Portrait

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Trove Artist Management is a woman-owned, women-empowering talent agency based in Austin, Texas. We are dedicated to promoting, educating and supporting women and culturally diverse artists and social influencers. Trove represents photographers, makeup artists, hair stylists and other artists working locally and nationally. Our roster has served clients such as Elle Magazine, Aveda, Betsey Johnson, Zac Posen, San Antonio Magazine, Austin Monthly, Modern Salon, Jack Ryan, By George and more.

Tiger Woods

Interview by John Davidson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Wind" by Lesley Nowlin from Being a Twin: Elements
"Wind" by Lesley Nowlin from Being a Twin: Elements

“Wind” by Lesley Nowlin from Being a Twin: Elements

 

Austin fine art photographer Lesley Nowlin was chosen as one of four artists for the upcoming exhibition: Face Value opening September 6th at Davis Gallery. Lesley will be showing images from her series in progress: Being a Twin.

Lesley, a twin herself, has been exploring that relationship through her photographic work using traditional, modern, and alternative photographic processes. Lesley shared this intimate project with my twin and me when she photographed us a few months ago.

How did you get started in photography?

My dad played around with photography when I was young, as well as my grandfather and great grandmother.  When I was about 14 I remember my dad teaching me how to read a light meter on a Leica rangefinder.  After that I started photographing sports and yearbook events during high school.  I learned how to develop and print silver gelatin in a tiny darkroom at Westwood High School.  After going to the Maine Photographic Workshop during my junior year of high school I then chose to attend the Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford.  That was when I fell in love with art.

 

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Tell me about your interest and education in alternative processes.
During my time at HAS we were required as art majors to learn all the mediums.  I really enjoyed printmaking and drawing, although I was never really good at it.  Back in my college years we were on the brink of transitioning into digital, but everything we did was still very much produced in the darkroom.  I loved getting my hands dirty and watching the image appear on the paper.  Creating something from scratch and the printing process itself is the true art quality I love so much.  However, that being said, I’ve turned to digital shooting, yet stuck with printing platinum and silver.  With the format I’m creating in this current work the digital image is much easier to work with.  I still love film for documentary and street photography, but I’m not currently working in that environment.
I loved getting my hands dirty and watching the image appear on the paper.
After opening a photography gallery in 2009-2011 I realized everything I fell in love with from other photographers was created with the alternative process,  whether it was silver gelatin, salt, cyanotype, or platinum.  After closing the gallery I decided to pursue the alternative process for myself and studied at Maine Media Workshop with Brenton Hamilton.  He taught me how to print platinum, as well as other processes, using digital negatives.  I’ve been working on it for the last 2 years on my own trying to master the craft, although I have a long way to go.
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How long have you been working on the twin series and how has the meaning evolved since you started working on it?

I started the series actually when attending the Maine Media Workshop back in 2002 (for the second time). I had an instructor, Stella Johnson, who helped me create a project for myself.  We had to plan shooting our subject(s) before we got there.  I wanted to work on something for that week that was closely related to me.  Up until that point I was more of a street photographer, and liked to travel and “shoot what I saw” on my international adventures. At the beginning of the “Being a Twin” project I was trying to connect in my own relationship with my twin by studying the connections of other twins and how they related to each other. I learned a lot with my 10 years of photographing twins.  About two years ago I drew on the fact that I loved art so much, and wanted to start making more narrative and composed pieces. I’m drawn to painters like Gustav Klimt and John Waterhouse, and photographers like Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison and Luis Gonzales de Palma.  Their ability to create a surreal environment with the human subject, very spiritual and ethereal, really drew me in.  I wanted to incorporate that direction in my own work, while still making it mine.  I’m photographing the twins (mostly female) in environments of nature to show their spiritual connection, as well as a tension and ease between the two.  Then, I’m printing platinum on vellum and lining it with composition gold, silver or copper leaf.  Printing the negatives separately and then putting it back together creates a broken and mosaic like quality.  It’s very fun to do, as well as time consuming.  No pieces will be the same, and that’s what I enjoy most about it.  I’ve also been learning a lot as I continue to make different pieces.  My process has been getting more precise as I go along.
I was trying to connect with my own relationship with my twin by studying the connections of other twins and how they related to each other.
How did you come to be a part of the Face Value exhibition at Davis Gallery?

