Amos Kennedy Jr.: From Corporate Analyst To Modern-Day Artisan

Amos Kennedy Jr.: From Corporate Analyst To Modern-Day Artisan

At age 40, Amos Kennedy Jr. walked into a printing demonstration while on vacation in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and fell in love with a letterpress. Within five minutes, he decided to quit his job as a Chicago-based systems analyst for AT&T and become a printer.

He studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and eventually moved from the Midwest to Alabama and settled for a far less lucrative income—to the tune of $7,000 a year—but what he felt was a more satisfying vocation and lifestyle. Now in his 60s, Kennedy has made a name for himself as a first-rate printer and artist, although he dislikes the word artist and instead says he’s someone who “makes stuff.” But his talent—along with his distinctive uniform of overalls and a pink dress shirt—has made him a leader in his field who can’t be ignored. In 2012, filmmaker Laura Zinger made a documentary, Proceed and Be Bold!, capturing Kennedy’s artistry, activism, and irreverence, as well as serving as a window into the life of an artisan in modern-day America.

Kennedy’s greatest contribution, however, might be his insistence on living a life of his choosing, one with low overhead that enables a healthy balance of work and play. He subscribes to the idea that all humans should do what they can to be happy, and that the “pursuit of happiness” is not an American luxury but a must for humanity. “Following your bliss and being happy is a human trait,” Kennedy says. “I think it being corrupted is a trait of advanced civilization because you have to corrupt it in order for people to submit to advanced civilization—what we call an advanced civilization.” 99U spoke with Kennedy about his dramatic midlife career change, how the issue of race significantly impacts his work, and what it’s like being a craftsman working by hand today.

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Kennedy Jr. photographed in his letterpress studio and throughout his Detroit, Michigan neighborhood.

Proceed and Be Bold! is an excellent title for your documentary. Do you suppose you would have inspired a film had you stayed at AT&T?

I would have inspired a performance of Death of a Salesman.

Or Death of a Systems Analyst! Your decision to dedicate yourself to printing is a kind of variation on the American dream—chuck everything, financial security be damned, and do what you love. Was there any fear in that decision or did you feel you had no choice?

I actually think it is the American dream, because the people who originally colonized the United States, they dropped everything and took off someplace where they didn’t know where they were going to live or survive.

Five minutes with a letterpress changed everything, but you could have just as easily found your calling that day in blacksmithing or apothecary. What was it about printing?

I had studied calligraphy for a very long time, about 10 years, but I wasn’t good at it. The letterpress appealed to me because I was attracted to books. I love letters; I love books. It was a way of working with letters, making books, and also the fact that you can make multiple copies.

Can you describe the conversation in your head during those five minutes?

What I was thinking was, I got to find a place in Chicago where I can learn this.

I love what you said at the end of the documentary, that all you have to do to have your life is “declare yourself crazy, and do what you want to do.” Why do you suppose that’s so hard for people?

Because we have been taught all our lives that we have to work for somebody else. We have to have security. Again, I think it was my generation, and even now, we have this model of working forever for somebody and then retiring and going off to play golf. And that’s the good life. We aren’t taught to be independent and free, although we scream that we’re an independent and free nation. We talk about personal responsibility, but personal responsibility is first for your happiness. That happiness comes from finding that internal peace, and I think a lot of people don’t find that. That’s how come you have these substitutions that are accepted by larger society, such as consumerism or the sports fanatic. These sort of things. The people are trying to find a good substitute, but that freedom that we so long for is, basically, an ability to express ourselves and just be happy.

You have—and have had—many admirers and apprentices. Your son Adric prints, too. What are you teaching them besides printing?

I think I’m just showing them that there’s an alternative lifestyle, that pursuing what makes you happy will do exactly that. With that comes a lifestyle that you can be comfortable with. I will never own a Mercedes-Benz, but that’s okay. I don’t need a Mercedes-Benz. I have something else. Because I think a lot in this nation and civilization… a lot of consumerism, it’s like what they say about a heroin junkie. You get that high. It goes away. You can function for a little bit, but then you got to go get that high again. But each high is just a little less high than the last one. I really think consumerism functions at that level in this society.

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I read the paper by Andrew Steeves, “Print! Amos Kennedy, Jr. & the Fine Art of Rabblerousery.” He wrote that “at first your work appears to be chaotic and accidental.” Can you describe what you’re doing?

What I am doing is actually mimicking my world vision. The vision of what I think is the world. It can be very easily summed up in the snowflake. No two snowflakes are the same. No two of my posters are really the same. It speaks to the individuality of each person; the uniqueness. They are unique on their own when you take time to look at just one, but if you look at them collectively, they are equally as beautiful.

What I am doing is actually mimicking my world vision. The vision of what I think is the world.

Your former professor, Walter Hamady at the University of Wisconsin, he’s known for many things, including his book series The Interminable Gabberjabbs, and his use of satire and poking fun. It seems you found in him a kindred spirit.

I did. He is a master craftsperson. He pays great attention to detail, and his work is very intentional. This is one of the things that I’ve learned, and he is a very irreverent person. And that’s part of his talent … people either love him or hate him.

Gabberjabbs influenced your NappygRams [negroes in art collection], right?

They did in one respect, but he just questioned things. He questioned and he explored. The NappygRams started out purely as a political statement, as a manifestation of a frustration I was experiencing [while teaching] at Indiana University. The first NappygRam was “Affirmative Action is a Joke.” I was just tired of it. I was just tired of what we think about affirmative action; the critics of affirmative action. The fact that if it was really working then we wouldn’t be having this discussion 20 years later.

Which brings me to the fact that you don’t shy away from politics in your work. It’s a major part of what you do. Would you say activism was always part of your life, or really only since you started “making stuff”?

I tell people, I’m always a person who will disagree with everybody. Sometimes for fun, but a lot of times because I just saw that there was an injustice somewhere. I would challenge teachers when the normal people would not. Or the way that they would challenge them would be in some rough, traditional way. I would just challenge them on the point.

You play a lot with race, identity, and perception in your work and in yourself, i.e. calling yourself a “humble negro printer,” being “Mr. Overalls” and using racially charged images like Sambo and Aunt Jemima. Are you successful as a provocateur, and what are you hoping to accomplish?

I think I am successful to a point, and what I’m hoping to accomplish is to change people’s perceptions of these things. The racially charged images are actually paying homage to the fact that these were images that were used. We cannot whitewash our history, OK? We have to look at it, and say, “Wow, this is what happened.” One of the most racially charged, hatefully charged images is the swastika, but you see it all the time. But the sun sign is what the swastika was based upon… People say, Oh I can’t put that up because it’s the swastika.” There was once a saying that if you want to sell a book, put the swastika on the cover and you would sell another 10,000.

You go to India, you see it everywhere. It means something entirely different.

Right, right. How is it that one political party can take a sign for less than 50 years and turn it into, we don’t even want to see this anymore. That sign that has been around for millennia. But the swastika we see all the time. This is in one way a racist act. In one way we’re praising the Nazis but damning the Indians who had the sign, and that sign is universal. It’s a very primitive sign. You find it in African cultures. You find it in European cultures. It was everywhere in the United States before WWII.

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And you feel you’re making your point?

Yes, it is being made and it’s being made slowly… it’s reclaiming. It is very much like the word black. In the ’50s, people who were descendants of African slaves did not really want to be called black. But in the ’60s, we reclaimed that word and turned it into something beautiful. Black is beautiful.” Black Power.” That is similar to what I’m doing. That’s one reason why I use the term negro, because it is offensive to people. I use the term “ni***r,” and I tell people that’s not my problem that they labeled it that. This is a word, and so I claim it. Right now I say that I am a negro, but technically I am a descendant of the enslaved peoples of this civilization because I want to reclaim my heritage of being enslaved. So when you look at me, you remember that this nation was built on the labor of enslaved people. Honor my ancestors and the sacrifice that they made that you can live in the wealth that you think you have.

And on the flip slide, you’ve eschewed the wealth you could have had in that civilization to go do the work you do.

Right.

Your family left the Deep South for Michigan when you were still a kid. When you started printing, you moved to Alabama for a while, and a few years ago you settled in Detroit. Why did you leave the South once again for the Midwest?

I needed an airport. I do a lot of traveling, and so I needed to be close to an airport because my traveling was requiring me get up at two o’clock in the morning, drive 90 miles to the airport, and then take the early flight. Air travel was taking the entire day.

You couldn’t have moved near Atlanta?

Well, Detroit was the only city that I could live in at the lifestyle I had. I could move to Atlanta, but I would have to work harder, and I think that would ruin my relationship with the work that I do. I tell students if what you want to do is print, you find the place where you can afford to print more.

You raised beyond $30,000 to meet your mark for the Detroit Printing Plant, the print shop, the book bindery, and the handmade paper mill that you have wanted to have built in Detroit. What is the status? Is this fully operational at this point?

No. Unfortunately Detroit, I tell people, believe the hype but don’t believe the hype. I thought I could roll in there, three months later have a building and boom—six months it would be up and running. It didn’t work that way. The status now is that we have secured a building. We changed the name of the project to simply the Printing Plant, the Printery of the Americas. We’re a 501(c)(3). We’ve also secured a house for people to live in, and a plot of vacant land for a garden. And now I’m on phase two. Those funds have been depleted, but we are going forward because I found a new source of some funds to allow for the occupation of the building.

