Photojournalism

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alyssa Banta ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you from?
I was born in Port Arthur, but we moved to Beaumont when my mom remarried. That’s where I’m from but I freelance in Dallas now. I moved out of Beaumont in 2004 to go to the University of North Texas.

What’s your degree in?
Photojournalism and International Development

Tell me about working at The Orange (Texas) Leader.
It was a little 8,000-circulation paper back in 2002 and I did that for two years.

How did you get your start there?
My mom had saved up a small college fund for me.  After I finished my chemotherapy at 18 I ended up messing around in college my first semester at Stephen F. Austin (a college in Nacodoches, Texas) and came home with a 1.0 and went to Lamar for two years (a college in Beaumont, Texas),  but I still wasn’t really figuring anything out. So I took what little bit of college money I had left, worked two jobs, and saved up enough to spend three months backpacking Europe.

How did your experience in Europe change you? 
The thing about Europe was that it was really the first time I was truly on my own.  I’d been sick since birth and the cancer only magnified my somewhat sheltered experience growing up.  When I left to backpack I was suddenly forced to rely solely upon myself.  Build relationships with strangers, monitor my cash, develop a budget and suffer the repercussions of not sticking to it.  I’d found myself in churches a lot of the time too and developed a stronger spiritual life.

How did you hook up your first staff photographer position at the Orange (Texas) Leader?
I was shooting this Bridge City [football] game and the editor of the Orange Leader saw me out there and asked, “hey, do you want a job? There’s a Lion’s Club carnival tomorrow. Do you want to go shoot that and that’ll be your trial run?” I woke up the next morning and went and shot the Lion’s Club carnival and got a bulldog page on Sunday morning. I worked for them for two years for something like $6.25 an hour.

When I returned from Europe I had had this sense of adventure under my belt and a stronger belief in myself.   When I got the job for the Orange Leader, shooting daily assignments, a lot of that experience I’d learned in Europe about socializing with a variety of people and stepping out of a comfort zone was utilized in a constructive way.  I used to think that that first job for the small daily was not only a continuation exploring daily life but it was also a boot camp of sorts photographically.  I’d talk with classmates at Lamar about the nature of the business and say how much I enjoyed the variety of experience.  How I could be at a kindergarten classroom at nine, a homicide having lunch with the sheriffs department at noon and a basketball game by 730.  It was all really exciting for me at that time in my life.

You mentioned chemotherapy earlier. Can you talk about that?
I had lymphoma from age 15 to age 18.

Did the experience influence your work in any way?
Not immediately, no I think it took a while. About the same time I got my driver’s license is about the same time I found out that I was sick and I was already the confused teenager anyway and so once I got a car I would just go wander off around Beaumont. Just cruise around town until sundown. This is before I did photography. I’ve always had this drive to get out and cruise around and explore and meet people.

You are a former Dallas Morning News photo intern. How did that come about?
The Morning News had me intern with them in ’05. Chris Wilkins called me and asked me if I wanted to do an internship and I said let me check my fall schedule for school and (Dallas Morning News photojournalist) Mona Reeder called me back immediately and she said “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You just say yes to stuff like that. Don’t worry about school right now.” So I called Chris back immediately and said I’ll take it. That’s how I started to [later] begin freelancing for them. After college, I just naturally went into freelancing full time.

We all went through this cusp, this in-between, where you and I both have a photojournalism degree but the NPPA job bank didn’t necessarily have anything in it.  Freelancing bridged the gap.

 You and me both met at the Eddie Adams Workshop.
Yeah, we both had Bill Frakes.

What did you draw from that experience?
That I went too early. I couldn’t even tone my images properly back then. There were some other people there that had a portfolio and had a really good experience for networking and having an actual dialogue about work. But for someone [who] hadn’t even finished college yet it was a bit premature I think. It was more of the experience of meeting other people. It was more about the social interaction and getting a taste of what professionals do.

Talk about what you’re working on now.
For the past three years, I’ve been working in the Mississippi Delta. I started that in 2009. In between freelancing in Dallas. I go back as much as I can.

Where is “there”?
A network of about five communities in northwest Mississippi. I’ve been abstractly documenting daily life in the delta. I went there just to find myself at first, I wasn’t looking for a story. I was looking for something better than me, stronger than me. It ended up being this time to just speak with people and get back into a project and begin shooting for something that I wanted to shoot. It’s since grown into something beyond me. It’s grown into something that’s about other people. It’s about strength, and humility and pride, hope and religion and faith.

Tell me about your decision to use medium format, black and white film for your project in Mississippi.
The only reason I started shooting that was because I had a brand new camera, a 1973 Mamiya C330. I’d just got it and thought I’d take it for a spin, so to speak.
At Lamar, I was trained in black and white photography in the darkroom and I guess I wanted to go back to something familiar.  But I ended up finding this new thing; it was like a turning point in vision. I began finding something that’s mine in a way. Merging documentary traits with a more artful background.

Who was your teacher?
Keith Carter.

You’ve told me before that you bring a bicycle with you when you go to Mississippi.
Looking back, I think using my bicycle was a perfect compromise. I could cover more ground than walking but yet still be connected more so than if I had confined myself in a car. I liked the idea of using a bicycle because it allowed accessibility.  Naturally, a lot of people were just curious about what the hell this little dude with big glasses was doing riding his bicycle with this weird-looking camera. It was like an automatic attention-grabber. Conversation-starter. But a big smile and a wave goes a long way.

What plans do you have for the Mississippi work?
I think it’ll naturally fall into book form. I’m going to have my first solo show in Portland, Oregon at the Newspace Center for Photography. It’ll open June 7, 2013.

[With this show], I can begin playing with the images in a new way. I’m interested in seeing the relationships the images will take on with one another.  It’s different from the experience of a book or website presentation and raises all sorts of questions, but I’m really excited to begin the process.

What’s been the reaction to your photos by the people you’ve photographed for the project?
It’s humbling. They take a lot of pride in them. One of the families that I photograph told me once that, “when you bring back photographs of us, you give us joy.” And when I stay the night at their homes I find their portraits hanging in their bedrooms.

Building relationships be it in my daily work or personal projects has always been important to me. The experience and journey I guess you could say has always rode shotgun alongside the desire to tell a good story.

