Before our interview begins, Eli Reed levels with me: “You don’t want to take the pictures that are just acceptable. That’s very easy to do. You're just following what you think other people would like. You’re not actually looking at what is in front of you.” He pauses. “You can’t necessarily figure out the image before it happens, but you sure know it when you see it.” For more than five decades, Reed has had a knack for seeing it, and creating the kind of photographs that make you want to pick up a camera and change the world.
Above photograph: A lone construction worker hammers away at the wreckage of the World Trade Center, New York City, U.S.A.; September 12, 2001. © Eli Reed / Magnum Photos
The first Black photographer to join the prestigious collective, Magnum Photos, Reed is probably best known as a photojournalist, but he has also worked extensively in the film industry as a still photographer and also as a director and DP. The sheer breadth of his production becomes apparent when you start cataloging the publications where his photographs have appeared: National Geographic, Life, New York Times, Washington Post, TIME, Vogue, Sports Illustrated, GQ, Vanity Fair, Self—a complete list could fill a newsstand.
A runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, his accolades include an Overseas Press Club Award (1983), Picture of the Year “World Understanding Award” (1983), World Press Photo Award (1988), W. Eugene Smith Grant in Documentary Photography (1992), and a Lucie Foundation Award for Documentary Photography (2011). Reed’s teaching resume spans more than a dozen institutions across the country, as well as an annual photojournalism workshop for the United States Department of Defense. He is currently a Clinical Professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism, where he teaches editing, lighting, and advanced photojournalism. A Sony Artisan of Imagery since 2014, Reed has had extensive experience using Sony’s compact and mirrorless cameras.
Reed graduated art school in 1969 and began working the night shift as an orderly at St. Vincent’s Hospital, in the West Village, in Manhattan. During his off time, he picked up his camera and started documenting events and performances for the rock magazine, Zygote. A chance encounter asking for directions from a stranger in Manhattan would serve as a pivotal moment in his development as an artist. That stranger was Donald Greenhaus, an established photographer who would become both a mentor to Reed’s professional development, as well as a close friend. When Greenhaus passed away, in 2007, Reed notes, “It was a big loss for me—like losing my father for a second time.”
Reed’s formative years were split between Greenhaus’s studio during the day and St. Vincent’s at night. With a chuckle, he admits: “I still don’t sleep. So, thank you, Donald.” Greenhaus’s studio had two darkrooms and a wet room where Reed mastered the craft of processing and printing.
It was Greenhaus who encouraged Reed to begin one of his most enduring bodies of work: Black in America. “One day I was telling him how badly I wanted to go to Vietnam during the war to see what was happening there for myself. Donald replied: ‘There’s a bigger war at home.’ He was referring to what was going on with Black people in America.”
From that point forward, Reed committed to documenting “the successes and tragedies of African Americans.” The images comprising the series reveal his ability to isolate moments of joy, introspection, or sadness with subtle brilliance. The photographs are at once timeless and immediate in their impact.
Landmark events pepper the project, including the Million Man March, as well as the riots in Crown Heights and Los Angeles. In 1996, the series took the form of a book: “At a certain point, it’s either fatigue or a recognition that you’ve said what you wanted to say with the pictures you’ve made.”
Despite the publication of Black in America nearly 25 years ago, the necessity of its project remains. Reed continues to document the African American community. Asked about his thoughts covering the protests in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, he says: “The energy is different now. There are definitely more white people involved, particularly young people who are really there for it. It’s not just looking at African Americans. This is a serious voice and it is all over the world. People have been taken advantage of and abused in all kinds of ways. It struck a nerve.”
Reed was given his first chance to cover conflict outside of the United States while working for the San Francisco Examiner, in 1982. He spent three months traveling throughout Central America, creating photographs for an epic 16-part, 52-page series entitled, “Tortured Land.” As would become a trademark of Reed’s documentary work, the images alternate between moments of chaos and calm, always emphasizing the humanity of his subjects.
Prior to his travels in Central America, Reed was awarded a Nieman Fellowship to study political science at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. After completing “Tortured Land,” he headed to Cambridge. Another career-bolstering encounter awaited along the way.
As an artist and educator, Reed knows the importance of thoughtful criticism. “You have an obligation to yourself and be brave enough to put yourself out there with your work and get constructive criticism. That is a valuable thing—to sit and to listen.” While passing through New York en route to Harvard, one particular request for critique made via a friend would have a profound effect on his career. The critic? Rosemary Wheeler, at Magnum Photos. “I asked if she had any time at all, if she would look at ‘Tortured Land.’ I wanted to know what I could have done better—what I missed. I wanted to get beaten up.” What he received in lieu of a critique was a phone call from Phillip Jones Griffith, from Magnum, attempting to “seduce” Reed into joining the collective. “I thought it was a joke at first,” he recalls. Five years later he was a full member.