Would the occupants be apprentices?

I would not call them apprentices. There will be people who want to explore their relationship with letterpress printing. To have an apprentice means I would have to make money, and I am at the point now where I want to make as little money as possible. I will have to earn money for the renovation of the building. That means I’m going to have to work much harder. That’s a cause I want to do. I don’t want to say, Janice is dependent upon me paying her $2,400 this month so she can have her rent and she can live her life.” I’m willing to make a big capital investment, but the ongoing maintenance should go to the building.

You have said you print because you’re good at it. You have also said that your goal was to be a master printer. Are you there yet?

No. I still have a long way to go. There’s a lot to learn, and I have seen people who move with great fluidity through the print shop, through the whole process. It is almost an effortless motion. It’s like water going down a creek, very slowly, very gently. Like watching a leaf float down the river.

And that’s how you’ll know? How does anyone know when they are that and when they’ve mastered something? Can they see it in themselves?

I believe that they can. I am hoping that I will be able to say, I am now at the point where I can really learn. And let me just add that at this point in my career, I do not believe that I am mastering the craft so much as I am allowing the craft to explain the workings of the universe—the workings of the universe and the connections that make the universe flow.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2l8CQKy

If I Had To Do It All Over Again

If I Had To Do It All Over Again

You hear it all the time: “Everything happens for a reason.” Let it sit there for a minute. Marinate. Steep. What exactly prompted that thought? You flunked a class. You got fired. You presented a really wacky idea in a pitch meeting when something more conservative would have won the gig. Regrets. We all have ‘em.

Does everything really happen for some indefinable reason? Probably not. Call it a defense mechanism, something you say when you’ve screwed up and you need a way to move on. But sometimes we need to live with our mistakes. Own them. How else will we remember not to make them in the future? A little wallowing, as long as it’s not paralyzing, never hurt anyone.

So we decided to throw this query out to designers of all stripes, from leaders at Airbnb and Shake Shack to those guiding bold studios like La Tortilleria: If you could look back at your career and rethink one of your big decisions, what would it be? And why?

Sure, we wanted to hear about the do-overs, but our main premise wasn’t to make anyone dredge up unpleasant moments. Rather, our goal was to have them weigh the choices they made then, based on what they know now.  We were looking to commiserate. We were looking for a little wisdom. We got both.

Laura Seargeant Richardson

Creative director, Argodesign / Austin, Texas

I would have trusted my instincts and drawn every damn day.

I would recognize that the future is by our design, but some things never change and that is the ability to communicate our ideas across mediums. Because we rely on the visual medium more than any other, I believe it has the greatest weight and importance to the design profession. My instinct was to take art in high school. At the time, my mom suggested typing or writing…something more “practical,” in her mind. That was before the internet and touch screens and a world we had not imagined. I remember my first interview with the VP of creative at frog design. I was applying for an interaction design position. When I decided to show my versatility by sharing a few visuals, like a T-shirt design, he asked me, “Are you applying to be a visual designer?” I said no. He replied, “Then don’t show me that stuff.”

Design consultancies sell expertise, and they often have specific design roles. At the time, visual and interaction design were very much separate, and I was clearly in the interaction design camp. We “didn’t do” visual design. So, while I was at one of the most esteemed design firms, I did not improve any of my visual design skills. Instead, I became an expert in the field of interaction design as well as design research and strategy. However, my greatest regret is not taking the art path. I think some of the strongest designers are a combination of art and science. And while I have an eye for design, while I can creatively direct designers of all types, I can never bring my ideas to visual life in a gratifying way. For a designer, that is the most painful and frustrating limitation. People can hear me, but they cannot see me. If I had to do it all over again, I would trust my instincts and draw every damn day.

Zita Arcq

Creative director and cofounder of La Tortilleria / Monterrey, Mexico

I wouldn’t have worked for companies that didn’t completely trust us.

Last year I went to a master class with Bob Gower, who teaches responsive organizational design. He mentioned something really simple but important: If people are not kind, you don’t want to work with them. That is something our firm forgot twice in the past, once five and then again three years ago. Both times, we were caught thinking that a large client and large account would be a good thing for the agency. That was a big mistake. We realized that sometimes large companies don’t know how to work with agencies. They don’t know how to collaborate. All they want to do is impose. And it begins at the top, with owners or heads of companies not really knowing how their people manage their teams or the people they work with.

They don’t realize this affects the entire organization. Both times we completed our work obligations. But one of those times someone from our agency quit because she couldn’t handle the client anymore. She didn’t want to be in touch every day with this person because the client was too much work and too exhausting. If the client had been nice, kind, conscientious, the work would have been just work, instead of a nightmare. We now have a couple things that we think about before deciding to work with a new client. First, do we have contact with the person who makes decisions for the organization? If we do not, we need to be sure the person we are working with has the power to make decisions. Otherwise you will not be able to do good work. Then you have to decide if this person, the contact person within the client’s organization, knows how to work and collaborate. If they don’t trust you, don’t let them hire you.

Alex Schleifer

VP of design, Airbnb / San Francisco, California

I would have picked my projects more carefully.

Look, we all have to do this as a designer – just take a job sometimes. I know that. But in the past, I think there were months and years that maybe I lost some of the drive because I was working on projects and for companies that I didn’t believe in. It’s good training when you’re starting out to say yes to everything. However, there’s a time when you start to negotiate with yourself about saying yes all the time. The internal conversation changes because something you fell in love with becomes the worst part of a job. Sometimes you’re using all that creative energy on companies and projects you don’t believe in. Working with people you might not really like all that much can be draining.

It’s hard for me to want to change those decisions, because I’m very happy today. I do feel that I could have saved myself a couple of years here and there if I’d just told myself, This is not what I want to be doing. So just make sure that you don’t fall out of love with designing something because you are not designing it in ways that enrich you. Working enough to be able to say “I don’t love this project” is a nice problem to have. Lots of people out there are thrilled to get the gigs they do get. But falling out of love with design can happen to anyone.

Syd Weiler

Illustrator, animator, and Adobe creative resident / Sarasota, Florida

I was told that I should think about a different career, something that was not creative.

I’m just starting out, having graduated last May from Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, so I’m not entirely sure I can answer this question well. I’m not even 24, after all. But I did make a big mistake in school. For a few years I was in an animation curriculum, and I almost failed out. Well, failed sounds too severe, but my grades weren’t good enough to continue in the program. How did I get into that situation? I was trying to force myself to do work I thought, and others were telling me, was valuable. Sometimes I wish I had listened to my gut and switched majors to illustration earlier, because it would have saved me a lot of emotional turmoil.

But, I wonder if, had I done that, would I have learned the lessons I live by today?

I came out of high school in northern West Virginia, where I breezed through school and never failed at anything. I was accepted into this prestigious program and, two years later, I was struggling. Before that point, I never had the feeling of not being good at something I was trying really hard to do well in. The curriculum demanded a certain style, a form-and-volume-based drawing style.  When I wasn’t able to make it work that way, I was simply told I was wrong, without any other explanation.

It’s the first time I felt like my style wasn’t a good fit for the program. After all, I was getting the feedback from professors via their critiques and my grades that it wasn’t working out. I was even told that I should think about a different career, something that was not creative. I was a wreck!

So here I am a few years later, and I’m an illustrator and an animator. The Adobe creative residency program plucked me out and has been sponsoring me for nearly a year and will continue to April. It wasn’t until I switched over to illustration that things began feeling more comfortable for me. All along, I knew it would be a better fit, but there was this stigma at school that illustration was for the weak, that it was the easy way out.

It wasn’t until a classmate made the switch that I realized I could switch, too. In the end it added up to another year of school, but it was worth it. I started rebuilding myself and my work from the ground up, because I had a clean slate and a fresh start. I now make work about what I like, by doing it how I like to make it. I’m building an online community (my streaming channel) around this idea, for others who might not have a good working or educational space, like I didn’t for a long time. I can do what I do now because of what I learned in both animation and illustration.

Cathie Urushibata

Art director, Shake Shack / New York City

I rationalized the excuse due to cost and timing, but in reality I was just scared.

If I had to do it all over again, I would have studied abroad for a semester as an undergrad at Cal State Long Beach. I was a fine arts and illustration major. We had opportunities to study abroad in places like Italy. I could imagine myself drawing and painting in front of an original Michelangelo. At the same time, the required art history course I was taking covered the Italian Renaissance. I picked up some pamphlets and did some research; it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

But once I learned how much more expensive it would be to travel abroad and that it would delay my graduation, I didn’t go through with it. In my head, I made excuses – too expensive and not the right time. In reality, I was just scared. 

I moved to New York City for grad school and got some experience being on my own. After that, I didn’t want to miss another opportunity to travel abroad. When I started to freelance, I realized I could work remotely – from my apartment in New York or somewhere else. That’s when I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity. I started to tell my friends that I planned to go to Paris for a month. By putting it out there, it made me accountable. In September 2011, I traveled to Paris for a month and even went to Morocco for a long weekend.

Looking back, I should have stayed longer! Traveling and challenging myself to be in an environment that was new to me was one of the best things I could have done personally and creatively. It is always inspiring to see what other creatives are doing out there in their own city, even if they can’t get on a plane for Europe. Of course, you should go to the local art museums. But there’s something to learn from walking the aisles of the grocery store, checking out the packaging. Now whenever I have the opportunity to travel, I make sure to take it.

