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NCR Staff

A black beret is his trademark. Cameras hang from his shoulders like a revolutionary’s cartridge belts. But there’s nothing warlike about Rick Reinhard. He’s image-maker to the antiwar community and more. More than two decades ago, he set his course to become camera artist to the movements against racism, poverty, oppression, homelessness.

“It’s a visual world we live in,” he said. “I wanted to provide slick, magazine-quality images to the movements. If I could do that for the broad sector of the opposition, that was the role I wanted.” And for two decades, he has been doing just that in the pages of NCR and elsewhere -- adding the image that gets the reader more immediately, more knowledgeably into the story.

A magna cum laude graduate of Boston College in the 1960s, Reinhard went on to Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer. Among all the things he learned there, the most life-changing was learning the limitations of a Kodak Instamatic.

If it’s been Reinhard’s goal to shoot images that make a difference, some certainly do. Take, for instance, his version of the predictable Madonna and Child.

It was a simple image of a Palestinian woman holding her daughter that Reinhard shot in the late 1980s. But something’s missing: the child’s left eye. Two days earlier, it had been blown out by an Israeli rubber bullet.

It had happened during the intifada, or uprising, that began in the Gaza Strip in 1987. Reinhard was in the Gaza hospital room with the mother and her young daughter. In the hospital room, he smiled his customary self-effacing smile at mother and child, monitored the available window light on his exposure meter, focused his Canon F1 35 mm and made the picture. Four clicks in all, just to be sure.

The result is one of Reinhard’s photos that are worth 10,000 words. That Gaza Madonna and Child was airdropped over Lebanon, fluttering into the streets. In pre-addressed postcard form it was mailed by the thousands to the general secretary of the United Nations begging him to ask the Israelis to cease using rubber bullets in the Israelis’ general get-aggressive policy.

“I wasn’t part of the campaign,” said Reinhard during a Washington photo shoot more than a decade later, “but the image became a contributing factor.” That’s always his hope when he does his periodic work for Sojourners or Mother Jones, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, or NCR.

Reinhard’s usual beat isn’t the Middle East. He’s more often dogging events on the streets of the nation’s capital, the marches, the demonstrations, the sit-ins. One of our conversations for this profile took place in a corner coffee shop near Capitol Hill. Reinhard was photographing Navajo who’d come to Washington to oppose uranium mine drilling through the aquifer that supplies their drinking water. The photos were used in the Nov. 19, 1999, issue of NCR.

Reinhard’s life as a photographer began hesitantly in Honduras. His first photography lesson came through an observation there: If two people stand in the same place, and take the same shot, the one with the good optics produces a better image than the one with the Instamatic. He headed to the Panama Canal Zone and bought a Pentax and a couple of good lenses, duty free.

Meanwhile, in another part of the world, a war was on. In those days, avoiding Vietnam, Reinhart said, was one of the first reasons male volunteers gave for joining the Peace Corps. Reinhard was different. He was in the Peace Corps because he didn’t qualify for Air Force Officers Candidate School on physical grounds.

As the only person among the volunteers in Honduras with a math degree, he was assigned to teach math at a teacher training college. Meanwhile, the United Fruit Company was teaching Reinhard Spanish for free. (He had connections. As a mathematics major at Boston College, he’d done his thesis on banana distribution.)

Honduran school strike

Two things happened. The first was a strike by Honduran schoolteachers. The second was a dawning. Reinhard realized that the Peace Corps was “the good face of a U.S. foreign policy waging a bad war in Vietnam.” The Honduran school strikers (quickly joined by Honduras’ transportation workers) impressed the students at the college where Reinhard worked. They seized the institution, gave the faculty an hour to leave, then departed.

Once they’d gone, Reinhard, in the faculty room, raised his hand.

“I said, ‘I know I’m an American Peace Corps volunteer and not supposed to get involved in political issues.’ The acting director of the college said, ‘No, no. You are Honduran. Say anything you want.’ So I said, ‘Before we go down that road, leaving, why don’t we decide whether we support the students or oppose them.’ ”

The faculty voted to support the strike, and the Honduran government decided to oust Reinhard for speaking out. But on a technicality it couldn’t -- Reinhard had been invited to state his views.

