Design Director: Fred Woodward
Director of Photography: Krista Prestek
Photographer: Michael Friberg
I’d imagine shooting highly produced live performance of a legendary rock band could be anyone’s dream assignment; it’s about the access, up close and personal. What type of obstacles did you run into on this assignment?
I’m too young to really have any real knowledge of Motley Crue other than what I’ve seen on VH1 specials about their legendary debauchery. In highschool I grew up going to punk and hardcore shows in abandoned warehouses and rented storage spaces. Super DIY so this type of thing was totally foreign to me and I was excited for the visual excess that awaited me. I had delusions of grandeur thinking I’m gonna be like Annie Leibovitz with the Rolling Stones or something. Unfortunately the reality was much much worse. Their time and access was over promised and I had to fight tooth and nail to even get the band together for a quick portrait. It was a pretty acrimonious setting, I felt like I was in a real life version of Spinal Tap.
How did you deal with things dissolving around you?
I was definitely stressed out but I try to keep a sense of humor about things. It was my first time working for GQ so I wanted to do a good job. Luckily Krista had been dealing with their people for a while before I had and she was really understanding about how challenging it was. You never want to be the photographer making excuses for why something didn’t work out. The whole situation was so restricted it was comical. On the first night they let me shoot the first song from about 200 feet back from the stage by the sound board and then escorted me backstage. I was sitting side stage watching this insane spectacle of a show. Explosions and dancers and a crazy light show and I didn’t have my cameras. It was killing me. I was kind of panicking because I didn’t have anything so I snuck out and shot some more photos. That didn’t turn out too well but I got some more photos that I needed. I really don’t like being in a position where I’m having to sneak around. I’m a pretty easy going guy and I get along with most people but the assignment was definitely in jeopardy so I felt like I needed to take some drastic measures or else I wasn’t going to have anything. I got busted and the whole thing sort of exploded in my face but it lead to the magazine negotiating better access for the live show the next night so I guess things worked out. I was heavily babysat from there on out though.
Was this your first assignment for GQ and what about your work/situation awarded you the job?
This was my first assignment for GQ. I was pretty surprised to get a call from them because I had always had a really hard time even getting a meeting there. The assignment came from Krista Prestek the director of photography there who I had never had any interaction with. It turns out that in a meeting the photo editor Katy Dunn who was freelancing there had apparently mentioned my name. She actually gave me my first magazine assignment ever when she was freelancing at Businessweek in 2011. You never know where people will end up in this industry.
What drove you to be relentless about getting the shot and what did you learn from this assignment?
I never want to be the photographer that is making excuses for why something didn’t work out. Even if its true, it doesn’t bode well for you. The editor hired you to get the job done and that includes adverse circumstances more often then not. Sometimes you just cant do it but i’m going to bend over backwards to try and figure something out in the mean time. When the photo director at a magazine hires you out of the blue for an assignment that most people would kill for you need to make sure you do a good job one way or another.
How much time did you actually get with the band?
I thought I might have been exaggerating when I was telling people I got 30 seconds with the band but I just look at the time stamp on the first photo of the band and the last photo of the band. 21 seconds. I didn’t have a choice where I shot it. They told me I could shoot the band backstage on the ramp right before they went onstage. I shot two or three frames front lit and then had my assistant Cole run around behind them and backlit a couple frames and we were done.
I know there is interpersonal band tension which makes it hard to shoot them as a group, how did you resolve that?
I didn’t even really interact with the band. We had negotiated them all being in this place before they went on stage. I don’t even think I introduced myself. When I finished,Nickki sixx said “Fuck yeah! that was quick!” and gave me a fist bump. That is the totality of my interaction with the band on the two day assignment.
What surprised you the most about this assignment?
The flame thrower/bass that Nikki Sixx plays. Its a functioning instrument but it also shoots fire 25 feet in the air. Despite how tough the assignment was logistically, it was pretty awesome to be witness to such a crazy spectacle. Having the opportunity to shoot a bunch of stuff explode while some aging rockstars play “girls girls girls” is a pretty sweet gig no matter what happens.
How has living in Salt Lake City shaped you as a photographer?
