Eyes on the Prize: Lara Jo Regan—The Lost
In February 2001, Lara Jo Regan's image of a Mexican family
living in Texas won the World Press Photo of the Year Award for 2000. It's the
first photo you see here, and it was one of many images taken on assignment for
a Life magazine article on "uncounted Americans"—that is, people missed
by the census.
"The novelist and journalist Calvin Baker suggested the idea to Life
magazine," Lara Jo tells us, "and he was the writer on the piece.
"There are whole areas in the country that don't get the social services,
schools and hospitals they need because the census misses the people who live
there. That's the profound effect of the census: if you're not counted, you
don't exist. If you can track down the people who technically don't exist in the
population records, you're unearthing a part of America that exists outside the
popular notion of our country."
The first problem, then, was to find people who technically don't exist.
"We did a lot of research," Lara says, "and talked to the census bureau. They
are aware of the areas that are drastically under-counted because they pass out
forms and then see how many they get back. So they know the areas that haven't
returned a lot of forms."
Information from the census bureau pointed Calvin Baker and Lara Jo toward,
among other places, Texas, New York, Maine, Virginia and Alaska to document
people and places "most people don't know exist. They're off the radar map; they
don't fit the popular notion of how we live."
In most cases the people Lara Jo visited were reluctant to be photographed. "You
pretty much always have to hook up with a social worker to get to the people,"
she says. "The social worker knows them. Some families didn't want to have
anything to do with us, but some were O.K. with it."
Lara Jo worked on the project for a year-and-a-half, and the story was published
in the May 2000 issue of Life. It was one of the last big stories the
magazine commissioned before ceasing regular publication.
"I'd done work for Life before, and for Time and Newsweek,"
Lara Jo says. "I always seemed to get assignments having to do with American
culture." Within that category was a wide range of subjects: "I did everything
from the porn-star bowl-a-thon to stories on homeless children and welfare moms.
“I also did a lot of work in Hollywood for a number of years, going behind the
scenes, not to get negative shots but to show anything that was outside the
carefully choreographed publicity and public-relations machine photo-ops. I'd go
backstage at the Oscars to show the strain of keeping up illusions and how weird
it really is back there.
"You could say the aim of my work is to de-mythologize American culture. America
is so dominated by mass media and the entertainment and advertising world that
'fictitious reality' is more real to people than reality. I try to show what's
really going on."
Lara Jo believes that she also got the Life assignment because she had
recently shown the magazine's editors “American Street”—"my biggest documentary
project to date. I live on this diverse street in Los Angeles. We have every
ethnic and age group, every orientation. I've gone house to house, spent
a couple of days with each household and taken one photo per household, so when
you look at the photos you feel like you're walking down the street and seeing
what's going on inside each house. It's a way for me to paint a portrait of
America through my street. I'm doing it in a fine-art, painterly style, and I
think it was that style as well as my coverage of America that got the Life
assignment for me."
The award has meant a great deal to her. "First, it gives me a lot of freedom in
choosing my next assignment.
"And the fact that an assignment like this was chosen keeps my mind open and my
heart compassionate. The award frames the world with meaning for a
She also believes that awards for photojournalism serve to bring attention to
documentary photography, which, she says, "is not as valued here as it is in
Europe. Entertainment dominates here. America is a culture of fantasy junkies. I
can only hope that'll change."
In the Bag
Lara Jo is a long-time user of two favorite Nikon cameras, the N8008 and the
N90. She carried three wide-angle Nikkor lenses on the Life
assignment—the 20mm, 28mm and 35mm, as she knew she'd often be working in close,
tight spaces, but she also liked to use the 85mm telephoto. She also carried an
The Other Lara Jo Regan
She's not only a photojournalist, she's also the owner of Mr. Winkle.
Now, you're going to have to see Mr. Winkle to believe him, and it'll help if
you see him before reading the rest of this. So please take a moment to visit
his website at www.mrwinkle.com. We'll be
here when you get back.
O.K., now you know why the cute but decidedly odd-looking little dog that Lara
Jo found abandoned by the roadside has turned into something of a cottage (or is
it doghouse?) industry, with a photo book, calendars, posters, a line of
clothing and numerous write-ups and TV appearances on his résumé.
Practically a mini-phenomenon, Lara Jo sees Mr. Winkle as a bit different than
other pop culture icons of the moment. "He's a grassroots phenomenon," she says,
"and he's a real dog, not a Hollywood creation." Indeed, we have it on good
authority that he is not a stuffed doll, a wind-up toy or an animatronic figure.
Lara Jo finds it a bit weird to be both an award-winning photojournalist and the
administrator of Mr. Winkle's world, but, she says, "the dream of fine-art and
documentary photographers is always to find and get grants and ways to support
their work. So a lot of the Winkle funds will go to creating a foundation for
photographers to do stories on the environment, and to supporting my work."
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