Photojournalism

Tiger Woods

Interview by John Davidson

Darren Carroll has been a professional photographer for 20 years, primarily shooting sports, lifestyle and documentary images for clients as diverse as Sports Illustrated, ESPN Sports, and Hyatt. Darren grew-up in New York City, and studied at Georgetown University and The University of Texas. He lives in Austin with his wife, Jessica Foster (who manages the Department of Photography for Major League Baseball), and his 11-year-old son.

Q: Do you recall the first time you held a camera, or began experimenting with one?
A: My junior year in high school and I was home, sick. It was one of those days when you feel better in the afternoon. I was alone in the house and I don’t know why I did it, but I walked into my dad’s study and grabbed his camera. I put a roll of film in it, and started walking around taking pictures, like it might be a fun thing to do.

Q: Did it seem in any way momentous at the time?
A: It didn’t really register. What really got me hooked on it was the darkroom. I went to a Jesuit private high school in New York City. You used to be able to smoke in the cafeteria. I started smoking when I was fifteen. By my junior year they had cut out smoking in the cafeteria, and so the smoking lounge was the darkroom of the yearbook office. I didn’t have a photographic connection with the guy who ran it, but I knew him, and so on our lunch break I would pop-in. One day somebody was making a print, and I’m watching this thing happen, and I’m thinking Wow, that’s really cool. And the guy says, ‘I can teach you that. Do you have a camera? Take a roll of black & white film and bring it in.’
From then on, it was more about the process for me than an artistic thing. I just loved the idea of being able to create this thing, the negative. I kept shooting pictures, – I had no idea- and I kept reading books. Eventually I bought my own camera – a Canon AE-1, same as my dad’s – and that was it. So the pivotal moment wasn’t picking up the camera. It was learning how to develop images.
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Q: At what point did you think you might want to pursue it as a career?
A: In college. When I quote, unquote ‘joined the newspaper’ at Georgetown, by the third week of my freshman year I was in the darkroom until two-thirty or three o’clock in the morning five nights a week, developing other people’s film, developing my film, printing, whatever. I never considered it as something I could do other than as a hobby until I shot my first Georgetown basketball game.. Then I saw all these other photographers sitting on the baseline, with these big 400mm lenses, and I thought, “This is cool”. This might be something I want to think about doing. And so I completely immersed myself in it, in the craft of the thing.

Q: How did you go about pursuing it as a career?
A: I was shooting the games, and so I met the guy who was the photographer for the Georgetown team. Georgetown played in a professional arena, so he was also the photographer for the Bullets (who are now the Wizards) in the NBA, and for the Capitals, the hockey team. And I just started to get to know him, offering to help and eventually I started assisting him. As part of my compensation he would let me shoot. I’d come to a hockey game and I would go upstairs and turn the strobes on ahead of time, they’d be up in the rafters, and we’d have to climb up in the catwalks and turn everything on, drop the synclines, and all that took time. So I started practicing, building a portfolio, and that was it.
But ever since that time, I’ve been adamant with everybody I’ve talked to that the way to start out is by assisting. It’s absolutely the best way to learn things, to meet people – and you get paid to do it. What could be better?

Q: You moved to Texas to study journalism?
A: I applied to UT for the Masters journalism program, and I got in. It was a journalism program with a photo concentration. And once I moved down here, that’s where a lot of the assisting work came in. Sports Illustrated started hiring me to assist photographers in San Antonio, and Dallas, and Houston, because they knew from what I’d done in Washington that I knew how to work the arena lighting systems and all of that.
My last year in Washington there was a NCAA first or second round tournament at The Capital Center, and Sports Illustrated sent a staff photographer to shoot it. I was recommended to rig the lighting, and then once I moved to Texas, I sent the SI staff guy a note saying ‘Hey, I’m down here,’ and it got around the office. Because at that time, they were flying someone to San Antonio every time there was a basketball game.

Q: And it was through that that you started shooting other sports as well?
A: It was a foot in the door. I’d go back to New York because I had family there, and I would go into the (Sports Illustrated) office because the editors there were the ones who were hiring the assistants – somebody who did basketball, somebody who did baseball, etc, and eventually they started giving me some front of the book spots when they didn’t want to fly anybody in to do them.

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Q: Tell me about the role you played in covering Mark McGwire’s pursuit of the Major League Baseball home-run record, back in 1998.
A: Both Sammy Sosa (Chicago Cubs) and Mark McGwire (St Louis Cardinals) were neck-and-neck in a race to break Roger Maris’ single season home run record. By September it was blatantly obvious that one, if not both of them were going to do it. It was just a question of when.
So SI pulled out all the stops. They had five photographers covering every game they played. I was the assistant (on the McGwire games). The only assistant. My job was to change the film in all the remote cameras set-up around the stadium. You had one photographer in the outfield, four photographers on the infield. I don’t remember the actual count of remote cameras, but we had at least ten around the stadium. And I had to change the film in all of them after Mark McGwire hit. And not only that, but I was responsible for triggering all of them. I had a pocket wizard in my hand, and all the cameras were all set to the same channel. As soon as Mark McGwire looked like he was going to swing, I had to hit that button.

Q: Was this bulk loaded film?
A: No, these were all 36 exposures – with two exceptions. We had these Hulcher cameras set-up. They were custom built cameras with Nikon lenses, that could shoot… well we had a 40 second per frame camera and an 80 second per frame camera. They were on tripods, one with a 600mm lens, the other with a 800mm lens, and they took hundred-foot bulk roll. You could load them in broad daylight – so you lost the first ten feet of film. Imagine how that looks – you’re standing in center field, there are twenty photographers lined up next to you, and here I come with my backpack. I pull out a tin with this one hundred-foot film in it, and I just open it up – on a Sunday afternoon. Some of these guys are freaking out, because they’d never seen it done before.
But this takes a bit of time, so I was running. And then there’s the three or four game series where the Cubs played the Cardinals, and I had to do this for both players. It was a rush – all adrenaline at this point. The best part about it was, they also let me have at it with a camera. We’d tested it out, and the best place to make sure all the cameras received the signals was in the mezzanine at first base, just above the Cardinals dug out. And when McGwire hit his seventieth, his last home run – we were still going because we had to get the last home run, whatever number that was – he did this little fist bump or whatever on the way back to the dugout, where I was stationed…
So the next evening, I’m sitting at home, and I get a phone call from Maureen Grise (now Cavanagh), the sports editor: ‘I just want to tell you, it’s been a great month. Thank you for all your hard work. Oh by the way – you have the cover.’ My first Sports Illustrated cover.

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Q: Has it been in any way helpful that you came to sports photography, not as someone who aspired to be an athlete or with of a passion for sports specifically. Did it allow for fewer preconceived notions, perhaps, for how you might go about portraying the action?
A: I was not a sports fan or an athlete myself. I played golf and tennis, but…yes. I’ve shot a lot of golf over the years, and I’ve had to catch myself occasionally because the more you do it, the more you start to run the risk of believing all the hype that people ascribe to these people.

Q: That said, is there an athlete or sportsman you’ve felt especially privileged to work with?
A: Oh, the ultimate is Byron Nelson. I’ve photographed him two or three times – the man was in his nineties – always so genuine and nice, engaging. I never had the feeling that he was looking at his watch.

Q: Given your long history with Sport’s Illustrated, I’m sure you must have strong feelings about the recent decision to release the last of their six staff photographers – probably people you know?

A: Yes. I know all of them. And this isn’t the first big purge they’ve done. I believe there were seventeen (photographers) on staff at one point. Obviously I don’t agree with it. I don’t think the Director of Photography, who had to break the news, was behind it. The decisions were made at a much, much higher level. And at that level, it all comes down to individual page views online, things like that. The appreciation for the craft of it, and of what these guys were capable of, doesn’t matter.
I did an interview with, I think, The New Republic online, when the news came out. The interview was with a guy who worked on a story with me on rodeo cowboys, and I think he nailed it when he referenced the Wayne Gretzky quote, ‘You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.’ We’re all going to look at SI each week, and we’re going to see very nice sports pictures from Getty or AP or whatever; but what we’re not going to see is the picture that could have been taken. I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with these SI guys and with a bunch of other photographers, and shot the same thing they have, and they’ve gotten something that we’ve all looked at and said, ‘How did they do that?’ We didn’t see it. We were all looking at it, we didn’t frame it that way, use that lens… you’re not going to see that anymore – but you’re not going to know it.

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Q: Since we’re talking a little about the business of photography here, tell me about your marketing strategy. Who you are marketing to?
A: I’m marketing to advertising agencies, and to sports related companies – not necessarily as a sports photographer, but as someone with a sports background. I want to point out my abilities to use portrait lights, do documentary, all sorts of stuff. I have a couple of commercial clients that I work with regularly, and I’m looking to work with more. But I also like shooting those portraits, and documentary work, so I’m promoting that editorially.

Q: Emails, Mailers, or both?
A: I kind of gave up on mass emails, I used to do it religiously, but I don’t think people look at or see them. I can think of maybe one person who called me from an email over six years.
For print campaigns I have a mailing list of about 250 people. I send out 125 mailers every month. Say, if there are two art buyers at ESPN, one of them gets the card this month, the other one gets it next month. That way they’re not getting the same card – they’re floating around the office – but I’m not flooding them with stuff. So I send pieces out bi-monthly.

Q: Do you work with a graphic designer on your promo pieces?
A: I’m thinking about doing that. I can see the benefits. I have a portfolio online with ASMP, and I’ve gotten work from that, and also another portfolio site and I’ve gotten work from those. I’ve also taken out ads in Workbook, but I ‘m not sure about that as an advertising model at this point.
I don’t like to be overbearing, whether it’s writing about myself, or making calls. I need to get better at that.

Q: Do you have a rep?
A: I do. We’ve been working together for about three years. It’s been good to have someone help with negotiations, that side of things. You really need somebody who knows the type of work that you do, and the business that you’re catering to. And I need someone who knows how to work with those people.
Still, I need to be able to find those people myself. I don’t mean this as a criticism, but I think some photographers believe that once they have a rep, they don’t have to do any of that stuff. It’s not true. You have to stay grounded in your own business. And if I do get something, then I’m going to give it to him (the rep), because he is going to take care of the negotiating, the production, that side of things. Quite frankly, when it comes to advertising, and the amount of money that can be involved, you don’t want creative people having that conversation. You want money people having those conversations.

Q: I recently switched my website hosting to Photoshelter, which I know is where you’ve been hosted for sometime. You’re especially partial to the back-end capabilities of the site – such as the e-commerce, for example. Have you sold a lot from your archive that way?
A: Not a whole lot. I should probably market that a little better, though I’ve had some commercial sales. But yes, there are a lot of portfolio sites, and I don’t know anywhere else you can store thousands upon thousands of high-resolution images, sell them through the site, integrate directly with your blog, share with clients. And all I have to do is slide images from one gallery to another.
Q: What’s your take on Instagram now? Initially your line was similar to ASMP’s first public stance, which was, ‘Why are we giving our work away?’
A: Every time I put something on Instagram, I cringe, honestly. But…you have to do it. My epiphany was on assignment for ESPN, and there were four or five editors on site. I walked into the press room – it was after a football game – and every single editor was checking their Instagram feed to see what their favorite photographers were up to. You’ve got to do it. But, I watermark important images, and I still feel that the day is going to come when we’re going to say, ‘Wait – they said they weren’t going to do that!’

Q: Let’s talk about personal work. You wrote a very impassioned piece on your blog about purchasing a Leica M240 and how it had really informed your work, inspired you to see things anew. Was buying the camera directly responsible for the beautiful Charreada project you’ve undertaken?
A: It was. I put off doing it until I got the Leica. I’d had the idea for about a year, put it off and put it off, and when I finally decided to go all in and buy the camera, I said, Now I’m gonna do it.

Q: The Charreada project is clearly a book. It has to be.
A: My problem that I have with it is that I presented it to Sports Illustrated, because they were interested in running it. At the time I’d only done a couple of reports, but they encouraged me to continue with it. Then a month later they gave me a different rodeo assignment that ran nine pages in the magazine and the way they work, one rodeo story a year is all you’re gonna get. So I felt kind of bad that I no longer had a hook anymore, and I don’t know how to market something as a book. I have a couple of ideas, a couple of different strains of the project, but I don’t know how to bring that (a book) about.

Q: Your work seems to be diversifying over the past year or two. Certainly, you’re shooting more portraits outside of sports – extensive work with musician Robert Earl Keen, for example. You have a wedding coming up, and you have a young son – Are you looking to move away from sports photography in part to pursue a less itinerant lifestyle?
A: I’m not leaving sports photography, but I do want to pursue other things. Part of it is at the point of a bayonet because the business is changing. Sports photography is not what it was. The days of getting a call saying ‘Hey, there’s a game in Arlington today. Go see if you can take a pretty picture…’ those opportunities have gone, across the board. Sporting News is out of business; Sports Illustrated isn’t hiring or flying people all over the country anymore; ESPN doesn’t cover games on a week-to-week basis. Getty has staff photographers, they don’t hire freelancers. You can’t make a living shooting sports for newspapers.
So, you have to adapt. You find commercial, advertising outlets for the skill-set you’ve got. I can shoot golf, really well, so let me go out and find corporations or advertisers or whatever who need someone who can shoot golf. And part of that hopefully means getting paid more so that I can work less, be closer to home, be with family more. Right now, I haven’t been on a plane in three weeks. I don’t remember the last time that happened. But also, hopefully it means that I can pursue more editorial work that I enjoy doing, work that allows creative freedom.
I think it can be done. I’ve spent the last month driving to jobs! And there’s such a vibrant photo community here in Austin – and I need to get more involved.

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Following an undergraduate degree in Fine Art at the University of Derby, England, a process of elimination led Spike Johnson to Texas. Mentored by Throne Anderson at the University of North Texas, he embarked on an MA in photojournalism, graduating in 2011. Spike photographs in the documentary style, exploring themes around religious friction and self sufficiency in it’s broadest terms, focusing on rural areas of Myanmar, the United States, and England. In 2012 he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in Thailand. His work exhibits internationally, and publishes with outlets including Vice Magazine, Foreign Policy, BBC World, The Telegraph, Human Rights Watch, and The Global Post.

Recent awards include:
Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding in Depth Reporting, Society of Environmental Journalists, 2012.
College Photographer of the Year, International Picture Story, 1st place, 2011.
Society of Professional Journalism, Feature Story, 1st place, 2011.
Society of Professional Journalism, Magazine Photography, 3rd place, 2011.
The Texas Associated Press Managing Editors, Investigative Report, 1st place, 2011.
NPPA Monthly News Clip, Multiple Picture Story, Region 2, 2nd place, April 2012/ October 2011.

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Interview by guest contributor John Davidson.

Jeff Wilson is one of the most respected editorial shooters in Texas. While we could certainly provide further of Jeff’s biographical details here, you’ll be far better served by reading the self-penned bio on Jeff’s website. Not only does visiting Jeff’s website allow you to read a photographer bio that could serve as an exemplar of the form, it also affords you the opportunity to take in the full range of his stunning work.

I spoke with Jeff recently at his elegant, mid-century modern styled home in Central Austin.

Was there an image that you shot, or a particular moment early in your life that made you think: Ah yes, photography – this is what I want to do with my life?
Yes, there’s probably one picture— a picture of my daughter. She was in second grade, and she had a day at school where she could dress up as a character from a book that she liked. She picked a book called Stella Luna and the character is a bat, so we made a bat costume for her. I was in my second year of college, and I had already been into photography, but I think that was the first time where I felt like I did something really beautiful, and thought ‘maybe this is possible.’

