A lifelong student of the medium and its history (he earned his master’s degree in Pictorial/Documentary History), Harris began interviewing photographers early in his career. His first book, published in 1998, was Faces of the Twentieth Century: Master Photographers and Their Work, which included interviews with dozens of photographic icons. Studying at the feet of world-class photographers offers a unique opportunity—to learn about the medium directly from those who define it at its highest level.
"I have access to these incredible people," Harris says. "I was fortunate to interview a lot of photographers who are no longer with us—Helmut Newton, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Galen Rowell—and, to this day, of course, it continues on. First of all, what I think it does is it keeps me on the very top of my game. I’m constantly exposed to the very best of the best in photography. They have been my teachers, in a way, and I’ve learned so much from them.
I think one of the key things is that they don’t sit around and wait for the phone to ring.
"I’ve done maybe 1,000 interviews by now," he continues, "and I’ve gotten something from every one. I think one of the key things is that they don’t sit around and wait for the phone to ring. You look at all these photographers and they’re self-motivators. They get out there, they’re interested in what’s going on. Probably the worst word to any of them is ‘retirement.’ That would be the worst thing in the world. They’re so excited about what they do and they want to get out there. That doesn’t mean it’s easy at all, but you don’t separate yourself from what you’re doing. Picasso was a painter; at 5 o’clock, he didn’t say, ‘It’s time to go home and be a different person.’"
Adds Harris, "We’re so fortunate as photographers to be able to live this way and express ourselves through the camera. And I use the word ‘fortunate’ very carefully because sometimes you hear the word ‘luck,’ like, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky.’ We’re fortunate, we’re not lucky. Luck is pure chance, and there’s too much hard work that goes into doing this and maintaining it to just be luck. I think we’re fortunate."
Listening to Harris describe the master photographers he has had the good fortune to learn from, it’s clear that he doesn’t realize he’s also describing himself. He has drive and a diligent work ethic. He’s no stranger to "just getting out there," and he, too, has never waited for the phone to ring.
"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."