For Vilcabamba photographer Thomas Ives, following his heart and conscience changed his career

Sep 23, 2015 | 0 comments

By David Morrill

Although Thomas Ives built a solid reputation as a photo journalist for such magazines as National Geographic, Newsweek, Time, Life, Forbes, and the Smithsonian, his real interests often diverged from those of the corporate news industry.

Thomas Ives

Thomas Ives in Vilcabamba, September 2015. Photo credit: Patricia McCormick

From an early age, Ives was consumed with curiosity about the world, its history and its people, and has spent much of his life on the road. The passion took him to Europe, Japan, Cuba, Africa, the Middle East, Nicaragua, Southeast Asia, New Zealand and Albania, the trips often associated with historic events.

He was also drawn to humanistic causes, including the conditions of the homeless, victims of war, and poverty.

In every location, for every cause, Ives carried his camera with him.

“I wanted to witness important events, to see how they changed peoples’ lives and shaped the future,” Ives says. He was in Albania months before the most repressive dictatorship of old-guard Stalinism collapsed. He was in Nicaragua to cover the revueltas movement against President Violeta Chamorro, and he made several trips to Cuba to document the social changes after the Russians withdrew their financial support.

Early in his career, Ives believed he could combine his personal interests with a career as a professional photographer. He opened a commercial studio in Tucson, Arizona where he developed his craft while continuing to travel and shoot. Once he felt he had a strong portfolio, he headed to New York City and walked his images around to the major news and feature magazines.

Duly impressed, Newsweek agreed to let Ives cover a visit by President Ronald Reagan’s controversial Secretary of the Interior James Watts to the Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona. Watt’s showed up dressed as a cowboy and Ives’ was more than happy to capture the irony of the moment. At least for a while, it confirmed his hope that photo journalism could be used to tell the truth as he saw it.

Ives in Havana in 1990.

Ives in Havana in 1990.

As his reputation grew, so did Ives’ assignment list. “My work for Newsweek was seen by other domestic and foreign news and feature magazines and my work-load snowballed.” Early in his career, he covered the Four Corners area of the Southwest, as well as northern Mexico, for dozens of magazines.

As a freelancer, Ives was able to pick subjects of personal interest and, as the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approached in 1985, he decided to visit Japan to create a written and photographic record of the impact the bombings had on the hibakusha, the atomic bomb survivors.

“I used the anniversary to highlight the fact that it was the first use ever of catastrophic weapons of mass destruction on a civilian population,” Ives says.  “It was the most amazing pilgrimage to sit and hear the stories of people who had lived through those nightmares. It affected me deeply, both personally and professionally.”

Newsweek used Ives' cover shot for the Hiroshima anniversary, but not his photo essay.

Newsweek used Ives’ cover shot for the atomic bombing anniversary, but not his photo essay.

Newsweek was impressed too and bought an unprecedented 8-page layout of photos and text from Ives’ Japanese project. Then, the magazine made what seemed like an inexplicable about-face. “They killed the story,” Ives said, offering the explanation that the story’s alloted space had been bumped by President Ronald Reagan’s recent diagnosis with colon cancer and the sensational news of actor Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS. The magazine agreed only to use Ives’ cover shot of a wrist watch with its hands frozen to the instant that the Hiroshima bomb exploded.

Years later, Ives got the real story from a trusted source at Newsweek. The feature was killed as a result of a phone call from the White House. Reagan, it turned out, didn’t like the Japanese and thought the story about atomic bomb survivors would encourage sympathy.

The rejection was a turning point in Ives’ career.

“I realized that my interests and those of the mainstream media were not the same. To be honest, I’d seen no evolution in my personal photographic style and I also saw no evolution in the magazines I was working for … it had become ho hum,” he says.

Although Ives continued to take pictures, they were of subjects he was personally interested in. “I was more receptive to the muse and began seeing more with my heart.” He also took up writing, at one point writing every day for six months during a trip to Vietnam and South East Asia. “I was finally working for myself,” he said.

An image titled "Self Portrait from Waiting Rooms" exhibited at a Sydney art gallery.

An image abstracted in camera, titled “Self Portrait from Waiting Rooms” exhibited at a Sydney art gallery in 2008.

With the introduction of digital photography in the late 1990s, Ives became intrigued by the possibilities to incorporate new artistic elements into into his photographs.

“I think that digital technology played a major part in re-kindling my love of the medium,” he says.  “As soon as I picked up a professional digital camera I realized that here was a tool I could use to create art within the camera; it was almost as if I’d been waiting for it to arrive.”

The new passion launched Ives into the art world. Living on a small island in New Zealand at the time, Ives produced a fourteen-page spread of abstract ocean water images for New Zealand Geographic Magazine. The public acclaim from the work pushed him to further explore the intersection between photography, painting and the liminal. In 2008, he began showing his work at galleries in Sydney, Australia and again, the reviews were glowing.

Ives photographing brothers in Vilcabamba.

Ives photographing brothers in Vilcabamba.

Soon, however, Ives began to feel the same conflict between heart and head he had experienced working with the news media. The art world, especially its business side, is a stern mistress, he found, and after some soul searching, he stepped away. “I realized it would consume me,” he said. “I had been through that before and didn’t want to go there again.”

He hit the road, traveling between the Antipodes and Europe for two years. Then, in 2012, he landed in Vilcabamba.

“After more than 38 years on the road, working for major international news and feature magazines, then following my own interests, I’ve finally unpacked in Vilcabamba,” Ives says. “It feels good. It feels like the small town I grew up in in Ohio. For me, the place manifests the heartbeat of Ecuadorian Andean culture. What takes place here is reassuringly universal rather than place-specific.”

El Cine de Vilcajovens Mar 2013

A Saturday night crowd at El Cine de Vilca-Jovens.

As he has for most of his life, Ives continues to take pictures, although now it’s at his own pace and subjects of his own choosing. “My images share traits that most of us long to be reunited with: sharing, family, natural beauty, familiarity of ritual, friendship, and an unhurried pace of life,” he says. He finds these traits easy to find in Vilcabamba, reflected in the local scenery and lifestyle.

In addition to his photography, Ives has been busy following his interest in providing a public service to the community. In 2013, he founded El Cine de Vilca-Jovens, Saturday night screenings of non-violent films in Spanish for local kids, ages 6 to 12. The project drew as many as 90 attendees to the early viewings and continued for a year-and-a-half before the “novelty wore off,” as he puts it.

Ives says he is looking around for a new project and believes he’ll find one. “There’s no rush this time,” he says.


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