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Fast Talk: David Alan Harvey

Ever since his first trip to the Yucatán, where he waded through the jungle, machete in one hand, camera in the other, photojournalist David Alan Harvey has been addicted to the people and places associated with the Spanish Diaspora. Over the past 30 years, he has juggled magazine and newspaper assignments that sent him to Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Cuba, and Brazil (to name just a few), in order to capture on film the hearts and minds of the afflicted people. In his new book, Divided Soul (Phaidon), Harvey's 110 photographs—taken during assignments for National Geographic and the New York Times—take you on a voyage through time and place telling tales of sadness and hope.

1. When did you first become interested in the Spanish Diaspora, the subject of your new book, Divided Soul?
It was on my first foreign assignment, on the Mayan Culture in the Yucatán. I fell in love with the indigenous population and started to study the history. I became very upset when I learned of the conquest when the Spanish came here and burned all the books and subjugated the people. Originally I thought that the Spaniards must not be very nice, but that all changed when I went to Spain and saw the other side of the fence. In a non-linear way I tell 15 or so stories throughout the book that involve three cultures: the Spanish, the Africans who were brought as slaves to the New World, and the indigenous population. What's interesting is that the shot we chose for the cover, a man in a church, was the oldest photograph in the book. I took it on that first assignment.

2. How did the language barrier affect your ability to work with the people you met?
Speaking Spanish, although mine is not perfect, was immeasurably important. I only wish I spoke Portuguese as well. It gave me an insight into the culture—the way people speak tells you a lot about the way people are. I didn't know any Spanish when I first started. So I just learned the language on the street as fast as I could.

3. What do you typically bring with you on assignment?
I travel really light and about the same way, from a logistic standpoint, whether I am going for two weeks or two months. I usually have a few extra camera bodies, in case one breaks or is stolen. The writers I travel with always pack more than I do, but I can wash my clothes in the bathtub with the best of them. I try to minimize my impact on the subject, and minimize its impact on myself.

4. You have spent a lot of time in Third World countries, including Communist Cuba. Have local authorities ever interfered with your work?
Not really, and I think that is partly because I travel so light. Everything I bring is a wrapped in a towel in my duffel bag. My Leica cameras look like World War II combat cameras, so I don't send off any red flags. I've been interrogated a few times, especially in Cuba, because I like to hang around for extended periods of time in order to get to know the people and places. That's always suspicious activity in a lot of countries. Somebody would tip the police off that I had been back to a particular place many times. In Cuba, there are watchmen on every block—a kind of tattletale system of surveillance. Everybody is an amateur policeman. I was picked up and brought to the police station. The men questioning me couldn't figure out why I would come back to the same house three times in a row. I told them, "Well, I need the light" or "I am trying to catch a moment," but that made no sense to them. It helps that I have proper credentials and I always carry one of my books or a magazine to show them. I was always released with a handshake.

5. What resources do you use to prepare for an assignment?
I do my homework before I go. I read all the guidebooks. These days, I get everything off the Internet. I read what the New York Times and Travel + Leisure have reported. When I went to Uruguay recently I brought T+L's piece on the gauchos. I also try to find a novel that was written about the area because that is another kind of truth. Before I went to Mexico I read D.H. Lawrence; I read Gabriel García Márquez before South America; and I always re-read Hemingway before I go to a place he wrote about.

6. All of the subjects in your book look so natural. How did you approach people and keep them comfortable while shooting?
I subscribe to the Henri Cartier-Bresson school of unobtrusive photography. The biggest difference between Henri and myself is that Henri took the theory to an extreme—I don't think he communicated with anybody. I interact with people a lot and get a natural picture that way. By hanging out with families, grocery store owners, and so on, I get into situations that I wouldn't get into if I were only a fly on the wall. I try to find a place that represents the microcosm of the whole situation and hang out for a long period of time. I don't just show up, take a picture, and then leave. I show up, have a beer, drink a cup of coffee, do whatever I have to do to get to know the people. Most of the time I can feel the situation out, and tell if someone wants to be photographed or not. I sometimes ask permission to go inside somewhere and then look the person in the eye to see if it is okay. I also do a lot of work around fiestas, without even photographing the event, because it is quicker to gain access to people in those kinds of situations.

7. Has anyone been upset when you have photographed them?
I can think of only one time, and it was a guy who had been drinking, and he was with a woman who he was not supposed to be with. And he wasn't in the picture anyway. He must have been a block away from what I was focusing on.

8. Do you think people will be able to relate to your photographs, even if they don't know much about the diaspora?
I like to find a picture situation that is something anybody could relate to—a little moment, gesture, slice of life that anybody could look at and recognize. For example, there is a picture in the book of a little boy bouncing a ball off his head, showing off for his girlfriend in the background. I am always doing these autobiographical shoots. I saw myself in that picture. Some of the pictures are exotic, because they are different, but I look for the magic in the everyday.

9. You have been working on this project for almost three decades. During that time, have you seen a big change in the way we travel, or how people view Americans abroad?
Even before the situation in Iraq, I've watched things erode. When I first started traveling 25 years ago, there was more of a welcoming mood. That has slowly deteriorated. Who knows what will happen in the future, where we will be able to go, or where we will be safe?The one thing I have learned is that while many people claim to dislike Americans, what they really mean is that they have a distaste for the government and foreign policy, but get along fine with its citizens.

10. Do you have any tips for traveling photojournalists?
Travel light. I have students walk into my class with three cameras, a Domke vest, tripods, light meters—they scream, "I am a photojournalist." Get rid of that stuff, because you're going to knock over babies in the marketplace. I encourage travelers and professionals to consider their impact on the subject. Also, everyone should do their homework. I've seen people who are traveling and don't know how to deal with the culture or know what's polite and impolite. Finally, don't think that the subjects are there for your benefit. They are real people leading real lives. You wouldn't go climbing over your next door neighbor's fence to take a picture through the window, but people do that when they are traveling.

Interviewed by Hillary Geronemus

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