That was the first time where I felt like I did something really beautiful, and thought ‘maybe this is possible.’

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What were you studying in college?
Well, actually I have a business major and photography minor, but I was studying photography at the time.

Where were you at college?
At St. Edwards University (in Austin). They have a very good photography program – even better now than it was then. It’s much bigger now, and they made a pretty solid transition from more traditional darkroom work to digital. I don’t think I even had to take a digital class to graduate. It doesn’t feel like that long ago (laughs).

When you graduated from St. Edwards you worked in state government and became a forensics photographer. What kind of forensic work were you doing?
Well there are a couple parts to the job and one of them was photographing the crime scene, and it was statewide. It was for any municipality that didn’t have a crime lab facility, so it was usually not a big city; it was the little cities all over Texas.

That’s a lot of ground to cover…
Whenever I go to little towns to do a photo shoot, I usually remember them.  Typically we would fly up or there were pool cars that we would take. It would be me and a latent prints analyst, someone from trace evidence and a couple DNA people. Other than that, the majority of the day to day was photographing fingerprints on objects  - which were usually bundles of drugs. We would use a 4×5 camera on an enlarger column. All of the items to be photographed would be treated with chemicals, and then you would light it with an argon laser to make the treated fingerprints luminesce, photograph it, process and print it one-to-one. That was a lot of the stuff that I shot – like tire impressions and footwear impressions. I’d make prints for court documents…

When you were leaving college and imagining a career in photography, did you want to do editorial work or advertising?
I was thinking editorial. But when I graduated I needed to make money, and it just wasn’t happening fast enough. I got the job with the legislature directly out of college, and then I was only there as a session photographer. I worked there for about eight months and then I took the other job for six years

Was shooting forensics interesting work?
It was a great job, and I was grateful for it because it paid the bills and I was still photographing. The work was interesting until it wasn’t. If I was going to move ahead with my career, the time was right to move on. A lot of times I’d be working long hours at night, so I’d get time off and I would use that time to shoot jobs. That was when I started shooting editorial.  I started to learn digital imaging there – I taught myself—and it worked pretty well.

And from there you went to work with Dan Winters?
I had known Dan ever since I’d graduated from college. One of my graduation presents to myself was to go to a Santa Fe workshop. There were two names that I recognized on the roster. One was his, and I really identified with his work. We became friends, and he moved to Austin a year or two later. I had known his previous assistants, and around the time I was thinking of leaving the crime lab, his assistant was leaving, so I called him and said ‘Hey, I’m available,’ and he took me on. I learned everything I know about what it means to be a professional photographer from him, and I often think that if it weren’t for that meeting I would be doing something else now. Having a vote of confidence from someone as talented as him was pretty life-changing.

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Was it intimidating when you started working with him?
No. Because I’d known him for a while, I already felt comfortable with him. He’s a very pleasant person from day to day, and he was very patient when I started.  But some of the situations that I got into were intimidating. Within a couple of weeks we were in a studio in New York shooting an album package for a band and it was high pressure. Prior to that I’d only assisted for a couple of local photographers, small editorial shoots. It was a big change in that sense, but luckily he was pretty patient.

Did you feel like you had some pretty decent technical chops going in?
No (laughs). I knew the gear he was working with – he shot 4×5 at the time – and I knew a little bit about lighting, enough to fake it, but I definitely learned on the job. There was a lot of grip equipment that I didn’t have any idea what to do with and had to figure out, and then I tried to ask just the right amount of questions to make sure no-one thought I didn’t have any idea what I was doing.

Your career encompasses the switch from analog to digital technology – did digital involve a marked shift for you, re-learning certain aspects of photography technique, or was it a change that happened organically over a period of time?
No, I wouldn’t call it ‘organic.’  It was definitely tumultuous. I think anyone who doesn’t grow up with it doesn’t understand it intuitively and really has to learn it. When I was in high school, that’s when I picked up photography and learned how to process film and how to print. I worked for the school newspaper and we would print the images and paste them into the layout, and it would go to the local newspaper to be printed. Even in college I learned how to print color and was doing all my own darkroom work, so it was weird to start thinking in terms of doing everything on a computer. Even at first when I was still shooting film, but then scanning the film before doing the work and printing, it was difficult. I still find it odd and I definitely miss shooting film sometimes.

But then in some ways I love shooting digitally, and not just for convenience

But then in some ways I love shooting digitally, and not just for convenience. I’m able to do things I couldn’t otherwise do because I can work much faster – things that wouldn’t have occurred to me before, that I wouldn’t have had time to do. You know, it’s strange, I have a light meter, but I can’t remember the last time I used it! Shooting digitally, it’s so fast to do a test exposure and look at the histogram.

I also love not having to go to a lab. I always hated that experience – though in Holland Photo, we actually still have one really good lab in Austin. I don’t really have a darkroom to work in any more. I just haven’t done it in years.

But I do like that (about digital technology), being able to take the work into my own hands. It’s easier from a workflow perspective that I can come home and edit, and do all the work that I need to do right here, in a timeframe that works for a magazine.

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Has shooting digitally heavily influenced your aesthetic?
Definitely. But I think… well, even before digital technology I always thought that if you shoot 35mm your subjects will respond differently than if you shoot with medium format. It’s all about how the equipment functions with the subject and how they respond to your approach with it.

Do you do all of your own processing?
All of it. I’ve never really been in a situation where I needed to hire a retoucher. I never took an actual class on it, so I just learned to do the things I needed. I’ve never really needed to do something like heavy compositing, and if I needed to I could probably figure it out. Most of what I do is more straightforward. It’s done in camera.

You said that it was a ‘tumultuous transition.’ How did you set about learning what you felt you needed to know?
I got a couple of books, watched a lot of tutorials online. I have a big binder full of notes, probably outdated now, Photoshop 2 or something! When I started working with Dan, that was a big part of the job. He had a retoucher in LA, but that was a hard thing to work with because of deadlines, so I had to really quickly bring that. I knew a bit about it already, but I quickly got to a point where I was doing something I was proud of, bringing something valuable to the table.

Let me ask you about a couple of your larger personal projects. The Texas high-school football stadium book that began as an article in Texas Monthly – did you pitch the publisher, or did they reach out to you?

No, UT Press approached me. They’d seen the piece in Texas Monthly, thought that it might make a good book, but then it faded into the background and it was years later before they called me. I think less than a quarter of the images that were featured in the book were from the original magazine piece so I had a lot more work to do. Luckily I had a pretty big lead-time, something like six months. I put together a game plan and as soon as the time of year that I wanted to shoot in rolled around, I hit the ground running, and I think I produced it in a couple of months.

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How did you go about it logistically? Were you familiar with a lot of these stadiums?
Yes. I had become familiar with them because over the years I’ve been to just about every little town in Texas.  I already knew a lot of them when I pitched the story to Texas Monthly.  When they came to me with the book it didn’t take me long; at least I knew the areas that I was heading. There were eighty-some images in the book, and I think I photographed ninety or so in total.

The cool thing was that the actual shooting was pretty easy. I could look at maps, figure out where the school was, figure out where the stadium sat. I could usually see it in satellite pictures, see which way it was facing, figure out what time of day I’d be shooting and how far each stadium was from the next one. I’d know on any given morning that I could shoot at least two stadiums before losing the light.

I made a lot of back and forth trips, because otherwise the cost would have been prohibitive.

These types of books aren’t exactly money-making exercises, are they?
No, you do it because you want to, and because at the end of the day you have a book and that feels really good. I’m really happy to have had that work published and it was a lot of fun. I don’t get to shoot that way very often. I’d find myself out there really early, at dawn, by myself with just my camera, a tripod, and a cable release. It was a really liberating way to work.

How did your UT Football Game Day essay come about?
Those were shot over the course of all but one of the home games for that season. I’m a big UT fan, and I shot a job, a portrait of Mack Brown for the Alumni magazine. We were at the shoot, and they asked me if I had any ideas for a photo essay and so… honestly, I really just wanted to get on the field! But when I realized I had all this access, I thought it could be really cool. I told them I wanted to shoot with strobe, which you’re not allowed to do down there, and they arranged for me to do that – so I felt that I had unprecedented access, and I ended up going to most of the home games and shooting before the game and all the way through it. The idea behind the essay was that I wasn’t going to shoot any football, but what was going on around it. Any time anything big happened in the game, I was looking in the stands.

Any time anything big happened in the game, I was looking in the stands.

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You had one assistant working with you?
Yeah, especially on something like that where it was a small budget and the project was kind of long. But it was fun to be down there, seeing how the sports photographers work. Meanwhile, I’m walking around with an assistant and all this lighting gear…two guys carrying 70 pounds of gear up and down steps, sweating profusely.

How many assistants do you typically work with?
I don’t have any full-time assistants. I just have a small group of people that I’m comfortable with, and I try to keep it within 2-3 people. I typically only work with one at a time on a job, and sometimes I’ll have a digital tech if there’s a big enough budget. Sometimes, if the money allows, and I know people are going to be carrying heavy Profoto 7B’s and battery packs, then I try to get two. It makes it a lot easier if you’re going to be outdoors and have lots of modifiers blowing in the wind.

Do you consider yourself primarily a portrait photographer?
I would consider myself a portrait photographer just because that’s the overwhelming majority of the work that I do. I think if you’re an editorial photographer you have to be able to do a bit of everything, because if you’re shooting a story you’re more than likely going to shoot more than just a portrait – you’re also going to shoot a landscape, an architectural interior, and a still life. You’re trying to put together the pieces of the story.

I think if you’re an editorial photographer you have to be able to do a bit of everything

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Do you have a guiding philosophy in how you go about photographing people?
I wouldn’t say I have a philosophy. It’s really more a method than a philosophy. I’m hoping the philosophy presents itself in my response to the subject, and not something I’ve determined beforehand. I don’t take a lot of action photos.  I really just try to take pictures of people, and let them do their own thing. I will direct people on where to turn their head, how to stand, give me their eyes in the lens; that kind of thing, without trying to direct it too much. A lot of the time, the people I photograph are normal people who aren’t used to being in front of a camera and a lot of lights and they need a lot of direction to feel comfortable, so I try to spend at least five or ten minutes talking to them before we start shooting. Hopefully I have something, a story about them I’ve researched ahead of time that I can talk to them about. Once they get over their anxiety about being photographed, then you can find the moment you’re looking for. Until then you’re just practicing for it. When I shot film I used to always joke that I might as well throw the fist couple of rolls away because there wasn’t going to be anything worthwhile on them… but you had to shoot those rolls in order to get to that moment that you would know when you saw it.

I really just try to take pictures of people, and let them do their own thing

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We’re always reading statistics about Texas being one of the fastest growing states in the nation, with Austin and Houston just two examples of cities that are perennially listed as having the fastest growing populations. It sometimes seems that of every ten thousand people who move here, two hundred and fifty of them are professional photographers. Have you noticed the effect of that in terms of competition, getting work?
Yes, but I feel it was the same way when I first started. Even then I felt that Austin was a very competitive place to be a photographer, which is what made it a good place to be a photographer because there was work here. For a city this size, there’s a vibrant photography community here. It’s not on the scale of New York or LA, but of anything in between those cities I feel like Austin has a really strong scene both in terms of the volume of work available, and of the talent that’s working here. So yes, it’s competitive, and I get emails from people all the time saying, ‘Hey, I just finished school and I’m moving to Austin…’ and I definitely want to write back to them and say ‘Don’t do it!’(laughs)

What’s the key in such a climate to maintaining – or growing – a sustainable photography business?
Learning how to run the actual business! Most people have a hard time learning how to balance the photography part and the business part. If you’re like me, a one-man band, it can be difficult being on a commercial shoot having a conversation about photographer’s fees and then you have to turn around and talk about the artistic aspect of the shoot.

Even aside from that, it takes a lot of effort for me to be organized. Paperwork piles high really fast, so it’s definitely a learned discipline for me. I can do it now, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. It was tough.

Do you expect to work more on commercial projects in the future?
I think so. I would like to. I think if you want to grow in terms of your business and the money that you make, you have to. The work is really satisfying. Editorial is wonderful because you have a very broad set of parameters, and anything within those parameters is fair game. Commercial work is a little more artisan than artist – you’re working on something that was already decided by other people a long time ago. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just a different experience. I haven’t fully gotten there yet, but it’s definitively something I see myself continuing to do – God willing and the creek don’t rise.


John Davidson is an editorial and commercial photographer (M40 Photography), based in Austin, Texas. John grew up in Manchester, England, and moved to Los Angeles when he was young and reckless. He spent close to a decade living in Brooklyn, NY, where he worked primarily as a freelance writer. He landed in Austin in 2008. John is married, with 1.4 children, at the time of writing. Website*Instagram*Twitter

El Playon, El Salvador 1988

Salvadoran peasants displaced  by the war survive day to day by sifting through the refuse of others in a place that was notorious as a death squad body dump just a few years earlier. One day they hope it will be safe to return to farm their abandoned cornfields. 

Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 1988

Donna DeCesare is a documentary photographer, author, and educator known for her conflict work in Central America, and the spread of gangs between Latin America and the US. Her new book Unsettled / Desasosiego: Children in a World of Gang a memoir of thirty years covering gang members and their families. She is the recipient of the 2013 Maria Moors Cabot Prize for her work in Latin American.

Pavon Prison Guatemala
A gang member in an isolation cage–located in a special unit for prisoners who have been threatened by other inmates.

Tell me about your beginning in photography.
The first pictures I made were with my dad in the darkroom developing photos of my grandfather. I don’t tell that story a lot. I was five and my grandfather had passed away before I was born. I was the first grandchild and I was named for him. He was Donato DeCesare and I was Donna DeCesare. That’s how I met my grandfather in the ether of developer. It was magical. Every photographer talks about that, about seeing the image come up, but to have my namesake come up in the chemistry, that was special. And he was from southern Italy and he had a garden – it was a picture of him with his tomato plants. I remember it very well.

After that it (photography) became a hobby. My dad bought me my first camera. I took pictures when we went on vacations. It was a way of escaping. I read books and took pictures to escape from the chaos that was my childhood.

I loved my grandmother’s stories. I loved to listen. I was curious. My cousins called me “Nosy-Parker” because they thought I parked my nose in other people’s business. That was the beginning of my interest and approach in stories. I was five visiting my relatives. They were my family, but I didn’t know them. I had permission to be there and ask questions even though they were strangers.

And then I went to graduate school. I studied English Literature. I thought I was going to be a college professor. But I went to northern Ireland with a few friends at Christmas, and I started taking pictures there and it was different. These weren’t snapshots anymore. It was really what’s going on in the streets in the world. Why can’t this friend not go to the home of the other friend? Because they were from different sides of the conflict. I had studied Irish literature. Everything to do with Ireland was interesting to me. Not just the conflict. The street kids, all the aspects of life, the fallout from the conflict, but also the things that partly caused it.

I wanted to be in the world doing stuff with real people, people who were not just from the elite class.

I came back to the US and worked in book publishing for a couple of years, because with a literature degree that ‘s what you do. After that experience in Northern Ireland I knew I didn’t want to be in an ivory tower. I wanted to be in the world doing stuff with real people, people who were not just from the elite class. I filed that away, but I also thought I’ll never make a living at this. So I worked in publishing because what else would you do with a literature degree? I saved up my vacation time every year. We got 3 weeks of vacation and 2 weeks of sick leave, and I never got sick, and took 5 weeks and went to Northern Ireland to photograph and write and sell my pictures. After doing that a couple of times I was convinced that was what I really wanted to do.

