Mother Teresa by David Binder
Photography by David Binder

Digital and Physical Photography Available Now

David Binder’s Mother Teresa, Jackie-O & Julia Child

OnChain Magazine Editor-in-Chief Ceslie Armstrong talks with the fine art photographer and filmmaker who recently released iconic photos as NFTs

by | 24 Aug, 2022

This show and story part of the OnChain Media+Entertaiment “Women of Authenticity” series.

Ceslie Armstrong: I’m speaking with one of my favorite people on the planet: the acclaimed photographer, photojournalist, filmmaker, and fine art photographer, David Binder. I’d love for you to share — first hand — a bit of your personal journey in your photography career.

David Binder: I don’t think it’s necessarily unusual with photographers to pick up a camera at a very young age. For me, I was 13 years old when I picked up a camera for the first time. I started playing, and it just opened a world to me. I grew up in Michigan and we would get two newspapers every day and multiple magazines every week — so journalism and news was important to me growing up. When I discovered the camera, it paved the way.

By the time I was 15, I was working for a weekly newspaper and in high school, I worked for my hometown daily and I was off to the races. There was no hesitation. It was just inspiring to do that. I certainly grew up with great photojournalists. The local newspaper, The Flint Journal had great photographers. I’ll still say some of the best darkrooms I’ve ever worked at in my life were that newspaper. I loved that time.

CA: Some of the images you’ve captured are so incredibly important. What was the transition like from being a photojournalist on assignment to shooting whatever you wanted? And how did that change you as a photographer?

DB: I think it’s a constant struggle to find a balance between doing the work as you see it and fulfilling jobs where you have a mandate from a publication that may have a different viewpoint. The singular satisfaction for me in doing project work (without obligation to anybody) is that I maintain the context of it from front to back. When it winds up in print, I have control over that to a degree. When you work on assignment, you don’t have control. The editing is huge. You can make the same pictures look totally different in the way they’re edited, the way they’re placed. What’s left out, what’s left in — it changes the context of everything.

CA: That’s so interesting when you say ‘Responsibility to the subjects.’ Here you are, an award-winning, very successful, lauded professional in your field. I constantly question what makes a photographer’s body of work important and have longevity. I believe it’s this intensity, this skill, how they treat things — the whole package of it. When you look through a newspaper, a book, even a documentary film — and you’re a documentary filmmaker as well — a talented photographer, cinematographer and storyteller has a recognizable signature and style in how they create the work. Do you feel your style is continuously changing over time or do you feel like you have honed a signature style?

DB: I love hearing that, Ceslie. I get lost in my work, and when I finish something, I don’t look back on it. I don’t reflect back on a style. My singular goal is to engage viewers with the work. Again, the difference between art and journalism (to me) is the engagement with the public. Crafting documentary film — where the subjects recognize themselves as portrayed honestly and truthfully — is crucial to the success of a piece.

David Binder

CA: What you’re saying is so compelling, because you’re taking us on this journey to see beyond the façade. I’ve worked with photographers my whole career and every single one of them is different in their art and their style. But there are things that are common threads that they share. And one of them is this yearning, this wanting to get to the next level. To be able to intrinsically tell the story is like a chase. Do you feel that way? Do you feel an urgency?

DB: Absolutely — it becomes more and more challenging for a myriad of reasons. I don’t know if I think about it as a chase; it’s the art of hanging out. You’re just present and you make pictures during that time. It’s just a matter of what I need to be able to produce.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta | Photography by David Binder
CA: Let’s talk about our ‘Women of Authenticity’ series that you’re participating in and about Mother Teresa. When you first showed these images to me, I literally lost my breath. They are so incredible. They are beautiful and different while compelling and emotional. Tell us all about that day. What was that like?
DB: This dovetails with the balance between assignment work and (for lack of a better description) personal work and how to balance those things out. In a news situation, which is what the Mother Teresa appearance was, there were tons of photographers there. These are the managed photo opportunity moments and there are tons of cameras, tons of lenses focused on those photo opportunities. Being on the job, I need to deliver; that’s my number-one responsibility. I need to deliver pictures. But how do I make something that’s different? How can I be in a different position than all the other cameras? That’s what I try to do. I’m assuming other people do as well, but in the Mother Teresa situation it was in a church, it was during mass. I was young and it may have been the first mass I had ever been in. I’m a Jewish kid, right? Not an experience that I’ve had. At some point, Mother Teresa walked up to the pulpit and you can just hear the rush of all the cameras. Everybody goes up and I look and I think, ‘What’s going on?’ She was going to communion, but I didn’t know. I missed that shot, but it’s okay because the pictures that I made were more intimate and more personal. Hopefully they transcend that particular press opportunity — which is what we were all doing in that situation. Trying to find a position, a different angle, something more intimate than the photo opportunity — that is the reason we show up to these.
Mother Teresa speaks to reporters after a mass in the USA | Photography by David Binder
Mother Teresa holds her prayer beads | Photography by David Binder
Mother Teresa reflecting | Photography by David Binder

“Being on the job, I need to deliver; that’s my number-one responsibility. I need to deliver pictures. But how do I make something that’s different? How can I be in a different position than all the other cameras? That’s what I try to do.’’ – David Binder

CA: I have to say David, when I saw the first two images I literally thought they were portrait sittings. I think our audience will agree with me that they are so intimate. To me, these images show an intimacy, a sereneness and there’s an importance. Being black and white is even more stunning and appropriate. It seems to me they really are more of the style of fine art, portraiture-type photography, with the exception of one of the images that I absolutely love, which is the one with the microphones in front of Mother Teresa. That one is a bit of a departure, but the look on her face is really quite something. Tell us about the emotion behind the lens. When you’re in the room with someone like Mother Teresa, how do you keep calm and capture the moment?

