Blog posts



Hi all,

I've been too busy working to post any photos lately.

I'll be traveling in late December and early January. First in Maine with family and then I'll be on assignment in the former Soviet country of Georgia during their Presidential election.

I'll be back in Madison and accepting assignments after Jan 8. You can best reach me by email.

Happy new holiday christmas year merries!


Artists are so fine

Nell and Laine Curtis, UW undergraduate senior dance majors and identical twin sisters. 2002.
I've added a new group of photos to my portfolio: artists and the arts. Dancers, musicians, painters, writers. I love shooting this kind of stuff – it's always fun to work with other creative people.

P.S. A note to the curious: no digital manipulation was used in the above photo. Just a plain, old multiple exposure recorded on a piece of film. (Remember film?)


Living high on the Ogg

I recently shot photos for UW University Housing of the new Ogg residence hall. This new dorm opened in August to replace the old Ogg, the 42-year-old, 13-floor dinosaur across the street. We shot three groups of students studying, hanging out, and playing games in their dorm rooms. 3 rooms in less than 3 hours.

My background is as a photojournalist. Usually I tend to shoot in a very documentary style, just waiting for events to unfold and getting myself in the right place to capture them. Working this way takes a lot of time and patience, waiting for the right moment to arrive.

For this shoot, it was a fun change of pace to work with an art director. (Jared Wold of University Housing, who was great to work with, by the way). We got the students where I wanted them for my shots, but after that I just encouraged them to relax and be themselves. The result, I hope, is photos that are well-lit and well-composed but still look fairly natural.

In this last photo, actually, we had just finished shooting in a room when a hallmate wandered in, offering cupcakes she had just baked. She was suprised to find herself in the middle of photos!

(Compare these new photos to some truly documentary photos I took in Sellery and Smith res halls in 2005 and 2006 during Move-in, and at the other end of the spectrum, see photos University Housing has used in the past, some of which look too posed for my taste.)


getting churched

This photo amuses me so I thought I'd share it with you.

This is a mistimed shot from a story I did for today's Wisconsin State Journal, about a new evangelical church in Sun Prairie. You can find my better photos and the newspaper story here. I'll plan to post more thoughts and photos soon.


Wisconsin Bookfest

This month I had the pleasure of photographing the Wisconsin Book Festival. Book readings are like theater — they bring the written word to life in this wonderful, intimate way. Back when I was single and childless, I used to read perhaps 40 books a year. Now, sadly, I'm lucky to get through four. So I'm grateful to the Wisconsin Humanities Council for hiring me and introducing me to some fab new authors. After the festival ended I immediately went to the library and checked out books by Michael Cunningham and Zakes Mda.

Pictured are authors Chimamanda Adichie (above right) talking with fans; Ana Castillo and Luis Urrea, during a panel; TC Boyle signing books; and my own brothers Peter and Davy Rothbart, doing their Found show.


documentary photo class

I will be teaching a documentary photography course at the UW Memorial Union as part of their minicourse program. The first class is Monday October 22, 6:30 to 9 pm. Sign up here.

Telling Stories Through Photos

Description: How can you make your photographs tell a story? Do you (sometimes) take great photos but wonder how to make them add up to something more? Explore documentary photo techniques like finding your subject, storytelling and editing, while having fun experimenting with your camera. We will focus on photojournalistic approaches, but the skills you learn will be applicable to any type of narrative documentary, personal, or fine art photography project. Designed for those comfortable with basic camera handling who want to create great images. Bring camera and your story ideas to first class. Digital SLR useful but not required.

Course meets every other week so that you can work on a story project between class sessions, 10/22, 11/5 and 11/19. (No class 10/29 & 11/12.) 3 Meetings.

INSTRUCTOR: Michael Forster Rothbart, former UW photographer, just returned from 4 months photographing Chernobyl.

There are still seats open. Please spread the word!
You can sign up for the class here.
The minicourse home page is here.


the monkey house

Former primate researcher Amy Kerwin is founder of the non-profit Primates Inc., which seeks to build a primate sanctuary in Wisconsin for retired research monkeys.
I shot a portrait of Amy Kerwin for today's issue of Isthmus. It accompanies an essay she wrote, Confessions of a UW primate researcher.