Bill Davis is a very kind person who I’ve known for a while.  I knew the curator of the show, Christina Martell, who left shortly after, and Susannah Morgan took over.  They were putting together a show of different portraiture work, and asked me to participate.  At first I was going to make individual platinum prints of my original “Being a Twin” work.  But then I grabbed the opportunity to show my new vision of where I wanted this work to go, and that’s when “Being a Twin: Elements” was created.  Ultimately, I’m very happy I’m able to have a show with a group.  It gave me the chance to start this new work at a slower pace.
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What are your future plans for photography? Do you have any other photo projects that you are working on?

My goal is to create 15-20 pieces for a solo show somewhere.  The most challenging part of owning a photography gallery in Austin, for me, was that I didn’t know how to create clients.  I had a ton of photographers asking to show their work, and I didn’t have enough time or finances to do it.  After about a year I realized owning a gallery was not the career for me.  Creating my own work was more important.   It would be wonderful to have a photography gallery in Austin, but I don’t feel there’s a market here for it, which is unfortunate.  There are many great photographers in Austin and only a few places to exhibit.  Davis Gallery is kind enough to have a show specifically for photography and mixed media, but most art galleries in Austin view the medium of photography as an entirely different art form, and maybe aren’t willing to go out of their comfort zone to learn more about it.  More than likely I’ll have to go outside of my hometown to find an exhibition space for “Being a Twin: Elements”.  Really hoping someone will want to show it!

 

You’ll definitely want to see these pieces in person. Face Value closes October 18th, 2014.
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Wynn Myers is a lifestyle photographer born and raised in Austin. Known for her eye for authentic moments, Wynn loves to capture the beauty and joy in the everyday. Wynn’s love of photography began when a friend introduced her to the high school darkroom.

After attending the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, she relocated to New York City, where she worked for fashion designer, Zac Posen, and attended the International Center of Photography. In 2006, Wynn graduated from the Maine Media Workshops’ Professional Certificate Program. Wynn received her BA in Photocommunications, Summa Cum Laude, from St. Edward’s University in Austin.

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Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski
Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski

Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski

For those of us who started our photo careers in a darkroom 36 frames at a time, it can be daunting trying to navigate digital and social photography as a business model. This is not the case for Kristen Wrzesniewski, a young (but wise beyond her years) photographer based in Austin, Texas. She is simultaneously tackling both social media and medium format film cameras. Kristen owns a beautiful and soulful style that is already recognizable, and she’s only just getting started.

Kristen is not just an excellent photographer, she is also the Marketing Director for Photogroup Austin, an Instagrammer for Lumix, and a blogger for Small Camera Big Picture. She knows where her web traffic comes from and she understands that photography succeeds when it’s about experiences, not just attitude.

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What makes Kristen stand out is how much of what she does feels sincere and very organic. She has over 3000 Instagram followers on her personal account, but she seems concerned only with the creative outlet. She does her double exposures in-camera (“I like to do things the hard way”), and rarely plans out her shoots (“I want to see the soul of the person I’m photographing, show who they are deep inside”). She’s not likely to be out with a crew of stylists in tow, nor is she going to post every frame or even every shoot online.

I want to see the soul of the person I’m photographing, show who they are deep inside.

Kristen is mostly self-taught. She began shooting her friends to relieve summer break boredom in her teens. After high school she put her point-and-shoot aside to study English at Texas State, but eventually came back to photography. She stuck with it despite a film teacher disliking her work enough to discourage her.

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The majority of images in Kristen‘s portfolio (many of which are still of her girlfriends) look like fashion and beauty shots, but she does not identify as fashion photographer. She is not really sure yet how she wants to make her mark, but is resolute that her work has to have meaning.

You mentioned shooting with the Lumix GH3 and GX7. What other cameras or equipment do you work with?

I have also shot with a Nikon D7000 in the past, but am selling it to focus on shooting with smaller cameras. The camera is typically secondary to me. With that said, I’m becoming addicted the GH3. It’s a great tool once you understand how to use it. About 30-40% of my work is film, but I have been shooting mostly digital this year because film can be expensive.

“Texas has a really good feeling to me, everyone is so kind.”

What are your favorite places to shoot in Texas and why?

Anywhere outside! Bastrop State Park is beautiful (and sadly, even more photogenic now). Enchanted Rock is an amazing place to shoot, but anywhere outside will do. I like exploring small Texas towns and talking to people who run small storefronts. Last time I was at Enchanted Rock with a model we went into a small fur and antler shop and the store owner was kind enough to let us shoot with his furs. It was great.

Texas is such a giant vast place, and there are so many different kinds of people and landscapes here. I’d really love to take a road trip all over Texas and just document what I see and the people I meet.

