JOHN MCCONNICO, THE SOUTH Asia photo editor for the Associated Press, graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor of journalism degree in 1987 and received his master’s degree in 1994. Since 1993 he has covered events including the U.S. invasion of Haiti; eight hurricanes; the burial of Che Guevara in Cuba; Pope John Paul II in Cuba and India; the Guatemala coup; elections in El Salvador, Guyana, Panama, Nicaragua, India, and Sri Lanka; the Maoist movement and the royal massacre in Nepal; earthquakes in Afghanistan and India; the Kumbh Mela in India; and the exodus from Kosovo to Macedonia. In 1999 he won a Pulitzer prize in spot news photography for his photo of the U.S. Embassy bombing in Nairobi, Kenya.
texasmonthly.com: How long have you been working for the Associated Press? When did you move to India and why?
John McConnico: I have worked for AP since 1993. I started in Panama, then went to El Salvador and covered Central America from 1993 to 1994. In 1994 I moved to Puerto Rico and covered mostly Haiti and Cuba from there, the northern parts of South America, and a lot of hurricanes. In 1998 I moved to India, feeling I had seen most of Latin America. Mostly I wanted to see a different part of the world, so I accepted the job without ever having been to India or to Asia, for that matter. I knew that, visually, it was as stimulating as any place on earth and that was enough for me.
texasmonthly.com: Have you adjusted to living there? What is a typical day like for you?
JMC: I have very much adjusted to living here, and in fact, most ask if I will be able to adjust to living outside India. My girlfriend, Sandie, and I have a cook and a housekeeper, so many of the things one takes for granted here are a big hassle in the West. Twice weekly massages are not bad either. I am sick more often than not with one form of parasite or another, but you just work through that, knowing how great the reward generally is at the end of the day.
texasmonthly.com: What do you look for when you take a photo?
JMC: Most of what I look for in pictures is the expression on someone’s face, or a simple moment which makes a piece of the story easy to understand in one frame. Photographers do not really have the luxury of allowing the story to play itself out in several frames, so you have to get it right in one generally, because that is what the papers are going to use. Many times you convey a pretty large idea with one picture, and so you just have to do the best you can to tell the story as accurately as possible with what you are given. A lot of photographers talk about moments, but the longer you do it, the more you push it, and the more you look for moments within moments, so that when you do get it right, it is like a good film, or a wine, or a symphony. Obviously that does not happen very often, but it’s what you aim for each time you go out.
The two photos used in “You Are There”—”Flagtear” and “Women in Burqas”—are good examples of how every situation is different and that there is no cut and dried way to shoot pictures, or to approach your subjects. During protests, it is often best to dive right in and become part of the flow of what the protesters have created. When they move toward you, you instinctively move with them. If you don’t become part of the flow, you get pretty frustrated and often end up getting hit or trampled. You see a few photographers who want a protest to happen a certain way, and they often end up getting unusable pictures, or worse, set on fire by a burning effigy that has gone out of control. The protests got a little dicey at times because of the way I look, and I am a symbol of the people they feel have wronged them. You try to keep your eye on the viewfinder as much as possible and ignore what they are saying, but most of the time the hair is standing up on the back of your neck and you get a kind of sick feeling that something terrible is about to happen. You don’t even need to know the language to understand that they are saying to kill all Americans.
As for the more quiet pictures, obviously the key is to blend in as well, but in a different way than the protests. Mainly it is about patience and expressions or maybe the look in someone’s eye. Jim Nachtwey, who is considered more or less the top photojournalist of our generation, will stand for hours and hours in one place until he has gotten the picture he wants. And frankly, most of us are not that patient. In Haiti I drove past Jim on a road next to a market at six in the morning and then came back at nine; he was still in exactly the same place and same position. Clearly he knows what he wants and refuses to leave without it. He is also an avid fisherman, and I would say it shows.
texasmonthly.com: What kinds of photos were you taking before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers? What about now?
