Transcript - Episode 77: Brandon Thibodeaux
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Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 77. Today’s guest is Brandon Thibodeaux.
Hey folks, today’s guest is photographer Brandon Thibodeaux. Brandon Thibodeaux is a photographer based in Dallas, TX, who creates portraits in the documentary tradition. In addition to his assignment work and creative commissions, he explores life in the American South. He is also a guest instructor with the Santa Fe Photographic and Maine Media Workshops. His work is included in the High Museum of Art, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and various private collections.
I met Brandon at this year’s Medium Festival of Photography, where he presented his project In That Land of Perfect Day, in which he documents daily life in several majority-African-American communities in the Mississippi Delta, looking at faith, identity, and perseverance.
Writing for PDN, Conor Risch says “In that Land of Perfect Day interweaves formal portraits and landscapes, and candid and metaphorical photographs Thibodeaux made over eight years in a 40-square-mile area of the Mississippi Delta, in towns with populations as small as 250 and as large as 10,000. We see Thibodeaux’s subjects pausing at work, socializing, praying, enjoying a visit to the ice cream truck. There is a young girl dressed as an angel, a child sleeping next to a kitten, a man standing on his porch, shirtless, flexing for the camera. There are images of religious and racial symbols—a headless snake and a framed picture of President Barack Obama on a living room side table. Thibodeaux’s texts touch on the history of the region and share personal stories of his experiences making the images.”
And in Port Magazine, Laura Francis wrote “In That Land of Perfect Day … possesses the quiet, self-contained dignity of a genuine connection wrought between photographer and subject. This mutual respect is indicated in how often Thibodeaux shoots his subjects looking directly into the camera: demanding to be seen, to be reckoned with; a portrait of a region caught between optimism and scepticism.”
At the Medium Festival, Brandon talked about the relationships he made over the course of visiting these communities again and again over the course of almost a decade, and more than anything else it was that connection that drew me in. I know that it can be, that it is a necessarily fraught topic, the idea of a white photographer coming into a community of color to tell their stories, and it’s fraught for a lot of good reasons. The history of photography, whether you’re talking about art or documentary photography, it’s a history of colonialism and appropriation and problems of representation and of gatekeeping, and not just on the side of the photographer but also on the side of the consumer, the audience. So all of this was on my mind as I listened to Brandon give his presentation and talk about these people with whom he’d created these relationships and these images. And there is, I think, something compelling about this story, about the idea of a real relationship being made across many kinds of difference. So I wanted to talk to him about this, and we did. I think it was an interesting and fruitful conversation, and I’m happy to be sharing it with you today.
Now, something we touched on briefly in our conversation is that in addition to being a freelancer and a documentarian, Brandon also gives workshops. Coming up in February 2019, Brandon will be giving a workshop via the Medium Festival here in San Diego, it’s a four-day workshop called “Turning Work Into Work: Bringing Personal Vision to the Marketplace,” and it focuses on the relationship between personal work and work for hire. That’s going to be from Thursday, February 28th, through Sunday, March 3rd, 2019, and I’ve put a link in the show notes, so do check that out.
OK, so, let’s get started then. As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPhoto to live-tweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Brandon Thibodeaux.
Brandon Thibodeaux: How was your time with Medium? Did you enjoy this one?
Mike Sakasegawa: I always enjoy Medium. Yeah, and this one was interesting especially because, uh... You know, he changes it up a little bit every year, Scott does.
MS: And so this year was the first year they did the trip to Tijuana.
MS: Which, you know, I've lived in San Diego for like 13 years now and uh—
BT: Uh huh.
MS: —and I've never been to—the only time I've ever been to Mexico is like on a layover in Mexico City Airport. Other than that... You know, it's kind of funny because, you know, it's really, really close, but psychologically it feels farther away than it is, if that makes sense.
MS: But yeah, it was really great and I got to see some really good stuff at the places that we went in Tijuana. And um, I dunno, I just—I really enjoy getting to spend time with other artists, you know?
BT: Yeah, sure.
MS: How about yourself? Was it—
BT: Yeah, I mean that was—that's sort of always been my take on festivals, is that... I think I've run through the gamut when I was really pushing this project, starting in like 2010, 2011, running through all the domestic photo festivals and, you know, the big takeaway was building that sense of community and the dialogue that comes from it that inevitably would kind of energize me for wherever I was headed next—
BT: —with my work. And um, it's—I can talk about it a little bit later too, but—which was kind of, I think, the topic I was going to touch upon. But, um, yeah, the notion is as an editorial freelancer, corporate freelancer, it can be very much like an island, you know, in terms of creative dialogue and you know, the goal is to always, you know, kind of create an archipelago of sorts of, to bounce ideas off of one another. And, so I really enjoy the times at the festivals to see what other folks are working on and share those stories, of the pitfalls and triumphs and... So that's rewarding.
MS: I thought this year's festival was quite good. And, you know, I'm always very impressed with the lectures and I thought this year they were quite good, as they always are. And for me, I always just—you know, this show really was born out of the kinds of conversations that I get to have just hanging around in the lobby in between sessions.
