March 27, 1987
HITCHER: EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY
By Joan Crowder
reporter is a hitchhiker on history. People should
pick you up and help you on your way, "said Kevin McKiernan,
a free-lance photojournalist.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
said the process is "subliminal, of getting into a
natural rhythm" with the people, the situations.
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."
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.
photographs are mounted on board, unmatted, unframed. McKiernan
said he didn't want anything to detract from the photo
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.
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.
captures an impromptu but intense dance in a Managua
on a battlefield, after the battle, a Sandinista soldier,
eating an orange, passes by the body of a Contra soldier.
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.
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.
a reporter you have a certain amount of power," he
said, "and that makes it easy to delude myself into
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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).
expects to return to Central America in May.
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.
can tell a story," McKiernan said. "A photographer
is freed up, not restricted to the writer's needs."