In terms of this new project in Mississippi I’ve been working on I think this is where I’m really beginning to not only explore a new visual aesthetic and way of developing my narratives, but I’m also relying on myphotojournalism background to search out my characters and choose my topics.

You don’t typically light your portraits. Why is that?
I can light a portrait, and I keep a reflector in the bag, but I tend not to overcomplicate things. It’s already a puzzle. I can appreciate exploring for natural light in an environment. Sometimes lights are just another damn thing that needs a battery or plug.

Sometimes lights are just another damn thing that needs a battery or plug.

Who was an early photographic influence on you?
The first guy I fell in love with was German portrait photographer August Sander. I was intrigued by his work ethic, being able to catalog so much work. It was scientific. And if [your images] make a government want to burn your book you know you’re doing something right. But most intriguing was his ability to communicate effectively with people on all levels of society.  That speaks a lot to me.


What’s the most interesting thing in your camera bag?
I have this, uh, I don’t even know how old it is. I have this crushed granola bar. I just pulled it out to check my luggage at the airport this morning and I asked the guy if it was all right if it was in there. Chocolate chip.

How long has it been in there?
At the very least, months.

What’s your favorite Texas barbecue?
Actually me and the lady, we make these short ribs in the oven and she makes a Dr. Pepper sauce and we smother that thing in that.

You don’t have to travel around the world to find interesting subjects…sometimes you can find the whole world in your own backyard.

Any parting thoughts?
I think the most important thing I’ve realized over the past few years is that you don’t have to travel around the world to find interesting subjects. You can of course, but sometimes you can find the whole world in your own backyard.

We were in high school photo class together, and I was curious as to how much you think being in photo at that age shaped your interest? Did you always know you wanted to make a career out of photography?
I think what drew me to photography in high school was the freedom that the class allowed. We really were encouraged to photograph anything that caught our attention, and I think that I felt like in photo class I could explore the world around me and at the same time be doing my “homework”.

By senior year I was definitely hooked on photography and probably wanted to do it as some sort of job, but I don’t think I realistically knew what a career in photography might be.  I think back then everyone just said they wanted to shoot for National Geographic.

How are you working toward defining your personal style?
I don’t know how actively I work toward creating a style.  I think that’s something that develops after you’ve taken hundreds of pictures. I’m influenced by a lot of my favorite photographers, and I definitely have an aesthetic that I gravitate towards, but I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and said to myself, ” It’s time to come up with a style for my work.”  I think as you’re learning lighting and retouching you probably gravitate towards things that you like, but again, for me, it’s mostly trial and error.

I try to push myself to go out of my comfort zone

Early on I was attracted to photographers who I thought had a timeless or classic look. Unconsciously, I was probably trying to develop my own “classic look”.  I’m still open to experimentation and I try to push myself to go out of my comfort zone, but at this point I think I’ve already developed my way of looking at things through a camera.

Are you still mainly shooting with film? What is your usual gear on a photo shoot?
I split time between shooting film and digital.  I’ve really grown to like the way that color is rendered in digital images but I don’t care for B+W digital images. I love shooting B+W film, and I do it as much as possible but it’s obviously more expensive than shooting digital so it really just depends on the assignment.

I love the design of film cameras.  For whatever reason, the DSLR market seems to have settled on a roughly uniform look to it’s cameras.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with the aesthetics of Nikon or Canon digital cameras but I think there is something about the feel of most film cameras in my hand that gives me more confidence.

In terms of what I bring to a photo shoot, I usually have 4 different cameras with me: Canon 5D mk2, Mamiya RZ, Hasselblad 500 C, and a Konica Hexar.  I don’t use all of them on a given shoot, but they are usually in my camera bag regardless. I know that seems like a lot to haul around with me, but I have a hard time leaving any of them behind.  Other than that, I’m pretty light on the gear. I use either a reflector or one light for about 99% of all the pictures I take.

You have assisted quite a few photographers. Do you think this is a crucial step in the industry? Are there any important lessons from assisting experience that you can share with us?
It was definitely a crucial step for me, but I don’t know that’s the route everyone needs to take.  I’m largely self-taught when it comes to photography. I think that working as an assistant exposed me to many different sides of the industry that I was unaware of.

In all fairness I think I should mention that there are times when assisting is just a paycheck. There isn’t too much to be learned from holding a reflector all day.

The time I’ve spent assisting…  showed me the realities of working as an editorial photographer

I think there are photographers who skip the assisting stage and go straight to shooting, but the time I’ve spent assisting helped me to clarify the type of work I want to do, and showed me the realities of working as an editorial photographer.  I’ve also met a lot of people in the industry through assisting… connections like those always come in handy when you’re looking for someone to help you out on a project.

What is your approach to marketing and social media? 
I update my social media pages way more often than my actual website so I think it’s a way of always having something new to show people.  To that end, I have both a Facebook Fan Page and a Tumblr that I use to post tons of images and share little stories of life out on assignment.

In terms of direct marketing, I like to do both emailing and and physical mailing.  It’s really hard to know the most effective way to reach any individual editor or art director so I think you have to try different angles.  I like to send emails out to all my contacts each time I update my website to give them a reason to look at my work again.  I try to personalize the emails in some small way for whichever magazine I’m contacting, but honestly if I’m sending out 250 emails it’s hard not to do some cutting and pasting.  I try to print up a physical mailer anytime I have a new series completed as well.

What projects are you working on right now?
In the fall I shot a series on female bodybuilders for Culture Map, and I’ve always wanted to go back and shoot more, but I was so busy in the spring that I didn’t get a chance. I finally got back out there and finished up the project this summer.The second project that I recently wrapped up is a series on burlesque dancers here in Austin.  There are quite a few troupes here in town, and I had wanted to do photos of them for some time.

At the end of August I’ll be heading to Orlando, Fl to shoot portraits at Star Wars Celebration.  Essentially it’s a four day Star Wars specific convention that only takes place every 3 years so I’m really excited to have gotten media access.

How much of your time do you spend conceptualizing a shoot before you get there?
That depends.  If it’s a personal project then quite a bit. I like to do a lot of research.  I’ll read or watch anything I can that pertains to the subject before shooting just so I can have any idea of the Who/What/Where/When of any subject.  It definitely helps to do your homework.  It comes across in the way you interact with your subjects.  They can tell that you’ve put a lot into the project and that you’re genuinely interested in their world.

