It was Eli Reed's first week in El Salvador Reed, a photographer with the San Francisco Examiner, decided to hail a taxi along with two other journalists to investigate the source of gunfire heard moments earlier. The trio hopped in a cab, and the car moved through the city of San Salvador, heading for the portion of town known as the "combat zone." The buriy Reed noticed that the rear window had been previously shot out and there was a bullet hole in the roof.
The journalists arrived at the zone, driving around uneventfully for more than an hour Suddenly, most of the other cars in the street sped up considerably and started passing the cab in an effort to evacuate the area. Reed glanced up and saw soldiers on top of a nearby hill He sensed trouble and ordered the driver to catch up to the rest of the traffic.
Half a minute later, seven shots were fired at the car from a high vantage point somewhere to the rear. Recounting the incident a year later. Reed says he crouched under the dashboard of the Datsun for the next block, as the driver weaved through traffic at 50 miles per hour.
Reed, who at 36 is now taking a year-long sabbatical from journalism as one of Harvard's Nileman fellows, is no stranger to dangerous situations. His journey to El Salvador was part of a more extensive three-month trip he took with six other Examiner journalists through Central America last year. He also covered the Liberty riots in Miami. He spent time in San Francisco's "Pink Place" housing project for a series of photo essays which finished second in last year's Pulitzer Prize ballotting.
"When you live on the edge, it doesn't mean taking foolhardy chances." Reed says, explaining confidently how he takes the danger in stride. "You have to use your instincts. At times, it felt like I'd toss a coin and decide. 'To hell with it, just go ahead.'"
Reed grew up in a poor family in the industrial city of Perth Amboy. N.J. As early as the age of 13, he says, he wanted to be a photographer--a desire documented in his eighth-grade yearbook. He took no photography courses in high school, however, and he began his formal training from a Newark art school only after his graduation.
His first break with a newspaper came in 1977, when he landed a job with the Middletown. NY Times-Herald A stint at The Detroit News followed, and he has been at Examiner since 1980.
Reed says his highest ambition in photography is to capture what life is like for people in places throughout the world. "It's important for pictures to go beyond the statistics," he says. "I may be showing people something they may not like, but that's what is there."
This was part of his reason he says he asked to go on the assignment to Central America. He wanted not only to produce "shot up, bang-bang journalism" but also to capture "the feeling of the people trying to live there." A recent honor which Reed received seems to suggest that his desire to depict the human-side of tragedy is not just a goal but a talent. Earlier this year he won the prestigious Nikon World Understanding award for his Central American shots.
Because Blacks are rare in El Salvador. Reed says he could have encountered more trouble than most journalists. People often assume that any Blacks in the country are Cubans, and thus communists, he says. In the government controlled capital city of San Salvador, that is the equivalent of persona non grata. Reed kept his press identification highly visible, and so he had little trouble in this regard. In general he says the people were very warm and friendly.
Still, he was aware he had to be cautious at all times When following a soldier down the street for example Reed says he was always sure to say to the side of the pavement. It he walked down the center he risked getting shot. He also had to make sure the soldier didn't mind him taking a picture If the subject shook his head Reed would quickly move away.
Reed recalls one instance he had to chase after a group of troops to get a shot. "I asked myself, Do you know what you're doing? Do you want to know? "he says. "But I kept running." He goes on to explain that some journalists who come to El Salvador harden themselves to the strife. "I don't get numb," Reed says flatty. "I am shocked too. But I'm trained to do my job, and if I don't, who else will?"
For Reed, the foreign nature of most aspects of Central American life were contrasted every now and then by familiar bits and pieces of U.S culture that have spread to the area Coca Cola, a couple of first run movies, a poor quality Pink Floyd cassette. All these things provided welcome reminders of home.
But one American product Reed brought with him to El Salvador was not favorably received his bullet-proof vest. These are illegal in the country, for fear they will fall in the hands of the rebels. "I wasn't expecting an assassination attempt." Reed explains. "But I knew I'd be covering dangerous stories, and a bullet-proof vest was a tool of my trade."
The vest was confiscated at the airport. But, Reed recalls, the soldiers used armor-piercing shells anyway. He laughs boldly when he recalls this--something which suggests the lack of emphasis he puts on his own welfare and safety when capturing often devastating human adversity. Through his own modesty and even more through his pictures, he seems determined to promote slices of life otherwise scorned or ignored.
In photographing how others make their was through life in difficult circumstances, he says, he has found "there is good where you thought there was only bad."