JMC: The pictures from India now and after the attacks are pretty much the same, though my view of the world, like almost everyone’s I would guess, has changed. India remains a real constant, as it has been here for thousands of years and will be here for thousands more. So, in a way, it felt a little like home when I came back here after six weeks in Pakistan and on the Afghan border.
texasmonthly.com: How long were you in Pakistan and from what time frame? What was a typical day like when you were in Pakistan?
JMC: I arrived in Pakistan the day after the attacks after an intense twenty-four hours of trying to get a plane ticket and a Pakistan visa. I was at the gym in New Delhi when it happened, and as soon as the second plane hit, I went to the locker room, got my stuff, and started packing for Pakistan. We all pretty much knew right away it was bin Laden or someone close to him, and the entire press corps from India was on the plane that next day to try to get into Afghanistan. Then the protests began to happen, and every morning I woke up at four, not because I needed to, but because of the nervous energy. I was mostly in Peshawar, the center of the ethnic Pashtun community in Pakistan, and because of their closeness to the Taliban, the energy level and the anti-American sentiment at the protests was high. During the first few days, there were not many journalists there, and those of us who were there stuck together as much as possible. When a mob gets angry, it will turn on a small group, but if there are seven or eight, they tend to leave you alone. So we mostly traveled in convoys around the city in the first weeks and treated one another more as traveling companions than as competitors. Hours were long and diversions were few, with the exception of the Gulbar at the Pearl Continental in Peshawar. And that is where we spent the later part of the nights—in a drab, undecorated cell block of a bar. They had rum, though, and that tended to take the edge off things.
texasmonthly.com: Did you tell people you were American? Why or why not?
JMC: In this climate, never tell anyone you are an American at a protest—Canadian or Swiss works best. I am certainly not ashamed of it, but it would make doing your job next to impossible. I was learning French when all of this started, so I used a lot of that to explain to confused zealots that I was from Montreal and that I did not speak English.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think about when you are photographing something? Are you trying to tell a story? Take an award-winning photo?
JMC: I just try to represent the story as honestly as I can. You do look for drama or something that will grab people’s attention, but never at the cost of telling the story accurately. As for the awards, you cannot worry too much about them. I have won a couple, but they were almost always for pictures that I did not expect to win. Plus, many of us forget that the picture belongs to no one. If it belongs to anyone at all, it is to the subject of the picture.
texasmonthly.com: Have you ever been afraid for your life while on the job? If so, would you elaborate?
JMC: Journalists inevitably fear for their lives a few times during their careers, some more than others because they are in harm’s way more than others. I think it is directly related to how much you choose to put yourself in bad situations. I am not one to put myself in a bad spot too often, but sometimes it just happens. There is a lot of dark humor among journalists, particularly the photographers. The most popular one is that dead photographers take lousy pictures. We are not there to be martyrs, but you want to get as close to what is really happening as possible; sometimes that involves going places or doing things you would not ordinarily do. Jerome Delay, our photographer in Paris, is always at the very center of the storm, but I think he does it well because his instincts are so good, and he is so fluid in dangerous situations. Personally speaking, I probably look more like a cornered dog than a warrior when things get bad, but I often use that to empathize with what the subjects of my pictures are going through. So I guess it works both ways. The beauty of it is that there is no one way to do it and different types excel in different situations.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of camera do you use? Why?
JMC: I use Canon if for no other reason than that is what I have always used. I doubt I would ever change, because it is now like an extension of my hand and I know where everything is. It is kind of important the same way as wearing shoes you like is important, but nothing more than that. I am not big on gear. It is just a tool, like anything else. What is in your head and in your heart is a lot more important. I could probably take more or less the same pictures with a cheap point and shoot.
texasmonthly.com: Do different images require different types of equipment?
