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Steve Simon on his new book, Heroines and Heroes  
Thursday, November 23, 2006 | by Eamon Hickey

Self Portrait: Photographer Steve Simon.

This coming December 1st is World AIDS Day, and it is also, not coincidentally, the official launch date of Canadian photographer Steve Simon's new book of photographs, Heroines and Heroes: Hope, HIV, and Africa [Charta Publishers]. (See the end of this article for details on a slideshow/lecture event in New York City on Dec. 1st.)

The softcover book, which includes 98 mostly color pictures, is the product of four trips to Africa that Simon has taken since 2002. The photographer is donating all of his royalties to organizations fighting AIDS in Africa, and one of his hopes for the book is that the pictures will motivate readers to make donations themselves. To that end, a list of worthy candidate organizations is provided towards the end of the book.

Heroines and Heroes, says Simon, represents a look at one particular slice of the AIDS situation in Africa, not an attempt at a comprehensive view of the entire story, if that would even be possible in one book. Like any book on AIDS must, Simon's work contains difficult pictures of sickness and loss, but it is not just a relentless catalog of suffering, shot in stark black and white, as the traditions of documentary photojournalism might prescribe.

"I didn't want to ignore the harsh realities of the scourge of AIDS," says Simon, "but at the same time, I wanted to show some of the positive things that were going on in the fight against AIDS. I wanted to show daily life. I wanted to show the beauty of the landscape, and that not everybody is always [miserable]."

Aside from some black-and-white film photos taken on Simon's first trip to Africa, most of the images in the book were shot with a Nikon D2X and a Nikkor AF-S DX 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF lens. The photographer says he had no real problems using digital in Africa. "I know there are situations working in the third world that are a lot less luxurious, if you will, than what I faced. Once or twice, I'd go two days without electricity, but I just carried an extra [charged camera] battery."

The other big concern on such assignments is, of course, securing images. On Simon's longest trip, a five-week stint earlier this year, he used a combination of a LaCie Porsche 250GB external hard drive and DVDs. The hard drive held his entire take, which he shot in RAW .NEF format, and he would edit the take as he went, whenever time permitted. When he accumulated enough selects to fill a DVD, he burned one to keep with him and a duplicate to mail to himself at his home address. In all, he says, he made about six sets of duplicate DVDs during the trip. His total take filled the 250GB drive.

Up Front: A scan of the cover of Heroines and Heroes: Hope, HIV, and Africa by Steve Simon.

Simon converted his RAW images to TIFF files using Photoshop CS2's Camera Raw plug-in, and those TIFFs were used to print the book. This past summer, following his final trip to Africa, the photographer had begun to experiment with Apple's Aperture, and he ended up using its book layout engine to design Heroines and Heroes. (Since then, he has adopted Aperture as his main workflow tool.)

Heroines and Heroes is Simon's fourth book since leaving a stable position teaching photojournalism at Canada's Loyalist College to move to New York City and do freelance documentary photography full-time. The book's evolution -- Simon's four shooting trips and the decision to make a book from them - is a kind of case study in what such a career demands in a world that seldom pays much for the work.

Simon's first trip to Africa, in 2002, was made with a group called Photosensitive, a non-profit collective of Canadian photographers who donate their services in support of social justice, which was helping the humanitarian group CARE Canada document its efforts to fight AIDS in Zambia. In 2005, he returned to Africa for three weeks, again with Photosensitive, CARE Canada, and other humanitarian organizations. Shortly after, he got another chance to go back by taking a gig as the still photographer for a Canadian film documentary about an AIDS clinic in Lesotho.

In all three trips, he was not paid, but his travel expenses were covered. Simon showed the work he had accumulated on those trips to the Italian publisher Charta, which had published a previous book of Simon's photographs called The Republicans. Charta wanted to do a book of his AIDS pictures, but Simon felt that he needed more images to fill out his coverage. So he went back a fourth time, for five weeks in Lesotho, and he had to finance that trip on his own.

"I was able to find $1,000 from a magazine called The Walrus," says Simon. "The Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada gave me $500 in seed money. The rest I put on my credit cards. I went back to Lesotho because I had connections there. I'd just been there. I had a place to stay. I was able to do it very cheaply and spend five weeks [there] without spending all that much money." By the end of that trip, Simon had all the pictures he needed.

To keep body and soul together while he pursues his long-term documentary projects, Simon shoots commercial, event, PR, and standard magazine editorial assignments, and "I'm happy to do it," he says. As he did with The Walrus and The Globe and Mail for his Lesotho trip, he also works hard at placing his stories with the magazines that publish documentary photography. He has had reasonable success doing so, but the overall market is small.

Grants are another obvious resource, but "there's so many good people out there, and good projects that they're pursuing," says Simon, "that it's a bit of luck. I think, ultimately, you'll get a grant, but you just can't depend on it. But it could make a huge difference in a documentary photographer's life, no question.

"This is an evolution for me. Though I've been doing this for six years now, I'm still trying to figure it out, figure the best way to do it. My motto has always been survival is success, and that is true in the documentary world." His operating philosophy, he says, is to keep "working on your own projects, believing in them, and realizing that, ultimately, good things will happen with them, you will find a home for them, but there's no real timeline."

Though Simon says that revenue from his books has not been nearly enough to finance his career, they are still the ultimate goal for the documentary projects he works on. "I feel that a book, for a photographer, is the best way to encapsulate a project, and guarantee that it will be there forever, so to speak," he says.

Heroines and Heroes is dedicated to the grandmothers of Africa, and they are next on Simon's project list. "I want to go back. I'm applying for grants. I think the grandmothers is really a compelling and powerful story. They're holding the continent together. They bury their own children. They're raising all these kids with little or no support. I think the light needs to be shined on them."

Steve Simon will be autographing copies of his book, and presenting a slideshow and lecture, at a launch event for Heroines and Heroes at the Chelsea Barnes and Noble bookstore in New York City on December 1st at 7 PM. The store is located at 675 6th Ave. (at 21st St.).

Heroines and Heroes Gallery

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In the Book: Photos from Heroines and Heroes. Click any photo to enlarge. (Photos by Steve Simon)

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