Photos in Service of Justice

Gordon Baer’s enduring effect

By Saad Ghosn

Gordon Baer. Photo by Saad Ghosn.

Mississippi 1, Mississippi 2, Mississippi 3: These are the words that introduced Gordon Baer to photography.

Baer was 8 years old when on a Saturday morning, accompanying his father to a meeting at the high school where he served as football coach, he heard these words coming from a room in the basement. He found out they were being pronounced by Brother Josephus teaching a student camera club, using the words to time the exposure of his photographs. Brother Josephus would then take a piece of white paper, put it in a water-like liquid, and an image will progressively appear. Baer was mesmerized.

Baer, a photojournalist, was born in Louisville, Ky. As a child he had an old box camera he used for assignments at the YMCA activity club he belonged to and for the yearbook in his Junior high school. Very early on he was also developing and exhibiting his own photographs.

Baer attended the University of Kentucky at Lexington, initially studying chemistry, then the University of Louisville, focusing on fine arts and photography. At both places he documented life on campus functioning as the student newspaper’s photographer.

In the beginning, his desire through photography was to organize and control people, telling them what to do; he soon realized, however, that the control he was seeking would be more powerfully achieved by controlling viewers’ emotions by the images he would create. His photos became full of feelings, focusing on social issues and ills, the human always at their center.

While a student at the University of Louisville, Baer interned as a photojournalist at the Louisville Courier. He met Shirley Williams, a writer, who took him to visit her family in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Kentucky. There he witnessed the battering and destruction of the rugged landscape by careless companies that had acquired the rights to mine the coal-rich area. The landowners had been lured to sign deeds allowing the underground exploitation of their land, not informed that new extraction technologies would make it unstable, causing mountaintops to run down the valley. They were angry, rebelling at the rape of their land and the pollution of their streams, and wanted to make their plight to the governor. Baer’s photographs spoke for them.

Not only were his 25 prints of the ravages he saw exhibited in the State Capitol; they were also flown to Washington, D.C., shared with Congress and the National Governors’ Conference. The photos helped accelerate passage of legislation controlling strip mining.

Baer also actively participated in the civil rights movement, attending marches, demonstrations and protests, documenting them and spreading their images. He had met Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who regularly visited Louisville, where his brother led a parish. Baer followed King to Washington, D.C., and captured in his photos the freedom march of 1963.

In 1965 Baer joined the Cincinnati Post as a photojournalist. This took him to various assignments, some mundane, others more socially concerned. One assignment was to photograph a family with an autistic child. Parents with such children were blaming themselves for their kids’ condition, Bruno Bettelheim, the renowned child psychiatrist, having theorized the disorder was linked to cold, uncaring parents. Aware of the often-unjustified sense of guilt this theory was generating, Baer instead showed in his photos the humane family environments of the affected children, depicting affectionate, loving, yet powerless parents.

During the Vietnam War, while based in Korea with the U.S. Air Force, Baer used his photographs to call attention to American soldiers often misbehaving, insensitive to and disrespectful of the local culture. He documented the abusive treatment and shattered lives of the many “comfort” women the war conditions had favored.

In the late ’70s Baer captured the enduring effects of war on returning Vietnam veterans. He attended group therapy sessions of vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, visited their homes, participating in their family lives, experienced firsthand their persistent nightmares. He quickly found out that the war had not ended for many of them, that it had installed itself in their living rooms, dreams, relationships. Baer reflected with eloquence and moving images their situation and daily turmoil. His photographs, exhibited in Washington, D.C., part of the Vietnam Memorial Dedication Display, earned him the prestigious Nikon World Understanding Award, “given to the photographer whose work best serves the common purposes of man.”

When visiting Louisiana, Mo., for a workshop, Baer focused his photography on a group of workers enrolled by corporations to farm Stark Apple Orchards. He documented their exploitation and poor treatment, worse than that of previous prisoners of what used to be a German prisoner-of-war camp.

In 2000 he did a moving series of photographs related to his dying aunt Beck, a reflection on the frailty of the aged human being, on mortality, also on the potential neglect of the elderly in impersonal and understaffed nursing homes.

Two years ago Baer was the moving force behind Shattered Myths, a show involving many local artists, including himself, dealing with the Iraq war and its deleterious effects on human beings, military and civilians alike.

In his works, Baer always advocates for the poor, the exploited, the abused – for the human in general. He also speaks loudly his opposition to violence of any sort. As he originally wanted, he was able to develop a strong photographic arm with which to touch the viewer, involve and implicate him into his images. Baer’s camera has always served as his strong voice.

“I was able to use the power of the photographic print to successfully transmit my messages, make people feel things I feel myself,” he says. “I am at a crossroads right now, not sure how to go. I want to start writing and put my wisdom in words. But whatever I do, I know that I will always focus on the individual’s rights, on peace in this world.”