Jason Jaacks’ examination of social and environmental issues through photography and film has taken him to diverse corners of the world. A National Geographic Explorer, Jaacks has walked across the U.S.-Mexican border with leaders of the Tohono O’odham Native American tribe, searched for carnivorous bats among Mayan ruins, and led an expedition down the Elwha River in Washington state. His documentaries have screened at a variety of film festivals, and he received the 2014 Dorothea Lange fellowship from UC Berkeley, where he earned his master’s in journalism. His kinship with Lange is especially evident in his images taken along the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.
How does your work connect to Dorothea Lange’s?
The news-grabbing headlines aren’t what draw me to the borderlands; it’s the subtlety of the interactions and the quiet moments that humanize this place. Lange’s work represents the kind of moments I look for when shooting in the borderlands. Her ability to distill complex social and political issues into a frame that allows her subject’s dignity to shine through is an incredible accomplishment and a testament to her vision as a photographer.
Is Lange’s work still relevant today?
Dorothea Lange’s photography is at once timeless and immediate. Her ability to illuminate the beauty and strength of the human spirit, even in abject poverty, laid down a foundation for what photography can achieve. In today’s world, the global migration of people escaping conflict and economic desperation means entire countries are on the move. Not only is Lange’s work relevant today; I believe it is a calling to documentary photographers the world over to make images that inspire compassion in others.
Is there anything about her style or approach that has particularly inspired you?
What amazed me about Dorothea Lange was her ability to forge an immediate connection with her subjects, even though their life circumstances were so vastly different. She could be with people in a way that transcended histories, and because of that was able to make portraits of people that revealed something profound. In photographing the borderlands, I spent a lot of time with my camera stowed in the bag, trying to make a connection with people before attempting to take their picture. The approach took longer and, at times, could be frustrating; there were many moments I missed during the process. But it was rewarding to build enough trust to photograph people without feeling as though I were simply taking something from them.
Jason Jaacks, East of Sierra Vista, Arizona, 2012. Archival pigment print, 12 x 18”. Lent by the artist. Photography: Courtesy Jason Jaacks.