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What is your overall impression of the photography industry/community in Texas as a photographer and studio director?

I think Texans are much more laid back than the rest of the country, in general. (Mostly) everyone I’ve met has been so nice and open. There are a few people who carry an elitist kind of attitude but I don’t let those people get to me because a bad attitude gets you nowhere. I’d like to see more people openly talking about HOW they make their photos – people can be so secretive about this and I don’t know why. I believe even if I tell someone how I did something, they still cannot replicate it because it came from my brain. It’s my vision. I’d like to see more sharing of information in the future but I think that is well on its way. Things are changing in the photography world – we now have so much access to information, and I like it like that.

Who are your mentors?

-Chip Willis (who lives in Ohio) has been a sort of internet mentor to me. I was incredibly inspired by his work for a very long time before we even spoke. He has always been supportive of me, even though sometimes my work looks a lot like his!

-Also, Giulio Sciorio has been a great mentor and teacher. He is a long time pro and an awesome photographer. He specializes in hybrid photography and has shown me the ropes over the past few months. It’s been an amazing learning experience. He’s taught me a lot about the business aspects of photography as well.

-Robert Bradshaw, my boss at Photogroup, has also been a great mentor. He is a wealth of knowledge, and he hired me on even though I had never shot in a studio before and knew absolutely nothing about studio photography. Over the past year he has taken a lot of time to teach me everything he knows and I am incredibly grateful. 

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Are you shooting more studio work now?

I used to shoot only natural light but have taken up studio light in the past year. I like it because I have more control and can manipulate it and make odd shapes and shadows. Honestly, I love them both, just not together.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I will have to quote Ira Glass on this one: 

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

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When I ask Kristen what inspires her she mentions hip-hop music, old films and Kubric. When I ask about her thoughts on the future, she only mentions plans through May. I think that might just be the secret to her success.

Kristen is represented by Wonderful Machine.

 

 

 

 

 

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I had the pleasure of talking to Eric Doggett recently and picked his brain on what made him click as a successful commercial photographer in today’s competitive industry. We spoke about his career decisions and the creative influences that made him the photographer he is today.

What/Who were your biggest inspirations growing up?
I came to photography late in life. When I was younger, I was more inspired by other creative areas like music and art. I spent four years in the Air Force at the Pentagon, and at the end of that tour I started thinking more about creative areas I was interested in. One of the big ones for me (and still to this day) was film music – I have a crazy appetite for film scores. It’s a bit of a weird type of music to get hooked on, but I love them. So when my family and I moved to Austin, I did music for independent films and commercials in town. Now that I’ve moved into a visual medium, all that music inspires me while I’m working. I can match up a certain soundtrack with a mood I’m in, or the mood of an image I’m working on, and be very happy.

Do you have any influences that inspire your current work?
Sure. Like many of us, I have several. Some of my favorites include Dan Winters (who, interestingly, I run into on occasion as he lives about 20 minutes away), Randal Ford, Jeremy Cowart, George Lange, Art Streiber, Brian Smith, Dean Bradshaw, Erik Almas, Frank Ockenfels and lately, Matt Hoyle for his humor work.

What career path were you involved in before deciding that you needed a change?
My background was in information technology/web development. We would create applications for various organizations at the Pentagon. It was an interesting place to be at when I was in my 20s. But (like all development-type work), it takes a certain mindset to put up with those fluorescent lights all day. I just knew it wasn’t for me. For example, I would have more fun creating promotional videos or images for various projects than I ever had writing code. In fact, one of my favorite accomplishments from that time was creating the official logo for the government’s Y2K effort. This was back around Photoshop 3, when layers were new and all the rage.

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What moment made you realize that you wanted to pursue photography?
2005. I was doing web development work for a health company and our first son was born. I somehow convinced my wife that we needed a new camera to capture all of his little life events, and somehow by the end of that year I found myself shooting weddings.

How did you get started?
The first one was one of those ‘friend of a friend’ weddings that was going to be small. There was a good three-month period where I remember getting my hands on any photography book I could find and reading it over and over. The funny thing about weddings for me was that my most favorite time of the whole event was when I had ten minutes alone with the couple to create images. In my mind, I was spending eight to ten hours of shooting to get those ten minutes of fun. And as I did more and more of them, I started sketching ideas for shoots we could do during that time. And they started involving more and more humor. In fact, consultants would look over my portrait and wedding work and see this consistent humor thread. I shot weddings until some time in 2010, when I started becoming more interested in editorial and commercial work. They were a break from the reactionary world of wedding photography. I was able to spend time planning a shoot, focusing on what was needed to create the image I had imagined.

