Wilbur Norman at Ta Prohm, an  Unreconstructed Temple, Ankor Wat Complex, Cambodia

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Although words are the medium I have been most drawn to, I love the ability of images to convey easy - as well as vague, meaning. And, since childhood, cameras as beautiful machines have had an alluring appeal.


As a humanitarian and personal adventure photographer I have photographed in Cuba, East & Southern Africa, Mongolia, India, Southeast Asia, Central America, Upper Mustang in Himalayan Nepal, Papua New Guinea and the United States. My photographs have been exhibited in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Havana, Cuba and at The Louvre in Paris.


One hundred fifty (150) of my Cuban photographs will be published by Vajra Books in early 2023 as Seeing & Being Seen / Hearing and Being Heard: Portraits of Cuba.


"Reportage... is a form of vigilance."    Judith Thurman



Trained as an anthropologist reliant on the power of observation and words, I love photography for its potency and the wide range of its reach. In my work I attempt to meld evidence, emotion and ideas, allowing viewers to better understand, empathize with and, if possible, sensitively assist, indigenous cultures fending off modern-world threats: cultures – that is, our kindred fellows – who, while modernizing, are striving to retain age-old manners, languages and time-honored traditions in the face of rapid societal disruption and erosion; upheaval wrought by the usual suspects: technology, politics, environmental and nutritional decline and, alas, ill-managed tourism that actually degrades the places we seek to sustain.


When beginning a project I try to keep an open mind and outline/storyboard the parameters of what I want to explore. But it is really the freedom of creating images at-will, over time, that leads to the magic of a developing narrative. I follow where my nose and eyes lead and at some point – maybe even after returning home, story lines unfold in the assembled pictures. I admire photographers who can begin with a refined concept, and tenaciously follow their roadmap to a conclusion that satisfies them, but, like many others, I prefer to allow for serendipity and familiarity with my equipment, skill-set and locale to capture a story, perhaps without fully comprehending on a first visit what that story is really about. It is a 'system' of real-time shooting with minimal calculation and a large dose of instinct, striving to capture images that portray situations and questions (if not, alas, answers.) I subscribe to food-maven Christopher Kimball's idea that, "We must lose what we think we know so that we can come to see what we least expect."


As an image-maker I straddle a personal zone betwixt & between: documentary photographers follow a character or situation over time to present complexity and nuance; photojournalists are more akin to image-snipers freezing a decisive moment that will forever adhere in our minds-eye. None of us, however, lay claim to any comprehensive report on the human condition. All simply provide glances into slices of life. My glance is to follow (document) a story and capture key scenes (photojournalism) in a given environment. My focus is to stitch these sundry images into a tableaux, weaving a tapestry about a chapter in the human journey. While I do not direct subjects or compose situations, I do not feel obligated to present my images without post-processing. If I can improve the presentation to make it more artful and/or more like what I actually experienced, I often will as long as it does not materially change the truthfulness on display. I am often more interested in the essence than the substance before my lens.


Transparency is key. My work as a chronicler seeks to evoke or vivify a time, a character or a place with an elliptical, or grey, point of view rather than one that lays out black and white or colorful answers with a certitude none of us really possess. The work is largely unscripted; I lie in wait with my chosen tools, in full view, to catch life on the fly.



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“Pictures, like songs, should be left to make their own way in the world. All they can reasonably ask of us is that we place them on the wall, in the best light, and for the rest allow them to speak for themselves.”

— Frederick Douglass



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Elements Contributing To My Work

(in the order of their importance to me)


-  Curiosity, Wonder, Awe.  There is no substitute for an inquisitive and kinetic mind punctuated by necessary moments of quiet and reflection.


-  Research.  I try to do a fair amount of study before I leave on a journey. I want to know the 'lay of the land', the probable weather, what festivals are possible, and so on. Imagine returning home to a friend who asks, "Oh, that must have been an amazing trip! Did you photograph that spring rite festival that has been rarely seen by outsiders?"


An open mind, with as much patience, understanding and compassion as I can muster, and a skepticism of the 'received wisdom' we tend to take at face-value.  (If I already know it all how can I possibly awaken my imagination to wonder, awe, serendipity or other true experience)


-  Great Shoes!  There are few impediments can stop us from making images and concentrating on their composition like having uncomfortable foot ware. Staying out all day lugging gear for photography is similar to backpacking: I am not a happy camper if my feet do not have good and comfortable support.


-  A smile and a flair for languages.  People everywhere love it when foreigners try to say a few words, such as 'please' and 'thank you', in the local language. If you butcher the pronunciation that's okay, too. When you can get folks to laugh at you in a complementary and funny manner you are on your way to making the friendships that produce great pictures.


-  Natural light.  I don't care for the use of flash and complex lighting setups. I do sometimes use a fill-flash. Or, a reflector if I can get it to stay in place without me holding it. If I can find a local to act as a lighting assistant it can be a great introduction into the community.


-  A good camera, great  lenses and proficiency in their use.  A photographer like W. Eugene Smith is a profound example of the fact that the tools of our trade are secondary to a good eye and instincts.



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Equipment

(A full and very long list can be read here.)


I use a Leica M10-R and an M10 for most digital color work of people and places. For digital black & white I use a Leica M246 Monochrom. I also have a Sony A1 and an assortment of FE lenses for wildlife. My current medium format love is a second version Silvestri SLV 6x7, 6x9, 6x12/4x5 'view camera'.  I still have my original black-paint Leica M4 body for those times I get the itch to use film. One day I will convert my Fuji X-Pro1 into an infrared body. Past work horses have been the Leica M-P Type 240, Leica M4 & M6, Pentax 6x7, the Nikon F4 and a Nikon F3HP (still on my shelf). There were also my first cameras: an Ansco Panda box 120/220 and my dad's Kodak Brownie Holiday model, both from the 1950s. While it is difficult to beat the look and 'feel' of silver gelatin and platinum prints, my main chemistry is now archival pigment-on-paper printing (although I do experiment with 'alternative processes'.) A sampling of my photographs may be viewed at https://www.wilburnorman.com




   Be realistic: Demand the impossible!  – Herbert Marcuse




Professional Memberships


NWU - National Writers Union


IFJ - International Federation of Journalists (The Global Voice of Journalists)


ASMP - American Society of Media Photographers


LHSA - The International Leica Society




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Effort - Not Perfection



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"The process of writing a book is infinitely more important than the book that is completed as a result of the writing, let alone the success or failure that book may have after it is written . . . the book is merely a symbol of the writing. In writing the book, I am living. I am growing. I am tapping myself. I am changing. The process is the product….

Invest in the "process" rather than the product. Process living neutralizes the depleting and impoverishing effects of chronically living in anticipation. Even when impossible goals occasionally are reached, satisfactions derived from them are invariably disappointing unless the process has given ample satisfaction along the way….

Happiness does not come from doing easy work but from the afterglow of satisfaction that comes after the achievement of a difficult task that demanded our best.”   – Theodore Isaac Rubin (1923-2019)


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