Reed’s work with Magnum would take him around the globe. His first project, while still studying at Harvard, sent him to Lebanon following the Siege of Beirut, where he spent four and a half months photographing locals as they confronted the chaos unfolding around them. In the years that followed, Reed has documented the overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, the United States’ invasion of Panama, refugees of the Rwandan Civil War, unrest in Zaire, and countless other newsworthy events at home and abroad.
In 1992, Reed branched into filmmaking when he created Getting Out as part of “Magnum Eye,” a series of shorts created by Magnum photographers. The film offers an unflinching look at gang life in Detroit through the eyes of several gang members and their families. Reed explains: “I wanted to film the reality of the gang, not the fictional version.” For help, he leaned on the expertise of Rosalva Hernandez, a journalist covering the Detroit gangs whom Reed had befriended while working in California.
The tension of Getting Out threatens to boil over throughout its 13-minute run time, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. Reed attributes his coolness when working in dangerous environments to his training as a judo competitor: “My adrenaline is different than most. My heart’s not beating faster—if anything, it is going slower.” The trick is to keep an awareness about you. “You want to be able to see and hear everything. It’s not about you. It’s about what’s going on around you. Can you understand it? Can you hear it? Can you see it?” Among the challenges of creating Getting Out was obtaining an unvarnished look at gang life without incriminating them. He recalls telling two of his subjects: “Listen, I don’t want to do anything that is going to get you in trouble so if you’re going to do something that you don't want me to see, please let me know. Just say, ‘Maybe you should go get a coffee or something.’”
The making of Getting Out coincided with Reed’s entry into the film industry as a still photographer. In the early days working on set, he would arrive strapped with up to five cameras, ready for anything. “I would always try to be near the director and director of photography when they were discussing shots.” Among the enduring friendships Reed would form in the film industry was with director John Singleton.
While shooting stills for Singleton’s Poetic Justice, Reed found himself caught in the middle of a national crisis. On April 29, 1992, the four police officers accused of assaulting Rodney King were acquitted. The news spread fast. “All of a sudden I saw police arrive in bulletproof vests and shotguns. We were watching the riots on a small television between shots. I asked John if he wanted me to go get footage, but he felt obligated to stay on schedule with the film.” Unable to contain his urge to capture such an important event, the next morning Reed went out to photograph what was happening and was surprised to run into Singleton on the street. “John was a very passionate and aware person. It was just a coincidence that we ended up in the same place at the same time that next day.”
Five years later, Reed would team up with Singleton again to shoot stills for Rosewood, a film based on the Rosewood massacre of 1922. “Rosewood was one of the most powerful and passionate sets I have ever worked on. A lot of people are talking about what happened in Tulsa now, but there is also Rosewood. It was such an emotional and difficult film for everyone to be a part of. We had to get extra security at one point because the Ku Klux Klan visited the production office. There is one scene where I’m sure Klan members ended up as extras.” Reed likens the film crews he has worked with to family. In addition to Poetic Justice and Rosewood, he worked with Singleton on Higher Learning, Shaft, Baby Boy, and 2 Fast 2 Furious.
When shooting stills for films, Reed leans on his instincts as a photojournalist: “I go by my gut.” Nevertheless, planning is involved. “Each scene has its own thing going on. It’s good to read the script for a scene the day before so before I go to sleep the night before I’m thinking about ways to capture the scene.”
Working on set demands greater invisibility than documenting on the street. Before switching to mirrorless cameras with the ability to shoot in silent mode, Reed recalls the annoyances of using a “blimp” to silence his camera: “It was never completely quiet, though, so you really had to be careful. You never want to show up in dailies,” he says, laughing. A member of the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers, Reed has now worked on more than a dozen films, including Day of the Jackal, Kansas City, One True Thing, Stay, Shaft Returns, A Beautiful Mind, 8 Mile, and Natasha.
Asked for advice to aspiring photographers, Reed says: “Take a lot of pictures of things that you are interested in. You have to take it seriously. Don’t just create work that is ‘good enough for government work.’ Any photographer who rises up to a certain level is doing it because they really want to do it, they are not doing it as work, they are doing it because they really want to.”
What is your most-used Sony lens?
Sony’s Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA, FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS, FE 135mm f/1.8 GM, and FE 20mm f/1.8 G lenses.
What is your dream lens from Sony?
A 35mm f/1.4 that isn’t humongously large but is sharp as hell.
Zoom or prime?
I could probably get away with using just Sony’s Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA or FE 135mm f/1.8 GM lenses.
Telephoto or wide-angle?
Usually normal to telephoto—Sony’s FE 20mm f/1.8 G lens is nice to have in your pocket, too.
Studio or location?
It doesn’t matter to me.