Explore the intersections of photojournalism, social activism, and fine art photography through Los Angeles based photographer James Hayman’s Americas series.
James Hayman has become a recognizable name with a career as a film and television director, producer, and cinematographer. However, the Los Angeles based creator has gained a name as a fine arts photographer with an established career that altered the way we experience street photography. His work reframed day-to-day life not only in the United States but abroad. While his work centers around the use of black and white photography, an immense color and vitality of life emanate from each image.
Developing Street Art into Social Activism
Stemming back to his earliest days, Hayman embarked on the photojournalist route. Spending the early 1970’s assigned to some of the most prominent political events, he discovered his passions lie elsewhere. Moving away from the cynicism and chaos of the journalistic fields, he began studying film. Together, his distinctive photographic eye evolved intertwining the documentary style of photojournalism with a nuance of cinema creating a new take on street art photography. As his images peer into the lives of everyday people across the globe, these private, sometimes vulnerable, scenes spur a dialogue regarding social inequalities and activating change. Hayman shared with Tainted Magazine the evolution of his work into the iconic photographic practice existing at the intersection of documentation, fine art, and social activism.
TM: You have created an artistic practice that evolved from your roots in journalistic photography. As your career has evolved, how do you reconcile your photojournalistic approach with fine art photography?
JH: I think I always approached my work with the duality of photojournalism and fine art. With street photography, while finding images of the human tapestry, I also see my subjects in their environments. The attention to light and shadow and composition helps place those photojournalistic images in the arena of fine art.
TM: We have heard you describe your photographic work as capturing the “totality of the human experience within a single frame.” As an artist how do you achieve a reconciliation between the singularity of the moment while allowing the image to maintain its relevance into the future?
JH: While shooting I stay very much in the present, freezing moments in time. Once captured, while I am working with the image, I choose ones with a narrative that reflects their place in a continuum of time. Linking past, present, and future into that frozen moment.
TM: The work you create conveys a message of inspiring social change. How do you, personally, envision the role of the artist in activating change such as this?
JH: By capturing images of the underclass, those in need, I hope to shine a light on the world’s inequities for others to see. Having done that, I think it is just as important to then use both my images and my situation to actually help those in need. By offering my help to various charities as well as starting several of my own, both the images and my charitable work can help those very people and situations I am photographing.
TM: What was the inaugural event or experience that led you to utilize your lens for social activism, awareness, and change?
JH: When I think back on it, I was raised in a family that always saw the importance of helping those less fortunate than ourselves. I was taught that we are all of one universal family and that our moral code is to take care of each other not only on a familial level but on a societal one as well. Specifically, while I was doing disaster relief for the United Nations in Guatemala in 1976, I watched as the military withheld vast amounts of relief items (food, building materials, medicines) from the populace. I believe that was a harsh realization for me, and in fact a call to arms to social activism.
The Americas Series
This ‘call to arms’ Hayman experienced translated into one of his most profound and celebrated series, Americas. A collection of striking black and white images spanning multiple decades, Hayman explores countless lives of those across Central and North America. The works parallel his life. Beginning in the mid-1970s he put his photojournalistic roots into practice to document life with a new sense of cinematography. This journey commenced in Mexico, where he assembled a portfolio of images engaging experimental elements of street photography. During this time Guatemala was struck by one of the most catastrophic earthquakes. Hayman rerouted. His lens was activated to simultaneously document the historic devastation, but also to capture the sense of community and perseverance of the people impacted by the tragedy.
Hayman’s Americas continued as he returned home to the United States in the late-1970s. His newfound perspective towards the human condition, advancement of his techniques and skills, and the development of his signature style allowed him to capture daily life in the states in a manner that balanced the documentary and the cinematic. The Americas series elevates the relatable intimacy of unseen lives making it the iconic series it is known as today.
Americas: Guatemala, 1976
TM: In your Americas series we see your distinctive use of black and white photography. What drew you to utilize the black and white for this series?
JH: I grew up watching the old black and white movies of the 1930s and 40s., especially the westerns. My love for them set an artistic foundation for me. Years later, when I started practicing photography, black-and-white seemed the logical medium for me, both stylistically and economically. I could shoot, develop, and print my work in black-and-white much easier than in color. All that said, for this particular series, the minimalist stark qualities of black-and-white helps portray the narrative of these intersecting worlds, while adding a visual continuity to them.
TM: The work in this series spans across countries and continents photographing various communities of people. As you reflect back on the work you created across North, Central, and South America, what through lines did you see emerge and what distinct differences?
JH: As I look at those images with the perspective of time now, I see that no matter what part of the globe we find ourselves, we are one great family. No matter what economic or social level, no matter what country or state, humankind shares the same hopes and dreams. We all want to better ourselves, our conditions, we want to provide a better world for our children, and we want to live a moral existence. I believe my work captures those hopes and dreams, and serves to look forward to continuing to make the world a better place.
Reflecting on the Americas series highlights the universality of aspirations for a better tomorrow. Today, as we face divisive social, cultural, and political issues, we too must recognize these desires remain and exist across humankind. Hayman’s work inspires empathy, as we encounter those seemingly different from ourselves. His lens captures the familiar moments of struggle and trauma, but also acceptance and hope. We are confronted and forced to realize that despite borders, decades, and status we are all humans seeking a better world.