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Picture Perfect
2004-11-01

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BY ANDREW DAVIS

Even though it's a compliment, to call Chicago-born photographer Michelle V. Agins accomplished would be giving her short shrift. Not only has she worked for several journals but she currently works for one of the world's best-known newspapers, The New York Times. Moreover, she has won many awards—not the least of which is the Pulitzer Prize.

From Oct. 22 to Dec. 15, Agins—along with photographer Michael Bracey—will be featured in an exhibit called 'Haiti: Two Stories' at Bethel Cultural Arts Center. She recently spoke with Windy City Times about everything from her early influences to the importance of bulletproof vests.

Windy City Times: You were born and raised in Chicago. What was that like?

Michelle Agins: It was a nicer time than it is now. I get bummed out when I go back and see only two houses standing [where I used to live].

WCT: How did you get interested in photography?

MA: I lost my mother at an early age and my grandmother was a little sick of me being under her feet, so she found something for me to do. She found a camera; cleaned it up; gave me a dollar; and told me to go to the drugstore at the corner ࿓st and Calumet) and ask the pharmacist to put some film in the camera. Well, that unleashed a whole new world for me. [Photography] then became a major addiction for me.

WCT: Do you remember the very first picture you took?

MA: It was of a puppy. My grandfather had an old dog but I also had a dog to keep me company. They figured that the old dog wouldn't do anything—but the last thing it did was my dog! [Laughs] Later, I took a black-and-white picture of a puppy that was born.

I would also take pictures around the neighborhood. I would photograph folks on the street, including gang members. It was interesting.

WCT: You've worked for a few magazines, including Jet, Ebony, and Sports Illustrated ...

MA: I did freelance work for those magazines. Sports Illustrated was like within the last 10-15 years. [I worked for] Ebony, Jet, and the Chicago Defender when I was growing up. I actually started as a copy girl for The Chicago Daily News; that's where I got my foot in the door. Believe me, I've paid my dues.

WCT: What has been the worst assignment you've had?

MA: Which time? [Laughs] Since I've been with the Times, the 129th Street [in New York City] project stands out in my mind. It was a year-long project about a neighborhood [infested] with guns and drugs. [The reporter and I] got in with everybody but it took a while. The women [in the neighborhood] that the reporter talked to thought I was cool—and that helped me. In that year, I became so embedded that I became closer to the subjects than the reporter did. She actually got scared because it got really heavy; I got involved with the drug dealers themselves. They would tell me about one young lady who was a drug mule because she had to supplement her welfare checks. I moved out of Brooklyn and got a sleeping area to get close to [the residents]. Of course, I saw a lot of sad things.

It was bad at the end. It was time to wrap things up and leave. Sometimes you can get so embedded that it's hard to come out. The Times helped me work that out. Unfortunately, the story didn't turn out like [the residents] wanted it to. The reporter and I had to leave town for a while; they sent the boys after us.

WCT: But everything's cool now ...

MA: Oh, yes! I was sent to the Miami bureau for a while. Then, I went to Washington and Chicago. I came to New York four or five months later. Of course, other things were happening at the time; we had the first World Trade Center bombing as well as the Oklahoma City bombing. There's always something going on.

WCT: What did you win the Pulitzer for?

MA: I was one of a team of 15 who worked on a piece called 'Race in America.' I was paired up with Don Terry, who's now with the Chicago Tribune. Basically, we did a piece on his life and growing up in a biracial family. His mother was white and his father was Black. She left her white family (including children) to marry a Black man, so there was a lot of anger in the families. Each pair had a vignette; we all shared a Pulitzer for national reporting. That happened in 2000.

WCT: Your upcoming show in Chicago centers around Haiti.

MA: [Photographer Michael] Bracey apparently went there during a nicer time; I went in the midst of the coup d'etat this past March. I spoke with [then-president] Bertrand Aristide. I then had to hide out.

WCT: You know, you're doing a little too much hiding out for my comfort.

MA: Let me tell you something: This is some real hidin' out. At first, I cracked up when I was given a bulletproof vest and medical equipment [before I left for Haiti]. I didn't understand how important those things would be until I got there. I saw one person get a machete in the back and another person get shot in the back of the head.

WCT: Whoa!

MA: I ended up face-to-face with an outlaw [at one point]. I tried to see a journalist in a hospital in Port-au-Prince but the place was locked up. [Some others and I] went around to the front where someone would let us in. Then, we ended up with a gun in our faces; I froze. A reporter—Lydia Holmgren—screamed at me to run. I started running, thinking that the guy's gonna shoot me in the back. The only thing that stopped him was that the police was coming in his direction. Then, I dove under a car. Afterwards, I was warned not to do that again because someone could blow up the car.

I [eventually] got to meet Aristide. After leaving this incredible palace, I took pictures of this poor woman standing just outside the place. She seemed to be saying, 'Why me?'

WCT: Wow.

MA: Then, we went to [the port city of] GonaVves, most of which no longer exists because of [hurricane] Ivan the Terrible.

The places I photographed probably are no longer there.

We journalists traveled as a large group. Gunmen there told us that we had to leave our cars in one spot; eventually, we were told that we could bring our cars in but had to leave them at a checkpoint. We finally won the battle and were allowed to talk to the head rebel in GonaVves. However, we had rifles trained on us. The head rebel said that he planned to march into Port-au-Prince and take the city away from Aristide. We got pictures of lots of things, like looters, cement miners, and dead bodies. Seeing dead bodies became normal. It was not pretty.

In [the city of] Cap Haitien, we constantly heard gunshots around our hotel. We had to stay at places that were gated. Otherwise, the gunmen would get you. We had to be on guard because disruptions could occur between pro-Aristide and anti-Aristide people. We talked to the mayor, who said that everything was under control. However, it was very tense; you never knew what was around the next corner. At one point, we saw missile strikes from our hotel. I started thinking that getting my vest was a good idea. It turned out that just about everything, including the mayor's house, was bombed.

At one point, I actually fixed a fellow journalist who was shot in the chest; I used sutures that were provided to me. You don't know what's inside you until you're in a situation like [the ones in Haiti].

WCT: I'm glad that I'll be looking at your pictures in Chicago. I can't imagine what you went through.

MA: I see these photos as projections of the news. I want you to see things as I saw them. You know that knot you get when you don't know what's around the corner? That [feeling] was ongoing.

Bethel Cultural Arts Center is at 1140 N. Lamon. For more information, call 齅) 378-3600 or visit www.BethelCulturalArts.com .


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