BT: Sure, sure.
MS: So yeah, it really has always meant a lot to me that it's so close for me, because I live in San Diego.
MS: But then, you know, speaking of those lectures, I really enjoyed yours quite a bit.
BT: Thank you.
MS: Yeah. And it's interesting, you know, because your work—you were just talking about community and how that's important. And your work certainly is very much about community as well. Um, it's something that I find very interesting and I hope you don't mind, the first question that I wanted to ask you is kind of, I don't know, kind of, it may be a kind of banal question, but I hope it'll go somewhere, and that's just where are you from, yourself?
BT: Actually from right where I'm sitting now, I grew up in southeast Texas and um, I was born in a town called Port Arthur, Texas and raised in a town just slightly north of there called Beaumont, Texas, so right on the Louisiana Line along the Gulf Coast. Very much a blue-collar oil town. Lots of refineries and fishing. That type of things. If you were a male and you grew up here, chances were you would walk into a refinery and retire there 50 years later. And somehow I broke out and made my way to Dallas about 14, 15 years ago. And um, I had just moved to Houston, closer to home, just about an hour from my hometown. We moved a month ago. So, kind of getting back into the roots in a way.
MS: Yeah. I guess the reason that I'm asking is just because... You know, one of the things that I was thinking a lot about with your work is how the community that you're photographing in this series, In That Land of Perfect Day, is not a place that you, yourself are from, but it is a place that has very clearly become important to you and become a part of your life over the course of your work there. But I'm always very interested, you know, when people are photographing communities that they are not part of—at least, not part of initially—I'm always kind of curious, like sort of how that comes about, you know.
BT: Sure, sure. Yeah. I mean, that goes back to the question of like, photographically who belongs where, right? And it's—given the nature of my work in terms of, oh, sort of looking at what the American South is today and then race relations, you know, that's obviously been a big spotlight for me in the past few years, in terms of, you know, validity of authorship and who's supposed to say what. Right.
BT: So, yeah, I mean—how could I say it... You know, looking back, am I like the perfect narrator for this tale, being who I am and coming from a different region? You know, who's to say? But the only reason that I was able to tell what I'm telling is, you know, people have allowed me to, right? And, you know, I've come across the questions of the validity of my authorship on the subject, given that ethnicity. And that raises its own sort of series of questions about the people I stay with and photograph, you know, who are, you know, older men that are well beyond being able to decipher who to trust and who to confide in and share their families with. The building of this work over nine, almost 10 years now, has been this sort of balance and mutual trust, and finding common ground. Um, yeah.
MS: Well I think that, you know, one of the things that's really apparent, not just from the stories that you told in your presentation at Medium but also from the photographs themselves, is that you do have a certain intimacy with the people that you're photographing. Um, at least, like—you know, some of the photographs—and this is something that other people have noted as well when they're writing about your work—that some of the photographs, especially the ones that are sort of chronologically earlier, that the people in your photographs may have certain sort of guardedness in their face, but that over time as you continue to sort of deepen these relationships that, you know, that that is apparent in the photograph, that there is a relationship between you and the people that you're photographing, if that makes sense.
BT: Yeah, certainly. I think that that comes from spending so much time. I mean, you know what started out as a sort of series of serendipitous encounters led from a bicycle ride from township to township, relying on the generosity of and openness of strangers to, you know, sharing birthdays with folks or Christmases or... Some of the families I'd stay with, if the parents needed to sleep in in the morning, you know, I'm the one that gets the kids dressed and packs their backpacks and drives them to school, you know. So there's a whole other level of intimacy that one might not expect to have. And my working world, where my job is to make friends with people—I always say that, you know, in being a freelance photographer for newspapers and such, it's like my job isn't necessarily just to make nicely composed images. It's really finding common ground and making people feel comfortable, you know, very quickly. You know, and that can be as surface as, you know, as the situation allows, or it can be as deep. But being able to really live and grow with people over the course of nearly a decade certainly changed the dynamics of like, say, my portraiture, or opportunities to photograph in communities where, you know, people will oftentimes suggest to me, "Hey, we're going to go do this," or "Hey, you know, it's my cousin's birthday tomorrow. Do you want to come to the party?" Or "We're going to go to church in the morning. Do you want to come?" There's this whole other sort of level of understanding and sort of blending in with the natural ebb and flow of the common day. If that makes sense
MS: Yeah. It does. And, I don't know, one of the things for me is just I have—and I don't know if this is... I'm not sure what this necessarily says about me or the community that I live in or the communities that I grew up in. Because, you know, like I'm personally from a fairly small town myself. I think that the town that I grew up in is sort of, at least population-wise, a similar size to the town of Mound Bayou, that is sort of the main place where you're photographing. But I just have such a hard time imagining some stranger coming to either my neighborhood where I live now in San Diego, which is a very large city, or even when I was a kid, you know, in my very small town up in Northern California, and just having that person become a part of our lives. It just seems like something that's very outside of my experience, you know?