The editor wanted a photo of Amy holding a monkey doll. However, Amy feared that would make her look unprofessional, so instead I made some simple portraits of her and her very orange kitchen wall. In a portrait, I usually try to include some relevant element of a person's work or life. In this case, we added a poster showing the logo of Amy's non-profit.

The Isthmus preferred the simple shot of just Amy and her orange wall. See the photo and article here.


home, sweet home (page)

I had lunch last week on Madison’s Capitol square. I looked around at the lush green lawn and the pedestrians ambling past, all of us enjoying the summery day. And I thought: gosh, what a lovely place this is, this city between the lakes. Who would ever want to leave such a bucolic town?

Yes, it’s nice to be home.

Now I want to show off my other new home: my new web page is now online at Please come visit!

(We are still working out a few kinks, so if you break anything, please let me know what page you were on and what happened — or failed to happen).


Lord of the Rings

Film scholar Kristin Thompson.

My first paid assignment since returning to Madison was a cover story for this week's Isthmus, Madison's weekly newspaper. An interview with Kristin Thompson, a film researcher based at UW-Madison.

(Thompson gets an office but, as she told me, "I promise not to teach and they promise not to pay me.") She has just written The Frodo Franchise, about the marketing of the Lord of the Rings. She is a fascinating woman; if you're interested in film, check out the blog she runs with her husband David Bordwell:

I knew the above photo was too artsy for the cover, but I hoped they would use it inside. Here is what they actually used:

Read the whole Isthmus article here.

Lighting info: I used a digital projector to shine a LOTR image from my laptop on to the wall behind Thompson, then used an off-camera flash with a tight snoot, at right, to light her. Flash fired by Pocket Wizards.


worst polluted places

A dosimeter shows the current radiation level outside the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. In the background is Fourth Block of the plant, where the Chernobyl accident occurred on April 26, 1986 during an ill-advised late night safety test. After 21 years, the radiation outside the plant remains high enough that stopping here for more than a brief period is not recommended.
Today the Blacksmith Institute released their annual list of the worst polluted places on the planet. It should surprise no one to see Chernobyl on the list. I've been working with Blacksmith to prepare for this news release, and they wanted half a dozen of my photos to accompany the story. In the end, however, they chose a gritty B&W photo of a mutated boy in Belarus as the lead image.

People equate radiation with birth defects, but as usual, the truth is a lot more complicated. I've yet to find good statistics on the rates of birth defects around Chernobyl, but they are not as common as you'd believe after seeing such photos. In my 4 months around Chernobyl, I looked for but did not find a single mutant.


going down

We've now made it home to Wisconsin, where our yard is full of mosquitoes and our attic full of boxes.

Since our return I've been pondering what photo I could post to sum up our experience of life in the former Soviet Union. This is it.

It’s a typical scene from Kazakhstan. You walk into the entryway of an apartment building or an office building. The front steps are crumbling, the paint is peeling. It smells like something died in the basement. If there is an elevator, and if it looks like it works, you squeeze through the narrow doorway and the door bangs shut behind you.

The interior of the elevator is gloomily lit by a single orange bulb. In the half-dark you search for the floor you want, and discover that after five or six decades of grimy fingers, the numbers have long since worn off the white plastic buttons. You take a guess, hit a button and the light gets even dimmer as a motor shudders to life somewhere below.

On the way back down you take the stairs.

In this case, in an academic office building in Almaty, someone got fed up. I can imagine her, pulling a bottle of fingernail paint out of her purse and hastily scrawling numbers on the wall as the elevator creaks slowly upwards.

I did not notice the blank button below 5 until later, looking at this photo. Who, I would like to know, works on floor four and a half?


Leaving Kazakhstan (or not)

This is a (nearly) aerial view of Almaty at night, as seen from about 10,000 feet, on the road to Kosmostansia and Big Almaty Peak.
I have a long painful story to tell, but it hasn’t ended yet, so here is a brief version:

I spent Thursday packing in preparation for leaving Kazakhstan. I had a ticket on the Friday early morning flight from Almaty to Kyiv on UM Air. 3:30 am departure. But when I got to the airport at 1:30 am, there was no sign of the flight. In fact, no sign of the airlines.

