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'A Long Walk Home' records life as Eli Reed saw it

Reed's photos are remarkable for their lack of judgment of the people or the situations he encountered.

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Eli Reed:
A Long Walk Home
By Eli Reed
University of Texas Press
352 pp.

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Magnum photographer Eli Reed has been documenting “life as I saw it” for more than 40 years. His career retrospective, Eli Reed: A Long Walk Home, is a singular quest for beauty while recording hardship. It all began with a photo he took of his mother and his memory of her smile.

Reed’s affable style uncovers humanity at every turn. Raised in Perth Amboy, N.J., he was originally a painter; he developed his photo craft while earning a living as a hospital orderly. After developing an impressive portfolio during stints at The Sacramento Bee and The Detroit News, he joined the famed collective Magnum Photos – the first black photographer invited to do so.

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Following his photographic muse, he covered the civil wars in Central America, the Lost Boys of Sudan, and the war in Lebanon, and published “Black in America,” a 20-year opus documenting life in the United States. According to Reed, “A Long Walk Home” is about “what it means to be a human being.”

His photos are remarkable in their lack of judgment of the people or the situations he encounters.  

In Beirut, Lebanon, a man removes a tree branch from a car in a recently bombed parking lot. An Isaac Hayes lookalike wrapped in a sheet plays a drum in front of a sign reading “God Is the Way” while National Guardsmen lift their rifles during the 1980 Liberty City Riots in Miami. In Harlem, New York, a group of laughing children take over an abandoned car, using it as a jungle gym. Where another photographer might have focused on the sobriety of these situations, Reed’s camera smiles. His images show how humans cope, rise above, and carry on.

This is what gives “A Long Walk Home” its power. Considering the places Reed has been, there are very few photos of guns or overt violence. Instead, Reed focuses on the varied human responses to hardship.

We see determined faces confronting the lens during the 1995 Million Man March, a young boy upside down with his legs in the air in a Kenyan refugee camp, the cautious look of a young girl in an orphanage in El Salvador.

We smile along with Reed in a gesture of compassion and solidarity. We recognize our fellow human beings.
Joanne Ciccarello is a former Monitor photo editor.