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Eyes are the window to the soul

By Matthew Oxley | 11 months ago


"There is obviously a sentient being looking back through the lens. Orangutans and humans share 97 percent of their DNA sequence. Decisions are made on both local and international levels that can save or destroy orangutan habitats..."

- Mark Edward Harris


Mark Edward Harris was shortlisted in the 2018 Sony World Photography Awards Professional competition with his series, 'Eyes Are The Window To The Soul'. 

Assignments have taken him to 98 countries on six continents. His editorial work has appeared in publications from The New York Times, LIFE, and Time to Vanity Fair, GEO and Conde Nast Traveler. His books include 'Faces of the Twentieth Century: Master Photographers and Their Work', 'The Way of the Japanese Bath', 'Wanderlust', 'North Korea', 'South Korea', 'Inside Iran', and 'The Travel Photo Essay: Describing A Journey Through Images'. 'North Korea' was named Photography Book of the Year at the International Photography Awards.


Hi Mark. Thanks for talking with us! Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about you and your photography 

Thank you for talking with me! It’s an honor to have been shortlisted for the 2018 Sony World Photo Awards. I'm based in Los Angeles and spend about half the year on the road. My Master's degree from California State University, Los Angeles is in a major I created called "Pictorial/Documentary History". So from early on a sense of history has been infused in the subjects I cover, especially for long-term projects such as my North Korean work.


Why photography? What does the medium mean to you? How did you get started? 

I am still fascinated by the camera's ability to freeze a moment in time. It's an incredible concept to fathom. That feeling has never left me. My first time in a traditional darkroom seeing an image come up in the developer was life-changing… it put me on the road to what I'm doing today. My first regular photo gig was doing the stills on The Merv Griffin Show. It was a fantastic experience. When the show ended I took off for four and a half months to travel around Asia and the South Pacific to build up a travel portfolio. I realized early on that you have to go out and create your own assignments rather than sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring. Actually, it was the great Magnum Photos photographer, Eve Arnold, who gave me that advice.


Tell us more about your successful series, 'Eyes Are The Window To The Soul', which was Shortlisted in the 2018 Sony World Photography Awards

I was in Indianapolis working on a travel story at the time of the opening of their incredible International Orangutan Center and became fascinated by the studies they're doing on the cognitive abilities of the orangutans as well as their conservation efforts. These incredible sentient creatures are critically endangered in the wild and the center is a vital force in the effort to bring back a species on the verge of extinction. After my first visit, I returned to do more formal portraits of the orangutans. It's not easy to shoot through glass, but by lighting from just the right angle, it all came together. I have just visited the Tama Zoo near Tokyo to expand the series. They have a fantastic orangutan center there as well. Both the Indianapolis Zoo and the Tama Zoo have huge skywalks so that the orangutans can move about in ways that emulate what they do in the wild.


Your work spans many different genres - how do you find a balance between your different shoots? 

The common thread tends to be people and cultures. Since orangutans and humans share about 97 percent of their DNA sequence the portrait series perhaps doesn't feel far removed from that focus. I'm also inspired by the late French photographer Jeanloup Sieff who never let himself be cubbyholed into a specific photographic genre. That said, in order to get work when I was starting out, I put together portfolios that were geared toward the clients I was approaching.

Do you have a photographic philosophy?    

I consider myself a humanistic photographer. My photo guru was W. Gene Smith. When I teach workshops I make sure students take a good look at his photo essays including Country Doctor, Spanish Village, and Minamata. Sebastiao Salgado is a present-day photographer I put on a pedestal for his humanistic approach to our shared profession.


Where in the world are you and what's next for you? 

I'm doing a travel story in Paso Robles, California on their fantastic wine region. At one time, the area was a place that you might stop for gas along the 101 Freeway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. That is no longer the case. I'm at the Allegretto Vineyard Resort and I feel like I'm in Tuscany! Next stop for me is Rochester, New York to do a project on the George Eastman Museum, the world's oldest museum dedicated to photography, then to Europe next month to teach some workshops and then in September to Hyderabad for an exhibition at the Indian Photography Festival followed by photo workshops I'm teaching with my Pulitzer Prize-winning friend, Nick Ut, in Shanghai and Taipei.