Photojournalist Michael Robinson Chavez
"My style is to tell stories, as accurately and powerfully as possible"
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / September 1, 2021
(Credit: Mariana Zuñiga)
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
Michael Robinson Chavez: It was 1988. I was two years removed from high school and still had no idea what I wanted to do as a “career.” I was living in Ventura County in southern California, which is where I was born and grew up. Surfing and playing drums were the big priorities in my life at the time and I was working full time driving a forklift at a tour company that specialized in travel to Hawaii. There was a great guy who was working in the ad department, and he was an excellent surf and water sports photographer. He took me under his wing and that is how I got into photography. It culminated in him lending me a camera for a long trip I did that year to Peru.
My molecules were totally rearranged by that trip. The chaos and spontaneity of Peru, especially during that troubled era in the country’s history, made a deep impression. I was hooked on travel and placing what I saw in the small viewfinder of that borrowed Canon AE-1. I got into surf photography at first and then my brother Ed, who was studying journalism up at San Francisco State University, bought me “In Our Time,” a marvelous retrospective of Magnum on what I believe was their 45th anniversary. I thought to myself, “you can do that with a camera!?” I knew then that I wanted to roam the globe and give a voice to those that couldn’t be heard nor seen. This was way before the immediacy and instant gratification era of the internet and smart phones.
Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
Michael Robinson Chavez: Hmmmm, equipment. I am not much of a gear head. I try to keep it simple. Right now, I am using a Leica Q2 and a Sony A9. The Leica is my workhorse and is a joy to use. The Sony is a pragmatic choice, though it is more a computer that takes photographs rather than a camera. I like the simplicity and discreet nature of the Leica. The Q2 is one of my favorite cameras to use, a remarkable hybrid of a mirror less and a rangefinder. I still miss my M6s though.
Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?
Michael Robinson Chavez: I am on Instagram and Twitter as far as social media is concerned. I used to be on Facebook but rarely get on it anymore.
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mrobinsonchavez /
My website: https://chavezphoto.com/
Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?
Michael Robinson Chavez: This is a hard question to answer being a staff photographer at a newspaper/media outlet. The prep for a press conference and a 3-week trip to South America or Africa couldn’t be more different. Research is the key. Know your subject, who the players are in a given story and what the heart of that story is. I try to get well prepared, even making photo lists that will help make sure I have the story covered but being even more sure of remaining open to the surprises that always appear. And trying at every moment to make photographs that are as intimate and responsible as possible.
My camera bag has as little as possible in it. My back is not very forgiving. I just finished a trip to Peru and only brought the Leica, the Sony and a couple of lenses. Less is more.
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
Michael Robinson Chavez: I don’t know how I would describe my “style.” I am surely influenced by a lot of the wonderful photographers of the past: Koudelka, Cartier-Bresson, Chambi, Allard, Modotti, Richards, Iturbide, DeCarava et al. And also, by a lot of my peers: Rena Effendi, Andrea Bruce, Barbara Davidson, Lynsey Addario, Moises Saman, Ron Haviv, Nina Berman, Hector Emanuel amongst many others. My style is to tell stories, as accurately and powerfully as possible. I want to have the reader feel what it’s like to be in the places that I go and understand the people I meet. It isn’t enough to just show them. If that is all they get from it then I feel I have failed as a photographer.
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
Michael Robinson Chavez: Ooof. That really varies. With digital it is far too many! The Leica has slowed me down again and for that I am grateful. Really depends on the situation. Like many photographers when I first arrive in a place, I tend to make way too many photographs. Partly due to the excitement of being there and making sure I don’t miss anything. Then the process mercifully slows down in the subsequent days.
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
Michael Robinson Chavez: My last trip was to Peru and I just got back a week ago as of this writing. My mom is Peruvian, and it is a joy to return any chance I get, especially on assignment. Though this last trip was amazing, it was equally heartbreaking. The pandemic has truly ravaged the country and the political chaos and corruption are not helping matters in the slightest. So much potential just wasted. Like many places you wish they would get the money they made on two decades of economic growth and invest it back into the people.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
Michael Robinson Chavez: Have a few things lined up but afraid I can’t disclose those here! Sorry, New York Times!
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
Michael Robinson Chavez: That is a tough question. Some of my favorite photographs are of surfing spots I have visited over the last 30 years. They bring back wonderful memories of decompressing in the beauty of the ocean and nature after a grueling assignment. Certainly photos of my wife and daughter, those wonderful moments. I have a deep fondness for a lot of my Peru photographs from the 1990s. It was a time when I was liberated and just roaming through that marvelous country with a Leica, two lenses and a bag of Tri-X. No assignments, no deadlines. No particular place to be. The best feeling.
