Photographers Without Borders will be talking with photographer Keri Oberly about standing in solidarity with the Gwich’in, her work with Patagonia, activism, and why she believes investing in people, relationships, and grassroots movements are going to save us. Tune in Tuesday, October 20th 10:00 am EST for the chat with Keri and CEO/photographer Danielle Da Silva.
Tickets are ‘pay what you can’ upon purchase, and all funds will go directly to support accessibility for our Storytelling School: Online program, specifically sponsoring BIPOC, Disabled, and LGBTQ+ individuals. Storytelling School: Online is an interactive online workshop to provide photographers with the tools and strategies to harness the power of storytelling and pivot their work online.
Photographers Without Borders is a collective of storytellers comprised of creatives coming together to support their community partners on volunteer assignments and inspire new generations of storytellers through PWB School and other initiatives and resources.
Their mission is to make storytelling more accessible for communities around the world who are contributing to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and UNDRIP. Classes are taught by CEO & Founder, Danielle Da Silva, photographers will learn how to use the power of storytelling to shift online – a critical skill in today’s uncertain times.
Bob Gilbert stands with his grandson, Victor, while looking for moose along the Junjik River outside Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ. The Gwich’in fear for the future of their children and grandchildren, if the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is opened to oil and gas development, they believe it will threaten the very existence and identity of their people. To the Gwich’in, wilderness is not luxury; it is a way of life.
In late summer, the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrates toward Northwest Canada for the winter. The herd has the longest land migration route of any land mammal on Earth, migrating over 1,500 miles a year between their winter range and the calving grounds on the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Gwich’in call the coastal plains “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins). They treat the animals and land with reverence, because without them, they would not survive.
Kelly Fields hangs strips of caribou for dry meat in her cache in Gwichyaa Zheh (Fort Yukon), Alaska. The caribou was sent down by a family member in Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ. Today, the Porcupine Caribou Herd only migrates through two of the fifteen Gwich’in villages. Many families will send caribou to family and friends in villages that don’t see caribou anymore.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, an 800-mile pipeline that transports oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska. The third richest state in the country, Alaska depends on one industry to fund its state spending, oil and gas. Since the price of oil has fallen considerably in recent years, the state is currently facing a $2.5 billion deficit. Republicans have been proposing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development for decades. Each time it has come close it was denied by Democrats or vetoed by President Clinton. With a Republican held House and Senate, Senator Lisa Murkowski snuck into the tax bill, that President Trump signed into law, the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for industrial development. Aggressive steps have since been taken to fast track development; seismic testing is scheduled to start this winter. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the proposed drilling area contains 10.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil, an amount that will not have a large impact on world oil prices.
Portraits of Gwich’in and their allies by photographer Keri Oberly.
Wild Places – Mystery Ranch: To the ends of the earth and back, there are some amazing places out there, and we want to see them. Whether hunting, hiking, climbing, fishing, or just exploring with your dog, it’s often about being in the right place at the right time. Show us those moments in some of the wild places you’ve found.
Wildlife – Vortex – Fur, feathers, fins or fangs, we constantly draw inspiration from the wildlife around us, and leave us with unforgettable memories and lessons learned. Show us the moments of your closest encounters, narrow misses, or moments of connection.
The Pursuit – the process of hunting – First Lite – Hunting is a process that sometimes yields a result, but it is the act of pursuing wild game that takes us to amazing places, tests our limits, and teaches us lessons. Show us your process of pursuing game, whether on land, sea or otherwise. The journey is the destination.
Harvest – Hunting, fishing, agricultural – EPIC: Food gathered from the land. This could be wild game, fish, foraging, agricultural, or even viticultural. Food brings us together, and we want to see your interpretation of this.
Western – Tecovas: Many have a fascination with the idea of “The West,” and while much of it lives in tall tales, legends, or days gone, some still live it everyday. Show us your version of what western means, whether past, present, or uncertain future.
Emerging –Less than 2 years of professional experience: Whether you’re a student or just getting started with less than two years of experience, we want to see your best work. While it doesn’t have to be one of the above categories, it would certainly be relevant to stick to them.
Art(paintings, illustration, mixed media, etc) – There are so many talented artists out there, but we’d like to see more of them. Whether painting, illustration, mixed media, digital art, or something else, we’d like to see it. While you don’t have to stick to the other category prompts, it certainly helps to keep it relevant to an outdoors theme.
Portraiture: Whether stranger from a faraway land, or a neighbor with an interesting past, we want to see the most interesting characters you’ve come across in your ventures. There is so much emotion and story that can be conveyed in a single portrait, and it’s an interesting exercise to try and read their emotions, intentions, and even their story. We want to see some storied faces and individuals here.
Audience Choice – our judges will pick 5 finalists from the entire pool, and we’ll give our audience/followers a chance to vote on who they want to win. We’ll be awarding the top 3 picks.
People often raise their eyebrows at photo contests, this one is different, this one is worth entering. You can submit your archival or current work in more than one of these unique categories. Field Outrider is offering more than acknowledgement, it’s an opportunity to also win paid assignments, have your work published in their beautifully printed magazine along with one on one portfolio reviews. In terms of judging contests there is nothing more exciting then to be surprised by an emerging photographer or someone who has a passion for the craft. Most professionals have every waking moment occupied with calls and screen time, work, child care; realize this is an opportunity to get your work in front of a broad range of people wanting to give back to the photo/creative community they believe in.
Heidi: Why the contest? What are the benefits to the photo/art community and why now? Tito: Since its inception, Modern Huntsman has always strived to give voice to those who have struggled to be heard. Most of our team comes from a long past of freelancing and we are all too familiar with the incredible difficulty that arises when trying to break into the world of professional photography, whether that’s commercial or editorial work or even a more artistic approach such as galleries or long form projects. More often than not, it boils down to luck or to a fortunate meeting of happenstance. This is all good and well except for the fact that there are more people than ever who are making truly original work; work that deserves to be seen, but through the cards of chance, they have remained unseen and their voices unheard. All of that being said, I’m not entirely opposed to the difficult path that photographers face at the outset of their careers. This is one of a few fields in which the difficulty of achieving success serves as a sort of weeding out process. It separates those who truly want to be here from the ones who only think they want to be here. As frustrating as that can be, it has served me well. In times of desperation or hopelessness I found renewed strength in the history of the medium and the legacy that has been passed down from the legends who came before us for our careers are made possible by the photographers who preceded us. I think this is what Umberto Eco meant when he wrote, “We are dwarfs, but dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of those giants, and small though we are, we sometimes manage to see farther on the horizon than they.” However, there comes a point in the development of your artistic vision where the groundwork has been laid, the foundation is set and now it is time to venture out into the world and for your work to be seen. That venturing out is the most difficult step. So many photographers, artists, etc feel that they’re ready. They know they are, but the question remains…”How do I take that first step?” This is where “Field Outrider hopes to comes in.
What are your hopes and what do you want the community to know about you or this project? This is not a competition in which our aim is to obtain an endless stream of “content”. In fact, that’s a word we are wholeheartedly uncomfortable with. Our primary focus is and always has been STORY. This is the heart and soul of Modern Huntsman. We have a goal here with this publication and that is to bring respect back to the printed editorial world; to reinstall print as an outlet for photographers who are making meaningful work. We cannot do this without a reliable and core roster of contributors; in short, we cannot do it without the people who are out in the world exploring the issues and the places that are the core focus of the stories we publish. However, Modern Huntsman is bigger than the stories we print in our publication. The PEOPLE who tell these stories are the lifeblood we depend upon and as such it is the people to whom we must provide support and access. Furthermore, “Field Outrider” is NOT a means of making money. Yes, we are charging a submission fee of $15, however, that money will go towards commissioning stories for the publication with the winners of each category. We have assembled an incredible team of judges, all of whom are donating their time and expertise out of a desire to give back to the photo community, a community that has given them so much. This is their way of paying it forward. Some are photographers themselves yes, but largely the judges are made up of individuals who actually have the power to put you to work, because as much as we all value feedback, what we really need is a chance, an opportunity to test ourselves in the arena. That is where careers are made. That is where photographers are born.
This competition serves a stepping stone in the larger, long-term mission of Modern Huntsman. What began in the spring of this year as an Instagram competition has evolved into this, a digital competition in which the winner’s photograph(s) will not only be published in print, but will result directly in a commission that we’ll publish, and drive attention to. Again, this is a stepping stone. It starts online, but ultimately our goal is to work towards in person seminars, workshops and portfolio reviews. But another big component of that is doing what we can to get more folks from different backgrounds involved in these discussions, and increase diversity amongst the perspectives we’re pulling from. While we’ve always sought this out, we’re taking larger steps here to get this opportunity out to more communities, as we think the future of conservation, land management, hunting and food sourcing will depend on having new voices involved in the conversation.
How did you come to this job? I came onboard with Modern Huntsman as the Creative Director back in February of this year. I have known Tyler Sharp (the Editor and CEO) for about 6 years now and we have very similar career paths, from starting out in Texas to working in East Africa both as filmmakers and photographers. We’ve always stayed in touch and I was a part of the conversation regarding Modern Huntsman from the beginning, but I was still traveling extensively overseas at the time and very much involved in several ongoing projects. So we kind of tabled the conversation for a bit, all the while knowing that there would come a time when things would align and we’d be working together on this incredible thing he has built. That time finally came, and it was lucky to be right before lock down, as we were all able to focus on putting out great work with Volume Five, and trying to find ways to help other freelancers.
I am still very much a dedicated photographer myself and that is really my vocation, but this role as Creative Director allows me to work with other incredibly talented people from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds and it keeps me involved in the photo community which is really important to me. Once you’re bitten by this photography bug, you really don’t stand a chance. It will consume you in the best way possible and so to be able to work with these individuals, some of whom I have looked up to my entire career, really helps keep me fresh and informs my own work. It pushes me to be better and I can’t really ask for much more than that. It’s truly a privilege that I feel very fortunate to be a part of.
How does this all braid together for you (photography, design and storytelling) Well for me, books are where the heart of the medium lies. I have a deep and abiding love for books – for all books, not just photography books and that’s exactly what we do at Modern Huntsman. It would be really hard to call what we make, a magazine, even though in essence that’s what it is. However, the quality of the work, the printing, the writing and design – they all make it more than this idea of what we imagine when we say magazine. It really is a softcover book. Over the years, I’ve learned to present my work differently and more intentionally and that requires an understanding of and an appreciation for design. While I am not a designer myself, I do study it and I try to pay attention to what the design is saying. I think as photographers we really have a responsibility to learn aspects of design that can help show the work in the way we want it to be received. I believe this is more important than it’s ever been. In fact, I really see the design as being the final component in putting these stories together, the previous two obviously being the writing and the photography. Each story warrants its own unique design approach in the exact same way that each story warrants a unique photographic vision. Again, I’m not a designer myself, but I do believe in being design literate. Ultimately, however, the design of each story and the publication as a whole falls to our incredibly talented Design Director, Elias Carlson, whom I met three years ago at the Collective Quarterly Portfolio Review in Chico Hot Springs, Montana hosted by Jesse Lenz of Charcoal Book Club. Elias and I have stayed in touch over the years and so it’s been really incredible to see how these early relationships, at the outset of my career, have informed the later stages of my working life and how our paths seem to converge when the timing is right.
