DPP Home Profiles Mark Edward Harris: The Omnivorous Explorer

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Mark Edward Harris: The Omnivorous Explorer

Mark Edward Harris is part historian, part explorer, and a photographer through and through

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Harris has ventured to North Korea several times. This photo is one of his most famous. Most of Harris' work is done alone, without the benefit of assistants. He explains, "I did a story on life along the Korean DMZ for the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War for the Los Angeles Times Magazine. A lot of different editors at the magazine enjoyed my writing, so I actually got asked to write some stories. One editor didn't realize that I did photography as well, and she was about to have a photographer sign on to do the story. I said, no, it's still photography first, and I started doing a whole series for her on that.
"I would say that my guru would be W. Eugene Smith," Harris says, "and his photo essays in Life. He never sat around at all. The great photo essays often germinate from a desire within or an interest. When I did an interview with Eve Arnold years ago, she said it's a very stressful life; you're either overwhelmed with work or you're just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. And so she started developing her own projects. In China, probably her greatest book, came from that. She developed this project herself and she did it. I think I do the same thing. I love getting assignments—when I get a phone call to go shoot this or that—but often it's something that I've thought about, like North Korea, specifically, or The Way of the Japanese Bath. Both resulted in books, and they came from a desire to explore a certain area.

"I asked Manuel Álvarez Bravo about his work," Harris adds. "'Where does it come from?' He said, 'One doesn't necessarily know their own motivations for things, but it's finding its way into the work.' That's for sure. I'm definitely drawn to Asian culture and philosophy. After seeing Miss Saigon in London in 1992, I said, 'I have to go to Vietnam.' So I went, and I shot probably my first strong documentary work on the streets of Vietnam. In fact, one of my strongest photos still is a little boy carrying his sibling on the street. A Chinese magazine called Photographers International published a big series of my work in Vietnam, and that really then started opening doors more for that kind of work—the heavier documentary kind of things."

So began Harris' career as a documentary travel photographer. He learned quickly that it's not enough simply to go to a new place and take pictures. First comes the story.

"The Japanese hot springs sort of taught me a lesson," he says. "There's sort of a mantra in travel photography that a location isn't a story. You can't say, 'Oh, I want to do a story on Japan,' or 'Oh, I'm going to do France.' It doesn't work that way. When I teach travel photography workshops, I emphasize finding a story. But North Korea is so off-the-beaten path, I felt I could do a book."

Left: Children in Lang Dinh An, Vietnam, also called "Chicken Village," for the giant concrete chicken that's there. Middle: A young Iranian girl in Western clothing with her mother and other women in traditional clothing at a market in Kerman, Iran. Right: A mill worker in Yazd, Iran. Harris' technical skills and his eye for composition are on full display in this image.


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