I tell my students this all the time…no matter how bad the economic situation is – don’t be worried about security when you’re 20, you’ve got your whole life to worry.

I did take one class with Fred Ritchin the first year ICP offered a program. I took a workshop with Gilles Peress. Apart from that I was totally self-taught. Fred told me at some point that if you’re serious about this you just have to go. I quit my job and he was horrified when I told him, but it was the best decision I could ever have made. And I tell my students this all the time, when you’re young, no matter how bad the economic situation is – don’t be worried about security when you’re 20, you’ve got your whole life to worry. Now is when you should take risks and find what you’re passionate about.

The moment when I quit I was designing book covers. I was the associate art director, so when I left I was still freelancing book cover design. I was photographing writers because I knew a lot of them through my job with Penguin. I photographed Irish musicians. I started photographing for the Irish Echo, a newspaper that focused on Irish Americans and Irish immigrants. I was writing and photographing from the beginning.

In the course of doing a story for the Irish newspaper, I met some refugees in a sanctuary church in California that some Irish-American nuns ran and that was how I got interested in Central America. Life is such a journey, and I tell my students this too, you meet people and then you take different turns in the road.

El Salvador / Honduras border, El Poy, El Salvador, 1988
Salvadoran families make their way to the the village of Guarjila in a caravan of buses, after leaving the Mesa Grand refugee camp in Honduras.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare,1988

What was it that resonated so much with you?
I was engaged in Northern Ireland because there was a lot of injustice in the situation. The British were not behaving very well. And in Central America the United States was involved. These people were telling me horrifying stories. And our government is supporting this? Can they be, really? I wanted to see for myself.

She looked me straight in the eyes and said “Donna, please don’t forget my people.” That got into my heart.

I met a woman who was going by the name Monica at the time. When I was done with the story and leaving she looked me straight in the eyes and said “Donna, please don’t forget my people.” That got into my heart. She gave me a bookmark with Msgr. Romero, the bishop that was killed in El Salvador. And she had written that on it as well. “Donna, please don’t forget my people.”

A year later I went to see the show at ICP that Susan Meiselas and Harry Mattison had put together and then I found that bookmark and I felt like somebody is telling me that I should go there. It was a message. Somehow in my heart that was really what I wanted to do.

I went to Costa Rica first because I didn’t speak Spanish fluently. I didn’t want to go to a country at war without speaking the language. I spent six months in Costa Rica. I traveled to Nicaragua and stayed in villages. That’s how I learned Spanish. I learned it in high school, but I was not fluent. I could read it but couldn’t speak or understand. I was hopeless at other aspects of it. I really learned by immersion.

San JosŽ Las Flores, Chalatenango El Salvador, 1988
Children mingle with insurgents in the rebel-held territory.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare,1988

At any point did you doubt yourself, that this is what you wanted to do?
I really didn’t. I was on an adventure. I was meeting indigenous people in Costa Rica. I was doing stories, too. I started stringing for the Christian Science Monitor. I spent some time in a village in Nicaragua as well. I would go back for weddings and stuff.

This was a village where some of the population were in the army fighting the contras up north. It was quiet and safe there, but you could see the effects of the war on the village. And I felt, and this is funny because it’s completely different, an indigenous village really, but I felt everything about their life was like the stories my Italian grandmother told me about growing up in southern Italy. They carried water on their heads in italy too from the well. Gathered wood for cook fires. They slaughtered animals.

I felt like I was in my grandmother’s life, going back in time.

My grandmother was the youngest and her father let her hang out with the boys, she was the shepherd and went out with the animals. So, here I am in this village where people were doing these things that were the same rituals described to me. They looked different because of the setting, but were so reminiscent of the stories I heard from my grandmother I felt like I was in my grandmother’s life, going back in time. I was soaking that up and loving photographing it. And I gained confidence in my Spanish too. At first you’re embarrassed, you know, but people are kind and peasants are not judgmental. They were just so happy I was trying. When I said something right they would applaud. So I gained confidence and I had my first dreams in Spanish, so I was starting to think in the language as well.

Ventura, California, 1994
At the end of visiting day at the California Youth Authority facility where she is serving a sentence for drug related robbery, sixteen-year-old Jessica Diaz embraces her mother, Carmen, and her son, Carlos.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 1994

What came next?
I moved to El Salvador. That was challenging at first, too. Before I had gone to Central America, I went to see editors in New York. I had been working for a lot of different of people. I had a pretty good portfolio from northern Ireland. So I went to Robert Stevens at TIME magazine, I went to see Kathy Ryan at the New York Times Magazine and people back then would make an appointment and talk to you. I got to talk to all of them despite being a nobody photographer. There were no promises. All of them said, “Stay in touch. Here’s our number. If you get anything call us and we’ll take a look.” I was just happy I had been able to see them in person.

When I got down to Central America it was a question of learning the country. One of the ways we found work was networking with other reporters. You meet the people at the wire services because they always know what’s happening. You do your own research and reporting. I reached out to NGOs like UNICEF. And then at the hotel you meet the reporters that fly in. They needed a fixer – someone who knew the story, knew the country, had contacts and could take the photographs. It helped that the editors remembered me from my visit to New York. Even though there was a lot of competition, it was the hot spot of the time.

Little by little getting to know people, I began piecing it together.

Little by little getting to know people, I began piecing it together. I worked for a photo agency that was wonderful, committed to issues, but not good at business. Impact Visuals, I was part of that cooperative. They got my film developed and then when things did heat up I was called on when contract photographers weren’t available. I did a lot of work for newspapers, magazines, and der Spiegel used me a lot. They loved my work. The photo editor used to say to me, “I know we mostly want head shots of politicians, that’s what we run in the magazine, but we love being able to support a photographer like you by giving you this assignment that then you can do this other work.”

How did the gang war come into it?
The first gang member I met in my life was in El Salvador. He was a young man who was HIV positive and had been deported from Los Angeles. He was from the 18th street gang. He had tattoos, and I had never seen anyone in El Salvador with tattoos so he stood out. Tattoos are now a Salvadorian phenomenon, but back then it was a Los Angeles thing.

We talked and he told me about how he grew up and his mother had tried to prevent him from getting into the war, so she took him to LA where he had gotten involved in a gang because they beat him up at school. Then he got involved with drugs, selling and using. He claims he got HIV from getting tattoos in prison, but he also was an IV drug user.

I filed that in the back of my mind, because he said you should go to LA. “Everyone there is in a gang.” And I thought, that can’t be true. There are 800,000 Salvadoreans in LA and I’m sure they’re not all gang members.

I care about conflict itself but conflict where I have some knowledge and deep connection to the issues.

But I remembered what he said and after the war ended I was facing a choice. Some editors thought I should go to Yugoslavia because that was the next conflict. My colleagues in Central America were headed there, but I didn’t see myself as primarily a conflict photographer. I care about conflict itself but conflict where I have some knowledge and deep connection to the issues. I felt like there were other people already doing that. Maybe for them the situation in Yugoslavia, because of their ethnicity, their connection to that place, and the language, would be more meaningful for them. I felt it’s Europe so it’s going to get covered. I thought what I really want to do is see what happens to the people after the war, to the diaspora community.

And I did try to pitch stories about Latino’s in New York early on and it really was just too early for that to be on editor’s radar screens. To me it was overwhelming. I lived in China Town and when I came back every Chinese restaurant has mestizo speaking Mexicans from Oaxaca and Puebla working in the kitchens. If Chinese restaurants are employing these people they are the cheapest labor in New York, cheaper even than family members. To me this was a big story, but it was a hidden story, a subtle story. It was too early. I tend to see things before it becomes a big story.

Pico Union, Los Angeles, 1994
Ivonne reads a letter from her gang-involved boyfriend after his deportation to El Salvador.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare,1994

You sound confident that staying local and not going to the next conflict was the right move for you. Were you that confident at the time?
I was worried about making ends meet. A friend invited me to go to Cairo. I had applied for a Dorothea Lange grant for the gang work, and it takes months for them to decide. I felt like I needed a change. Three or four days after I bought my ticket to Cairo, the first Wold Trade Center bombing happened. So I was going to Egypt. I was walking into a situation again where people were already covering things. I could stay with my friend and could get a lot of work. I stayed for three or four months. It was wonderful to deal with a different culture and I worked with translators for the first time. It was exciting and I loved it. Working with a translator works for some people, but for me it’s important to listen first. When you listen intently, you look intently.

Jocotenango, Guatemala 2001
A Holy Week procession passes village walls marked with the graffiti of the gang that dominates the zone.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 2001

Tell more more about looking intently.
Everyone is so distracted with devices these days. They (students) skim and pull threads together quickly, but they miss a lot of things. People know when you’re not really present. When you give quality attention, people can tell. Everyone has a different way of doing things, but this is my ethos.

When you listen intently, you look intently.

I look first for points of connection to establish the relationship. I’m not someone who goes looking for the exotic to turn my eyes on. The exotic attracts attention, it’s shocking, it grabs us, but it also “other”izes, it distances. I’m looking for ways to make us relate, so people think this story, these people are part of our world, too.

People can’t be reporters without observing what’s going on around them, in the present moment, and give themselves fully. It’s like they all need to practice yoga and being mindful and present. I try to teach this with assignments. I have students do a soundscape of Guadalupe Street, telling the story in sounds. A lot of the reporting these days looks like music videos – it’s voice over with images and canned music.

They’re losing the capacity to approach the intangible. That’s what I try to do in my teaching and it makes them wildly uncomfortable.

Documentary is all about the uncontrollable. You have to pull the story out of life unscripted. You let the story come to you. All of that means you have to be comfortable with the unscripted. It feels like kids are branding from the womb these days. Where is the imagination? If we deny kids the space and time for that, if they are under the microscope of peer group and adults, they don’t have a place to fail spectacularly and learn. They want recipes and formulas. “Show me what an ‘A’ looks like”. Everything for them is rubrics and metrics. They’re losing the capacity to approach the intangible. That’s what I try to do in my teaching and it makes them wildly uncomfortable.

Guatemala / Mexico border, Talisman, Guatemala, 2002
Deported U.S. gang members seeking to return to the United States populate border towns along the migrant route and influence children who live in them.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 2002

Tell me about collecting the work together for the book.
It’s had many iterations. It started in 1999 with the Mother Jones Award. The Soros award was to put the work on a website. The core stories for the website were done in 2005-2006. We did it in HTML and then updated them in Flash, that was a mistake.

In 2010, I published the full site with core stories, timelines, and connections with NGO’s working with these same issues. The website, Destiny’s Children, is 197 pages long. I want to find someone who knows HTML5 and keep it updated. Maybe pair with an NGO who would work with students or interns to continue the storytelling. I want to be a resource for educators because it’s history. I want to keep young people engaged in their history. The website tells four stories. Two where people successfully leave the gangs and two where people didn’t get out. (Spoiler alert) They died in the process.

The book then was telling my own story, my life. Connecting the dots between my concerns covering conflict and childhood trauma in war and what happens afterwards. We know a lot now about what children need. If they don’t get help with trauma, it sticks with them the rest of their lives. I saw the immediate impact of trauma on kids – child soldiers, the maimed and orphaned.

As macho as these gangs were, it was a “brotherhood of suffering,” their mechanism for dealing with trauma.

I came to LA, to the gangs, and these traumas were what the gang members wanted to talk about. These kids came to LA as undocumented refugees. There were no psychologists in the schools to help them. The wound is still there and if it doesn’t heal it comes up elsewhere. As macho as these gangs were, it was a “brotherhood of suffering,” their mechanism for dealing with trauma.

I wanted to write about that process to model for the next generation of photographers how you do this. How to make sure you’re safe and that you ensure the safety of the people you’re covering.

San Salvador, El Salvador, 2009
At a leadership training workshop on gender rights, a group of young women from one of the most impoverished and violent barrios, lists their suggestions for how to reduce violence in Salvadoran society.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 2009

What else do the next generation of photographers need?
People want to go off and do good in other places. I went to places with a deep, almost familial connection. Even if your motivation is human rights, be more invested in the work. The media is more democratized and available. The voiceless now have cameras and tape recorders. They might need a bridge to the mainstream, but we need to include them as active agents in their own stories.

The voiceless now have cameras and tape recorders. They might need a bridge to the mainstream, but we need to include them as active agents in their own stories.

There’s a project I worked on in Colombia, Desearte Paz project of the Colombo Americano in Medellin Colombia. The idea was to bring an artist to work with local students on an issue close to them. We have an academic conference of sorts about it and then create. It was transformative for me. A group of teens who were in a youth photography group, and art students who thought photojournalism was “porno miseria”. They produced an amazing piece. Even the conceptual art students found the experiential component was important.

Portadown, Northern Ireland 1984
When the Orange Order loyalist group attempted to march through the Catholic Nationalist neighborhood known as “the tunnel” they were repelled by the community. Rioting broke out spreading thoughout the city and this woman fled her home.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 1984

Any advice for young photographers wanting to do this kind of work?
Start in your own community. They will hold you accountable for the quality of your reporting. No matter where we go we have to have ethical discussions about the work, how it affects local people, and the issue at large. Students learn to be good journalists by practicing in their own community. They will be challenged by their editors and the people they cover. Students see what wins awards, and are eager to do that work, but they need to learn here first. Injustice exists here, too. Once you have the skills and have learned to be responsible, you take that with you. Main street America is the world in a microcosm. You can report on the world, by reporting on your community.

Also know who you are. One of the assignments I give my students is to do an autobiography in photos. Self-exploration of your experiences and how that affects their photography.

My brother was in a bad accident when I was a child and sustained a head injury. I was the one to tell my parents to stop the car. It forced me to grow up emotionally. In some ways my need to photograph kids who are marginalized comes from that experience, of watching him struggle. If you are conscious of yourself earlier it helps drive you. Get in the habit of thinking about your past experiences early in life and connect it to what you’re doing now.

Main street America is the world in a microcosm. You can report on the world, by reporting on your community.

Students today are missing a sense of history. I don’t know if it’s the education system. They’re so focused on the future. This attitude of: You have to get to the next thing first if you want to win. It’s destructive. At UT we have so many resources – The HRC, the Benson Latin American Collection, the Briscoe Center for American History, the LBJ Library. These places contain information and artifacts that can’t be found on Wikipedia.

Why is the Cabot such an important award for you?
This award is meaningful for me. This is the Pulitzer for covering Latin America. It used to be that every New York Times bureau reporter who stayed there for more than five years got one. It used to be white men, gray-haired, emanances from Harvard and Yale would hand this thing out, but there’s been a switch. Now it’s a network of journalists from American and Latin America judging this. There’s still an emphasis on the word, but Meiselas got it before me. I hope this marks a shift in recognizing photography for the award. It’s humbling. A great honor. It’s the most gratifying award to win. I feel so very proud and happy. I’m being honored, not as the gringa journalist, but I’m of both places and embraced by both places.

El Playon, El Salvador 1988
Salvadoran peasants displaced by the war survive day to day by sifting through the refuse of others in a place that was notorious as a death squad body dump just a few years earlier. One day they hope it will be safe to return to farm their abandoned cornfields.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 1988

What does it mean to be a woman in photojournalism?
When you’re at the top of your game you’re kind of an “honorary man”. Sexism is complicated to show and prove.

I tell my students to look at photographers’ whose work you admire. Then look at the photographers’ whose lifestyle you covet. Do these two things line up?