I really enjoy the humor in your photography. What is your thought process when creating those concepts? 
It depends. Sometimes I get a client who is looking for a funny idea, and those shoots are always the best. Other times, I think of an idea on my own that’s funny to me and I set out to create it. Usually, those personal humor shoots are the ones that people remember. They sort of start out with a “wouldn’t it be funny if..” and then go from there.

What is your favorite part of creating and executing those concepts?

I love to sketch out ideas on paper. Drawing it out helps me think of new possibilities. Seeing it drawn out is definitely a fun part. Another is when the person I’m photographing ‘gets it,’ knows what I’m going for, and really gives a great ‘performance.’

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How do you keep yourself motivated?
Since I usually retouch my own work, I love keeping up with the latest techniques and software. Seeing what other people are doing with Photoshop can be a big source of motivation for me. I also keep a running list in Evernote of shoot ideas that I think would be fun to do.

What is your favorite part of being a photographer?
I love to experiment a lot in post production, so I definitely enjoy that process. Also, whenever I feel like I’ve put in a good day working, I’m happy. This is tough sometimes as we all can approach this job in a reactionary way, dealing with whatever fires are going on that day. However, if I’ve done a good job planning tasks for the day/week and then get them checked off, I really enjoy that feeling of accomplishment. The challenge here has been separating a task from busy work.

What advice or motivation would you give for anyone inspired to start their careers in the photography industry after being involved in something different, then competing with other photographers that have been involved in the industry for most of their lives?

I think the best piece of advice is to be sure that what you are offering to the market is your own unique voice.

It’s easy to get caught in a mode where you are constantly copying other people’s styles or techniques as a test for yourself, only to find that your whole portfolio consists of tests you’ve done over a period of time. You end up with no overall direction – just a bunch of well-crafted images that are completely different in look and approach. Find inspiration in others, try to recreate techniques they have done, and then put all of that knowledge in the back of your head and store it as an ingredient for your own style.

What has been your best career decision so far?
Probably accepting that I’m not the perfect match for every client. Artists by their very nature are pleasers – we want people to enjoy the work we create, and we want the opportunity to serve as many people as possible. So it’s a bit of a leap to say ‘I’m not the best person for you on this project‘. I like it when someone can look at an image and know that it’s mine before they read that I shot it. It means that I am developing my own vision and style. That process has taken years for me, but it’s the only way that I would do photography today.

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What is your favorite piece of equipment that you use?
A photographer named Joey Lawrence. once talked about how he used neutral density filters combined with flash to get a really shallow depth of field with the punch of a flash. It’s a great look, and I’ve found myself using that set-up more and more. I’ve also developed an addiction to tethering – I love having a laptop on set whenever I can.

What current projects are you working on?
I’ve done lots of editorial work in town and so every now and then I’ll have a magazine project come up. I’m also working on some projects involving 3D. It’s an area I had a little work in a long time ago, and I’ve been working on some fine art images that blend photography and CG images. I also do fun holiday card images for clients every year at austinchristmascards.com. They take up a lot of time starting around October, and it’s always a challenge as every client is unique! Additionally, I just launched an Introduction to Compositing e-book with Peachpit Press. It’s a great deal at $5, and they have several for sale at fuelbooks.com.

Who is your dream client?
A lot of creative types will say that a dream client is one that will let you create whatever you want. I’ve found, however, that I like a little bit of constraint. I’d rather have a client give me their input about what they think would work, because more often than not, it sparks new ideas and directions that neither of us would have envisioned on our own.

What is your favorite thing about living in Austin?
I love the fact that everything is usually no more than 20-30 minutes away. We’ve been here since 2002 and we love it. We can’t imagine living anywhere else. There’s always a new restaurant to try.

Favorite restaurant?
This is tough. Really tough. I’m just going to rattle off a few of my favorites: The Grove Wine Bar, Hop Doddy for burgers, Perla’s for fancy stuff. Magnolia Cafe for tasty breakfast. I’m also looking forward to trying out the new food trailer area off 360. Oh – and any place that will sell me a real copper mug with a Moscow Mule drink. If they serve it in a glass, it isn’t real. :)

jeff_wilson_bat_costume

Interview by guest contributor John Davidson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

El Playon, El Salvador 1988

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

Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you listen intently, you look intently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©WyattMcspaddenCowboy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

joann1

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 I love NY and Boston but my heart was in Austin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I do is for social change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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