Photojournalist and documentarian George Etheredge’s practice has always been, and still is, “a way for me to keep exploring, learning, and most importantly, to maintain a deep affection for life,” he tells It’s Nice That. This optimistic belief in photography acting as a catalyst for positive change is what first drew him to the medium and although it’s a belief he struggles with, “I still have faith that documenting the world is of great importance,” he explains. Based in New York City, George works as a freelance photographer, primarily for The New York Times.
Dealing with difficult situations is part of George’s life when he’s out on assignments, and as such that belief in the medium’s importance has become the driving force behind what he does. Recently, he worked on a story about migrant bodies found on the border of Texas and Mexico. Although aware – as we all are – about the high numbers of migrants crossing the border into the USA, George was less aware of how many people die in their attempts to evade the border patrol.
“From October 2000 through September 2016, the Border Patrol documented 6,023 deaths between Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas,” George outlines, “A writer and I went to Texas State University lab where there is an inventoried collection of more than 2,000 objects and 212 bodies, the vast majority unidentified.” In this lab, tests are performed in hope of identifying the individuals so they become more than a case number, and their remains can be returned to their families. “I spent a harrowing day photographing the skulls of unidentified individuals along with personal effects found with the bodies,” George recalls, of “one of the most difficult shoots” he’s worked on. “It made me question my role in being the person hired to do this, but ultimately brought me clarity in terms of the importance of visual documentation, reminding me that my job as a journalist is not about myself,” he adds.
When dealing with such sensitive topics, understanding and consideration is clearly an important factor. George’s photography is respectful and observant – revealing without feeling imposing. This is largely thanks to his process of research which takes place before every project. “I do research beforehand by learning about the background and related issues of the story I’ll be working on,” he explains. “I look into who I’ll be meeting with, what places I’ll be visiting, and check out old photographs of the town I will be working in, in order to come up with a rough idea of what kinds of pictures would best achieve the mood of the story assigned to me.”
As a result, George’s images are thorough in their documentation of a topic, while retaining a visuality far different to a lot of photojournalistic work. “I try to maintain certain common visual themes in my work, but most of all I want my pictures to inspire questions rather than provide answers,” he says. “I have found that what first prompts you to make a photograph is often very different from the end product, and I strive for this element of surprise in my process.”
On his practice and the more difficult to stomach assignments, George explains how these are ones which he learns the most from: "It makes you question the importance of your work and how much influence reportage, which is so short-lived in its nature, can have on situations much bigger than ourselves.”
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