Lastly, from a storytelling standpoint I think editorial outlets are historically, with the exception of maybe books, a photographer’s preferred outlet. Unfortunately, these have largely disappeared over the years and of the few that do remain, it can be incredibly difficult for a photographer to begin a working relationship. The goal for Modern Huntsman is to bring that back to the forefront of possible outlets for working professional photographers as well as to open that door to talented young photographers who are just beginning their careers.
How does this model of guaranteed work serve as a benefit and community builder? I have participated in a number of photo workshops, portfolio reviews and competitions and many of them have been great experiences, while others were not. Some of them have been free as a result of corporate sponsorships and others have required a significant out of pocket expense, something most aspiring photographers cannot afford. At the end of the day, what photographers need is work. Critiques are important, and feedback can be inspiring or informative, but work is the lifeblood of the photographer and it’s the work that we need in order to survive. That’s our goal with all of this, to put talented photographers and creatives to work, while at the same time expanding the diversity of voices in the conversations surrounding the hunting, angling, and outdoors communities. Being that we were all freelancers before and know how hard it is, we created this to try and be something that is meaningful, beneficial and supportive of photographers and artists. We tried to think about what opportunities we would’ve loved to have back then, and think this does that justice. It’s been a hard year for a lot of people, and while we certainly wish we could do more, this is our effort to really step up and try to create some positive momentum and paid work for photographers who need it. Again, we can’t thank you enough for being a part of this and helping share more about what we’re trying to do here. We truly hope that we’ll get lots of work sent in and be able to create some incredible stories with the winners!
BERRY CREEK, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 9, 2020: The small town of Berry Creek, California which was destroyed by the Bear Fire, part of the North Complex Fire, on September 9, 2020. The North Complex Fire has burned 254,000 acres.
FEATHER FALLS, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 9, 2020: A tree burns in the Bear Fire, part of the North Complex Fire, on September 9, 2020 in Feather Falls, California. The North Complex Fire has burned 254,000 acres.
BERRY CREEK, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 10, 2020: National Guard soldiers cut a fire line on the West Zone fire, formerly the Bear Fire, part of the North Complex Fire, on September 10, 2020 near Feather Falls, California. The North Complex Fire has burned 244,000 acres and killed ten people.
BERRY CREEK, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 10, 2020: National Guard soldiers cut a fire line on the West Zone fire, formerly the Bear Fire, part of the North Complex Fire, on September 10, 2020 near Feather Falls, California. The North Complex Fire has burned 244,000 acres and killed ten people.
VACAVILLE, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 19, 2020: Justin Haan wipes his face while putting out spot fires ahead of a wildfire to save his in laws home in Vacaville, California on August 19, 2020. The LNC Lightning Complex fire has burned over 32,000 acres.
HEALDSBURG, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 22, 2020: The Delta Conservation Crew, made up of inmate firefighters, takes a break from clearing a fire line on the Walbridge Fire, part of the LNU Lightning Complex, in Healdsburg, California on August 23, 2020. The LNU Lightning Complex fire has burned 341,243 acres and destroyed at least 560 structures.
HEALDSBURG, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 22, 2020: The Delta Conservation Crew, made up of inmate firefighters, takes a break while hiking out from clearing a fire line on the Walbridge Fire, part of the LNU Lightning Complex, in Healdsburg, California on August 23, 2020. The LNU Lightning Complex fire has burned 341,243 acres and destroyed at least 560 structures.
FAIRFIELD, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 19, 2020: Fairfield firefighter Rex Dorrough burns a hillside to protect a neighborhood from the LNU Lightning Complex as deer flee the flames in Fairfield, California on August 19, 2020. The LNU Lightning Complex fire has burned over 125,000 acres.
POPE VALLEY, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 20, 2020: Neighbors help protect a home from the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Pope Valley, California on August 20, 2020. The LNU Lightning Complex fire has burned 215,000 acres and destroyed at least 480 structures.
SPANISH FLAT, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 25, 2020: Andrea Shumate comforts her husband, Josh Shumate, as he sifts through the remains of his grandmothers home at the Spanish Flat Mobile Villa, which was destroyed by the Hennessy Fire, part of the LNU Lightning Complex, in Spanish Flat, California on August 25, 2020.
NYTWILDFIRES BERRY CREEK, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 10, 2020: A forest burned by the West Zone Fire, part of the North Complex Fire, on September 12, 2020 near Berry Creek, California. The North Complex Fire has burned 254,000 acres.
VACAVILLE, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 19, 2020: Dan Frank calls 911 as his garage and neighbors home burns in Vacaville, California on August 19, 2020. The LNC Lightning Complex fire has burned over 32,000 acres.
VACAVILLE, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 19, 2020: Deer flee a wildfire in Vacaville, California on August 19, 2020. The LNC Lightning Complex fire has burned over 32,000 acres.
VACAVILLE, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 19, 2020: A firefighter tries to burn out some weeds ahead of a wildfire in Vacaville, California on August 19, 2020. The LNC Lightning Complex fire has burned over 32,000 acres.
Heidi: You’ve been covering wildfires for the past 19 years, what made this season different? Max: This season is different because we’ve had so many large, destructive fires so early in the season. We’re just entering the meat of the fire season, which typically only gets going in Southern California in the fall with the Santa Ana winds. California has already had more acres burn in 2020 than any other year, and the fire season isn’t close to being over.
Looking back over those years, what were some pitval moments?
However, I think it’s important to look back a bit further. When I first started covering wildfires in the early 2000s, they were primarily in forests, away from population centers. Isolated homes and small, rural communities would be threatened, but it was still primarily something that happened deep in the forest, typically on public land. Gradually, the fires began to move more quickly and explosively, driven by high winds, high temperatures and dry fuel, and threaten more and larger communities more frequently. The real eye-opener was the Tubbs Fire in 2017. Driven by high winds, the fire jumped six lanes of Highway 101 and burned the very suburban neighborhood of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, destroying 2,900 homes. Since then, the Carr Fire in Redding and the Camp Fire in Paradise in 2018, continue this trend of wildfires increasingly burning into residential neighborhoods.
How did your love of National Parks influence your work? I grew up camping, backpacking, climbing and skiing. I still remember the first time I saw the Tetons and later on the same trip, taking my first photo of a buffalo charging, blurred by my mom yanking me back into the car. Our family still spends two weeks every summer exploring National Parks and public lands. I think my love for wild places colors everything about my photography. It’s so inextricably part of me, that I’m not sure it can be separated from me and how I view the world. I feel most comfortable in wild places and more empathetic to those who live and work on the land. I hope that shows in my work.
What type of “training” do you do to stay ready in the off chance you’re out all night? Honestly, I don’t think there’s much training that helps with sleep deprivation other than get a good night’s rest when you can. That said, I’ve gotten assignments on very short notice that involve a decent amount of physical fitness (in 2019 I climbed Aconcagua for an assignment with two weeks notice), so I do my best to stay in shape despite my ever-varying work schedule and life demands. I’m a firm believer that being in decent shape helps out in all kinds of ways – even if it is just a week or two of sitting in planes and cars, like many assignments.
What drove you to break the rule of staying close to your car for this assignment? I left my car behind for the day I spent documenting the effects of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire on Big Basin Redwoods State Park mainly because the active fire had passed and the area was just smoldering. Since the area had already burned, it was in many ways safer than areas that hadn’t. Nothing is without risk, but this seemed like a reasonable risk to document the damage to the park and that was the only way to do it with the downed trees blocking the road. In hindsight, I’d underestimated the danger of falling limbs and trees. That’s something I’ll consider more carefully in similar situations in the future.
What type of respect for nature comes from doing this work?
With people there’s negotiation, with nature it’s more observation and keen awareness of the moment, situational awareness….
Fire is natural. It’s a natural part of our ecosystem that’s gone haywire from man’s effect on the landscape and climate. To see fire eat and charge its way through brush, trees and homes is to engender massive respect for the power of nature. You need to be always watching, looking behind you and making sure your escape path is still clear and your vehicle isn’t endangered. But over the years it’s gradually had another effect on me: to view forests as ever-changing organisms, not as a museum exhibit frozen in place for our viewing pleasure. Typically, as humans we can only see a forest or landscape change over a lifetime of observation, a wildfire changes things in minutes or hours. It’s always cool to go back to a burned area the next spring, and see just a few months later how much green growth there is after the winter rains.
I’m no firefighter or scientist, but I have learned to distinguish between the creeping fire that burns brush, deadfall and the understory; and the cataclysmic infernos we’ve seen more of recently, that completely nuke the landscape and leave nothing alive.
How much do you interact with the firefighters and what kind of earned trust is developed? It’s rare for me to spend more than a few hours with a firefighting crew. I always show respect by asking permission to photograph them, and they’re almost always friendly and very accomodating. If it’s slow, they’re often hungry to chat with someone outside of their crew as they’re often out for weeks at a time, going from one fire to the next. I’m wearing the same PPE they are, do my best to stay out of their way and not become a liability. I think they appreciate that.
Above all, I’ve gained massive respect for firefighters. Being a wildland firefighter is incredibly demanding, physical work. Hand crews hike miles through rugged terrain during the hottest months, lugging hand tools, chainsaws and fuel, all while wearing thick, fireproof nomex clothing. Then they carve a fire line through impenetrable brush and trees, officially working 24 hours straight, but often much longer. They’ll often do this for months at a time, away from their families, who are often living in the very wildland urban interface they’re working to protect.
Do you show your daughter your images? My eight-year-old daughter has seen my wildfire images in passing. I don’t make a big deal about them and she rarely asks about them. She’s usually just excited I’m home and wants me to play dolls or Legos with her. But my experiences do lead to a more informed discussion when we do come across a burn scar while out hiking.
What are the lessons that these fires teach you, or what is it a reminder of? I’ve learned lots during my years covering wildfires, but most importantly, I’ve learned how much of an effect man is having on our environment. Although well-intentioned, our decades of fire suppression has only increased the number of catastrophic fires. With one record-breaking fire season after another, the effects of climate change transcends statistics and is plainly evident in the ashes of our forests and communities.
Heidi: You started this in 2016, how has it evolved over the years?
Priscilla: Yes, it has evolved a lot! From lighting to color palette to the creatives that get involved, each year it gets better and better! It is always so fun to see the project come to life. Our first year was just me, hair and make-up and wardrobe stylist. Last year, aside from the crew that works on the photo shoot and get the kids ready, we had vendors coming in and collaborating with goodies for a tote bag for families. Other vendors brought in fun toys, books, accessories that families could shop around while kiddos were having their photos taken. I love supporting local businesses so bringing them in to be a part of our photo shoot was a no brainer! This year due to Covid the experience will be a bit different as we will be minimizing time on set and number of people.
Aside from your love of photography, what other emotions come from a project like this?
