Details

Alyssa Banta is a Ft.Worth based photographer who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. She combines anthropology with photography to create her work of people and for people. ILTP had the pleasure of talking to her about photography and more deliciously, tacos.

How did you get your start in photography?
I went to graduate school at UT, and I was an assistant for a National Geographic photographer and his writer wife, and I really loved the idea of that kind of life, and so I sort of begged my way into an internship even though I didn’t really know how to use a camera or flash or anything. When I came back to Ft. Worth, I begged my way into working for Ft. Worth Weekly and The Dallas Morning News and the Star-Telegram. After I did that, I went to New York and met some editors and then started getting some work done here in Texas.

 I think part of the trick is to just ignore all the people that say that you can’t do it, and focus on the one little voice that says that you can do it

On your professional journey, what are some struggles you’ve had to overcome?
There have been more struggles than you could imagine, really. I think when you determine that you’re going to live a life in the arts, or when you just determine that you’re going to do it on your own terms, there are so many struggles you can’t imagine and I think part of the trick is to just ignore all the people that say that you can’t do it, and focus on the one little voice that says that you can do it.

So, struggles…people telling me I was crazy, people telling me that everyone wanted to be a photographer and why did I think I wanted to be and, “how could I be a photographer?” At some point, I moved to New York City thinking that I would switch work, and I go there and there’s like ten million photographers and I don’t get any work at all, and just a lot of people saying that I couldn’t do it and just me saying that I could do it. A lot of people try to talk you out of stuff, a lot of people want you to be average or normal, they’re like, “What are you talking about? What’s your job? You’re not going to have a job?” and so, it’s hard, people talk you out of it, and when you’re younger, your ideas are forming, it might be easier to listen to those voices, but you just got to ignore that. If you want to do something, you just have to go for it.

What was your best career decision? 
You know, I don’t have a single career decision. And that’s kind of a cop-out a little bit, but I think it’s just more of a career philosophy and that career philosophy has been to just take every chance I could. So if someone wants me to take a picture of their dog, which I had to do in Philadelphia, I would really treat that as a National Geographic assignment. If you do that, every door opens. That’s such a cliché, but all of the sudden, you meet people, more opportunities happen. All of the sudden, you find that you really love taking pictures of dogs, so that’s been the way that I sort of run my career, and my life in general. 

Who have been some of your influences and mentors?
I’ve got a really great friend from The Dallas Morning News who met me back in 1999, and he no longer works for them, but he’s still my very good friend, and he used to be a photo editor and when I begged him to have a job, he said, “Hell no! You’re going to have such a better job than working at the Dallas Morning News. You’re going to go places and do and be things, the Dallas Morning News is too small for you, you’re going to be bigger than that.” And that really helped me, because every time I feel I’m too far out on a ledge, he just pushes me further out on the ledge and says, “Go for it more!”

As far as photographers go, Eugene Richards, Mary Ellen Mark. And then an old school photographer – I like the classic guys – there’s a black photographer who worked out of Harlem named Ray Decarva and he shot black people in black doorways at night and it’s like black on black on black, and it is so exquisite the way he uses dark to paint.

 the whole notion that they don’t belong either there nor here, it’s like I said, they’re in this “third place”

What projects are you currently working on?
Currently and continuing, I like to work on a project that I’ve been working on for years and years, which is the Hispanic world here in Ft. Worth. So those are two different things, the Mexicans and the Hispanics that live in Ft. Worth, what interests me is that crashing of the cultures. They’re from wherever they are and they’ve got their culture, then they come here and they mix with ours and they make this third “other thing” that’s neither there nor here and it’s kind of exquisite and it’s kind of like painful to see in what they do, they’re yearning to be back home and if you see what they do, the whole notion that they don’t belong either there nor here, it’s like I said, they’re in this “third place”. That’s fascinating to me.

The other part, with the workers and the men working here, what’s interesting about that is they give up everything, come here, some of them work really hard and go back, a lot of them stay here, it’s, again, that mixing of culture and trying to live with your culture and trying to be in a new culture, that’s what’s interesting to me.

And then, people pay me money to do family histories and oral family histories of them and I make these books. I spend a week with their grandmother or whatever it is and I do a documentary on them and then I do a written oral history and I put it in a beautiful leather book with pictures and words. You know, the family can look up when grandma got married, but when I talk to her, she’ll say, “You know what? We didn’t have enough money, so I had to use my neighbors dress and we cut it and my sister did my hair and we couldn’t afford to go on a honeymoon until two years later”. Those are the details I like to pull out of people, because that’s the anthropologist in me.

