Saint Louis University

About Thomas Oates

On the door of her darkroom photographer Dorothy Lange kept for over forty years a piece of paper with the following quotation:

"The contemplation of things as they are /Without error or confusion / Without substitution or imposture / Is in itself a nobler thing / Than a whole harvest of invention."

Francis Bacon

Lange saw her photographic work, which ranged from portraits of the dust bowl migrants to Irish farmers, as linked to this tradition to reflect honestly the reality of the world before us.

I was a student of literature at Saint Louis University when first introduced to the photos of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Paul Strand and other photographers of the American documentary tradition. The clear vision of the world they shared in their photos was resonant for me with the poetry and prose I studied as an undergraduate and graduate student. The vision of these photographers was informed by a strong sense of social justice, an alert sense of the iconographic record of cultures and an ethic that respected the personal lives of those they photographed.

Unlike commercially motivated photographers, these photographers looked at social setting with the broader and deeper humanistic vision. When I began my photographic work, in the inner city in St. Louis, in the landscapes of the Midwest and later Central America, Europe and the Middle East, I carried the values of these photographers with me.

The generous personal advice and direction of Arthur Rothstein and Cornell Capa, David Plowden and others further refined the approach I took both as a photographer and a teacher of photography. Arthur Rothstein, one of the core photographers of the Farm Security Administration Project, advised me that documentary photographic work, while important, rarely is valued until the images reflect some history.

The photographic images displayed here are the result of over a decade of travel in the Middle East. In these travels I chose to focus on things as I found them. Nothing was arranged or staged. Photographs were made quickly, with hand held cameras so as not to intrude or affect the scene or change the mood of the subjects. Though the Middle East is a place of major political and cultural conflict, these photographic images do not attempt to argue political or religious concerns except on the broader issues of social justice. They do document the warm humanity of peoples who are at times stereotyped for political reasons. In most cases I traveled alone and walked neighborhoods and markets to avoid imposing on the environment. Though the Middle East is often considered dangerous I seldom felt at risk. The people I met in Moslem, Jewish and Christian settings were welcoming, helpful and offered a level of hospitality seldom found in the West.

I did not ask permission but did not make photographs if asked not to. Most photographs of people were, in some sense, collaborations. Portraits were always an effort to not just record an interesting face but to record culture and context as well. Serving as a witness to details of a culture in transition has long been an acknowledged role of documentary photography. The titles of classic photographic studies reflect this sense of mission-"How the Other Half Lives" by Jacob Ries, "Your Have Seen their Faces" by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke White, "A Russian Journal" by Capa and Steinbeck. The photographic record produced in these and many other studies not only document a moment in culture but also express solidarity for the shared human values that unite people across the boundaries of culture and politics. It is worth noting that these and many other significant documentary photographic studies combine written narrative as companion pieces to the photographic narrative.

Together these pieces have created an ongoing narrative genre in our literature. History and religion are two of the powerful forces in the Middle East. Many of the images displayed here record the heritage of the region. Other images document the religious architecture of the region and the way those settings continue to serve as gathering places. Photographs inside a mosque are considered an act of disrespect, so I made none.

In her photographs of the dust bowl in the American west and in her photographs of very poor Irish villages made in the 1950's Dorothy Lange made an effort to document the spirit and optimism of the people she photographed. Their gestures, their smiles their strength and endurance shine through as testimony to the determination to find a better world for themselves and their children. I hope that these images of Middle Eastern sites also reflect the same sense of promise and courage Lange found in the dust bowl and in Ireland. Thomas Oates

Higher purpose. Greater good.
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