With editorial subjects it’s a little trickier.  You might not have any idea what the setting will be or what the person will look like.  Having said that, I still try to think about what type of images I want to create as I’m headed to the shoot.

Do you have any mentors? 
I’ve assisted for a lot of photographers, so I will say that in some way each of them as taught me something valuable about photography.  I don’t think I’d describe any of them as a mentor but certainly many of them have been teachers.

What is your favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
Texas is huge and diverse, geographically and culturally. As an assistant and photographer, I’ve traveled all over the state and there are plenty of great stories to tell here. I think Austin is a good home base for an editorial photographer because it puts you in a position to cover events in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio (and Austin) very easily.  When you think about it, those four cities provide a lot of subjects to photograph.  Music, business, sports, technology, etc. and a combined population of roughly 10 million people means that some magazine is always doing a story here.

Any favorite photo books?
I’m an avid collector of photo books so I have quite a few.

The Hyena & Other Men by Pieter Hugo

Studio by Paolo Roversi

Olympic Portraits by Annie Leibovitz

The Park by Kohei Yoshiyuki

True Norwegian Black Metal by Peter Beste

Gentlemen of Bacongo by Daniele Tamagni

Daido Moriyama: The World through My Eyes by Daido Moriyama

Olaf Otto Becker: Broken Line by Olaf Otto Becker

How do you distinguish yourself from the competition?
I guess that would be my style and subject matter.  I think it’s important to have a defined photographic style because when an editor is conceptualizing an assignment they need to people able to visualize how you would shoot it.  I want people to think, “Evan would be great for this one because we love the way he shoots environmental portraits.”  There are so many great photographers out there that finding a way to stand out is hard.  You definitely need to be hardworking and reliable, but I think you also need to showcase your unique photographic voice.  Essentially, your style is the product you are offering to a client.

How do define success on a particular shoot?
For a particular shoot, I think it’s easy.  I want to walk away with an image that I’m proud of…something that captures the subject well and looks good artistically.

Favorite breakfast taco?
Wars have been started over this question in Austin.  I think I’ll just narrow it down to a couple.  In now particular order:  Black bean and Cheese from Taco Deli, Migas Taco from Torchy’s, Potato Egg and Cheese from Wheatsville Co-Op.

Favorite libation?
I’m mostly a beer man. I love trying any type of IPA.  I used to live in Missoula, Montana and they have a great brewery there called Big Sky so pretty much anything from them or Real Ale.

Do you collect anything? Any hobbies outside of photography?
I love cycling. I’m out on a bike as much as I can be until the weather hits 100 degrees.  I’d love to say that I collect bikes, but I’m not really at a point where I can afford that.  Interview me again in a couple years and maybe I’ll have a bigger bike collection to tell everyone about.

ILoveTexasPhoto met with Kael Alford, a writer and anthropologist at heart, to talk about her new book Bottom of da Boot and what it means to her to be a career documentary photographer.

How did you begin your career?
I began my career wanting to be a writer. I studied English literature and anthropology/archaeology. I eventually went to journalism school where I got infected by the instant gratification of photojournalism.

What brought you to Dallas?
My husband (Thorne Anderson, also a photographer) and I came here for a teaching job he took at the University of North Texas. It was my turn to follow him for a posting.We decided to live in Dallas rather than Denton because of the larger art and academic community here, not to mention the access to an international airport. We didn’t know much about Texas before we came, which is just our sort of adventure.

We didn’t know much about Texas before we came, which is just our sort of adventure

Who inspires you?
Great storytelling inspires me, poetry inspires me, and photographers who manage to do something a little different that stands apart from the glut of imagery being produced today. As a documentary photographer, content is as important as form. When images surprise me, I get inspired.

What have been your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge for me as a photographer is finding time and resources to work. It’s a balancing act, working for money and pursuing the long term projects that interest me.  Those have a much slower rate of financial return, if any. Many photographers in the cannon of the genre only become respected after their death, and most of us won’t even be that lucky. I also teach both for income and to keep me engaged with a broader community which I enjoy, but that is a challenge because it takes so much time and pins me to Dallas. It’s a balancing act, working for money and pursuing the long term projects that interest me.

How did you overcome these challenges?
In the end, keeping anxiety in check and having a little faith in the modest value of the projects I’m working on, is what keeps me going. Finding the right audience for the work helps. For me I think that’s a reasonable test of whether or not I’m succeeding. I don’t do this only for myself – I’m trying to communicate something that draws people in. As I find a wider circle of interest in the work, it becomes easier to keep going, so I try to share it as widely as possible to see where it resonates. With the most recent project in Louisiana, finding increasing interest and support from within the communities where I’m photographing has been the biggest bolster to my motivation to keep working.

What are some of your notable assignments and projects?
I worked in the Balkans and the middle east covering news from 1996-2004. There are a couple of bodies of work from that time, but the one that is the mostly widely available is the work from Iraq. That will be showing on the 10 year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq at the de Young Museum of Fine Art, San Francisco. Those photographs are from the early years of the U.S. invasion and war in Iraq and were made from a civilian perspective, rather than embedded with U.S. troops. The Louisiana project is the most recent body of work. That was commissioned by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. I’m continuing that work although that commission has come to an end.

When did you first begin working in Louisiana?
I began working in Louisiana in 2005 after hurricane Katrina.

What have been some of your most favorable moments through this process of working in the communities in Louisiana?
The moments interacting with friends there, taking boat rides, learning about the coastal ecosystem. It’s become a place that comforts me in a way, it gets me out in the world. Working there always takes a lot of energy and it’s sometimes the down time I enjoy most, making dinner of amazing seafood caught that day, telling stories on a porch under the stars. The perspective I get on nature when I’m there is one of my favorite things.

What is ‘Bottom of da Boot’ about and where is the project at now?
This is a story about coming home to find the roots of the Native American strains in my own family, only to discover that impacts of the oil and gas industry have nearly gutted their lands, causing massive coastal erosion and sinking the land as the sea level rises due to climate change. The collective heritage of many coastal Louisiana communities are facing the same fate.  I see this project as an extended family album, and only one American story that is being repeated across the country where the health and environment of local communities are being sacrificed to dead end fossile fuel industries. The first stage is finished and there is an exhibition on show at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through September of this year.