I believe that when people get together to do something for the good, there is a certain energy that happens and it is hard to explain. It is like magic. Usually when I am on a photo shoot, I have certain goals to achieve in order to help communicate my client’s message. There are lots of meetings, talks and planning about mood, feel, crops, spacing for type, etc. For The Portrait Project my only goal is to get the very essence of my little subjects. It is honest, organic, it is the simple action of capture who they are. Then the profits from the sessions go directly to purchasing children in need toys during the holidays. The idea of using my photography skills to give back to the community is overwhelming. To me, it is a simple thing to do, to the parents it means so much and to the children receiving the toys, I have no words! I have done lots of monetary donations to different organizations and different needs, however, the feeling of rolling up your sleeves and using this one talent you have to help someone you have never met and never will is truly amazing to me.
How did you overcome the Covid this year?
There was a lot of adapting. It has been a very humbling experience from the photography/business perspective. I was used to always working with a big crew of talented people and all of the sudden, I was wearing many hats: steaming clothes, prepping hair and skin, changing them, setting up lights, shooting and wrangling; then editing, prepping, organizing and sharing files. Finally, packing up clothes and dropping them off at the post office to be returned. That’s at least 5-6 different roles on set! I have always appreciated my photo and production crew but now I have a different level of respect for them! Things are changing these days and we can shoot with smaller crews while keeping it safe;I am truly excited for that! And for The Portrait Project, we are keeping a bare minimal of people on set: 1 family per 30 min. This gives us some time to disinfect in between sessions. Everyone is required to wear a mask and the kids get to take them off for photo time only. Parents will get to prep the kids, and they should arrive camera ready. All images will be selected by parents at a later time via Zoom call to minimize time on set. It is all a big adjustment but with a little creativity and hard work it can be done safely.
Why did you start this project?
I grew up in Brazil and lived in a neighborhood that had shawty towns all around. During the holidays, my dad – who did not have much at all, would go purchase a few simple toys that me and my sisters helped deliver to the children at the shawty towns. Seeing the happy faces of those kids is something that stayed with me my whole life. I have two children of my own now and they are lucky that most of their holiday wishes come true, but I need them to be aware of the fact that is it not the case to every child. By creating TPP, it is my way to give back and plant that seed of hope that our girls will one day do the same. I also make sure to communicate with the families that come for The Portrait Project about how important it is for their children to understand how they are helping with the donations by participating in this project.
If someone wants to book a session or volunteer, how can they find out more?
Booking a session is tricky because it sells out quickly, like last year within 5 minutes after going live. So the best way to know when they will be live and ready for purchase is by subscribing to our newsletter over at casastudiophoto.com . For volunteering please email email@example.com
What have you learned about yourself and your work by doing this project?
That when you pour your heart into a project that is meaningful to you, it truly resonates with people. I have countless clients that came to me because they saw images or videos shot for The Portrait Project.
Heidi: How did this project start, and why?
Ethan: After being housebound for months, we and another family — along with much of the country — decided to take a summer road trip. We rented an RV, packed it to the gills (my camera bags lived in the shower) and headed out with few reservations and a loose 4,500-mile route through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Utah.
The project started on Day 2 of the trip. Before that morning, I didn’t know what I’d be seeing or how meaningful it might be. Waking up in a small town in Nevada, which was only a brief stop on the way to Idaho, I realized that we’d be seeing some special places and moments, both on and off the beaten path. And as I started looking at everything not just as a traveler but in a more studied, photographic way, I started seeing vignettes and juxtapositions that struck me. There’s a lot out there, especially in the areas of the country that haven’t been heavily commercialized.
What struck you about this personal project and why were you proud of it?
I was itching to shoot something personal and meaningful. It’s always important to shoot personal work, but this summer it felt especially rewarding to be creating fresh, self-guided work. I was doing something for myself. I was creating images I wanted to share. And I felt like a hunter — hyper aware, watching for those moments, shooting with intention, working the moments and juxtapositions until I had something. Hopefully they resonate with others.
I’m proud of everything I put out there. In this case, I felt like I was capturing not just what we saw, but what it was like. I also feel like I pushed myself in terms of visual mood and language. While my commercial work tends to have pop and contrast and clean color, here I worked with exposure and color grading and reduced contrast to bring out more mood, tone, emotional range. The restrained highlights and slightly chalky blacks also generate a painterly feel. I’m putting up a new fine-art website, and I’m going to launch it with selects from this project. But the series is a photo essay and should be seen as a whole.
What was it like traveling with your newborn? It was the best. Moxie would babble and pant excitedly every time we strapped her to our chests and left the RV to see new places and people. Of course a nine-month-old takes work, and it certainly disrupted her sleep training. But whom you travel with is as important as where you travel to, and she was a sunny, funny travel companion.
Was your child a catalyst for this observation out the window?
I wouldn’t say she was a catalyst for the observation; more of a limiter, in a good way. Having a child with limited patience — in fact, two entire families with limited patience — forced me to look keenly, choose wisely and shoot selectively. I also shot 95 percent of the series on medium format (Leaf Credo 60 on an H4x), which is a slower, more deliberate way of working than 35mm. I love the big viewfinder and sensor, the aspect ratio, the color, the depth, everything about that setup.
What window did you photograph from? Very little of the series was actually shot through a window. I was in and out of the RV all the time. As I thought about how to title the project, I wanted to convey not only that it emerged from a road trip, but that it offered a view of this country, a series of vignettes that show something about the U.S. American Window seems to carry that. There’s metaphor in a window. It’s a view, an opening, a portal through which lies something more. It offers a framed glimpse into what’s out there.
What do you hope Moxie would learn from these images?
Don’t judge; there are good people everywhere. Use asymmetry and imbalance in your compositions. Remember to include context. Stop and get that burger and fries. Shoot the odd moments and scenes that don’t really seem like photographs at first. Get out of the car and position yourself where you need to be. This country isn’t all one way or the other. Look deeply when you can. Think about what you’re seeing. Why is it that way? How did it get here? Look at things twice, even three times. Use your photography to illuminate. There’s beauty in things that aren’t beautiful.
Heidi: Your graphic design, painting, and drawing work have now evolved into motion, why the evolution? Sajid: Evolution is because I am more interested in designing the process as a game to be played and the resulting work is a byproduct of it and with each play, I get more and more at ease with the game, allowing me to enter a state of flow.
The point is to take it to a level where you don’t have to force anything and let it happen on its own. Allowing the impulse to just nudge you into the action of getting the work done. Furthermore to explore the horizons of my consciousness, which are shared.
The line from Waking Life defines it more appropriately: The idea is to remain in a state of constant departure while always arriving. It saves on introductions and goodbyes. The ride does not require an explanation – just occupants. That’s where you guys (the audience) come in.
How has this forced repose inspired you to revisit the everyday objects? I look at it more in the sense of combining the minimalist philosophies to surrealism, where the object is celebrated for its objecthood and given a spin with a surreal idea. The more you look at the object itself the object tends to reveal more than meets the eye. I also am not taking responsibility to explain the work, as it’s more to do with the concept, not the aesthetics, which opens the room for interpretations. Allowing the images to tickle the brain, inviting people to read the visuals, and make their own reasons, making it more interactive.
How are you making these videos?
I am making them currently on my phone cam with natural light and a white elephant size white paper for the backdrop. I am keeping the aesthetic minimal to make the objects appear in a limbo, completely devoid of any distractions, and allowing the eye to jump straight to the point. I am getting really interested in the videos as it opens room for performance-art as well which is why I am planning to shift to a smaller town in a bigger studio to experiment with scale.
You are taking everyday objects and observing something, how do you know when it is time to create a piece? Being aware is the key. Familiar objects tend to hit a road-block in their perceived understanding. This gives a solid base to push it just a little to challenge that notion attached with the object, it just needs a very small degree of push to shatter the perceived understanding and once you are able to convince someone of this you can work towards changing the perspective.
I work on impulse and a strong belief in intention. So I can cause things to happen if I intend to, it’s just like rolling the dice. What you get is not certain but the only certainty is that you will get something, and one must be content with what he finds when the dice lands. Welcoming everything with arms wide open and no judgment is the point. In other words, the only lock one cannot open is the one that does not exist.
How many days did it take to create this piece? What was the concept?
I confinded myself for a week in this room to draw on each and every corner. The concept was to design an experience which allows the viewer to look inside my head, the grey matter and the things that happen inside the grey matter, and allowing me to look inwards and bring things to life as a process of meditative drawings.
The project was a pure celebration of moving forward and making and not looking back letting me glimpse into the vast ocean of my subconscious. I remember drawing in pitch dark as there was no need for me to see what I am drawing, liberating me of the confinements of the canvas as I was able to draw anywhere and everywhere possible.
What can you share about this piece? Where was this painted and how long did it take?
I painted it on the stairway to my building’s terrace; I am in the midst of moving my studio from here to a smaller town. I thought it would be a goodbye piece to the building. An intentional mark for people to see and ponder who did this? This piece took me about an hour to finish with a stencil and spray cans.
Was it inspired by this/your journals/is this a continuous line?
Yes, the lines are not continuous but are a result of making one thing as much as I can. Repetition is something I find really interesting.
Do you journal with words or only images? I journal with both words and Images. I make as if my hand is dreaming and when I am in the process I come across motifs and compositions which make me wonder and that’s when the writing happens. I am tapping into a flow writing.
Heidi: When did you start this series?
Samant: The first egg I flipped on the first day of the lockdown was an act of imitation.
Why did you choose eggs?
My father would flip the egg perfectly when he would make omelettes for us in a small town where we lived back then. Egg was a treat in those days. It wasn’t everyday that we had eggs for breakfast. In fact, my mother could never flip the egg the way my father would. And over the years, I forgot about that art he had mastered. Lockdown meant a role reversal. A total overhaul, a complete reimagination of things, of life itself.
What did this lockdown project represent for you?
I was going to do everything on my own and it started with the flipping of an egg. The first egg I made was an ode to that memory. In silence and isolation, memories become a guidebook. I remember having stitched a school bag, having painted the walls of my house, and a lot of other things I had given up because I was chasing other dreams and ambitions. It might sound trivial but I decided to make eggs every morning as an ode to people who made them for me, including lovers, friends and family and even random strangers.
Why breakfast? The first meal of the day is a significant one and for me, it would be an exercise in memory, a way of paying homage to little acts of love, of camaraderie, of togetherness. So over three weeks, I conjured the memories of those mornings and those breakfasts and strangely enough, some of the people recognised the eggs and wrote to me. And that was it. A revisitation of sorts when you are alone and you want to hold on to people. The breakfasts became a ritual for me in the lockdown. I would make the egg, decorate the plate and capture it.
How did this honor your father? And it all started with the first egg I flipped and I could flip it the way my father would. It was pure joy because for a son, the act of growing up culminates when he can be like his father. And for me, it came with the flipping of an egg. Like he did in that house of love where we learned to be with each other. That’s how it started. The egg. The memory. The people.
Home (Images 1,2,3) Vanishing Life Worlds (4,5,6) Manchukkar: The Seafarers of Malabar (7,8,9)
Heidi: How did this idea of “Home” come about, which was your first image, how did that inform the series? How long has it taken to photograph this body of work?