Rob Vargas

Creative director, Bloomberg BusinessweekNew York City

I would have still sacrificed my personal life at times to jump-start my career.

There was a certain point earlier in my career where I was basically sacrificing almost all of my time to work, and I didn’t have a lot of time for friendships and relationships and things like that. Some people might say they regret that, but I actually don’t. Early in your career, you’re proving yourself, and you just have to work five times as hard. There were days where I’d work a full day at one job, then come home, lock myself in my room and work on two other freelance client projects. Partly that’s because you have to work like crazy to make ends meet in an expensive city like New York. But also, I never considered myself naturally talented.

When I was an associate art director at New York, I worked my first 24 hours straight. The magazine is known for these immersive infographics, and I had to design a four-page infographic on my own. I remember very distinctly being in the office one day and then it was 7:00 a.m. [the next day] and no one was in the office yet. And I was like, I need to get out of here before someone sees me. Working extremely hard is always a risk. If I was out in the streets or something, I would have been like, Oh man, I wish I had spent more time with my friends. How I wound up at Bloomberg Businessweek is an amazing stroke of luck. But obviously I owe some of that to all the work that I did. So yeah, I do feel in a lot of ways happy that I put in the time.

Cedric Kiefer

Cofounder, onformative / Berlin, Germany

I used to think that a concept would be more valuable the longer I worked on or thought about it.

The biggest piece of advice I have for someone who is faced with an important decision is don’t hesitate if it feels right. Take the example of how we started onformative. My cofounder, Julia Laub, and I decided to start the studio seven years ago without having met in person. We had been talking online for about a year, but never worked together or spent more than a day in the same room. Still, we had the feeling that there was an opportunity for us if we moved quickly.

That was a big decision for me, since I moved to Berlin from the south of Germany and founded onformative a few months later. Maybe it was a bit naive of me to decide to move so quickly back then, but I think if we had thought about it too long, we might have missed our chance.

The idea of not overthinking something can apply to everything from a big decision, like moving across Germany to start a business, to making new hires and even working on individual projects.

If you think about ideas or concepts, they’re not necessarily going to improve the longer you think about them. That was a hard thing for me to learn, because earlier in my career, I used to think that a concept would be more valuable the longer I worked on it. After a while, you learn that the simplest idea is usually the best one. Remember, just because a project feels easy for you doesn’t mean it feels easy for someone else. A lot of the time that’s just proof of why you’re doing the work you’re doing.

Irene Au

Design partner at Khosla Ventures / Menlo Park, California

Although I was continually diving into the unknown, I grew, and I had a ton of fun.

After I graduated with my master’s degree in industrial engineering and human-computer interaction, the advice some people gave me was to join an established company, like Hewlett-Packard, to learn the ropes and then go on to a company that had a higher risk and higher reward factor. But I decided to become an interaction designer at Netscape, which had only started two years earlier. My friend’s parents told me they couldn’t believe what I was doing by choosing Netscape over a Hewlett-Packard, and that I was making the wrong choice. However, I knew that my life didn’t have time to wait. If I had gone to work at HP at the time, I would have missed my window of opportunity at Netscape. When I reflect on my career, this is a theme that I have seen play over and over again – diving in to build something that has never been built before. That is my tribe, and those are my people – right in the middle of where it feels like the action is happening, even if people looking in from the outside can’t fully understand my decision. When I was looking for my next job after Netscape, I chose between Yahoo!, Excite, Webvan, and a couple of design firms. I chose Yahoo! because they had the best mind-set for making the internet useful and accessible to everyone. The company was filled with fun, smart people who had a lot of heart and genuinely cared about serving the people who used the site. Most of my design peers, though, thought of Yahoo! as a Web directory that lacked any design. They didn’t see that Yahoo! was a useful place to start your internet experience, that it could grow into something more interesting and bigger, and they couldn’t understand why I would want to join the company, because it didn’t obviously value design.

Yahoo! proved to be a great career move for me. No other internet company was using human-centered design practices to conceive and create their services, and my boss gave me tremendous leeway to lead our efforts and figure out how to do this on internet time, at internet scale. Yahoo! became the premier destination for people all over the world on the internet. We redefined what it meant for a product to be well-designed – it wasn’t just about aesthetics but, more importantly, the extent to which it solved people’s needs and was easy to use.

My decisions to join Google after Yahoo!, then Udacity, then Khosla Ventures were all motivated in the same way:  go where I can work with great people, follow my curiosity, and choose the path with the most heart. When I get asked for career advice now, these are the same factors that I ask people to consider.

Each experience we have in life, each challenge we accept, sets us up for the next endeavor we take on. My experience at Yahoo! taught me how to build and scale design teams and understand at a deep level the impact organizational design has on a company’s product design. At Google, I learned how to operate in a bottom-up, engineering-driven environment, so that we could engage engineers and product managers to think like designers. At Udacity I gained tremendous empathy for early-stage startups and their occasional need to pivot while they find product-market fit. These experiences have equipped me with perspective and insight that allow me to add value to the Khosla Ventures portfolio as a design partner.

If I had to do it all over again, I would take the same journey. Although I was diving into the unknown with no guarantees of what the future would hold, I learned something from each experience. I grew, and I had a ton of fun.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2lHnV6z

Gemma O’Brien: The Future of Typography is Human

Gemma O’Brien: The Future of Typography is Human

By now Australian calligrapher Gemma O’Brien is used to being watched. The creation of her large-scale, hand-drawn murals has evolved into live theater where she not only focuses on the end result, but also performs for an audience of strangers who pause to view her work-in-progress. Sometimes that means the crowds are literally standing two feet behind her, as she carves out the word adaptation in bold blue, red, and white colors inside a hotel ballroom at the 2016 AIGA Conference. Other times, that can mean they’re gawking from the street, like when she was hoisted into the air by a crane to paint the last of 37 Kirin cider billboards displayed across her native Australia in 2013. Even when raised up in the air, O’Brien still wasn’t alone – by rule, a crane operator joined her in the cabin for safety reasons. 

This kind of art creation, one that is documented to show that, yes, indeed, a real person was responsible for what you see in front of you, is the driving force behind’s O’Brien’s belief that the future of typography is human. For as much as people relish the way technology can allow us to escape, there is no escaping the need for a human connection, and why artists who show their processes develop a following that is interested in their work – and them. 

gemma-text-1

O’Brien photographed in and around Sydney, Australia.

O’Brien likens live art to sport. “You can’t just look away,” she says. While an artist, like an athlete, can practice a concept to try and perfect it, the actual performance forces an artist to take a leap into an environment where mistakes can’t be airbrushed out. That, O’Brien argues, leads to the most authentic self of a design, one that can’t be second-guessed or reviewed later with the benefit of hindsight. Rather, it’s purely created in the moment.       

Still, even the most spontaneous act can actually be well-rehearsed with a known outcome. Because when the camera and crowds are watching, there is little to no room for error. And when O’Brien is fulfilling substantial commissions for the likes of Adidas, Qantas, and Volcom, she knows the result has to look brand perfect.

We recently sat down with O’Brien, who has been working as an independent commercial artist based in Sydney since 2012, to discuss why authenticity trumps perfection, how she balances artistic freedom with the requirements of brand work, and why she prefers to work at night.

What’s a hand letterer’s role, your role, in the world today?

Within the field of typography, you have such a diverse range of professions and people doing different things. There’s a lot of type designers who are designing the fonts that we need to read efficiently. My work is more in this category of looking at words and thinking of them as art or bringing them into a picture as themselves. That can be to create a beautiful image or add new meaning to words – connecting people in a way that they might connect with illustration or art, as opposed to just the printed word.

How did you notice this pendulum swing from a digital landscape that showed essentially just the finished type or the work to one that brought the human element back to typography?

I started noticing that whenever the illustrations I posted on Instagram had a human element – like me painting or drawing, or even just the textures and tools that I drew with – in them, then it got so much more of a viewer response than if it was only an image. It showed the human scale of someone painting, and people were aligning with that. I think it’s partly that it’s enjoyable to watch humans working.

You’ve compared the live element of making art to sport. As people watch you, there’s a sheer wonder if you’re going to be able to complete your mural without making a mistake, like how someone watches tennis players rally and wonders who will hit the ball out first.

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When did you starting drawing this comparison between art and sport? 

When I started thinking about this idea of authenticity and how it has played out in the last few years, and then when authenticity became an overused buzzword. I started reading about the ways it was described, and writers were talking about either music, theater, or sport. Then I thought how it applies to art and design as well. Although design was never really imagined in that capacity, because by the time the design is at the point when the viewer sees it, there have been so many revision stages beforehand. It’s almost like crafting authenticity, because the performance part of it is done in the same way people in theater practice their play before the show or sports people train. As a calligrapher, you practice all the strokes before you actually create something. So the art is perfect, but because the imperfections or the mistakes have been removed from the process along the way. Now, artists are starting to bring design back to something that’s a bit more of a lived-in, real experience.

What does this mean for the world of design? Stop trying to make everything look so perfect? 

Yes. A lot of the jobs that I started to get off the back of this trend of creating large-scale murals were this fake version of the real thing. Brands might want to do this fabricated chalkboard for the background of a TV commercial, but then the process that went into making it look like it was spontaneous was a little bit deranged or over-planned. Brands like McDonald’s were suddenly bringing out “authentic” chalkboard burger ads, but they’re making them too derivative and forced.