BT: Sure, sure. You know, it's funny, I think about this from time to time as I'm getting older. I'm 37 now and I started the project when I was in my late twenties. You know, and when we met, you saw I'm a pretty small-framed guy, I'm not imposing in any way. And I often wonder how the dynamics shift in time. Like when I'm 55 and trying to do this in other places, will I be met with some sort of skepticism or, you know, like "Who is this older guy hanging out with my teenage kids?" Or, you know, just walking into my house and wanting to shoot the bull with me. I've just, I've always of been, in the back of my mind, like, am I on some sort of timeframe where it gets harder and harder to, you know, meander into strangers' lives without some sort of questioning of intentions or something, you know? I don't know if that's even a valid question, but it's something I think about, and sort of the dynamics of how responsive, you know, people can be to this mode of photographing.
MS: Yeah. I mean, I think... That's certainly something I've thought about a fair amount myself, sort of how... I don't know what it's like for you, but for me, you know, I'm gonna be 40 next year, so [laughs] it's something that's... You know, my age has been on my mind a little bit the last little bit. Because on some level, you know, I remember my mom telling me this when I was growing up, how her mom would talk about, you know, you never really feel like you're older than 16 or 17 on the inside, but that doesn't mean that everybody else sees you that way. [laughs]
BT: [laughs] That's a good point. Yeah. I think that's kind of going in thread I was thinking of. Um, yeah. I wonder about the social dynamics with age and... You know, I think over the course of my experience with photography, it's, looking back, the personal work that I do is very much in this thread of finding communities and bedding down. As far back as when I was in college. You know, I think the first project that I did for a photo essay was meeting this random Texas Gulf Coast shrimper and next thing I know I'm sleeping on his couch and going to work with him and his wife's cooking us Hamburger Helper at night and he's in his tighty whities in the recliner, drinking a Zima mixed with box wine while we watch The Jeffersons on TV. And then from there I went up and lived in a community for a couple months in northwestern Alaska, a native island community, and spent time traveling with a traveling circus side show group around the south for a couple months. You know. And so I guess the point of me saying all this is the common thread of all my work and personal endeavors, has generally been about sort of this immersive experience, you know, and finding that common ground with people outside my normal day-to-day experience, right.
MS: And it is—I mean, it's sort of a different paradigm, I suppose, than what we normally think of with documentary photography or really documentary work at all, and certainly different from say photojournalism, where we tend to think of the documentarian as someone who is, you know, or at times might be someone who sort of parachutes in, right? And not to say that that's necessarily even a way of working that is invalid because like, when I think about, for example, like the FSA photographs, right? Like those photographers were mostly not spending years of their lives in the same communities, right? They were—
MS: And yet we still, we think of, you know, people like Dorothea Lange's work as being important for good reason. But that's also something that I think a lot about, right, about this sort of insider-outsider thing. It bears on my life a lot because, like I mentioned before, I've lived in San Diego now for... It'll be 14 years in January. And before that I had lived, um, you know, in a few different places in Southern California for college, but I grew up in Northern California and, you know, I don't know how obvious this is to somebody not from California, but the different parts of the state are not like harmonious, exactly. [laughs]
MS: So, you know, it's on my mind often how—especially the more I become involved with my community here in San Diego, becoming sort of politically active, photographing here, things like that. How I feel like I've lived here a long time and I feel like I know a fair amount about the community that I live in. But I also, I'm always very aware of the fact that my experience of this place is very different from the people who have lived here their whole lives or even, for example, like my kids, who have lived here their whole lives, you know?
BT: Sure, sure. I mean, for me, in this particular body of work, that was the important thing to keep in mind was that in order to get sort of a real look at what life is like, the nuances of casual daily life, you know, it takes a sense of collaboration. It was very, very important to sort of maintain this sort of working together. And the photographs were really sort of a byproduct of whatever life was doing for those folks and myself at the time. Right. Rarely would I set out to, you know, to create things, they generally would be found. And oftentimes at the suggestion of folks. So, um, yeah, I think that collaboration helps in a way to bring forth an authenticity to the experience. Right.
BT: And... Which certainly differ from my perspective if I just walked in and, you know, parachuted in, as you said, sort of skimmed off the top and took what I had and ran with it.
BT: And, talking about the "who belongs where" idea is, um... I had come across—this was later last year, I believe—I'd received a copy of Aperture's "Vision and Justice" issue. Have you seen that cover?
MS: No, I haven't.
BT: It was guest curated by this woman, Sarah Lewis, and focused on the portrayal of Black American photography. And um, I think in the foreword of Mrs. Lewis's issue she had this awesome quote that I pulled up and she said, "Art is often the way to cross the gulf that separates us. How we remain connected depends on the function of pictures, increasingly the way we process worlds unlike our own." Right? I think a lot of the times with this particular work or any work where you're diving into a region that you can't naturally claim to be your own, photography, you know, acts that bridge to understanding. And um, I liked that. I liked thinking about things like that. I think that was the thing with this project that, you know, had me for a good while really considering, you know, the act of photographing communities that weren't mine. Right? And the responsibility that's carried with that. The degree of honesty and transparency that must be present throughout the process so that there's not this sense of like ulterior motives or "Surprise, I made a book about, you may not like it." And it has been a project filled with pitfalls on that. When you're speaking in this day and age about race and regional identity, and not being of that race, you know, there's a weight to that, that one has that duty of educating themselves and being as transparent as possible.
