Robert Gumpert


So, lets start at the beginning, how did you get into photography?

When I was about ten my mom said I could have a camera if I learned to develop and print.  I did, and she bought me a camera – no mean feat for a single working class mom.  But I seriously started taking photos during the Vietnam protests when I was in college, and then on a cross country hitchhiking trip in 1972.

What were your early influences within photography?

Perhaps earliest was Robert Frank’s, ‘The Americans’.  It felt like the America I lived in.

I looked at W Eugene Smith, not for the images, which I found too romanticised and too optimistic.  What interested me was Smith’s sense of and use of narrative.

For outlook and feel, I felt then and now most connected to Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, August Sander, Bill Brandt and Don McCullin.

Later – much later – Shomei Tomatsu and later still, the Ponte City project by Mikhael Subotzky with Patrick Waterhouse.

I am in awe of Philip Jones Griffiths, a great photographer, making great photos with unmistakable political content. And, I still sit in stunned silence as I leaf through my falling apart copies of Leonard Freed’s “Police Work” and “Black in White America”

In the beginning stages of your growth, what was the primary content that you would like to create?

People at work.  The backend of how things worked: how steel, cars, food is made.  How a play is mounted to the stage.

What was your first big project within photography?

The last three months of a Unite Mineworkers strike and organizing drive in Harlan County, Kentucky, 1974.  I went there to work with the National Lawyer’s Guild’s Black Lung Project, because in 1972 I had hitched hiked across the USA and spent some amount of time on the side of the road outside of Cabin Creek, West Virginia, watching coalminers heading home after their shift, still black faced from the 8-10 hours shift they did in the mine.  When in the summer of 1974 the opportunity to go back cropped up, I took it.

Looking through the mass amount of photos you have sent, it is obvious that you have travelled a lot. Which place was the most memorable? Could you tell us a bit about that trip?

Not to be flippant, but they have all been interesting because I was and am always wondering what I would and will find.

Harlan County because it was the South and mineworkers.

The Philippines because it was the first real overseas ‘working’ trip I had ever taken and it developed into a ‘people’s’ rebellion and coup.  I was also struck by how familiar the place was to one part of the States or another that I had seen while working for the US union movement. Except for one rally where perhaps a million (who knows, I am terrible with crowd estimates) Philippines came out in support of Corey Aquino – being on stage and looking at at this vast crowd where all faces were shades of brown and all hair was black – that I had never seen anywhere in the States.

Pakistan because I woke up early one morning in a small town, in a funky hotel, to the sound of the call to prayer. I stepped out on to a balcony, into the early morning sunrise filtering through a haze of dust while kids collected cups of chai to sell or deliver from a huge pot, and I realized I was finally a long way from home geographically, culturally and in time.  It was such a great feeling.

Portraits - Worker



Lets talk about your photo series Lost Promise/The Criminal Justice System. You have managed to document real life events that most people would only usually get to see in movies, after viewing this set of images I’m asking myself, how you got yourself into these situations. Could you tell us a bit about the intentions and dynamics of this project?

In about 1994 I pretty much stopped doing foreign travel for the boring usual reasons: family and finances.  I knew staying home meant doing work that was not interesting story wise and that without finding a way to replace what foreign travel/stories/assignments had given me, I would loose interest in being a photographer.

Since it is my only skill, that was not a pretty picture.

It seemed to me that a project, locally done to save money, could solve this problem.  I decided that a look at the real life and work of a homicide detective as opposed to the popular depictions of TV and mass culture might fill that brief. A journalist friend helped me gain access and we started.  Our intentions were different, but not mutually exclusive.  He wanted to follow a murder with all it’s connections, I wanted to follow the work and how they solved or didn’t solve a case.  Circumstances forced my friend to withdraw from the project – at least for a time – but the homicide detectives allowed me to stay.

A year later, feeling I had done what I could, I asked them to help me do the same with street cops. Another year or so passed and I reconnected with an old friend from Los Angeles who was a San Francisco public defender and I spent 18 months with them. When that finished I finally got into the SF jails, spending 3 months doing 40 hours a week, with shorts breaks for short paying gigs.

The result was an exhibit and two the segments being published around the world. As with the homicide detectives, in all cases I wanted to look at the criminal justice system through the eyes of those that worked in it.

