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.
Heidi: Now that you’re a few episodes deep in your Podcast called “Social Studies Show” about Advertising and Activism, what is the common thread?
Stan: About a year ago I noticed a common thread: many of the gatekeepers in the advertising industry wouldn’t allow access or give their time to mentor minorities. I figured the only way to really have an impact and create measurable results was to do it myself.
Advertising and Activism share the same narrative “to get a message out to the masses” and on that path they’re parallel. Maintaining a full-time career and youth seeking internships can be difficult, so I started looking for a way to have a lasting and manageable impact on the industry. What if I could create a living library of information for minorities and women (really anyone) who were passionate about advertising and driven towards activism? Something that would live long after I’m gone and help future generations break into those fields.
After talking with Rebecca Williams VP, Group Creative Director at Burrell Communications about advertising and culture, what were your three biggest takeaways as a photographer over a podcast creator?
Stan: Being a Producer It’s a video series as well as a podcast, and I focus on tangible information. I conceptualize the shows, write the scripts, cast talent, direct each episode, shoot video, photos, and coordinate travel to make it all happen. I also coordinate video editing and graphic design around the series. The hardest part is finding the right guest and digging deep into their career challenges; both the highs and the lows. The key is walking that line between Advertising and Activism. One of the most telling and vulnerable moments on the show was Arturo Nunez talking about losing the opportunity to sign Steph Curry to Nike. It says alot about the process and the trust that’s built when someone like Arturo is willing to let down his guard to admit mistakes so others can learn, adjust, and avoid the same.
Being Vulnerable Stepping in front of the camera and putting yourself out there for better or worse. As a photographer it’s so easy to hide behind the camera but in interviews guests often ask me pointed, sometimes surprising questions and put me on the spot. There’s no hiding—the internet is a savage place. You have to be ready to respond and be ready to take the hits.
Handling Detractors Negativity and detractors come with the territory. You start something new and everybody has “suggestions” about how and what to do with the podcast. There were definitely people who didn’t get it.
“How are Advertising and Activism Connected?” they asked….It got to the point where people would critique the work without taking the time to understand the concept or ask questions to learn; I’d just tell them to go do their own podcast. I’ve got my own thing over here, and it’s the work I want to create and leave for others. Honestly, I’ve failed at so many things, I know that even if I get knocked down doing this — I can get back up. I knew it was a good idea, and I was more afraid of not getting it done than doing it in a way that didn’t match someone else’s vision.
A year later we’re in a different climate of Activism in the United States and people totally get it now. A lot of Black voices weren’t being heard in the ad space, and I feel like I was actually ahead of the curve on looking for real ways to create change. I hope people are listening now. Black voices are going to save us. The economy and race relations are in turmoil and to survive companies are going to need to hire people of color to speak to those disenfranchised masses helping to course correct years of damage. If companies ignore it, minority consumers will simply take their dollars and talents to businesses that appreciate them.
The Burrell campaign “We Are Golden” shares the same inclusivity and representation as your recent Coca-Cola work, “History Shakers.” What does this work show you and tell us why it’s important.
Stan: The “We Are Golden” campaign showed everyday black people in a positive light and gave them the respect they deserve. There’s a misconception in America that the Black man (or woman) gets treated equally, but it’s an illusion. Marketing at times fuels that illusion.
Dave Chapelle shares a real life example of this in his latest special. The police officer who pulled him over for speeding and let him off with a warning is the same officer who, a day later, shot John Crawford in Walmart while he was looking at a BB Gun.
Further and to put it in perspective, think about the differences between first responders and essential workers serving the public during COVID and celebrities who sheltered in place on private estates. We’re all going through lock down but our experiences are very different.
Everytime I shoot a photo I’m trying to challenge perception. Every person of color I shoot, from a background extra to Will Smith, deserves that equal level of humanity we all want. Advertising affects the message. I am the messenger.
Verity: There are so many reasons! First of all, I think any time you highlight someone who is excelling you increase the chance that a young person who looks like them, or has a background similar to them, or can relate to them in some way will see that and it will give them the confidence to pursue their dream and eventually excel themselves. I only really produce commercial jobs and of course, many of them are simply facilitating the creation of pretty pictures to help sell more stuff. I’m not a creative director or a brand manager – my job is to make it happen on budget and on time (with great snacks and a fab playlist! Haha). So any time I get a chance to work on something that has an ultimate purpose beyond just raising brand awareness, I feel like it’s important to jump on it. I was really excited and honored to be asked to work on this project.
