creative and inspiring photography from around the globe

Eric Kayne: Love and Courage at the Border


Eric Kayne is an editorial and portrait photographer from Houston.  A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Ohio University, Eric first got a taste of photography from one of his teachers in middle school.  Over the years, Eric has been busy making powerful and stunning documentary work and is a masterful story teller. He was recently awarded the 2016 Carol Crow Memorial Fellowship by the Houston Center for Photography. This fellowship includes a solo exhibit at the Houston Center for Photography.  Eric talks to atlas this week about how his “Orphaned at the Border” series came about and where he finds inspiration for his work.

How did you first get started in photography? How long have you been shooting?

Eric Kayne: I first started shooting around sixth grade when I took my first class in middle school. I had a great teacher, Mr. Dollarhide. He also taught shop. He had just returned from teaching in the Aleutian Islands with great stories and a lot of passion for life. I remember he rode his Harley-Davidson up and down the road in front of school so we could practice panning. That was 1986. Thus, I have been shooting off and on for about 30 years or so.

Your portrait work and other photography series are beautiful and compelling. How would you characterize your photography? 

I suppose I would characterize my strongest work as documentary. Social issues seem to motivate me more than some other assignments. Even with my favorite portraits, there is that same human connection that is sometimes made regardless if I’m spending five weeks or five minutes with a person.


Your “Orphaned at the Border” series highlights the issues that impact children at the border. It is clear from some of these images that you were able to make a great connection with the children which can be difficult for some photographers. How did this project come about? Why did you decide to photograph these children? What did you take away while capturing these images?

This project came about from a class in grad school colloquially called “magazine.” We had to either emulate or create a magazine from the bottom up. That means creating a mission statement, pitching stories to our peers, managing all the logistics, getting everything shot within ten days or fewer, writing the story, laying out the pages. It was a monster project but very educational. I chose The Washington Post Magazine because I wanted my story to hit policy makers in the nation’s capital.

I initially had some broad idea about the Mexico/United States border but James Chance, a prior grad student, had really hit a similar story out of the park just two years earlier. A friend and classmate, Michael Rubenstein, told me to dig deeper and find something good. I have a friend from high school who at the time was working for an Arizona non-profit that left food and water for people crossing in the deep desert. She directed me to Timothy Heinan, who ran the Catholic non-profit The Blessed Nuno Society. Heinan lived in Tucson and told me his organization supports an orphanage in Mexico, across the border from Douglas, Arizona in Agua Prieta.

At the time, there were a number of children who were dying as they crossed the border with their parents. Border security had tightened up so much that immigrants were going deeper into the desert to make a crossing. Parents were giving the last of their water to their children so the children would survive. The parents would perish and some of the children would be sent to this orphanage. However, because of time constraints (I had to shoot in January), all of the children at the orphanage at that time were there because their parents had drug charges. Most of the fatalities from border crossings occurred in the summer. Nonetheless, I felt my essay was significant because the conditions are the same regardless of the reason a child is at the orphanage. Also, getting access to an orphanage in the United States is unheard of as far as I know, so I wanted to visually explore the circumstances as well.


How has the photography industry changed from the time you first started to the present? Is it a tougher business today than it was then?

I first got interested in photojournalism/photography as a living in 2000 so I was getting on board just as things were really starting to go south at least as far as the newspaper industry is concerned. My goal at that time, up until I was laid off from the Houston Chronicle in 2009, was to be a staff photographer at a large metro daily newspaper. Is it tougher to be a staff photographer these days then it was 20 years ago? You bet. I never got to experience it, but I’ve heard the stories –- real budgets, travel, time for projects.

As far as the freelance industry being tougher now than it was in the past, again, I have heard stories of how much better it used to be. What can else can I do though? Photography is the only thing that really holds my attention for any reasonable length of time. I just try to hustle, run a successful business, take care of my family and have some fun.

Where do you get your inspiration for your ideas?

Novels, the newspaper, running, driving, pacing in my office, working. I also try to live by a quote from Chuck Close: “I don’t work with inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work.”


How do you see your work evolving over the next few years? Do you have plans to try other genres?

I hope it evolves more. It is like looking at a movie screen from five feet away so it is hard to tell what my work is doing sometimes. I think one’s work gets to a certain point and then it is harder and harder to tear down walls. So, in that sense, at least mentally, I’m trying to get around my own thoughts and criticisms and try new things or things I have not tried in ten years. Nothing specific though. I just try to go to work everyday and not wait around for inspiration and hope the work itself leads to discovery.

Are there any photographers whose work you admire? If so, who?

Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, Ray K. Metzger, Eugene Richards, Richard Misrach, Todd Hido, Chris Buck and Christopher Brown.


Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

It’s a marathon, not a race. Learn some solid business skills because at the end of the day, it is a business. The only true way you will get better is by going out and shooting — a lot.

For more information about Eric, visit his website.  All images © Eric Kayne.

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