I’m now distributing the first book “Bottom of da Boot” with the help of the publisher and looking for venues for the show to travel to after it leaves the High Museum in Atlanta. I’m starting on two more smaller books as part of a series about the local culture and environment. I hope to bring the exhibit at the High to Texas and I’m looking for a venue.

Where can people find your book?
If you want a personally signed copy, send me an email and I’ll ship you one. (kaelphoto@gmail.com)
You can also order directly from Fall Line Press here: http://falllinepress.com/index.php?/books/bottom-of-da-boot/

What do you hope to come from this book, ultimately?
I hope that those who see the work – either in the book, in an exhibit, online, etc. to be curious about this place. I hope that the work communicates some of the feelings I have about that place, the mood, mystery and scrappy determination of the people who live there. I’d be happy if people were surprised by what they find there, but also recognized more global concerns. Maybe it will even spark an interest in the environmental impact of oil and gas extraction on the coast, and make them wonder more about how industry affects their own environment.

I hope that the work communicates some of the feelings I have about that place, the mood, mystery and scrappy determination of the people who live there.

Perhaps fracking in Texas will come to mind – and people will be reminded to keep a close watch on that industry and educate themselves on the health and ecological impacts. We all need to be more aware of how the world is shifting under our feet due to fossil fuels industries and pollution and we can’t rely exclusively on existing environmental regulations to protect us. We need to be aware and take responsibility for how we impact our land and environment if we want to stay healthy and leave an inhabitable place behind for our descendants.  This work is just another stick on the growing pile of evidence that we ought to be more aware of our surroundings and to stand up for our own best interests against industry, I hope.

Aside from this project what are you working on?
I’ve always got other projects brewing, but this one has been consuming in the last year and continues to keep me occupied. I’m working on something in Texas closer to home, but that’s still a secret!

Favorite place to grab a drink?
Nova in Oak Cliff. Or on a friend’s porch/backyard just about anywhere.

Favorite place to go and work outside the office or home?
If I’m working on photography outside of home, it’s to take photographs usually. For that I like to go places I’ve never been before, even in Dallas.

Favorite part about being a photographer in Dallas and Texas?
I have to admit it’s not easy to be a photographer in Dallas, at least not a documentary or “art” photographer. There are not many of us here. It’s a little lonely in that regard. But there are lots of other great people here – artists of many stripes, a handful of committed collectors and educators, a couple of galleries that care about photography.  What we’re missing is a photo curator at any of the major museums here to help develop and grow and appreciation and conversation about photography. That would help!

What it is like being in a relationship with another photographer?
There are big pluses to sharing a life with another photographer. First, photographers understand the compulsion to continue working, and the travel and challenges involved. It’s also great to have another set of eyes around that you respect to give you feedback on your work. The challenge is juggling a home life with the schedule of travel and work that this profession requires. There have been times when we’ve competed for jobs in the field, but that was relatively rare.

Advice for someone starting out?

Photography, particularly photography driven by your own curiosity and interests rather than exclusively for clients, is not for the fainthearted.

Photography, particularly photography driven by your own curiosity and interests rather than exclusively for clients, is not for the fainthearted. It’s a calling and you have to take many risks. More than ever, documentary photography is considered non-essential to our understanding of the world, so there are fewer jobs in photojournalism or documentary than ever before. At the same time, there are more opportunities for people with video skills, so if you like photojournalism, certainly learn both. If you want to reach a massive audience, become a filmmaker – that is the American currency of visual mass communication.

In the art world, photography continues to occupy a sort of second class ghetto. So you really must love the still image if that is the direction that you choose. For me it’s a kind of poetry or story-telling for it’s own sake and the journey that keeps me moving forward. For some people, photography as a hobby is enough, and if that’s you, then you’re lucky. Don’t quit your day job! There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t wonder what would be different if I had chosen an easier, more traditional path, but then I wouldn’t have the depth of experience with the world that photography has allowed me. It’s shaped who I am. It has a way of doing that. Just be sure you ask around and be aware of what you’re getting yourself into when you say you want to be a (non-commercial) photographer, and pick up whatever other skills you can along the way to support yourself.

Any tips for finding good project ideas?
Start with what you know and what concerns you when seeking a project idea. Don’t think that you need to travel to the other side of the planet. But also be aware of what is out there already and the major bodies of work that have shaped the craft. Ideally, I think we ought to strive to add something new to public conversation. So much is photographed these days that photography, for me anyway, risks becoming invisible in a way, and so much of it is fluff.

Only the most outstanding work will set itself apart, and so you need to strive for that

Only the most outstanding work will set itself apart, and so you need to strive for that, I think. But you might just find the most profound topics in your daily life, or in your back yard. Go where your curiosity and insights lead you, and research widely in the areas that interest you. In order to be a compelling photographer, you need to know about a lot of other things. Read, learn about history, pay attention to politics, and when you strike on a subject that tugs at you, go deep. Expanding your experience to the world is a good place to start.  It’s not unlike being a writer or any other sort of artist in that way.

When you think of a project, how do you research to see if someone else has already done something similar?
So much of human experience has been photographed, and many times topics have been addressed by someone else. That’s okay, so long as you have something to add and a different, thoughtful approach. I try to stay abreast of what’s happening in photography through reading journals, blogs and reviews. The internet helps tremendously with that. Art is a conversation so it’s ok to re-engage a topic someone else has already photographed so long as you have something thoughtful to add.

If you find another body of work on a similar subject, do you continue on, or do you switch gears?
I haven’t had that problem. Usually if it’s a topic someone else has photographed, my approach is so different that I’m not worried (though it can be discouraging occasionally if a whole army of photographers shows up). I do try to be aware of what’s already out there, but usually I’m in it for the long haul so others will come and go while I’m still hanging around.  I also like to go where I’m needed, so I try to find topics that are not well-explored. That’s the journalist in me. I’m sort of an investigative journalist who wanted to be a poet but is too restless at this point in my to spend too much time writing. So instead, I wander around with a camera and take notes.  I am still a writer at heart, I think. I love the poetry of still photography.

