Before jumping into the following essay, I ask those who I have photographed over the years to not take personal offense to some of the things I am about to say. Because I have done thousands of hours of work over the past ten years toward promoting other creatives at no charge, or in the spirit of being spontaneously creative, I have occasionally had to struggle with interpersonal frustrations, miscommunication, and unmet expectations, I think it prudent for me to take the time to put my thoughts into words. And as such, I hope to establish a rudimentary understanding as to who I am, why I do what I do, how I hope to relate to those who I have yet to photograph, and what I can realistically provide…
Since my creative awakening at Burning Man in 1999, I have received numerous emails that, whether polite or not, ask some variation on the following question: “Would you please send the photos that you took of me?”
I am very fortunate to be gifted with a talent for taking beautiful and meaningful photos of truly interesting people and subjects, but one of the banes of my existence as a photographer has been to receive impatient and demanding requests for, though worthwhile and important, what are typically art-for-art’s-sake or speculative documentary without the expectation of compensation for my time. Then, when I am able to fulfill these requests, I have over the years come to learn that I am not only rarely thanked for my efforts and for sharing these images freely in the spirit of co-promotion, but I am also not credited properly. What troubles me most though, is that even when the subject would typically expect to be paid by an event promoter or venue to perform, to sing, to dance, or whatnot, and who is quite capable of offering a gift, exchange, or compensation for my time or a print, I am only very rarely appreciated as a working artist. Yet, when I am unable to meet these demands in a timely fashion, believe me, I hear about it, and am made to feel inadequate. So, through sharing the following, I would like to clarify both my purpose and circumstance as a photographer, as well as set down, in policy, the standards by which I would like to approach all future recreational, portraiture, musician, performance, and speculative documentary work.
I am a D.I.Y. artist and documentarian who has, for the past eleven years, lived on a hand-to-mouth budget while doing the best that I am able with what few resources I have available to me. I live minimally. I don’t hold down a “regular” job, because I have the equivalent of three roles as a photographer (pointing the lens and pushing the button; the editor/retoucher of my own work; and the promoter/manager), which is, I feel, the most meaningful way that I can contribute… working almost every waking hour toward these ends. I sleep on friends sofas, so that I am able to put what few funds I do have available to me toward my craft and to co-promote my creative allies. And instead of being able to own and use what camera and computer I desire, I make use of an inexpensive prosumer camera, and perform all of my post-production work on a 2001 laptop that I bought at a discount rate back in the middle of 2002.
Now, on one level, I empathize with the frustrations of the few who have discredited me. However, this isn’t because I think that I owe them something. My understanding of this troubling issue comes from the probability that, over the years, I have not effectively communicated my purpose, my ethic, my situation, my limitations, the resources I have available to me, and the hard fact that photography is what I do for a living.
I am not an independently wealthy photographer, such as was Diane Arbus. Nor do I currently have a support staff to whom I can delegate my administrative, marketing, creative, financial, and managerial tasks. And I am most certainly not a one-man Fotomat. I am a thoughtful, kind, and generous person who’s first loyalty is to spread awareness and provoke thought, dialogue, and positive change. My second priority is to inspire mainstream society to consider other ways of living and being through pointing my lens toward unapologetically genuine and unique individuals, creatives, and alternative lifestyle communities so they may be inspired to express themselves authentically, to perhaps recognize and break from the prescribed reality. My third is to co-promote the various grassroots creatives who I appreciate and respect, and who do what they do for the love of it or because they cannot be untrue to their calling. So, in order to maintain the facility to move about freely and without distraction to discover and share lesser understood realities, I have forsaken creature comforts, geographic stability, and the soul sucking job that holds most of us firmly in place so that I may honor this purpose.
So as to give the reader a sense of the history and compounded gravity of these demands without consideration of recompense, it all started in 2000. At that time, I was still shooting film. At that time, I provided small prints at no cost to my subjects. However, at $30 a roll (through film, processing, and printing costs) plus event entry fees combined with the effort it took for me to do a shoot, travel to and from the lab, and edit the photos, I was fast going broke. It was in 2002 when, disheartened, I looked down upon about 500 unprocessed rolls from my early years that I had to consider either going digital, or deny my passion as a visual artist and activist. I, of course, chose to go digital. However, in doing so, I incurred an enormous up-front expense to purchase a new camera system and the computer that I still use today. And to boot, I still have over 400 of those 500 rolls yet unprocessed.