When you look at the spectrum of women in the industry, a lot of female newspaper photographers have families. Those that cover the world are fully present to the work and that inhibits relationships.

I tell my students to look at photographers’ whose work you admire. Then look at the photographers’ whose lifestyle you covet. Do these two things line up? Not always and you have to be proactive to make anything work.

I still think that men have an easier time flying around because the wife is taking care of the home front. It’s not an impossible idea to have both, but it’s a balancing act. To deny that isn’t being realistic. Some female photographers become editors as a way to stay connected to the work and world they love and have the stability to have a family. What’s not to like about that?

What comes next?
I’m speaking about the book and the Cabot. I have a fledgling project with sociology students at UT about Latin America. It will be nice to explore countries I haven’t been to or worked in. A lot of it will be about things that have happened in the past and the relationship between memory and landscape. Maybe I’ll flop but it’s always about trying.

You can read (and hear) more about Donna and her groundbreaking work in this article from the Texas Observer. Some of Donna’s work is on display this month as part of FotoSeptiembre at La Peña in Austin. Donna will also give a lecture and book signing at the Harry Ransom Center on September 26, 2013.

©WyattMcspaddenCowboy

For the past year I’ve had the pleasure of knowing one of my favorite photographers working today. Wyatt McSpadden is enormously talented and also down to earth.  We met for eggs, coffee, and biscuits one morning and in his Texas accent, Wyatt told me stories of his career.

How did you get your start in photography?
I started out working for an eccentric millionaire in Amarillo, a guy by the name of Stanley Marsh 3.  It was 1971 and I was just one of the hippies that worked out on his ranch estate mowing lawns and doing odd jobs. He always had a photographer around too. I had a Minolta SRT 71 camera and I didn’t know what I was doing but there was all this crazy stuff going on around Amarillo.

In 1974, when the art collective Ant Farm started burying Cadillacs in the ground out on Interstate 40, I was documenting that. Every time the design of the tail fin changed, they buried a new Cadillac.  Who ever saw people burying cars in the ground?

This is what I was around and I had a camera and Stanley was buying the film so I was just taking pictures.  I had no agenda.  Through the years the Cadillac Ranch became kind of a phenomenon.  I met famous photographers who flew there to do fashion spreads.

It was really my first documentary photography.  I didn’t think of it like that at the time, but it turns out that’s what it was.

Talk about your longtime collaboration with Texas Monthly.
In 1978 Nancy McMillen, the associate art director of Texas Monthly, called Stanley’s office and asked about shooting him and she wanted a recommendation for a photographer. How could any of us have known just what a fateful call this was? That’s how I met her.  She worked there for 23 years.

Nancy contacted me and of course I was thrilled. All my work had been for local clients, printers, feed yards, small ad agencies – certainly nothing so grand as Texas Monthly. I set up my white background and had Stanley model hats from the enormous collection in his cavernous closet.  And there it was, I had my first pictures in Texas Monthly. A full page! I’ve dragged this old yellowed tear sheet around for 35 years. What a great subject.  He was willing to do anything.

Nancy and I married in 1992, the luckiest day of my life and I’ve somehow managed to keep that Texas Monthly connection alive and well.  That was the first thing I ever did for them, so it has great significance to me. I wouldn’t have had a career if it weren’t for Texas Monthly. At least not the career I’ve had. I’ve been very lucky.

 I wouldn’t have had a career if it weren’t for Texas Monthly.  At least not the career I’ve had.  I’ve been very lucky.

I did marry into the art department, but in a real way it made me step up my game. Nancy is a very discerning art director and photo editor and if I came walking in there with some junk she’d have tossed me out!  I’m sure people talked about it but it really was a situation where you don’t bring your B game!

You probably had more to prove.
And it’s still that way.  It’s amazing to have a relationship with a magazine for 35 years and still be just as eager.

How did it come full circle recently?
Stanley Marsh had been implicated in inappropriate conduct with young boys.  This story came out and Texas Monthly elected to do a major piece about it.  I had photographed Marsh dozens of times, and I had lots and lots of pictures of him in my files.  Some I hadn’t paid much attention to, but I found one that was shockingly appropriate of him for the story, that I’d taken 25 years ago in 1989.

I was looking through my files trying to find pictures of Stanley that Texas Monthly might want to use and there was one that had been published before but it wasn’t the right feel for the story. On the bottom of that strip of four two and a quarter negatives was a negative that looked sort of interesting so I went to Holland to get it scanned. When it came back I thought THIS is the picture that they should run.  But I didn’t show it to them then; I sent the other image thinking that would be piling it on. I didn’t want Stanley to come off looking too bad. As if I had anything to do with that…the article told the tale.

Texas Monthly sent me to Houston to photograph the lawyer who had sued him on behalf of 10 boys.  This guy’s name is Anthony “The Shark” Buzbee and his office is on the 73rd floor of a 75 floor building.  The tallest building in Texas located in downtown Houston, and he’s got half the floor.

My assistant Will Phillips and I left Austin at 6:30 in the morning and drove to Houston, went to his huge office arriving to find the conference rooms full, so we set up a 9’ seamless in his office.  The space was so big we never disturbed him.

Buzbee is super slick and extremely aware of his image. We were in his office for 2 ½ hours but all I was getting out of him was this “I’m Tony Buzbee, I’m fighting for the little guy” expression.  While we were getting set up in his office he was out front talking to his secretary when I overheard a woman say to him, “You look just like Gerard Butler!”

I had spotted a possible setting out front and thought, when we finish in Buzbee’s office I’ll get one more shot, but by the time we were done, I was just beat.  My assistant Will said, “Don’t you want to do this other shot?’ so I set up and was on the ground in his secretary’s office with him standing between the doors.  I’m getting nothing out of him until it suddenly came to me and I said, “Oh Tony, you look just like Gerard Butler!” And this is what I got, which is perfect!

We shot something like 300 pictures and the 297thone was the only one I liked. When I saw that image I thought, I’ll let Texas Monthly use the other picture of Stanley because this pair of images makes them both look notorious. I was very lucky to have Will along with me because even though I was done, he pushed me to do more. That’s part of the photographer-assistant relationship I’m certainly glad to have.

I had these feelings of regret about what had become of Mr. Marsh as well as curiosity about the guy who helped bring him down.  It’s kind of an amazing story for me and it pivots around being in the photography business for a long time. Texas Monthly used an image I took 25 years ago and one I took just 3 weeks ago to support it.  It’s a very rare thing to have a relationship like that with a magazine.

What’s another memorable Texas Monthly story you’ve done?
This was the Bandidos, a motor cycle gang and an important member had passed away so they kept him on ice for longer than they normally would so they could have the funeral for him on Memorial Day weekend and all these Bandidos came in from all over the country.  We set up white seamless at the funeral home in one of the viewing rooms that wasn’t being used. Skip Hollingsworth the writer and I would go out and ask people if we could do a portrait of them.  This was 2-3:00 in the afternoon with all these bad ass bikers and their scary girlfriends or wives. Everything was going fine but as the day went on they started drinking in the funeral home parking lot.  Then the whole vibe changed. By about sun down it was like, let’s get out of here while we still can in one piece!

The next day they had the procession.  I was desperate to find a place to photograph.  It was a Saturday morning on the 410 loop around San Antonio.  Will was with me and across the road there was what looked like a junkyard with a cherry picker with a sign on it that said “Rent Me.”  We woke this guy up and said “I have to have this thing in 20 minutes!”  We paid him $200, and got me up on the cherry picker.  I was shooting medium format film and three minutes later, here they come. What an amazing situation to get into.

Film.  Loading backs.  12 frames.  That’s how you did it.  That’s how I did it.

Besides bikers and eccentric millionaires, you’re also quite known for your love of and documentation of the Texas barbecue culture. When you started out photographing BBQ, did you plan to put the images into a book or did that just happen organically?
When Kreuz moved in 1999 out of what is now the Smitty’s building, my buddies and I were so crushed and sad. I went every day for a week and just shot black and whites.  So that was probably the foundation for the barbecue book.  There were assignments throughout the years where I had probably 1/3 of the pictures for the book before we had a book deal.  It was great fun and it wasn’t like being on assignment where you have to get something.  Nancy did the design so it was a real collaboration for us.

Last week I stumbled upon an old negative of Louie Muellers BBQ (legendary Texas barbecue joint) that I shot when I was still living in Amarillo. It was 1980 and a seed company salesman took us to there for lunch.  I didn’t know anything about Louie Muellers, I didn’t know anything about real barbecue but walked in there and wow, look at this place! This negative has great meaning to me because barbecue has become such a part of my work life.  It makes me glad I haven’t thrown anything away.

Do you still shoot film for your commercial and editorial work?
I don’t unless it’s a personal project. There’s just no demand for it anymore.  Everything needs to happen so fast, plus it’s more expensive.  The BBQ book I did a few years ago was all film shot with RZ67, but I was paying for that out of my own pocket.  It made me very selective about what I shot, unlike shooting digital, where you just shoot too much.  Cause why not?  The problem with that approach is you pay for it in front of the computer.  Another thing about digital is you would shoot a Polaroid and stop but with digital you’re working all your shit out in the camera.  You got 10 frames but it took 70 to get where you wanted to be and you still have to look at it all one way or another.

I’ve got thousands of negatives, many of them pictures of my kids, pictures of my now wife, my ex wife.  And I wonder… but I don’t know, I’ll be dead and gone but those negatives somehow seem more permanent to me than pictures that are stored on a computer or on a cloud.  Somebody will probably look through my negatives- my kids, my wife, but I don’t know who’s going to look through my digital files just as a matter of history and family history.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about Facebook as silly as it is, is that I can put up things you wouldn’t normally see.  Whether it’s old stuff or outtakes or quirky stuff or something from a story.  I’ve got all kinds of pictures, just throw them out there and people can like them or not.  Facebook has sort of changed the meaning of the word “friend” and the meaning of the word “like”.  But still, I love it when people like my photos.  It’s just how needy we are.

You read there have been more pictures taken last year than in the whole history of photography…but where are they?

I still get the same tingle when I see a picture in print that I did when I first saw a picture- something of mine

For almost a year of my life the future was very uncertain.  Of course it still is…but for other reasons.  I’m back in a place where I’m going to pretend I’m gonna live forever like we all do.  It’s also like okay…I’m 60…how did I get here?  What am I going to do?  And I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.  Try to stay healthy.  Photography’s a physical business, but I still love doing it and I think that’s the bottom line for me that I still get the same tingle when I see a picture in print that I did when I first saw a picture, something of mine.

When you were diagnosed with life threatening cancer the Austin photo community and Dan Winters rallied around you with a print auction to raise money to help with your medical bills.  Can you talk about that?  Did you know Dan before the event?
That was probably the most magical night of my life. Nancy and I had been down for the first week of radiation treatments, then drove back to Austin on a Friday, went home and changed clothes and went down to Charla Woods’ studio.  We were absolutely blown away.  It was astonishing.  I had met Dan before, I wouldn’t say that I knew him but I knew his work.  He’s one of those I-wish-I-had-shot-that guys. The work he had donated, the people who participated, it was an astonishing collection of great, great photography.  Perfectly hung like everything that Dan does.  He’s someone who achieves a certain level of perfection in everything that he does, whether it’s minor or major.  But this…it was totally unexpected and an unbelievable night.  They sold everything on the wall.  It was a very meaningful experience and we still have this deep feeling of gratitude for what he did and for all the people who came and participated.

A friend of ours, Kathy Marcus, had started letting people know about my cancer.  If  you’re self employed, health insurance is a real challenge.  We were insured but with a $10,000 deductable and expenses unknown.  So Kathy got the ball rolling and Dan got wind of it and he started putting it together.  He didn’t ask us if we wanted him to, he just started putting it together and Nancy and I talked about it, gosh, is this right?  And then we thought, don’t be crazy!  If Dan Winters wants to do this, by God who’s going to stop him!  It was truly one of the most magical experiences of my life and in the midst of the crummiest of times it really was an amazing thing.

I’m going to stick around so I can use this damn camera, whatever it takes!

Do you have a favorite item in your camera bag or anything unusual?
I do love the D800.  I’m a real late adopter in the digital stuff and I waited until Nikon came out with a full sized chip.  Last year I shot that Willie Nelson cover for Texas Monthly so I rented the D800 and the files were so amazing that I thought well …what the hell.  Plus at the time I was six months out of treatment and I thought I’m going to get this camera because I’m going to stick around.  I’m going to stick around so I can use this damn camera, whatever it takes!  I do love that camera and a lot of time it’s overkill file size, so I don’t use it for everything, but when something really great happens it’s so fun to have it on that camera.

In a way it means I’m sort of pre-judging a job.  Is this worthy of the D800 for the full treatment? And there’s a practical side to that too.  If it’s not going to go that big then why shoot a 36MP 104MP TIFF file so you get extra churn time on the computer.  But if it’s something really great…I did this story for Texas Monthly back in September and I took my son Stuart with me to assist and to shoot too (cowboy stuff) so I had my D800 and I rented a D800.  We stumbled upon this (sky and riders) and this image will go up the size of a billboard.  You can shoot these in the dark.

What have you learned from being in this business for so long?
You’re scrambling around trying to find work and it’s not any different for me.  Part of the learning curve whether your 60 or 30, we’re all scrapping for the same gigs in one way or another.  When I was 30 I thought, “When I’m 60 it will be different.  I’ll have this reputation and this stable of clients.” But that’s not how it is.  The scramble never stops.

Really?
I don’t think so.  It certainly does for some people. I don’t have a rep, I’ve never had a rep. I never thought my work was the kind that a rep would handle. I don’t know why that is.  My work is kind of quirky and doesn’t fit into a hard category. But that’s just how it is. You can think of a couple photographers in town that don’t have to scramble and then you can think of a thousand that do. So that’s where most of us are.

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JoAnn Santangelo is an Austin based photographer whose work documents hidden and marginalized communities. Her bodies of work include Proud to Serve, documenting LGBT veterans, Austin Faces AIDS, images of HIV positive Austin residents, and Austin Seen, showing daily life in Austin communities.  JoAnn works from Falcon 5, her container art space which she encourages people to take advantage of and build a community with. Falcon 5′s first pin-up print swap will be Tuesday, September 17th at 7pm. It is a casual BYOB meetup where people can bring prints for feedback or just to meet other like minded folks. Prints will be swapped at the end of the meeting!

How did you get your start in photography?
I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Boston, and I was one of those kids that was always running around the neighborhood. Perhaps photography was an escape because I was really shy. I hid behind the camera, like a lot of photographers do.

I never thought photo could be a career, so I went to business school but hated it and dropped out. Eventually, I found a camera repair shop that was hiring. I got the job and was working on repairs but in the same building was a photo studio. I would go watch these big photo shoots and think, “this is really cool.” Inspired by these big fashion shoots, I started to assist. I assisted for four years and worked my way up but wasn’t happy. Fashion shoots were fun but not that kind of photography I wanted to be doing, but at the time I didn’t know photojournalism existed.

PERHAPS PHOTOGRAPHY WAS AN ESCAPE BECAUSE I WAS REALLY SHY. I HID BEHIND THE CAMERA, LIKE A LOT OF PHOTOGRAPHERS DO.

Then, I met a woman in my neighborhood who called herself a documentary photographer and had all these photo books by people like Eugene Richards and Diane Arbus. I was like, “That’s It!’ That’s what I love.”