I think the short answer to the second part of your question is, ‘time’. No one sponsored this project. I had no editor and no publications dates. How the project developed, how long it took and how it was put together were all my choices. A blessing and a curse as it turns out.

But it isn’t just time, I had an interest in both what the job was really like and what the concerns, hopes, issues and frustrations were of the people who worked those jobs. I was from the very beginning very clear with all that I was asking to do, what my parameters were and diligent in working out what their’s were.  Once agreed on, I didn’t violate those agreements. If an adjustment was needed to gain needed images, I would work that out during ‘downtime’.

1994-95: San Francisco, CA. Victim of a drive-by shooting, dead at Turk and Eddy. Lost Promise: The Criminal Justice System. 1993-1996 in San Francisco, CA.San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, a mix of SROs, public housing, recent immigrants and paroles sits within blocks of Union Square, a center of the city’s tourist business. Like similar areas in any city, the Tenderloin has all the urban problems which has resulted in criminal justice become the booming business it is: homelessness, dirt, rundown structures, drugs, violence, prostitution, gangs.

Can you tell us about any problems that you encountered during this series?

The problems are pretty universal: How to get access. How far to push and when.  How to cope with hostility, rumors and distrust directed towards you.

Which image has the most impact to you, and why?

The whole set from ‘Detroit‘ means a lot to me because I feel I touched all the bases I thought important.  ‘Division Street’, [pictured below] I’m still trying to figure out what it is I’m doing. With the ‘work’ projects (that would be Lost Promise, healthcare, Pacific Exchange and while not work, drugs) I can’t single out any one particular. What means most to me are those involved (in the case of criminal justice that’s those that work in the system and those caught in it) recognized themselves, their lives, and thought the work honest to them and the system they knew, warts and all.  It was not the version popular culture produced.


What did you take away from this project, from everything you have learnt and experienced whilst shooting these images?

To listen, to think about what I’m seeing and hearing, and to be patient.

To be open to changing developments and adapting approaches quickly.

To remember that people will often answer the question they hear not the one you ask, that their answer to that question may well be far more interesting than an answer to the question you asked. That you should not interrupt their answers.  It affirmed to me that if you treat people with respect, if you are genuinely interested in them, who they are and what their story is, you will be constantly moved and amazed.



I get an overwhelming sense of your ability to be able to put yourself in any situation, without disrupting the nature of your surroundings. It’s almost as if your subjects don’t even notice the camera is there, how has this style developed throughout your career?

I am naturally curious about almost anything, and don’t hide it.

I like most people. When asked what I’m doing and why, I am honest and straight forward. If I’m working in restricted areas, I’ve established ground rules before access (for me and the folks I’m photographing) and I stick with them. Before I begin any project I establish, that once a photo or audio is made, editorial control is mine, and mine alone.  I tend not to talk on these projects unless it is down time or I’m doing an interview.

Do you like to get hands on with the subjects and situations you’re involved in? Your photos have an essence of being a part of the situation, can you expand on this?

I’m not one for being a speck on the wall, and I don’t see people and situations as ‘raw’ material for ‘art’ that I want to produce.  I’m there to learn and if the opportunity presents, contribute.  I’m the one asking to be allowed into private spaces and lives and I feel responsible to be as honest, and truthful to the situation and the people as I can be given that often I’m ‘not from there’.  We all, if willing, have a lot to offer each other.

As your photography progressed, how did the ideas and concepts behind your photography change?

I started out wanting to make some sort of difference, to be part of some solutions.

Realizing that for that to happen it took organization and campaigns, I worked for the labor movement.  They and I got tired, so I moved on the the established media and journalism.  I became frustrated with journalism and moved on to long term projects which I’ve attempted with not much success to use in advocacy ways.  In a sense I am back to Harlan County: a long term project done without time parameters, on my own dime, using images and doing audio with the end result used by a variety of direct and indirect action groups and exhibit.

The ‘Take a Picture, Tell a Story’ has developed into something a bit different.  While I do exhibit the work and use the audio to try and inform and affect the “world” on the outside, the project continues because it has become an exchange between the prisoners and me with each of us getting something from the interaction, even from those times where no photos or recordings are done.  I am grateful beyond words to all these folks who reside in a place where trust is not easily given, for the trust and generosity of spirit they have given to me.

Is there anything in the works that we can look forward to?

I certainly hope so.  Which would also be my last words.

You can find links to all work and projects discussed in this interview here.



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