Brands are admitting they are making mistakes and taking steps to address them. Right now we are in a cycle of mis-step, conflict, conflict resolution. Can you share the strides you and Verity have made which skip the need for conflict resolution?
Stan: I look at best case and worst case scenarios and work my way back. I ask a lot of questions with the client, and sometimes I have to go with my gut but as a Black man in America. My perspective is vastly different from many of my peers.
Growing up in a military family, having a camera at an early age and being genuinely curious gave me a broad perspective; most of all, though — I watch and I listen. I go through ad work of the past looking for what people did wrong or what people did right, and I apply learnings from all of that right now in the present.
Verity is a smart, strong woman who has worked with a lot of amazing photographers. A different set of eyes, realistic expectations of what we can produce within the confines we’re given and a female perspective are all welcome assets so I bounce the final ideas off her and we adjust, improve, and course correct where necessary. If we do the work and make it through all that, then we usually don’t have conflict resolution. Notorious B.I.G said .The key to staying, on top of things is treat everything like it is your first project. I take that to heart and have pride in my work.
Verity: I’m still learning, and while I know I have made mistakes, one piece of advice I received is to always be authentic and be curious. If the things that are coming out of my mouth and the actions I am taking feel authentic to who I am, which is a person who is always trying to do the right thing and to elevate others, then I am at least going to be on the right track. I try and approach each new situation with my mind wide open, ask a lot of questions and really listen to the answers. Production can be so hectic. You just want to cross things off your list as fast as possible. But if you can sit back a little sometimes and really be intentional in the midst of all of it, you can learn a lot more and as a result, make less mistakes. I ask Stan a lot of questions. He has never made me feel awkward for asking and has spent literally hours talking through things with me with humor and trust.
Can you share a vignette from your recent project together? Verity: The second part of our Coca-Cola project was a three day stills lifestyle shoot to create assets for Black History month but also evergreen imagery that could be used throughout the year. It was December in Atlanta but we needed to create scenarios relevant to all seasons. On our last day we were shooting at Morehouse College, which is such a beautiful historic campus. It was raining and 43 degrees, and we needed to shoot a tailgate setup as well as various outdoor campus hangouts. I grew up in Canada, the daughter of British immigrants. Stan cracked up so many times watching me navigate various aspects of this shoot – there were many funny moments. I’ve never been to a tailgate in my life and have pretty much zero understanding of anything to do with American college life. I honestly didn’t know a single thing about Historically Black Colleges before this shoot. So while it was really important to solve the issue of shooting around freezing rain, and I wanted to figure it out fast, I had to really try and ask lots of questions and understand exactly the spirit of what we were trying to capture so I could find a solution. Everyone was worried about how to pull it off and everyone was offering a million ideas. Figuring out who to listen to and what questions to ask helped me prioritise the workarounds and compromises so that our client was happy and the images looked authentic.
Stan: Arriving on set that day it was cold and a torrential downpour. There were puddles 4 inches deep in some places and the wind was blowing sideways – placing gear and talent would be problematic. Looking at rearranging two mohos a gear truck and craft services to create a new set and avoid electrocution was gonna be tough ask and put us behind on an already challenging day but that is what was needed when I arrived. Verity made it all happen and luckily I brought 2 sets of clothes so we could get caught up and back on schedule making the creative shots happen, staying on schedule and keeping everyone safe.
The psychic toll of the recent weeks are heavy, chaos is the breeding ground for change. Movements are trying to hold community leaders, brands and gov’t accountable, are you hopeful for change? Stan: I’ll put it like this. This race is a marathon not a sprint. Black people have been dealing for so long that this is just another day, it’s like everyone else woke up from a coma. When I was young, my mother was afraid of me wanting to pursue photography because she thought no white people would hire me due to the color of my skin. Racism did that to her, made her set aside her dreams for herself and her children.
A few months ago I had a meeting arranged with a pretty high profile photo rep. I later found out the meeting was cancelled because the rep realized I was black.