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
Michael Robinson Chavez: I like people to spend time with my photographs, I’m not a fan of the “quick read,” which used to drive some of my former photo editors crazy. Thankfully, people have become more visually sophisticated. I want the photographs to express ambiguity, to have people get involved and ask questions. Ideally you want them to educate the readers and in the best case, drive people to action via financial help or emotional support for the subjects you’re covering.
(All images © Courtesy of Michael Robinson Chavez)
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great in your eyes?
Michael Robinson Chavez: That is wide open for me. Journalistically, it would be power, emotion, intimacy, empathy. But photography in general is just so wide ranging. From a stark still life to an extraordinary wildlife photo that the photographer spent months getting, there are so many great photos. I would say that “eye candy,” or photos that are pure composition and that’s where it ends are the ones that do the least for me.
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
Michael Robinson Chavez: I would say that the answer above applies to this question as well. Getting a gazillion likes on a photo in your IG feed doesn’t mean you made a great photo.
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
Michael Robinson Chavez: It isn’t always easy to stay motivated. I have had long stretches where I am doing my job to the best of my ability, but I am not “seeing.” The photos are hitting that wall and not breaking through. But it often doesn’t take much to get the fires burning again. A visit to a great museum, seeing a remarkable film, a colleague’s great work or simply the right story comes along and grabs you by the lapels and kicks your ass back into gear.
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
Michael Robinson Chavez: The biggest professional risk….I suppose it would be early in my career when I had to make the decision to stay with the AP in Latin America, a job I loved in a region close to my heart and soul, or take a job with The Boston Globe, where I had interned the year before. I ended up going to Boston and have been a newspaper staff photographer ever since. I have no regrets; it has been a remarkable quarter century. (And I paid off my student loans!) My goal was to have someone pay me to meet people over the world and make photographs, and that has been the outcome.
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
Michael Robinson Chavez: There would be two: responsible me would like to be given as much time as I need to travel around the globe documenting climate change, its effects on people, the planet, the solutions that are being explored, etc. That would be incredible, frankly it is the most important story there is, full stop. Hedonistic me would want to do the same journey but exploring the world’s great surf zones! Or the world’s best food countries. I would start with Peru.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
Michael Robinson Chavez: Curiosity, empathy, honesty, tenaciousness, humor, patience (I could use more!), understanding, more curiosity and a totally wide-open mind. It’s a lot to ask but this is what is needed to make great photographic stories.
Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
Michael Robinson Chavez: There is no place for digital manipulation in photojournalism. There have been some egregious examples of this, whether it is staging an image or going overboard on post-production. (This clarity goes up to 11!) Don’t do it, your credibility takes years to build and one stupid or careless moment to destroy.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
Michael Robinson Chavez: As I said above, to be an ethical photojournalist means to not try to bullshit the general public and readers. Trust is increasingly difficult to come by these days. This also extends to when you are working and being up front and honest about who you are and what you are doing with those that you are covering. Manipulation and false narratives are everywhere. Look at the politics in the US and the lies Trump and his loyalists are leveling about the US election outcome last year. Pure fiction but millions believe it to be true. If you are ethical people will believe your work. If you are not, it will always be under a cloud of suspicion.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
Michael Robinson Chavez: People still love to hear and see good stories. I don’t think that will change at its core. Methods of delivery will change but the power of the still image has seemed to weather many of those metamorphoses. I don’t think it is losing its importance, look at the incredible amount of talent that is pouring into what is honestly a beleaguered industry, financially speaking. Creatively, it is just getting better. New voices are rising, from different countries, from the LGBTQ community, communities of color, it is such a wonderful time to be witnessing how all these different photographers see the world. We are very fortunate. There is a lot of work out there that I personally am not a huge fan of, but I am so happy that it is being done. We need to keep challenging the established norms and respect people’s visual intelligence.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Michael Robinson Chavez: Advice? Well, not so much on the career path, my route to where I am…I honestly don’t think it exists anymore. The best advice is to keep working, keep being honest with yourself and your photographs. Revel in life and the photos will start happening. It may take years but persist. Take chances, get out of your comfort zone. Most importantly, for the aspiring photojournalists out there, have your photos speak to power and get the people seeing your work out of their comfort zone! Saludos.
Michael Robinson Chavez
Michael Robinson Chávez, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer for The Washington Post, became seduced by photography after a friend gave him a camera before a trip to Peru in 1988. A native Californian and half Peruvian, he previously worked with the Associated Press, The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times. Robinson Chávez has covered assignments in over 75 countries including the collapse of Venezuela, violence in Mexico, tsunamis in Indonesia and Chile, the Egyptian revolution, gold mining in Peru and the 2006 Hezbollah/Israeli war. Robinson Chávez was part of a team from The Washington Post awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 2019 covering climate change. He is also a three-time winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Photojournalism and was named Photographer of the Year by Pictures of the Year International in 2020. His photographs have been exhibited in France, Australia, Peru, United States, Croatia, Georgia and Spain. He teaches photo workshops through the LeicaAkademie.