Heidi: How hard was it to take that photograph of your son?
Randal: It actually wasn’t hard at all. By the time I set up the portrait, he was in good spirits and we already had him checked out by a doctor. My son is such a sweet kid, but definitely all boy. And while this was his first shiner, it was definitely not his first bruise. However, it was harder seeing the photos on screen than in person. Looking at them on the computer was heartbreaking. Photographs immortalize a moment and maybe deep down I was scared that his face would always be like that.
What was your intention for this photo, posterity or something else?
As a parent I’m always photographing my kids. Whether it’s with my iphone, a mirrorless camera, or a full setup with strobes. I want to document their life, well, our life. And this was part of that process.
At what point did you know it was ok to take the portrait, did Ellis (your son ) give you any cues? Did you ask your wife for permission?
Once we knew he was physically okay and in good spirits, I felt like it was fine. My wife knows I photograph everything, especially events like this so I had her full support from the get go.
I know you sat on these images for a few months after shooting them, thinking you may composite Ellis into a scene. How did you end up with this final image?
As I mentioned it was tough to look at these on-screen so they sat on my hard drive for a couple months. I thought it would be cool to composite him into an environment to further craft a story. Maybe he was standing on a playground with a bunch of big kids behind him all laid out, or maybe he was in the middle of a boxing ring during a fight, or maybe we digitally painted a super hero sign on his chest. For some reason I wanted to complicate things. To further challenge myself.
None of the ideas really stuck though and I finally selected my favorite image and retouched it.
What was going on at the very moment of this particular shot?
The shoot itself only lasted 15 minutes and for a lot of the time he was sitting in this baby seat called a ‘bumbo’ which allows infants to sit up a little easier than if they were in a chair. For this shot, he probably only looked at me like that for a split second.
I love showcasing kids (and animals) expressions that anthropomorphize them. Or in other words, apply adult attributes to their character. This shot, for example, conveys a toughness, a so-what, an I’m tough sort of look that an adult might give a opponent or enemy. Maybe he was even thinking that for a split second.
This portrait seems like a departure from the layered, rich body of work on your site.
What did you learn about yourself?
A lot of advertising work is layered and complex. And I’m drawn to that and appreciate it. I love the challenge of crafting a story in one image. And sometimes that requires a lot of compositing, retouching, layering, and even CGI, to draw in the audience.
However, what I learned in this instance, with this photograph, was that the best way to tell a story is the simplest way. I had these grand ideas of compositing him in an environment with layers, more talent, skies, and even cgi. But I don’t think any of that would have been as compelling as this simple image.
Einstein said, ‘Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.’ I’m no Einstein and I’m no genius, but this sure does resonate with the lesson I learned with the success of this photograph.
Have you done any documentary work? Did this give you an insight into the moral banter that goes on in taking hard images?
I did a bit of documentary work in the early part of my career. I don’t know if I gained any insight here. I tend to stay out of moral banter and focus on creating compelling work. If the works gets people to talk, even if it’s banter, then I’m okay with that.
I know you keep a camera around the house and take photos of your children, how did that influence this portrait?
I always have a camera on hand. Whether it’s an iphone, mirrorless, or dSLR. It’s not often that I setup strobes and a background for my family stuff. But this seemed like a fitting opportunity and my kids are used to having their photo taken so this wasn’t a unique situation, they know the deal.
How long did the transition take for you to go from father to photographer. I’m certain your first reaction was not to take a photo.
When it happened I definitely didn’t have any thought that I should setup strobes and create a portrait. But after he checked out okay, and was in good spirits, I thought, ‘I should really create a portrait of this.’ it needed to be shot.
Once you released the image to the public, were you concerned about backlash similar to what Jill Greenberg had experienced with her crying kids series?
I wasn’t concerned about it and in fact, it didn’t cross my mind until after it was published. People who know me, know I have good intentions and would never place a kid in an uncomfortable situation. However, his face was still going to be bruised up if I documented it or not. I try to create compelling work first and foremost. If I get criticized for documenting what’s in front of me, then I’m okay with that because personally I know my intentions were right.
What made you decided to include this image in your submission to CA? What did you think this image conveyed to fellow photographers?
Each year I submit 4-5 images to CA. Some of my peers liked this image and some of them didn’t. Obviously I’m biased but I felt like it was strong, graphic, and told a story.
Tell me about the full circle moment when you received the email letting you know you had the cover?
So I’m sitting at our breakfast table reading some stuff on my computer with Ellis sitting in my lap. During that time, I see an email come in from CA asking for permission to use the image on the cover. I literally yell out loud, ‘what!? what!? Ellis, Buddy, you are going to be on the cover of CA, are you kidding me!?!’ I literally almost fell out of my chair. I was elated to say the least and it was icing on the cake that I found out while he was sitting in my lap. I can’t deny feeling that things happen for a reason and are not just coincidence. Not the way this whole thing unfolded.
I know you have a son on the way, congratulations. How if at all has your family life impacted your career?
Thank you! Okay, great question. Family life has for sure impacted my career. In a good way. As the CA cover was about to come out I was running hard to get my website as fresh as possible and finish out a couple personal projects. At one point, I expressed some frustration to my wife that I didn’t have enough time or energy because the kids were being a pill. My wife looks at me and says, ‘you wouldn’t be in this situation if it weren’t for them!’ In other words, you wouldn’t be on the cover of CA if the kids didn’t present these daily challenges to you. And I thought to myself, wow, how narcissistic am I thinking that this was all me!
The environment around you deeply influences you and my family is no exception to that. Yes, I have less free time to snowboard and ride my mountain bike. But I also have a lot to lose so motivation is not hard to come by. I’m very focused and work very hard.
The free spirit of children, without a doubt, enhances my creative outlook. I’m a family guy. And my family life deeply inspires me and provides great perspective for my personal and commercial work.
You have such a range of imagery on your site, how would you describe your work.
I have a passion for photography and that passion spans multiple genres, and has grown significantly over the last couple of years. I shoot everything from kids to cows to landscapes with an intent to always tell a story. I sometimes struggle with it, but my goal is to create a common thread throughout my body of work. I hope my audiences sees that commonality.
Do you ever get criticized for having too much range?
I’m very self critical. Potentially to a fault, so I think about this a lot. At the end of the day, I have to follow my gut and right now, I feel like I’m doing the right thing. Time will tell if that’s true but I am grateful to be doing what I’m doing right now.
How has living in Austin shaped you as photographer? Is it nice to be out of the fray NYC and other major cities?
Austin is a great place to call home. I travel for 95% of my work but it’s a great home base and easy to get to both coasts. Don’t get me wrong I would love to work more and shoot more in Austin. There are just certain advantages and production needs that are better suited for NY or LA. Being a Texan has definitely shaped me as a photographer. I think that’s evident in my imagery for sure. I also think by living in Texas I get slightly different perspectives, creative or otherwise, than if I lived in NY or LA. I also like my space (smile)