Portraits of Humanity
Words and Pictures
Carolyn Jones, a photographer and award-winning filmmaker, lives in New York City and founded the nonprofit 100 People Foundation. She is the author of Living Proof: Courage in the Face of AIDS. Her latest book is The American Nurse, published by Welcome Books.
Why are you a photographer?
When I was a kid I was interested in the way things work. I was the kid who took apart the radio and the electric mixer. I was equally interested in what made people tick. I’m not sure I ever really fit in during my high school years. Photography was like a passport. It opened doors and allowed me to ask questions and find out more about the people around me.
I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, surrounded by the Amish community. They believe that to take their photo is to steal their soul. As a budding photographer wanting to take photos of those around me, I was frustrated by not being able to take those images. I think this made me particularly thirsty to take portraits of people throughout my career. I find myself fascinated by people’s eyes as a window to their soul.
How do you view the different strengths of verbal and visual storytelling?
For many years I was a photographer who didn’t think about recording words. I wanted viewers to add their thoughts and feelings and not dictate too much myself. As time went on I found that I was more and more interested in the conversations that I would have with a subject before I took the photograph and became motivated to capture those moments and add them to the experience for the audience. Now words and photographs always go together in my work. The combination tells a more complete story.
Whose photographs do you admire?
I’m a huge fan of the portraits of Irving Penn, Hiro, Lartigue, Dorothea Lange, and August Sander, to name a few.
Has your cancer diagnosis and recovery significantly changed your art?
I would say my cancer diagnosis greatly changed the way I look at life and how I live it. So yes, that has had a significant impact on how I work. I want to go further, I want to leave a mark behind that matters, and I want to know that I have shared stories and opened eyes. When you’re fortunate enough to get to do the work that you love, there’s a certain responsibility to that. Not everyone has that chance.
What did you learn as an artist from this project in particular?
The nurses that I met are so alive, so vital, and with so little veneer. It was a great privilege to have time with them and to be able to ask probing questions. I want to continue to work on projects that bring out the best in people and teach me more about the human spirit.
Moving forward as a photographer, I want to continue to take photographs that aren’t manipulated and that show things as they are. I don’t like wondering what’s real and what’s not, so I will stay on this path of presenting the work as I see it in life without enhancing the images in any way.