Around that time, I came to visit Austin and fell in love with the city and decided to move from Boston. Once in Austin, I just started riding my bike and taking portraits in the street. I did that for about a year and people started saying they were really good. I just thought “yup, this is what I want to do.”

 

You mentioned discovering Eugene Richards’ photo book, and I know you ended up working with him. How did that come about?
Yup, I did, while I was attending ICP (the International Center of Photography). Working for Eugene was a dream came true. Once that friend showed me Eugene’s book I just became a huge fan. When I was shooting in Austin, I would email Eugene. He didn’t know me, but I emailed him to say that I really admired his work. In the emails, I asked if he’d ever take a look at my work and let me know what he thought. He never responded.

When I moved to New York and went to ICP I saw that Eugene was on the board of directors, so I emailed him again but got no response. However, my shooting class at ICP was with Brian Young who happened to be good friends with Eugene. Young actually printed for Eugene for around 25 years. Eventually, I went up to Young and talked about how much I loved Eugene’s work. So we talk, and Young asked if I’d like to meet Eugene. Literally that next morning… guess who’s standing there! Brian didn’t introduce him to anyone but me. He made Eugene come to ICP to pick up a print.

Eugene had a show the weekend after I met him, so I go and it was packed. I was standing next to him at the coat check and he said, “yeah, you emailed me,” and I said “yeah…” He asked what he could do for me. I asked if he would need an intern, but he said he stopped taking interns a while ago. He ended up saying I should email him and his wife (who works very closely with him) and try to meet up for lunch. So I did, and sure enough we both lived in Brooklyn. We all ended up talking for almost two hours at this dinner, and they explained how they had bad experiences with interns. He eventually said he didn’t have that much work for me, but if I wanted to give it a try he would be willing to take me as an intern. Never did I think when I was writing those emails in Austin that they would have led to that!

 I love NY and Boston but my heart was in Austin

So if you were working with one of your idols and mentors, what brought you back to Austin?
Well, the internship ended after school, and I continued for a month but eventually went on my own. I stayed in NY for a year and a half, but my wife and I left Austin with the intention of coming back. I love NY and Boston but my heart was in Austin. I love the creativity in Austin, and that I can have Falcon 5 (JoAnn’s container gallery space). I consider myself a documentary photojournalist, and you can do that anywhere.

What was the first project you started after collage?
I started with Proud to Serve, documenting gay veterans. I started it in school but continued the project after graduating. It lasted about 2 years.

Was this the project you received funding for through Kickstarter?
I did. It ended up funding a road trip. What happened was I started the project in college, and when I graduated I had documented about 13 veterans. It was hard at first to get the project started; I didn’t know how to find the subjects. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was in the news but not as commonly known as it became. The news took it on about 4 months after I started which made it easier to find people at the rallies. At first I went to DC for a Lift the Ban rally where I met the first four people.

That helped get me connected with people to photograph, but I was in school and had no money to travel. My initial subjects would say, “you have to meet my friend to photograph… but they live in California.” Sometimes they would be closer, like Maryland, so I would borrow cars and drive up and down the East coast.

Then my images from the series got published in The Advocate. I was mentally done with the project by that point, but the article made me feel like I really had to continue this. About a year into the project, I had finished photographing about 25 people.

After some time, I was contacted by the LGB center in NY about my Walking the Block series that they wanted to exhibit during gay pride. They wanted 30 portraits for the exhibit but at that point I had about 16 or 17. It was getting closer to the exhibit and I had all these people who I had contact information of but they were all over the country.

I finally decided to buckle down and go on a road trip to meet these people I’d been in contact with for over a year at that point. Kickstarter had just come out, and I said screw it, I’ll try Kickstarter and got an amazing response.

People in the military were super supportive. This one woman was active military and tweeting it like crazy. The project was funded, and I left for a 30 day road trip. I drove 10,000 miles and photographed 46 veterans. I came back with 65 images and they gave me more space.

The timing was great. The exhibit went up on Veteran’s Day. I edited and printed the images and, a month and a half later, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed. It ended up getting picked up by Redux and published all over the world. I also self-published a book because when I was on the road in Alabama, people couldn’t see the exhibit beyond the internet. I knew the basics of InDesign and someone hooked me up with a publisher in Hoboken. I literally designed this thing and the day before the exhibit I picked up 100 books. I sold there but also gave some to the veterans. What was so cool is, they had a panel with all these bigwig Don’t Ask Don’t Tell people. They said Obama needs to see this and so I went up to a woman on the panel and introduced myself. I said I wanted to send a book to Obama. I wanted to make sure he actually got it. So she asked to send two copies to her and she sent me a check and made sure it got into his hands. A few months passed and I emailed her. She said she sorry that  she hadn’t told yet but she personally handed it to Obama and he was very moved by it. And then a month later I got a thank you note from him.

I am sure that’s hung up somewhere!
It’s tacked up on the wall! But yeah, it was a positive experience.

What I do is for social change.

I didn’t realize you self published. I love how you have a trailer space, you self-publish, you use Kickstarter. You are using DIY methods to make it happen.
My whole thing is to make it accessible. What I do is for social change. It is to show people things they see every day, whether they choose not to see it or haven’t been exposed to it. The way to do that is not conventional work. It would have been harder to get this type of thing published. Yes, I could have done it that way, but not in the time frame it had to be done. You’re not going to make any money this way, but that’s not why I do this job! I do this for accessibility and social change.

The reason why I got this trailer was I moved back to Austin after the Proud to Serve project and was a little burnt out. I was also trying to figure out what I was going to do next. So, I contact Aids Services in Austin because I had done volunteer work before and I like the organization. I emailed them and asked if they would be interested in a multimedia project about people in Austin who are HIV positive. They said yes and that it was what they have wanted to do but didn’t know how to do it.

It happened that fast. I spent a year working on that project. We wanted to exhibit it but I thought it would be hard to find a space. Also, they wanted it to open on December 1 for World Aids Day. I thought, “well, why don’t I try to put on a show in an abandoned store front. They used to pop up all over Manhattan.” I spend 2 months contacting spaces that were for rent that didn’t seem to be moving fast. Meanwhile, people were offering spaces for me to use but they were so out of the way. I really wanted it to be central. I needed to be where people could stumble upon it.

Then, I was walking on Town Lake, and I saw the Falcon container. I figured, why not put the show in a container. I contacted them and talked to them about my plans. I asked about donations for sponsorship and they were up for it. I just needed a place to put it.  Then, this other woman had a space over near where progress coffee is. Another subject knew her and put us in contact. I was hesitant because I found this container and I really liked that idea. During the meeting she was saying I could put the work here but I couldn’t play video during certain times. But that was the whole point of the project, for people to hear the voice. I mentioned the container and said I just need a place to put it and she took me out to where an unsuccessful food trailer lot was out front. It had electrical boxes already and she explained she owned this lot and offered me to put Falcon 5 there. I was like, “No Way!” It was exactly what I wanted. She said I could stay there as long as I wanted.

A lot of people came. People would stumble across with no idea what it was and it really opened their eyes. A lot of responses were that they never thought about it but they realized they probably knew someone with HIV.

Do you think the audience views the work differently depending on the space?
The container brings different groups of people. A traditional gallery can be a bit of a highbrow scene. I had a lot of older people come in to the container and viewed the work as more rugged.  One lady said, “you go to a lot of seedy places.” I’ve never had anyone tell me that before. Definitely not when it was at the gallery. Maybe the container takes the posh off it.

How do you like working in multimedia and how does it differ from your still work?
Doing just still imagery, it is quieter, in every sense of the word. You get to view it at your own pace. I like the pure imagery of it. I don’t think adding sound should be a necessary thing. I think the work should stand well on its own. Sound can accent it. I think it is a way to enhance, bring things to life…. my main thing is bring in their voices.

Now I do video because, ASA wanted it. So I figured it out. For the last year, I worked for the Sustainable Food Center. I started adding B roll, interviews with the farmers, but also visit them on the farm to just document what they do. That’s a whole new arena. It enhances and adds a new level both as project and work wise. I don’t want to be a film maker but this really is a short documentary. But still, what I learned is I will need an assistant and postproduction. You’re adding more and giving more but as an artist it adds a lot. I do prefer still work for my personal projects. I still shoot film… someone said, “woah, you still shoot film” and response was, “I shoot film for my heart and digital for money.”

What film camera do you shoot with?
The Nikon F11. It’s the first professional camera I’ve ever had. I bought it in 1999 when I worked at the camera store. I was leaving that job soon and I just had to buy it. The night I bought it, I just put it with my pillow and I said to my, then partner, “where are you sleeping tonight?” It was my baby, it is still my baby. I still have the same 28mm lens I used when I rode my bike every day when I first moved here.

Anything you really wanted to speak about that I didn’t cover?
What I would want people to know is I have a vision with this gallery space. That’s why the next show is going to be a group show. I am meeting with another photographer to make this more of a community space. After I graduated, we would have meetings because we missed the critiques from school. It’s such a loner career. You spend a lot of time by yourself and its hard to get your work out there, especially in the physical sense. That’s the other thing, everyone keeps their work on there computer. We want to print them out and, maybe monthly, tack them up on the wall and get some feedback and bring on some conversations. Bring a bottle of wine and then trade prints. If someone has an idea for a show to curate, come and talk to me. The only thing is, if it’s your show, you’re in charge of it. It’s your space. If you sell something, it’s yours. I’m not going to take a percentage.

So how should people who are interested contact you?
We have a website for Falcon 5 that will launch by September which is when our first group show will go up. After that it is just going to be open. The meetings should happen before then though!

 

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O. Rufus Lovett, Part 1: Early Days, Texas Monthly and Beauty in Long Term Projects

This is part 1 of a 2-part interview by guest contributor Matt Valentine. 

When I reach O. Rufus Lovett by phone, I warn that I’ve just had oral surgery and might have difficulty speaking clearly. “I might talk a little funny,” I say, “because I’ve got this mouth full of stitches.”

“Well I talk funny because I’ve lived in East Texas a long time,” he says.

His voice is just one component of Lovett’s disarming southern charm—he speaks slowly but with a quick wit, like the narrator in a Mark Twain story. No doubt that charisma has ingratiated him to the many communities he’s documented throughout Texas and the southern United States, on magazine and newspaper assignments, and for personal projects that have so far produced three books.

Lovett’s photography has been widely published and exhibited, and is in the permanent collections at the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Birmingham Museum of Art. His documentary work for Texas Monthly has been recognized by the Alfred Eisenstaedt Awards, administered by Columbia University. For more than three decades, Lovett has taught photography at Kilgore College, a two-year school in East Texas. In 2005, the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation of San Antonio honored his work as a photo educator, naming him a Piper Professor.

What’s the “O” for in O. Rufus Lovett?

My first name is an initial. It’s just O, period. My mother was named Opal. My Dad was also named Opal. They named my older sister Opal when she was born. And then they gave me just the O initial instead of the name Opal.

When did you first start taking photos? Or were you too young to remember?

My high school was actually on a university campus, so we had student teachers and so forth. My dad just worked up the hill, in his office at the university. My mom taught there in the English Department. And so everybody kind of knew everybody—you know, small town, Jacksonville, Alabama. I was approached by the English teacher — who was the sponsor of the newspaper — and another lady who sponsored the yearbook. I was asked if I would like to do photographs for those publications. And I thought — yeah, that’d be cool, you know. They thought they had a perfect “in,” because my dad had a ways and a means of getting the work done, since his photography studio was just up the hill at the university. And so that’s kind of where I began getting serious about photography, because I was doing production work from the get-go, and printing with my dad at the university was a major start and major influence on what I was doing.

Left: Opal Lovett. Right: O. Rufus Lovett, age 16.

You included one of your father’s photographs as a frontispiece in your first book, Weeping Mary, and your own photographs seem to share some of the same mood. Do you think your father’s photography influenced your work in other ways, in other projects?

Yeah, quite a bit. He was a portrait photographer as well, and photographed events, and I would go along with him and assist. I used to carry the old blue flashbulbs along, back when he was shooting a Crown Graphic, and I would collect the spent flashbulbs. Or I would stand on a chair or table somewhere with an auxiliary flash to fill in light. So he taught me at the beginning how to master lighting techniques, as guidelines. I learned a great deal from him in terms of good basic fundamental things.

Also, you know, his work was very applied photographic work. It was meant to sell and send out for Associated Press news releases for the university. But occasionally, he would go out and photograph on his own, and those are the photographs I admire most of his work. But he didn’t do that as often—he was consumed with his work at the university and he loved every bit of it. So that work that he did as an applied photographer was his personal work as well. And so it meant a lot to him, and I did learn so much from those early experiences as a child. And watching him print in the darkroom. I can remember sitting on a stool, just barely able to look over the sink, watching the prints come up in the developer, which was always fascinating as a child.

 Your photographs in Weeping Mary are a very intimate portrayal of an insular community, a tiny town that is almost entirely African American. As a pretty conspicuous outsider, how did you approach that project?

I don’t really start out with a game plan when I’m documenting a group of folks or, in this case, I guess you’d call them subcultures within our culture. In the case of Weeping Mary, it was critical that I visited many times without a camera to get to know the folks before I even got a camera out.

© O Rufus Lovett

It was an interesting situation there, because people want to know “why are you taking our picture?” and often times people in a community of that nature don’t understand the beauty an outsider might see within that community. It’s difficult for anyone who lives there to comprehend that. Not due to ignorance — anyone would feel the same way, like “why would you be photographing me?” There was just a certain beauty there that I wanted to document on many levels.

To introduce myself, I just tried to get to know the folks, being from a small town certainly helped my ability to communicate, get along with the people there. I made great friends there. That was the beginning of that—just getting to know the people. Now, in that situation also, it was kind of unique, because a friend of mine over in Nacogdoches, Texas, which is not far from Weeping Mary, was the editor and publisher of a newspaper, and as a matter of fact, he’s the one who introduced me to Weeping Mary. He mentioned the name of the community, which piqued my interest, and he wanted to do a couple little picture page spreads about the community. So we did one called “Children of Weeping Mary”, and another one, “Christmas at Weeping Mary,” and published that in the newspaper, and then that of course gave me some credibility, because if we’re doing a picture story about the children, or about Christmas at Weeping Mary, you can introduce that as a project, and make a purpose for my being there.

And then I continued for years after that. Continued photographing and visiting, and enjoying that community, and then it developed into the Weeping Mary book.

The photos seem really naturalistic. But some of these were made with a little more sophisticated artificial lighting equipment, right?

It’s always the situation that dictates what you’re going to do about lighting in a photograph. Often times, I would use the existing light of course, and many times a tripod. And other times, depending on the situation, I would use an auxiliary flash, often modified by a small softbox, to soften the quality of the light, but still nice and directional, and marry that light with the ambient light in the environment.

I seem to remember a story about one person you photographed there as a child who wasn’t very happy with that photo as he got older.

There were a couple of cases like that. It might have been the swimmers photograph. Two little boys in their underpants, swimming in a little backyard pool. Later, they were kinda teased at school about that photograph. I mean, it was published in Texas Monthly. The teacher brought it in — not to embarrass them, but to show them that Weeping Mary was published. It kind of embarrassed them a little bit, so as those guys grew a little older, they expressed, uh, a disinterest in that photograph. But nothing ever came of that, other than that they didn’t appreciate it right away, because it kinda embarrassed them when they were in school. I have a feeling they’re fine with it now. They grew up to be rather large football players, and so luckily they didn’t hold it against me too badly.

