. I’ll just be quite blunt though, under the Trump administration in this period of time it’s impossible to actually feel okay. There’s such a lack of leadership, a lack of clarity and a lack of concern for the other. And what is so sad to me, and actually makes me incredibly pissed off, is that we really do have a divided nation now in a way that I have never experienced before. There are those who believe that COVID-19 is something that’s made up, and those who believe that this is a Democratic, socialist plot to destroy Donald Trump. You want to just throw your arms up and go, “How could this have happened?” So, how do I feel? I’m troubled, I’m anxious, I’m angry as hell, but I remain hopeful that we will prevail. I would like to qualify everything by saying that most people in the United States of America are good and decent people. Unfortunately, we are living in a time where the extremists [on the right] have the megaphone. How can we have relationships that move us forward if we can’t agree on the most basic set of facts? And this is beyond politics. I love smart Republicans. In the end, they probably make us better as a society, because it’s part of the cheques and balances. They’ll bring points of view that, maybe, folks on the other side of the aisle don’t think about; that’s part of a civil society and a democracy. We’re not all the same and we don’t all believe the same things, but what we do believe in is civil discourse and a desire to make things better for everyone. Frankly, Trump is not a Republican, he’s just a freak of nature and he’s an absolutely horrible human being. I hope that the Democrats win the presidency and flip the Senate. But I’m hoping that, if that happens, they don’t become like the other side. And that they don’t become vindictive and take the reigns of power and then create the same terribly lopsided balance of power where, again, nothing gets done. 

Ziv: In what area of your life has this pandemic affected you the most? 

Ed: I can’t travel. I’m normally on the road eight months out of the year. I’ve spent more time at home in the last six months than I have in the last 30 years. 

Ziv:  Does that mean more time with family?

Ed: More time with my wife; the most time we’ve ever spent together. I’m happy to report that it hasn’t pulled us apart. It has actually brought us closer together and I think she’ll agree with me. There has been a psychological impact on me [with the pandemic] that is haunting. We lost a neighbour to COVID-19, we lost someone who was pretty close to us who helped raise our son.

Ziv: Wow, we’re sorry to hear that. On a more positive note, during this pandemic you created a photo series called, “Rising to the Call”. Tell us about that.

Ed: All my work is shut down with assignments canceled and projects in the future now on hold. I’m suddenly home full-time so I’m thinking, “What am I going to do with all of this time?” The first thing I started to do was volunteer at a local food kitchen in my community of 40,000 people in Montclair, New Jersey. But I live to work and I live to create stories so I’m trying [to figure out how] I engage with what’s going on. I am an essential worker so I figured I can extend that to my state. I thought [about] all of these people volunteering and these organizations and nonprofits and, you know, the local YMCA delivering 40,000 meals a week. So everything from a group of suburban moms making 10,000 masks to university engineering students making plastic shields for local hospitals. I thought, “This is so inspiring. For once I can tell a story about how individuals and organizations are rising to this moment to not only give hope, but to have a direct impact”. So that was the idea, that was the inspiration and then [my studio manager and I] just started to do research on the stories that are out there. I would say that for a two-and-half month period I was going out, almost every day, to photograph. Somewhere about two-thirds of the way through of creating this work I pitched it to The New York Times and thankfully they saw it worthy to be picked up. Hopefully, it reached a lot more people [that way]. Often, as a photojournalist and documentarian, I deal with tough issues and problems in the world so this was an opportunity to highlight something good that was happening. 

Ziv: Was there a particular moment that you captured during this project that stuck with you the most? 

Ed: Going to the [local] YMCA that’s maybe 10-15 minutes away from me. One of the things they were doing is food distribution and then walking out into the parking lot, at nine in the morning, and seeing a one-mile-long line of cars waiting to get food. They started lining up at seven in the morning, and food started to be distributed at 11 in the morning. Boy, you talk about the magnitude of need that this pandemic has caused in what is one of the richest states in America. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the United States and it has got to be in the top five of the wealthiest states as well. And, yet, who did you see mostly in those cars? Black and Brown people, and working-class people. That was gut-punching [to see]. But then, in the same facility, they opened their daycare centre to the children of first-responders and front-line workers for free. So, in one place, you saw the magnitude of need and food insecurity, but at the same time you’re seeing this beautiful extension of giving and caring for people in the community. It makes me want to cry because, in doing this work, you get to see the best in people and the best of us. It not only gives me hope, but it fills my heart. I can’t tell you how many times I experienced that. And, of course, the other most blatant example was the volunteer EMS workers. Even in normal times, to be a volunteer EMS worker is pretty amazing. They are not getting paid to save the lives of the people in your community, but to do it during the time of a pandemic where you risk getting sick and dying? That’s pretty amazing.

Yarden: What kind of message do you try to convey with the work you do as a photojournalist? 

Ed: It depends on the nature of the project I’m working on. These days, a lot of the work I do is what I consider to be advocacy journalism where there’s an explicit desire or intention to have an impact on the situation that I’m chronicling. But in this case, with “Rising to the Call”, it was really just about getting a positive message out there. Especially at a time where people are pretty desperate and in need of knowing that they are not alone and that we can’t give up hope and we will prevail. We’ll lose folks, but we will prevail. 

Yarden: In the nineties, you shot mainly on film. So how would you say the process has changed since then? 

Ed: Well, it’s easier to shoot digitally that’s for sure. For photographers who never shot on film, it’s hard for them to appreciate how much harder it was technically to work with film. But I love the digital workflow. I’m so excited that I got to live through this and be a part of this moment because all it has done is allow me to be more creative, more productive, and more efficient in some ways. So I have no nostalgia for film.

Yarden:  I also noticed that you work a lot with video. Is that your main focus right now? 

Ed: I’m a full-on filmmaker now. Probably 70-percent of my work is in video. I love being a still photographer and I will continue to be a still photographer, but video has become a beautiful new tool in my toolkit. It offers a way of telling stories that, in some ways, is even way more challenging than working in still photography. It’s also more encompassing and allows me to also tell stories about things that might not be visual and, yet, be able to bring them to life in a way that I never could with just still photography. 

Ziv: I want to go back to your point about the United States being divided. I always thought of Americans as being really good at coming together during times of national crises. 

Ed: Sorry to disappoint you. I lay the blame [of this mess] squarely on Donald Trump. He’s a leader that only gains power by dividing people. He’s so obsessed with himself that it’s impossible for him to put the needs of others ahead of his own needs. So now what happens is that we look to our governors. You have Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, or Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey or even some Republican governors who’ve done a really fantastic job. This is not about politics, this is about leadership. When the moment came, did our governors rise up to the call? Thankfully we’ve had individual states with leaders from both parties that have done a pretty fantastic job. But what’s happened is that there were so many governors that followed Trump whether out of fear or truly believing in him and now we suffer with this pandemic rolling all over the place and spreading. Part of leadership is showing concern for the people that you lead. I want to say one more thing: what I know about Canada is the fact that you have a nationalized healthcare system. That alone means that there’s this sense among everybody, or there should be that we’re in it together. And it’s those things that make such a difference in the quality of life of the people. I know that a nationalized healthcare system is not perfect, but damn it’s a lot better than going to the hospital where the first thing that you’re asked is if you can pay for your medical bills. 

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

About the creators:

Yarden Haddi: Student of the Image Arts Centre at Ryerson University.

Ziv Haddi: Graduate of the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at Western University. A former intern at 680 News at Rogers Media and q on CBC Radio. Currently produces a current affairs program on Zoomer Radio.

Made with chutzpah in Toronto.