Eric Kayne is an editorial photographer based in Houston, Texas. Kayne is a regular contributor to the Houston Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, and NPR where he sometimes works alongside his wife, radio reporter Carrie Feibel. Kayne spoke to ILTP just after a visit to the Sri Meenakshi temple in Pearland, Texas. If he wasn’t a photographer, Kayne would be a cultural anthropologist.

Best career decision?
Going into Photojournalism after a degree in Studio Art. All I could figure out was to start learning Photoshop. Went to San Antonio Community College to learn that program and started worked for the student newspaper. Later on going to grad school at OU was immense for networking and building momentum.

The OU program puts out a lot of talent each year – how have your fellow alumni influenced you since your time in Ohio?
They help keep me motivated. It’s cool to see how everyone is progressing in their careers. A few of them to note – Michael Rubenstein, Katie Falkenberg, Sonya Hebert (current White House staff photographer), Loren Holmes, and Jerome Nakagawa are a few of my former classmates that are still moving and shaking in the photography world. As a second year grad student, some of the first year grad students (and friends and influences) are Kainaz Amaria, Tim Gruber and Jennifer Ackerman, among others.

Most helpful part of your ‘education’ that isn’t photo-related
Cultural anthropology courses pointed out ethnocentric thinking, opened me up to non-western ideals, conflict resolution and non Judeo-Christian belief systems.

Dream assignment?
As cliche as it sounds, get in a Westfalia van and cruise North America for a year with an 8×10 camera.

Weirdest thing in your camera bag?
Earplugs.

Latest Gear Obsession
Hassleblad for personal work makes me slow down and concentrate.

How do you stay motivated?
Following where ever creative bliss leads me. I watch a lot of independent films and documentaries, sometimes at the gym, and I read a ton.

Shooting Arcade Fire was a completely random call off a recommendation from the Houston Chronicle

First big break?
Shooting Arcade Fire was a completely random call off a recommendation from the Houston Chronicle. To make a long story short, I did some documentary coverage of the band for Spike Jonze’s short film “Scenes From The Suburbs,” co-written with the band, which they liked so much they had me shoot the  publicity portraits for their album. One of those images went on to be a finalist for PDN’s Ultimate Music Moment Artist Portrait in 2010.

Was there an Ah-Ha moment that led to your personal vision?
I had come into OU as ‘Johnny AP Shooter’ and grad school freed me up to be interpretive, letting a sense of mood creep into the story, layering an image, seeing light and embracing my strengths. My project on an orphanage in Mexico and another in an old folks home in Ohio improved my ‘seeing’ and access. High point was capstone class where you find, pitch, organize, research, shoot, edit, write, layout, and publish a story.

Who Inspires You?
Lee Friedlander, Richard Misrach, Garry Winogrand, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, Christopher Anderson, Michael Rubenstein, Eugene Richards.

Favorite photo books?
Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue – Eugene Richards(saw a thumbnail of an image on a flier at UT and it was like someone shook me awake. So intimate and touching and ballsy).
Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach.
Almost anything by Friedlander.

How do you define success in your career?
I’m happiest when I’m busy. When I have a viable project where every time you go work on it you make one great photo. On the financial end, being able to do this everyday and not have to take on a second job.

I’m happiest when I’m busy

Hobbies outside of photography?
Traveling, Exploring, and Reading.

Exciting projects in 2012?
I still love the moment and unscripted photograph. ‘Shipwrecked in Houston’ – (because I never meant to be based in Houston) photos of obsolete jobs or other anachronistic things.

Talk to me more about the Shipwrecked in Houston project. What kinds of people do you identify as shipwrecked?
I’ve put that project aside since we’ve last spoke (question initially asked several months earlier). I’m now looking into intentional communities as well as trying to line up subjects for a project I want to do on the Castle Doctrine.

What do you do to get out of a visual block or funk?
What don’t I do? Read fiction, jog, talk with my wife, my friends, go out and see movies, exploring ideas even if it means coming back with no pictures.

You’ve worked as both a staff photographer and a freelancer. What do you see as the ‘new normal’ for photojournalists?
It seems like the new normal is discovering your inner editorial portraitist because these days, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a lot of what I do to keep the lights on. I think the new normal is looking beyond traditional outlets for work. Many of my new clients are corporate clients, doing headshots, image libraries and stuff like that. In many ways, it’s a nice change as far as getting the bills paid.

 I think the new normal is looking beyond traditional outlets for work

Tell me about an assignment that went horribly wrong and one that went horribly right? 
The one that went horribly wrong was a feature story I worked on for The Ranger, the student newspaper at San Antonio College. A reporter and I did a story on a student kayaker. He met us at a bridge crossing way up high on the Comal. The reporter I was with was about 6 feet tall, 220 lbs. and had never been in a canoe in his life. The canoe the kayaker student brought us to follow him, by the way, was inflatable. To keep it brief, we were dunked twice, all but ruining my Nikon F100, lens, and strobe I had for about a week. Also, another canoe that was with us (an aluminum one – why were WE in the inflatable one?) got stuck in a hydraulic. All this in almost pitch black because we left maybe 2 hours before total darkness. What fun! To top it off, a deer smashed into the front grill of my cherry 1977 Toyota pickup on my way home. The thing never ran right after that. That assignment, to this day, has never been topped. It was almost like “Deliverance” but without having to scream like a piggy.

A horribly right assignment were the multiple gigs I got from Arcade Fire. That was just one blessing after another.

We’re all here for a short period of time, so why be a jerk?

What distinguishes you from other photographers?
I don’t take myself too seriously. We’re all here for a short period of time, so why be a jerk?

Which famous photograph/body of work do you wish you had taken and why?
Cocaine Blue, Cocaine True. It changed my life. It was so intimate and honest and well-seen. It still blows my mind when ever I think about it.

What will be your visual legacy?
Probably a crashed hard drive.

Favorite BBQ
Pork Ribs, Kreuz Market in Lockhart

Favorite Breakfast Taco
Bacon & Egg, Tacos-A-Go-Go in Houston

Favorite Margarita
Frozen @ Ninfa’s or Hugorita @ Hugo’s in Houston

Jennifer Whitney is an editorial photographer based in San Antonio. Her love of people, food and the great outdoors inspires her work. Jenn spoke with ILTP over iced coffee on the dog-friendly patio of Spiderhouse in Austin.

