In publishing our best photographs of 2019, we at Searchlight New Mexico are struck by the importance of visual storytelling. The images you see here are powerful and poignant: a young man who is growing into adulthood and old age in prison, the recently incarcerated mother reunited with her children, the baby-faced 7-year-old who has been deemed a security threat by his school district.

We have reported and written the stories behind these pictures, but we wanted to hear about them from the man who took them.

Don J. Usner, Searchlight’s staff photographer, was born and raised in Northern New Mexico, just a stone’s throw from El Santuario de Chimayó, the adobe chapel and pilgrimage site erected by his great-great-great-great-grandfather in 1813. Usner first picked up a camera at 10 years old but began using it seriously soon after his college graduation, at his first job — managing an ecological reserve in Big Sur, California. It’s where he learned the techniques of photography. But technical skills are only the first steps on the way to becoming a photographer. The rest, as Usner sees it, is all about intention.

The author of several books, his work has been widely published and shown around the country. He curated The Once and Future Child, Searchlight’s photographic exhibit of the New Mexican childhood experience. The show drew on historic archives and everyday snapshots from over 100 years and was presented at Historic Santa Fe Foundation this past October.

Q: You have a strong preference for black-and-white photography. What do you think it is able to convey that color photographs don’t?
A: First of all, it’s not a black-and-white issue — pun intended!
I’m not rigid in my preferences. I admire much color photography, and I practice it myself, especially with landscape photography. However, it is true that I find black-and-white imagery most expressive, particularly in documentary photography and photojournalism, and in photographs of people in general. I find that the essential elements of any subject can be represented with great effect in “black-and-white,” which is more accurately described as grayscale imagery. It makes for a simple, direct and powerful expression. It gets to the essence. In many ways, I find color to be a distraction.

Q: A distraction?
A: Maybe the fact that I spent decades making silver prints in a darkroom permanently disabled my color receptors!

Q: In this day and age, when everyone carries a high-quality camera in their back pocket, what’s the difference between what you do and what I do when I take a picture?
A: The “in your pocket” camera phenomena has produced an avalanche of photographs that are overwhelming in their sheer numbers, but most of them are unremarkable. It contradicts the old notion that if you give a thousand monkeys a thousand typewriters, and they hammer away for a thousand years, one will produce a great novel. It’s just not true — for typewriters or cellphone cameras. What’s the difference between the work of a photographer like Sebastião Salgado and the collective efforts of 10,000 camera-phone photographers?

Q: Is that a Jeopardy question?
A: I think the answer has something to do with intent and experience. I was powerfully struck with this idea when I curated Searchlight’s photography exhibit The Once and Future Child. I spent months sifting through photographic archives online and in the archives of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, reviewing thousands of photographs by hundreds of photographers, taken over the past 140 years or so. It was mind numbing at times, but every once in a while, a photograph would jump out at me like lightning, immediately striking and compelling.

Q: How do you explain that?
A: Some of it had to do with the technical aspects. They were lit well, exposed correctly, and the subjects were in focus where they needed to be. The compositional elements were strong, the space in the frame apportioned in an interesting and aesthetically balanced way. The good photographers understood how to use contrast, how to balance the tonality of the image. But this isn’t enough to explain why some people took better photographs than others. These are things that can be taught and practiced mechanically. But good photographs have a special quality that resides in more than technical brilliance.

Q: Is it about talent, about having “an eye”?
A: In pondering this I concluded that the difference was not talent, which is in any case impossible to define. In the outstanding images, there is a sense of the photographer’s intention. It is apparent that the photograph is not the product of a random process; the photographer saw the image, and then set out to translate that vision into a photograph. To follow through with the intention, the photographer had to have a certain amount of technical skill and, perhaps more importantly, had to know how to see the photograph before she took it. This is not a skill that can be taught or acquired through random photo taking. It takes a commitment to the art and craft of taking photographs — not just taking lots of photos but honing skills, exploring and experimenting with technique, studying what other photographers have done. In a word, it takes experience.

All of this has nothing to do with the particular photographic tools used. The act of taking a photograph is not essentially different when using a “real” camera or a cellphone camera. You can take great photographs with a box with a hole in it. It comes down to intention and experience.

Q: You came to Searchlight with a background in documentary photography. What does that mean to you?
A: To me, documentary photography is direct, unvarnished storytelling, using images that are truthful in the sense that they are not manipulated to distort the facts. Historically, documentary photographers have sought out situations and stories that reflect on aspects of society or culture that may not necessarily be pretty. Being a documentary photographer means producing powerful images that convey emotion, that don’t shy away from hard truths but at the same time don’t romanticize or sensationalize suffering.