MS: Yeah. I mean, there are a lot of people, who I either have read or listened to or talked with personally, whether they're friends of mine or just people I've heard of, who have taken a lot of different angles at answering this question of who should tell what kinds of stories.
MS: I'm not—and I think most people, even the people who are often very critical, right, I think most people are not willing to say like for example, "White people should never tell black stories." Right?
MS: Or, you know, for somebody like me, I'm Asian and I don't think very many people would say "Asian people should never try to tell Latin stories." But, you know, it's clearly something that does come with a certain, as you say, responsibility. And the thing that you were talking about, right, about bridging the gap, this is something that's been on my mind so much and especially, you know, in the context of—obviously we just had an election and things feel very... like the gaps are very hard to cross and I keep coming back to this idea that it's really art, you know, not necessarily just photography but art in general, right? That what ends up being... I think underlies so many of the problems that we see realized in our politics right now have to do with a lack of people having empathy for one another and especially people of privilege having a lack of understanding and empathy for people who have less.
MS: And that art is really the best way to be able to build that kind of empathy and understanding. So that's something that's on my mind a lot as I look at these photographs and put them in sort of the context of the times that we're living in, you know?
MS: I mean, I think it's really important to ask that question. But yeah, I think it's complicated, right?
BT: Well, I mean the whole subject of race is complicated. I get really disheartened from time to time when I find the ease at which the general discussion on a national level dissolves it down to a very simple conversation of us and them, you know? Like making this clear division between two camps of individuals. And that—it's far more complicated than that. You know, just because there might be a Caucasian guy in the room with me doesn't mean that his experience matches my own, you know? Nor are two African-American men going to have the same life, upbringing, experience, sense of loss, sense of love or, you know, general life experience. You can have similarities in whatever way that surface value skin color affords an individual or a group of individuals, but on an individual level, we all come down to a unique set of experiences to define who we are, right? So, you know, blanketing the entire race subject in this "one group against the other," with no hope or no belief that two people can genuinely get to understand one another I think is, you know, is an enormous pitfall in ever creating some genuine sense of understanding one another. There was a Cornell West quote that I picked up earlier last year as well, and he was talking about empathy, like you were saying. And he said "Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope." Right? Which really touched me. I'll always believe that, you know, in terms of racism or... What does racism essentially boil down to? It's lack of understanding. Right? And I think this sort of idea of having empathy and knowledge are the two best tools you can have to achieve a sense of understanding. Right? And people generally, particularly in this line of photography or I guess maybe just in general in life, you can only really ever understand someone as much as they're willing to allow you to, right? So I think two people, regardless of race or economic background could sit down theoretically and have a genuine open conversation that makes both parties feel vulnerable. And through that vulnerability we find this sort of sense of shared experience. Right? And thus empathy. Yeah, I mean—and so I guess full circle back, the whole thing is a complicated mess that I think sometimes it's easy for folks to simplify it for the sake of having, you know, a digestible dialogue. Right? And this notion of who can photograph what or where, or this sort of protectionism I think has become really prominent in the past five years or so, too. Which sort of makes it uneasy for me because, you know, like where does that leave us as creators, right? In some sort of tribalistic quarantine? You know, under—I don't know what you would call it other than some sort of creative tyranny in a way, right?
MS: Yeah, I mean, there is that and, you know, certainly as someone who makes photographic work myself, and, you know, photography being the kind of thing that—the way that photography interacts with the world in—the process of making a photograph interacts with the world differently from the process of making just about any other kind of art, whether it's visual or written or whatever. But, you know, and I guess one of the things that I think about this whole thing is like, yes, on the one hand, I want it to be able to make the work that means something to me that, that feels urgent to me. That feels, um, you know, sort of emotionally activated to me. Right? But on the other hand, like, I always—and this is something that I sort of had to come to, you know, over the course of my life, right, it wasn't something that I came to quickly. Just the idea that like I can make whatever work I want to make, but there are consequences and there have to be consequences for whatever work I make. And so like for me it's always a question of like what are the consequences of my work? What does my work do and what do I want to do? And if it does something that I don't want it to do, then what do I do about that? You know what I mean?
BT: Certainly. Certainly. And that's the responsibility, right? Is understanding the gravity of your efforts and being conscious of that throughout the creative process.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. I wonder too, like, you know, one of the things about photography is like, I feel like photography is—or maybe not even photography, a lot of times we talk in literature, too, about who the work is for, you know? Because on the one hand I feel like when we're talking about bridging gaps, right, and the nature of your photographs, where you're photographing daily life and intimacies and resilience and faith and things like that in this African-American community, right, that the gap that needs to be bridged there, the people that need to understand are mostly not the people that live in that community. Right? Because they already understand, that's their life. And I think that there is an important function to that too. But then I also feel like the photographs themselves must also... Like, it's both, right. It's always both. Right?