How do you then balance the freedom you want to create something organically with meeting the requirements of the job the brand commissioned you for?

The instances where I find myself the happiest or most creatively satisfied with the work is when I’ve taken a period of time to experiment with either different tools or a new illustration style or scale, and with no constraints in terms of a budget or a timeline. And then that becomes the example for the client to look at and say, Ah, this is what we want. At least by the time that it’s then taken into a commercial context, the idea actually had the time that it needed to come to fruition creatively.

Being videotaped while painting or drawing is practically a requirement for your brand work these days. How do you feel about being videotaped while you create?

It really depends. There’s nothing that I like more than being locked in a gallery by myself overnight to paint because I feel the most relaxed. Nobody is watching me and nobody is filming, and I can make creative decisions in the same way that I would on a sketchbook, but on the walls. Whereas, when it’s a live painting for a brand or even at a conference, I specifically plan out something I can make that I know is achievable.

So you win no matter what.

Yes. It is, in a way, orchestrated spontaneity. I know that it is a lot more difficult to be completely free and creative when there’s a camera this close. At the same time, it forces me to really focus on the artwork, because I have to block everything else out in a Zen state. I can feel when people are there watching, but I’ve gotten better at it from having to do it all the time.

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Photo by Christoper Morris

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Photo by Tal Roberts

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Photo by Adriana Picker

 

What is your daily work schedule like when you’re at home in your attic office in Sydney? 

I’m not a 9-to-5 person. I never liked 9-to-5, but I do have a rhythm that is pretty similar each day. If it’s sunny outside I’ll start my day by going for a bike ride or a swim to make the most of the day and then I’ll work overnight. Maybe from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. A big block of time overnight will be where a majority of my work is made.

Why overnight?

Initially, it started because it was distraction-free. There were no emails or phone calls – though now I have an American agent, so there is no free time. I just feel like there is something about nighttime where I get in a less alert state, and that allows me to relax and do the work. It’s deadly quiet, and from the attic I can see the moon. Sometimes, if I have a really hard deadline, I can also see the sun come up. Whereas during the day, I’m very switched on. I’m good at doing phone calls or answering emails or maybe planning a budget or a timeline, that sort of thing. But I’m not so good creatively.

How does that work schedule sync with a social life?

I used to be a lot worse than I am now. I definitely used to be like, No, I have to work, and it’s so important. Now, I feel like I can definitely have the best of both worlds. Depending on what projects I’m working on, I’ll usually make time for friends and take breaks.

A big block of time overnight will be where a majority of my work is made.

What led you to stop pursuing a law degree and change careers to become a hand letterer?

I think the reason I studied law in the first place was probably a subliminal pressure from my secondary school to choose a “smart” career option because I got good grades. When I finally was in the midst of the law degree I realized that deep down I needed to be following a more creative path and could never really see myself as a lawyer. Once I had this realization, I knew I needed to make the switch from law to art or design. When I chose design, the field of graphic design was the closest thing to art that had a feasible career. So many designers say that. They either want to design a record cover for their favorite band or they want to be an artist – graphic design is the second-best option and I was probably in that category.

I didn’t discover typography until the first year of law school, and, even then I remember thinking that the idea of working every day only with lettering and typography was not possible. I didn’t know anyone that was doing that at the time and in the industry, there wasn’t anyone who was a letterer. It was pre Jessica Hische. No examples of people doing that. You were a graphic designer or in illustrator. I think the shift in my design degree also happened with the shift in the industry where typography and lettering really grew and the opportunity to just focus on that became a reality. Now, that is pretty much what I do.

What advice would you give an aspiring hand letterer trying to to break into the field?

I think five years ago you could have said, Get your work out there on a blog or on Instagram. Now, there are so many people on those channels that I don’t even know if that’s the right way. I have always believed that it has to be about the work first. If you spend the time finding what it is that is unique to you and focus on creating as much of the best work that you possibly can, at least then you have the groundwork to do more, whether it’s meeting the right person or working.

When I chose design, the field of graphic design was the closest thing to art that had a feasible career

What separates good work from not-good work? 

In the world of lettering, typography, and calligraphy, it’s difficult now, because a lot of young designers are learning about fonts and typefaces, but they are not learning about the history of calligraphy and writing, which informs “good” and “bad.” There is a fine line between being a really annoying designer who says this is not good because of this and this, and looking at the bigger picture by asking, What do people respond to? For me, that was a big jump to make. Going from, Okay, well it is important to know the history, but how people react on first impression also has value. Maybe it isn’t about being too tedious and specific about the rules but also finding balance between the rules and viewer response.

It’s like how someone who writes a classic book is held in higher regard than someone who writes a mass market paperback best-seller. They’re both good works, but they are judged differently.

Exactly. And you can’t discount something just because it’s popular. The Kardashians, for example. I always think, What is going on? But there must be something that people are connecting with. You can’t just be like, Everyone is stupid.

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Your typographic work takes on many forms – calligraphic brushwork, illustrated letterforms, digital type, hand-painted murals, and even fine-point-pen drawings of puke puns on airplane barf bags. Why pursue different styles, even within the lettering family?

I know a lot of designers who think you need to have a style so that people know you for that, but I think that, especially within typography and lettering, the restraints of the alphabet are enough. I always wanted to show a different range of skills and styles within what I do, so that people were not pigeonholing me into one particular style.

Some of your greatest competition for jobs in the future might not be only your fellow artists, but from robots that can mimic hand movements and produce calligraphy. That’s freaky. How do you feel about this?

I find it interesting because I’ve started to think, What are the real applications for this? Other than the company in New York [Bond] where they are using robots to create handwritten notes.

Yeah, robotic, handwritten notes. That is an oxymoron.

Yes, I would never do that for anything other than the novelty factor. I’m curious to see if it does have a big audience and there are people who have robots write sentimental notes. I mean, what other applications would there be in daily use for a calligraphy robot?

Brands could hire a robot to do their hand-drawn work cheaper and faster?

Exactly. But then it takes away the value of it being done by hand. There is a Japanese robot that is interesting because it was taken to a Japanese school and used to teach some young Japanese students Japanese calligraphy, while a teacher was also there. I like the idea of that in the future. Imagine if we end up having some bionic arm on a human and then you could just download Gemma O’Brien’s Brush Lettering program and your bionic hand guides you through the letters. You wouldn’t need to come to my workshop. You just download the software into your bionic arm and then you get the pen and you can do it yourself. Could it go that far?

I have always believed that it has to be about the work first.

You’re traveling around the world for work, while you remain based in Sydney. Have you ever thought about leaving for a new creative environment, like New York City?    

In the last few years I’ve thought that maybe I should move to New York since it’s the thing for all of the creatives in Australia to do. But after seeing all these other cities I realized that I really liked Australia as a place to knuckle down and do the work in between all the travel. There is a small but growing creative community there with lots of amazing letterers, artists, and a street art scene. I actually got asked in an interview once, Gemma, all the best letterers are in Brooklyn. Why don’t you live there? Because so many styles are shared instantly online, being in Australia is the right place for me to create great work. It’s isolated, I don’t have any distractions, and being there allows me to tap into something creatively that’s completely unique to the rest of the world, my surroundings.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2kD0Gum

How to Run a Studio with Your Spouse

How to Run a Studio with Your Spouse

Stefanie Weigler and David Heasty eat practically every meal together because, when you’re married, and business partners, that is just par for the course. As the founding, and only, employees of Brooklyn-based Triboro Design, they spend an inordinate ordinate amount of time together. Even when one has to work on deadline over the weekend, the other will usually join them in the office. “We go for solidarity,” says Heasty.

The two met through their previous boss and mentor, Design Machine creative director Alexander Gelman (though they worked at Design Machine at different times).

Almost immediately after meeting, Heasty, a native Texan, and Weigler, originally from Germany, hit it off. At Triboro, their nine-year-old studio, they’ve focused their efforts on print and branding projects. They’ve created the identity for the clothing company Everlane, developed a custom typeface for one of Vanity Fair’s “Best-Dressed List” issues, and reimagined the word Nike as NYC for a Nike NYC campaign. 

During the workday, the two sit next to each other. When one needs space for an idea to come to life, that person will move to their USM Haler table, which is purposely free of a computer and phone, or take a walk around their Greenpoint neighborhood. As for whose job it is to cook dinner, that generally falls to the person more adept in the kitchen. “Stefanie is certainly more successful,” says Heasty. “But David knows how to cook now,” says Weigler. “That’s stretching it,” says Heasty. “I can prepare food.”

In a series of candid interviews, Weigler and Heasty discussed what it is really like for a married couple to run a studio together, why they don’t sugarcoat their feedback on each other’s projects, and how it can be impossible to separate work life from home life.

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What happened first, the crush or the business partnership?

Stefanie: The crush, actually. We got along right away, but we didn’t think about working together for a long time. He’s a charming guy and a nice person. Super relaxed also.

David: We actually met through Gelman. In addition to him being a mentor, he was also matchmaker. After I left and was doing other things, he hired Stefanie and was like, Oh, I have this lovely intern working with me. I think you would like her.

Stefanie: But I actually had a relationship at the time. 

David: After we met, though, we started dating almost instantly. Then we got married about a year later and then started our company a year after that.

What opened the door to you two working together?