KR Sunil: I hail from Kodungallur (the ancient harbour town Muziris which was a significant presence in India’s port towns and trading history). So I have grown up closely related to the coastal life in this historical region. As a photographer, I have spent a considerable number of years with various series related to the sea.
The idea for this particular series (‘Home’) occurred to me following an incident while I was working on the ‘Vanishing Life Worlds’ series in Ponnani (another port town). I photographed a thatched home of a young girl by the sea, which was on the verge of collapsing. On circulating this photo, few friends and well-wishers stepped up to rebuild this home for the girl. And they did too! But unfortunately, the renewed home too collapsed under the force of the tides in some time. This was the inception of the series for me, as I began to observe a growing number of desolated homes by the coast. For me, what struck was how hard-hitting this was for the people, as ‘home’ is a deep sentiment for them; it is much more than a shelter. For many, it is a lifetime’s endeavor to build a home. It is literally a dream come true for them. Also, for a close-knit community as theirs, the concept of home extends to the whole environment they live in. There are neighbourhoods, religious places they frequent and a camaraderie that they have to leave behind when the sea takes over. This encroachment by sea can be attributed to worldwide climate change and phenomena like global warming. But the unfair part of it is that these communities barely contribute to causing these. In fact, they are a community that holds utmost regard and respect for nature, to the extent of calling the sea ‘kadalamma’, which translates to ‘mother sea’. Yet, they’re forced out of their own homes by the same sea. This has been a growing effect in recent years, especially in the coastal regions of Kerala, which includes my hometown too.
Do you know any of the homeowners affected by this climate event, or do you know where they migrated to?
I have known a few of the families that were forced out in recent years. Not personally up close, but I would’ve seen them during my visits and walks to their localities. Now only remnants of their homes are seen there. They have been dispersed to different places – near and far, but safer. They have to then spend uncertain number of days (many of them in rented houses), pondering about the home and community they have had to leave behind. As far as they are concerned, this shift to a safer place is not a resolution; they are only left with an angst about their home.
What draws you to the sea?
I have spent a good part of the last 5-6 years on various series related to the sea. ‘Vanishing Life Worlds’ was a photographic series based on the lives of people at Ponnani, an old harbour town in Malabar coast. It was exhibited at the Kochi Muziris Biennale in the year 2016. SImilarly, ‘Mattancherry’ was a series about life at another port town Mattancherry in Kochi. Then there was a series on the last surviving group of seafarers of Malabar, titled ‘Manchukkar – The Seafarers of Malabar’. This text-and-photographic series narrated the stories of men who worked in traditional dhow (or uru) and endured painstaking lives. Another series is in development right now, which follows the life of performers of Chavittunadakam, a dying artform that survived through the coastal community.
So to answer you, I’d like to point out that it’s not the sea that draws me, but rather it is the lives related to the sea that drives me.
Port towns have a unique history of having welcomed and accommodated people from all parts of the world. The people of these towns get a better sense of the world, thanks to the visitors. This has defined a broad-minded trait in these people about life, which I believe is universal for coastal or port town communities. For instance, while visiting the port town of Ponnani, I came across Abubacker, who I’d describe as one of the finest personalities I have ever met. Operating from an abandoned go-down facility, he sources and gives out free medicines to the needy – medicines worth thousands of Rupees on a daily basis! And this, without seeking any recognition or returns. In the same town I have met people with varied traits and vocations. Like Asees, who was a pick-pocket but known and familiar to everyone in the region. (Sharing a video by Kochi Muziris Biennale featuring these personalities, for reference –
I always found these people fascinating – they even have a glow on their face which I believe is attributed to their positive approach about life. So these lives appeal to me rather than the sea itself…
For “The Seafarers of Malabar” how much time did you spend with each subject prior to bringing out the camera?
The series occurred to me in a rather coincidental manner. I used to frequent the port town of Ponnani and interact with the people there. On one occasion, I came across Ibrahim, a very elderly man, who was singing a folklore about life at sea. I was intrigued by his rendition and listened to him for some time. When I started talking to him, I realised he was a seafarer in his youth. The more I spoke with him, the more fascinating his story grew into. He used to work in the traditional uru (or dhow ships) that carried out trading between port towns. He had spent his prime travelling around the world! I couldn’t have been more excited. He ended up inviting me to his home, where we sat and talked for quite a while. His home could not have been more basic, barely accommodating his own lonesome life. This man had travelled around the world, but his humble home and living conditions reflected nothing about his experiences. There, sitting in that tiny space, he was describing the great endless seas and journeys he had been part of. He narrated adversities, facing death and escaping it – he had even survived a shipwreck, clinging on to a wooden log for two days in the sea!
Was there a common thread for you during these portrait sessions?
A whole new chapter of coastal life was opening up for me right there. He spoke of his fellow seafarers; many of them had passed on and the rest were struggling with a difficult old age. I was compelled to pursue the story and these lives, because theirs was an untold story. There were celebrated stories of travellers, traders and explorers who may have ridden the same ships as them, but the story of such common labourers and their hardships had never been documented or told. Even for me, it was a fortunate coincidence that had opened this avenue. From meeting this lone seafarer, I ended up tracing up to 35 of the surviving lot – each of them with unique stories, mostly of hardships.
How did you build and earn trust?
I spent a considerable amount of time interacting with them. In fact, a few years passed while I continuously met them and discussed their stories. This meant we had gotten accustomed to each other with a cordial rapport over time. The portraits were in fact taken during those conversations, as and when I felt the time was right. So it was all an organic process…mostly with a human-to-human basis, rather than a photographer-to-subject one.
What compels you to share their stories?
I felt compelled to bring their stories to light mostly because they were untold. Like I mentioned, stories of sailors and traders were celebrated worldwide. Even a single journey to a far off land was sometimes lauded as discoveries and achievements. But the labourers spent a lifetime making the same journeys and enduring a much higher degree of hardships. But being labourers or common men, their lives were neither pursued by historians or researchers, nor did they have the voice and ability to speak out their parts. This was typical of the working class in any part of the world, in any industry. I happened to come across their lives by chance, but I always felt advocative about the stories of such subjugated, marginalized lives in society. The coastal life as a whole had this general trait, which is the reason I was always inclined to retell their stories.
How have you been creatively engaged during these unruly and isolated times of the pandemic?
The lockdown came with a lot of travel restrictions. But I have been able to visit the coastal strips and photograph the effects of monsoon there. The time has helped me develop the ‘Home’ series.
Heidi: Has photography always been a part of your creative life?
Bhagvati: Yes, very much so. Photos play a big role in my work as an apparel and textile designer, I use photography to storyboard my ideas, identify concepts and visually communicate the direction I am headed. My love of photography started early; I was the yearbook photographer for my high school where I learned to print in the darkroom. I loved the control and artistic understanding that it gave me to go beyond just creating an image, but also to express a specific feeling. Photography also gives me a good excuse to get out, be in the world and document all it’s amazingness.
When did this idea of pattern plotting come together? While living in Denver I was taking daily walks at a local park. I had been making photos and paintings of clustered items for a long time. On these walks, passing the same spots daily I started seeing how the patterns in plants changed with different lighting. It made me start to think more about how lightning affects structure. By playing with the light in the editing process my images started to feel more akin to patterns rather than a representational photograph. The border around the images helped with a cut-off point giving ambiguity to the subject.
By taking out the color from my images, it allows me to focus on the structure of the form and they can be more easily manipulated without having to also consider color. I am also influenced by 19th century German photographer Karl Blossfeldt. His microscopic plant-based images feel so architectural and perfectly toned.
How long has this series been going and what are your plans for it? The idea for #patternplotting started in 2013 as a series on Instagram, and for the last 5 or 6 years I’ve printed a calendar from selected images made during that year. I am not sure what the future holds, but the excitement that I get when I see the perfect lighting, or a cluster of objects compels me to photograph it, and in turn, the series continues. There have been requests for a book, but we shall see.
Did you start that hashtag #patternplotting?
Yes, on Instagram. The early adopters of Instagram had a big influence as there were a lot of artist and photographers that were using the platform as a place for creative expression, and I wanted to do the same. So, finding a hashtag that I could claim felt important. After a long while of being the only one who used it, I started to see people posting pictures with a similar aesthetic and the same hashtag. This gave me an interesting sensation knowing that the combination of those words was ringing true with others. To this day I have people send me pictures of things that they have seen that make them see the world through #patternplotting eyes.
How do these patterns inform other creative efforts in your life? For me patterns are about systems, process and a sense of order. I recently had a show that was called “Meanderings” and it was a combination of both oil painting and ceramics. The paintings were all based on moving water and were sketched from life. They were titled “choppy”, “stormy”, “crashing” and “flowing”, but instead of photographs like in #patternplotting I used my observations and sense order to find and plot the patterns from memory.
As for the ceramics all the forms had something circular in nature. One particular piece I made was called “move me”. It was a big table filled with sand, there were four shapes but in multiplicity. The idea was that the people could come in and rearrange the objects and make whatever type of patterns or order they wanted. Observing the different sense of order that each person brought to the piece, in a way moved me. It moved my sense of order and expanded it.
Heidi: How did the project evolve?
Kevin: Jimmy Hubbard called me last summer and asked me to shoot High On Fire, a stoner-metal three-piece band with legendary musician Matt Pike at the helm. The assignment was to shoot group and individual portraits in studio, and reportage imagery of the band prepping and sound-checking for a music fest in Las Vegas. This is my favorite kind of assignment.
What do you like about these types of assignments?
The controlled conditions of studio portraiture, and the run-and-gun of reportage. The sound check was in the morning. Tuning drums, changing bass strings, testing mics. One of the best things about sound checks is the freedom I have to move around on stage while they’re playing songs. I can’t do that during a concert. It’s a more casual atmosphere, to be sure.
What makes the sound check different from a live show?
Musicians aren’t sweating, smoke and lighting isn’t as dramatic, the fans aren’t there. But with High On Fire, the performance at that sound check was as authentic and energetic as a live performance of most other bands. So being on stage, amongst the band, feet away from them, it was incredibly exciting. Wrap sound check, load into the studio.
What type of cover direction did you get from the magazine?
Jimmy wanted portraits that considered the legacy of Matt Pike for the cover. Stoic and introspective. I went with simplicity for a lighting approach. Trees for the background and an Elinchrom octabank key. I had a smaller umbrella on standby for a fill, but I didn’t want it. I shot mostly digital, but I spent a few rolls of film too.
Tell us about the shooting film.
I’d been bringing film cameras to set in recent years. Hasselblad 500c or Fuji 680. In most cases, the client opted for the digital images, relegating the films shots for after-the-fact darkroom adventures. But Jimmy and the team at Revolver wanted one of the film shots…and they wanted it for the cover. My first thought was the deadline. As photographers know, it’s one thing to quickly turn around a digital shot. But a darkroom print? Maybe not so easy. For safety, I had the shot scanned at Vista CRC in Manhattan. That way the Revolver team could start designing the cover with a hi-res image. Then, off to Bushwick Darkroom to print. I spent the day printing straight prints, and also variations using solarization techniques. In the end, Revolver went for a clean look for the cover.