Both those things are disappointments yet the significance of a black man shooting a black history campaign for a huge international brand is not lost on me. No one is going to stop me because I have hope and believe in myself. I don’t need the world to believe in me. I just need a few people who want to help change the world. I dare to say, this movement feels a little different this time. I just want to share my knowledge, passion, bring people up with me and develop generational wealth. Something the ad world needs to think about though is if you want to find the next Gordon Parks – you have to invest in the current, myself and Erik Umphery or Marcus Smith. We’ve been out here – it’s just time to admit, you just started looking…
Verity: I do think the movement happening here in America (and around the world) in the last month is causing me, as a white person, to actually wake up, ask questions and educate myself as much as I can. It’s not a case of being politically correct or ticking a diversity box. Becoming self-aware is inherently uncomfortable but it inevitably brings growth.
Since we both love riding, I must ask, what was the creative impetus for “Dawn till Dusk” besides your love of the sport? Stan: After COVID19 hit Los Angeles a shelter in place order took effect, shutting down most of the city. The somber aura of the city was unprecedented. Normally packed streets gave way to the framework and architecture that usually serves as a backdrop for larger than life personalities. While desolation hung heavy in the air, there were pockets of light and hope. I set out to find these spaces and uncover a bit of creativity that is often at times staring us in the face but is lost in the noise.
In a city of lights, camera, action – sets shut down and the only stage was the city itself. I was a one man band of production, searching for meaningful sights and sounds. Sharing scenes only available to pedal power and discovering pockets of optimism. The tale of the corona virus is still being written… and it doesn’t have to focus on fear and animosity. There’s room for a little hope in there….
What time did you start shooting and when did you end?
I started working on it April 3 and wrapped shooting April 21st, I had to work around Kollbi’s schedule because he was working at a bike shop, one of the few places open during COVID. We finished the edit about three weeks ago.
and made a BTS edit that describes how we did it under shelter in place conditions and our goals of seeing what a small 1 man op could produce in the way of compelling content.
Heidi: Can you tell us how you made your transition from rapper, fashion designer, and entrepreneur to photographer/creator? All are creative but what was different about photography/film?
Mackey: I have actually always been creative for as far back as I can remember. As I got older, I just found more and more ways to express myself. My transition from music and fashion to photography and video production pretty much came from my time as a marketing director for a club that used to be on South Beach. When I was there, part of my responsibility was to create video content that we would show on the screens that were all around the club. When I left that job, a rep from Remy Martin asked me to continue creating video content for them and before I knew it, I was creating videos for tons of brands and celebrities. Photography came about after about a year of shooting video with my camera. One day I just flipped the creative switch from video to photo and I’ve been shooting ever since.
You have some impressive stats! 4.0 GPA, 8 years in business in 16 countries and 626 projects, how do you stay motivated and inspired?
There was a time that I was homeless when I was doing my undergraduate studies in college. It was a very difficult period in my life, but it did a lot to shape and mold me into who I am. The memory of that experience keeps me centered and the thought of never wanting to go back to that life keeps me motivated to carry on. Overall, I draw inspiration from everywhere. It can be from songs that I hear, people that I meet, or experiences that I have. I genuinely enjoy creating, so it’s easy to stay inspired because my mind is constantly moving and making connections.
Tell us about these fashion images.
Much of my experience with fashion photography came from working with a lot of the ladies from America’s Next Top Model. I have two really good friends that were on the show and through them, I have had an opportunity to work with several more. Once I had access to more talented models, I realized that I really enjoyed fashion photography and actually try to shoot as much as I can.
Where do you hope to be in the next 8 years?
Where did you photograph these protes images?
The images that I have shot thus far are from Minneapolis and Brooklyn. However, I am planning on making trips to Houston, DC, LA, and Louisville as well. My goal is to document these protests in more cities than anyone else.
Doing this type of work is both documenting and protesting, did you ever feel conflicted about being there with a camera?
I actually consider myself to be an activist. So, I never felt conflicted being at the protests with a camera. My philosophy is that we all have a part to play in this movement. Some angry kid is going to throw a brick through a window, another will burn the building down, and people like me will be there to capture it so that we can not only have historical records but so that we can share the movement with the world and inspire others to act. I never feel conflicted because I feel like this is my purpose.