Stefanie: We were both working independently at different design firms and were not very happy in terms of the creativity and freedom we got there. Since we were already working on a few side projects together, we thought that since we both had cheap rent and were young, why not go for it?

David: We hadn’t planned on working together, but because we had the same mentor, we had  similar aesthetic and abilities. It just made perfect sense.

What’s it been like collaborating with your spouse?

David: Being husband and wife, we can just say, “You know what? You’re on the wrong track,” or This is totally good. Whereas, I feel like when you’re talking to your peers and you don’t love what they made, then you’re going to have to always sugarcoat it. At least with us, our relationship is strong enough that we can really butcher each other’s designs if we have to.

Stefanie: I think it’s a benefit, because sometimes you get blind about your work, so you need to step away from it and have someone else look at it. Everyone knows the feeling when you’ve worked really hard on something and you’re excited, and you show it to your partner and they say, Come on. Are you kidding me? That’s always really tough, but then you know it must be true because I believe in his opinion so much.

What was it like having a pretty young marriage and a young business and trying to build both of those at the same time?

David: It was all-consuming in the beginning, trying to create some kind of a foundation. On the other hand, it was awesome because you’re with your wife all the time. It’s not like you’re going away and leaving her twelve hours a day. You’re spending a lot of time together – a lot of quality time. Then, because you’re so invested in each other’s success, you really have each other’s back. Some people tell me, I could never work with my spouse. I think they’re probably right, too.

Can you separate your home and work lives?

David: No. It’s impossible. It all melds together. When it’s your own business, it takes all of your energy and thought, or most of it. For better or for worse. Obviously, there’s a downside to it. The number one downside, I would say, is that you end up becoming so aligned and connected that it’s hard to bring in new people. It’s hard to expand your team. Every once in a while we bring in a collaborator when there is something that we are not capable of doing on our own. But if there’s something we can physically do ourselves, we tend to do it ourselves.

How do you decide who works on what projects?

Stefanie: It depends on the project and client. By now we have some long-term clients that each of us handles projects for. When there is a new client coming in, we both work on it, drafting ideas and coming up with concepts. When it comes to execution, it really depends on what the client picks. We show them different directions and sometimes they pick mine and sometimes they pick David’s. That person is then usually more involved than the other.

David: It’s pretty seldom when we both work equally on a project because it’s just hard to hand over the whole project and have the other person design something for it. It doesn’t make sense, so we pretty much stick with our own clients or projects.

Stefanie: David has a strong editorial background, so he does most of the custom typography. I like to do a lot of hands-on stuff. Both of us come up with ideas. For us, it’s really about who creates the best idea or the best form of execution, and that’s the winner.

It’s not about me needing to feed my ego. I think maybe that was true early on, but now, after so many years, you feel like you’ve done it and you’re fine. You just want the best work to be done. We also need enough time. We don’t like to work on something that should be done by yesterday. What can the client expect if you have no time to think about it?

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Rather than getting bigger and bigger as an agency, your definition of success seems to be reaching a place that you’re happy with creatively, making enough money to live that life, and feeling content there. How did you come to that?

David: Back in the day, when I started, all the designers that I looked up to ran tiny studios – Alexander Gelman, Todd St. John, Peter Saville all had tiny studios. And for decades it was just Stefan Sagmeister and an assistant.

Everybody liked touching the job. So if all the cool work that I admire is coming out of small studios, why would we try to make a big studio? We’ve only once had our small size been an issue with a client. If anyone ever asks that question, our selling point is that if you talk to a big agency, you’ll have a meeting with the creative director or a partner, but as soon as your job comes through the door, there is a likelihood that they’re going to hand you off to a junior designer. In some ways, you’re paying for this big agency, but you’re actually probably interfacing with a very small team.

Stefanie: By staying small, we also feel we have better control of the work and a lower overhead that allows us to not take on every project. It’s important for our mental health that we don’t become like a headless chicken just trying to get everything that’s out there.

Stefanie, you are originally from Germany and are currently working in Brooklyn. To what degree does your background influence your design style?

Stefanie: I’m not sure because I feel like since we both worked for Gelman, and he’s Russian, I learned from his background. His design was very minimalistic. David and I both come from the aesthetic world of doing something more progressive or modern. Now it’s a bit more organic than it used to be. I wouldn’t say that David is the quintessential stereotypical American designer, either, with the work he puts out. It wouldn’t do him justice. For me, I’m not the typical German designer. Now having some distance from German design, I think it’s sometimes too cold and there’s something missing. In New York City, worlds come together in general. You don’t see too much typical American design. It’s always a clash of the cultures here.

In addition to Triboro’s client work, you’ve started turning personal projects into business opportunities, like the fluorescent New York City subway posters you’re producing. Tell us about the evolution of that project.

Stefanie: When we used to commute to work on the subway, we saw the horrendous New York subway map. It’s pretty insane. It bothered David, too, and he said, Let’s try to do it better. That became a challenge. The first idea was to strip it all down to one color, which led to another challenge, because you had to figure out how it still functions with one color. It actually does; it’s just harder to read.

David: It’s a neon red, so it’s sort of pink. It’s impossible to photograph that color. So when you see it online, it looks more red, but it’s actually a completely different color.

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Stefanie: The response was positive and we sold our entire 500-print run. We didn’t get any jobs from it, but the map did create awareness for our company. Over the last six years since we made that map, we’ve gotten about 700 emails from people inquiring about it. So we recently decided to do a new version of the New York subway map. While it would have been easy to repeat ourselves and do another one-color subway map, we wanted to try something else. What we’ve come up with is the wrong-color subway map, where we made the Red Line green, and the Green Line purple, and the rivers red. Then we contacted the 700 people who had expressed interest in the idea. They haven’t all ordered one yet – the price is higher now – but they’re selling well. We want to do more personal projects like this, because we’re the client.

“Triboro” is that word that fits in the ether of New York.

When you look at the field of design, how has it changed over the 10 to 15 years that you’ve been working professionally?

David: When I got out of school, the only things that mattered as a designer were that you do good work and work with good clients. If a designer was doing that, they were cool. Today, I think it’s like you have to also be involved in somehow saving the world, in a way. Also, having a million Twitter followers. The point being that there’s more and more pressure, certainly among my peers from what I hear, about having to work on all these different things that they never had to think about when they first got into the industry. That was never what we, or at least I, signed on for. If you change the world, that’s awesome, but no one ever thought that this was something that we could do or should do.

Stefanie: It’s true that there are more demands now on a designer than there used to be. In our case we kept our main focus on the work and the freedom that a small team provides. Technology changed the field of graphic design tremendously. It allows designers to share their work with a large audience via design blogs, social media, and at conferences. For young designers, the design scene has become much more transparent. There is a lot of information out there about pretty much any design company. Of course, our workflow has been more streamlined, and it allows us to work more remotely.

How did you decide on the name Triboro?

David: When I moved to Greenpoint in Brooklyn, there were a lot of businesses called Triboro – Triboro Shelves, Triboro Carpers, Triboro whatever. I liked the sound of the name. And then, as more of the industrial businesses have left this area, the name maintained a connection to the past, because as all of the industrial firms leave, creative firms come in. If I really thought about it more, however, I might’ve picked a different name. It doesn’t really mean anything to people outside of New York. And in New York, people sometimes have a negative connection to it because they think of things like the shelving company.

Or a bridge with a lot of traffic.

David: Which was thankfully renamed. I was so happy when they renamed the bridge. At the time I started my studio, the tendency in the industry was to name your studio using a generic-sounding name, like Bureau or Default. I didn’t want my studio to be something where it has a certain connotation in your head. Triboro is that word that fits in the ether of New York, and I liked that.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2ltcT8S

9th Annual 99U Conference: Speakers Announced!

9th Annual 99U Conference: Speakers Announced!

Each year, we pack the Adobe 99U Conference with insightful talks and exclusive access to the most innovative organizations — all in the name of helping you build an incredible creative career. We’re thrilled to announce the first round of our 2017 speakers and Studio Session hosts. Don’t miss out; tickets are going fast!


Main Stage Speakers

Get inspired to bring your creative ideas to life with 99U’s empowering, action-oriented talks.


DEBBIE MILLMAN
Host, Design Matters
Masters in Branding Chair, SVA

As host of the pioneering ‘Design Matters’ podcast, Millman has interviewed hundreds of the world’s most influential creative thinkers, and inspired the next generation of creatives, too

ALEX SCHLEIFER
VP of Design, Airbnb 
Schleifer is reshaping the traditional role of the designer as VP of Design for the world-conquering travel start-up.

IAN SPALTER
Head of Design, Instagram 
When former YouTube and Foursquare designer Spalter joined Instagram as head of design, he quickly made headlines with a fearless identity upgrade for the world’s top photo-sharing platform.

NATASHA JEN
Partner-in-Charge, Pentagram
Jen boasts everyone from MIT to Chanel among her clients at leading design shop Pentagram. 

JULIA KAGANSKIY
Director, NEW INC at New Museum
Kaganskiy unites the worlds of art, technology, and business at NEW INC, the world’s first-ever museum-run incubator. 

RICK WEBB
Co-founder, The Barbarian Group
COO, Timehop
Webb is an authority on the increasingly overlapping digital and marketing worlds, having co-founded the pioneering digital creative agency Barbarian Group, and in his work with Tumblr, Percolate, and Timehop.

