TIME LightBox talks to Steve Schapiro as part of our series “The Photo That Made Me“, in which photographers tell us about the one photograph they made that they believe jump-started their career, garnered them international attention, or simply sparked an interest in photography.
I always seem to talk about the elements that make a good photograph: emotion, design, information; and the importance of covering subjects you really care about. When I was a teenager, it seemed to me, that the most an aspiring young photographer could hope for was to work for LIFE magazine. In 1961, when I was 25, I assigned myself a self-project: to photograph a migrant camp in Arkansas, and then to somehow show the pictures to an editor at LIFE.
I cared about the migrant situation. The brutally hard work, low pay and particularly the plight of migrant children, constantly on the go with little hope of a decent education. I spent four weeks in Arkansas, and when I came back to New York and processed the film, I saw that my photographs conveyed what I had hoped they would. A small Catholic magazine, Jubilee, printed “The Migrants” as my very first photo essay, giving it a full eight pages – and the New York Times picked one of the photos for the cover of its Magazine section.
The picture I loved most from the entire take was “The Bean Pickers,” which had all the elements I had hoped to include in a single photograph.The moment I saw how that picture came out, I knew that I could make photography my profession. Soon after, LIFE did give me a photo assignment and many others followed after that.
Steve Schapiro is a Chicago-based photographer whose work is included in the collections of the Smithsonian, The High Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.
As told to Michelle Molloy, Senior Photo Editor for TIME International