Who are your mentors?
I’ve had a lot of incredible mentors… Neal Menschel from the Salt Institute – he always said it’s about imagination, heart, and intention and I’ll never forget that. Rita Reed taught me to be a badass and not put up with anyone’s bullshit basically by osmosis. I look up to Lisa Krantz immensely because she’s not only an awesome photographer but an awesome person. I’m completely in awe of her way of seeing things, her sense of humor, and her incredible patience.

Best career decision?
Sticking to what I believe in and not compromising myself for anything, which led to the decision to go freelance. I never quite fit in at newspapers – too many rules for me and I didn’t like turning work over that quickly all the time because the quality suffers. I have a lot more freedom now to work on projects and the ability to work with clients who expect a higher quality of work. I’ve grown immensely as a businesswoman and have had a lot more space to be creative and find my own groove.

I’ve grown immensely as a businesswoman

Favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
I’m a total sucker for Americana, and I love the quirkiness and the bright, saturated color. Really, its a lot like my home state, Florida, in so many ways but with a bit of a western flair. I love the independent values and progressive thinking that led explorers to the promise of the West, but I’m a true Southern girl at heart. Texas is really the crossroads between the two cultures.

Current Dream Assignment?
Pretty much anything having to do with strong women or wise old people. But I don’t want to limit myself because there are so many things I’m really curious and passionate about. I’m dying to work for Texas Monthly and Garden & Gun.

What’s the weirdest thing in your camera bag?
I try to keep my bag pretty light, but I do carry a purple Leatherman and a tube of Dr. Pepper Lip Smackers, which always brings a little sweetness to a rough day. Also, I carry a stepladder in the back of my truck that was a gift from a good friend. As a small person it comes in handy all the time.

Gear obsessions?
I’m not a gear head. I like to keep it as simple as possible. I couldn’t live without my fixed 50mm lens.

 I couldn’t live without my fixed 50mm lens

How do you stay motivated?
I’m the kind of person who functions best when I’m busy, so I’m always juggling a lot of balls in the air. Making sure I always have at least one story going that I ‘m really passionate about is huge.

What was your first big break?
There are so many ways of looking at it.  Working on the first project I cared about and making the realization that this is what I have to do. As nerdy as it may be to say it out loud, I remember feeling super excited the first time The New York Times called.

I remember feeling super excited the first time The New York Times called

How you established your personal vision?
Through a lot of hard work, experimentation, and finding inspiration outside of photography like in music, film, literature, and other visual media.

Was there one project that gave you that “ah ha” moment, where you knew this is where you wanted to take your work?
At Salt I did a project on two sisters that did beauty pageants in rural northern Maine. They were 8 and 11 when I met them and we still keep in touch. I’m going back to visit them this summer. It was the first time I really fell in love with a subject and realized how powerful the images become when you make yourself vulnerable to people, and what a gift it is when they give you so much access to their lives.  I learned so much from that project, and I’ve pretty much been hooked ever since.

Who are you inspired by?
Erykah Badu, Dolly Parton, Billie Holliday, Yoko Ono, Tina Fey, Kiki Smith, Ann Richards, Alice Waters, Georgia O’ Keefe, Stella McCartney, Annie Oakley, Miranda July, Sofia Coppola, Nina Berman, Lauren Greenfield, Dorothea Lange, Lynsey Addario… I could go on and on…

These are all women, what’s up with that?
I think women have such an important role in society and in our industry and we don’t get enough credit anywhere. There’s such a double standard- we still have to work harder to get what we want. In general, women approach their work with a lot more sensitivity, and that’s important to me

All time fave photo books?
Robert Frank, The Americans

Diane Arbus, Monograph

Donna Ferrato, Living with the Enemy

Sally Mann, At Twelve

Susan Meiselas, Carnival Strippers

Brenda Ann Kenneally, Money Power Respect

Mary Ellen Mark, Ward 81

Alex Webb, Sunshine State

David Alan Harvey – Cuba

Danny Wilcox Frasier- Driftless

 What was the most helpful part of your ‘education’ that wasn’t photo related.
A lot of moving and traveling taught me how to shift my perspective and see things from the outside and how to adjust easily. Also waiting tables for many years taught me a whole lot about people, their habits, and human character in general. Also, I got to try and learn about a lot of amazing food.

How do you define ‘success’ in your own career?
I think with every new project. I try to take it one day at a time and make the most out of everything I do. Being happy in life and finding some semblance of balance is really important to me. Also, I really want to make the people I interact with smile, so I try to be a source of positivity in people’s lives.

Any exciting projects in 2012?
So many great stories, so little time. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Florida exploring how the Gulf Coast commercial fishing industry has changed. Its complicated and exciting to deal with the environment, food, and politics all wrapped up in one package.

Hobbies outside of photography, aka, how do you stay sane?
I’m not: I think its more fun to live a little on the edge and take risks. But I do exercise a lot- I’m a student and teacher of Ron Fletcher pilates which, much like photography, never ceases to challenge me and I need that constantly. Also, I try to spend as much time as possible enjoying the outdoors.

I think its more fun to live a little on the edge and take risks

How do you think you distinguish yourself from the competition?
Relationships. I’m a people person. Being able to make people comfortable and to be present and empathize. Also, exceptional reporting skills and strong intuition: it’s key to being prepared to capture those moments that really push a story above and beyond.

People are thinking of the industry in a very negative way and I think it’s exciting what people are doing, all the possibilities. I feel constantly challenged by my peers and everyone is so dedicated. I’ve never seen it as doom and gloom, I see it as opportunity to make room for new ideas.

Favorite BBQ?
I’m a (mostly) vegetarian, but I do like the occasional bite of great BBQ. Franklin’s in Austin is the best hands down, but I sure miss my side of Southern greens.

Favorite breakfast taco?
Taco Haven in San Antonio – Bean and Cheese with Nopalitos and Avocado. It’s not on the menu- I made it up and its awesome.

Favorite margarita?
Rosario’s in San Antonio – The Mexican Handshake.

Sarah Lim is an Austin-based photographer specializing in documenting people, especially people with a quirky story to tell. She is an emerging photographer and one you should keep your eye on.

