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Award-winning photographer Eugene Richards’s specialty is intimacy.

“I usually don’t photograph something that I can’t touch,” he says.

For more than 50 years, Richards established personal relationships with the people he photographed. That’s no small feat given the subjects he’s covered, which include drug addiction, poverty and cancer. The personal nature of his photographs leaves viewers full of emotion and forces them to confront uncomfortable  issues. Richards shared his experiences at the Missouri School of Journalism Oct. 28, when he was awarded a Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service to Journalism.

Richards’ career began in late 1960s. Eager to make a statement about the Vietnam War after graduating from Boston’s Northeastern University, Richards’ cut up his draft card and sent it back. But rather than sending him to Vietnam, the government offered him a spot with Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a sort of domestic equivalent to the Peace Corps. Instead of Saigon, Richards was sent to Arkansas.

There, while documenting the plight of the rural poor, Richards founded a community newspaper, Many Voices, to report on civil rights issues and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1973 he published 110 photographs from that time in his first book, “Few Comforts or Surprises: The Arkansas Delta.”

By becoming friendly with the people he photographed,  Richards captured some of the most personal and important moments in their lives. He was so comfortable with his subjects, he said, that they would often forget he was there.

“I’m usually pretty quiet with people when I hang out,” said Richards, in an interview New York-based L Magazine.  “I mean, they know you’re there, people always know you’re there to some degree, but after a while, they kind of forget.”

Richards most personal project was “Exploding into Life,” which chronicled his wife Dorothea Lynch’s battle with breast cancer that eventually took her life.

There was a story behind each photo and a level of emotional involvement he experienced as a photographer, he said.

“The truth of pictures is usually temporary,” Richards said.

 

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