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Culture Shock

The True Lens of the Camera

Photographer Chris Cozzone explores the lives playing out in Albuquerque

By Maggie Grimason

Chris Cozzone
“There are photographers who like to take pictures of pretty mountains,” Chris Cozzone said, settling his muscular frame into the wire chair outside of Michael Thomas Coffee. “I don't.” Cozzone's career trajectory tends to make that clear. Born and raised in Chicago before relocating to Albuquerque for undergraduate school at UNM, followed by tenures in New York City and Las Vegas, Cozzone has done everything from the odd wedding to being professional boxing's preeminent photographer for 14 years. He even wrote a book about the sport—Boxing in New Mexico, 1868-1940. His photographs have spanned genres and subjects, surfacing in Rolling Stone, ESPN and Newsweek, to name a few. But Cozzone has always had a twin passion running parallel to his love of photography and writing. He is a teacher.

Chris Cozzone
“I've always wanted to be as good of a teacher as I was a photographer. I'm still working on it,” Cozzone explained. To that end, he spent years teaching at Riker's Island throughout the ’90s, dedicated six years to teaching at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, and for the past five years, has taught language arts and acted as assistant principal at Gordon Bernell Charter School, a high school for adults who've taken a long break from their education, many of whom are inmates at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center. While Cozzone dedicates his working hours to teaching and administrative responsibilities, he still possesses a relentless drive to photograph the world around him, finding a wellspring of inspiration on the streets of Albuquerque and among his students at the jail. Each practice—whether teaching, photographing or learning—Cozzone sees as a creative act.

Chris Cozzone
“The goal is the same in the jail as it is in shooting sometimes,” he explained. “In jail, you're seeing a different side of people that society has written off. That these are 'bad guys' who commit crimes but it goes much deeper than that. They're human, they come from bad situations. Not everyone had an even shot growing up.” That aim, of finding the humanity in his subjects, and confronting viewers with that simple truth, is also at the core of Cozzone's photographic practice, which largely happens up and down Central Avenue. There's long been conversation about the ethics of candid photojournalism, or street photography such as this. Is it exploitive? Is it necessary? For Cozzone, what it seems to boil down to is this—that it should be authentic and honest, and that it should serve the subjects of the photo. In street photography some artists theorize that with each shutter snap, the photographer incurs a debt—that the person behind the camera owes their subject something in return for the use of their image. That subjects should not only be respected, but that their lives—in their joy or suffering—should be transmuted to something worthwhile on the film.

Chris Cozzone
That sometimes elusive mission to halt a moment of power and print it in stillness has long driven Cozzone. “It is still the same thing as when I was 20 years old. It's capturing something and showing a side of humanity. That's why I don't care if it is someone with a needle in their arm or someone at a wedding with joy on their face. You're capturing the humanity of someone at a decisive moment. … I don't set up shots, I don't pose people.” There's a certain puzzle to capturing that moment, the process of getting there requiring a long learning process. “You could take a thousand photos of one thing and not get it, or you could get it if you take three. … Getting that decisive moment, a moment that will never happen again, that's the thrill of it.”

Chris Cozzone
To what end? In what, by my calculations, equals the measure of a legit artist, Cozzone doesn't know where these photographs will end up. As yet, it's not part of a book or a dedicated series, aside from the ongoing project of getting out and shooting on the streets every week. “I never think about where these will end up. If you do that, then it's like, I'm not going to shoot until I get paid. Then, the art just isn't going to happen.” There’s no commercial objective for Cozzone. “It's complex,” he said. “People drive by and they kind of know what's going on, but they don't even want to be driving by. There's a lot going on—a lot of it not good. A lot of people don't realize that many of these people are victims, too. … They're trying to make a living or they're forced into that situation. When I talk to them and take their picture, I'm trying to show people that.” Which underlines something important—Cozzone doesn't shoot people from afar with a telephoto lens, he hangs out with them. They share stories and food. He puts in time with his subjects, and they're used to his presence in the neighborhood. In this way the photographs don’t read as though there is the viewer, the photographer and “the other.” Instead they are documentation, yes, but pieces wherein stories are suggested and told with sensitivity and respect.

Chris Cozzone
Photographer Yousuf Karsh once said, “Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.” It's the tack that Cozzone takes in his work. “I just hope the general public can see these [and] … connect with the person in a photo,” he said. As for his teaching, he sees enormous potential in each of his students, and hopes to yes, make them better writers and readers, but more so, “give them new perspectives.” While he notes that incarceration is never a good thing, he sees that “a lot of people never explore their art until they're in prison. They've never been told they could do that. … It's all about bringing that creative potential to someone's life.”

Chris Cozzone
Connecting his work at jail and his photography, Cozzone said, “It may be a statistic that crime is going up here and we're all going 'to get tough on crime,' all the mayoral candidates were talking about that, but it goes beyond that. It's not a matter of more arrests. More arrests will fill up the jail and then nothing gets accomplished. The problem is bigger. … Part of the solution is putting money into drug addiction services, rehabilitation, community services. These things that have been cut. … The problem is recognizing others as human.”

Find a larger gallery of Cozzone's work online at alibi.com and his website, cozzone.com.

 
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