After some asking around, I finally learned my flight was cancelled. Not ‘cancelled’ in the usual sense, due to bad weather or equipment failure. Cancelled. Period. UM Air used to fly 3 roundtrip flights a week, Ukraine to Kazakhstan and back. Now they fly twice. Friday is the unlucky day that got cut from the team. I’m the unlucky guy who didn’t know. Sure my ticket says Friday, but that doesn’t help much if there is no one to take it from me. Next flight: Sunday. So much for my plans to visit Chernobyl on Saturday.

Then I ran into problems caused by the fact that I had left behind all my remaining Kazakh tenge. And I had no more minutes on my cell phone. Eventually I made it back home (glad to still have a home to return to, since Amy and Jacob don’t leave until Tuesday), climbed up the four flights of stairs with my four heavy bags and went to bed.

And now it is Sunday morning. My new flight, also scheduled to leave at 3:30 am, is currently 8 hours delayed. The plane is still in Kyiv, as far as anyone can tell me.


Although I’ve had mixed feelings about leaving Kazakhstan, I’ve discovered that there is nothing like getting stuck somewhere 2 days longer than you’d planned to make you eager to leave.



I just returned from a fascinating week in the Semey Polygon, the former Soviet nuclear testing zone. I'll get some pictures up eventually. The next 2 weeks, I'll be traveling: Kyiv, Chernobyl, Frankfurt, Boston, Detroit, and Ann Arbor, before we finally land back in Madison in early September.

So don't expect to hear from me for awhile.


Chernobyl panoramas

Boats used in the clean-up after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 were too radioactive to continue using. Now they are rusting away in the Chernobyl former town harbor.
The experience of visiting Chernobyl is hard to capture in a photograph. Everywhere you look, there are buildings crumbling, courtyards becoming forests, abandoned vehicles, rusted out and stripped of spare parts. It can be creepy, walking through apartments where families once lived, bits of clothes and furniture still scattered about. It can be remarkably tranquil, walking down a once-main street with moss growing on the pavement and no sounds but the birds.

Photographing the absence of people is like photographing radiation: it is tough to show what you can't see.

I wanted to show people what the Chernobyl zone actually looks like now. I decided I needed to step outside of the usual 35mm rectangle to do it.

So this summer I have been working with web designer Dave Menninger. We've created a web page with a series of panoramas showing Chernobyl and Pripyat, the town where Chernobyl workers once lived:

We'll continue to add new panoramas to the page as we have time to work on them. Let me know what you think.


I'll drink to that

A group of Kazakh, Uzbek and Russian friends enjoy a Sunday afternoon beside Lake Issyk in the Ili-Alatau National Park, Kazakhstan. Here, Lola and her new boyfriend Nurik down another shot of vodka.
Any outing in the former soviet union requires alcohol. Usually vast quantities of vodka, drunk straight down. It doesn't matter what it is: a birthday, a wedding, a graduation, of course, but also, a bus ride, a picnic, an interview, meeting an old friend or meeting anyone, for that matter. It is rude to refuse. Not that I don't try. In order to get this shot, I had to consume several more shots than I'd have liked. Lola grabbed me by the wrist and wouldn't let go until I had downed every drop.

Members of a Raion Election Commission in Ala Buka, Jalal Abad oblast, Kyrgyzstan, make celebratory vodka toasts after an inspection by international observers from OSCE.
It reminds me of an old photo I recently rescanned. After we grilled a group of commissioners in a remote Kyrgyz town about how they were corrupting the election, they insisted on taking us up to an isolated mountain pass. It would have been a good spot to shoot us from behind and bury us under boulders. Instead, they drank copious amounts of vodka and pressured us to follow suit.



I hate to brag, but... who am I kidding, I love to brag. Just don't do it often enough. A photo of mine graces the (back) cover of a new book officially released today by Harvard University Press: Henry Kissinger and the American Century, by UW professor Jeremi Suri. The photo is a boring one, author photos usually are.