Your second book, Kilgore Rangerettes, grew out of long photo essay you did for Texas Monthly—an unusually long essay, by contemporary standards. Do you think there are some stories that are really best told with many photographs?

This has a lot to do with the economics often times, you know. Magazines have to support themselves, and they have to make room for advertising, and they have only so much space. It is unusual that so many photographs were used in that particular photo essay. Scott Dadich was the creative designer at that time at Texas Monthly, and I think he did a great job of placing as many photographs as he placed in a relatively small space. I was surprised that they used that many, but using that grid format that they used on some of the pages, he was able to introduce numerous images, which was a good idea I think in this case–to define the project well. There was quite a volume of work over a period of time, a decade or so, I suppose.

© O. Rufus Lovett

But you know, space constraints have a lot to do with that long photo essay occurring in publications these days, which is why it’s so important for a photographer, when he’s out photographing a project, especially for a magazine, to make every picture kind of a stand-alone type of photograph. I teach about this in my photojournalism classes. In a photo essay, each photograph is like a paragraph, and then several paragraphs make up the essay. And so, if each photograph can stand alone as a complete thought, and then when put together with other photographs, makes sense, that allows magazines to complete a photo essay with a brief amount of space. So that’s an important issue and always will be, and yeah, I can remember the old days when Life magazine and Look magazine had these really expensive photo essays. It was beautiful to see them. We don’t see that happen much anymore these days, unfortunately. But I’m sure it’s mostly economics.

You’ve published in many magazines and newspapers, but it seems to me that Texas Monthly has really been the best home for your work. Would you characterize it that way?

Yeah I would say so. And there’s some really interesting human condition kind of work — which is my main emphasis I suppose — with People magazine, of all publications. They’ll do these little features on communities and different folks from time to time and they’re quite nice. They’re usually found in the back of the magazine behind all of the celebrity stuff. I did this really neat story with People one time — it was a 70-year-old man who went back to 1st grade to learn how to read, up in Missouri.

It was a wonderful little photo essay as it turns out. And then I’ve done stuff for Gourmet up in New York. I did this whole thing on Dominican culture and Dominican food. As a matter of fact that’s how we got this barbecue project going — a story I was doing for Gourmet with Robb Walsh (acclaimed food writer). That’s when we first met. Then later we did something for Saveur Magazine on barbecue, and we decided to carry it on and do that BBQ Crossroads book. Magazine editorial work sometimes influences you in a variety of directions—you never know how that’s gonna snowball and what it’s going to bring next. It’s kind of an interesting aspect of my career. The magazine work I’ve been able to do, I’ve been privileged to do it. Starting with Texas Monthly and going from there. People usually just call Texas Monthly to get to me. I don’t even have a website.

One of the things I love about the Kilgore Rangerettes book is that there are several photos of the Rangerettes using cameras. For me, the cameras locate the photographs in time, because the uniforms don’t change that much, and the setting doesn’t change much, and these black and white photos could really be from forty or fifty years ago—except we’re reminded that this is actually contemporary, because we see one of the Rangerettes using a  little point-and-shoot camera or a digital camera. Was that your intention? Including that little detail as sort of a time stamp?

I’ve always been a little fascinated, for some reason, with tourists taking pictures of scenes. When I travelled to Asia I enjoyed photographing the tourists that were photographing the monuments, or their friends in front of the monument. I just found something delightful about photographing photographers photographing what they’re interested in. And so that kind of carried through, because the Rangerettes constantly take pictures of one another, whenever they go to an event or even a rehearsal or whatever the occasion, they’re constantly taking photographs of themselves. I just find an interesting irony in those kind of photographs. But you’re right, that is a key that kind of illustrates a timeline for those photographs. Otherwise they’re pretty much timeless, unless you look real closely at the type of bleachers that are in the stands, or the kind of pavement that’s more contemporary than a 1940s or 50s type pavement, you may not know what decade some of those photographs were made in.

Your new book, Barbecue Crossroads, is a significant departure from the first two. The most immediately obvious technical difference is that these are color photographs, whereas your previous work is predominantly black and white. Can you talk about the decision to use color?

Originally, Rob Walsh the writer — he and I travelled from Texas to the Carolinas and back, including Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, a little bit of Georgia and the Carolinas, and a couple places in Texas as well — and we originally were gonna do the book in black and white. It was gonna be, you know, kind of an edgy black and white kind of thing. But as I started photographing this, the color played such an important role in these little joints, and with the food subjects themselves, so I made the decision to request the change on that and just do the whole thing in color, which I think fit that project well. That was a decision based on the environment and the circumstances, which I felt were best interpreted in color.

However, one other difference between that book and the other two is that I was working with someone else, a wonderful, very knowledgeable food writer, and a lot of those photographs dealt with illustrating his points of view about the places that we went to. My point of view was also teased in there as well, in some of the other maybe more pictorial type images, and some of the documentary work. A lot of auxiliary lighting was used, however not always–I used a lot of window light when it was possible. There’s a lot of variety of techniques that were used in making that photographic documentary on the Barbecue Crossroads book.

I learned this from Mary Ellen Mark years ago, that circumstances dictate everything in terms of how your gonna light it, what medium you’re gonna use. It was all done digitally, instead of film. That played an important role, and the fact that I wanted to use color, so that made some of those difficult circumstances a little more convenient to photograph in, just in terms of the equipment alone. There were a lot of technical influences that dealt with the reasons why we decided to go with color on that.

(Editor’s note: Join us tomorrow when we publish Part 2 of this interview. Lovett talks with Valentine about how teaching photography is changing, and what he sees as the future for his students.)


While completing his MFA in Creative Writing at NYU, Matt Valentine worked full time for the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts, designing and maintaining their “digital darkroom” facilities. He continues to pursue simultaneous careers in writing and photography. Matt’s short stories have won national awards, including (most recently) the 2012 Montana Prize for Fiction. His portraits of writers have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Boston Review, Outside Magazine, O (the Oprah Magazine), and on dozens of book jackets. A Lecturer for the Plan II Honors Program at the University of Texas at Austin, he teaches two undergraduate courses: “Writing Narratives” and “Photographic Narratives.”

 

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Originally from California, Matt Rainwaters moved to Austin 6 years ago to start his career in photography.  From landscapes to reportage, Matt strives to create honest work and talks with ILTP about his recent  experiences photographing in Haiti and Guatemala.

Tell us a little about your background.  How did you get started?  
I’m from the San Fernando Valley, just North of LA.  Photography for me started around age 14 when I bought a video camera– I used to make skate videos with my friends.  Now everyone has a video camera on their phone, but back then it was rare for someone to have their own camera, so I just fell into the role of photographer for my friends. When I wasn’t filming skate boarding, I was filming punk rock. It wasn’t until I was 18 that I bought my first still camera.

When I wasn’t filming skate boarding, I was filming punk rock

Then when I was 21 I left a job working in this crazy special effects shop – a pretty unique job making monsters for horror movies and art films- to go to Brooks.  I focused on black and white printing and landscapes, and I did everything I could to avoid photographing people. My degree is actually in industrial and scientific photography. When I graduated, I was showing black and white landscapes in galleries all over California, but you don’t make much money doing that, so I took a job teaching high school photography.

My buddy Adam Voorhes told me there was lots of opportunity in Austin, so I moved and it’s just kind of worked out from there

After three years, I got concerned I’d never have a professional photography career if I was still teaching, so I quit my job one day in the middle of a teachers meeting.  Then my buddy Adam Voorhes told me there was lots of opportunity in Austin, so I moved and it’s just kind of worked out from there. That was about 6 years ago. Being from California, do you think you need to go to a big city, like LA,to get started?  Did that help you being from there?
Being from LA didn’t really help me.  It’s really about your work and vision.  I moved here with a landscape portfolio and three years of teaching experience now I shoot more portraits than landscapes. 

Who are you influenced or inspired by?
I saw the Richard Avedon documentary, “Darkness and Light,” and the way he dealt with subjects was revolutionary to me.  He could talk to his subjects and direct the entire shoot without them realizing it. It’s a rare skill to be able to disarm people in front of the camera and get an honest photograph. Avedon was a real master at that.

Renee Cervantes is an influence as well. We met in school and have been close friends since.  He’s a phenomenal photographer based in NYC. Renee and I have a similar work style that involves minimal gear, and we talk shop about that kind of thing.

Lou Mora is another influence. Lou amazes me with his natural light photos. He’s been especially inspirational lately as I’m trying to move away from using artificial light and am shooting more natural looking photos.

Lastly, Nadav Kander, is very influential. Nadav can shoot anything and make it look good.

 [Keith Carter] said, “Above all else, always be honest with your work” And that stuck.

How would you describe your visual style?
I think your style is always changing. For me, I want consistently honest work.  I’m not forcing the subject or coaxing them to do something they don’t want to.  I did a phone interview with Keith Carter when I was a student, and at the end I asked if he had any advice for an aspiring photographer.  Keith said, “ Above all else, always be honest with your work” and that stuck. 

I don’t do a lot of conceptual photography because I don’t think it would be honest coming from me; I’d rather just show a person as they are. 

You obviously shoot people now…
I knew if I wanted to make it as an editorial and commercial photographer, I’d need to photograph people.  So I spent a few months before moving to Austin photographing some of my students to build my portfolio.  After moving, I got a break shooting with Austin Monthly and the first thing they had me do was shoot a fashion spread – the last thing that I am is a fashion photographer. I just made it as landscape-y as possible, where the girl was smaller in the frame.

Then I started getting a lot of the assignments that took a reportage twist – a lot of prison and disaster stories… and that stuff takes a mental toll on you.  Right now I’m trying to focus back on lifestyle images, music and punk rock – like Fun Fun Fun Fest and SXSW – to return to the inspiration where it all started.

 It’s a great job where you get to travel, meet people and see new things.  Even though you’re in Guatemala and think you’re going to die…

Most memorable photo shoot?
The most recent one:  I was working for the New Republic on a story about Guatemalan Bus Drivers, which is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world right now, ahead of industrial logging and deep-sea fishing.  And it’s not because they’re flipping buses off the sides of cliffs – even though  they’re doing that too.

They’re being extorted by MS13 and M18 – the most notorious gangs to come out of Southern California after a huge deportation in the mid-90s. Now the gangs have incredibly sophisticated crime syndicates and their income comes from extortion.  We spent a few days with a bus driver  who was being extorted by one gang and hunted down by another for almost killing one of their members.

At one point our bus broke down and we were in the neighborhood where he beat that guy up who’s trying to hunt him down.  We’re on this bus like sitting ducks, in a neighborhood that we’re not suppose to be in, and I’m photographing him with a huge medium format camera trying not to be obvious.  I really thought we were going to die there a few times.

Haiti was rough too.  I spent 9 days in a hospital without running water for the Texas Medical Association with doctors giving aid to patients post-earthquake.  No one talked about how there’s this overwhelming need for aid in Haiti, beyond the earthquake.

We were outside Port Au Prince by 4 hours, but the infrastructure is just so rough, it’s difficult for them to bring people to the hospital.  So we were helping the local people, but they don’t have basic things like soap.  I saw two horribly infected legs that had to be amputated with handsaws because they just don’t have soap to clean the wounds.

The work is hard for me to look at so I took it down from my site about a year ago. That’s bad stuff, but there’s good stuff too. Overall, it’s a great job where you get to travel, meet people and see new things.  Even though you’re in Guatemala and think you’re going to die, it’s an amazing experience and something most people don’t get to have.  It definetely grounds you.

What’s your favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
The people are really unique; there’s so many interesting stories coming out of Texas.  In California, the really great thing is the landscape – you’ve got the coast, snow in the mountains, and a beautiful desert – you have that same kind of diversity here in Texas, but with the people.

How do you spend your free time?
I grew up skating, and just started doing that again.  I’m also raising a baby and that takes up a lot of time, but she’s a little cutie so it’s worth it.

Do you have a dream assignment?
I feel pretty lucky; I get a nice mix.  I’ve done a good job of not getting pigeonholed, so I still get a range of studio assignments, environmental portraits and travel jobs.  I get a good mix of travel and adventure, doing work that I’m interested in, plus some fluffy stuff that helps pay the bills.

Your book ‘Beard’ started as a personal project.  What was it like getting it published into a book?
The “Beardfolio” project went viral really fast; then over a year later, a friend of mine, Will Bryant, told me to pitch it to an editor at Chronicle Books.  I did, and then two-weeks later, they said they liked it and wanted to print it as a book.  Publishing a book is not a super profitable endeavor, but it’s really fun.  It’s also great marketing piece and really fulfilling to be able to walk into a bookstore and say, “I did that.”

You’re bearded now, but have you always had a beard?
I didn’t always have a beard but I kind of feel like I had to be a bearded ambassador after printing the book. One of the guys in the book said, you can’t really know your face without seeing it with a beard.  I just prefer the way I look with a beard now.  And my wife likes it, so that makes her a keeper.

Best career decision so far?
The faith to invest time and money in personal projects and using those to promote your work instead of tear sheets.

It’s really about your work and vision.

So just like you asked Keith Carter, do you have any advice for a young, aspiring photographers?

You really have to enjoy what you shoot.  That’s kind of a no-brainer.  Make sure you love photography before you decide to dedicate your life to it… because that’s what you have to do to make a career out of it.  And be honest with your work… Keith said it best so it’s worth repeating.


Favorite Taco:  I love tacos! I can talk passionately about tacos, maybe more so than photography.  In Austin, best taco joint, world-class, one of my top three favorite anywhere, is Piedras Negras, but we lovingly call it “Not Dos Hermanos,” because the trailer is on the foundation of a leveled Mexican restaurant named Dos Hermanos… the sign is even still there.

Favorite BBQ:   Kreutz Market’s ribs.  I love that its dry rub… it’s truly an art to make BBQ that good without sauce.

Favorite Beverage:  Beer: Hops and Grain’s Pale Dog  Coffee: Non fat latte from Jo’s on South Congress  Water: Whole Foods’ brand sparkling mineral water in the giant green bottle

Favorite Texas Weekend getaway spot:  My backyard… cruise over we’ll smoke ribs and play Bocce

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How did you get into photography? Were you formally trained?
After graduating from college with a degree in Social Work, I moved to Bolivia to help a non profit working with women in prostitution for two years. I came back really burned out and was looking for some kind of new hobby to help take my mind off things. After looking at a Cartier-Bresson book my parents had on their coffee table, I thought I’d try it out.  I ended up building a darkroom in my second bathroom, became infatuated and quit my job 6 months later!

After looking at a Cartier-Bresson book my parents had on their coffee table, I thought I’d try it out

I never took  formal classes, but experimented, made mistakes, asked lots of questions and have tried to always be a learner.

Did you assist or have any mentors along the way? What did you learn from them?
I started working with artist Michael Nye in 2005 on a documentary about Hunger in the United States. We traveled to about 30 different communities across the country over a 4 year period. He shoots black and white film with an 8×10 camera and still prints in the darkroom, so I was learning the whole time–exposure, camera movements, processing film, printing, mounting, framing, exhibition installation, etc. But more than that, Michael and I would talk deeply about all kinds of issues and he constantly encouraged me to explore my curiosities. His support has been invaluable to me and we continue to have breakfast together as much as we can.

In 2007 I started assisting commercially a bit to make some extra money, but I never had the intentions of shooting commercially. I got to work with some incredibly talented people that were always super generous. After I finished the project with Michael in 2009, I started taking on some small assignments and that led to bigger jobs. I now focus on photographing architecture and doing long term book projects with arts organizations. I really enjoy doing what I do.

