By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Them vs. Us, and Beyond

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The upper photograph of mine, below, is featured on the cover of the March 2012 issue of The Sun magazine, which, according to its website, “is an independent, ad-free monthly magazine that for more than 30 years has used words and photographs to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human.” You can sample over 50 of my photographs which have appeared on Sun covers and inside the magazine on my website here. Below the magazine cover is another photograph I took of two Yemeni children.

In 1964, when I first arrived in Beirut (where I would be based for two years as a photojournalist), I met Dana Schmidt, the New York Times Middle East bureau chief, who asked me to accompany him on a journey to Cairo, Yemen, and Aden. From Sana’a, Yemen, we traveled north toward a tribal civil war then raging between the Royalists (backed by the Saudis) and the Republicans (backed by the Egyptians). The country was extremely undeveloped in those days. We met this man on the road north. He wore his curved dagger as a traditional emblem of manly power. Stuck in his headband was a sprig of khat, a mild narcotic plant chewed by most Yemeni men in the afternoons to induce a state of semi-stupor. The photo is reproduced in my book, Causes and Spirits.  The full un-cropped print, made in my darkroom, includes the long-abandoned ruins of a castle on the hill behind the man.

In the 48 years since taking these pictures along with hundreds of others across the region, I have often reflected how long it is taking the Americans (and the British before them) to begin to comprehend the intricacies and staying power of tribal relationships throughout the Middle East and Asia — and to understand the near-futility of trying to transform these insular societies, in our lifetimes, into Western-style democracies.

Tribalism is an innate human survival mechanism. The impulse to cluster together in small bands must have embedded itself in the human brain over thousands of years of evolution. Straying beyond boundaries meant getting eaten by animals or killed by competing tribes. So, those with strong in-group affinities were selected to survive. That is my view and that of the neo-Darwinian “evolutionary psychology” movement.

Equally crucial, among these societies, I experienced traditional patterns of human relationship and economic cooperation. Mate selection, child rearing, home management, land management, animal husbandry, trading networks and handed-down occupations are elaborately codified in language, ritual, and religion to form a tightly woven fabric deeply resistant to change from within or without. Since the dawn of recorded civilization, the peoples across this vast stretch of territory, stretching from the Nile Valley across the Fertile Crescent and over to the Indus Valley, have developed complex strategies of thriving internally while resisting external threats. Layers of cohesiveness bind in-groups together in a quilt-like diversity of languages, faiths, pride and identity. Like many another outsider, I was greeted with extraordinary warmth, underwritten by strong customs of sharing and hospitality. The poorest among my hosts were often the most generous. However, ostracism — or worse —  faced one of their own whose attitude or behavior might undermine in-group cohesion.

We westerners have all experienced schoolyard cliques, ethnic slights, religious and social superiorities/inferiorities, countless other  in-group/out-group expressions overt and subtle, right down to the class warfare sometimes implicit in the Presidential debates. Nationalism is a way of belonging, as is the nuclear family. But now there are strong forces, worldwide, working working to dissolve all forms of group affinity. These include major trends such as the spreading demands for personal equality and religious liberty, the toppling of dictators, and the globalization of commerce and travel. Digital transmission may enable  tribal chatter, but it also seeds the rapid dissolution of all sorts of boundaries worldwide. Deeply rooted instincts are now confronted by commercial facts on the ground, and seamless communications in the air. The pictures of conflict I took in the Middle East, armed with Leicas and  press credentials, are now being supplanted by gritty videos shot by ordinary citizens wielding their i-Phones.

Like it or not, appropriate or inappropriate, this is how the world is going. I welcome your comments.

Yemen, 1964

children in Yemen, 1964

Above: children in Yemen, 1964

Written by bywilliamcarter

November 25, 2015 at 11:10 am

Happy Accidents Part 2

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When I was fooling around with my first digital camera several years ago, I tried auto focusing on my hand, then snapped the picture.  The photo somehow refused to go away, and kept popping up in my files.  Unlike others in the book I was preparing in 2009, it would not fit in that sequence, but like an unruly child still demanded attention, until I hit on using as a soft pattern across both “end papers” – the sheets just inside the hard covers.  What could be more implicit in ones destiny?


The Palm of My Hand

“The Palm of My Hand,” photograph © William Carter 2001-2010, as used in Causes and Spirits, 2011

Click here to see other examples of photographs in Causes and Spirits.

Written by bywilliamcarter

November 10, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Happy Accidents Part 1

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Bunnie Meade

Above: Bunnie Meade, subtitled “The Eminent Lady Clarinet Soloist,” turned up in the bin of a junk store in New Orleans. I could never learn any more about the winsome Madame Meade, so she never made it into my book on New Orleans jazz: “Preservation Hall” (W.W. Norton, 1991).

“If you break eggs – make an omelet.”

That old saying is good advice in life — being able to turn a negative into a positive is a creative response.