Simultaneous to this, groups in the United States opposing the Vietnam War had declared the first “moratorium” against the war. Peace Corps volunteers in Chile, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic independently issued their own statement.

“Honduras and Vietnam shared the same latitude,” said Reinhard, and the Peace Corps operation in Honduras increasingly looked like “the good face of that immoral war.” Reinhard and two colleagues decided to float their own antiwar statement and see if a majority of the Honduran Peace Corps would sign. A slight majority did, stating, among other things, that as “volunteers of peace, we condemn the actions of our country in Vietnam.” The local Peace Corps director at first supported the trio but then warned that if they sent the statement to President Nixon and the newspapers as planned, they’d be sent back to the United States.

The three, with only months left on their contract, replied that if ordered home they’d instead seek political asylum in Honduras. The director backed down; the statement was sent.

Reinhard sought to extend his time in the Peace Corps with a year in Chile. Instead he was accepted for Paraguay and shipped his stuff down there. But almost immediately, after assessing what was going on back home, he decided not to follow. Reinhard applied for a teaching job in District of Columbia schools.

He returned home to Boston in 1969, at Christmas time, just as 20-year-old Fred Hampton, Black Panther and community leader, was shot dead by the Chicago police. “I was outraged,” said Reinhard, who immediately hitchhiked to Washington to check on his job application in the city still charred from the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King.

With a job offer at Washington’s Cardozo High School in hand, Reinhard asked the Peace Corps to return his belongings from Paraguay. It would take him two-and-a-half more years to become a full-time photographer. During that time, he taught school and photographed students and life around the city.

“It’s the early 70s, I’m 26 and clear of the draft,” said Reinhard. “I’m draft counseling and involved peripherally with the antiwar movement. I made picture frames, took pictures of demonstrations and alternative stuff. There was a women’s theater group I was close to.”

One day, going up the down staircase at Cardozo, he met part-time teacher and artist Judy Byron, later his wife, who at the time struck him as “a white proximity to Angela Davis,” the radical black leader.

Communal living

Reinhard was also organizing a group home for communal living on Park Road Northwest. Byron became part of the group. (More than a decade later, Rick and Judy bought the house and raised their daughters, Rachel and Willa, in it. They still call it home. Rachel is a third-year doctoral student in American history at Berkeley; Willa a paid intern on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s magazine.)

Still largely self-taught, Reinhard took a photography course at the Smithsonian. Next he attended a summer workshop in Maine. “At that point I considered myself a serious photographer,” he said. He studied with a photographer neighbor, and in 1979 went through a University of Missouri photojournalism workshop.

Back in Washington, no longer teaching but surviving as a one-day-a-week child-care provider, he was taking informal kid shots by the bushel and shopping his work to organizations that dealt with early childhood. He got a break. The President’s Commission on the Year of the Child liked his work.

“I became sort of their staff photographer,” he said. “It was an interesting introduction to Washington photography at the non-community level. Mainly photographing meetings.”

Still living in the group home, and without a lot of expenses, he started to build a career. He’d already made one decision, he wouldn’t do any work “for the bad guys” -- the publications of corporations, military-industrial complex outfits or firms operating on government money, the general stock-in-trade of many Washington area freelancers.

Through friends involved in social justice and his own involvement with children, he was soon shooting for the Children’s Defense Fund; the Child Welfare League of America; the Latino community; Luther Place on Thomas Circle, fabled epicenter of much Washington activism; and the Community for Creative Non-Violence led by Mitch Snyder. “I was really close to the homeless issue when Mitch was there,” he said.

Not long after the University of Missouri workshop, and with the help of a fellow photographer, Reinhard began shooting for The Washington Post. It was that experience, doing five or six stories a week for the weekly news sections, that really honed his news skills, he said.

Then came Reagan, followed by Bush. Twelve years with plenty of people finding plenty to protest about. Reinhard was in his element, making something visually different out of events that to many others were visually the same: people, placards, protests, vigils, hunger strikes, silent marches.

