Eli Reed reflects on top photography honor, career

Eli Reed first shot photos on a Kodak Instamatic 104. He bought it as a birthday present to himself during his senior year of high school and shortly after began to snap time exposures of the moon. Reed fixated on celestial phenomena at that moment in time, but the first picture he ever took was of his mother when he was 10 years old. Humans are his favorite subjects.

Reed, UT’s clinical professor of photojournalism, grew up in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, about an hour outside of New York City. Reed was a poor Black kid living in a housing project on the fringes of the city, but his status didn’t stifle his passion for art or his belief that he could make an impact on the world. He wanted to be like the reporter from the 1962 film “Lawrence of Arabia'' who interviewed the titular character on the battlefront.

Reed has been that guy and more since 1970, although he reports in images.

The National Press Photographers Association awarded the 74-year-old with its top honor, the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award, on April 7. At the virtual ceremony scheduled for April 21, the organization will recognize Reed for his exemplary work in photojournalism and his role in advancing the craft through education. His friends and colleagues have said the honor is long overdue, but it shocked Reed.

“I’m thinking ‘Really?’” Reed said, jokingly. “I wish somebody would have said something before because I’m not dead yet. I have a lot of things I’m doing even now.”

He’s been hard at work over the last year, adding to an already stacked legacy characterized by a runner-up finish for the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1982 and a World Press Award, to name a few accolades. Last November, Reed photographed images of poll workers and ordinary people during the days of and leading up to, the 2020 Presidential election.

Five months earlier, he captured moments from the funeral of George Floyd, the Black man who died last May with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck. Reed went to Floyd’s hometown of Houston’s Third Ward during election week to take a photo of a wall that memorialized Floyd. Reed inserted himself into the photograph to pay his respects to the man whose death spurred a renewed racial reckoning in America.

Reed wrote in the photo’s caption: “I decided to let my shadow stay in the photographic image, perhaps in my own mind wanting to add to something in the photograph that would say quietly that we will remember you.”

Long before he arrived in Austin in 2005 to teach at UT, Reed became Magnum Photos’ first Black photographer when he joined the elite international photojournalism collective in 1983. Reed’s work has been published in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Vogue, National Geographic, and numerous other publications.

Heavy things don’t scare him. Reed’s 1997 photo book “Black in America” features 175 images of Black Americans living their daily lives. He took the pictures over a 16-year span from the 1970s to the late 1990s.

The photojournalist has also had his fair share of “Lawrence of Arabia” moments — the kind he hoped to be a part of as a child. Reed’s other photo book, 1988’s “Beirut, City of Regrets,” depicts in images the impact of civil war on Lebanese citizens. Six years earlier, he photographed scenes from the Central American conflicts.

“I search for a way to discover what it means to be a human being,” Reed said. “ The horrible things that people do. The wonderful things that people do. All that comes into ‘Why?’”

The esteemed photographer has also dabbled in film. He’s helped produce award-winning documentaries and has taken still photographs for movies such as “8 Mile” and “2 Fast 2 Furious.” Reed is the man who photographed ill-fated rapper Tupac Shakur for John Singleton’s 1993 film “Poetic Justice.”  He asked the artist to remove his shirt to highlight his unique body art, namely the pistol on his chest. Reed, who came to admire the rapper, said he predicted Shakur’s untimely death.

Reed has spoken about his encounter with Shakur and his other experiences in photography with his students. He said his favorite thing about teaching is seeing what students do after they leave campus.

Patricia Lim, a 2020 UT graduate, took two courses with Reed during her time on the Forty Acres. Lim said Reed’s style of photography is different from her own, so she’s thankful to have seen an alternative perspective. She does freelance photography now and works at a marketing firm for journalism clients.

“(I learned) to go out there and be creative with your editing,” Lim said. “He’s willing to do anything when it comes to improving student’s career development.”

Kathleen McElroy, director of the School of Journalism and Media, is glad Reed’s talents and dedication to photojournalism and the visual arts have been recognized.

“The prestige that he brings to the School of Journalism is unmatched,” McElroy said. “His work has appeared everywhere, and for good reason, but it’s also the mentoring that he provides. I think just being around Eli makes you more aware of how powerful visuals can be.”

Reed is certainly dedicated to the visual. Photography is his own attempt at changing, even saving the world. Making the world a better place is no small feat, but he makes it his individual responsibility.

So it’s perfect that Reed’s got ‘the eye’ for photography people always talk about. He’s also got a lot to say. Reed has ideas and experiences swirling around in his head — so many he could write several books about them. Together, his eyes and his mind mark his brilliance.

“Every moment on this planet is a chance to learn about something,” Reed said. “And to share.”

Myah Taylor