Similarly, a famous book by the cultural writer, Joseph Chilton Pearce, was called The Crack in the Cosmic Egg. Essences seep from seismic shifts.

The same can be true in the arts. “Accidental” has a particular, narrow meaning in music. Beyond that  are wider applications — especially in jazz. An improvising jazzman is bound to stumble now and then. Hitting a “clunker” means playing a wrong note outside the chord progression. Sometimes a quick-minded response can save the day: re-framing the phrase, or making the bad note part of a longer statement, or an accompanist quick-fixing the chord to suit, or recovering with good humor the way we sometimes do if we accidentally use the wrong word in everyday conversation.

Accidents can become a creative force in photography. One feature of my first three books (on Ghost Towns, the Middle West, and New Orleans Jazz) was to blend my own photos with historical ones. I loved researching old pictures in public archives. In the early 1970s I drove a camper across ten states, scouring the land looking for remnants of the early mining booms which had helped blast open the West. Here and there I would pause to comb local historical files. It was a kind of mining in itself. Spend a day, see maybe a thousand prints, feel great to find one that may make it into the book. There is a “happy accident” quality in this kind of research: staying open to the unexpected: the oddball treasure may not quite fit, but may inspire you to bend the narrative  to make room for it. Reproduced here are a couple of fun obscurities that I always wanted to print but had never found space for.

Indiana Bell Telephone

Fashionable employment in a town in rural America, 1920’s: I struggled to find a place for this shot in my book, “Middle West Country” (Houghton Mifflin, 1975), but never did.

Happy accidents are a breath of fresh air. But when you break eggs, how do you respond? That’s the key.

America’s Funniest Home Videos would be nothing if people didn’t spot and send in those homespun howlers. With only seconds to spare in the fading light, and only one exposure left in his camera, that ultimate plan-ahead craftsman, Ansel Adams, jammed on his car brakes, jumped out and grabbed his most famous photo, “Moonrise Over Hernandez.”

Fresh realms of re-interpretation have been opened by the transition from film to digital. My print, “Persepolis,” started life as a black-and-white negative. Following a trip through Iran in 1998, I had made a set of quick 4×6 proofs but neglected to properly “fix” them in the darkroom. Eleven years later, I was chagrined to find many had faded and/or acquired brownish streaks. One proof caught my eye. It had inadvertently become streaked with a haunting, 19th-century sort of patina. To preserve it, I scanned the little print. Then I blew it up. This “omelet” ended up in two states, in two sizes, now in limited editions, and the “state 1” image occupies a two-page spread in my new book, Causes and Spirits (Steidl, 2011). One of the larger sized State 1’s — 48 inches wide — now graces the wall of our dining room (see below).

Persepolis, Iran

Persepolis, Iran (State 1) Inkjet print 1998-2009

Persepolis women only

Persepolis, Iran (State 2), Inkjet print, 1998-2009

Written by bywilliamcarter

October 28, 2015 at 2:00 pm

Loyalty on Loan

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A young friend of mine served with distinction as a U.S. Marine Corps officer in both Afghanistan and Iraq, working closely with the local tribal fighters. He told me that in those areas, “loyalty is loaned.”  That was a couple of years ago.  I’ve thought about his observation ever since, as the press reports roll in about the ever-shifting sands of the Middle East.

Another well-known quote haunts me: “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.”  [see for example The Kurdish Project and the fine book by David L. Phillips, The Kurdish Spring (2015).]

Take a look at this 1835 map of autonomous Kurdish areas alone.  Perhaps not coincidentally, those were the days of European-based colonialism. In its wake the West continues to try replacing tribal affinity with “nation building,” while increasing numbers of those directly involved have given up on the chaos and are risking their lives heading for Europe.


Written by bywilliamcarter

October 6, 2015 at 2:08 pm

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The Tones of Stones

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Sometimes, in our wanderings across the landscape of ancient Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, my wife Ulla and I would stumble into a silent, ancient amphitheater. Persuaded to try my clarinet in that dry air, I’d soon be assured that even the softest tones carried well into the high rows.

Ulla and I treasure such sweet memories. But now they are jarred with bitter undertones —  endless war, brutal destruction at such magnificent sites as Palmyra.

Below, our sentimental snaps of twenty years ago have an implicit simplicity, a clarity of tone hard to recall today.






Written by bywilliamcarter

September 11, 2015 at 4:41 pm

Unchanging Greece

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greece1Months ago, when Egypt blanketed the western news, our friend Ginny Papadopoulo contributed accounts of real life on the ground in that troubled nation. Now — with the Greek banking crisis grabbing world headlines — Ginny is reinstalled in her modest home on a Greek island, and has sent us this achingly personal memoir of her life there.

Ginny writes: It is hard to believe I wrote this almost twenty years ago. I never gave it to Michael. So much of what I wrote is still here in the villages; people and customs. I am happy I was able to fulfill my dream, even if it is alone.

