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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 photographer."

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 SB-26 Speedlight.

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 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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