It’s not that Alexey Furman necessarily enjoys photographing riots and violent clashes.
The Ukrainian photojournalist and Fulbright scholar just finds those subjects easier to document than, say, a peaceful, rural setting like Platte City.
“I mean, you look around and think ‘Where are the people?’” Furman said with one arm stretched out to a sunny parking lot under a perfect blue sky facing a lightly trafficked Missouri 92.
Furman was one of 44 photojournalists who were suddenly tossed into Platte City last week for the weeklong Missouri Photo Workshop with a singular aim: find and photograph the story.
While the workshop’s participants boasted impressive credentials — staff from the Washington Post, freelance NGO photographers — Furman said he and the rest of the group spent a lot of time just casting blindly, shooting in the dark and asking the same questions you might in the same situation.
“’Where do you start for something like this? Who should I talk to?’” Furman said recalling his first day on the scene.
Furman’s path eventually led him to Pine’s Hairstyling and Tanning. His photo essay “Platte City’s Cut Above” is a tribute to the barbership and its owner, Ron Pine, rendered with stunning imagery.
While not a violent protest, the lives built around the shop and the tradition it embodies became things of awe for Furman.
“He’s owned this barbershop for 54 years,” Furman said. “That is so special.”
As remarkable as Furman’s photography is, workshop instructor Erika Larsen — another Fulbright scholar and accomplished freelance magazine photographer whose resume includes the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and National Geographic Society — said the deliverables were less important than the process.
“It’s actually more important to not think about the final product,” Larsen said, adding that listening itself is a transformative act.
It’s a thought that dovetails well with Furman’s explanation of a photo he took outside of his essay, a picture of a group of Platte City children watching a football game in the background. While it could be meditation on the future or youth or sports, Furman said he prefers to leave the interpretation to his audience.
“When you photograph, you don’t think. You feel,” he said.
And while each of the workshops photo essays has a short accompanying text naming names and reporting a location, reading the photos is probably better done in the same way that Furman shoots: on instinct, with the right side of the brain engaged.
How else could one read the various facets of life shown by the workshop? A shot of a couple saying their goodbyes before the family dog is euthanized, a woman applying mascara whose reflection is multiplied in facing mirrors, a bearded man kissing a woman on the mouth.
The last is the work of Australian and visual communications instructor Liss Fenwick who, though half a world away from home, still found something she could readily identify with in Platte County.
The University of Queensland professor is a native of a rural town of roughly 3,000 located in the country’s sparsely populated Northern Territory
“It’s not just rural, but remote. Think like, Nevada or something like that,” Fenwick said.
It’s a place that holds few folks who might see eye to eye with the Confederate flag-flying, bearded man she and her camera shadowed for three days, which resulted in, “Staying Wild in Suburbia.”
Her work reveals not only the banged door to his home, but the kisses he gives to his family in front of it and the Sisyphean task of dealing with his household’s laundry.
Her subject — a self-identified “redneck” named Robert Lee — and the photographs documenting his life are almost uncomfortably intimate. They capture everyday scenes while affirming the value of the life seen through the lens.
Another set of photos tells the story of 94-year-old Charles Bradley — or his preferred nomenclature “Mr. Charles” — one of the last remaining independent farmers who raises crops on the same land on which he was born.
The series, done by Michelle Sui, a nominee for UNICEF’s Photo of the Year contest, captures a disappearing tradition, a moment that will likely not signal us when it leaves.
But, because of the workshop photographers, that moment and so many like it will not go unnoticed.