By Ted Shen
Good photojournalism often ends up published in book form. But Chicago Tribune photographer Terrence James was interested in finding a faster and cheaper way of displaying it. "These books are expensive to produce and take a long time to get to bookstores," he says. A couple years ago a colleague's example gave him the idea for an alternative. "I saw the Web site where Patrick Witty displayed his own photo series on jazz musicians," he recalls. "I was really impressed with the quality and with a story that I hadn't seen done before. The idea was so cool it turned on a lightbulb in my head."
James bought an iMac and learned to use its Web-design software. It took him about six months to get his site up and running. "I was trying to build a car and drive it at the same time," he says. "I spent two months just to get the kinks out. But keep in mind that I had a day job, and this is really a private passion." Piecing together the editorial content was trickier. "Obviously I didn't want my site to be a vanity production showing only my digital portfolio," he says. "The Internet has plenty of those. I decided to call it a magazine, with each issue devoted to a particular theme. I wanted to juxtapose similar and contrasting visions from different people into a context that would illuminate our understanding of small communities and local issues."
For the inaugural issue of Souleyes, (www.souleyes.com), James picked the theme of "family" and solicited contributions from his friends and other contacts who were mostly professionals. He winnowed the submissions down to 100 or so images from 11 photographers: "Pictures documenting a Buddhist community in South Carolina, a women's shelter in Chicago, visits back to the Japanese-American internment camps. The contributors interpreted the theme quite imaginatively." James included his own pictures of a wedding in Soweto.
He believes good photojournalists should get involved in their own communities and be valued primarily for their ability to find stories where they live. "I don't much go for 'parachute' journalism. You should scratch beneath the surface. To do so, you're exercising muscles different from those for news pictures," he says. "Say, if you're covering a new day-care center on assignment, you'd take photos of all the relevant people on opening day. But for Souleyes, I would prefer photos that show the daily life, the behind-the-scene relationships. Another example: celebrity photos of Sammy Sosa don't say anything, but photos of guys in a Humboldt Park Dominican bar watching Sammy on TV tell me about a community that worships him."
James started in photography by taking pictures of his Bronx neighborhood for a high school class. After graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1986, and after stints at Newsday and Newsweek, he took a job at the Bergen Record in northern New Jersey. In early '98 he was hired by the Tribune.
All along James has believed his mission is to record communities of color. So far Souleyes has embodied this ambition: there have been issues on Chinatowns and Latino car culture and James has put up images of migrant workers and black rodeos. But his definition of "color" is highly inclusive. "A couple of photographers told me that they thought European-American photographers were excluded," he says. "I explained to them that it would be more than a little odd for a magazine concerned with diversity to exclude anyone because of race."
James, who's the sole arbiter of the site's content, says his selection criteria are few. "I don't want the site to showcase elite photographers--they have plenty of venues--or people who are just working out the basics of their vision. Of course the technical and artistic qualities have to be high. And I shy away from abstract photos." He also exercises the editorial prerogative of putting the images into a sequence of his own choosing.
James plans to put out at least four issues of Souleyes a year. "One nice thing about the Web site is, of course, there's tons of memory so the back issues can be stored and accessed," he says. The site has won an Award of Excellence in this year's Pictures of the Year competition, held by the National Press Photographers Association and the Missouri School of Journalism, and it has been commended by Yahoo, Britannica.com, and others as "site of the day" for its design and content. "What's important is a link from their sites to mine," he says. "We've gotten 8,000 hits since the first issue last fall." He's planning future issues on women of color, Latino neighborhoods, and HIV/AIDS.
James sees his site as the start of a "grassroots movement" for photojournalists. "I'm opening the door wide, so all sorts of stories can be viewed for no cost at all."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.