DB: First of all, your assessment of these photographs is a measure of success to me in that you take those feelings away from seeing them. That’s everything, right? That’s the point of the photographs. So that’s fantastic — and what’s interesting is that it’s rare to hear feedback from viewers of your photographs so it’s just awesome to hear that.
Mother Teresa praying | Photography by David Binder

CA: I think for a subject as important as Mother Teresa, it’s important that these images continue to live on. You may have once thought that when you made an image it was for the present but now with blockchain technology, you’re able to actually activate it. How does that make you feel?

D: It’s fantastic. I’m so looking forward to this too. People are starved and hungry for photographs and stories. The death of American newspapers, or the challenge of American newspapers, has been sad for me. People are hungry to connect more now than ever and this NFT marketplace just reminds us of it. It’s a wonderful opportunity to engage with photographs, engage with the community, and engage with other photographers around the stories of the photographs. I’m very excited about what’s happening now, and the future.

Jackie Onassis beams with pride at her son, John, as he is introduced at the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Awards at the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, MA in 1991| Photography by David Binder
CA: You have this beautiful candid image of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I’ll let you describe it, but she’s sitting with children and it’s later in her life and she’s just looking adoringly at her son, John Kennedy, who we all know has also passed. Tell us about that image.
DB: Absolutely. It’s actually another perfect example of being on the opposite side of the room from where all the other photographers were. The photograph was made at the annual Profile in Courage Award ceremony at the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and John Jr. and Caroline are seated on one side of the podium. The expected photograph is from the opposite side of my view, looking down the profiles of the three of them — that is the classic image that came out of that moment. There certainly were enough photographers on the other side of the room; I just hoped that a moment would happen. I’m just waiting, focused on Jacqueline Kennedy. And she just turns and shows this loving look to her son. I love that photograph very much. I think her personality comes out in that moment. She as a proud mother comes out in that moment.

“Jackie just turns and shows this loving look to her son. I love that photograph. She as a proud mother comes out in that moment.” – David Binder

CA: It’s really something in that I think these are the moments in time that people want to own and collect. Knowing the story behind the image for people who will collect the image, it also brings back a moment in time. Whether one was alive during the Kennedy era in America or not, or if you’ve heard stories of it or you’re just fond of it, this is something that resonates with people on a personal level, because in one way or another, so many people, even around the world, were touched by the presidency of John Kennedy and by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. And then decades later by her as a mom. I think you said it very well. The moment that I saw that image for the first time, when you showed it to me, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s a mom look, a proud mom look.’ When I see your image of the proud mom with both of her children at the Kennedy Library, well, one couldn’t ask for a better image. So I’m so excited that we’re able to bring that to the public in the form of an NFT and that they’ll be able to interact with it and love it as much as we do. Now I want to talk about Julia Child. Will you tell us about the session you had with her?

Julia Child | Photography by David Binder
DB: I happened to have lived a few blocks away from Julia Child, outside of Harvard Square, when I got the assignment to photograph her during an interview with a reporter. She had forgotten about this interview with the reporter and the photoshoot — but she was so easy! I got [to her house] before the writer and as I’m setting up all my gear, [Julia] is talking to herself, trying to figure out what she’s going to make for this reporter. She decides she’s going to make a salad Niçoise. She cracks open a can of tuna and puts the ingredients on a plate. The writer came over — and it was the most extraordinary meal he had ever had in his life — and Julia and I glanced at each other because we know the nature of what’s going on. She was a blast and it was a great day to spend in Julia Child’s kitchen, watching her.

“I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with Julia Child in her home in Cambridge, MA. Her personality was a treat, with a great sense of humor.” – David Binder

CA: Wow. It’s amazing. I don’t think I’m alone in seeing that the imperfections of Julia Child are also the magic of Julia Child. This woman who has done so much in her life breaking barriers and being this American woman in France. When I see the film that you have of Julia Child, there’s a familiarity and closeness that I see from the images that you made, versus so many others that are out there. I think she must have liked you David.

DB: That’s good to know.

CA: It kind of comes through.

This group of images of Julia Child was taken at her home in Cambridge, MA, in 1990. I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with her as she niçoise for a magazine story. Her personality was a treat, with a great sense of humor. | Photography by David Binder
DB: Absolutely. With Julia Child, who was a hoot, it’s the same thing. How do you make a special picture of Julia Child in her kitchen? She’s been photographed countless times — how do you allow the viewer to see this as a tangible connection, to feel connected to Julia Child? I think about the Jackie-O picture too, in terms of what my assignment is. My job, as I see it, is to penetrate through the masks. Jackie Onassis is an icon, photographed millions of times. How do you make a picture of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that can seem personal or intimate or something more than just that icon image? That’s what I try to do.

CA: So well accomplished, so totally achieved. Thank you for sharing these stories with our audience. It’s very much appreciated, David.

DB: Absolutely, my pleasure. I’m looking forward to this whole experience and connecting with more and more people out there.