Heidi: Why did you create that series, Marwang?
Cedric: Last fall I set out to capture the beauty and diversity of black skin, which is poorly represented and rarely celebrated in mainstream media. I wanted to create a project focused specifically on that. I’d worked previously with another model with a rich dark complexion and Marwang was on the same roster and riveted my attention. The conversation during our shoot was insightful; I was curious to know what kind of projects he typically worked on and whether the industry really understood how to represent models like him. And it was clear that the industry needed to do more. To do more than treating black representation as a trend. It was a reminder to me that this work was important.
What was your creative vision, I know you styled and also cast this project? For this project I was drawn to the idea of contrast, so I pulled white and reflective wardrobe for the studio shots. I offered some direction for him to be physically expressive, and he responded by dancing. His movement through the light made each shot different. For the naturally lit images I actually used an ND filter to create a more dynamic image and really draw on the richness of his skin. How did your photo career begin?
I took up photography as a way to share my journeys abroad with family and friends back home in the states during my time as an active duty Marine in China, El Salvador, and Morocco. But it also became a creative outlet in an otherwise restrictive environment; I felt freedom behind the lens. The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy was still in place during my time on active duty, and photography gave a true voice and allowed me to fully express myself in at least this one part of my life. The camera gave me a home and grounding when everything around me was foreign and temporary. Putting a lens between me and the people I encountered actually brought me closer to them. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that I could make a career out of it. So I taught myself technical skills and started to build a portfolio.
What was the catalyst for your start abroad?
My time in the Marines ignited in me a passion for experiencing the world. I documented everything; cultural sites and heads of state to local people in remote villages. I was constantly learning, absorbing, and inspired by the beauty of life and captured every detail. After establishing myself as a photographer I was eager to use my skills to build an international presence. The work I do abroad these days is often reportage, fashion or beauty. I’ve focused my international energy on working in places that inspire me, especially Mexico, France, and the UK. I feel fortunate to be able to blend my curiosity about the world with my livelihood in photography. The pandemic has thrown a wrench in those ambitions, but I am hopeful that the world will open up again and we will be stronger as we reconnect face to face.
How does your military experience influence your work today?
From large scale productions to streamlined minimalist studio portraits, I love the complexity of a big idea and the refinement of simple elegance. I think my time in the Marines sharpened my attention to detail and ability to work under pressure. I find myself always problem solving; just in case. Because having a few tricks in your back pocket in case something doesn’t go as planned on set it alway a good thing. I also see my time as a diplomat influence my ability to work with high profile subjects.
How were your portrait skills informed?
Because I always had a camera on me during my time abroad in the Marines I was quickly appointed as the unofficial photographer for the units I joined. With that came a responsibility to maintain the official headshots for each Marine unit. I had no portrait experience before that, and that experience gave me a great crash course.
Today those same early portrait skills have been influenced by the likes of Irving Penn, Gordon Parks and Jerry Schatzberg. I look to the clarity and simplicity of Penn’s approach. Portraits of the strong, graceful, and sensual bodies of both men and women are my continuation of his implicit challenge to see feminine and masculine as one. Even in commercial work and anonymous work I seek to express the precision and intimacy that his images teach.
You witnessed the the peace and the aftermath of the protest, can you share the two very different experiences?
I live in downtown Los Angeles and so was immersed in the initial uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd. The constant and overwhelming presence of police sirens and helicopters was almost unbearable. There was so much uncertainty about what would happen or when the violence outside my window would end. Needless to say, very little sleep found me that first night.
As I saw the sun start to peek through my window, I decided to sneak out of bed and go out and see what the city looked like. And I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Armed with my camera, I documented my neighborhood: the remnants of burned trash cans and cars, and shattered store fronts in every direction. I couldn’t help but notice that many of the damaged shops were owned or operated by people of color and had been looted by people for reasons likely having nothing to do with the cause of racial justice.
How did you take ownership of the situation, by documenting it?
Documenting the aftermath of the initial violence left a touch of sorrow on my soul. I knew this destruction would cast a shadow over the massive uprising and critical issues at hand. But I wanted to bear witness; it felt so important. But in the days and weeks to come, I would also bear witness to the growing mass of humanity coming together in peaceful outrage over the tragic murders of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and so many others. I felt part of this movement by joining the protesters in the streets – not just a photographer documenting from the outside, but as a protester myself, capturing this movement that would change the world.
How does that experience linger for you today?
While the immediate unrest has settled and the size of the crowds in Los Angeles have gotten smaller, there is still so much work to be done. We all have a responsibility to use our skills and tools to witness and participate in this moment. The pandemic has made this moment harder; it’s tempting to feel helpless at times as our communities are under siege from so many different directions, and it’s difficult to know how to connect with each other and make a difference in this disorienting time. But being among the protesters reminded me that there are so many people all around us who deeply care and are willing to make sacrifices to uplift others and fight for them.
Heidi: Did you shoot and series and then curate this work?
Anjan: I have been brainstorming in my head about this idea (Against all odds), revolving around how the livelihood of people have been affected during this pandemic. How to approach the subjects? What would be that common link/connection? Prepared a storyboard, listed down some professions which were badly hit & people who were associated with it. Started to connect with all of them, followed by brief phone conversations and lining up the shoots at various potential locations in and around the city of Mumbai. The idea was to create a particular style of environmental portraits with interesting backdrops which tells a story.
Pre covid, would you have noticed these people, how do they rise up in your eyes now? Mumbai is a city of 22 million people, you are bound to come across a lot of people struggling for their livelihood every single day. You’ll most definitely cross paths with many people with their survival stories. The city is brimming with working class people. Majority of that also includes the migrants and daily/weekly wage workers (cabbies/auto rickshaw drivers, construction workers, maisons, plumbers etc.) Each individual has their unique stories to share. While travelling in cabs/auto rickshaws I have heard many such stories of their survival every now and then. When the pandemic hit the urban population in mid march, they were the the first ones whose lives were altered in many ways than one. With no savings at their disposal the ongoing survival and struggle became even more difficult. Making ends meet and taking care of their families and keeping them safe was becoming their single biggest challenge ever. I was truly amazed by their perseverance everyday in surviving the pandemic. While speaking to most of them I sensed a common connection of that fighting spirit, that can do attitude even though their livelihood were at stake with a gloom of uncertainty. There was a spark of positivity in between fear and frustration. There’s nothing they can do but to fight and keep hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel. Each one these brave souls made me realise the ground realities of life and why giving back to the less privileged would be the most humane thing you could have ever imagined doing.
Was it difficult to convince people to be photographed? What did you tell them about this project?
Coordinating the whole thing was a logistical nightmare at some levels, especially reaching out to people during a lockdown was not easy. Thankfully with the help of a close friend who’s a partner with a popular production company here in Mumbai, eased up coordination hugely. With his help we reached out to them and began our conversations explaining to them the crux of the story in which they were going to be featured and shot. It was difficult to convince them at first with few reservations about their struggles and featuring their photographs. We had to go to that extra mile of making them understand how they should portray their struggles & bravery so that it becomes a living example for others to fight the troubled times ahead. We insisted that everyone should know about their survival stories and it cannot happen if they don’t volunteer to be a part of this project. Portraying them as ‘Warriors & survivors’ also helped to ease their reservations. We had to go through this exercise with every individual whom we had to convince with a completely different frame of mind & explanations.
What was the commonality amongst the subjects? I know the theme was everyday heroes.
For this particular photo essay the subject was purely based on ‘Survival during the pandemic’ I had outlined it with various titles namely; ‘An ode to survival’ ‘The lives of others’ Against all odds’ etc. So survival was a common link to all the subjects belonging from various work/professions. While talking to them I figured there was more than just survival spirits. Even through all these hardships no one seemed to give up, they want to fight on, for a better life, for their families and most importantly the pandemic.
Is this an ongoing project?
This was my third photo essay in a row which i have worked on for the last 3 months through the lockdown. The first one was titled ‘Frontline warriors’: It was about people (Doctor, traffic cop, city police force, Bus driver, medical shop owner, veggies & essentials shop owner) who are working tirelessly on the frontline to help others in many ways, the second was titled: ‘Lending a helping hand’; It was about group/team of people (Teams going out of their way to ensure the smooth functioning of banking, IT and health services). And ‘Against all odds’ is the current one. We have even started a hashtag of #frontlinewarriors where we do a lot of social media posts (single story, photo of the day etc) on everyday covid-19 warriors. There has been a lot of traction on that lately.
How often are you shooting, as your main role at Forbes India is running the show as Creative Director.
Currently I am harnessing the power and potential of iPhone photography and this would be an ongoing process in the months & years to come. I shoot whenever I can and whatever I can. Digital photography has always been my passion but never really managed the time to pursue it fully. These projects were like an eye opener for me, I really felt thrilled, excited and rejuvenated completing these essays successfully and with such moving stories/subjects. The role of Chief Creative Director at Forbes remains unchanged with the workflow of the fortnightly editions back to back, managing deputies, designers, production artists plus off course manning shoots & storyboarding ideas. But I would definitely try to unhinge myself a bit to focus more on digital photography.
Tell us about the difference of designing this project, as you were the content generator in entirety. A trifecta!
Well, I was imagining the structure & layout of the feature whilst storyboarding the essay idea. I was absolutely sure of shooting them in B/W and thought about a well structured and clean design template. I wanted the photographs to speak for itself by doing justice to the title. The photos/portraits/expressions should convey a sense of uncertainty and that needed to be achieved from every subject. I chalked out a copy style (name, age, residence, Struggle & survival and Future) which should be common to all and was used as subheads in which the format should be self explanatory. Choosing the clean san serifs & serifs for the headlines, introduction & rest of the text was part of the part of the style sheet. White spaces in and around the layouts was mandatory. The feature was part of the back of the book section of the mag called ‘Forbes Life’ and hence thought the connection with the word ‘Life’ was apt.
How are the cases in India in general, what are the lockdown protocols of late?
The current confirmed cases in India is almost 1.04 million with 654K recovered & almost 27K deaths. It’s increasing at an alarming rate with every passing day. We’re currently the 3rd country with the highest number of cases after the US & Brazil. The lockdown protocols are getting stringent every week due to the rapid rise of positive cases in every state in the country now. The nation has completed its lockdown 4.0 with partial lockdowns in between. Some state borders have been shut and there are movements of only essential goods & services. Amidst of all the chaos & commotion the authorities are trying their level best to ensure that the mortality rate is on check. But given the population and congestion in many unplanned urban areas across the country it’s turning out to be the worst nightmare. Every state government is trying their best to create containment zones to prevent further community spread. There have been extra hands on deck consisting of doctors, city police, health workers who have been put to work. Moreover disregarding protocols now and then has become an integral part of everyday lives and social distancing is turning out to be a myth.
Vatsala Goel: San Francisco Women’s March attendees gathered despite rain and cold weather outside the city hall in a historic event to mark their dissent against Donald Trumps inauguration as the 45th President of United States. 21st january 2017.
