Light and Insight
Looking through photographer Janice Levy’s lens By Doug McInnis
In 1992, Janice Levy spun a globe of the world. The professor of photography in the Department of Cinema, Photography, and Media Arts in the Roy H. Park School of Communications had just been awarded the prestigious National Kellogg Leadership Award and was looking for someplace to visit. An island nation off the coast of Africa caught her eye. Madagascar. “Why not?” she thought to herself, and booked a ticket.
A well-seasoned traveler, she knew there was something special about this island from the moment she arrived. She was struck by the way the sun cast its yellow light on the island’s distinctive red earth and by the smell of the charcoal fires widely used for cooking. She heard the familiar sounds of French — a holdover from the days when Madagascar was a French colony. Levy had lived in Paris as a child and spoke the language well. Most of all, she was captivated by the warmth of Madagascar’s people, whose ancestors came from Indonesia and Africa. “I felt at home,” she says.
Over the past 18 years, she returned five more times and produced two publications of photographs of the island. “I want people to know there’s a place called Madagascar and that there are people who live and work there. My pictures are one way to depict their lives.”
Beyond that, her work in Madagascar illustrates two bedrock principles that underlie her photography — principles she instills in her students at Ithaca. The first is that you must invest time in a country in order to capture its essence. To buttress her point, she cites famed photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado, who said, “If you don’t spend time in a place, you leave only with what you brought with you.”
Second, Levy believes photojournalism is highly subjective. “When I go into my photojournalism class, the first thing I tell my students is that photographs are not absolute truth,” she says. “You’re looking at someone else’s interpretation of what happened. As long as you understand that, you can still get information from a photograph.”
Her two books on Madagascar illustrate how the viewer’s impression of a place is influenced by the way a photographer chooses to shoot it. The first book captures the island’s people in the stark contrast of black and white. One photograph, for instance, shows a beggar child peering into a car. The child’s face draws the viewer’s eye.
In the next book, Madagascar is transformed into a colorful kaleidoscope, seen not through its people — who are mostly absent — but through their dwellings, their possessions, and the landscape in which they live.
“When I first go to a place, I feel it’s important to say something about the people,” she explains, “and I did that in my first book. But when I went back, I wanted to photograph how I felt being there — an interpretation of the culture and the place that I could not have done the first time.”
Because the second book is largely without people, it forces the viewer to see Madagascar through a more subtle perspective. “If there are people in a photograph, that is where your eye is going to go,” says Levy. “But if you look at my photographs in this book, you see the presence of people — but without people.”
For example, one image shows an empty waiting room in a doctor’s office. There are bars on the window, the floor is uncarpeted, and a large pipe runs down the waiting room wall to drain water from the roof. The room is spotlessly clean but close to threadbare by affluent U.S. standards. Nonetheless, an effort has been made to dress it up. It shuns the neutral paint shades of American medical offices in favor of striking hues of green and blue, and off to one side stands a full-sized statue of a woman on a pedestal. Given the setting, Levy said the statue looks out of place — to her. But it might not look out of place to the doctor’s patients, who probably don’t see their world the way Levy does.
Over the years, Levy has worked in dozens of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, often with students. One thing she has learned from her travels is that the ethics of photojournalism are fluid. In a foreign war zone, victims often want their pictures taken so the world will learn of their plight. But victims of a car crash in the United States might be less accepting of a photographer.
It can be difficult to know what to do. “There are a lot of gray areas,” says Levy. “Every situation presents its own challenge.” This is a point she emphasizes to her students. She also gives them this advice: In general, get the picture, then decide later whether to use it. “You’ll never regret taking the picture. What you might regret is using it. Ultimately, you have to be able to live with yourself.”
Levy had planned a career in medicine when she enrolled as an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis. “I was studying really hard and not doing well. So I went to the head of the art department and begged him to let me take a course in photography,” Levy recalls. “‘Sorry,’ he replied. ‘Those courses are restricted to art students.’ After an hour he relented. I think I wore him down.”
On graduation, with the equivalent of just two photography courses on her résumé, she thought she could make a living as a photographer in the super-competitive New York market. “I ended up working as a flavor chemist, creating flavors and fragrances that go into products. It was a time-card kind of job.” She left New York and found a niche elsewhere as a commercial and industrial photographer in Pittsburgh and Boston, shooting steel mills, sewage treatment plants, and the like. She did that for six years and then earned an M.F.A. degree from the University of Michigan.
When she arrived to teach at Ithaca College, memories of her own roundabout entrée into photography remained, so she makes room for nonmajors who really want to take her courses.
“I had one student who was studying physical therapy,” she recalls. “My class was full, but I let her in. It changed her life. She went on to grad school in photography and is now teaching.”