MS: That seems like an interesting thing to me.
BT: Yeah. I mean, I mentioned it in my talk in regards to, or a response to a question I was given of how did the people in my photographs take to the photographs, and I remember it was a pretty like jolting experience to, after bringing prints to folks or mailing prints to folks... At the very beginning of the project I began—you know, like I'll walk into this pastor's bedroom that I would stay with in Mound Bayou and his photograph's pinned up again above the headboard of his bed, you know? Or a mother, Tiffany, that I stay with, she's got a collection of all the photographs I've taken of her children and her over the years. And, you know, they smoke in the house, her and her man, and she would keep them stored, wrapped in tissue paper in a Ziploc bag in the dark corner of her closet so that, you know, they wouldn't tarnish in the tobacco smoke. And so there's a sense of preciousness to it, right? You know, and then like the ultimate thing was to bring this full commentary, in the form of the book that was released, back to the hands of folks and to be able to watch like a grandmother sit with her grandchild and see the progression of that child's whole life, you know, or the family over time. It was a pretty sparking experience, one that I hadn't had in the past. I mean, most of my experience with photography and the people I photograph is through, you know, they're getting delivered a newspaper and they might clip that out and put it away. But to have these sort of cherished prints or you know, an archive of a decade of their lives is pretty precious. The folks in Mississippi that I mainly stay with, the Coffey family, two or three years before I arrived, their home burned down and they weren't able to save anything like family photo albums and things like that. So, you know, in a way this whole process has been like a restocking of family memories to some degree. Which I think is a very delicate and cherishing thing.
MS: I mean, I think it's interesting hearing you talk about that. I mean on the one hand that obviously must be a wonderful validation to know that the work that you're making is valuable to the people you're making it with, but also that, you know, it strikes me thinking about that, you know, thinking about my own family photos. Because personally, as a photographer, my first body of work was documenting my own family. Right. And what I find is with that work that what I'm trying to do is have the photographs mean a certain thing, that when I might put them on the wall in an exhibition that people will be able to glean something about the emotional experience that I have with my own family. Right?
MS: I think mostly audiences do, but still, there's always this thing where the photographs mean something a little bit different. Like when I, for example, show the photographs that have my own kids in them to my parents or my father-in-law or something. It means something a little bit different to them than it does to just some random passer-by who might see it.
BT: Sure. I mean with this it was like, you know, the world didn't need another photo story about the Delta. Right? But in the end, the project and the result of these photographs has really mainly been for these folks and myself, you know. And if people outside that circle appreciated it or found some value in it, then all the better. And particularly like with the Delta, there's a tendency for people that don't have a personal connection to the place to sort of cast it off as this stigmatized land of impoverishment and, you know, racial strife from years gone by. Or the sort of tourist experience of seeing the history of the blues music that originated there. And so the greatest hopes I could have had was that this work and its intimate ways was able to offer a more personal experience for someone that may not ever have the opportunity to experience the place. Right?
BT: Which I guess all goes full circle back to this idea of collaborative operation and getting some sort of earnest and honest representation photographically. But, yeah, I mean, and all of those things, you know, it's interesting that you're talking about the experience from others. And that can differ from the gallery setting as well. I was kind of thinking about that in my head as you were speaking, you know, the context and the placement of images in that setting versus the setting of someone on their couch with a book or flipping through an article on a website. I've always been intrigued by that experience and the difference between those things and, you know, the difference between someone interpreting an image when it's in a museum setting versus a personal print on their wall.
BT: I think that context, to externally can have a big influence on how people interpret that work.
MS: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.
BT: Maybe I'm getting off on a random tangent there.
MS: Well, I love tangents, that's what the show's all about.
MS: But we're about at the halfway point, so why don't we take a little break and then we'll come back and do the second segment.
BT: That was super fast.
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
Brandon Thibodeax: [laughs] Gosh, well, I think in our previously speaking about the difference of our working world and having occupations that, as you were saying, as an electrical engineer can afford you the flexibility to do photography that you don't have to rely upon for a source of income, which must be really freeing. You know, in contrast, I feel kind of like the opposite. You know, I went into school, with sort of this open mind of what career opportunities were out there, but very limited in a way. Yeah. By trade, I work for newspapers and magazines and I didn't realize I think until toward the end of college that I was slowly being introduced to the idea of being a small business owner, right? As a newspaper guy, I started out in my hometown area in southeast Texas working for a small daily newspaper and I kind of had this—in retrospect for me and my trajectory—I felt like I had this sort of perfect combination for what I do now and where, you know, by day... Well let's start it this way: when I was starting out in college, I was taking black and white traditional photography class on Tuesdays, Thursdays and then working for a local newspaper on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and every other Sunday. And these were two opposite ways of using photography. One was sort of the more theoretical and historical process of printing black and white in the dark room and a more artful approach while on the other half of the spectrum, I'm having to adhere to very journalistic guidelines and finding stories and documenting them in a very specific way. And it was a boot camp of sorts for experience for someone young in their early twenties to kind of find their way and live through photojournalism, right? Like I could be at a kindergarten classroom it at 8:30 and then a homicide scene at noon and maybe a basketball game at 7:30, and wrap my day up in time to process my film and put it into the paper that night. And when I realized that this was a career path I ventured off to the university I ended up graduating from outside of Dallas, the University of North Texas with a photojournalism degree, and had interned at the Dallas paper. And at that point, in '06 when I graduated, which was admittedly probably two years later than I should have, you know, that traditional model of graduating and starting out at a small paper or mid-sized paper and then making your way to a large paper and working there until you retire, hopefully with a Pulitzer and all kinds of awards under your belt, that model just didn't exist by the time, me and a whole cadre of folks were getting out of school and entering the workforce. So suddenly I found myself totally relying upon my creativity as a source of revenue, right? Which comes with this whole host of complexities in terms of, you know, pushing yourself. You know, if you're not working, no one else is working for you. And, you know, I look back now and I think if I ever wanted to quit, I don't know what on earth that would be capable or qualified to do other than maybe being a politician and shaking hands and making people feel good.
