TAMIR KALIFA of Kensington, MD, is a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a major in photojournalism. From 2007-2008, he studied cinematography at the FAMU International Film Academy in Prague, Czech Republic. Tamir spent last summer freelancing in Israel, where his images appeared on the front page of The Jerusalem Post. He has also been an instructor for seven summers at the Filmsters Academy Film Camp in Annapolis, Md., working with teenagers 16-18 years old to create one short film per summer. He recently participated in the 24th annual Eddie Adams Photography Workshop and will be the photo intern for the Boston Globe this summer. Check out his work here.
What are your goals with photography?
In a nutshell, my goals with photography are to take pictures of people and share them in the hopes that others will reflect upon themselves and the human condition. There are so many brilliant photographers out there that it is overwhelming to have goals of making significant contributions to the field. However, there are millions more stories than photographers, each one having the potential to affect one or many. The more work that is produced on relevant issues, the sooner it becomes part of the collective consciousness. People will react how they will, but I hope at the very least to encourage people to take a step back and be aware of themselves, what they have, what they are missing and how their behavior affects others. Ultimately, I hope to work in Israel and share stories, especially concerning populations of people who are under or mis-represented by the media. My mother is Israeli and I have a grandmother, four aunts, three uncles, 21 cousins and a younger sister there. My sister is an officer in the military. I was raised speaking fluent Hebrew and spent many winters and summers in Israel. My connection to the region is deep-rooted and I feel I have a unique perspective because I was raised between two superficially similar but dynamically different cultures. For many years, I struggled to determine an original identity amidst socio-political pressures I could not understand at a young age. Now, having studied both journalism and the Middle East in college, I try to pacify my cognitive dissonance about the political issues that trouble the region by sharing stories from all sides. This has helped me accept that no one is right or wrong and both sides are trying to grow up, raise families, worship and find enjoyment in good company. I’m genuinely fascinated by people and photography is my way of making sense of it all. A few pictures of adorable cats here and there wouldn’t hurt either.
Other young photographers like myself inspire me. We are all trying to figure out how to survive in a dynamically changing industry. These young photographers have tremendous hearts and genuinely believe in the importance of photography. Scott McIntyre, Maddie McGarvey, Joel Hawksley, Ian Bates, Chris Gregory, Dominic Bracco II, Ariana McLaughlin and Eve Edelhiet to name a few. I have had the pleasure of meeting and befriending some of these wonderful individuals. There are many others I admire and hope to meet. I also enjoy perusing the many Tumblr blogs belonging to curious, quirky and creative image makers. My current favorite is “Maddie on Things” which captures an adorable coonhound posing on unusual objects in unusual places. I appreciate work like this because sometimes it’s important to not take things so seriously and just make people smile.
How do you think photojournalism/ photography will evolve in the next 10-20 years?
Photographic technology is evolving so quickly, I can’t imagine where the industry will be in 20 years. Hopefully, photographers aren’t replaced by robots. I think the ability for anyone to take pictures and share them instantly is the most innovating development in years. Journalism was born to hold individuals in positions of influence accountable. Now, anyone with a camera phone can hold anyone accountable. While technology can be abused and people often live vicariously through through their mobile devices, the fact that someone can take a picture and share it with millions makes communities safer. More accessible technology also means more stories, more content, more outlets for publication and ultimately, more attention brought to issues. Our collective consciousness as individuals is rapidly globalizing in part to a greater awareness of conditions outside our borders. This same connectivity is enabling ambitious photographers to produce the work that some publications can no longer afford to finance. I believe now is as good a time as ever to be a photojournalist, but it certainly isn’t easier. We are wading into a media landscape that is evolving and we can’t see beyond the horizon. I don’t know what this all means for photojournalists or the world of professional journalism but good work that comes from a deep and ethical respect for people will never disappear.
What was unique about the school you attended?
I attended the University of Texas at Austin along with 50,000 other undergraduate and postgraduate students. That, for one, makes it unique. With so many students, staff and faculty living and working within the 40 acre campus, the city within a city generates enough news to support a daily newspaper. I was lucky enough to work for The Daily Texan, a daily-yes, daily-newspaper with a circulation of 15,000 for three years. The Daily Texan boasts notable alumni like Walter Cronkite, Bill Moyers, Robert Rodriguez and even Lady Bird Johnson, President LBJ’s wife. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of my peers join their ranks. I made enough mistakes to learn there is always another story, there is always another paper (assuming they stay in business) and that failure, not dogs, are man’s best friend. UT also happens to have some of the most comprehensive collections of photographic archives. The Brisco Center for American History has the personal archives of Eddie Adams, David Hume Kennerly, Dirck Halstead and many others. Not only does the Harry Ransom Center have the print archives of the Magnum photo agency, they have the first friggin’ photo ever taken! I’ve spent too many hours to count carefully navigating through the immense collection of images. Seeing prints made from the original negatives, complete with sprockets and personal signatures sends chills down my spine. I was also very lucky to have three extraordinary photography professors guide me, Dennis Darling, Donna DeCesare and Magnum photographer Eli Reed. I was reluctant to go to UT because I knew nothing about it and, as an East Coast suburbanite, I thought Texas was a vast desert. I had very little say in the matter. It has a strong communication school and an even better price tag. I thank the powers that be because it was the best decision of my life.