Did you have any police encounters, if so what were they like?
I have had SEVERAL encounters with the police in my lifetime. It comes with the territory of being a Black man in America and that is part of the reason for the protests. We (Black men) are often profiled for absolutely no reason, and that has the potential to put our lives in danger. As far as encounters with police at the protests, I haven’t had any. Mostly just asking for directions or showing them photos that I took of them and cracking jokes. However, on my second day in Minneapolis, I was caught in the middle of a crazy situation when the police got super aggressive and detonated several canisters of teargas. Being trapped in a cloud of teargas is not a pleasant experience at all.
What inspired you to create those videos on insta? I actually own two companies. One is a lifestyle brand called Blvck Spades. The other is a creative agency called Dope Heart Media. I started creating videos at the start of the quarantine because I thought that it was the perfect time to share content because people were stuck at home with nothing to do but use social media. My plan was to create video content where I shared a lot of my knowledge and expertise to help other creatives and business owners while growing my following and influence by establishing myself as a thought leader.
April 5, 2020 – A man puts on PPE at Montefiore Medical Center Moses Division Emergency Room in Bronx, NY. (Photograph by Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times.)
April 5, 2020 – A shift schedule at Montefiore Medical Center Moses Division Emergency Room in Bronx, NY. (Photograph by Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times.)
April 5, 2020 – Dr. Michael Jones answers the EMS line at Montefiore Medical Center Moses Division Emergency Room in Bronx, NY. (Photograph by Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times.)
April 8. 2020 – Reflections of a patient looking into a tent receiving station set up for possible Covid-19 patients outside the emergency department at Jack D. Weiler Hospital in the Bronx, NY. When patients first arrive they check in at a window outside of the ER. (Photograph by Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times)
April 8. 2020 – Plastic barriers outside the emergency room at Jack D. Weiler Hospital in the Bronx, NY. (Photograph by Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times)
April 8. 2020 – A patient in the ICU at Jack D. Weiler Hospital in the Bronx, NY. (Photograph by Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times)
April 8. 2020 – Dr. Deborah White (right) leads workers in the emergency room with at Jack D. Weiler Hospital in the Bronx, NY. (Photograph by Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times)
April 14, 2020 – Daniel J. Schaefer Funeral Home director Elysia Smith, 38, looks at paperwork taped on the wall of upcoming services in Brooklyn, NY. (Photograph by Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times)
April 14, 2020 – Daniel J. Schaefer Funeral Home director Elysia Smith, 38, and Lily Sage, 25, unload decedents at the funeral home in Brooklyn, NY. (Photograph by Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times)
April 14, 2020 – The Woodlawn Cemetery and Conservancy in the Bronx, NY. (Photograph by Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times)
Heidi: Photographically, how did this challenge you? Michael: This assignment was challenging for a lot of reasons. At the point in which my colleague, Nicholas Kristof, and I were given access, the hospitals we visited in the Bronx had a vetting system in place to determine who would actually be admitted to the ER. This was due to the large number of people with Covid. The ERs were well beyond capacity, and the state of patients being treated was really severe. The hospitals were forced to improvise, creating additional space in the hospital for overflow. In addition to infrastructure issues, the staff was working well beyond normal shifts. There was a beautiful camaraderie in that, but it meant that the potential for an exposure mistake was increased. It was hectic and patients were in dire situations.
We didn’t have the ability to talk directly with our subjects and relied on following the medical staff as they worked. With strict HIPPA rules, if we didn’t have written consent we couldn’t photograph people. This is a huge challenge and something my colleagues and I have been discussing extensively. It’s important to show people what’s happening on the frontlines when a story of this scope is unfolding, and it’s really hard to do that and avoid photographing patients. When I’ve reported on large international stories there is not the same level of scrutiny and permissions required to work. This presents a huge problem for American journalists covering the crisis because we’re being forced to work on the periphery of the story. How do you make compelling, emotional work if you can’t photograph the human face?