BT: [laughs] So I'm kind of limited here. But it's been a total blessing to be able to, you know, to actually earn a living with my photography while at the same time being afforded, because of running my own business, the flexibility of being able to take time off to pursue personal pursuits. Right. Do you feel like having sort of the reliable, quote-unquote real job, affords you that sort of freedom to use photography in any manner you see fit?
MS: Well, what I would say about that is, I think that there's a sort of similar... You know, I've talked to a lot of different freelancers, working in a lot of different mediums over the years now. And my perception is that the pressures that I feel are not that different because I definitely feel... I don't want to undersell the value of having a certain financial stability in my life and security. Or even just something as simple as having health insurance through my job is something that I try to take a lot of opportunity to be grateful for.
BT: Sure. I had to get married for that. [laughs]
MS: Yeah. But at the same time—and certainly when it comes to artistic and creative freedom. You know, like I am a photographer, I'm a writer and I don't have to feel beholden to anyone. Like I can make the work that I want to make. And I'm also very grateful for that. At the same time, having the nine-to-five—and for me it's not always a nine-to-five, sometimes like today it might be like ten to five, but on other days it might be like 36 hours without leaving the office.
MS: So you know, what it does is it means that I have this big chunk of my life that I'm not spending on the work that I want to be doing.
MS: But I think that's also very similar when you're freelancing, right? If you're a photographer, you might be spending your sort of quote-unquote working time doing photography—although I'm also very aware of the fact that freelancers are not necessarily spending the majority of their time, like you're also hustling and trying to get new gigs and, you know, billing and stuff like that too. But the work that you're doing, even though it's in the same medium that you would make your personal work in, is not necessarily the work that you would be doing if you didn't have to make money at it. So that's—I mean, I think it's a very similar situation.
BT: Yeah, when you put it that way, I guess it is. I mean there's—I always have this conversation with friends, I was actually having it last night. And advertising my work and doing the hustle, as you say, having a website is great obviously. But it's managing what you're presenting and knowing who the viewership is. Like it's not always true that, you know, my black and white square images of this particular subject matter or region speaks to, you know, Shell Oil, you know? So it's having these sort of separate identities online and balancing that because you don't always want to... You want to be in a position where you're making work that's coherent with your long-term vision, right? And not so much, you know, work that you just have to do. I mean, that's a freedom that might come in time, as the clients get better and the type of work you do becomes more and more consistent. But that's always sort of been the road of—you know, the museum/gallery people aren't interested in seeing my corporate portraits. And balancing those two identities while at some point you hope that those things find some sort of confluence.
MS: Yeah. I have heard—like, I've seen a number of different art directors, like on Twitter or whatever, talk about how the first thing that they look at when they look at a photographer's website is not their tearsheets, but it's their personal work.
BT: Absolutely. Yeah, that's—I'm teaching these workshops now in Maine and Santa Fe and I'll be in San Diego in February for the same thing. We routinely do these Skype calls during the class week with various editors I work with and in July in Santa Fe that was exactly the thing that every editor I've found was saying, that, you know, they go to a photographer's Instagram feeds or directly to their personal section on their websites. And you know, that's where you really get a sense of who the photographer is as an individual, on a personal level, what their interests are, what they're passionate about, and, you know, ultimately you would hope that regardless of subject matter, a savvy editor would be able to recognize a photographer's capability of handling people for portraits, you know? And the skill that goes into that could easily be translated from a variety of portraits to meet whatever demand they have. You would hope that, you know, aesthetically, they wouldn't stop at, "This is a square black and white portrait. It's not going to work for my color portrait I've got to put in tomorrow's paper." So there's, yeah, you would hope a lot of the skillsets translate.
MS: Yeah. And I would imagine that certainly got to be true when news editors, for example, are looking for a photojournalist, but also even for more commercial stuff. Essentially the message that I've always heard is just that directors want to know who you are in order to know whether you'll be a good fit. Although on the other hand, I've also heard from a number of freelancers who will complain at times when art directors will say things like, "I just want you to take the exact same picture that you took before, but couldn't you have this..." Like I remember hearing this freelance photographer that I listened to his podcast, talking about an art director that told him "I really would love to use your photographs and I love this photograph of this woman, but she's wearing yellow. Do you think you'd be able to take a picture that's like that but where she's wearing orange instead?"
