I discovered Reed Young's work through his series Las Pajas and the Luck Haitians. The series works extremely well as a series of portraits in their own right but as a documentary series along with the accompanying text, it is sublime. My personal favourite is Chi Chi (above). His works cover broad and eclectic subjects. You can see more of Las Pajas and the Luck Haitians and other series on his site and blog.
After attending photography school in 2002, graduating from Brooks Institute in 2005, and a yearlong residency at FABRICA, the Communication Research Center of Benetton Group in Treviso, Italy, Reed has done work for a variety of publications including National Geographic, TIME magazine, and The Guardian. His works span a wide range of subject matter, locales and working conditions. He is currently based in New York.
Mr. Young took his time out to answer my questions which you can read below.
First, here is Reed's statement on Las Pajas and the Luck Haitians...
"Lost in the vast sugarcane fields of the Dominican Republic, there are hundreds of small villages called Bateys. These underdeveloped towns were established in the beginning of the 20th Century to house migrant Haitian workers during the sugarcane season.
The Bateys were intended to be seasonal towns. But in the last 40 years, the Dominican Republic has become a symbol of hope and prosperity for the Haitians. Because of this, more and more Haitians have discontinued going back to Haiti after the season and have started families in the Bateys.
In theory, this sounds ideal. But the infrastructure for a permanent population remains unmet in the Bateys. The schools have little to no funding; there’s no running water or plumbing; and trash collection is obsolete. Another problem plaguing these small communities is the lack of legal documentation of citizenship. Without the basic rights as a citizen, most of these people are denied education and healthcare. This has created significant social status issues, which will only improve with the help of humanitarian organizations.
At the time I took these pictures, my friend Rachel Gottesman lived in this small Batey called Las Pajas. Rachel invited me to stay with her for a few days, and it was an eye-opening, unbelievable experience. Even though the problems plaguing the Bateys are similar, each person had a unique story to tell.
In the end, I was the biggest beneficiary of all. I was honored to learn about their lives. Despite having nothing but each other, they’re more content than most people I meet in the more developed world. I also discovered that money alone isn’t the solution to helping impoverished people. What they need more is education, healthcare and correct nutrition.
I was struck by how these Haitian people view themselves as extraordinarily lucky compared with their families back home. Although the conditions of the Bateys are deplorable, they’re nothing compared to those that exist in Haiti where the current food crisis affects 60 percent of the country’s people.
Who would think that people with no education, no access to healthcare and terrible sanitary conditions would consider themselves lucky? These are the lucky Haitians."
In your series Las Pajas and the Lucky Haitians, you seem to have made a strong connection with your subjects. Would you outline how you approached this series and what you feel made it a unique experience from a photographic perspective?
Most of my personal work consists of a going to a place and finding complete strangers to help me tell a story. It's much more difficult without having a contact within the community. I was fortunate to have a close friend living in Las Pajas and this was a huge help in gaining immediate trust with my subjects. When I arrived I realized that the residents were far more impoverished than I could have imagined. Most of the stories I see from developing countries have a sad, empathetic approach. So I made an immediate decision to portray these people as the strong and proud people they are—and I think that's what makes this story unique.
"...they did it with a grace and trust that I rarely get to see."
What would you say have been the biggest risks you've taken in your york both practically and artistically?
The most difficult and rewarding thing I've done in the last few years is consistently committing to personal projects. It's a huge challenge both financially and artistically. It's expensive and always difficult to find an original story that I'm passionate about. It's a big risk to travel to a place without knowing anyone, hoping to leave with a piece of people's lives that will create some kind of narrative. It's a risk that I'm becoming more and more comfortable with, but someday I may come back with nothing.
How has your residency at FABRICA influenced your work?
Fabrica was an incredible opportunity. It allowed me to take time to find my voice and learn from my mistakes. Benetton often takes a social interest approach, and it would be difficult to deny that this had an influence on the subject matter I pursue. Meeting other young artists from all over the world was also an invaluable takeaway.
"...we're at a very interesting turning point in media."
Have any friendships developed between you and your subjects and are there any subjects who linger in your memory?
There are so many people who come to mind, but one family sticks out: A year ago right now I was in El Paso, Texas, doing a story about life in America's safest city, a town that shares a border with one of the world's most dangerous cities: Juarez, Mexico. It was there that I met the Delgado family. They invited us into their home and we spent 4 hours talking at their kitchen table. As breakfast turned to lunch, they told us everything about their lives. When speaking about the things that weren't exactly favorable, they did it with a grace and trust that I rarely get to see. We still had a week to go before leaving and often returned just to hang out and listen to their stories. We've spoken by phone five or six times over the last year. The El Paso story should be out in the next week or so.
Would you describe your typical/preferred kit and your favourite lens to work with and why?
I shoot a Canon 5D mark iii. When I was working at FABRICA my boss called me into his office and said that he had a gift for me. It was a cheap 50mm lens. He said that if I shot with anything other than the 50mm he'd fire me. So for the next year I only shot with that fixed 50mm lens. It taught me to move around to find the best vantage point instead of just zooming in and out. As far as photographic craft goes, this was one of the most important things I ever learned.
Which photographers of your generation have earned your respect/inspired you? And artists in other mediums?
I love the work of Nadav Kander, Edward Burtynsky, Alec Soth, William Eggleston, Philip Lorca Dicorcia and Stephen Shore.
"I've always been more interested in my subjects and their story..."
How do you approach an assignment with a tight timeframe and big ambitions such as your recent shoot with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs?
I planned as much as I could beforehand, and then when the time came we had about half the amount of time we were expecting. But for anyone who's ever shot high profile people, half the expected amount of time is still better than usual.
What are your goals as a professional and an artist? Are they the same? Why or why not?
I've always been more interested in my subjects and their story than the medium of photography. If I had another way to go about meeting these people and documenting their lives, while still making a living, I'd be happy to try it. I love journalism and think we're at a very interesting turning point in media. If things go the right way and quality content prevails, I'd love to begin working on more topical issues. I think we're living in a very exciting time and I hope that journalism takes the path that The New York Times did. It's the success of news outlets like the Huffington Post that really scares me.
Many thanks, Reed.
Permission for usage of the images in this article kindly granted by Reed Young.