Having majored in photojournalism, you clearly had a strong inclination toward image arts when you entered university. What brought you to that choice in the first place?
Sometime in early high school I was wandering around a bookstore and saw James Nachtwey's Inferno and it blew me away. Growing up in the 90's, I had heard about AIDS and wars and famines but I never really understood or saw the events through the eyes of the people enduring these tragedies. The statistics became faces and it all became real. I realized the advantages I had in life and how lucky I was.
I was a pretty self-centered kid and this book opened my eyes to the world around me. That was a turning point. Photojournalism gave me a sense of purpose- I wanted the opportunity to open people's eyes to what was happening in the world around them.
Your photoessays are exemplary of the form with clear thesis, expository and conclusive statements. How much of this is achieved through editing a shoot post-fact, and how much is achieved through rigorous planning and pre-conceptualization?
Great question. Examples of each method come to mind. The methamphetamine work I did was very calculated in that after researching as much as possible, I came up with a shot list of ways I could illustrate the issue and prioritized that list. Shooting that story was a full-time job for me for a few months and I would edit and update the shot list as I went along.
It was extremely helpful in providing me with clear-cut goals but at the same time, I had to roll with what situations I was presented with. So, there were some pictures that I made that I am very proud of because they are story-telling moments that I worked very hard for and there are also photographs I love that I made as the result of being in the right place at the right time.
My Haiti work comes to mind when I think of editing a shoot post-fact. Although I was working on specific story-lines, each move was carefully planned and thought out as to what I believed would contribute to the essay. But, I always wanted to edit them all into a single, cohesive storyline and it has proven to be exceptionally difficult. I'm not saying that you can't edit an amazing story after-the-fact but I highly recommend planning and coming up with a shot list.
With your roots in black and white documentary photography, how much of a creative adjustment is required of you when shooting a glossy commercial spread?
Although it is a different mindset, it comes down to having a love of the creative processes in producing any type of photography. This was something I had to come to terms with about five years ago. I was very focused on studying documentary photography while I was in college. I didn't spend much time in the studio or in business classes.
For some time after university, I was used to working in very dramatic and sometimes high-energy documentary situations where I felt very much at home- I felt that it was something I excelled at. I assumed that because I was good at one type of photography that that talent would carry-over into studio work and portraiture, etc. I continued to expect to produce work of a certain level and I became increasingly let down. Something finally clicked and I realized I had to revert to the fundamentals and learn how to do a lot of things the correct way, starting from the ground up.
Another photographer recently called me the Swiss Army knife of photographers. I got that reputation because it's very rare that I turn down an assignment and I try very hard to excel at every assignment no matter what it is. Also, being freelance can be financially challenging so having such a breadth of experience, from documentary to commercial spreads, enables me to diversify my client base. In my opinion this has been one of the reasons I have been able to survive in this economic downturn.
The journalistic aspect of your craft sees you having to engage subjects with intensely emotional content. Do you find yourself more inclined to compartmentalize or sympathize, and how does this impact your output?
I spent a lot of time getting to know myself and my true motivations for that type of work so it is something I don't waiver on anymore. After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, a young woman named Fabienne was shot and killed quite close to myself and a handful of other photographers. We photographed her as she lay dead and others continued to loot around her and we even photographed a young boy who came up and literally pried the money out of her lifeless hand. We photographed her father as he came and lifted her onto his shoulders and cried out.
At no point in time did he motion to us to stop photographing or signal that we were unwelcome. A short time after this, a blog called Prison Photography published accounts of the girl's death and interviewed several of the photographers. A photograph surfaced of us photographing the lifeless Fabienne. Several commenters were quick to judge us and call us vultures and said that we were trying to capitalize on Fabienne's death. A very talented colleague of mine was exceptionally hurt by this and I understand why. But in my mind, it would have disrespectful to Fabienne to not document the end of her life as best as we possibly could. We put ourselves there with cameras and it became our responsibility.
It would have belittled the pain and suffering of her family to not show to the best of our ability what they went through because of her passing. We were there as journalists and we needed to do our jobs and I, for one, was very proud of every photographer there that day. I saw none of them acting in a disrespectful or exploitative manner- we were all trying to deal with what we were seeing. In that moment, I think we were trying to walk the line of compartmentalizing enough so we could perform our jobs as best as possible but sympathizing enough to channel the gravity of situation into meaningful photographs.
