Santa Barbara News-Press

Friday, March 27, 1987

By Joan Crowder

A reporter is a hitchhiker on history.  People should pick you up and help you on your way, "said Kevin McKiernan, a free-lance photojournalist. 

McKiernan has traveled history's roads in Central America, the Philippines, and the American Indian country of the United States.  An exhibition of his recent photographs of Central America is on view through April 10 at UCSB's College of Creative Studies Gallery.

The photographs in this show were taken in refugee camps, battlefields, hospitals, homes and hideouts in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.  Their focus is on people, from a dramatic march of mothers of "the disappeared ones" in El Salvador, to a truckload of Guatemalan refugees being forcibly relocated in Mexico.  After McKiernan took the latter photo, he was deported from Mexico.

While these are storytelling pictures, they are at home in the gallery.  McKiernan's eye is not only journalistic, but artistic as well.  A shot of two El Salvador Treasury Police, photographed from inside a car, is a carefully constructed composition, interesting visually as well as for its content.

A picture of The Voice of Nicaragua loudspeaker on a bare white wall is an abstract composition, with the letters on the speaker telling the story.

In an interview at the gallery, the photographer, whose work appears in Newsweek, the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor, talked about the risks and rewards of his profession.

"One of the reasons the situation in Latin America is misunderstood," said McKiernan, "is that you can't find out what's going on by visiting an area for a day or two."

McKiernan said he has taken a dozen trips to Latin America, and he still finds that his best pictures come after he's been there awhile.  "If I go for a month, my best photos are taken in the last week.  You need to be in the culture, to become sensitive to it.  You have to expend the manual labor of spending the time there."

He said the process is "subliminal, of getting into a natural rhythm" with the people, the situations.

"You have to get away from the cities, out in the country, away from normal expectations.  When you start to believe that you look like everybody else and lose your self-consciousness, then you are able to get close."

McKiernan did get close.  For example, all of the photos in the show were taken with a wide-angle lens, and only two were cropped, and those for technical rather than visual reasons.

The photographs are mounted on board, unmatted, unframed.  McKiernan said he didn't want anything to detract from the photo itself.

"Photography is a matter of capturing a moment," McKiernan said.  He called it a process of putting in your time and then synchronizing your instincts with what is happening.

Some of the most effective photographs in the exhibition do just that.  A shot of a group from a citizens' militia in Nicaragua practicing with weapons includes a telling mix of two girls, a man and an old woman.

Another captures an impromptu but intense dance in a Managua marketplace.

And, on a battlefield, after the battle, a Sandinista soldier, eating an orange, passes by the body of a Contra soldier.

McKiernan said he has been in combat situations with both sides in the Nicaraguan conflict.  He has had his cameras confiscated and his film taken, but he said dealing with authority is the same all over the world.

"All governments lie," he said.  "They all have a PR (public relations) side, the one they want you to see.  As a reporter, you have to find the truth."  He said working with police or government authority in Latin America isn't really much different from trying to cross a yellow police line at the scene of a crime in this country.

"As a reporter you have a certain amount of power," he said, "and that makes it easy to delude myself into taking chances."

McKiernan began his journalistic career as a broadcaster on public radio stations in Minnesota, then turned to writing.  He covered the elections in El Salvador for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and did an investigative story about a murder trial for the New York Times.  This story involved research on the events surrounding the murder of an Indian woman.

He did stories on Central America for the Washington Post and Mother Jones magazine, and photo assignments for the Christian Science Monitor.  One of the photographs while he took while writing a story on the Catholic Church in Nicaragua for Mother Jones appears in the most recent edition of U.S. News and World Report.

He said there are several approaches to free lancing.  "You can propose a story, and they may ask for a different one, so you go with it.  Or you can do yours anyway, and see what happens."

McKiernan has been focusing on Latin America since 1982, but he has had a continuing interest in the problems of the American Indian.  He was on the spot in the Dakotas and at Wounded Knee in 1975 when the American Indian Movement was at its militant peak, and he was there during the shootout when two FBI men were killed.  One of his photographs of that event appeared in Time magazine and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  Peter Mathiessen used McKiernan's stories and research from that period to write the book.  "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," a highly controversial report of those events.

Another example of being at the right place at the right time occurred when a Catholic bishop who had been critical of the Sandinistas disappeared about a year ago.  McKiernan had been the last person to interview the bishop.  CBS' Dan Rather purchased the interview from McKiernan.  The bishop was found alive, the interview wasn't aired, but McKiernan got paid for it anyway.

In the Philippines for Newsweek, McKiernan said he covered "Marcos' good-bye party."  He was there with his camera when "they were in the bedroom counting Mrs. Marcos' shoes."  He said he would like to go back and cover events in the Philippines now because changes are taking place so fast.

Currently, his major project is closer to home.  Working on a grant, he is co-producing a documentary film about Indians in the Black Hills area of South Dakota for PBS (public broadcasting).

He expects to return to Central America in May.

McKiernan's shift away from writing to photography was a gradual one.  He said he used to carry the camera in the trunk and the tape recorder in the front seat, then found that the camera was on the front seat and the recorder in the trunk.

"Pictures can tell a story," McKiernan said.  "A photographer is freed up, not restricted to the writer's needs."




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