Danielle Villasana: A portrait of a couple that lives in a community along Peru’s Marañón River.
Danielle Villasana: A young girl walks along the streets of a neighborhood in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
Elaine Cromie: Wail Aboajialo, an asylum applicant from Iraq who relies on Affordable Care Act coverage poses inside his home in Sterling Heights, Mich.
Elaine Cromie: The Rosarito Delfinas high school girls flag football team prepares for their afternoon game in Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico.
Hannah Yoon: Lee Cha-Dol, 81, stands for a portrait in Tapgol Park in Seoul, South Korea. Lee is a traditional Korean calligraphy and fan teacher. In 2014, the suicide rate of the elderly in South Korea was the highest in the OECD countries. On top of this, almost 50% of the elderly population lives in poverty. Despite these grave statistics, many persist, are active and want to be presentable in society. They do not want to be forgotten.
Hannah Yoon: Choi Yoon-Ho shows off his fancy suit in Seoul, South Korea. Choi makes sure to dress up everyday and show off his expensive clothes when he’s in public. In 2014, the suicide rate of the elderly in South Korea was the highest in the OECD countries. On top of this, almost 50% of the elderly population lives in poverty. Despite these grave statistics, many persist, are active and want to be presentable in society. They do not want to be forgotten.
Mengwen Cao: Nam Holtz, poses for a portrait at her apartment in Queens, New York. Adopted from Korea, she grew up in Chicago. She is an actor and dancer. “I look this way, but I feel another way.” – from the series “I Stand between”, a project on transracial adoptees, specifically Asians adopted by white families.
Mengwen Cao: Portrait of Luke Chang, Chinese American artist and designer, photographed in Catskills, New York in 2018
Tara Pixley: LOS ANGELES, CA. One of the biggest attractions at the Leimert Park Juneteenth festival was a man on horseback who rode in circles carrying the Pan-African flag (also known as the Black liberation flag). The June 19 festival in Leimert Park, a historically Black LA neighborhood is one of Los Angeles’ largest Juneteenth celebrations, drawing several hundred people this year for art, music, food trucks and solidarity in light of recent protests for Black lives.
Heidi: AC was formed during a symposium where you asked about who gets to tell marginalized stories. Since inception how has the script changed now that you’ve created these resources? The beginning of AC came out of a desire for community and stability in a chaotic, unsupportive professional landscape for women of color media makers. Over the last two years, we’ve found that this is a movement, a reimagining and a reckoning for the old guard who hoard their resources, limit access and shut down attempts at progress. I don’t think we thought we would be attacked the way that we have been as we became more influential, but we also could never have imagined how powerful and necessary this community and the organization itself has become. I’ve seen a sea change in the last two years due to the labor of orgs like ours, Women Photograph, Everyday Projects, DiversifyPhoto and so many others. People are listening, they’re learning, they’re opening their spaces and those who are pushing back against diversifying and including more perspectives are showing the industry exactly why we need these changes. — Tara Pixley, co-Founder and Board Member, Los Angeles-based independent visual journalist and professor at Loyola Marymount University || @tlpix || www.tarapixley.com
Since releasing the Do No Harm Statement, the Guide to Inclusive Photography, and the Bill of Rights we’ve discovered that many people were asking themselves these same exact questions. What we did was expose people to the thinking and language of decolonizing photography, which in itself sounds like a tall order. But, we aim for practicality, usefulness, encouraging action and ways of being. In these ways we make the work of decentering the western, gendered gaze accessible. What’s changed is that we’ve stopped asking the questions and started answering them ourselves, stepping into our authority. — Bunni Elian, Board Member and independent multimedia journalist based in New York City || https://www.hellobunni.com/
Now that you’re a few years out, what would you tell your younger AC? I would want to tell our younger selves that people will support us and people will believe in us. Despite the uncertainties and what seemed like slow or maybe hesitant reception, I would tell the younger AC to stick to what they believe in. I would tell them trusting friendships are growing out of it and so many people within the photo industry are taking AC seriously. AC is doing important work within the industry and you’ll see the fruits of your labor. — Hannah Yoon, co-Founder and Board Member. Freelance photographer in Philadelphia @hanloveyoon || www.hannahyoon.com
I would tell our younger selves to get incorporated ASAP. We have had so many incredible opportunities and collaborations in this time, so many wonderful sponsors and kind individuals who have supported our efforts or amplified the message of decolonization and inclusion. However, the hundreds of hours of work put into building this community and making change through interventions, exhibits, talks, panels, community meet-ups, open letters and one billion meetings, etc. — all of that has been primarily volunteer labor on the part of a devoted 7-10 person crew (depending on the makeup of the Board at the time). If we could have incorporated earlier, we would have been in a better position to provide financial resources, grants, stipends, etc. to all the Authority Collective Community and work on much bigger scales. But that is all in the works now! And I wouldn’t trade a single thing from the incredible lessons learned from our grassroots, independent, scrappy efforts that built something really worthwhile and beautiful for our community. — Tara Pixley
What Hannah said above and that it is worth doing this because people who experience microaggression and discrimination in this industry don’t feel isolated. That they feel validated and affirmed. — Mary Kang, Board Member and NYC-based independent photographer || @mary.kang|| http://www.marykang.com
I would tell the younger version of our organization to focus on ideas in addition to the call-outs. Initially, we thought we could just single out corporations and institutions to help them do better individually, but we’ve found within the last few weeks that we provide more value in investigating the problematic conventions of journalism, rather than a case by case basis. Doing so took the conversation further, bringing more people to the table and fostering introspection among those who see our resources. Rather than saying one entity is a bad actor, people can internalize it and ask themselves ‘When have I acted in a similar way?’ We’ve also shifted from demands to suggestions and considerations. — Bunni Elian
With all the resources available, are you still stumped by content creators finding it hard to find diverse voices? Are you feeling like people are not doing the work? Is it budgets? lack of risk? all of the above? At times, we are stumped and not sure why there is still a slow movement to be as inclusive as possible within our industry. We wonder if it’s a budget issue or if some editors feel comfortable working with photographers they’ve already worked with. We have formed relationships with some photo editors within the industry, but there are others we have not connected with. We understand there is a culture of the editor+photographer relationship within the industry that is difficult to change. — Hannah Yoon
We notice the efforts being made by some photo editors, but we also understand the bureaucracy within each publication or company. If people in the executive level think hiring photographers they have never heard of is risky, then photo editors who push for equity also don’t feel heard. There needs to be a structural shift in company culture that values diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility. — Mary Kang
I would second what Mary said here. There are so many organizations and databases at this point highlighting the myriad brilliant photographers available to work, so it can’t realistically be said that photo editors “can’t find” photographers of color. In my experience, gatekeepers in journalism hire within their circles and known networks, relying on existing relationships. But also you can’t just make an intervention at the highest levels, saying “well here, you could hire these people” and think that’s a done deal, you’ve made it inclusive and accessible! No. It starts well beyond that. It starts when Black and brown children don’t know this is a job they can have, when they go to college and aren’t encouraged to develop a photographic aesthetic or are encouraged to align their existing perspective with the status quo of the Western Gaze. When they don’t have the resources to buy all the camera equipment their wealthier (often White) peers can. When they can’t take unpaid internships or travel around the world to get the portfolio pieces their White and wealthier peers can. The complex and inequitable dynamics of the photo industry start well before any database or list. Those are the things AC is pushing to address and make the industry recognize. Lists are great if you use them. What is far better would be a complete reimagining of what we perceive to be valid perspectives, what aesthetics are valued and included, what voices are listened to and encouraged. Also we need a re-education of the photo editor profession and practice. I’ve been a photo editor for international publications and news orgs: I will say that some take the job seriously and love being an advocate for photos and photographers. Others coast with limited knowledge of the field or the impact that images have in the world. We won’t achieve real change if we aren’t addressing the problems at every step of the editorial process and dedicating ourselves to making our visual media better across the board. — Tara
It should also be noted that so much of the newsroom has been consolidated to the work of researching photographers, mentoring, nurturing relationships and people are stretched super thin. I’ve heard countless photo editors say they lost that aspect of the work, which they really enjoyed. So photo editor burnout is real, very human and can create the conditions where some choose the shortcut of people they know. COVID-19 for example, is NOT a time to experiment. You’ll contact your go to photographer over a new hire and not pressure people to take on health risks. That’s understandable. That’s why it’s paramount to incorporate diversity and inclusion efforts throughout the years so you can maintain diversity of perspective when news breaks. — Bunni
What makes this moment different and what are the tangible goals you hope we hit as content creators? The progress I want to see… the photo bill of rights explains it all (haha). Mostly equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and fair contract and payment. Also, we need people to not only listen, but believe what we say and build actions. — Mary
The confluence of the unfair practices in journalism, the pandemic, and the narrow visual rendering of the Black Lives Matter movement in early June has put us in a unique position to rise to the occasion to use the current conditions as concrete examples we can all see. It also doesn’t hurt that the majority of people everywhere are stuck at home with plenty of time to spare! So often people want to engage, but life gets in the way. The truth is though, beyond the quick response of the Do No Harm Photo statement, the creation of these resources has been in the works for months. — Bunni
I am looking for the industry to want to be better. I understand progress is scary and some people won’t flourish with more competition. But if you’ve actually been working hard, doing great work and adhering to the ethics of our profession, a more inclusive and equitable industry will only positively affect you. Progress looks like recognizing the photo industry has passively been a part of the problem (of exclusions and stereotyping around race, gender and class) but now wants to actively participate in building a better world with more accurate and holistic visual perspectives. — Tara
There’s a big push to hire both in front of and behind the camera. How has the diversity and inclusion conversation progressed at this moment and how does the collective feel/what do they think about it? I am seeing some progress, but still many POC photographers are being asked to work for free or at an unfair rate. I am seeing small incremental steps, but still the majority being hired are white cis male photographers. We are not hating on them, we just want people to think about that disproportion and bring more equitable changes as there is no shortage of talented photographers who are not a white cis male.— Mary
The conversation hasn’t changed, just more people are being loud about it. A sea change is bound to occur when photographers band together and demand for the hiring of black photojournalists to cover Black Lives Matter for example. The difference in coverage is immense. That’s been huge! Our members appear to be a part of this shift and cheer on the Authority Collective just as much as we cheer and uplift them. — Bunni
I would say that diversity and inclusion has become a very prevalent conversation in some realms and in other places people are doubling down on exclusion. However, the thing about forcing the conversation is it clarifies who is willing to engage and who is holding on to their white/Western/male/class privilege and uninformed stances for dear life. We’re in a historical moment for our industry and people are deciding what side of history they’re going to be on. They’re also very handily publicly stating those positions and uneducated/unethical/exclusionary approaches to visual media practices on social media. So, in a few years I think we’ll see really how our industry has progressed, how we’ve become better collectively, more diverse and more educated about social realities that affect our work as photographers and what more work there is to be done. — Tara
How do you celebrate your forward movement and big changes in the media landscape? I think about the saying “we are only strong as the weakest ones in our society.” I wouldn’t say anyone is weak, better word may be under-resourced. Whenever there is progress it is good for the industry as a whole as we can be stronger together and that serves everybody. — Mary
As a board we are constantly celebrating each other’s efforts and the achievements of our membership and larger photo community, so we’re not really celebrating, we’re just trying to keep up with the flood of emails! Ha! But, seriously, I’d say we feel encouraged more than anything to keep on the right track. We’re beyond thrilled to see all these conversations popping up across social media. Maybe we’ll celebrate when we can see sustained changes. But for now we are pleased that our work has reverberated.— Bunni
Who and what inspires the collective? I’m personally inspired by people who work in depth to uplift under-resourced visual storytellers and call in problematic behaviors so that more of us can concentrate on just making the works instead of having to deal with microaggressions and other barriers. I am inspired by those kindness and passion that look out for each other even when we may not feel perfect. — Mary
I’m inspired by being able to empower people on how to navigate microaggressions and cultural and racial insensitivity. It’s like solving a puzzle by handing each member a piece. I’m also inspired by the groups that have arisen in this time of many questions and few answers. Unofficially, we refer to this collection of groups as “RECLAIM” and that we at times work in tandem or collaborate directly and are not in competition is so inspiring. Cooperation has taken humankind immensely further than competition. I’m inspired by our dedication to be a force for something better. I’d literally be depressed if not for this work. It gives me purpose and community. — Bunni
How do you try and stand out in the flood of social media? What is the one singular message? We focus on amplifying the works of talented and underrepresented visual storytellers in mainstream media. This effort includes reposting their works on our Instagram stories as well as having people use our Instagram platform to introduce their works by doing Instagram takeover. Additionally, we notice the discussions going around online discourses and try to amplify those messages as well, in support of bringing more equity and ethical values to the industry. Our social media platforms naturally grew over time through word of mouth. More so than trying to stand out, we focus on connectivity with people who share similar visions, building community and celebrating accomplishments of the members. — Mary
Our singular message, if we had to have one, is that the experiences, viewpoints and work of our membership are valid. We can be experts, we have a voice and we have something to say about this world through our work and we’re not going anywhere. — Bunni
NYT UNREST BROOKLYN, NEW YORK- JUNE 2, 2020: Photo of members from The December 12th Movement organization and civilians marches in the middle of the road going up to Restoration Plaza on Fulton Street in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York.(Photo by Anthony Geathers for The New York Times)
Heidi: Where were the protest images photographed?