Who has had the most profound impact on you as a mentor?
There are three individuals that have helped shape who I am as a person and story teller. The first is my father. He worked as a video cameraman for CNN for 18 years in Washington D.C. As a kid, I was fascinated by his Hi-8 video camcorder and loved documenting everything, even if it was totally inane crap that only a little boy would be interested in. He never encouraged me to follow in his footsteps, but indirectly planted the seed by entertaining me with stories about being the pool camera for major presidential addresses from the oval office, covering a Reagan-Gorbachev Summit on the White House lawn from the top of the Washington Monument, and having Reagan wave to him from the balcony of the presidential residence early one Sunday morning. I couldn’t think of a cooler job and still can’t. My dad is my biggest supporter and harshest critic. At 15, the coach of my sister’s youth soccer team, a documentary filmmaker who knew my father, Gonzo Accame, took me under his wing and gave me an internship as a production assistant, grip, and second cameraman. I worked on national TV shows like Trading Spaces and listened to his epic stories during long drives to work. He encouraged me to be humble, have a good heart, and to do work for the right reasons. I still call him to discuss the morals and ethics of photojournalism and to thank him for setting me on the right path. At UT, I’ve had the pleasure of studying under legendary Magnum photographer Eli Reed. His vision of the world is unreplicable and his countless stories further galvanized my passion for photojournalism. His heart is as great as his contributions to photography. With his students, he spends hours looking over photos, discussing ethics and sharing personal stories of triumph and failure. Although he always seems to be jet-setting around the world, he barely ever misses the weekly, 10 pm, Daily Texan photo department meeting. Eli constantly carries a mirrorless camera with him. Usually either an Olympus or Leica, the camera is usually smaller than his hand which provides a humorous juxtaposition to his commanding size. If he took an interesting photo that day, he would show it to me. Considering he is a Magnum photographer, this would happen on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. The most memorable one was a picture he took in vacant Target parking lot where the colors of a spherical red parking barriers matched those of a carelessly parked shopping cart and somehow captured the slightly unsettling feeling of shopping at such massive stores. He also showed me a casual photo he took of a nice faucet in a hotel restroom that could have printed in a glossy magazine for big bucks. These pictures give me a better idea of how he sees the world by showing me the quiet moments between the memorable ones. I admire that even after all these years, he is still exercising his eye.
Although I’ve been through extraordinary opportunities I never thought I’d witness, I feel the most meaningful story I have produced is about a family friend who underwent a heart transplant.My father’s best friend, Don, was a cameraman at NBC in Washington D.C. He was born with cardiovascular complications that necessitated a heart transplant at age 30. After the surgery, he lived five times longer than his doctors expected and recently passed just two years ago. His daughter Veronika faced similar challenges. She was born with an enlarged heart and, at age 20, her life depended on a network of tubes and a battery powered motor that helped her heart circulate blood through her body. In mid-October, I traveled from Austin to D.C. to spend a day with Veronika. I was humbled by her resilience and determination to overcome such critical and inveterate adversity. I shadowed her for a day in order to produce a short video segment I could publish in Austin and pitch to NBC in Washington D.C. so they might do her story justice by sharing it. Our families had spent almost every Thanksgiving and New Years together while I was growing up. We had barely spoken since I graduated high school. When I returned for Thanksgiving, I spent most of the weekend with her. The story was an opportunity to reconnect with a family friend and offer support to someone who needed it. It was also a way for me to cope with the loss of her father, who was a guiding figure in my life. By the time I was ready to leave, we referred to each other as cousins because it was the easiest way to explain why I was following her around with a camera. I told her I wanted to be the second person she would call when she got the good news. At 3 a.m. one month later, in the throes of an all-nighter studying for my final astronomy exam, she called me saying she was on the way to the University of Virginia Medical Center for her transplant. I immediately lost interest in studying, booked a ticket for two hours after my flight, and was in her hospital room the next night, a few hours after her surgery. I believe Veronika’s story is important because it epitomizes common people persevering through uncommon problems. She inspired me to rethink the way I look at my life, to count my blessings and to remember that no problem cannot be conquered. Now, six months after the surgery, she is alive, well, and making her friends and family laugh, just like her father.
What would you be doing if you weren’t pursuing photography?
If I was not pursuing photography, I would either be a struggling musician, a gardener, or a teacher. I play accordion, piano and miscellaneous string instruments in a band here in Austin and try to balance my musical and photographic ambitions. I’ve also developed an affinity for gardening and landscaping because I am a homeowner (owning property helped me get in-state tuition as a Texas resident). Realistically, I would combine these two “hobbies” and supplement them with teaching, which I have always loved. I’ve taught movie-making at a film camp in Annapolis, MD for seven years and love encouraging young people to maximize their potential. I’ve had adults mentor and guide me throughout my life. I think teaching is a way to pay it forward.
To suggest a student or recent graduate for the Emerging Talent series, email Maddie at madd...@gmail.com