IRENE AU
Design Partner, Khosla Ventures 
The prolific Au advises the CEOs of Khosla Ventures’ portfolio companies, and still finds time to achieve spiritual balance as a yoga teacher and mindfulness coach.

LIZ JACKSON
Founder & Chief Advocacy Officer, Inclusive Fashion & Design Collective
Jackson brings together brands, designers, and people with disabilities to remove the stigma from inclusive fashion and assistive products.

PAUL FORD
Founder, Postlight
As a writer, Ford is beloved for his sharp perspective on technology and culture. As founder of digital shop Postlight, trusted by clients like Time Inc. and VICE to bring their products to life.

FARAI CHIDEYA
Author, The Episodic Career
Senior Writer, FiveThirtyEight
From NPR to NYU, Chideya has had an impressive and varied career — in her book The Episodic Career, she considers how we can all navigate our work lives in ‘the age of disruption’.

MIKE PERRY
Creative Director, Mike Perry Studio
Perry’s colorful, dynamic artwork has appeared everywhere from television’s ‘Broad City’ to Brooklyn’s rooftops.

SCOTT BELSKY
Founder, Behance
Author & Investor
As the entrepreneur behind Behance and 99U, and now an author and investor, Belsky has helped millions of creative and business leaders make their ideas happen.

Cap Watkins at 99U 2016

BuzzFeed’s Cap Watkins speaking at the 2016 99U Conference

Studio Sessions

These intimate, informal sessions are opportunity to acquire a new career skill or creative skill, explore the inner workings of our host companies’ creative process and philosophy, and connect with like-minded attendees. Our 2017 hosts include:

Adobe Creative Residents
Awesome NYC
BuzzFeed
Capes Coaching
Droga5
Dropbox
IDEO
MoMA
NOBL
Parsons — the New School for Design
Postlight

Refinery29
Shake Shack
Spotify

Sub Rosa
SY Partners
Upright Citizens Brigade
Ustwo
Verdes
Work & Co
and more!

99U Studio Sessions

The 99U delegation at a 2016 Studio Session

Register now!

Want to learn more? Head to the 99U Conference site for the full lowdown.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2kDP0bK

An Interview with President Obama’s White House Photographer Pete Souza

An Interview with President Obama’s White House Photographer Pete Souza

For the past eight years, former Chief White House photographer, Pete Souza, has provided the world with an inside glimpse into life as the President of the United States. Through his lens, Souza has taken us into closed-door meetings in the Situation Room and around the world on Air Force One. He has also shown us former President Barack Obama’s more tender side doing ordinary things as a father, husband, and friend as Souza visually captured history.

Souza’s photography career began many years before working at newspapers in the Midwest, then as a freelance photographer for magazines before becoming President Reagan’s White House photographer. His last position before becoming President Obama’s Chief White House photographer was assistant professor of photojournalism at Ohio State University. With a tireless work ethic, intuitive spirit, talent, and a dash of luck, Souza has recently completed the photography assignment of a lifetime. His dedication to the job can be seen by how much time he spent on it. In eight years, Souza only took three, one-week vacations.

Here, Souza discusses how he landed the coveted position as Chief White House photographer for President Obama, the skills and sacrifice required to be a White House photographer, and how the job has evolved in the age of social media.

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Pete Souza on duty at the White House.

How did you get your big break as White House photographer for Barack Obama? What was your approach?  

My connection to Barack Obama began in November 2004 when he had just been elected to the United States Senate. I was working as the national/international photographer for the Chicago Tribune based out of Washington, D.C., and a reporter and I pitched a story idea to do an extensive series looking at Obama’s first year. The Chicago Tribune was on board, so I immediately reached out to Obama’s staff to see if we could have access to accomplish this. Most politicians are initially cautious when a photographer wants to follow them around, so I was lucky that Obama was open to the project. By this point, I was already an established photographer, and had been the White House photographer for President Reagan, but I don’t think Obama knew this. It was very important for me to establish his trust.

From the beginning, I made sure to take pictures without being intrusive and didn’t use flash. Over time, we got to know each other a bit. He saw how I worked, and came to realize that my primary goal was to document his journey. When the series ran in the Tribune, it was well received, but it’s only a matter of time before coverage becomes overkill. So, independently, I continued photographing Obama, and accompanied his family on a trip to Africa in August 2006. During this trip, I got to know Obama and his family better, and when I returned, the Tribune published images from this trip. It didn’t take long for me to realize how great of a photo subject Obama was—you could tell he was going to be a force on a national stage based on how people reacted to him.

Early 2007, it became clear that Obama was going to announce his presidential run, so the Tribune re-assigned me to cover him. However, as I saw newspapers across the country begin to fold, I accepted a position at Ohio State University’s School of Visual Communication as an assistant professor of photojournalism. Things seemingly came to an abrupt stop, but throughout 2008, I would meet up with Obama if he was in the area, or I would fly to cover him on the campaign trail as a freelancer. When it became evident that Obama was going to be a presidential nominee, I asked the Tribune for copyright permission to publish a photo book with images I’d captured over the years. They graciously agreed, and just before the 2008 Democratic National Convention, I published The Rise of Barack Obama. I gifted Obama a copy of the book, and this gave him further insight into my work and how I captured him as a person.

Then, early January 2009, I received a call from press secretary Robert Gibbs saying, “Hey, we want you to be President Obama’s Chief White House photographer.” My response was that in order to do this job right, I’d need access to everything. When Gibbs assured me that President Obama understood what I was doing, I accepted the job on the spot.

My approach was to sneak into rooms I wasn’t supposed to be in and act like I belonged.

How do you get people to see President Obama as presidential and as a human being?

Even though I photographed him extensively over the years, it’s completely different photographing him as president. It takes time getting used to the fact that every presidential meeting and social encounter will be captured. However, President Obama is comfortable in his own skin, and I give myself credit for easing into the process. I tried to anticipate when he needed space, and after about three to six months, we figured out our dance.

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President Barack Obama steps on a scale that trip director Marvin Nicholson is weighing himself on, during a hold in the volleyball locker room at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, Aug. 9, 2010.

The primary role of a White House photographer is to document a president’s history. Therefore, it was important for me to capture the private and public sides of President Obama, which often weave into each other. For example, I’d capture him interacting with his daughters when they stopped by the Oval Office or fist bumping the janitor as he walked to a meeting in the Old Executive Building. He’s still the President of the United States in these moments, but you see him more as a regular person when he does these things.

The primary role of a White House photographer is to document a president’s history. Therefore, it was important for me to capture the private and public sides of Obama, which often weave into each other.

How do you come to a point where you develop a friendship with President Obama and family, and it becomes natural for a camera to always be present?

You don’t have to be best friends with the president you photograph, but you must have a strong, personal rapport. How could you not become friends in some capacity when you spend so much time together? For President Obama, our relationship dates back to 2005, which has given him and his family time to know me and how I work. In fact, it got to a point where they all expected me to be there on Christmas morning as they opened gifts. For the public, it further helped them see him in a different light while adding to the presidential visual archive. On average, I shot anywhere from 500 to 2,000 pictures a day depending on what was happening.

You photographed President Reagan before President Obama—what was the biggest difference in the job between Reagan, in the pre-Internet, selfie, smartphone era—and Obama’s era? Did you need to learn any new skills?

The core aspect of what I did for both administrations was the same—visually document the president’s history. However, social media, and Instagram in particular, became a way for me to display pictures with the public immediately. Instagram didn’t exist until 2011, and this dramatically changed the role of a White House photographer in so many ways. I’d argue that it changed things for the better because it benefits the public to get an inside look at a presidency right now. Some of the pictures that I took during the Reagan Administration weren’t shared with the public for 10 to 30 years!

One day, our White House digital team came to me and said, “We want you to start sharing your photos on Instagram.” While I had opened an account in 2012, I was still trying to understand how it worked before posting. My friend and sports photographer Brad Mangin was very active on Instagram and seeing how he used it convinced me to begin sharing my White House work. My first posts were from my iPhone, and were “just the facts” captions. Then, I started adding a first person perspective, and the response was eye-opening. Anytime there was a special back-story that needed to be told, I’d include it. Occasionally, I’d post pictures from my DSLR camera, and photographers would inquire about technical aspects, like what my shutter speed was or what kind of lens was I using. It was nice to respond to photographers’ questions, and in other instances, my Instagram followers have corrected me when I make a typo or error. It’s been interesting to see how Instagram is evolving, and I continue to learn from watching as well as interacting with my followers.

Souza documents the White House on an important day in American history.

Overall, people appreciated seeing real, un-staged shots of what former President Obama was like in real-time versus waiting until the future to look back on how he was.

Instagram didn’t exist until 2011, and this dramatically changed the role of a White House photographer in so many ways. I’d argue that it changed things for the better.

You see amazing stuff in the course of a day. How do you drive home in the evening, turn off, and connect with your family and friends?

Honestly, this was the hardest part of the job, because you are literally on call 365 days a year. Your family and personal life are adversely affected, but I knew what I signed up for when I accepted the position. Someone once said, “Working in the White House is like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose that never shuts off.” On occasion, I’d make it to the gym before work, and my drive home was always a time for reflection. 

How do you maintain the stamina to get shots when you’re navigating time zones, high-pressure conversations, security issues, large crowds, and lights?