Q: How is it different from photojournalism? What do you bring to Searchlight that sets us apart from news photography?
A: Photojournalists chronicle short time-frame events; documentary photographers aim to develop imagery over longer periods of time. It generally means revisiting people and situations repeatedly over time and developing strong relationships. It also means being committed to a strong narrative structure in a series of images that can stand on their own, rather than a producing a few images to illustrate a narrative carried primarily in the written word.

Q: I remember as a young reporter working in tandem with certain photographers who made me see the world — and the people I was writing about — in a very unique way, a way I might not have noticed if they hadn’t been present. That was invaluable. Has your interaction with reporters influenced the way you work — or the way you see the world?
A: We each see the world through our own unique lens, conditioned by our experiences and imaginative processes. It’s the job of a photographer to cultivate visual awareness, but we’re all limited in our perspectives. When working in the field with reporters, I get the benefit of the perspectives they bring. On a purely visual level, the more eyes the better. Writers can point out all kinds of things in a situation that could be fodder for good photographs. My task is to filter the welter of possibilities to focus on those that can translate into good photographs.

But my interaction with reporters also makes me aware of the essential ideas in their storytelling — ideas that might be illuminated through photographs. I find it essential to communicate with the reporters to try to identify important aspects of a place or personality intrinsic to the reporters’ stories.

Q: How would you characterize the way you approach a subject? The way you photograph?
A: Very carefully! This is the most delicate aspect of the work I’m doing for Searchlight. I approach people I want to photograph with an open, curious attitude, careful to not allow the camera to be an obstacle to developing a relationship. I try to make the camera a means of communication rather than a barrier to it. I am up-front about my intentions and strive to enlist the person I’m photographing in my task. It is of utmost importance to establish a relationship that is mutually satisfying, not a one-sided “taking.” I try to keep in mind what I used to tell my photography students: it’s more important to establish a good relationship than it is to get a good photograph.

If you have a positive, two-way connection with the person you’re photographing, there is a likelihood that you will get photographs that express authentic openness — a quality in a photograph that can’t be faked. And if you don’t get a good photograph, the good relationship makes it easier to ask if you can return and try again. One of the big challenges of news photography, though, is that you have to get a good picture and time is limited. It may not be possible to try again. But when I’m in this kind of a time bind, which is often, I might share my sense of urgency with the person I’m photographing to encourage them to work with me in the process of getting a good photograph. And I always try to follow up by sending a few photos to the person I’ve photographed.

Stephanie Baker and two of her sons at the soccer fields in Roswell. Stephanie, whose mother and grandmother were imprisoned when she was a teenager, began her reunification with her children just weeks after leaving the Springer Correctional Center.

Q: What’s the Searchlight assignment that’s been most challenging for you?
A: There have been many that were challenging but perhaps none more so than when I was photographing a woman with her children just a few weeks after the mother had been released from prison. I had visited her in the detention center, where she was upbeat and highly optimistic about reuniting with her three children after three years behind bars.

But by the time I came to visit the family, there were cracks forming in their initial exuberance over being together again. Some conflicts erupted between the siblings, there were tears, and one child had a full-on rebellious meltdown. It degenerated into a very tense scene as the mother struggled to handle the roller-coaster emotions, and I was right in the middle of it. I felt it was my responsibility — indeed, an opportunity — to capture some of the feelings in these difficult moments, but I didn’t want to be intrusive or exploitative. As tempers flared and frustration mounted, I kept photographing, discreetly, trying to stay removed and yet intimately engaged. At one point, the mother looked at me and grumbled, “They didn’t teach me how to deal with this in prison!”

Q: Is there a photograph from this past year that you’re particularly proud of?
The photograph of Kerianne Gardner, who lost her daughter Aurra to suicide a year or so before.  We took the photo in Aurra’s room, in front of a kind of a shrine. The grief was still palpable and I wanted to be sensitive to Kerrianne’s feelings. I was very fortunate that Kerianne was open and willing to work with me.

Kerianne Gardner in the bedroom of her deceased daughter Aurra. In 2017 Aurra was among 46 New Mexican youths between 10 and 19 who ended their own lives, and one of 16 who did so with a firearm; the youth suicide rate in New Mexico is double the national average.

In a conversation before I started shooting, Kerianne had told me that Aurra played the cello, and she showed me a video of her performing, so I asked if we could place the cello case in the photo. It seemed intrusive to ask Kerianne to stand by the cello or pose in a typical way, so I just let her sit and I stood behind her. My own emotions were running high as I contemplated the gravity of the loss for Kerianne and her two surviving daughters, who were in the other room.
We sat for a long minute or two. I took several frames of Kerianne from behind, but I felt it would make a more powerful photograph if I could show some of her face. My camera was in silent mode. Kerianne began to turn to look at me, and I saw that her eyes were closed. I knew that was the moment to take the photograph.

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Sara Solovitch is the editor of Searchlight New Mexico. She supervised its launch in January 2018 with the Child Well-Being Project, an investigation into the plight of children and families in New Mexico....