Do you have any mentors?
I’d have to say Austin photographers Sarah Wilson and George Brainard. They’re just about the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and always willing to help by giving me their honest advice, looking at my work, letting me borrow stuff to work on my own projects, and are always interested and supportive in what I’ve been up to.

Best career decision so far?
I quit my full time job to get out of college quickly and become a poor starving artist like my dad always joked. A week after I quit, I jumped on a plane and took an invitation to visit the Detroit Free Press. I put it out there that was interested in a job, even an internship, and 3 months later when they found the last minute budget for an intern, I got the call. It was a great experience and I got to work with an amazingly talented staff.

Favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
There are so many stories with so many kinds characters and settings.

The phone rings. It’s a photo editor calling to give you a dream assignment. What are you hearing on the other end of the line?
I love Americana and I have a road trip in mind that I’d love for a travel magazine or someone to hire me to shoot. I’d love to travel the entirety of Route 66, all 2,500 miles, on a Vespa scooter (aka Scoot 66) and document the trip and what I see along the way.

 I’d love to travel the entirety of Route 66, all 2,500 miles, on a Vespa scooter

Weirdest thing in your camera bag?
Right now, it’s notebook I got on my trip to Asia with a smiling whale catching a burger in it’s mouth that reads “I’m so high.” I’m pretty sure they meant happy.

Latest gear obsession?
It’s really lame, but since I’m just getting started, my obsessions as of late are really practical things like battery packs. I’m also geeking out over some DIY builds for video stuff, like a steady cam.

What motivates you?

having fresh content that I actually want to share really lights that fire under my ass

For me, having personal projects, and constantly getting feedback and constructive criticism really help keep me moving. I really thrive off constructive criticism and it helps me to keep pushing myself to do more. Looking at lots of other work and seeing what other people are doing helps with inspiration. I just recently started sending out a monthly newsletter, so having fresh content that I actually want to share really lights that fire under my ass.

What successes have you had so far that you were proud of?
I think being accepted to Slideluck Potshow last year really helped. I’m a bit shy about my work and talking to people (even if I am really silly once I’ve met you) so it really helped me to get my work in front of a good community of people here in Austin. I ran into Kate Iltis at Em Dash at a Christmas party and she had remembered my work from the show. Since she has hired me several times and continues to have an awesome amount of confidence in me.

Tell me about how your personal style is evolving…
For a while I had delusions that I might be a hardcore journalist that travels the world, but it once I was honest with myself, it didn’t fit. When I realized that what I was dreaming about really just focused on these amazing stories, and there are cool and important stories all around me to tell. After that, I started to let more of my own personality, sense of humor, and weird observations and interests show through in my work. I like looking for moments. Part portrait, part story is where I think I shine the best.

Advice for others who are starting out?
Some advice given to me was to wait 5 years: If you’re still around doing this in 5 years there’s no way you can’t do it. Only be satisfied enough to not doubt yourself, but don’t get too cocky or comfortable and not push yourself. Surround yourself with people who will give you honest advice without shaking your confidence in yourself. From personal experience, being a nice person with a sense of humor and a good work ethic doesn’t hurt either.

Only be satisfied enough to not doubt yourself, but don’t get too cocky or comfortable and not push yourself

Who are you inspired by?
Peter Yang, Emily Shur, Elliot Erwitt, Dan Winters, Diane Arbus, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, Ray & Charles Eames, Jessica Hische, Paul Qui, Dr. Seuss (especially “And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”), and Mike Park from Asian Man records to name a few.

All-time fave photo books?
Son of Bitch by Elliot Erwitt

Most helpful part of your ‘education’ that wasn’t photo related?
Doing everything the long, hard, stupid way. I’ve learned more by trying and sucking at it, and trying it again a different way than anything I ever learned in school.

How do you define ‘success’ in your own career?
Right now I’m at such a baby stage, and I’m happy to be walking. I learned to stop thinking I needed to be ahead of where I’m at and instead try to celebrate every step I take in the right direction. Gotta take ‘em when you can get ‘em.

I learned to stop thinking I needed to be ahead of where I’m at and instead try to celebrate every step I take in the right direction

What’s next? exciting projects in 2012?
I’ve got a few personal projects in mind. I foresee teenage girls in big dresses at dances in my near future. I’m also hoping to shoot some more videos this year, but I’m not sure what yet. Maybe even a music video for fun.

Do you collect anything?
Do I! I am a connoisseur of junk. Coming from a family of pack rats, anything that looks fixable on the side of the road somehow finds it’s way into my life.That being said, I have about 100 Mexican coke bottles for art project ideas that have yet to turn themselves into something cool.

Hobbies outside of photography?
Does eating count? Also watching bad (and sometimes good) TV shows, cooking, drawing, and gardening. And most recently, learning bad words in sign language from the Internet.

Favorite bbq?
Just give me a big piece of greasy brisket deliciousness from Franklins.

Favorite breakfast taco?
Anything with nopalitos.

Favorite libation?
Mexican coke all the way.

Shot marfa?
yes.

Lance Rosenfield is an editorial photographer based in his hometown of Austin, Texas. When he’s not riding his motorcycle, November Lovin’, he’s shooting portraits and documentary assignments for The Times of London, AARP Bulletin, and Smithsonian Magazine, among others. Lance spoke with ILTP over a Texas Two-Step at the White Horse in the middle of a rainstorm.

Best Career Decision?
Helping found the Prime Collective in 2011. It opened a lot of doors to new clients and developed a strong bond with the other photographers in the collective.

Tell me more about Prime. How did you get started?
We launched January 11, 2011 which coincided with the National Geographic Seminar in DC. Initially the brainstorm came from Max Whittaker, Brendan Hoffman, and Dominic Bracco who approached me with their idea in 2009. I knew them from Lightstalkers and Look3 and David Alan Harvey’s blog. We brought on Charlie Mahoney and Melanie Burford. The process was slow and paced out casually. One of the things I tell people who want to start collectives, don’t rush into it. We took 18 months before we launched. It seemed like it was taking so long, but looking back I wouldn’t do it any other way. By the time we launched, relationships had formed and we were all committed to the group. We learned how to work through disagreements with each other. A lot of other collectives tend to just be a website and not much else. I think that’s because they don’t have that strong bond – they just got six cool photographers and a website. We were operating internally as a collective before the launch – we were already editing each others work, brainstorming, and supporting each other before the launch.

