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Four decades through the lens: A conversation with the Herald’s Tim Chapman

Retired Miami Herald photographer Tim Chapman has stories. Stories of wars. Stories of riots. Stories of wars and riots that created waves of refugees. Stories of the toll of drugs and greed.

He covered the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran civil wars, the Colombian drug war and the Cocaine Cowboys, the Mariel boat lift and the McDuffie riots. He was one of only a handful of journalists to make it to Guyana to cover the Jonestown Massacre, the death of more than 900 Americans on a cult commune in northern Guyana via a mass suicide pact.

After four decades at the Miami Herald covering pretty much everything other than Art Basel, Chapman retired in 2012. For a few years, the public lost his images. With the opening today of his exhibition at HistoryMiami, they’re back.

“You can say what you want, but Miami was a great news city,” he said.

Since his retirement Chapman has lived in the Keys, where he can gaze out at mangroves and see 15 different species of birds in one morning.

The New Tropic caught up with Chapman about some of the most pivotal moments in his career.

Join Chapman tonight at HistoryMiami for the opening of his exhibition. There will be a reception, including an interview of Chapman by local author and journalist Carl Hiassen, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The exhibit will run through August.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How would you sum up your 40 years of work at the Miami Herald?

The faces you see in Miami from all over Central America, the Caribbean, Haiti, Cuba, those are the stories I covered — the reasons why they’re here. Things like the Nicaraguan civil war, the El Salvador civil war, Cuba since 1978, Haiti since 1979. Those events are what made Miami what it is, for better or worse, and you’re able to see why.

I covered Colombia. I was in Medellin when Pablo Escobar was there blowing up people. He blew up a good friend of mine, although he didn’t kill her. For me, it was all connected. In Miami I listened to the police scanners [during the drug wars]. For a few years I was shooting drug violence every day. Bodies here, bodies there, one year it was more than 300 bodies.

What was the difference between covering violence and unrest in Latin America and here in Miami? You were a reporter during pretty challenging periods in both places.

The difference would be sometimes the level of violence. Maybe shootings [in Miami] you heard about them on the police scanner, while in Latin America you heard of the whole building or restaurant being blown up by Escobar’s people.

The level of violence in Miami actually reached the level of violence in Colombia because of the Mariel boatlift, to some extent. After that, you had riots, the McDuffie riots, which were intense. To some extent they were as violent as the wars but they weren’t as long. Yet violence is violence. Our town exploded basically.

What impact do you think your photos had?

A lot of people don’t like to see bad things. How many people ever talk about Jonestown, Guyana? For the most part, with violence and things that we don’t understand, I think you have to put it out there with their cornflakes in the morning and give people knowledge of what’s going on in their world. Whether or not they did anything about it, the pressure is put on society… The final result? I don’t know if it changed anything. As far as educating the public, which is my job, yea, I did the best I could. You can only let people know what’s going on by being as truthful as possible. I tried to do it for 40 years, until the day I walked out of the Herald.

How does covering something like the Jonestown massacre change you?

Man’s been around plus or minus a half million years. And I realized that we really hadn’t learned a damn thing, [we’re still] people following madmen. It just reinforced the fact pretty abruptly that really man hadn’t changed.

It strengthened my resolve to cover the worst of mankind so we can try to make it a better world. I always did feel that studying history, it just took a nanosecond for people to decide they were the only ones that deserved to be on the planet.

Nothing would ever shock me after that. It hardened me to the point that I knew it was important. Real photographers try to do their best to show people what’s going on. Sometimes man goes to the dark side. I’ve been there, I’ve been to the dark side. I’ve seen it, I’ve witnessed it.

I knew the horrors, I knew what was out there. It raises its ugly head quite often. I picked the right profession to try to change the world. That’s what it did to me.

Every once in awhile I think about it, but psychologically, if you’re a photojournalist at heart you can handle that, you just have to go forward. …

If you were in Jonestown as a journalist, you know that the most dangerous thing to cover is religious zealots.

What was it like to see your own backyard become a battlezone during the drug wars?

That was insane and I think that affected me more than the Nicaraguan civil war. In the case of Nicaragua, the war was over repression and the attempt to stop the class revolution down there. You understood that. It wasn’t really about money.

But in Miami, it was a level of violence that was insane. If you ever look at Miami Vice scenes, you know it helped put Miami on the map, but the true cost of the violence was the true corruption of the entire society. There were high rises built with that money, there was corruption of officials, the entire society.

