Robert Palumbo

September 4, 2020   -   October 4, 2020

“Mortal” is a kind of slow-motion history of some of my most foundational, defining experiences and encounters, caught in the time warp of the present moment.

The millennium years, 2000 and 2001, were a turning point in my life. In Las Vegas, I found that everyone was an impersonator, trying to live up to an iconic American dream never quite within reach. On the streets of West Baltimore in 2000, the setting for “The Wire”, I found another kind of American truth, this one bitter and desperate. The homicide detectives I photographed were bone weary of death, but not as weary as the black men and women trapped in socio- economic quicksand. The millennium years culminated for me with the World Trade Center attacks just a few blocks from my home in lower Manhattan. The toxic dust I inhaled that day, and in the weeks afterwards, is the probable cause of my multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer I was diagnosed with in 2018.

In 2003 I photographed the gacaca (meeting in the grass) genocide trials in Rwanda. Nearly a decade after the genocide, in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis were brutally slaughtered, the country needed a way to find justice in order to heal. With over 100,000 men in overcrowded jails, the government decided to use a pre-colonial system of justice in which the families of the victims confronted the genocidaires with the stories of their brutality. Genocidaires who owned up to their actions were often released back into their towns and villages to live as free men. It was a shocking experiment in reconciliation.

The earth itself is a mortal being too, caught in its own fight for survival. Nowhere is that more evident than in the glaciers that serve as levees of ice against the rising temperatures that threaten our existence. Working in Alaska for National Geographic in 2016, I discovered that glaciers are living, breathing entities, actually rivers of ice, changing by the minute, bearing the scars and stories of millennia in their mysterious codes.

In 2019 my immune system was destroyed by chemotherapy. I was quarantined in my hospital room at Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan for a month, and then was mostly restricted to my home for several more months. I wore a mask whenever I stepped outside, and had to stay six feet away from other people to guard against infections. What I missed most, then as now with the pandemic, was intimate contact with other people. I missed getting close, finding clear emotional connection, something I had cultivated for 20 years through my artistic practice of the mug shot.

Since discovering that the mug shot, a seemingly utilitarian form of photography designed for identification, could be a vehicle to connection with another person’s identity, and in some ways with my own, I have made mug shot portraits of thousands of people all over the world. The unmasked, point-blank intimacy that these works require is not possible now that we are masked. The film “Contact” sequences and combines some of them, in an effort to illuminate both difference, and a collective humanity. —— Robert Palumbo, August 2020


Based in New York, Palumbo is a documentary filmmaker and photographer who has worked for National Geographic, The New York Times, the German culture magazine Du, YRB, and Vice, among others. His work is included in the collections of The Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the New York Historical Society, and several prominent private collections. He has shown nationally and internationally and is a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Photography. Palumbo holds a B.A. in English from the University of Pittsburgh, and an M.F.A. in Film from Temple University, where his student films won several national and international awards. He is currently an Emmy nominee for CHASING LIFE, a documentary series he Executive Produced for CNN in 2019.