A photograph allows you the indulgence of staring," says photographer Charles Ledford.
And you'll want to stare. The fifteen selenium-toned fiber-based 16-by-20-inch prints in his show opening at The Warehouse this weekend are fleeting moments of visual clarity, poignant translations of the chaotic, three-dimensional world into the two-dimensional stillness of the photographic image.
Born in Asheville, North Carolina, Ledford worked as a photographer for his high school yearbook, and then set off to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to pursue his dream of going to medical school. But the science major changed paths when he was picked up as a photographer for the student newspaper. The job was all-consuming, and Ledford switched his major to journalism to facilitate what would eventually become his life's work.
His experience at the student newspaper led to his stringing for various news wires and then working with a host of national publications, international non-profit organizations and advertising agencies. The award-winning photojournalist, who's currently living in Colorado Springs, has been on assignment in more than 40 countries, has dined on bush rat in Benin, and has enjoyed fermented mare's milk in outer Mongolia. His subjects have been those affected by earthquakes in both Central America and Turkey, homeless glue-addicted kids in Nairobi, and the Maasai warriors in Kenya's Rift Valley, to name but a few.
"I always like to say that I make photographs," says Ledford. "Not only do you avoid the idea of taking something from someone, but you lift up the idea of the photograph being a collaborative process between the photographer and the person being photographed."
Ledford, on assignment with an international non-profit in Nairobi, collaborated with a group of boys who were homeless and addicted to sniffing glue. The boys slept on the street, sold marijuana and picked through the discards of a butcher shop to survive. Despite their great cultural divide, Ledford and the boys created images of anguish, despair, and -- yes -- beauty.
"Any time one goes to a foreign country you're bringing all sorts of things to that place that these folks may never have seen before or heard of," says Ledford of the interaction between him as a photographer and the people he collaborates with -- his subjects. "And as a photographer, you're fortunate to be able to bring back images of this place and these people that hopefully show folks here [not only] how different other places, people and customs can be, but also to show how common everybody's humanity is."
While working with a writer in the capital of Armenia after the 1988 earthquake, Ledford came to realize that cultural understanding and misunderstandings flowed in all directions. Armenians wanted to know why Americans considered them to be evil, representatives of the great Satan, recalls Ledford of being confronted personally for Ronald Reagan's political rhetoric. "And they met us, these two newspaper guys from Florida and got a more realistic picture. We were envoys of our culture to their culture."
While striving to affirm our common humanity, Ledford also seeks to instill a bit of discomfort in those who contemplate his images -- discomfort at the sheer divergence of the human condition, made extreme by the virtue of geography or the fickle nature of the world economy. Photography can force one to contemplate the seeming fate of a child born in a Central American country in the middle of a civil war versus one born in North America.
"We're taught you're not supposed to look at them and that you can cover your eyes," says Ledford of the homeless and drug-addicted children whose lives he examined and photographed in Nairobi. "You're not supposed to look at the unusual or the abnormal or something that makes you think, 'What am I doing living in the home I live in, eating the food I eat, and enjoying life the way I do, when people have to live like this person?'
"But in a photograph, you are confronted by it. And you are allowed to stare."
"Henri Cartier Bresson talked about the 'decisive moment,'" says Ledford of one of the original documentary photographers and of his own desire to record instances that are otherwise fleeting and gone. "There is a moment of action in which a composition comes together to reveal relationships between people, their emotional states and their environment. It is important to appreciate that photography is a way to preserve something that may be disappearing -- it is a visual record of our world."
Ledford recalls meeting Thomas Kennedy, the former director of photography for National Geographic, who had looked over some of the young photographer's work. Kennedy offered Ledford an incisive critique -- words the photographer has chosen to live by. "If you look at life as a dance," summarizes Ledford, "there are photographers who stand outside of the circle of people dancing and point their cameras in and take pictures. And there are photographers who step inside the dance and dance along with the world as it dances with them, and they photograph it. And those are the successful photographs -- the ones made from within the dance."
In his work, Ledford has taken simple photographic tools -- a 35 mm camera, a fixed lens and some light-sensitive celluloid -- and created unflinching documents from within the dance of life, images that both challenge and confirm our conflicted notion of the human condition.