Did you have a first big break?
I would say a big break came in 2009 when my project, You Are What You Eat, won Director’s Choice in CENTER’s Project Competition. That really helped get me introduced to curators, arts organizations, magazine editors, etc. The project has now traveled to 15 communities and been published in over 20 magazines internationally. I have always found that my personal work helps drive my other assignment-based projects.

I have always found that my personal work helps drive my other assignment-based projects

Any favorite assignments?
A few years ago I got to work with nine artists doing large public art installations along the San Antonio River Walk. We only had access to the river at night, so we would be down there until one or two in the morning (this was before I had kids). Lots of long nights, but so much fun. Getting to document fabrication, installation and final shots of them all really gave me a chance to get to know the artists and their process. I’m still photographing for many of them around the country and the project was published as a book in 2011.

Are you represented by an agency?
I am not, but for a while I was working with Wonderful Machine. I really like them, but as I reevaluated certain aspects of my business, I shifted focus.

How do you go about marketing your work? Do you use social media? Print?
My approach has always been to try and create natural connections with people locally that may be in need of the type of photography I do. I also try really hard to nurture long term relationships with the clients I have. This works really well with my personality and I’m thankful that almost all of my work comes from word of mouth.

I’m not on Facebook and only use Instagram to stay connected with friends.The internet has been good to me though and I’m always grateful to have new work come through my website.

What gets you inspired? Do you have a dream assignment?
I look at a lot of work online, photo books, read the newspaper, listen to NPR, read books, share ideas with friends, play with my sons, listen to what’s going on around me–all of these help inspire.

I really like working on long term, collaborative book projects. These have always been the funnest for me.

Did you spend time in New York or LA getting your career established?
I did not, but I go to New York once a year to try and keep connections going.

What do you love about being a photographer in Texas?
I love working in Texas because it’s home. I can be with my sons and get access to the Fire Department I just photographed or run into a client at dinner in a restaurant they designed. I love passing by places I have photographed–its kind of like that feeling of being a regular somewhere. San Antonio is great! We love it for its diversity, friendliness, affordability, open spaces and tacos. There is a ton of new stuff happening here. We don’t want to be anywhere else!

We love it for its diversity, friendliness, affordability, open spaces and tacos

Whose work inspires you?

Any favorite photo books?
I have been looking at these books a lot the past few weeks:

Any advice for young photographers just getting started?
Try to maintain balance and always work on self-initiated projects.

Chicago Choppers Motorcycle members. All photos © Dennis Darling

Dennis Darling is an Austin-based photographer and professor at the University of Texas who has inspired generations of photojournalists.

You’ve done a lot of traveling and covered widely different subject matter. What drives that?
It’s curiosity. When I came to UT, I came on a tenure track, which means in six years if you haven’t proven yourself to their satisfaction, they ask you to leave after the seventh. So I saved a few hundred dollars a month. I figured that would give me enough if I didn’t get tenure, or if I did get tenure I would ask for time off and go travel. A lot of those pictures I send out [in the email retrospective], I haven’t seen at all. They were just contact sheets. They were from that trip in ‘86 or ‘87 where I got tenure and bought a one-way ticket around the world with no particular thing in mind.

For $2000 back then, you could buy a ticket, good for 365 days and, as long as you were heading in the same direction, you fly where ever. It was nice to be able to wake up in Malaysia and say, “Today I want to go to Thailand,” and just go on a whim.

There was no agenda?
None. I went to Ireland and then England and then flew to Delhi because I had been to Europe a lot at that point. I was out seven months, I think. This was before the Internet. It was hard travel. I went to make a phone call from Katmandu to the US and they said come back Thursday and this was Monday. They had one wire coming into this place and you had to make an appointment and they’d put you in a booth and could call for ‘x’ amount of minutes.

It proved to me that I could probably go anywhere and do anything I wanted to by myself – that I didn’t need any support. I went into the jungles of Borneo, I went into Burma when it was still Communist. I went up into the golden triangle in Laos and Thailand. I did all these weird-ass things, and for the most part, I didn’t take any pictures. I just did things that interested me. I didn’t photograph everything I ever saw. Most of the stuff I did [photograph], were things that I wanted to remember, not necessarily an interesting picture.

All my negatives fit into four shoe boxes.

All my negatives fit into four shoe boxes. I throw them all away, all the jobs I ever done. When I got out of college I worked for Whittle Communications which owns all these college life magazines, but they also own Esquire. I worked for Parent Magazine. I used to have pages of [negatives] of breast feeding mothers and people and playgrounds. I just went through my negatives again and threw away another basket full of them. Hopefully, in the next decade when I’m old and grayer, I’ll have just one shoe box that I can pass down say, “Here’s what I’m proud of,” and the rest of it doesn’t even matter.

Any surprises in going back through that work?
The surprises are the subject matter I’ve been able to get in to. And I don’t know why that interests me. Probably Catholic school full of people in strange uniforms, violence, and intolerance. It just gave me a taste for exploring those themes. Take a woman, dress her in wool and tell her she can’t have sex for the rest of her life – that will make somebody mean. They got a chip on their woolen shoulder. The thing I value the most is having a sense of history – the Holocaust, the Mexican-American men that fought in the Mexican revolution, a series I did for Texas Monthly, or the WWII veterans, or any number of the other things I’ve done. I’ve had this desire to photograph things that will survive and be important somewhere down the line to somebody else.

Did you have that sense of history in the making when you were photographing the KKK or motorcycle gangs in the ’60s and ’70s?
I don’t know. I’m drawn to the darker side – the people who create the darkness or the people that suffer from it. I didn’t realize this until recently – I had photographed the American Nazi Party and now I’m doing Holocaust survivors. I guess if you live long enough you end up back where you started.

I’ve seen one of your Nazi Party portraits from your email list and your portraits from Terezín. It strikes me that they are both nonjudgmental depictions. The way you approach the darkness is still respectful.
Yeah. I’m not there to judge. I have opinions but I’m not interested in what makes people tick, just to show that they’re ticking. One Jewish friend of mine…I showed her the Nazi portraits and she says, “You showed those SOB’s for what they really are.” I show the same picture to the Nazi’s and they say,” Great! You really show us the way we are,” and they give the prints to their families.

I’m drawn to the darker side – the people who create the darkness or the people that suffer from it.

So the photograph is a neutral document.
That’s important. It’s easy to photograph somebody in an awkward position. Newspapers do this all the time. They’ll find the most unflattering pose for somebody that they’re in opposition to – some politician with his mouth open or an awkward look. It’s easy to do that in subtle and not so subtle ways. Someone picking their nose or itching their butt. It’s harder to convey that kind of sinister existence or survivors that have overcome obstacles that live to be 90. It’s harder to convey, in a subtle way, that people can then draw their own conclusions. I hope [the viewers] are interested enough to follow through and go beyond the pictures and learn something about what the pictures are of. Maybe not to learn more, but to whet their curiosity. Whether they learn anything or not, I don’t know. I have plenty of pictures that are not flattering to the Klan but I choose not to use them. I think you can be opinionated in a civil, and not mean-spirited way, but that’s not en vogue at the moment.

I’m basically a crappy technician and a lot of my negatives aren’t good negatives, but I occasionally hit on something. I credit that to my sense of design and proportion rather than my photographic skills. I should be going to digital. I’m the perfect candidate to take digital pictures because I’m crappy at doing that other stuff. But I do and it takes a lot of work to make it work.

That’s why I’m sending out all these things I haven’t seen before, because I didn’t have the energy to screw around in the darkroom with a 35mm frame that’s 40 years old. But now you have Photoshop, spot the dust electronically, burn, dodge, and make prints. The technology has caught up with my inept-ability. It’s starting to gel now. And that was the impetus for this email thing. I knew I could send 100 or 200 photographs that I’ve never seen larger than an inch tall. The technology made it possible.

I’d been thinking about this for a long time. Last year I tried to make a picture a week and it lasted about four weeks. I just couldn’t do it and schedule it around school to get in the studio, the PTA or my wife’s travel. Then I thought I can send one out a week that even I haven’t seen.

I look at these contact sheets and I think, I don’t remember that at all. There’s one coming up that’s a grab shot, it’s called Garbage Can Cowboy, Venice. It’s this guy walking with a little pistol.

Garbage bag cowboy, Venice,Italy, winter 1992

He’s got a mask on and this ugly looking hat and he has a garbage bag over him with a star on it. I looked at that picture and said, “This is really weird.” Its’ not a great picture, just a weird picture. It needed a lot of work, it was on a gray cloudy day at dusk, and I’m sure I just said there’s no way I’m going to get grade 4.5 paper and screw around with burning and dodging on that thing, it’s never going to come out. Now it took 15 minutes and I have a decent print of it. But there’s lots of them like that, with vague recollections or no recollection at all.

Do you need an intern?
I have my share of student help. I have various TA’s, four or five a year that work for me, and they have an aversion to work. Ha ha. They want the money but they don’t want to do anything. It takes more time to manage them than just do it myself. And what would they do?

Make scans of the negatives? Are you afraid of how they would handle them?
I handle the negatives terribly. I’m, like, eating a ham sandwich while I’m doing it. I shouldn’t say this, but I don’t even measure my chemistry. I think about film the same way I think about cooking. If it says a cup, it’s sort of a cup, could be a little more or less, and a pinch of sugar. Not that I’m a great cook, but I’m a decent cook and I bake well. It’s a unique experience each time, and sometimes it works and sometimes the souffle comes out flat. I’ve got a lot of flat souffles on gelatin.

How did your project on Terezín begin?
I was sent to Brazil on study abroad and I hated it because it was so rough and tumble. It was impossible to take a group out with cameras and expensive equipment. I was in Salvador, the third largest city and the old slave capitol. It was 100% black and I’m 100% white, there’s no body whiter than me but Queen Elizabeth. It was difficult [to shoot] because of the poverty. We had five years worth of salary for a local around our necks. We didn’t lose anything but some pick-pocketed money. When asked to go back again, I said, “No. What else you got?” And they said Prague.

Doris Grozdanovicova, photographed in front of the former military hospital where her mother died - Terezin Ghetto, Terezin, Czech Republic, June 2012

I didn’t even know about Terezín, but I hopped a ride with another study abroad group because they had an extra seat. I went to Dachau 25 years earlier and got interested in the Holocaust then. I started taking my students out to Terezín and then started looking for survivors to talk to my students when we went out there.

The thing about Terezín that’s interesting is, unlike most of the camps that were wooden barracks, the Germans took over a 17 century fortress town and kicked all the residents out, turned it inside out, and made the town the prison. It was a beautiful architecture done in the 1700’s baroque and 1800’s empire style, all in really good shape. It had churches and stores – all that stuff became barracks. A town of six or seven thousand turned into a town of 70 thousand when it was a prison. They were putting people up in the attics.

There was an inordinate amount of people with creative talent that were held there. Because of where they were drawing from – Bohemia – there were a lot of composers, artists, sculptors, musicians, and dancers all in that one place. And because it was not a death camp, but more of a concentration or holding tank, the Germans allowed them to perform for each other and perform for them.

They had these things called “friendly evenings” where the kids would perform little children’s operas, or, one of the people I photographed, the 108-year-old woman in London, she was a concert pianist. She played 100 performances while she was in Terezín for over four years. Because of that, Terezín has this reputation of being almost a country club. By comparison to Auschwitz it probably was. They were doing these performances, but also getting shot and hung in the lower fortress below the town, brutalized and then sent off to other camps. It has a lot more survivors than Auschwitz. People survived Terezín in one way or another.

I went over there in the spring to attend this conference of survivors, and I didn’t get many takers because I don’t speak Czech. But I did meet a woman who was a filmmaker and producer. She had done some documentary work about WWII. She knew all the people, so I hired her to make connections for me and act as translator. I was able to photograph a lot of people, almost two dozen, in a short period of time when I was there this summer. They trusted her. Now they are asking for pictures for their newsletter, but it took a year to get to that point. I plan on going back a couple of more times. There’s reputed to be 400-600 people left, although at this point most of the people left were children at the time.

What’s it like working with the survivors of the Holocaust?
It’s a little stressful. You’re dealing with these people that, for the most part, most of their families perished. It was arbitrary – you go, you stay. If you could do something for the war effort or entertain the Nazis, you could stay, or you were a good cook, or whatever. It was capricious. So a lot of times people would go there as a family and then the family would be whittled away with each transport so they would be the only person surviving from the entire family. They would be shipped off, usually to Auschwitz because it was the closest camp to the east.

That’s stressful to say, “Would you mind coming back to this hospital where your mother died when you were 12 or 13?”

Is there a lot of survivor guilt?
Not so much survivor guilt, but I feel sort of guilty because I’ve been trying to photograph these people in locations that are significant to their history. Some of them are feeble or have medical conditions and can’t leave their apartments. If I can, I try to talk them into going some place that has some kind of meaning, good or bad. That’s stressful to say, “Would you mind coming back to this hospital where your mother died when you were 12 or 13?” They generally come.

The woman that I brought out to the hospital was the first person I met 6 years ago that got me interested in the project. I was on quite good, friendly terms with her, but she wouldn’t go into the hospital. She would stand out in front of it, but would not go in. It’s that kind of thing.

It’s not like the photos I take here – portraits just for fun of somebody dressed up in trash or recycled goods. Everyday there I’d wake up with a black cloud over my bed – oh, another survivor, but there was a bigger cloud if I wasn’t able to photograph them. It’s a contest against the clock. I’ve already had one of them die. I had written her about photographing her a couple of times. I didn’t hear back. I wrote back in the summer and she didn’t reply again. My fixer then said, “You know, she died last week.”

Everyday there I’d wake up with a black cloud over my bed – oh, another survivor, but there was a bigger cloud if I wasn’t able to photograph them.

A lot of the sites are also being destroyed. I photographed a lot of stuff in the train yard because its scheduled to be an office building soon. I missed photographing the foundation of the old barracks because they got bulldozed. Prague’s expanding so they’re going to these sites that used to be on the outskirts of the downtown area that are now in the downtown area. They’re vanishing. Terezín is falling down.

Some of the buildings I was let in hadn’t been opened in 40 years. Me and my fixer would go out there and the city manager would come and open up this huge barracks that was two blocks of ruined buildings and would let us in, lock the door, and say,”Call me when you want to get out.” We’d be locked in there. It’s fascinating. I look forward to working more on it.

What’s next with the project?
I’m doing this thing in the fall, just as an add on component to a musical performance at bass concert hall for three days, ‘The Music of Terezín’, some of the music that was written and performed at Terezín.’

Do you only shoot medium format? Some of the Terezín stuff looked like a panoramic format…
I guess I do. I don’t have a 35mm. The pano I’ve had since I was a student is called a Brooks Veriwide. It’s the old Graflex back with a Super Angulon lens, so it’s in essence a 4×5 camera – you have to cock the shutter, shoot, advance the film. You have to consciously move from one frame to another or you get double exposures. It’s as close to shooting with a 4×5, except the film holders, as you can get on a 2.25 camera. There are only 8 pictures on a roll, 4×9 or something. The Super Angulon lens is made for at least a 4×5 camera or a 5×7, so you’re only getting the center of the lens – you don’t get that wrap distortion. It’s 101 degrees which is about what two eyes see next to one together. I like it a lot.