Anthony: All of my protest imagery was photographed in my hometown of Brooklyn, NY, between Bedford Stuyvesant, Flatbush and Fort Greene
Why do these particular images stand out for you?
These particular images stand out to me because for many years, Brooklyn has always been one of the hubs for Black people in terms of fighting for change in our own communities and speaking out against systemic oppression and police brutality. So for me, all grown up and able to photograph this in 2020 is insane to me. That is why these images stand out to me.
How did you get this protestors attention during this intense moment?
This image was from the very first day of protests here in Brooklyn. Thousands of people from all over Brooklyn gathered at The Barclays Center to protest against police brutality, young, old, able and ready, etc. It was beautifully chaotic and there was a militant energy in the air. People have had enough of the police and were adamantly voicing their displeasure with the NYPD. A lot of black people in the protests looked my way once they saw me with my camera and threw up the black fist salute in the air like this young protester here. They put their trust in me without telling me, to represent them the right way.
How has your Marine Corp background transcended your photograph approach?
My Marine Corps background,, and having served in actual combat in Afghanistan has allowed me to work and deal with chaos no matter what’s going on, having discipline to make good decisions when I’m shooting photos on the street, what I need to be aware of depending on the situation, reading the environment and how people are behaving, or even coming up with ways to execute on commercial jobs on the fly and with very few resources (the Marine Corps definitely taught this lesson about working with nothing HAHAHA). A lot of my time in the Marines, especially in combat, has prepared me to deal with madness and chaos very calmly.
Can you share more about the embed project?
The project came about at the request of the US Marine Corps in their idea to expand their use of social media and use Instagram specifically more successfully. The idea of the embed was born from abr ainstorm session the Marines and Instagram had. This was the first time ever that Instagram facilitated embedding photographers from the Instagram community with the US military. I had the honor and privilege of spending time on The USS Bataan with the Marines of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, the sister unit to my past infantry unit 1st Battalion, 6th Marines with three other incredible photojournalists. Riding from Norfolk,Virginia all the way back to NYC, I spent time documenting the Marines (mainly. sorry my heart is always with the Corps) and the Sailors.
You started your photo journey young, do you remember those images you shot in 7th grade?
The images I shot in 7th grade were pictures of everybody in the neighborhood in Bed-Stuy. They were garbage but at the time I didn’t care. The camera was the way I really got to know everyone in the community, from the business owners to the librarians and after that moment in time, I decided it was time to take photography very seriously. I was always self aware, even as a kid.
Not that you’re established in your career, what would you tell your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to stay the course in his journey, stay alive and to get as much sleep as possible because after high school, you’re not going to sleep as much and life is going to change!
What work are you hoping to get hired for?
The work I want to be hired for is more commercial/portraiture work for various brands,campaigns, and magazines involved in sport, music, streetwear, movies and Black culture, Just like the work one of my favorite photographers, Marcus Smith from Chicago has been doing!! I also want to balance that with more sports action work as well as more photojournalism stuff too.
What projects pushed you creatively in, let’s say, the past 3 years:
The projects that pushed me creatively these last three years are 1) the photo shoot with Toronto Raptors player Fred Van Vleet for And1/ Footlocker Canada. This was the shoot that was a nightmare but motivating to do because in Canada the worst thing happened with the hotels. Between the ballroom flooding and some of my studio gear getting messed up, to dealing with racism alongside the four man And1 creative staff for the shoot from the hotel staff. It’s a long story but we got it done with only one hour to set up everything in order to photograph Fred. The circumstances changed my initial idea for the shoot, but we made it work.
The other project that pushed me was the shoot with Prodigy of the rap Group Mobb Deep. I had literally no time to prepare because this was a very last minute shoot so I had to draw inspiration from old hip hop magazines I remember reading growing up. I had to look up inspiration while on the A train on the way to the shoot. this really pushed my creativity, down to the minute. All of my personal projects, ranging from streetball to car drifting, push me to see differently and be a part of many worlds. I grew up being a fan of and witnessing in NYC, so when I go photographing these personal projects, I go in with uncertainty but I wind up walking away with photos I enjoy.
It’s a once-a-decade survey of the bowhead whale population in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas. As the bowheads migrate from the Chukchi Sea to Beaufort Sea they swim past Point Barrow. The researchers set up the perch on a pressure ridge overlooking an open lead where they visually count the whales as they swim past during their migration. It’s a fascinating project that is very little known.
Was this a personal project? Yes, sort of. I was in Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow), which is the northernmost point in Alaska, with a program called Skiku that sends volunteer coaches to rural Alaska to teach kids to ski. My wife, Faustine, used to live in Utqiaġvik so for her it was a trip back to her old stomping grounds, and hearing stories about the place, the sea ice, its people for years really made me want to explore this part of Alaska I did not know. Geoff Carroll is now retired, but worked for decades as a biologist with the North Slope Borough’s Wildlife Department and as a Wildlife Biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He is also an old friend of Faustine’s. He was going to head out onto the ice one afternoon to take on a shift with the Bowhead census, and he invited us to come along.
What is “the perch?” The “perch” is a high point on the sea ice pressure ridge that the Census team builds up and where they set their workstation and a blind to do their observations. The blind is mostly there to shield people from the wind and make it a little more comfortable to stand on the ice for hours. The team also sets up a comfortable wall tent close by the perch to rest, make food and warm up. The tent is surrounded by an electrified bear fence to keep curious polar bears out of it. The first day we went out we had been skiing with the middle school kids all morning, and Geoff invited us to go out with him that afternoon. We were able to borrow a snowmachine (that’s what we call snowmobiles in Alaska), so we headed out! Geoff didn’t really know I was a photographer, and that’s not why I was going. I just took my camera stuff because I always do. We went out twice more, as well, and on two of the days (but especially the first day) I got super lucky with nice light.
How did you get access? “Access” was a little funny, because on the North Slope taking pictures of anything to do with whales and especially whaling is pretty sensitive (and rightfully so; whaling can be controversial, and people don’t want to see their culture and traditions misunderstood or criticized by people who don’t understand the history or context.) However, I didn’t fully realize how controversial photography out on the sea ice can be at the time, and it was only a little later that it was explained to me just how sensitive it all is. I’ve since asked if it’s okay to use these photos to tell this story, and since my photos are really of the census and not of whaling I got a general okay to tell this story. Legally, of course, you don’t need it, but it’s a matter of respect.
Why is photography so sensitive? I feel like I understand, but now that I’m asked to explain it, I’m not sure how to. There is a lot of history on the Slope, and because it’s such a small community things that might not seem like such a big deal to outsiders don’t get forgotten in the same way. I can point to one thing, for sure, which was a teenage kid from Gambell (an Inupiat village on an island off the western tip of Alaska) who harpooned a big whale. It’s a big deal in Inupiaq culture, and a big deal for the village – a whale will feed the whole village for an entire winter. Some photos were posted on Facebook by relatives, and were picked up by a newspaper reporter in Anchorage, where the catch was covered in a positive way. But then some asshole from an animal rights group launched a coordinated internet smear campaign against the kid, and he got non-stop hate mail and death threats and the like. It was really mean, and no matter what your views on whaling it was a fucked-up thing to do to a kid. That event is something that many native people cite as a reason that publicizing the traditional whale hunts only has downsides for them. Here is a story about that whole event.
And actually, I read that article over a year ago, and just now I quickly reread it as I pasted the link, and I noticed something that makes for a good example of why it’s hard to tell stories about the North Slope – the article says that Gambell is a Siberian Yupik village, whereas I just wrote that it was Inupiat. From my perspective, it’s easy to say “I’m pretty sure they’re Inupiat. Yeah, I think that’s right.” and write it down. But when you’re a white guy who parachutes in, but then gets something like that wrong, it’s a huge deal to the people whose lives and cultures you’re writing about. It’s all very personal.
How many days did you work on this, what was your biggest obstacle? I shot all these photos in three short afternoons. The biggest obstacle was access to the sea ice – we had to borrow a snowmachine to get out there, and one wasn’t always available. One of those same days I heard that one of the crews had gotten a whale in the late afternoon – and the evening light in town was unbelievable (by mid-April it’s nearly light all night that far north, so “evening light” can mean 10 or 11pm) – and I was dying to get back out on the ice to see it and take pictures, but everyone that had a snowmachine was out riding it! So no dice. That’s why there are no pictures of actually landing the whale. I was pretty bummed about that at the time. I wanted to experience the happiness and community getting together to help with the whale.
How did you travel, and what were you trying to protect yourselves from? We flew to Utqiaġvik, and got around town by car. But travel onto the sea ice was by snowmobile. The whaling crews very (very) laboriously chop a trail through the jumbled sea ice in anticipation of whaling season. Guns are for protection against polar bears, which can be a real danger out on the sea ice.