Some of his favorite images came out of those years: South Africa and its anti-apartheid leaders such as Nelson Mandela, later its president. Reinhard photographed the daily protests against apartheid outside the South African Embassy in Washington and augmented that work with his own trip to South Africa.

Photographer Reinhard was trying to capture and convey the face of racism and discrimination visually, to show its scars.

He also worked on immigration issues. There were trips to Latin America -- to Brazil where his brother Bill is an Oblate of Mary Immaculate missioner in São Paulo. At one point, he wrote farewell letters for his little girls as he prepared to accompany a rebel radio team into the El Salvador war zone. The mission was to prove that, contrary to the U.S. government’s denials, U.S. planes were bombing El Salvador.

When Reinhard got to El Salvador, he learned that the project had been aborted. The bombing was too intense. Instead he went to Salvadoran refugee camps. (Much later, headed to El Salvador for the 10th anniversary of the Romero assassination, El Salvador remembered -- and denied him a visa.)

It was from Reinhard’s anti-war convictions that two of his favorite photographs emerged. “I was trusted. I was known,” he said, by way of explaining how he was able to make images that made a difference.

The first evolved from the Veterans’ Fast over U.S. involvement in Central America in the 1980s. One of his favorite images is of the huge bags of supportive mail, in part the result of his photographic work.

Four veterans, including Congressional Medal of Honor winner Charles Liteky in his wheelchair, had been fasting on the Capitol steps. They held out for 47 days. “I spent a lot of time with them,” said Reinhard, “I was almost the official photographer.” From the vigil on the steps, he picked up a lot of work for The Christian Science Monitor and The Village Voice. The images from the Veterans’ Fast became postcards and T-shirts.

“People were visually forced to face the issue,” he said. He even wheeled Charlie in his dying days to deliver statements to members of Congress.

Then a pilot named Eugene Hasenfus was shot down in his clandestine cargo plane over Nicaragua with Oliver North’s telephone number in his pocket. (North was the Marine officer masterminding the Iran-Contra Affair. The Reagan administration was surreptitiously selling arms to an Iran it was publicly pillorying, then using the money to fund the Contras. Hasenfus had made regular flights out of El Salvador to supply arms to the Contras.)

Shortly after the news about Hasenfus arrived, Reinhard was at the final press conference to be conducted by the fasting veterans. The image he made there was of huge bags of supportive mail in front of the fasters. Reinhard recalled, “Duncan Murphy, he was the only World War II vet among the fasters, announced, ‘Largely because of the outpouring of mail, and mainly because of Hasenfus answering our prayers, we have decided not to die.’

Forced to face the issue

“My greatest satisfaction,” said Reinhard, “comes from having my images put a human face on issues of justice and exclusion, issues about which I feel deeply.”

The second of the anti-war photos came at the end of the Gulf War. Sipping coffee nine years later, Reinhard recalled the image that gave national prominence to an anti-war protest.

It was 1991. The Gulf War was over, and Washington was wallowing in victory with a great parade and display. The machines of war were strung along the National Mall. Because of his role in the movements, Reinhard knew that the Catholic Worker and Atlantic Life Community folks had decided on a course of civil disobedience.

When the peace advocates threw their blood on the Harrier Jump Jet, the pride of the arms display, Reinhard was the only photographer present, though a reporter for The Washington Post happened on the scene, too. Reinhard asked him if the Post would be interested in a picture, and the reporter said yes. Reinhard delivered raw film, and waited while editors selected the picture they wanted.

Said Reinhard, “It was an image that brought the blood, the Harrier Jump Jet and the civil disobedience into the context of the great national joy over the toys of war.” (The photo ran in the June 21, 1991, issue of NCR.)

“Sure the incident would have been mentioned in the Post, a couple of paragraphs buried in the story,” said Reinhard. “But because the Post got that picture, they actually separated out the story and ran it for a half-page.

“It was one of those instances when I really felt I’d made a contribution, small as it was, to giving visibility to people who really cared deeply.”

Half pleased, half embarrassed, Reinhard tugged at his black beret. Time to go.

Next stop: the darkroom. Another day. Another image.

Arthur Jones’ e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2000