The drawbacks are the largest aperture is 5.6, so you’re always need light. The depth of field is critical, and that’s why I take 12 frames instead of two. You’re not actually focusing because it’s a rangefinder. You just set the distance. Sometimes you just get their ear in focus. That’s a challenge just to make a picture. Of the 12 pictures I have, 4 photos are bracketed not for exposure but for depth of field – it goes 2 feet, 6.6 feet, 16 feet and infinity. Outside it’s easy with bright light, but inside – there’s one in the warehouse – I was shooting at 8th of a second and holding real still.

You’ve been a professor at UT for 30 years. What have you learned from watching generations of students go into the profession?
I came in Pampers and I’m leaving in Depends. Got the whole bowel cycle. Haha. You would think it would be interesting, but no. The students are less curious about things now. It’s that trophy generation that wants everything handed to them. “Can you tell me who to contact?” Instead of going out and making contacts themselves. I think the digital age adds to that. Maybe laziness is too harsh a word, but complacency where, “Oh yeah, I’ll just take 25 shots and get one instead of take one and getting one.” I’m not enamored by digital photography. I still shoot film.

I think digital tends to trivialize some aspects of photography and gives the students a mystical sense that they don’t have to think to much about what they’re doing. In some cases that’s very good. I don’t own a digital camera but I have one on loan from Olympus that I do street photography with.

I think digital tends to trivialize some aspects of photography and gives the students a mystical sense that they don’t have to think to much about what they’re doing.

I don’t have to think. I know it’s going to focus and it’s going to make the right exposure. I’ve never shot it on anything but Program mode. It’s good exercise. Like photographic batting practice. Bunting or something. Not hitting home runs but bunting. Making pictures.

[Digital] is counter to everything I learned in school. And I think that what I teach is not the hardware and software of photography, but the seeing. You can walk two blocks from my classroom and see the Gutenberg Bible. The same graphic principles in that book apply to a web screen, or a magazine page, or a photograph – the rule of thirds, this, that, and the other. Those doesn’t change, just the technology changes. The technology makes people think they actually know more or better than they actually do.

How do you get students to get beyond technology to the basis of seeing?
I don’t know if they can do that. I just think the good ones will. You really can’t teach photography, and what you really can’t teach that photographers need, is curiosity. You cannot teach curiosity. If you’re not curious about life then you’re just spinning your wheels.

You really can’t teach photography, and what you really can’t teach that photographers need, is curiosity.

What is it about the trophy generation that contributed to this lack of curiosity? Is it the ability to Google anything we want?

Probably so, and people like me that spoil their children. They say, “Oh, you need milk? Here let me do that for you.” Instead of, “Go get the milk yourself and learn how to open the cap.” The photographers now – some of them are very, very good. And the ones that are tend to be multi-talented with interest in photography, design, fashion, art. But the people that just want to make pictures and work for National Geographic, they’re not interesting people.

Students aren’t very interesting. I used to hang out with students, maybe because I was more their own age at one time. I still hang out with them, but the pool I hang out with – either I’ve become more discriminating or they are less interesting, or both – but they tend to not be very demanding about what you teach them and what they want to learn. They want things presented in an easy to absorb or consume fashion, which is unfortunate.

Photojournalism, or art in general, is the journey rather than the destination. Sometimes there’s never any destination, sometimes ‘no destination’ is conceived by the photographer. It’s getting moving in some direction, but not to a place where you can sit. This generation is destination-heavy and journey-light.

[The] trophy generation wants everything handed to them. “Can you tell me who to contact?” Instead of going out and making contacts themselves.

You’ve said in other interviews that you’re an ‘occasional photographer’ and there’s no reason to photograph all the time. What’s up with that?
I take single pictures. I do series too, but each one can, hopefully, stand by themselves. I’ve done day-in-the-life, I’ve worked for newspapers and magazines and all that stuff. If I get one good picture that’s all I want each time I go out and raise the camera up. I’m not documenting everything around me. I look at these photo books and I think, how did that person ever get someone to publish that series of pictures? There’s only one or two good ones in there!

For the Holocaust series, I try not to waste people’s time and do three hour shoots. Most people have a very low tolerance and diminishing returns happens about 3 or 4 minutes after you make the first picture. Nobody’s taken their picture three or four times in a row and they think, you got it. Digital contributes to that, you can take 15-20 pictures in 10 seconds, but should you?

I took 20 frames tops for each person in the Holocaust series over a 15 or 20 minute period of time. My friend Michael O’Brien did that book ‘Hard Ground.’ He took two pictures, just two exposures for each person. People have to think more and shoot less, but the way the equipment and camera manufacturers and all that business goes, they tend to shoot far more and think very little, except how to put some kind of filter on it at the end. I’m really just an old fart. People who throw parts of their picture out of focus or throw on an effect – it’s trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. So I don’t carry anything but a camera and a light meter, and only occasionally.

Do you ever assign your students to shoot film?
UT just got rid of our darkroom. It just closed down. The rooms are still there, but there’s nothing in them. This is a nice time to be a traditionalist though because you can do some very un-traditional things, if that makes sense. I can use a material that basically hasn’t changed since the 1890’s – the film – in a camera that was built in the mid-20th century, and use 21st century technology for finishing, scanning, and making the print. You cover 150 years of photography to make that one picture. It’s an opportunity that other people haven’t had. There were no bridges from daguerreotype to tintype but now there are bridges that you can go back and forth between technologies and centuries. Someone like Robb Kendrick does tintypes. He has the originals, scans them, and then digital prints made on Iris printers. The opportunities to use old processes are great, you just have to have a vision, not Nikon’s vision or Canon’s vision of how things should look.

I can use a material that basically hasn’t changed since the 1890’s – the film – in a camera that was built in the mid-20th century, and use 21st century technology for finishing, scanning, and making the print. You cover 150 years of photography to make that one picture.

Your background is in art. What does the art approach add to a straight photojournalism program?
It probably doesn’t add anything. It probably prevents students from getting a decent job. Haha. But again going back to those basic principles. The Parthenon looks like it does because of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man (man with hands outstretched). The 35 mm frame, the piece of paper you write on, the windows you look out of, they’re all based on a ratio found in all art, something that we’re hard wired for. If you can get those basic principles across and have them applicable to the technology of the present time, then that’s the art influence.

Some people intuitively have an art background without even knowing it, and some people you can send to the Art Institute of Chicago for 10 years and they’ll come away with not much more than they went in with.

What’s difference between those people?
Curiosity probably. People do not look at things anymore. I have a 12-foot bulletin board in my office full of stuff that I put there so I could look up on occasion and be inspired. It always shows up in my photographs some where along the line. It might take a year, two years, or five years, or it might be the next photograph I take, but those things I stick up there for inspiration have an influence. But people hardly ever look, unless it’s a website or something on Facebook. They’re more interested in Facebook than Jansen’s History of Art. Even when they have something that highly suggests they might look at something beyond Facebook – subject matter they might be photographing, to see what’s been done beforehand – they don’t do it. They don’t take the opportunity. The technology is there but most of them don’t use it. They have no links to the past, it’s all future.

Are they reinventing the wheel?
It’s not even a wheel. It’s like a square wheel, or a reinvention of the sled.

Not to get completely off-topic, but does that have ramifications politically and historically, that we’ve lost the ability to learn from our past?
Well, I don’t know that we’ve lost the ability, we’ve lost the interest. These students that I have, they have a fragile grasp of anything over a few years before they were born, which was at this point, 1990.

Who are you inspired by?
Lots of people. How I learned lighting was to study Irving Penn. He’s a master of lighting and incredibly old school. For all his money, he had a studio on the roof in a New York building with window light. He had a camera, oftentimes an old Rollei, and a window. Sometimes he had some rolled-up carpet to put over a table to make it softer.

Richard Avedon I like because he’s adventurous, but he’s got a mean streak. I’ve met him a few times and went out to dinner with him years ago. I didn’t like him as a person, but I liked him as a photographer.

Is there a photograph you wanted to make that didn’t work out? An assignment that went horribly wrong or remarkably right?
Most of them go horribly wrong. It’s like Christmas, going out on assignment. It’s never what you think it’s going to be. It’s usually far better, or it’s a tie, or a pair of socks, or a sweater from your mother. My mother gives me a sweater every year. I’m from upstate New York. I haven’t lived there since 1967 but she gives me a sweater every year. I give it to Goodwill. You go down there in January, you’ll find a brand new sweater sitting on the shelf from the D. Darling collection.

Some assignments have gone terribly wrong, but then when you throw the negatives away you don’t ever remember. It’s a form of photographic amnesia. In ‘Desperate Pleasures’, a retrospective up to that time in the early ’80s, I wrote to not look at the book as if I had started as a child prodigy in photography. I destroyed all the Cro-Magnon Darling’s from the early years. Nobody sees, nobody knows.

Is that important for the photographer’s psyche, you think? To destroy the failures?
It is for mine. People, like Michael O’Brien, he’s got every single negative he’s ever taken. His garage is full of racks. He looks at mine and I’ve got three boxes on the shelf. He says, “What’s that?” I said, “My negatives.” “Yeah, but where’s the rest of them?” “That’s them. That’s it. That’s all.”

I don’t see any reason to have anything you’re not proud of lurking around in the wings. It never gets any better. Sometimes I’ll look through and find something like the Garbage Can Cowboy, but it’s there because at some point I made the value judgment that there might be something in the future. For the most part I’m a fairly good editor. And it’s from art experience and life drawing classes and all this stuff where you know that was a step you have to take. I have a sculptor friend that does bronzes. They’re worth thousands of dollars, and people ask him, “How long did it take you to do that?” And he says, “60 years.”

Everything you do, you have to take one step before you take the next. Without that step you couldn’t take the next, or, if you took the next, you’d stumble. But you don’t have to save your baby shoes or the sneakers you wore in third grade. They’ve done their job and out they go. The mistakes I made ten years ago, I’ve internalized it, and processed it, and hopefully I won’t make it again, but I don’t have to keep that mistake around to haunt me. And so it goes.

Everything you do, you have to take one step before you take the next. Without that step you couldn’t take the next, or, if you took the next, you’d stumble. But you don’t have to save your baby shoes or the sneakers you wore in third grade.

You’ve said you’re an ‘Under the Radar’ photographer. What does that mean?
I don’t have a website. I’ve never tweeted. I’ve never even texted. I have a job. All young photographers want to be famous, but I came to the conclusion a long time ago that it was too much work. You always have to be out there selling yourself. It’s just something I don’t want to spend my time doing. I’d rather be drinking a beer on the patio watching fireflies than emailing people to show them my portfolio. I’m lazy when it comes to publicity and if it happens, it happens. I’m not adverse to talking about stuff, I just don’t want to have to go and pursue it.

Not to draw a direct comparison, but I love those historic caches of photos like those of Vivian Meyer. Those archives that surface where someone spent their life diligently documenting – it’s a historical legacy because it’s an effort, sustained over a period of decades, and leaves evidence of a unique personal experience.
I have some of those same outfits she wore. With the purse and everything. I’m a little bit of a nanny, too. Ha Ha. I feel that way, too. It’s a past-time that I have, photography. I don’t watch sports. With a name like Darling, I got a dispensation at birth about being interested in athletic events. I tend not to watch TV, except the news. I don’t go to movies. I mean, I’m really dull, but I hang out with exciting people, and that’s the reason I’m able to hang out with them. They don’t see any threat. I come in with a single camera and a roll of film. No lights, no generators. I spend my time doing art and thinking about pictures and sometimes taking actual pictures. Other people go to sports bars, I go to Klan rallies.

Any advice you give to young photographers?
It depends on what they want to do. If they want to take pictures like mine, I would say get a job that’s not related to photography at all. In the past I’d say get a teaching job, but those don’t exist anymore. Old farts like me just landed someplace and then stayed. Everyone I know that teaches at other schools are my age and they’ve been there forever.

But if they want to do it just as a hobby or past time or whatever, I would say be curious and adventurous and go out and find things. I don’t see any reason for making pictures that somebody else can make five minutes later. The things that I photograph are the right time and the right place and they won’t happen again just the way they happened. The Klan in the ’70s turned into people in camouflage living in Idaho in the Aryan Nation. It’s not that I look for those things, but I’m somehow drawn to those situations.

I don’t see any reason for making pictures that somebody else can make five minutes later.

What’s an example of something someone could take five minutes later? Shadows and landscapes?
Oh, music. Every student wants to photograph bands. How boring. They want to photograph them performing. All musicians look alike, all stages look alike, they do the same thing over and over again, they play the same songs, they use the same instruments. That’s a case where they’ll go and make xeroxes of what they’ve already seen. There’s plenty of stuff out there. Look for the last of the line, the last munchkin from the Wizard of Oz, the last WWI vets. Things like that.

There’s things happening now that won’t happen again. I think there’s value in that. That particularly interests me because it goes beyond just making a document, it captures a piece of living history, the last thread. You’ve got to combine photography with your interests, even if it’s sports. If you’re sitting watching a Dallas Cowboys game, there’s things happening, the world is passing you by while you’re wasting your time.

Your portraits are very connected and some of them were the results of short-term rapport built in foreign countries. How do you approach people?
The problem with foreign countries, and the advantage, it’s a double-edged sword. I speak no other languages. I can order a beer and identify two body parts in Spanish. Other than that I’m verbally bankrupt after I leave the border. So you’re relegated to making animal noises or drawing pictures on the back of envelopes.

The pictures in foreign countries look differently than the ones I make here. The girls in Mexico, I didn’t talk to them at all, that was seeing something, approaching them, being non-threatening, making a picture and then you can say ‘Thank you.’

Mountain Mist, Main Plaza, Cuetzalan, Puebla, Mexico 1996

You just have to approach people in a non-threatening fashion. Lots of time I hold my hand out like I do for dogs, let them sniff me and then I pee on their leg. Ha ha. They might say ‘Fuck-off’, but I don’t know it because I don’t know ‘fuck-off’ in Spanish. So I wave and leave. That’s the advantage, you have no idea what they’re saying about you after you leave.

I think you have to be honest with them and tell them what you want, what you need, what you’re going to do with the stuff. I always send somebody back a picture. That helps when they get something back. I would suggest that.

[People] might say ‘Fuck-off’, but I don’t know it because I don’t know ‘fuck-off’ in Spanish. So I wave and leave. That’s the advantage, you have no idea what they’re saying about you after you leave.

What’s next?
I don’t know. Plastics. I think there’s a big future in that. Ha ha. I’d like to finish off this Terezín thing. I have no projects in the wings, but that’s generally how I operate. They just come up, you know? It could be almost anything.

Right now I’m doing this crap, well it’s not crap, it’s lighthearted stuff. Stuff I know I can do with hands tied behind my back. Pictures of women with wings or tattooed people or whatever. I’ve done it before. Because I’m married and I have two kids, 10 and 12, and they have school and I have commitments to PTA, or this or that, and it limits my travel. It prevents me from doing something more meaty. What I do here I like, but it’s photographic batting practice – hit a few balls to the outfield and some of them go over the fence. It’s necessary to occasionally shoot because you get rusty.

I would like to do a series of different portraits once a week again. I’d love to go out to the Mormon thing in West Texas, the FLDS, to photograph those women that dress the same way with those hairdos all the same way. I would love to do that. I would give a collection of prints to anyone that could get me into their compound to make those pictures.

One of my students photographed some women boxers, there’s a gym on the south side someplace, and he never did that, he changed projects, but I told him I would steal it as soon as he graduated. He graduated in May. I’m interested in women. Men don’t particularly interest me at all. Maybe I’ll do a series with pictures I have and pictures I have yet to take. I’m always busy, but most of the time it’s just being busy with no particular end-game.