Howard L. Bingham
December 21, 2000
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Where did you first meet and photograph Muhammad Ali?
I took my first photograph of Ali at the Sheridan Hotel in Los Angeles when he was there to fight George Logan. It was my first time meeting him.
You have photographed many high profile people over the years--which have given you the greatest inspiration?
I like people. People are wonderful. I like people who are sure of themselves. Really, meeting Muhammad Ali has been the highlight. But I would say another highlight was meeting Mr. Nelson Mandela. I met him first in 1991, when he came to Los Angeles after being released from prison. I was with Muhammad Ali when he met him here at an event. Mr. Mandela was a big fan of Ali's, and had asked to meet him. Robert De Niro had wanted Ali to come to New York for a surprise event for Mr. Mandela, but Ali was unable to go then, so we met him here in Los Angeles. Mr. Mandela has an aura about him. I'm happy I've had the opportunity to meet him.
The photograph you're looking at now is of Mr. Mandela and Bill Cosby, and I had to get into the picture too.
You must travel heaps. Do you like to travel a lot, or does it get tiresome?
I love to go! When I get a phone call, I go. Everything goes. Since Ali gave me my first plane flight in 1963, I've been on a plane ever since. In fact, I'm leaving here a couple of days after Christmas to meet Ali in New York, where he's going to drop the ball at Times Square on New Year's Eve.
Let's talk about the Mound Bayou picture. Mound Bayou, Mississippi is an all-black town in the delta. I was there in 1968 to photograph a story for LIFE magazine. I was to photograph the health center that was built by the Tufts University Medical School of Boston. Most of these people had never seen doctors or nurses. They didn't even have water to drink, so Tufts had helped them build wells, and had sent in lots of people to help refurbish their homes.
Here's a photograph of two little girls, crossing this busy highway. Every day, these people had to walk miles to get water. People take for granted the things we have. And here these people didn't have water to drink, and had to cross busy highways to get it.
What's in your camera bag right now?
In my camera bag is my Kodak 620x digital camera. I have a Nikon N90s. I have an 80-200 zoom, a 20-35 zoom, a Nikon 28 flash, and some batteries for my digital camera. Also, film and some digital cards to put my digital pictures on. I really haven't gone fully digital yet. I'd say 75\% film to 25\% digital. But I was at the Olympics in Sydney, and I shot a lot of digital pictures there.
This picture you see now is of a young lady, 15 years old. She's holding her baby, who was about 4 or 5 months old. You can't see it, but she has a wooden leg. What was interesting was that all these homes had pictures of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy in them.
Why do you call yourself the "Forrest Gump" of photojournalism?
I don't call myself that! I'm Howard Bingham who happens to be a photographer, and a lucky guy. I've been in the right places at the right time. Like when I met Cassius Clay, that was a big plus in my life. And his too! In fact, the reason he's where he is today is because of me! (Just kidding.)
Being with Ali and travelling with him, I've just been fortunate to meet a lot of people. I met Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, most of the Presidents since 1963. I met John F. Kennedy here in 1960, although he wasn't elected at the time. I met Nixon, Johnson, Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Mr. Clinton lots of times. A lot of times, because I'm with Ali and he's on the news, people see me and associate me with someone. Last year, I was with him at the ringing of the bell at the New York Stock Exchange to mark the end of the century. I'll be with Ali when he goes to England next month for the World Sports Awards.
You know, things happen, and I've been lucky. I think I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world. I don't do what I'm supposed to be doing, but I have fun. I think I'm one of the richest guys in the world to have the things I have and to document the things I have seen.
Here's a photograph of a home in Mound Bayou. I named it "Wishful Thinking" because these people have pictures of canned goods on their walls. People didn't have a lot of food to eat there. One of the things Tufts College did was to bring in a lot of farm equipment and teach the people how to farm. This ran in March 1969 in LIFE Magazine, and I made the Editor's Note that day. It was interesting because I was just coming back to Mound Bayou from voting, and driving down Highway 61, I saw a prison on the side of the road and these guys in chains. Guards with rifles were there, so I pulled my car over, got my camera out, and was about to take some pictures. They yelled at me to get back in the car, and I got! I was very nervous driving. But you know, here on the West Coast, I've never seen anything like that--people in prison uniforms, in a chain gang.
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