|Hundreds of square miles of Appalachian ridges, like this one in Madison, W.V., have been dismantled by mountaintop removal mining to reach the coal below. Mining companies are averse to overhead observation, and Kendrick had to go out of state to find a helicopter operator willing to take him there. Photo: © Robb Kendrick
“The soot that covers the coal-industry subjects featured in Robb Kendrick’s photographs practically spills off the page,” judges commented in unanimously awarding top photojournalism honors to the Texas-based freelancer in SEJ’s 14th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment last year. Kendrick’s five-image entry entitled “Coal’s Visible Impacts”originally appeared in National Geographic. Working on three different continents, the photographer, who is also known for his work in the historic tintype process, endured some of the most challenging conditions of his career to bring back the winning pictures. In a recent conversation with SEJournal photo editor Roger Archibald, Kendrick elaborated on the assignment, his background in photography and his life beyond the Geographic magazine. See the digital SEJournal (page 13) for more photos accompanying this story.
SEJournal: Tell us a little about how you came to be working for National Geographic.
Robb Kendrick: I attended East Texas State University studying photography, and got an internship at the Geographic in 1986. When I wasn’t photographing something they assigned me, I was showing my portfolio to anybody I could — photographers, editors — for feedback, and just worked hard and tried to make a positive impression.
SEJournal: What did you do following your internship? Did you immediately start working for the Geographic?
Kendrick: As soon as that internship was over, I started my own freelance business, and got assignments from [National Geographic’s] Traveler magazine and from the book division, but I was also working for a lot of magazines. I was very fortunate. Probably the first six months I was in business I was working twenty-two days a month. It was crazy right away, and I was also doing a little bit of commercial work, like annual reports, but that was pretty boring.
In 1989, the Geographic photography director called me, and asked if I wanted to do a story on the Gulf Coast from Florida all the way down to Mexico. And I told him I needed to think about it. At the time I was twenty-five, and it was going to be like a seven-month assignment. That was back in the days when these assignments were incredibly long. And I just told him, I really appreciate the confidence, but I really don’t have enough interest in the Gulf Coast of the U.S. to devote seven months of my life to it. It was probably the hardest thing to do, to be young and have a carrot right in front of you. As soon as I hung up the phone, I was thinking: I hope that wasn’t a mistake. But six weeks later, they called again and said, ‘How about going to Nepal and doing the first all-Sherpa ascent,’ and I said, ‘That sounds like something I’d like to do!’
To this day, I want to be interested in what I’m doing. The second job, [National Geographic] called up and asked me if I would go down to Antarctica.‘We’re not asking you,’ [the editors] said, ‘we’re telling you we need you to go.’ So I ended up doing that for six weeks. And then they called me six weeks later and asked me to go to Labrador up in Canada, and I just said, ‘I don’t live in Texas because I love the cold weather!’ I didn’t want to become pigeonholed, and the Geographic does start pigeonholing you. So I told them ‘no’ to Labrador, and then I got asked to do a story on rice, which was cultural, and commodity-based, and very complicated. It was twelve different countries around the world, and I just loved figuring out all the logistics.
SEJournal: Your travels to cover the coal story took you to a number of different countries and cultures. When you seek to get photographs of subjects like the Chinese coal workers, what’s your approach?
|At a coal terminal in China’s Shanxi Province, workers pick rocks from low-priced coal as it moves past on a conveyor belt. Kendrick had to sneak into such places to get pictures, and was repeatedly thrown out. Photo: © Robb Kendrick
Kendrick: In China, I did not go in with a journalism visa, because I didn’t want a Chinese minder. I just went in as a tourist. Traveling outside the U.S., you try to check your own perspectives, on what’s right and what’s wrong, at the door. A lot of times I’ve got my game plan of where I’m going and what I’m trying to accomplish, but I’m also always looking for interesting diversions along the way that might be more interesting. I’m always following my intuition.
The Chinese officials, of course, would not allow us anywhere near their coal production. The way I had to do it was basically go around locked gates. I ended up getting kicked out of their coal depot three or four times, but that’s the only way I could get any glimpse of anything there. [The coal story overall] was by far the hardest story I’ve ever done, because just about everywhere I went anywhere in the world I wasn’t welcome. And the first three weeks I was out there were just miserable. Every day it was just so hard to get a picture.
SEJournal: Your web site states, “I do NOT Facebook. I do NOT Linkedin. I do NOT blog. NO Flickr. NO Tumblr. What is Twitter?” Do you utilize any sort of social media?
