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By James McCue
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Portrait Project group with NY Times Michael Kamber
Portrait Project group with NY Times Michael Kamber

MANHATTAN – One week prior to the spooky, frightful and costume-themed October night of Halloween 2012 edition, Michael Kamber, war correspondent and freelance photojournalist for the New York Times (NYT), arrived at the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation (CBTF) office speaking to its members of the Portrait Project group and continuing a tradition of sharing one’s tortuous path of getting into their career and providing advice for overcoming any obstacles that would block their own career success.

Mr. Kamber, 49 and born and raised for most of his childhood in Maine, admits to coming from normal beginnings and it was the role model of his family which paved the way for his future career, “My mother was a photographer. The majority of her work led to investigations of the mistreatment of kids with mental disabilities. I read her essay on the topic and I realized, ‘These photos can really make a difference’”.

But the non-linear path of becoming a photojournalist can also be credited to Mr. Kamber’s father and grandfather, who handed down a particular set of values to him through their patriotic service and good works, “My father was an ex-marine in World War II and my grandfather, an ex-marine in World War I. I grew up in a military culture which has led to me being involved in warzones today”.

As a kid, Mr. Kamber didn’t go behind the camera with the intention of shooting images of violence but instead just doing it because it was one of the things that made him happy besides his love of reading, “After I finished high school in New Jersey, I later moved to New York when I was 20 years old. I was always photographing at nights and I was able to slowly break into the field. I went to photography school for a year at Parsons but I dropped out because I wanted to use my camera for more meaningful photos”.

One member of the Portrait Group, childhood brain-tumor survivor Tom Ha, briefly interjected to ask Mr. Kamber if there was anyone or anything in particular which he saw that got his career started to which Mr. Kamber humbly replied, “What I would do is snap a photograph and then in that day’s paper, I’d line up my photo with the template of the article from the newspaper and I just mimicked it that way and stuck with the template that I liked the most”.

Each of the group members were given a short biography, via Facebook, on Mr. Kamber and the accredited work he has done so far, including a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize and one couldn’t help but notice the identical reporting and themes between Mr. Kamber’s work and another great war author, Ernest Hemingway: “I’m not sure but I possibly remember reading some of his work and just thinking about the stories [both Hemingway’s and my own] and how they describe the sadness and poignancy of war and what it does to humanity. These stories are the only real evidence to what was going on and is currently happening in these war-torn countries”.

The greatest and most dreadful illness of any aspiring writer’s career is that thing known as “Writer’s Block Syndrome”, that moment in someone’s life when their creative ideas aren’t as readily available or flowing as they would at their peak moments. Naturally this question came as quickly as it went for Mr. Kamber answered with, “I just take a break for a while and walk around. I take away any sort of distractions and white noise disturbances”.

Perhaps, the surest way to stave off the “illness of the writer” is to focus on one’s achievements and that which helps one’s rivulet or stream of pride flow freely and continuously, “the two articles which I’m really glad I was a part of was the Afghanistan story of the children who were working as indentured servants and the other was a piece I did on Mexican families coming to the United States”.

But like any typical person, employed in their field, their aim is to produce their highest quality of work to which Mr. Kamber adds, “I would sift through the Afghanistan story and add more details or a different photo or compelling video. I would keep an eye out on seeking the right quote for the story”.

Mr. Kamber when asked about another writer, Christopher Hitchens, who shares his own view of presenting both sides fairly agreed to Mr. Hitchens’ sentiment of the need of a writer to write and fill the void as necessary as a human person’s need to breathe, “If that is something which lies at your core and you need it, you shouldn’t seek reasons or ways to suppress it or stifle it”.

For a moment, as in the last few meetings, survivors in the group took the guest on a trip to an alternate reality which the guests willingly took upon themselves and eagerly answered these pause-bearing moments, asking them where-would-you be if you weren’t here now and this time the question was if Mr. Kamber was in charge how would he resist the age of the digital and evolve the print news industries to keep it alive and relevant, “Well I would start with the younger generation. The young guys all have the tablets and phones to read stuff so that’s where I would begin. The notion of reading the news in your hand is for the older generation, even though newer options are available, the older folks still choose this because it gives a sense of nostalgia for them”.

Even though journalists get their stories read and heard all over the world, there are still some things the journalists just never get to include and share with their audience and when asked how Mr. Kamber has resolved this issue himself he forcefully and with a strong sense of certainty replied touching on larger mainstream media issues, “When I cover a story I always make sure I give the opposing side a chance to respond so that way the story comes together and has a common argument. Today, Americans and the newspapers can’t agree on facts. Common ground is difficult to find”.

As much pleasure is garnered from reporting and sharing the stories of victims’ of war, so is the same joy Mr. Kamber gets from capturing those thousand words in his photographs and how he hopes his reader will interpret his work, “Good war photos have humanity in them. They contain emotion and animation which makes them even more powerful. I feel good capturing the photographs and putting light on their situation. People at home need to look at these photos and ask themselves, ‘What can we do?’”.

As a war photographer, Mr. Kamber is wary of going to the location with an agenda in mind and placing whatever the environment gives him as top priority, “When capturing photos no photo is preconceived, you need to go in with an open-eye and a neutral mind. You need to try to stay focused and neutral when shooting your photographs”.

How does one stay neutral though in a photograph that is particularly hard to take, such as a wounded child or an older person in urgent need of emergency medical care? Mr. Kamber solemnly paused at this gathered his thoughts and replied, “As difficult as it is stand behind the lens and photo-shoot in terrible and horrible circumstances, you must also be willing to actively participate in the photo and help the person out”.

At this point and with the meeting drawing to a close, Mr. Kamber shared some of the photos he took, some of which were hard to view and stay apathetic and emotionless. A member of the group paused during this slideshow, wondering what distinguishes a war photo from a regular photo and what does Mr. Kamber pay close attention to when shooting, “The composition of the photo and color need to agree. To some extent, I also feel war photos could be misunderstood as a regular, peaceful photo but I make sure that these photos are often ones which require a second glance”, to which Mr. Kamber placed heavy emphasis on and closed with, “It is something I struggle with myself between war photos and regular [peace-time] photos”.

Given that these photos were hard to capture and the heart-breaking stories which Mr. Kamber heard from his time overseas, one may wonder what it is that keeps him going and what he hopes to achieve by the time his work is completed, Mr. Kamber reiterated his earlier point of drawing inspiration from the changes his mother’s work brought about and added his own detail to it, “Again, that’s what drew me to what my mom was doing, all the work she put in was getting attention and she was making a difference. I could easily see how much people appreciated the work she was doing and willing to help her to force the government to make changes for the betterment of these people. In my own career, I’ve relied on one motivation and that is when I write these stories a sense of justice is shared, more importantly the subjects’ sense of justice is shared”.  Justice is shared accompanied with love, thoughts, and prayers too! 

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