How did you protect yourself/gear in these temps? The gear does fine in the cold, though obviously battery life is shorter. You have to be careful when you bring it back inside to protect it from the warm air, as condensation can form in places where you’d really rather it didn’t. There are a few tricks to keeping gear working in the cold, but mostly it’s fine. Keeping ourselves warm was a whole other deal, though – we had warm enough clothes to “actively stand around” while we taught kids to ski in the warm April sun, but we didn’t know we would be going out onto the sea ice when we packed for the trip. Out on the sea ice it is fucking cold. The wind blows in literally off the North Pole and it’s fucking cold. I was able to borrow a big sheepskin coat from Geoff – the same style the locals wear- after the first or second day out in the cold, and after that I was warm enough. But before that I just suffered.
Tell us about the drone shot. I love drones for the ability to set the scene. I feel like the scale of and ‘out-there’ness of the place is hard to capture from the ground. I included the video and the photo that looks out across the open lead for that reason; the one with the cluster of snowmobiles in upper left of the frame shows the spot that the whaling crews launch their boats from, and where a whale was hauled out the previous day. The Perch is on the right side of the frame in the same photo; it makes for an interesting metaphor, because it shows that the census and the whalers are separate, but also how inevitably close they need to be – they both need to share the trail onto the ice, share the open open lead, and they rely on each other in the event of any emergencies.
Heidi: How are you curating/finding your subjects? François: The project’s goal is to showcase people’s ‘homes’ and how they interact with them: their physical home where they quarantined, their safe space where they go to, how they’re dealing with their own solitude and loneliness and also who they are in their own self. This 2020 spring has been very challenging for all of us, affecting people on so many different levels.
To find people, I first sought out into my extended network for creative minds that would be willing to collaborate. Once I had some satisfying results that I could show to get more participants, I started to reach out to people in my network that I never had the opportunity to shoot with and thought it was such a good opportunity to do so. I did also started to reach out to people I never met who I had the desire to shoot with. Obviously, the response back was pretty low, but I did get a few answers back which was awesome. I did ask to the people I shot if they would have a few recommendations for me in their own network and it just snowballed from there.
The fact that I can shoot everywhere in the world, it was a little overwhelming at first to decide who I should ask.. I knew I wanted a variety of occupations, locations in the world and many type of ethnicities. I decided to aim on a certain category: creative people, at large. I know their work life has been affected a lot by the virus and they would potentially be more prone to collaborate since they understand the process of a creative project, it requires a lot of work on their end, propping the camera, moving all around their space, being patient with the whole process.
What is the commonality in this series? The element that had a strong presence in every session was this openness and desire to connect, to exchange with another human. The participants had been so generous with their time and privacy, willing to do whatever it took to get the images I was envisioning. This brought this sense of intimacy and vulnerability to the whole series, which I was hoping for when I started. I have this fascination for the authenticity of people and accessing their vulnerability. I think the word vulnerable has a negative connotation in the general culture, but to my point of view, being vulnerable reflects strength, trust and confidence in yourself. Everybody is human, everybody has their own feelings, and we should celebrate that.
Did these questions get answered: Who we are? Where we come from? What values are at its foundation? With the recent events of police brutality and racism on top of the pandemic, it brought people to think deeply about ourselves, as a society and as a human. It affected me a lot, I reassessed all my beliefs and scrutinized my origins as well. I basically asked myself those questions in the attempt to understand more who I am. It is not easy questions to answer, but asking these to ourselves is part of the solution for a better world. I won’t pretend I found those answers cause they will take time to find and they will be personal to each one of us. It is more an invitation to ask them yourself where are you in your thought process and find your own ones.
How has this changed your view of photography? (travel impact, resources needed, process?) I still believe that ’standard’ photography has its place. This is definitely a new way to approach our medium, which probably will influence the way we will be working in the future, at least for certain type of shoots. It is convenient, but has its limitation as well. Technology will evolve around it to make that way of shooting better, but who knows. Only time will tell how it will converge.
When I decided I would work in photography, I didn’t sign up for that kind of photography. But like the photographers that, not so long ago, needed to adapt from film to digital, we will need to adapt as well if this is to become a new avenue.. I can see good things coming out from this new way of approaching our medium that is photography.
How much are you engaging with each person? What are the parallels or differences from shooting your portraits in person? The nature of the project itself has a very personal approach. I’m in the personal space of my subject, we work together to get the image we want, we talked about how we are doing through these interesting times, we hang out. So yes, it is very engaging. I am also living the same things as well. I need that human connection, so I’m taking the opportunity to connect with them too which is great.
One thing that is very different is that there is no body language while I’m shooting from my end. Usually, in the ’normal’ world, I direct my subject a lot with my body itself, showing them what I’d like them to do. But the way I shoot those portraits, they don’t see me. I’ve learn pretty quickly that I’d need to refine my vocal directions, figure out which is their left and right and slow down a little how I talk so my directions are as clear as possible. I want them to feel that I am there, even though I am not. One interesting thing that I’ve heard from them many times is they are surprised how I see details of their space, that they didn’t even see. Light, objects, angles and composition. It’s like I’m there, but I’m miles away. Some sort of presence without being there. Very paradoxal.
Your body of work celebrates the natural world, what have you discovered about this virtual one? What will transcend into your adventure work, if anything? The main thing I’ve always been drawn in photography has been the duality between beauty and rawness, wherever it is. I always had this appreciation for imperfections, natural states and authenticity. At first, when I started to shoot this project, I encountered a few obstacles that was stopping me to get my initial desired results: quality of the internet connection, shooting my laptop screen with my camera and not being at the same place as my subject. But more into the project, I embraced those imperfections and it made the narrative of the project even stronger by accentuating the physical distance in between us and accepting that actual way of communicating. It puts us in context of this era with the imperfections of our communications tools and makes those images and people more relatable with those interesting life situations we are all in.
Most of my work has been in the outdoor industry, but what lies behind this work is my fascination to the complexity of everybody’s story. My story is complex, everybody’s has their own as well. Having the privilege to access theirs for a moment is just one of the best compliments I can have as a photographer. Whether it’s outside, in studio or through a virtual shoot, I barely see any difference.
Why is ‘’Climbing Rock’’ important to you as a book and body of work? Rock climbing photography was how I got to start my professional career. Rock climbing has been a passion on many levels: I love the lifestyle of it, I love the people that makes the community, I love the sport in all its aspects and being able to document it is just a joy. Through my network, I knew Jesse Lynch, the author, and Martynka Wawrzyniak, the project manager at Rizzoli and they wanted to put a climbing book together. They approached me, we worked on the concept and we were in for a full year to put that book together. Being chosen to put a collection of my own personal work in a 250+ pages coffee table book is just one of the best compliment I had and affirmed my place in both the photography and climbing world. I’ve been doing those images for myself and for others for quite a bit, and being able to share them with many more people through this outstanding piece of work is just a gift.
Naturally you/the camera goes unnoticed; we are focused on the climber athlete, I feel we often forget you are also on the wall, and at equal risk. That’s a really good observation which I rarely think of. Maybe due to the vision I want to create and also probably because I’m so familiar to be in those unusual positions. Rock climbing photography in the outdoor community has always fascinated me. It got into me, and many others. Its exposure, different angles and just this energy that transcends freedom, making those compelling images when it’s well done. I always like that in one image, I can capture physical prowess, authenticity in the effort, magic light and graphic lines. But yes, for certain type of photography, it can be risky, even more if your system is not very refined, or even worse, if you don’t know what you are doing. It requires some knowledge to navigate on ropes and to be able to judge if what you are doing won’t put you in danger. So in a nutshell, yes, we are in precarious positions up there, but with experience, the risks are pretty low. It takes a lot of work to get in position, so getting an unforgettable image is very rewarding.
Heidi: Tell us about this photo Brandon: On that day protestors laid face down, with their hands behind their backs in reaction to the excessive force used by the Minneapolis Police Department that caused George Floyd’s tragic death. This was easily the most powerful single moment I’ve encountered while photographing protests in Ventura. I vividly remember sifting through possible photos to edit following the protest and getting chills as I landed on this photo. This moment was one of a few during that day where emotions were just so genuine and vulnerable on the faces of protesters that it truly shifted things into perspective for me. This isn’t a trend. We are all here fighting for something much bigger than us. Fighting for a freedom that we shouldn’t have to fight for, but yet we’re here, laying face down in our local streets in hopes of change.
Heidi: When did you have clarity about White Silence?
Brandon: I gained clarity to the idea of “White Silence” within the past month or so, during the controversy of the murder of George Floyd. I am a African American man who grew up in a melting pot of a city which is Oxnard, CA. I truly have not “Seen in color” my entire life. I’ve looked at people equally my entire life, and I felt that if you had an opinion on something, well cool,while if you did not have an opinion on something, it’s just as cool. This is different in the sense that for a true CHANGE, us black people need our brothers and sisters of all races and cultures to come through for us to get the point across and bridge the gap of systemic racism.
How did you grow as a photographer while covering the protests?
As a photographer, I don’t know if I grew much while photographing the protests specifically due to the adrenaline rush of it all, but I do know that I grew some when editing the photos. Sifting through the photos making selections for images that I would eventually edit is usually looking for the most “Perfect” photos. This time was different because I wasn’t looking for a genuine smile. I was looking for the most powerful photos. Not only powerful with my subject(s) expression, but the words that were plastered on the poster boards. These words were so beautiful, and much more meaningful than anything I could create with my camera, alone.
Where do you hope to be in 5 years?
I’ve been into photography seriously for 5 years. Lifestyle portraits are among my favorite types of photos to work on. Creating with my photos gives me a different type of liberating happiness that I can’t feel through any activity or medium of art. Before COVID-19, I was working hard to establish myself as a hybrid sports & concert photographer, but unfortunately those endeavors have paused temporarily. With all the extra quarantine time I’ve been trying to decide where I want to direct my focus next in the field of photography. Protests have been awesome to photograph because they have allowed me to express my frustration in social issues that I have dealt with directly, as well as use my artistic gifts to spread awareness in hopes of change.
Do you remember your first paying job? If you could talk to your younger self, what would you say?
My first paying gig was actually a grad shoot back in 2014 for someone who was a family friend, yet they were a complete stranger to me. Looking back on the shoot, it was a rough one. I remember struggling in the bright CSU Channel Islands midday sun so vividly. I was still adjusting to shooting in Manual mode so I struggled within peaking highlights throughout the shoot, and I manually focused every photograph that day simply because I didn’t know any better. If I could speak to my younger self, I would’ve informed myself that preparation is key! Having some examples to work off of, knowing what your client is looking for, time of day, etc. I went into the photo session with zero game plan and ultimately it showed as I look back.
How much direction do you give your subjects during portrait sessions?
During portrait sessions I tend to not give my subjects too much direction. Every model, subject, or family is different. I tend to choose a general area, set them in that location, see what they do naturally and then work off their energy. Some people are completely comfortable in front of the camera and it’s easy from the beginning of the shoot to get a solid groove going, while others take a bit more time, and maybe even some confident boosters from me to find their zone of comfort where they are then able to be photographed to show their true colors.