MS: So I don't know. [laughs]
BT: Well, and you know, there's been a trend I think in the past, well, since 2008-9 where you start to see the advertising world began to embrace some more sort of quote-unquote authentic, natural projection with photography, right? Like a lot of corporations now are looking for, not this heavily processed, you know, 16 lights and three assistants to create an environmental portrait of their company. They're looking for oftentimes people that are coming from the photojournalism sector that provide a sort of a sense of authenticity to their working experience. Which I find refreshing and far less complicated, personally for me. I've always sort of been timid despite having an acceptable working knowledge of artificial lighting. It's—that idea has always sort of complicated my workflow at times. So it's nice to see that there's opportunities there where my photojournalism toolbox is relevant to more lucrative corporate commercial sectors.
MS: Yeah. I find, too—you know, another thing that I was thinking about when you were saying this is, you know, the work that supports your life isn't necessarily the personal work when you're freelancing. Right? But, you know, so like I have for myself—I obviously, as we've said, I have a day job, but there was a period of time where I was also doing—I don't know if you would call it freelancing, but, you know, I did commercial work where like, I might... I had a family portrait business for a while and, you know, I shot weddings for a while. And I actually really loved doing that work. What I found was that when you're doing that, you kind of have to be a little less precious about the images, you know, and you have to sort of problem solve on the fly. And that did sort of affect... I don't know if it necessarily affected my vision so much, but it did sort of affect the sort of techniques that I might apply when I was making my personal work. Do you find that for yourself as well?
BT: You know, it was actually kind of the opposite in a way for me in. Well, it's a double-edged sword. In one respect... You know, my personal work has for the most part been like 90 percent in film and a particular camera, a twin lens, a Mamiya C330. And that, you know, provides a completely different working method than my 35 digital that I use on a work basis. That's very fast and can get, you know, layered or, you know, it's generally more functionable on the go. And what I've found is actually when I began shooting medium format, that's sort of bleeding into my work for hire compositionally, where I was getting used to having things sort of center-weighted in that square all the time. And then suddenly, over time, my rectangular 35 images were becoming more and more simple and center-weighted. It's something I have to fight against. Like, right now the New York Times has me shooting a bunch of imagery on refineries and the Gulf Coast, landscapes and such, and having done this over the past four or five days now, I've been trying to implement a more layered, sort of f/16, f/11 approach to things instead of my typical trying to get to 2.8 instantly, and it comes off a totally different aesthetic feel. Which I like. I'm just starting to dabble with that and try new looks. But, yeah, but on the other side it's like I'll get calls about using the personal work as a reference point. Like The New Yorker called two or three weeks ago to do a portrait of a woman for a story on historically black colleges and universities. And they specifically cite this sort of two and a quarter black and white portraits from the Mississippi project as their art direction for the piece. And the European publications like the Financial Times weekend magazine or things like that will generally call me specifically for that style of shooting as well. It might be color, it might be black and white, but they tend to gravitate toward hiring me because of the sort of personal endeavors. Which I find interesting.
MS: It's interesting to hear you talk about the ways that the format influences how you compose, even when you're moving back and forth between formats. I think that's something that a lot of amateurs and non-photographers have maybe not the deepest appreciation from like how different it is to shoot in a square format versus a rectangular format. And for me like I actually find shooting square really, really hard.
MS: Yeah, because it just—I feel like the square demands a very different way of looking at things than a rectangle does. I don't know.
BT: Yeah. I mean I've found that with the square, I'm far more intentional. Right. I see something and then—take it for what it's worth, but it's much easier for me with that square to single out this one thing I'm interested in. And shooting the rectangle, suddenly that expanded canvas means I've got so many other variables to have to contend with to narrow down what I want the viewer to look at. And that goes into the whole debate of like, why use black and white photography for this particular project versus shooting, you know, color and a more quote-unquote true representation of life there. Yeah, I've always seen these cameras—I've never been like a big tech guy, but I've always seen cameras and films and such as just simply being screwdrivers and hammers in a tool belt, right? There's a certain tool that works for a specific task better than the other. Like I was running around several years ago for a good while, photographing coon hunters, these raccoon hunters. And the idea of them hunting is actually a misnomer. It's this intricate—it's a contest built on this sort of intricate point-scoring system where the points are valued based on the dog's ability to track and tree the raccoon, and the handlers ability to decipher what the dog is doing in that process based off its bark and repetition. And, so these are nocturnal landscapes. It's treacherous, running through woods at night and, you know, navigating creeks and tributaries and things. I started out shooting in a digital format with a 35 and high ISO and letting the shutter drag, or I even started—at the very beginning I was bringing out a tripod because it was so dark at night, and the only light that you have to work with is whatever moonlight you have or the helmet lights that the hunters wear. And I found that I was—at the beginning with this tripod strapped to my back, I was getting caught in all this briar and brush, and I couldn't help but feel like I must have been one of those like Independence War revolutionary fighters with a musket on my back getting caught in briar, you know. And so I transferred into using a Holga with a Lomography ring flash and just shooting 3200 Ilford film. And suddenly it freed me up. It was much more agile, and coincidentally that ring flash would create a very similar fall-off or vignette as the hunters' lights would in the trees or upon the brush. So it worked out in that sense. But I guess back, in a long-winded way of saying, what I was saying is that, you know, that these various tools or methodologies were for always for me were simply that tool.