JMC: Yes. But not in photojournalism, for the reasons listed above. Fashion photographers, fine art photographers, and perhaps documentary photographers are much more reliant on their cameras. All I want is something that will keep shooting after I have dropped it down a flight of stairs. I don’t want to belittle what we do, but wire photographers are certainly the grunts of the business, and we just want the camera that will get the job done in less than ideal situations. You want to be able to forget the camera and just see through it.
texasmonthly.com: Have you ever had your camera taken away? Your film? If so, would you elaborate?
JMC: My camera has been taken away several times and usually the film is taken. If you know it is coming, you just put a dummy roll in and make a huge stink about it when they take that roll. Most of the cretins that take cameras from you are not intelligent enough to understand that there may be other rolls of film or that the roll you gave them is blank.
texasmonthly.com: Looking at your photos from Pakistan, it is easy to see that you’ve seen many people in pain, people who are hungry, suffering, and angry. How do you keep a perspective on your job?
JMC: Seeing people suffer all the time has an almost anesthetizing effect, especially when you live in India. You try to never become cynical about it, and in fact, when I am feeling sort of down or confused about the state of the world, I go down to a slum on the Yamuna River—not to make myself feel better, but to give the people who see my pictures perspective about how bad others have it. There is so little of that these days, as we spend more and more of our time in front of computers, DVDs, televisions, and Sony Play Stations. People should occasionally go out and see how bad things are for others, the ones at the bottom of the heap. We are all the same species, but often it does not feel that way. So in a way, that is my contribution. Even if you are in front of your computer, maybe you can get a bit of a glimpse of what that person’s life is like and understand how blessed we are to have a simple thing like a roof over our heads.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think photographers take too many risks? Why or why not?
JMC: Some photographers do, some don’t. It all depends on how far you want to push the envelope. Ninety-five journalists have been killed so far this year, and 86 were killed last year. That sounds pretty high to me. In the span of three weeks, 8 journalists were killed in Afghanistan, and those numbers are just absurd. No story is worth your life.
texasmonthly.com: When did you decide to become a professional photographer? Do you remember the first photo you took?
JMC: The first picture I took was in England. My mom had given me a point and shoot and I seem to recall that most of the pictures taken with it were on self-timer as I whirled it around my head by the strap. So I guess I was off to an innovative start right from the beginning. I don’t really recall what any of the pictures looked like other than not much was recognizable as being England. I decided to become a photographer when it appeared I was not really exceptional at anything. I tried English, then economics, then a little philosophy, art history, and finally decided photography was the one thing that would allow me to join a lot of my interests. I thought, “How difficult could a degree in photography be?” I was a fairly lousy student and did not excel in my photography classes until pretty late. I took my first serious pictures when I was 21, and I developed pretty slowly because I was distracted by a lot of other things. I would say it took a good five years before I had anything that I would now consider to be even remotely decent.
I can remember the first picture I ever had published was a one column mug shot of some professor at UT. It appeared on page 5 of the Daily Texan. My name was so long that it ran beyond the width of the picture. I was enormously proud of it, though, and I ran around campus raiding the newsstands for every copy I could find. I must have had a hundred before I realized it was just a mug shot and that maybe I was capable of something even more grand than that.
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite photo you’ve ever taken? Why?
JMC: I am not sure I have one because I think I have yet to take it. Photographers are extraordinarily lucky in that the longer you do this, the better you seem to understand what it is that makes a good picture. So I would say my favorite is the last one I will take. That gives me something to aim for, I suppose.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
JMC: I think that the most important thing for photographers is not the pictures you take, but what you see and absorb along the way. I am remarkably fortunate that my job takes me places other people will never see. And I think most of us in the business lose sight of that eventually. The world seems to be more and more fractious these days, and perhaps a photographer’s duty is to bring it all back together. There is no language in photography, much like there is no language in art or in music, and so I think we have to use that to strike a common cord in everyone. Pictures throughout history have been used to start wars and to end them. And almost every photographer I know hopes that theirs will be used to help stop suffering, or at least give people an idea of what it is to go through something as terrible as war.