I’m originally from West Texas but after high school and one semester of college back home, I decided I needed to get the hell out and get to the Mountains. I didn’t know anything about Salt Lake City, other than that it was the headquarters of the Mormon Church and that its name kept appearing in snowboarding magazines. I went to a small liberal arts college here and snowboarded 4 days a week and occasionally went to class. It was great. Once I got into photography, I thought I needed to get out and get some experience in a big city so I moved to NYC for a year and assisted and starved.I learned a ton but I was running out of money and I wasn’t really shooting any personal work and my girlfriend (now wife) was in graduate school in Salt Lake City so I moved back and licked my wounds. The plan was to move to a big city when she finished school and I would try to freelance but life had different plans. I got a couple random jobs and worked part time, lived with a handful of gross dudes to keep rent cheap and spent all my money on shooting personal work. I always feel like I end up being defensive about living in Salt Lake but I really love it here. Its pretty cheap considering the incredible location. The airport is awesome. Its not really that hard to get a beer despite the rumors. I have the best community and group of friends i’ve ever had here. I slowly started getting regional work and I would go back to NYC and do meetings once or twice a year. I got married in the summer of 2011 and I was still working at a pub part time, shooting part time. I was really lucky that my super gracious wife had a “real” job and it afforded me the space to save up some money and quit the day job and make a run at the freelance thing. A lot of the first assignments I was getting were pretty routine. I was only getting hired because I was a guy with a camera who was capable. The first people who really hired me and encouraged me to do my thing were Businessweek. Specifically David Carthas when he was still there as the director of photography. Early on before anybody else was giving me cool assignments, they were. I am really thankful for that because it helped get the ball rolling and helped me get out of the “regional photographer” rut.
What were the draw backs if any for living in SLC and a smaller market?
I definitely don’t work as much as my peers in big markets. I think everybody assumes everybody is doing better than them but I probably only have 4 or 5 assignments a month. That is totally fine with me because my cost of living is low and I really like to focus on making personal work and having a good quality of life. One drawback of being in a small market where not a ton of stuff is happening is that I end up on the road a lot. It usually goes in spurts. I’ll be home for three weeks and then spend a month bouncing around. There definitely isn’t as big of a creative community as there is in larger cities. Not all of my photo friends live elsewhere but most of them do. I have had a much harder time breaking into the commercial market being here. I think it is a bit harder to be taken seriously when you live in a smaller market. I used to resent that sort of “NY or nowhere” attitude that existed in the editorial world but I definitely think that is changing.
Aside from snowboarding, what brought you to SLC? Were you aiming to start a photography career?
Like I said, I grew up in West Texas where creativity wasn’t exactly flourishing so I had no idea you could even make a living doing something like that. I didn’t discover photography until my sophomore year of college. I wasn’t at a super art heavy school but I pieced together an education between class and the internet and photo books.
How did the lower cost of living, smaller market help you develop your photographic voice?
I think I sort of answered this earlier but I really can’t stress enough how important it is to spend money on your photo projects. Photo projects are expensive. Film, traveling etc etc it all adds up. For a while I would spend money on gear expecting that to solve my problems but my problems weren’t technical. My problem was that I had no vision or voice or experience. Being a snow bum translated well to becoming a photo bum. When I was in college, I would share houses with tons of my friends to keep our rent as cheap as possible to be able to snowboard as much as possible and work as little as possible. When I started trying to make it photographically it was an easy transition. I still had tons of room mates and my rent was around 200 bucks a month. I would shoot personal projects and travel and spend all of my money on film.
You have quite the client list for shooting full time for just short 4 years, how did you get started?
Like everybody else, I would go to NYC a couple times a year, meager portfolio in hand, and do meetings with photo editors. Even when these meetings weren’t getting me much work, It was hugely educational because you see your portfolio a whole different way when somebody else is looking at it on a table. You can also see what people are and aren’t responding to and learn from that. I slowly started getting work and then I got a couple cool assignments that helped me really show my style and voice and that helps immensely when you can show commissioned work to editors rather than just personal work. The gap between shooting editorial and shooting personal projects is huge. Some of the photos might look similar but the process of shooting them is so different its crazy. On a personal project, if the weather or light sucks you just come backtomorrow but on an editorial shoot you can’t come back tomorrow you just have to make something work. I feel incredibly blessed to have been entrusted with the assignments I have been given. I think a lot of photographers feel entitled to cool work but its important to remember that when some editor is hiring you and you are young and untested, that that person is putting their ass on the line for you. I have no idea why some people gave me some of the assignments I have been given. I didn’t have a single celebrity portrait in my portfolio before Sundance last year when Bailey Franklin from Variety called me. How did he know I wouldn’t melt down and blow it in all of the chaos of photographing over 100 people in four days in a tiny improvised studio?
What’s the best advice you have for any photographer starting out?
Spend all your money on personal projects. Have a low standard of living when you are starting out, that way you can work on projects you care about rather than just doing everything for money to survive. When people can really see you in your projects you will get hired to do the same type work. The hardest thing about photography isn’t taking pictures, it’s figuring out how to communicate what you want about a particular subject and executing that. Getting access, planning, logistics, executing ideas, these things are all the things that you learn by trial and error when you are shooting personal work.
What can you say about your generation of photographers, how is it different from the previous generation?