Images of Greece that Will Never Leave Me

by Ginny Papadopoulo

Lying behind shuttered windows at midday waiting for the heat of the sun to be drawn from my naked body.

The only sounds are the cicadas interrupted chorus, and the solitary cry of the gypsy selling his wares.

A quiet walk through a village street which leads to a square that is covered with a blanket of shade that offers a small table with two chairs, black sweet coffee hotter than the day, and a moment undisturbed by anything but your own thoughts.

Black interior of a church whose door is open to all, and the only light is reflected off the gold that adorns the icon on a far wall. The haze of incense and candle smoke so thick you can cut it.

The colors of Greece are a blinding balance of white upon white, then suddenly a blue door or window holding back fear and superstition. Walls of terra-cotta that balance so beautifully as they cut through a blue sky untouched by a single cloud.

An island. The top of a hill. A building identifiable only by the symmetry of a half buried foundation of ancient marble slabs. An endless view of the sea which conjures up a villa with cool dark rooms that open in every direction to the Aegean Sea. A view so sweeping that the sight of a small fishing boat draws your eye like a magnet, to hold you hypnotized with thoughts of a solitary man pulling in his nets, as he has done forever. A walk around this imaginary home where life is created, and lived for the moment, with such clarity and hope, that the only thing that draws you back to reality is the glint of the sun on a tiny object. A half buried key so ancient it fuels your imagination and hope. The key is kept close as a talisman which will bring you back to finish this dream one day.

The evening sun is setting and the heat of the day is pulled from the earth.  The smell of the sea, smoke and fish drift around you. A calmness pervades, which pulls the tension from your body towards the sinking sun, and another day has escaped before you can lock its memories away for another day and time when all you have are the memories.

Watching the light disappear and night slowly approach holds you in a moment of anticipation. Will this last forever? A fear so deep inside doesn’t let you answer the question.

How to describe the people. One thought. One idea. A thousand thoughts and a thousand ideas. Driving through a mountain village. Men sitting in the doorway of a kafenion, never taking their eyes off you and never revealing their mistrust or suspicion. Women in black and their heads covered, divert their eyes and dart into doorways to stare out, observing your naked arms and flowing hair, as you laugh out loud to break the silence. When eye contact is finally forced by you, two thousand years of culture block any hope of understanding. You drive away sadly wishing you could pull them into the present. Anything to find a common ground for understanding. We are not so different. We love, fear, dream, and hope for the same things.

Every thing about Greece draws me back to the sea. Walking into the water so cold on my legs, and the sun so hot on my back. Watching you swim with strong pure strokes, then walking towards me, and as you rise from the water the hair on your chest is covered with diamonds. I laugh to myself at the pure innocence on your face and the happiness in your eyes. What was it that gave you a moments reprieve from your torment of mistrust and suspicion? Why could I never hold on to those profoundly beautiful moments for more than a blink of my eye. Knowing it is hidden so deeply inside and never to be shared, deepens the grief I feel at my loss.

An ancient key must be two peoples’ dream to become reality.

Near Hydra, Greece circa 1955
Photographs by William Carter

Written by bywilliamcarter

August 16, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Versions of Ourselves

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I am as addicted to digits as the next person. But my caring comes from elsewhere.

Culture wars, like other wars, take their toll.  Unexpected outcomes flow into our sinews and, welcome or not, affect our feelings and expressions.

I grew up in a town dedicated to change — in an era summed up in the famous motto of a leading corporation, “Progress is our most important product.”  Postwar LA, powered by newborn defense industries, famous for its movies, a thinly peopled, dry basin lacking deep cultural roots, facing the vast Pacific, was perfectly placed for the unfettered growth and change that was soon underway.

My own personal model was the opposite.  I sought permanent values, humaneness, the depths not the surfaces.  Spiritual affirmation — particularly in the arts. So, physically and mentally, I went the other way from LA.  The older tradition of great West Coast photographers had inspired me, but by the 1960s I needed to move on from there to places like New York, London, the Middle East and India – where close-up tenderness and long-term values still seemed alive and honored.

In California there were plenty of photographers of the old school to inspire me. But their dynamic was gradually being eclipsed. Although not particularly “outgoing,” I did go out. I developed the unfashionable notion that the role of the artist was not to stand off and snipe at the ugly aspects of world, but to offer a positive alternative: in that most unfashionable of words — beauty.  In an era beset by counter-cultural attack modes, I remain a counter-revolutionary.

The two photographs below, by Struth and Cunningham, are well-known offerings of contrasting states of soul.  Which would you rather hold close?


Thomas Struth, “String Handling," SolarWorld, Frieberg 2011 Thomas Struth, “String Handling,” SolarWorld, Frieberg 2011


Imogen Cunningham, “The Unmade Bed,” 1957 Imogen Cunningham, “The Unmade Bed,” 1957

Written by bywilliamcarter

August 3, 2015 at 12:00 pm


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