Alyssa Banta ©

What would you say is the greatest message provided by your work?
I think the greatest message is that no matter who we are, geographically or socioeconomically, the greatest message is that we are all people just trying to live our lives. We’re just living, you know, everybody – even in war zones and poverty zones, everyone is just trying to get through the 80 years that they’ve been given on this earth, as best they can. That’s my message, maybe. You might look at my pictures and say, “bullshit,” but that’s what I think my message is. But we’re just all trying as hard as we can, and the big noisy things, war, treaties, borders, people don’t think about that minute-by-minute, they’re just trying to get through it, live, you know? Who cares about immigration? Yeah, that’s always an issue; they’re just trying to get through it.

How does it feel to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize?
Great! And since that nomination, I’ve gone on to win other prizes, and actually win them and not just be nominated for them, but it feels great. It’s awful to want to chase prizes, because I would like to think that I’m above prizes and that I do my work for me and for the world, or whatever, but it’s pretty groovy, it’s pretty awesome to be recognized in a field that’s fantastic, you know, and it’s what I love to do, so it’s very nice to be recognized.

 don’t give up and don’t be highfalutin’, like don’t be freakin’ cocky

Any advice to photographers starting out?
Don’t give up. If you love it, don’t listen to anyone telling you not to do it – do it! And don’t freaking look around, don’t look around to other people and compare yourself to them. Everyone’s got a different set of events that they’ve got to live through and everyone’s got to learn different stuff, everyone’s moving at a different pace. So if you’re a photographer starting out, don’t give up and don’t be highfalutin’, like don’t be freakin’ cocky. Don’t say, “no” to an assignment saying, “oh, I don’t do weddings.” Freakin’ do the damn wedding, because you’ll get better, you’ll learn, you’ll practice what you’re supposed to be doing. Because if you’re a photographer, you’re in it because you love it, and you’re not chasing the money, you’re chasing your heart, you’re chasing what you love, so do it and don’t give up. There, that’s my advice.

What do you enjoy about being a photographer in Texas?
I enjoy, having lived everywhere in the world, and I really have lived everywhere in the world. I enjoy taking pictures of my place. And I also enjoy the fact that I’ve learned how to take them that anthropological way, you know, seeing cultures. Before I went off and became a war photographer, I didn’t really know how to do that, now I come back with all those skills and so I see my city in a different way now. I see Texas a bit differently.

So are there any good barbecue spots in Ft. Worth? Or do you enjoy the taco spots more?
I’m so about the taco trucks right now. I’m so about eating…like I’m all about the tacos. Like, I’m over the barbeque and I’m all about the damn tacos. And we’re talking dollar tacos made by people that serve lengua and buche (stomach and tongue), and I’m all about that right now. There are so many little tiny places like two blocks away from my house, so there’s about a four-block stretch where I eat down the street from me and at three-in-the-morning, those places are hoppin’. It’s the best – they’re great.

What is the most interesting item in your camera bag?
Gosh…I have so many things in my camera bag. I’ve got a peso paper bill from Havana, which I don’t even think that they manufacture; they’re changing all that right now. Um, I’ve got a sparkplug gauge, because I find that it’s very handy for some reason. I’ve got this weird dehydrated seed from a tree somewhere in Central Asia, I don’t even know where I was, and it’s odd because it’s been a few years now, and the tree is beautiful but it was all dehydrated, so I took a seed from there. So, not very interesting, but that’s what I have in my camera bag.

What is next for your career?
You know, that’s a really interesting question, and I just don’t know. I’d like to do a book, I’d like to keep doing my Texas Hispanic documenting that I’ve been talking to you about, I’d like to keep moving. What I’ve learned is that you don’t always know what direction you’re gonna go, you’ve just got to stay as loose as you can and just see. As it is now, I continue to get work, and get my work for the family history books, so my next step is maybe to continue with the Hispanic thing that you and I talked about and try to get that published or publish it somehow. So that’s what I’ll do. 

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2 Responses to “Alyssa Banta”

  1. I love her spirit. She rocks!

    Reply

  2. [...] PX3 (Prix de la Photographie, Paris) Professional Photojournalism-War award, Second Place, 2008 InterAction: American Council for Voluntary Action, Photo Selection, 2008 Global Health Workforce Alliance, Photo Selection, 2008 Houston …  [...]

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