The internet, for all its faults and insanity, has been instrumental in building a creative community for me. People I met through online channels have become mentors, real life friends and collaborators. I can only speak to my personal experience but in my particular peer group in the photo world, it feels much less competitive and cut throat. When I was first trying to get meetings, my friends were not only giving me people’s email addresses but also doing email introductions on my behalf. Some of these people are technically my direct “competition” but I feel like my friends are operating out of an economy of abundance rather than scarcity. Being a freelancer can be terrifying and screw with your head and you can think every job is your last or freak out when the phone doesn’t ring for two weeks but I think being around people like this has helped me have a much healthier attitude about all of it.
Your work has a vast range of reportage, portraits, details, long narrative arcs. How has that range become an asset to your career?
I personally really like shooting a huge range of things. I think sometimes it makes my work seem a bit schizophrenic and all over the place but it keeps things interesting. The trick is being versatile while still finding a way to put your own personal stamp on it. Thing can easily get generic if you don’t find a way to do that. I definitely think I get hired more often to shoot feature essay type stories that need a few different things photographically to illustrate a story. A lot of the time I end up doing a seamless portrait and then also doing reportage in the same day. Ultimately that is my favorite type of photography. Its cliche but telling stories and interacting with people is really why I got into it and figuring out creative ways to do that is always really fun.
By the Olive Trees
Design Director: Fred Woodward
Director of Photography: Krista Prestek
Photographer: Michael Friberg and Ben Rasmussen
Tell me how By the Olive Trees developed and why this was important to you?
I originally got into photography because I thought I wanted to become a photo journalist. After realizing that that particular style of working wasn’t for me, I started doing a sort of documentary/art/editorial hybrid that really seemed to suite my way of seeing well. I had photographed in Africa a couple times and really wasn’t happy with how things had come out. After doing a couple years of editorial work bouncing around and not really working on anything serious, I was reading an article somewhere about Syrian refugees in Jordan. I felt like the photography for these stories didn’t really match what I was reading. For instance: 2/3s of the refugees in Jordan were living in urban settings, not living in a refugee camp but all of the photos I had seen were from the really sensationalistic, highly visual Zaatari refugee camp. I felt like the refugees were sort of being used as props to illustrate a point. Ben Rasmussen and I had been talking about collaborating on something for a long time and we both were interested in working on something more serious than just photographing wacky stories for magazines. I’ve always been interested in social justice issues and this seemed like a way to participate in the conversation. We had no experience at all in this area but we bought two plane tickets to Jordan, found a fixer and headed over. The experience was definitely life changing and really helped solidify the type of work I want to be making. Ben and I really tried to slow down and photograph these refugees like we would shoot a magazine assignment in the US. Ben was shooting 4×5 and I was shooting medium format, lighting some portraits and reportage. We also did long form interviews with the refugees and got them transcribed.
When we got back, we put together the work for a multimedia piece commissioned by Dirk Barnett the creative director of The New Republic at the time. After making that, Dirk offered to design a book for us. Ben and I had been talking about this but we felt like an expensive photo book might not be the best outlet for this type of thing. At best, we could probably afford to make 500 copies and the people who would buy them would be the people who were probably already familiar with the conflict. I had a couple friends who had made newsprint zines and publications and it seemed like a really great way to use the newspaper medium to communicate information cheaply in a different way. the newsprint allowed us to run large chunks of text straight from the refugees mouths. We had self funded the shooting portion of the project and had managed to come close to breaking even after a couple outlets ran the work but we definitely didn’t have the money to do a large print run of the newspapers. The kickstarter was pretty cool to see because people really got behind the idea. We printed 4000 copies of the newspaper and the cost of each one was a little under 3 dollars for an 80 page full color publication. The low cost meant that we could ship three copies to each supporter and they could become distributors for us. People were leaving them in doctors offices, coffee shops and giving them away. It was cool to see where they ended up. We were definitely surprised at how much support we got. We exceeded our original goal which helped us to print more copies. The goal for the newspaper was that they would always be distributed for free. Now you can order copies on BytheOliveTrees.com for just the cost of shipping.
How did you meet Benjamin Rasmussen?
I met Benjamin Rasmussen when I saw his work on tumblr, read his bio on his website and thought we had a lot in common. I emailed him to say hi and we struck up a friendship that has been hugely important for me photographically and personally.
What’s next for this project?
I just returned from Jordan about a month ago where I was working on a project about Iraqi Christian refugees who fled Mosul when ISIS took over. I’m going to be working on a long term project about the country of Jordan and how the influx of refugees is affecting the country. Currently nearly 1/5 of their population is made up of refugees which is a really staggering statistic. If that happened in America people would not be that hospitable. There are refugees from Central America coming even as we speak and people are picketing the buses that are transporting them to detention centers. I’d like to go back to Jordan in May to keep working on this project but I just had a grant proposal rejected so if anybody wants to send me back I’d be grateful…