MS: Yeah. It is interesting. I think like how... This is another thing that I find sometimes, I don't know if it's amateurs or if it's, you know, just maybe certain kinds of people. I find that photographers can be very doctrinal at times.
MS: [laughs] But just this idea of, like, that the tools you're using influence the kinds of photographs that you're able to take or just the way that you see things. I find that it does have quite a big difference. But I like the idea of being open to working in more than one way. That is something that I find, especially the sort of more gear-oriented photographer can be a little bit, you know, as I said, a little doctrinal.
BT: Sure. Well, and I guess I've always sort of held this belief that—excuse me if I get too sort of whimsical—but I guess as photographers we sort of carry or bear the torch of one of mankind's most defining traits right? That's storytelling. Um, you know, from the hand pigmented cave walls of France to using those same hands to now navigate these sort of interactive landscapes on iPads. Fundamentally all we're trying to do, regardless of the technique is translate an experience or tell a story. And so I try not to let the tool hinder me in how I go about delivering that message. But at the same time it's, you know, having a practical mindset to understand what tool is best going to translate that. Right? Yeah. I feel like I could have easily have become a wordsmith or a painter or something. And it just happened that a photography was this passport given to me.
MS: Yeah, I do find it sort of interesting to think about that. I feel like people... Like why people pick certain things? Like I mean some people, for whatever reason, either are or feel like they are only good at one thing and so they're able to just sort of hone in on that one thing. Or maybe they just only want to do that one thing.
MS: But it is sort of... I don't know, what we sort of gravitate towards as people who are making things, I find that to be an interesting question.
BT: Yeah. I mean in the end the choice is up to you, right? Whatever your angle is, is a total self-prerogative and I find it compelling when I see photographers per se, beginning to use other mediums to expand their abilities. So like incorporating audio or utilizing video or seeing installations with projections and creating atmospheres for their photography. I think we live in—I had this editor once at the Dallas Morning News as I was getting ready to graduate tell me that, back like I was saying at the beginning of the segment about going into this field with no real sense of stability, occupationally, the editor told me, he goes "Brandon, I know this must feel like you're in the most tumultuous time to be venturing off into photography. But at the same time, you know, this is also a period where the avant garde can really stake a claim and make a statement." Like at that time, the newspapers were laying off people and trying to reinvent themselves. And the advent of the Internet opened all of these possibilities for narrative-building, you know, interactive maps or embedding video. It's always just felt like we're in the midst of a very exciting time being visual creators, right? Because we have such a diverse set of tools tinker with.
MS: Yeah. Well, so we're getting pretty close to time, but there's one question that I always like to end with, and that is if there is a piece of art or literature or creativity of some sort that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.
BT: Hm. You know, with us having just moved to Houston, we attended an art event at the Rothko Chapel next to the Menil Museum, which was built by the Menils to house Rothko's last set of paintings before his death. And there are these huge, larger than life, black canvases with multiple tones of black. And I'm really excited to have the opportunity to be able to have this sort of meditative space. They use it as sort of this nonreligious religious place of meditating and relaxation where you can just go and sit in front of these black canvases and contemplate whatever's on your mind. And I think at this point in my life, having a space like that, is becoming more and more valuable as just a place of momentary relaxation and reflection. Yeah. So I'm happy to be closer to that installation. And it's also awesome that, you know, moving to Houston now the photo community or the art community in Houston is this burgeoning thing that functions really well. Between places like Houston Center of Photography or the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to be able to have this new found sense of community and creative dialogue, I feel like is going to be a real breath of fresh air.
MS: Mm. Great.
BT: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
MS: Well, so thank you so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it.
BT: My pleasure, Mike.
Alright, so as I mentioned at the top of the show, Brandon is giving a workshop in San Diego from February 28th through March 3rd called “Turning Work Into Work: Bringing Personal Vision to the Marketplace.” There’s a link in the show notes, so do check that out. And if you have any comments, feedback, thoughts about today’s conversation, feel free to get in touch, send an email to email@example.com or tweet at me @ChannelOpenPod.
And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, as I mentioned you can follow me and the show on Twitter at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at facebook.com/keepthechannelopen, or you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, it also gets you access to our subscriber-only bonus content. You can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. And please leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, that does help new listeners find the show. We’re also now on YouTube, if that’s your preference, so you can like and subscribe there, just search Keep the Channel Open. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on December 19 with a conversation with writer and podcaster David Naimon, so be sure to come back for that. And until then, remember: keep the channel open.