Ironically, after I started to shoot digital, I was soon overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of images that I had to manage, while also becoming responsible for post-processing, which up to that point was mostly left to the lab… unless I was printing for a show. Nonetheless, some people would say, “Just send the photos as they are!” Maybe this is just my ego talking out loud, but that’s not the way that I operate. I am interested in quality, not quantity. And the level of quality that I hope to attain, and that which I wish to attach to my name, requires effort. And though there are more than a few photos that might be considered excellent, I am only capable of applying my efforts toward one or a few before moving onto the next project.
What surprised and disappointed me most, however, was when such a statement would come from the mouths of artists, dancers, musicians, or performers. This is because these, of all people, are the ones who should most be able to understand where I am coming from. I want only my best and my finished work to leave my possession, to perhaps enter the public realm. And where a painter might, for example, complete one painting per week, I am often dealing with up to 3000 images per week. I have often wondered how some of these people would feel if I demanded that they paint, dance, sing, or perform for me halfway… or for free.
Another surprise is how more than a few of the people who I have photographed – who live materialistically minimal, and sometimes spiritual, alternative lifestyles – could become so attached to the idea of a picture of themselves. Then, occasionally, expressing dissatisfaction with receiving only one or a few images. It frustrated me most to know that some people would retroactively corrupt a genuinely fun, creative, and productive photographic experience simply because they based their entire experience on the expectation that they would get something beautiful for free… while assuming that, for me, it was all just cake.
So, over the past year, this growing accumulation of unmet expectations has weighed heavily enough so that I have actually asked myself, “Should I stop taking photos of people? Should I just photograph places and things that won’t demand so much from me? Should I leave the camera home during moments of great creative potential? Or during historically relevant moments?” Then, after a lot of thought, and considerable melancholy, I decided, “Hell no!”
Though I am not a religious man, I feel blessed. I was put on the Earth with a gifted ability and a purpose. I will not be made to feel as though I should stop chronicling beautiful people and important moments simply because a few spoilers can’t see the big picture. To choose to not take photos, and to not share what I am able to provide with the world at-large, would seem to me to be short-sighted, selfish, and personally self-destructive to not heed my calling.
So, with the exception of a few people who really seem to get it, I am sometimes made to feel alone in my endeavor, and separate from some of the people who I otherwise respect, admire, and/or enjoy being around. Thankfully, the people who understand me and appreciate what I am doing make it all worth it. Nonetheless, each time I aim the lens and push the camera’s button, though I tend to feel that I have taken one more step forward and am actively making a difference, it feels as though my ability to manage my works is pushed back another ten steps.
Well, I guess that’s my bane… and the spoiler’s loss. Because, though I do have the desire to be generous and make people smile, I have absolutely no desire to compromise my purpose, nor sell short my creative soul. So, I repeat… I was put on the Earth with an ability and a purpose. I intend to use my talents to the best of my ability, while continuing to do my very best to be kind, generous, and true.
With that said, though I will continue to take the time to capture historically relevant moments and co-create artistically provocative imagery with a knowing and consenting subject, I think it important to state that my talent, my time, and my person is of value. And how I choose take photos — which at this time is expressed through black and white photography; and what I choose to release to the world, which are images that I deem worthy of investing my efforts toward retouching; and how I prioritize my shoots, which first honors paying work, then low- or unpaid social/environmental/economic justice work, then speculative fine art portraiture, and so on — is my prerogative.
In terms of my documentary imagery, if you enter the public realm, where any number of other recording devices may capture your likeness, or you are in someone’s space where I have been given permission to photograph, I will, whenever possible, be among the first to ask for your permission beforehand. Additionally, I will do my very best to one day share the selected image or images with you to post on your website, MySpace, Facebook, or whatnot. But in saying so, it will be on my own terms, by my own quality and selection standards, and if I am not offered some form of compensation, in my own time.
And though I recognize that the subject’s time is of value too, I will no longer commit to a photo shoot with a person if they cannot first understand the position I have stated in this essay. So, if one day I should approach you to ask if I may take your photo, and if, in your heart, you are attached to the expectation of an end product without any thought or consideration for my priorities, my livelihood, or the resources I must own and maintain in order to take and process the photos… or if you cannot understand my commitment to being an artist, a visual historian, and a hopeful agent of change… or if you cannot appreciate all of the heart, and sacrifice, and effort that goes into bringing what I capture through my lens to completion… or if you have difficulty living in-the-moment, enough so as to at least engage in an experience simply for the joy of being creative… then you should probably politely decline my request.
But, on the other hand, if, you trust my eye and know that my intentions are good, and you wish to one day be able to see and share the strange and wonderful keepsake that is an artful photographic memory as seen from my point-of-view, then, in recognition of all that is necessary to make it manifest, I would, at the very least, appreciate a smile and a “Thank you!”.