Alan Pogue began taking photographs during the Vietnam War, prompted by "an urge to record what shocked me as well as what was beautiful." His desire to bear witness to the full range of human experience matured into a career in documentary photography that has spanned four decades and many parts of the globe from his native Texas to the Middle East. Working in the tradition of socially committed photographers such as Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and the photographers of the Farm Security Administration, particularly Russell Lee and Dorothea Lange, Pogue has been a witness for justice, using the camera to capture the human context and to call attention to conditions needing remediation.
This book offers a comprehensive visual survey of Alan Pogue's documentary photography. It opens with images of social protests of the 1960s and early 1970s, along with the countercultural scene around Austin, Texas, and prominent cultural and political figures, from William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to Ann Richards and George W. Bush. Following these are suites of images that record the often harsh conditions of farm workers, immigrants, and prisoners—groups for whom Pogue has long felt deep empathy. Reflecting the progression of Pogue's career beyond Texas and the Southwest, the concluding suites of images capture social conditions in several Latin American and Caribbean countries (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Haiti), the effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on ordinary people, and the lives and privations of Iraqis between the two recent wars.
Shortly before Christmas of 1967, I left the United States for Vietnam. I had volunteered to go as a chaplain's assistant, and the Army accepted my offer.
Mother gave me a camera. She knew I wouldn't write often, particularly from a war zone. With my camera, I gave my mother the "travel brochure" view of Vietnam: a beautiful, varied landscape of beaches, forests, mountains, and valleys filled with rice fields. My duties as a chaplain's assistant kept me in the well-fortified base camp of Chu Lai with ten thousand other soldiers. The harshest realities of war were distant thunder. I photographed the camp, my fellow soldiers, and our daily lives. Nothing shocking happened that had to be kept from my mother. Occasionally, I would fly out to the countryside with my chaplain in a tiny helicopter. He conducted religious services with a pile of C-ration boxes as an altar.
My chaplain grew up in a Benedictine orphanage. In Vietnam he was surrounded by poorly-cared-for orphans, and the situation led him to a nervous breakdown. The division chaplain's office realized he was overwrought and gave him medical leave. They offered me a "spit-and-polish" job in their office, but I chose to return to the medical corps for which I had been trained.
I volunteered to be a combat medic. Now there were scenes to be kept from my mother's view: napalm-burned mothers, children hurt by bomb fragments, rice farmers shot in the back, fields destroyed. I felt an urgency to record what shocked me as well as what was beautiful. My interest in and appreciation of photography were aided by the helicopter pilots who would take my film to the Post Exchange to be developed at the same time they were filling my requests for medicine and bandages.
Without conscious intent, I was becoming a photographer. My camera was very limited in its ability to take pictures in minimal light, and I couldn't use a flash in combat situations. When I went to Japan on leave, my most important mission was to purchase the best camera available. At the Yokosuka Navy Exchange I bought a Nikon (the leading 35 mm camera), 3 lenses, and a flash for $176.00. I felt it was important to record what I was seeing because the reality didn't match my preconceptions.
What I saw was teaching me something if I would only let it in. I wanted my photographs to be more than mere reminders of places I had been; I wanted them to be alive with experience so that others could find meaning in the photographs. The craft of photography had to be good enough to carry the experience.
The idea of being a professional photographer never occurred to me, only the urgency of recording and expressing. I had left the Chaplain Corps but I was still, and always will be, my brothers' keeper.
After a few years wandering down this path in photography, I learned that there was a term for what I was doing, documentary photography, which has a rich tradition in the short history of photography. When I learned that Russell Lee, the finest living documentary photographer, lived in Austin I called upon him for advice. Friends had told me he liked Scotch so when I first went to speak with him in 1976, I brought him a bottle of Glenliviet. He was delighted and added it to his collection along with bottles of Pinch and Laphroaig.
Whenever I had new work to show him I would call for an appointment. Russell Lee—never "Russ," because he was my elder—would greet me with a big smile and Scotch on the rocks. In 1986 he called me for the first time. When I met with him, he was as warm and gracious as ever, but then he fixed me with the most serious look he had ever shown, no smile or twinkle in his eyes, and asked, "Alan, will you promise me that you will never abandon black-and-white still photography for color or cinematography?" Without hesitation I said, "No, I will never abandon black-and-white still photography." Nothing more needed to be said to explain our common understanding. He just wanted to hear me say the words.
He stood, signaling it was time for me to go, and for the first time he gave me a big hug, wrapping me in the warmth of his large arms. Jean Lee, his wife, said that some days later he announced he was going to take a nap, and he died in his sleep. Russell Lee was never one to theorize about photography but rather let the photographs reveal their insight. But he did say, "There is photography and there is painting. Many photographers are simply using photographic materials to paint with." They are contriving images rather than photographing life as it happens. Russell Lee embraced life with his camera eye and left painting and literature to others.
Two years later, in 1988, Jean Lee asked to see my farm worker exhibit at the Galeria Sin Fronteras in Austin. We met there. After seeing all of the photographs she said, "You know, Alan, many people like Russ, like his work, but you are one of the few people who really understand it." She glanced around the room once more as we stood there, turned to me, and said, "With this show you have surpassed him." Jean Lee was a writer, a keen observer, and not shy in her opinions. She was telling me I had paid Russell Lee the ultimate tribute of a being good student. "When one's understanding is only equal to that of his teacher, he diminishes the teacher's merit by half. Only when his understanding surpasses that of his teacher is he worthy of carrying on the line," said Lin-Chi, Chinese philosopher, AD 860.
The one hundred photographs on the following pages are a selection to show both the diversity of my work and to suggest a connectedness among the people and places that I have chosen or that have chosen me to be their recorder.