By the time we launched, relationships had formed and we were all committed to the group

Other advice for starting a collective?
Choose members wisely. Personality is as important as their work. Getting along through thick and thin is a key component. We joke about it, but we address each other as “family” – you’re not going to get that if you just slam something together. Create a mission statement and make sure everybody believes in it.

We all draw form each others strengths – some of us are experts with contract negotiations, others with daily assignment work, long form storytelling, or video.

We made it a point to make sure everyone was in separate geographic areas. There are other people we would love to consider joining, but they live in the same city as an existing member. We try to market to editors and it would become confusing to have more than one photographer in the same market.

Favorite thing about shooting in Texas
Texas is home. There’s a strange and inherent connection in being a Texan and when photographing other Texans.

There’s a strange and inherent connection in being a Texan and when photographing other Texans.

What’s been your most stereotypically “Texas” story?
I think that would have to be my long form photo essay, ‘Thirst for Grit’. It’s a look into the lives and times of small town rodeo cowboys – doesn’t get much more Texan than that.

Tell me about the box you made as a wrap up to the project?
I had a show at the L. Nowlin gallery that was approaching and I had been living with this work on the computer screen. I’m looking at a stack of hard drives on my desktop and something is drastically wrong about this. I put so much energy into this project and it’s living inside these boxes and drives. I needed something tactile and physical. I wanted to convey more than flat photographs – I wanted to show these artifacts from the life and times of the people I was photographing. I love boxes of prints – there’s something about opening that box, you get to touch it and hold it and feel the paper in your hands – it’s something you can’t reproduce on a computer screen or even on a gallery wall. This is a much more intimate way to experience the photography. Having the artifacts in the box brought the whole experience together. I wanted to convey the sense that now you feel even closer to the people in the picture.

So what’s in the box?

I have pieces of David Gonzales’ gloves. Stretch gave me his chaps and riding boots. The front of the box is made from the boots that he wore throughout the entire project. Jeff Miller rides with a pink shirt to commemorate friends with breast cancer, so he donated a piece of the cuff of the pink shirt and a ribbon. There’s fringe from chaps, dirt from the Helotes rodeo arena in a vile, there’s Crown Royal in another  vial. Cans of Keystone. I didn’t wash or clean any of it, so everything still has the dirt and grime intact. The smell can only be described as rodeo – sweat, dirt, animal and leather.

25 pigment prints, black and white. It’s a prototype box, the most that can be made is five. It’s pretty addicting and satisfying. This thing is meant to be looked at and felt. I’ll be excited when I get a buyer for it. I felt I came to a major milestone at the end of that project, even though it’s still ongoing.

Who was involved in making this happen?
Jace Graf at Cloverleaf Studio was the box maker. The letterpress was done by Bradley Hutchinson at Letterpress.com. Meggan Webber did the typesetting. Abi Daniels did the design for the artifact well. The Inset text was by Roy Flukinger, Senior Curator of Photography at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin.

Mentors
Dirk Halstead connected me with with some pretty amazing people early on. David Alan Harvey continues to be an inspiration, mentor and friend.

Dream Assignment
Cross cultural changes for characters in their personal journeys. The American Western tradition in China.

Weirdest Thing in the Camera Bag
The bag itself is a regular nylon satchel with carabiners holding it all together. I’ve been told that my pen/marker collection in the bag is obsessive: pencils, ball points, gels, marks a lot, and an archival ink pen. You just never know.

Latest Gear Obsession
Gear obsession – no I don’t really do that. But I sure like my 35mm f/1.4. Oh, and frankly I love shooting around with my iPhone. There’s an app called Camera+ that I’m kind of obsessed with right now, and I just joined Instagram, which I hope will not become a waste of time.

I love shooting around with my iPhone. There’s an app called Camera+ that I’m kind of obsessed with right now

How do you Stay Motivated?
There’s a lot of work to be done in one lifetime. The anxiety that there’s always more to be done keeps me moving. We are lucky to find our gifts and if we don’t practice them we are letting the universe down. I can always be better.

‘Ah-ha!’ Moment
In 2003 I met Lisa Wiltse when I was entirely unaware of the world of documentary photojournalism. She had interned at Magnum and we became neighbors on West 6th Street. She shared her pictures from around the world as well as her book collection and opened my eyes with the works of Salgado, Richards, and Koudelka. There was an overwhelming sense of connection to humanity and I felt that this was something I needed to do.

Inspired By
David Alan Harvey, Werner Herzog, freelancers who make it work

Fav Photo Books
Tulsa, Larry Clark
Remix, Daido Moriyama
Wonderland: A Fairytale of the Soviet Monolith, Jason Eskenazi
Satellites, Jonas Bendiksen
Niagara, Alec Soth
Sleeping by the Mississippi, Alec Soth
The work of Miguel Rio Branco

What’s the most important part of your ‘education’ that wasn’t photo-related?
Work ethic and tenacity. I spent 10 years as civil engineer filled with project management and problem solving.

How do you define success in your own career?
Trusting in my own authorship. Shooting from within rather than what’s expected.

How do you stay sane?
Actually, staying a little off-center feels good. Life is short. Being centered is boring.

Exciting Projects in 2012?
I am well into my first film project and I expect 2012 to continue being quite busy with that. The film is about Texas cowboys and a Chinese businessman trying to take a rodeo to China. It’s a great story.

What distinguishes you from other photographers?
I guess that’s for others to decide, and certainly there’s a lot of overlap. When it comes to personal work, or even assignment work, I like to get close to people on a personal level. It’s important to me to feel trust coming from someone I’m photographing, and for me to explore well beyond the surface.

I like to get close to people on a personal level. It’s important to me to feel trust coming from someone I’m photographing

Hobbies outside of photography
A motorcycle by the name November Lovin’.

Favorite BBQ
Pork Ribs, (RIP) Artz Rib House, Austin

Favorite Breakfast Taco
The Ren at Bouldin Creek or Pete’s Taco at Maudie’s in Austin

Favorite Margarita
The MadDog at the Texas Chili Parlor (a la Guy Clark)