Kendrick: Not at all. I’ve never tweeted or seen a tweet. I know what Instagram is supposed to do, but I’ve really never seen it. For me, I always just explain it like tools. We all have tools in our toolbox. It probably is a great tool for a lot of people. It’s just not for me. My life is not so interesting that I need to let you know what I’m doing every day, or send you a picture every day. But when I do send an e-mail or make a call, then I’m doing it because I feel like I have something important to say. I just choose not to use those other tools.
SEJournal: Is most of the work you do now for the Geographic, or do you have a mix of other clients you work with as well?
Kendrick: Eighteen months ago, I kind of put things on hold. I’ve done a few assignments, but I’ve basically pulled back from doing photography, not just at the Geographic, but with everybody. Over 28 years, I’ve invested in a lot of real estate and some other things that provide a level of income. I was always interested in having diversity. Photography was always financially good, but the last three years, it’s definitely gone down. It’s been a little odd, to tell you the truth. You build up a business for almost 30 years, and it treats you really well and gives you a lot of opportunities you could never dream of having. So it was hard the first few months to just kind of let it wither away a bit.
The good thing is I’ve had a lot of time to focus on my kids and my wife, a luxury that I haven’t had in the past. The last 12 months I’ve been so happy not dealing with day rates and rights. I still love photography and I still want to do it, but I have been so happy to be away from the white noise of the whole photojournalism world, and what it’s become with all these different ways of communicating.
SEJournal: Can you elaborate on some of the changes you’ve seen in photojournalism?
Kendrick: Magazines are in a tough environment these days. There are a lot of unrealistic expectations placed on photographers. Shoot stills, shoot video, gather audio, post to Instagram, Tweet, and do it all with no additional time or pay so they can run the content on all the different platforms. At some point you have to decide whether you’re a photographer or a multi-platform story content provider. Some say you have to accept these as conditions of the evolved work place. If you enjoy them, great! But if you feel you have to accept them, you’ll eventually be unhappy and your work will suffer.
There’s never been a bigger need or appetite for photography than today, and it just grows every day. But it’s a big belly needing to be filled, and it’s like fast food, just something to fill the void and not necessarily quality. There’s not a lot of photojournalism going on these days. Mainly photo illustration, even at National Geographic. I don’t even look at that much photography, because there’s so much of it out there that just looks the same.
SEJournal: What would be your advice to someone trying to go the same route you went, especially if they’re interested in doing environmental photojournalism?
Kendrick: Follow your own heart and your own passion and do things on your terms. If you work really hard and you have some talent, and you’re a person who really cares about things, you’ll be fine. Whether it’s economically viable anymore is another question. I don’t know about that. For a number of years I taught workshops, and I quit doing that because it’s hard to look at a kid coming out of school and say, ‘You know, if you work hard, have integrity, and you’ve got some talent, and you’ve got common sense about what you do with your finances, you’ll be able to afford a home, raise a family, save for retirement and maybe even help your kids with college.’ It’s a little hard to say that these days.
SEJournal: Do you anticipate that you’ll be doing any more work for the Geographic?
Kendrick: I don’t know, it’s really up to them whether I have value as an image maker or not. I’ve sought to work on projects that aren’t saddled with poor upfront planning or expectations, because once you accept an assignment, it’s all up to you. Instagram, tweeting and video are now required to get a magazine assignment, but since I don’t do social media, I’ve declined those assignments. I don’t judge anybody else, but for me it’s just a total waste of time. You have to realize if you are spending time doing these things, you are not taking photos.
I’ve now got a sculpture studio. I’m going to keep doing my photography, but I’m going to start doing welding and painting and other non-photographic creative things. I’ve basically decided this is the time I need to try the painting and the sculpture and see where it goes. What photography I do will just be more project-based.
SEJournal: What do you think is going to happen at the Geographic with all the recent changes there?
Kendrick: It’ll be interesting over the next two or three years to see how much it changes. It’s now owned by a for-profit entertainment company, and that’s a big difference from how it was founded. When you strip away so many of the people who took the [buy-out] package, who had this tremendous amount of experience and a high sense of integrity, what you replace them with will determine the future. I’m hopeful they won’t hire people with little experience for lower pay who just don’t know what journalism ethics are, and end up producing stories that look great but aren’t held to the highest standards that have been the backbone of National Geographic. Hopefully they’ll continue to meet all the readers’ high expectations from over the decades. It’s a great publication with so much good standing, but trust is hard to earn and easy to lose.
* From the quarterly news magazine SEJournal, Spring 2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.