It’s really difficult, both physically and mentally. When we had overseas trips, we usually left a few hours before bedtime, so it was hard to sleep because of your natural body clock, but also because it’s uncomfortable sleeping on a plane. As soon as we’d arrive in a country, we’d jump right into a 15-hour day. And, foreign countries tend to have more restrictions because if it’s the G-20 Summit and you’re dealing with 19 other heads of state, security is higher.

My approach was to sneak into rooms I wasn’t supposed to be in and act like I belonged. I wasn’t successful every time, but it became a game to me. Funny enough, in the last few years, I had an easier time getting into rooms because the gatekeepers followed my Instagram handle, and understood the importance of what I was doing!

President Barack Obama steps on a scale that Trip Director Marvin Nicholson is weighing himself on, during a hold in the volleyball locker room at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, Aug. 9, 2010. Personal Aide Reggie Love, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, and Victor "Vic" Erevia, United States Secret Service laugh in the background. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Souza walks with President Obama.

Can you describe capturing the final farewell photo of Obama leaving on his helicopter?

When I’ve looked at previous pictures of a president leaving on helicopter, you usually see the U.S. Capitol outside, so that’s the shot I had in my mind. I also figured we’d be so high up in the air that we wouldn’t be able to see the White House. However, we didn’t end up circling the Capitol, so the picture I took has the White House in the background. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this shot before, so it was really special.

From a technical aspect, the light value inside the helicopter contrasted greatly with the light value outside, so I used Adobe Camera Raw to adjust the color density. It was helpful to be able to make color corrections on my raw file before opening up the image in Photoshop.

What advice would you have for aspiring photographers who want to be a White House photographer?

While you must have talent, there’s a lot of luck involved, too. Politics is about who you know. You can be the best photographer in the world, but if an up-and-coming senator is already connected to a competent photographer they like, chances are they’ll chose them if they decide to run for president.

My path began through newspapers, but everyone needs to find their own path to attain a certain end result. There is no one path in photography or photojournalism. And, your final goal should never be to only be a White House photographer because the odds are slim. There are dozens of photographers in the country who are more skilled than me, but I believe I was the right person for the job because of the way I worked with President Obama, my previous White House experience, and I knew how the job should be done. 

 

 

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2jVaaQi

Three Female Conflict Zone Photographers Discuss the Challenges of Front Line Work

Three Female Conflict Zone Photographers Discuss the Challenges of Front Line Work

It’s tough to imagine a job that’s more harrowing, or more important, than being a photographer covering conflicts, violence, and natural disasters on the ground. Doing it as woman brings a whole other layer of challenges to the job—but not quite in the ways one might think. Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi, a Romanian-Iraqi American citizen whose home base is Brooklyn, came to her profession after an itinerant life that has included living in a refugee camp, earning two bachelor’s degrees (in economics and neuroscience), and contracting as a crisis-zone aid worker. Alison Baskerville, from the U.K., started out in the Royal Air Force and first picked up a camera on a tour in Iraq as a way of dealing with life in a strange new land. And Annabell Van den Berghe, a Belgian national, was intrigued enough by her grandfather’s experiences fleeing Hungary in 1956 that she immersed herself in Middle Eastern studies, photographed the turmoil of Egypt and other Arab Spring movements, and was taking a break in her hometown of Brussels in 2016 when that city’s terror attacks hit. Here are their stories. 

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

Photographed Conflict Zones: Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, and Romania

Clients: The New York Times Magazine, Le Monde, and Wall Street Journal

I’ve had a windy path to photography. I was in Congo working for Oxfam, a humanitarian aid organization, when the war broke out in the fall of 2012. It made international headlines because the M23 rebels, who were the main rebel group plaguing eastern Congo at the time, took Goma, the key town in the east of the country. So all this media came pouring in, because the Congo is one of those places where the conflict has gone on for so long that no one pays attention to it unless something big happens. All the humanitarians, including myself, were evacuated to Rwanda as they were pouring in. So during that time I met a lot of these photographers and I started asking them how someone does this kind of career. That’s when I decided I didn’t want to do humanitarian aid work anymore.

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A woman suffering from malaria is carried to a ward at a rural clinic in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, the poorest state in South Sudan. Image taken by Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi.

I later came back to the Congo as a self-proclaimed photographer, taking pictures of anything I could and sending them out, and I eventually broke into the field. I’ve only been doing photography for about three and a half years now, focusing on cultural, conflict, and geopolitical stories. My entire life, I wanted to be a painter. I painted before I could even write or speak; my grandmother taught me in Romania. Painting is a very slow art form. But the type of lifestyle that I led and the manner in which I was thinking over the years started moving a lot faster, and photography began to look like something I could do better than painting.

There are a lot of risks and dangers in this profession, and it’s important to identify and minimize them, whether that means meeting with authorities that can give you security briefings, getting the appropriate fixer that knows how to work with the specific topic you’re covering, and making sure that you’re traveling at the right times, wearing the right things. But I think it’s also really important to recognize when you can’t minimize risks. There have been times when I’ve said, “I can’t take these pictures. I just can’t. It’s going to put me in a lot of danger.” And editors are, I’ve found, understanding. They don’t want harm to come to me, and they don’t want it on their outlet’s reputation either, for their reporter to become the story.

“There are a lot of risks and dangers in this profession, and it’s important to identify and minimize them.”

There are many advantages to being a woman doing this. Mostly it’s that we’re inconspicuous, underestimated, and therefore easier to trust – we’re not intimidating, and so again, easier to trust. The inconspicuous and underestimated part is really important, because, if you want to be a good documentary photographer, you want to be able to disappear. People need to trust you and then forget about you, and it’s much easier for them to trust and forget a small woman than it is a big, imposing man. And then you become a fly on the wall, and you get into that moment and into the pictures.

People think that conflict zones hinder women more than men. I’ve mostly worked in the Congo, where the big danger is being raped, which is a very real danger that women face and men usually don’t. Something happened in the Congo that I thought was quite sexist. I was on an assignment at one point for a nonprofit, working near a certain area where there was rumored to be a rebel group that would rape women if they came across them. But the thing is, the rebel group would kill men if they came across them. And the nonprofit group allowed male photographers to go into that particular area but not female ones, because females would have been raped. It’s not as if the males faced a lesser danger. It’s that somehow, my being raped was deemed by the nonprofit to be worse than a man being killed. So the men could go, but I could not. I was very upset by that. This is just one example of why male photographers end up having more material from insecure areas than women do.

There are other factors that contribute to this scenario in which there are much fewer female photographers working in conflict zones than men. Sometimes it has to do with editors who will primarily assign men, however, a lot of editors do encourage women, and not just female editors. There are male editors who are very supportive as well. For me, it’s the expectations back home [in the U.S.] that will possibly, eventually, hinder my career. Like, am I going to have a family, am I going to settle down, and how am I going to raise a child? Things like that. But then there are conflict zone photographers who have been able to figure it out, like Lynsey Addario, who has a family and child and is still working. So there is a way to do it; I just don’t think it’s as easy as it is for a man. I think you have to find the right partner [Laughs].

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One of Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi’s images from the Minova Rape Trials in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a victim — veiled to protect her identity — testifies before the closed military tribunal.

One of the things I love most about my work is this feeling of getting lost—like when you end up in a new place and don’t know anyone and you’re trying to figure everything out. Recently I was working for a coffee company in Congo, and there was a point where I was out on this tiny wooden boat with these fishermen on Lake Kivu. When it got dark, you could see all the stars out and I fell asleep. There’s a certain feeling of freedom you get that you can’t really replace. Recently someone asked me if I did this work because I thought I was making a difference. I don’t, actually. The gratification that I have gotten is when locals have contacted me to thank me for the work that I’ve done, like when I did the series of the Minova Rape Trials, a court case where 37 members of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo faced charges of raping civilian men, women, and children in the town of Minova during a ten-day run of violence. Congolese citizens found me on Facebook or wrote me emails to thank me. They would say, the world forgot us for so long, and thank you so much for caring about us.

“If you want to be a good documentary photographer, you want to be able to disappear.”

For the past year I’ve been doing only assignment work, for media outlets, NGOs, and corporate companies. I’ve only said no to one assignment, and it was because I had just left the Congo and couldn’t make it back there that quickly. I’ve said yes to pretty much everything because I really felt like I needed to establish working relationships with editors and clients, and I couldn’t be very picky about what I said yes and no to. I think of myself as a documentary photographer rather than a photojournalist, but this last year I’ve definitely been only a photojournalist. This year I want to balance it out and work on some personal projects. I have been thinking about going to Iraq, actually. I know loads of photographers are in Iraq right now, but I’m half Iraqi and I’ve never been.

Annabell Van den Berghe

Photographed Conflict Zones: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Jordan

Clients: BBC, The Washington Post

My grandfather used to tell me stories about war and conflict where’s he’s from, Hungary, and the fact that he was a refugee triggered my interest in discovering more about my family’s past. I was drawn to the conflict in Israel/Palestine, so I chose Middle Eastern studies in college and learned Hebrew and Arabic. While studying Egypt, the Egyptian revolution started, and the Arab Spring in general, so that’s how I ended up covering these conflicts. I feel that doing this job is the only way to understand what’s going on. I want to get a better understanding of what drives people to do what they do or how war affects people. I’ve said no to assignments when it was about me writing something or doing something that a news outlet already thought was happening, and I had to confirm it. But I’m not there to confirm their truth; I’m there to investigate the truth. That’s why I’m a photo reporter. I write every story I shoot.