Documenting social issues for Time Magazine and the New York Times is familiar territory. What made these three NYT Opinion pieces, “Heart Ache in the Hot Zone,A Young Doctor, Fighting for His Life and A Young Doctor, Fighting for His Lifedifferent for you? What made this particularly different was the lack of understanding of the pathogen. In the past, when covering diseases I’ve been able to research and talk to colleagues about safety protocols. We still don’t understand this disease, and that presents a difficult challenge, particularly in risk assessment. It becomes very hard to trust your intuition, which we greatly rely on when we’re on the frontlines. I’m pretty sure in time as we learn more I’ll recognize mistakes that were made in that early stage assessment process.
How many days were you in the Bronx documenting this piece? We spent two full days working on this piece. We followed up later with another piece on one of the ER doctors, who almost died from Covid-19, about his personal experience.
Did you go home between shoot days? I went home between shoot days and implemented a quarantine protocol that I felt comfortable with after consulting the NYT team and my family.
Has your ability to create both motion and stills opened different opportunities for you? I think my ability to work across different mediums, filmmaking and photography, is a benefit that has opened doors. When The New York Times reached out to me to work with Nicholas Kristof to cover the pandemic, there was concern about the number of people going into the ER with us. The diversity of skills, and the fact that I’ve had a long history with both the photography and video departments, was a consideration in thinking about the risk, and we were still maximizing assets we captured.
Does documenting history with moving pictures leave less room for manipulation and more room for veracity? With both filmmaking and photography, you have the ability to manipulate because you’re holding the instrument of documentation. Sometimes I do feel like there is an added level of truth in filmmaking when you hear directly from subjects and help tell stories in their own words, but then again the purity and speed of taking a photograph and keeping a smaller footprint have a lot of viability.
The important part is knowing where you stand in terms of objectivity, and how your perspective and privilege influence it, and documenting history within the parameters you or the institution you’re working for set. Intention is something that evolves in the same way you do as a storyteller. Your abilities to bring scope and stylistic vision grow throughout your career
Describe the difficulties of working in your PPE? emotionally/creatively physically.
First, it’s really uncomfortable. You are wearing a lot of layers made with materials that don’t breath well, so it’s hot. There are a face mask, goggles, and a protective shield over your face alone, which trap heat and fog. This, of course, makes it hard to see which is our job as visual journalists. In addition, the PPE blocks you from being able to bring the camera directly to your eye, so a lot of times you are relying on your intimate knowledge of the camera and lensing if you have to shoot with limited vision. You’re also just relying on a bag of techniques you’ve developed through experience when it comes to focusing, framing, etc.
One of the biggest challenges I didn’t expect was the difficulty of breathing in full PPE. I found it hard to rely on my breath as a tool of comfort. If I’m in a stressful shooting situation and find myself struggling, I’ll often pause, slow down, and take a deep breath. I wasn’t able to do this which was hard because there was a moment or two that it would have been really helpful.
We also didn’t have breaks for water or food because taking on and off the PPE was such a laborious process, and it wasn’t worth risking additional exposure.
What kind of impact has this historical project had on you, now that you’ve got some distance on it? I’m proud of the project specifically because it had a large reach. A lot of people pay attention to Nicholas Kristof’s work, myself included, so I knew when my editors reached out that the project had a lot of scope in terms of reaching viewers. The editors were putting a lot of trust in me to deliver a film and photographs that meant something to me on a personal level.
The first piece of what is considered modern journalism was published in 1703 by Daniel Dafoe, (Great Storm of 1703 in Britain) 317 years later we have the same need for journalism, but why is this even more important now? That’s a tough one to answer because journalism has alway served as a social service since it’s conception and we’ve always needed it. Journalism speaks truth to power and it is critical to humanity and civil society to keep those in power accountable for their actions. People’s lives are at stake.
One thing I can say about this moment in time that feels different is the state of journalism itself, which is under threat. The industry has drastically changed and there is a lot less of it being produced. This is a huge problem at a moment in history when we have an administration actively dismantling democratic institutions and pathologically spreading lies under the guise of journalism. Politics aside, this is fact.
Our role as documentarians is to capture and present the reality of what is happening in America and worldwide right now in this moment. It seems we’ve never been more divided as a country, and journalism is important to understand what is transpiring, to document both sides so we don’t allow biased systems to manipulate the American public. We should have no tolerance for people in power trying to write history with a false narrative. We should be beyond this as a society, but unfortunately we’re not. We’re documenting American cities burning while a pandemic devastates lives and huge parts of the American public won’taccept reality. It is a tragedy unfolding now.