I think it is because I grew up in a household that revered books: I always feel a special pleasure when my photos are used on book jackets. But I must admit, the talking portrait I shot of Suri for UW in 2005 was more interesting.


chilling out

Serik Baizhanov of Almaty, Kazakhstan, enjoys a (very brief) swim in Lake Issyk, in the Ili-Alatau National Park about 60 km (35 miles) from Almaty.

Lake Issyk is at 1760 meters (5,775 ft) elevation, fed by glaciers on nearby 4978–meter (16,332-foot) Talgar Peak; the water is a frigid 9 degrees Celsius (48 F). Despite the chilly water, I also went for a swim. It took me 15 minutes to get myself in, and 15 seconds to get back out!


shooting the moon

The full moon lights a radio telescope and the peaks above the GAISH Astronomical Observatory in the Zhungarsky Alatau mountains outside Almaty, Kazakhstan. Above the observatory is 3954-meter (12,972-foot) Peak Turist. This photograph was taken in the middle of the night, with an 8-second-long exposure to capture the starlight.



Gulzhana (surname withheld) sells pirated DVDs from a sidewalk stand in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. “We sell videos for 70 som [US $1.85] for each one. Every day I sell about fifteen. We buy them for 50 som [US $1.32]. Gulzhana sells films in Russian, Kyrgyz and Uzbek. Each DVD typically contains eight to ten movies. "There are no legal DVDs sold in Kyrgyzstan," says my friend Buajar Bekova, "just good illegal copies and bad illegal copies."
As a photographer, I think a lot about copyright. By putting my photos up online, I am aware that anyone could take them and use them without credit. It is a risk I am willing to take.

However, the film industry clearly has reason to be worried: consider US $18.2 billion in losses from piracy in 2005. Anyone with a high-speed internet connection can download films for next to nothing. While I’m sympathetic to the MPAA, and they've done a lot of work on enforcement, their outreach efforts strike me as ridiculous.

Their educational campaigns (“You can click but you can’t hide”)

and recruitment efforts (theater employees can win $300 if they take an anti-camcorder quiz)
5. True or False: If you spot illegal movie recording in your theater, you should do whatever is necessary, including using force, to stop the suspect.

are not going to stem this tide of DVD vendors on every street corner.

What would work? Perhaps undermining the illegal market by making legal copies available at affordable prices? Perhaps creating a micro-enterprise distribution system that could get legal film copies to vendors like Gulzhana in Bishkek?

I spoke with Drew Sullivan, an expert on human trafficking based in Sarajevo. Admittedly, I will lose more sleep over sex slaves than cheap movies, but the principles are similar. Drew told me, “the traffickers are always three steps ahead of the governments. To disrupt the trade, we need to make it so the business is no longer financially lucrative.”


seeing the light

Calling all photographers:

For the last six months I've been reading the excellent strobist blog run by David Hobby, a Baltimore Sun photographer. It's essentially an ongoing, online lighting seminar, with an associated flickr discussion group.

Some of the material offers a good basic introduction to lighting and some of it is more complex (but still understandable!) His On Assignment section has some interesting demos of how he lit his shots. I get new ideas every time I read it, and there are always great discussions about technique with pros and amateurs. Frankly, I've been humbled by some of the great work that hobbyists are putting up there. (For instance, here is a recent fave.)

This week, David is starting a Lighting 102 seminar. Check it out.


Buddha and the beasts

Buddhist meditation at Tamgaly Tas.
Two thousand years ago, before the Mongols, before the Russians, Kazakhstan was a Buddhist land. Today only a few signs remain from this period.

Tamgaly Tas is an archaeological site with Buddhist petroglyphs, on cliffs beside the Ili river. The barren spot downstream from Lake Kapchagai is frequented mostly by fishermen, picnickers and rock climbers, all of whom leave an enormous amount of garbage in their wake.