I covered drugs all over the Bahamas before it got to the US, but here it seemed more senseless to me because there weren’t just two sides. At some point some of the killings seemed so senseless it was almost like they were doing it for sport. I didn’t see senseless killing in the civil wars [in Latin America]. They had an agenda, they were fighting each other military fashion, I understood that. A lot of the killings [here] were just “Let’s get this guy.” I actually believe the violence in Miami was more senseless than in Latin America.

What’s it like to see a country like Colombia, which was in the throes of a horribly violent drug insurgency when you were there, now becoming a tourism destination?

It gives me hope. The Colombian people realized they didn’t want to live like savages and they changed it. The Colombians, I give them so much credit. Right now some of those places are safer than going into northwest Miami and definitely safer than going into a country up the road like Honduras or El Salvador.

A society has to make a decision on how they deal with the levels of violence that everyone is capable of. Look at a political rally in our own country. … it wouldn’t take much to see a level of violence here just like I’d seen in some other countries. Look at the hatred, look at the faces you see. You see that and you say, “Man, are we on the edge?” There’s a lot of hatred in this country.

What story have you cared about the most?

I shot the Everglades my entire life. Thousands and thousands of photos of what I care about.

It lets me know where I came from. It’s something we have a chance to save. I wasn’t objective about it, I just showed what people had to lose. I think we should do everything in our power to save one of the finest parks and pieces of land in the world.

Did you know it’s the biggest mangrove forest in the northern hemisphere? You know what percentage of the population in Miami had visited in 1997, when I took these pictures? 1 percent.

I was the Everglades person and going there reminds me where I came from. I spent a lot of the time in the jungles of Venezuela and Colombia. The contrast was that there, there were very few things I saw that were worth saving.

I wanted to show people the beauty and diversity of something in their backyard. You have to see where we came from and realize if we don’t show each other what’s happening then we’re going to be back in the jungle as a beast eating some other animal.

You said in an interview at the time you retired that Haiti is the one place you gave up on. Why?

I had covered Haiti since 1979. I went there and did story after story, and it was about corruption and violence on each other. I love the people, I had such a warm feeling for Haitians and Haiti.

The last time I went, I waited three months after the [US intervention in 1994 to remove the military regime there]. I thought, ‘OK we’re putting [Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president], back in place,’ and I felt like Charlie Brown with Lucy pulling the ball out. I tried to make a difference with my photography, show people what’s going on and thought I could make a difference. In 1994, shortly after the invasion, the same corruption and the same problems happened from their own people and I realized at that time, so I wouldn’t go insane, that I would learn my own lesson that I could not make a difference. I had to learn that.

I decided there was only one way I go back to Haiti and that was maybe to rescue a friend. I will never go back to Haiti any other way because it broke my heart. I really cared about Haiti.

Instead I picked something I could win. Because I don’t like losing. I lost Haiti. My photos didn’t make a difference. If you don’t want to go someplace to make a difference, you’re in the wrong business. If you really feel that compassion, then go risk your life. If you personally don’t think you make a difference under all variables you have to make a very hard decisions. I gave up on Haiti, not on the Haitian people, but Haiti itself. I didn’t make a difference.

If you do the same experiment and you think you’re going to get different results, that’s the definition of insanity. I decided I couldn’t change it and therefore I wouldn’t cover it.

What’s a perfect South Florida day to you nowadays?

Every day is perfect. Every day I get up.

My goal is to live close to the wildest part of the Keys. The other day I saw 14 turtles.  The perfect day is when I can enjoy my nature, which is now the Keys. And I can go to to Glacier National park and see nature there.  This morning I heard about 15 species of birds

A perfect day is whatever I decide that makes me feel good to do in the exact moment.

What’s your most prized photo?

The most important one was Jonestown in Guyana because that had to be shown to the world, otherwise no one would believe it. I had several favorite photos and one of them is a girl in Salvador looking through a barbed wire fence. That is an impactful photo.

Most people love photos of their family. That’s why the iPhone is so popular. One of my favorite photos was a photo of myself and my son Eric when he caught his first snook in the Everglades.

Any photo from the day that shows the impact of life is my favorite photo. And that can change with years or minutes or seconds. I think that’s the answer I can narrow it down to.

You meticulously saved photos for decades and you ultimately handed over about 750,000 to HistoryMiami. Why did you preserve them all?

I picked them because that history should be saved of what shaped our region, Miami and beyond. Those images have to be saved. I think that’s why I gave my stuff. It’s my gift to everyone and I knew they were my best chance to save it. I hope everyone goes there and sees what made their town.

I think it’s important for people to see their history because it’s so easily forgotten. It’s something I thought about for years. I saved it all because I knew from the very beginning of my existence that photography was a way to save a vignette of history. I knew from the first images they had to be saved.