Your series "I Miss You, Pompano" and "Methamphetamines" represent opposite ends of the American experience. What role does photography play in representing issues of social justice?
Viewing photographs can often be an individual's first exposure to another lifestyle or culture and hopefully those photographs are responsible representations of the subject matter. Pictures can either begin to build a bridge to education, understanding and acceptance or they can be used as propaganda to do the complete opposite. In my opinion, that is why the most successful photographs are the ones that are compassionate, while still being objective.
In following the developments in Haiti, how did your personal relationship with the country influence your decision to persist in chronicling the progress of its people?
I didn't have a choice but to continue to document the country. After everything I have experienced there, Haiti has a permanent place in my heart. I have immense respect and a love for the people of Haiti. It is a land of extremes and life there is lived in a very raw way. There are few comforts and people make do with what they have, they are survivors. My relationship with the country evolved as I realized Haiti was showing me lessons about myself and life and all I had to do was listen. I was reacting to Haiti.
You can't drive around Port au Prince and not experience a visceral reaction. You cannot witness what happens in Haiti and not feel something in return. The mistake most people make is to react with pity that some are forced to live the way they do. Haitians don't need pity- they are incredibly strong. I grew to love that and I grew to love the country.
Where do you position yourself as a photographer on the observer / participant spectrum? When shooting a story like "Fabienne", did you find yourself at odds with your photojournalistic discipline in having to stay apart from the story?
I think the theory I personally subscribe to is to just trying to be a good person first. I have missed pictures because I felt like otherwise making them would have been inappropriate at the time- but I know lots of photographers that have been in that situation. I definitely try to err on the side of being an observer but sometimes the situation dictates that you have a more active role.
I was photographing an elderly woman on the side of a mountain in Haiti after the earthquake and she was by herself. It was unclear if her children had escaped Port au Prince or been killed during the earthquake. She was moving small pieces of concrete from the mounds and mounds of rubble that used to be her home. There were mounds and piles that made the work seem endless and almost futile. It was nearly overwhelming for me to see her charge through such intense labor with no end in sight.
I made a few pictures then I spent the next while helping her remove the mangled concrete pieces that covered a stairway so she could access a doorway to an underside of the house- it was unclear if that part of the house was damaged as it was built into the hillside. Her spirit was unbelievable. So yeah, I could have made a few more frames if I had remained more of an "observer" but as a person it's hard to see these types of things and not feel affected and want to help in any little way possible. My only regret is that I wasn't able to stay and help longer.
You speak fondly of your editors at various publications. How much do you agree with the idea that freelancers choose their clients as much as clients choose their freelancers?
That is a wonderful way to put it. Some editors gravitate toward your work and are very encouraging and then also there are the editors who are looking for something different. The longer I have been at this the more selective I have been able to become in what assignments I accept- but that is a true luxury and is often far from the norm.
When I turn down a job it is usually because of absurdly low rates or rights grabs. It's an added bonus when you can work with an editor that is personable and really believes in you and your work. Editors can also bounce around from publication to publication so it's important to keep up a professional relationship and stay in touch with them regardless of where they are.
Your portfolio exhibits considerable restraint in its use of captions; where present, they stick to the facts. When out of your own hands, how do you feel about captions being used with your images?
I haven't met a colleague who hasn't poured their heart and soul into writing amazing, fact and quote filled captions only to see them cut down to half a sentence or changed completely in print. Captions can be crucial to understanding the context of the photograph but ultimately, the picture should be able to speak for itself.
Which of the myriad of awards you have won for your work makes you the proudest?
I worked very hard for quite some time on the Meth story so when that won first place for picture stories from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, that meant the world to me. And honestly, at that point in my career I needed the validation. Contests are a tricky thing, they can be wonderful if you are winning, but at the same time they can have a very degrading consequence on how your view yourself and your work if you get too caught up in them and you aren't winning.
There is so much amazing work being done out there so I try not to get caught up in contests. Some years I don't even enter them. I am making a living at freelancing full-time and I get so much satisfaction from that. So every time I get a job I try to use that as positive reinforcement instead of focusing on some award I didn't win.