So today I followed a group of 35 Kazakhstanis and foreigners who participated in a trash cleanup at Tamgaly Tas. The group was wildly diverse -- a local Buddhist monk, an intern for Halliburton, an archaeologist, a fashion designer, representatives from assorted embassies and Kazakhstan's one-man Green Party. During the cleanup, organized by climatologist Renato Sala of the Laboratory of Geoarchaeology, the volunteers filled a truck with bags of garbage and took part in a ceremony honoring the birthday of Buddha (May 24 this year by the Chinese calendar).

Some additional photos: (back by popular demand!)


Greetings from Almaty

Republic Square in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The morning sun silhouettes statues in the center of the square, including the Monument to Independence topped by a replica of the Golden Man, a celebrated Scythian archaeological relic dating from the 5th century B.C.

After 6 1/2 years away, it's good to be back in Kazakhstan. When you return to a place you once lived, what you notice most is the changes. More traffic. Supermarkets stocked with imported goods, including Raisin Bran and chick peas. Much more Kazakh spoken on the streets; in the past, all we used to hear was Russian. Crazy inflation, especially real estate. Rents have tripled - we're paying $1000 for a 2 room. Lexus SUVs and Hummers. New high-rise apartments and suburban sprawl. Curb cuts and working crosswalks. And did I mention the Raisin Bran?

The statue of the boy on the horse is my baby Jacob's favorite. Since the square is just a few blocks from our house, we walk there often. He points at the horse and barks and wants to rub its legs. Today he was patient enough to sit in his stroller while I did some shots.


smoking sunset

I did some portraits of actress and film student Lena Prokopenko in the Botanical Garden in Kyiv, overlooking the city skyline. The portraits came out fine, but my favorite shots were after we were done, when Lena lit up a smoke and stared out at the setting sun. Can I just say this? Kyiv is a great city.

begging for a change

Two men both named Oleg (surnames withheld) beg for money at an entrance to the Kontraktova metro station in Kyiv. Oleg (above) was a driver but lost his lower leg and his job in a traffic accident 8 years ago. Today he sleeps beside a lake in a Kyiv park. He declined to answer any further questions about his life.

I wanted to convey this scene from Oleg's perspective, people passing by without a second glance. Actually, I think I hate this photo. I can tell you five things wrong with it. But I keep looking back at it.


a moving experience

This week we are uprooting ourselves as we move from Ukraine to Kazakhstan. It's hard to believe that half of our year abroad is over! Amy and Jacob flew to Almaty today, via Istanbul. I fly on Friday, after I try to tie up about 1 million loose ends here.

We will probably be out of touch for a week or two until we get an apartment and figure out internet access.

As I leave Ukraine, I feel I've just now started to understand the multitudinous problems surrounding Chernobyl. I am starting to look into grants so that we can get ourselves back here, hopefully sooner rather than later.


after the nukes

Leonid Budkovsky delivered military mail to the Chernobyl zone for nearly 5 years after the 1986 accident. "In Chernobyl, no one knew how serious it was. We wore no special clothes," he told me. He began to have health problems in 1992 and by 1996 he was confined to a wheelchair. "I am 55 years old and no one needs me," he said. "I can still hold a spoon but I need help to go the bathroom and I have to wear Pampers."
Why am I doing a project on radioactive lives? I have to admit, the more I photograph and interview, the less certain I am about the purpose of my project. I suppose such lack of clarity is unsurprising at this midpoint.

I set out with the idea that there were important stories to be told. Like most social documentarians, I wanted to shed a light in the darkness. Find the people who are suffering and let the world know about them; implicit in this equation is the idea that publicity is good, and that my work might motivate others to help. Another implicit assumption is that an individual story can be used to personalize and illustrate a broader problem.

Leonid with his grandson Slava.
I still believe there are important stories to be told here, but they are not necessarily stories of suffering. Moreover, I am wondering if the simplistic equation of publicity = help is wrongheaded. An good essay by Jim Johnson on the purpose of documentaries has left me wondering about my own purposes.

Soon I'll be in Kazakhstan and I'll learn whether the issues I've found at Chernobyl are also present in the Semeypalatinsk Polygon (nuclear testing zone).