“I feel that doing this job is the only way to understand what’s going on. I want to get a better understanding of what drives people to do what they do or how war affects people.”

There is way too much sexism in the world still, in every kind of job, and this is one of them. People at home tend to think that, as a woman going to conflict zones, I would be the one talking to the victims, poor people and refugees far away from the front line, away from the military hats or operations, because that is more “male.” That is a misconception. But it’s about the editors as well. They can be hesitant to send you; because they believe that being a woman makes you more vulnerable. So often they prefer a man over a woman, which is sad because if you’re fatally hit by a bullet, whether you’re a man or a woman, you’ll die. It’s not like if somebody has more muscle they can resist a bullet. It doesn’t work like that.

But there are advantages to being a woman in the field, especially in very split community, as in the Middle East, where men and women tend to live separately for their daily routines. There are separate rooms for women in the house, and rooms to have guests over where women do not enter. When there are funerals, there’s a split room, one room for men, one room for women, and the same goes for weddings. In these situations, as a female journalist, you can enter both. You’re allowed at the party or the room at a funeral where the women attend or where the men attend. It is more difficult to do that as a male journalist. Women from these societies are rather closed toward men, because that’s how they are raised, so it’s easier to get access to their information, feelings, and their story as a female journalist. The disadvantages are that you have to fight twice as hard as your male colleagues to get something published, because it’s still a male-dominated field.

“I’m not there to confirm their truth; I’m there to investigate the truth. That’s why I’m a photo reporter. I write every story I shoot.”

There is also competition among conflict photographers, and I try to stay as far away from it as possible. If somebody wants to compete with me for a certain assignment, they can have it. There’s plenty of work, plenty of stories that have to be told. Plus, when you’re in a war zone and you’re working with someone who’s competing with you, it just doesn’t feel safe – and it is already not safe. You have to be with somebody who has your back, literally, and who will help you when something goes wrong. z a group of us were in an ambush together, and another time we were all together under fire, with guns on us, for hours. So I try to work with people who are safety first and will stick with me and not leave a man behind.

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A portrait of Annabell Van Den Berghe taken by Jeffry Ruigendijk.

Most of the time, fear is something you just deal with afterward. When you’re on an assignment, of course you have to have some kind of fear, because you have to consider danger. But if you’re really afraid, then you should not go. When I’m in the field, I’m not afraid, which does not mean that I’m reckless. But you try to put it in perspective. You know that something can happen to you, but there is no use in getting paralyzed over that feeling because then you can’t do your job.  The point is, when you’re there, you focus on the job, and when you come back from the front line, then that’s when you talk about it with your colleagues.

When I first started my career it was more difficult to have a personal life because you feel that you still have to prove so much and you have to put yourself on the map. I sometimes thought that I would always have to be in conflict zones, for the rest of my life, when there was an attack, but now it’s not like that. I limit myself to certain areas at certain times. I take my holidays if I plan my holidays. It’s not always easy but it works. It’s difficult to say what experience has had the most impact on me. I can tell you the most shocking thing, but you can be shocked in so many ways. For example, a couple of months ago I spent a month in Iran, and I was shocked by how open-minded the Iranian people are – much more so than what I am used to in the West. I didn’t expect that.

But then on the other hand, when you are covering a massacre in Egypt, when SiSi and his troops committed this massacre on the Muslim Brothers, where hundreds of people died, that is also shocking. When you put all of these things together, you can’t really see them as separate from each other. Although Iran might not, in fact, have something to do with Egypt, you still feel that, despite repression, people are always trying to find ways to survive, and always growing. And of course, there were the Brussels attacks. I’m used to covering the Middle East, and I came home for a while, and the attacks happened. All of a sudden your work comes home—it comes with you.

“The point is, when you’re there, you focus on the job, and when you come back from the front line, then that’s when you talk about it with your colleagues.”

Alison Baskerville

Photographed Conflict Zones: Afghanistan, Gaza, Mali and Somaliland

Clients: BBC, The Royal British Legion, and Women for Women International

I always say I’m an accidental war photographer. I think I was very naive when I joined the Royal Air Force. I’d never really been outside Europe, or even the U.K., and suddenly in 2005 I was in this Middle Eastern environment where nothing was familiar to me, and I found the whole experience quite overwhelming. We had cameras with us, and I used that as a way of processing what was going on. I mean, I didn’t have the language to explain that then. I got to the 12-year point in the Royal Air Force and was offered a promotion to further my military career. I thought if I don’t leave now, I will be in this position for probably the rest of my life. I didn’t want that. So I left and started taking lots of pictures. A good friend of mine said, “Whatever you do, don’t go anywhere near war again.” I thought, Okay, I won’t. But I soon felt there was something missing. I actually missed the military a great deal. When I was asked to go back to the army as a photographer, I thought, Great, I’ll get more camera training and equipment. Eventually I got sent to Afghanistan as a combat camera team photographer.

That’s when I met other photojournalists and gained an understanding of the access I had, which was really unique and different. I decided to really explore this and I got sent back to Afghanistan as an embedded photographer to document women in war. As was the case then, sometimes I feel like I’m in the middle ground, which is quite challenging. I know that there are things that other photographers choose to photograph in conflict zones that I sometimes won’t, because it looks normal to me – familiar. That’s something I have to check in about with myself all the time when I’m doing a job. I have to think about that.

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A portrait of Alison Baskerville.

The way I deal with fear is to fall back on that military training. It gives me an enormous amount of reassurance. A lot of times when people go to war zones or places of danger, they rarely get enough training or think about their mental health. I have had a 12-year military career, which has given me an enormous amount of training that a lot of photographers and journalists don’t have. They get, like, a weeklong hostile environment course. My military training does make a difference in the way that I perform. It takes away that element of fear. I mean, I still get afraid. I’m very aware of the danger I’m facing, but I’m better prepared than a lot of my colleagues. 

“The biggest advantage of being a woman on a conflict zone photo assignment is that generally men have a lower expectation of women.”

Though people say they’re quite progressive and open-minded about gender, I still think there are a lot of stereotypes that fly around, especially if you’re documenting an area where there’s a strong patriarchyThe biggest advantage of being a woman on a conflict zone photo assignment is that generally men have a lower expectation of women. People say, no they don’t. But I say, yes you do. Those of us who do this know that a lot of times your male colleagues will have a lower expectation of you, and so will the people you’re photographing. That can be used to your advantage because then you can pass by and do your job with minimal fuss. You can slip in a lot quicker and easier. Sometimes embedding with a militia of men, if you’re a woman, is better. They don’t see you as a man, so they’re not expecting anything from you. It’s not that it’s right. It’s just that it is often easier.  

As for bias among editors, yeah, that happened last year. It was the first time I’ve ever been knowingly discriminated against. I’m sure it’s happened without me realizing it, but, because I have the military background, it normally eliminates that thing. I was asked to go to Syria to embed with the regime by a major British publication. They asked me to meet the photo editor, and all through the conversation, the editor just kept saying, “Are you sure you’re going to be all right with it? Are you going to be scared?” [Laughs] I thought, This is a bit too frequent, right? Afterward my colleague who is a television journalist confirmed it and said, “He’s concerned about sending a woman.”

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Alison Baskerville out in the field reporting.

Once you’re on the front line, though, it pretty much evens out between male and female, because you have to be close to each other. Where the discrimination appears, or what I think shocked me about becoming a member of society away from the military, were the things I learned. I thought that women and men were equal in the workplace. I didn’t even understand that women got paid less than men. When that first hit me I was quite shocked. Sexism exists more in day-to-day society, I think when you’re on the ground, doing the job, it’s irrelevant.

It’s hard to say what keeps me going back. Mostly it’s been moments where I’ve met people dealing with huge obstacles, whether it’s dealing with longtime war, having to find somewhere to give birth, or how to raise children in an environment that’s heavily traumatized. The reason I keep doing it is to find bits of hope and inspiration in what we would see as being utter devastation: the human spirit in the face of such horror. I rarely make it look as grim as it is, because I think about the person in that picture, and why should I show them in a negative way when they’re dealing with very uncomfortable situations? 

As for a personal life, I don’t manage to have one [Laughs]. It’s a weird one, actually. I have amazing friends back here where I live in Birmingham, U.K., and they’re all artists, but very few photographers actually. I don’t really meet people. I mean, I meet people, and I can get to know people, and then I go away. So it’s not the best. But I live near my brother, who I’m really close to, and I think that’s important: not to isolate yourself too much.

“The reason I keep doing it is to find bits of hope and inspiration in what we would see as being utter devastation: the human spirit in the face of such horror.”

It’s a weird job. Some days I hate it. Some days I think, What on earth am I doing, like I have to be skint [broke] all the time. You know, photography is not very lucrative. Everyone in the industry knows that. I come from working-class parents. The military gave me my stepping stone in life. Above all of that is the bigger-picture that matters to me. Even if my work is not hugely well known in the duration I live, I know that after that there will still be this documentation that might help someone in the future, either to do research or to understand what it was like in Afghanistan, Palestine, or Central Africa. During my time in Iraq, we lost three people in my section in the course of a week, so some of the photography I did was of people who died. That’s when I realized that I was memorializing and perhaps capturing something that becomes more historical rather than current. Everyone wants to shoot for now, in the moment, to capture something, to hold onto it. But I think we often forgot that sometimes in documentary, you’re creating a kind of archive as well. Look at those photographs now.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2jLGubO