Can you speak to your personal connection to journalism?
I think journalistically speaking I’m naturally drawn to what I consider important, historic stories. I believe in the social service aspect of good journalism, and I’m honoured and proud to contribute to institutions I believe in. Journalism is essential to the function of society and without it, there is no check on power. I originally got into photography as an art form, but my attraction to journalism was as a social service to better inform people and help us find similarities through human emotion and connection.
Everard Williams and Ann Field from Pasadena Art Center College of Design had their Final Crit Grad Review for photography students recently. Not surprisingly it was conducted via Zoom. Over the course of about 4 hours we looked at a variety of stellar work. You can see all of the graduate work here. There is a tremendous amount of strong work, however I was struck by these two images in particular.
Marly: When I first heard the story of a girl from my former high school who lost her finger, I was immediately interested. One day during school, Victoria
decided to hop over the fence and skip class. Upon climbing over the chain-link fence, a ring she was wearing snagged and her finger suddenly ripped off. That is not quite the repercussion one would expect from ditching school. Being quite scared of losing an appendage myself, I wanted to confront that fear with my camera. I felt placing her in the shadow of a fence with her hand to her face would be the best way to illustrate the story. Victoria showed such stoicism, and she wiggled the little piece of finger for me, which I found endearing. The image came out exactly how I envisioned it, and I love how beautiful she is without her ring finger.
I enjoyed her interpretation of a Korean moon jar from. Moon Jars were originally created in the 17th and 18th centuries as household food storage jars but have been admired as artworks since Korea’s colonial period (1910-45). They are formed as two halves thrown on a wheel before being skilfully luted together horizontally around their widest point before being glazed and fired. The joint line is visible and they are admired for their unintentionally artful asymmetry.
Heidi: How did you protect yourself while you were shooting?
Angelo: I wore a mask the whole time but skipped the gloves as it would have been too hard to handle my cameras with them. Longs sleeves and pants were essential, and upon returning home I washed my clothing and disinfected my gear immediately as it was very difficult to keep with social distancing in crowds that don’t respect that advisory. I only went in close for shots when absolutely necessary, but I tried to not let that dictate my flow.
How did you approach people since you didn’t have a media pass?
I’ve never had a media pass I didn’t make myself. I honestly treated it as any other day out on the street. I have been photographing strangers in public for 7+ years and am very comfortable approaching people and taking close photos. In this case, I felt people knew I wasn’t there as a supporter as much as an observer.
Did you get any resistance from the protestors?
I didn’t get a ton of resistance, but I did get a lot of questions. I was accused of being media by several different people because I was protecting myself with a mask. People asked if I was selling photos to China or working for China. To go back to my country, which is America. You know, the normal stuff you hear when you cover something like this and don’t fall on their side of the fence. I kept calm and rational and told them I was there because it was interesting, nothing more.
Were you concerned for your safety at any time?
How did photographing this protest push your work?
I’ve been working on this project since 2016 and because it’s been going on for so long, it has really pushed me to go to events where I don’t support what they’re doing. But to be honest to the project I have to see both sides as it’s part of the greater story. So, it pushes me personally as I wouldn’t be at an event like this if I wasn’t taking photographs.
How do you approach a project like this, do you think about your body of work, and then create a shot list?
I do not have a shot list in my mind before going out as I think it can stifel my creativity and close my mind to pictures that are in front of me. I usually find greater success when I have an open my mind and listen to my gut. I try to shoot first and edit later. If it’s interesting I try to put a frame around it. I don’t see this body of work as a whole yet, nor am I at a place where I can fill holes. I think my bucket is close to half full with a lot of work ahead.
Since you are shooting only film, what are the advantages?
I don’t know if there is an advantage, but definitely a preference. The look, feel, and tangibility of the negatives far outweigh any advantage digital would give me.
Do you keep a mental checklist of what you’ve photographed and do you take longer to frame up the image?
I think not being able to review my images keeps me in the moment, and constantly scanning for the next image which is good. I might take 5 frames at most on an amazing scene, though it’s typically 1-2. Like all photography, it’s a numbers game, but I think shooting film increases mine.