Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Stand And Deliver

"...There will be no free rides, no excuses. You already have two strikes against you: your name and your complexion. Because of those two strikes, there are some people in this world who will assume that you know less than you do. *Math* is the great equalizer... When you go for a job, the person giving you that job will not want to hear your problems; ergo, neither do I. You're going to work harder here than you've ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is ganas. And maybe a haircut."

- Jaime Escalante, "Stand and Deliver"

Admit it, you've seen the movie. You might even remember the quote. The next time it's on TNT, close your eyes: it's like you're sitting in Mr. Vaughn's Algebra class the week before spring break. I can still picture the substitute teacher playing mine sweeper in the back of the class.

"Stand and Deliver" is the story of Jaime Escalante, a math teacher at James A. Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos, is a hard-ass. And an inspiration. He teaches his students, predominantly poor latinos, AP calculus, and when the Educational Testing Service questions their test scores, he defends them. Eventually the students submit to retake the test, and again, pass it. Proving to the nation and themselves that despite their ethnic background, familial pressures or economic struggles, with hard work, anyone can elevate themselves through education.

The movie is racially charged, emotional, funny, iconic—remember those glasses Olmos wore? It's pretty much the coolest thing to happen to Algebra 3-4* since the abacus. And based on the number of times I watched it in class, it just might be one of the most viewed films of all time.

A few weeks ago, I received an unexpected phone call...

...from People Magazine. They needed a photographer that afternoon, to shoot a portrait of Mr. Olmos and Mr. Escalante. Escalante is living in Reno. He's fighting cancer and doesn't have enough money to pay his medical bills. A few days earlier, Olmos posted this information on his Web site. He was in Reno that afternoon to visit with Escalante and generate some publicity for the cause. After a few last minute e-mails with my editor in New York, I met up with the two men at Escalante's apartment.

As with most editorial portraits, it was a rushed assignment—Olmos had to catch a plane back to Los Angeles and I had to share my time with a video team from CBS. Also because of Escalante's physical limitations, I wanted to be as efficient with his time as possible. I shot some candids and then had a few minutes to create a portrait. Limited by space and time, I brought one umbrella and used the light on the end table. I've included a few of my favorite images from the shoot in this post. As well as the tear sheet from People (above). The article ran in the March 22 issue.

If you'd like to donate to Escalante, there's information on Olmos' Web site.

*Yes, cooler than Drug Wars and your TI-86.