Viktor and Lydia Gaidak

The first time I met Viktor Gaidak, he stood up in the middle of lunch and peeled up his shirt to show me the scar on his chest. Viktor worked for 24 years at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, including 9 years after the 1986 catastrophe. In 2004 he had surgery for colon cancer.

A few weeks later, I went to interview Viktor and his wife Lydia in their apartment. I was thinking about Viktor's scar, one of the few visible signs left by the radiation he experienced as an engineer and liquidator. I was hoping he would be willing to show me the scar again for the camera. He agreed.

I find imagining a photo ahead of time helps me be prepared for it, as long as I'm not too attached to my preconceived image. In this case, the moment made a decent photo, but the composition didn't come together quite as I hoped; I actually prefer the shot I took a few minutes earlier, a very tender moment when Viktor reached over and grabbed Lydia's hand.

"When I was sick with cancer," says Viktor Gaidak, a retired engineer who worked for 24 years at Chernobyl, "we sold our car to pay for the surgery. We sold our TV, we sold our refrigerator, jewelry, everything we could. Now my wife Lydia has cancer and there's nothing left to sell."


kindergarten in the exclusion zone

April 26 is the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. I spent the day touring the Chernobyl exclusion zone with the crew behind, a website devoted to the history and news from Pripyat.

Pripyat, the city adjacent to the Chernobyl power station, had 46,000 residents. All that now remains are the slowly crumbling buildings. Anything of value has been destroyed or stolen in the past 21 years. Vlad Vitvitskiy showed me around the Solnitsye kindergarten where his brother and sister attended school.

My wife Amy thinks this photo is cliche. She says anyone who has seen photos from Chernobyl has already seen photos of abandoned toys scattered across the classrooms. Perhaps, but I found the hastily abandoned toys and pillows and baby shoes quite affecting. To think that the children who played here have either died or grown up to have kids of their own.

Were these dolls abandoned in this position, mid-play, or did someone rearrange them over the past 2 decades? Hard to say, but they've been there long enough to collect a layer of disintegrating ceiling tile dust on them. The red blocks on the right have most likely gone untouched for over 20 years.

I have many photos to share from the day; I will post more as I process them.


Yeltsin dies in Moscow

Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first (some would say Russia's only) democratically-elected President in 1,000 years, died yesterday in Moscow from heart failure. Here is an irreverent photo I took of him in 1999, shortly before he left office, while he was playfully scolding a journalist. I met him twice, and both times I found him boisterous but very genial.

Yeltsin was a dedicated reformer, but left power with a mixed record: he lead Russia forward in democracy and free speech, but he also moved too hastily in privatization and it was he who started the wars in Chechnya. Still, I find it telling that his old political enemy Vladimir Zhirinovsky said yesterday that Russia "was never freer than it was under Mr. Yeltsin."


author Sergii Mirnyi

Ukrainian author and Chernobyl liquidator Sergii Mirnyi speaks during a reading of his most recent screenplay. Mirnyi is working to produce a comedy feature film about the lives of soldiers cleaning up after the 1986 Chernobyl accident. During decontamination efforts, Mirnyi served as commander of a radiation reconnaissance platoon in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

Note: although I've been wanting to photograph Mirnyi for awhile, I hadn't planned to shoot at this event until I saw the great lighting in the theater. Foreground: a bare light bulb shining down, reflecting off of his papers; background: digital projector images from Chernobyl.

Tech info: 1/100 at F2.8, 70-200mm on monopod. Color balance set to incandescent to blue the background.


abandoned village of Bober

Bober, an abandoned village near Chernobyl, on the road between Ivankiv and Ovruch, Ukraine, contains little more than the shells of former buildings, including houses, one school and two local government buildings. The ceiling is crumbling in this structure, which appears to have been a grocery store.

Although outside the initial 30 km exclusion zone evacuated after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the village was later deemed contaminated and all the residents were resettled in less radioactive areas. Overall, some 135,000 people were relocated.

Everything with any value has since been stripped from the buildings, including even windows and wiring. Here, paint and plaster peels off the brick walls of a classroom.

The forest is taking over the yards and the roads are slowly disappearing, but the daffodils are still preparing to bloom in former gardens.

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