Annie Marie Musselman interviewed by Lisa Parisi
How did you first know you wanted to be a photographer? Do you remember something you photographed that made it stick?
I was an art major in college and I painted a lot growing up with my dad, but it wasn’t until a history abroad in France as a freshman that I recognized pictures as real art. I was put into an apartment in Neuilly, pretty far out of Paris. The woman (now my god mother Noisette) was and still is the photo curator for the Musee Carnavalet, the history museum of Paris. my room was just filled to the brim with picture books, a lot of them signed by the actual photographer like Bresson and Atget, kind of amazing. I had never looked at pictures really, not until then. I remember taking a picture of a couple in st. louis on their porch in the spring. the way they looked at me and what the picture looked like made me feel it was a good picture. it was really natural and I felt I knew what they were thinking when I looked at their faces, which is what a picture should do. I loved it.
I know that your series Finding Trust and For the Innocent are deeply emotional for you and deal with a passion for animal activism. How did it come about and are there any lessons you’ve learned in shooting animals that is different from shooting humans?
I found Sarvey Wildlife Care Center on a rainy cold Seattle night when I encountered a pigeon stumbling around on the sidewalk. it was bloated and sick so I called 911 and the ambulance driver from Sarvey drove 50 miles at 1130 pm to pick it up, amazing. so I started working there just to be near the animals. this was after my mom had just passed away and I was looking for something real other than the city and the normal-ness of my life. What I found there shocked me and still does. I found utter innocence and beauty and strength and I held it in my hand and realized I had the power to help them and realized more and more that it was them (the animals) helping me to heal and to be strong and to face death and love life more just as they were very very strong. I became close with a raven named Angel, she would call for me and let me smooth the feathers down her back and she would cuddle me and talk. it was nothing short of amazing. I would leave the center feeling like many ancient spirits had blessed me because the animals speak to you like that. The more time I spent with these animals, the more I saw their inner beauty and intelligence and the more frustrated I became by our world and how much of nature is neglected or destroyed. I believe the wild creatures among us embody the instinct and love we have lost, and with this I realized more and more the purpose of my work. I realized that society is so distanced from nature. how can we expect to see respect, love, and care for something that humanity does not know or understand?
Shooting animals is completely different from shooting people but they can be similar. With animals you never know what to expect. you cannot make them do anything, but just like people you can create emotion so that you are saying something with the picture. you can choose to make them look one way because that is what you are seeing. With the animals I felt an urgency, like there was this moment and it was gone as soon as I picked up the camera, but then I would get ideas about what i wanted to do and what I wanted to show. For The Innocent started after i went to Borneo to photograph orangutans at Nyaru Menteng. I realized that so many endangered animals are being rescued and saved by sanctuaries around the world and those sanctuaries may be key to their survival as their rapid decline nears. I’m also fascinated by the people that dedicate their lives to these creatures. I think they are part animal or have been an animal in a previous life because their mannerisms and personalities are all very similar. I always feel like I have found family when I meet them.
There is an intimacy in both your personal photos as well as commissioned that always make me feel like you’ve spent a lot of time with the subjects. Do you know most of the people you shoot, and if not, how do you find that closeness and familiarity?
I think that shooting the animals has made dealing with the human world much easier. I believe we are all these little amazing beings and we are all not so different, so I guess I’m not afraid of my subjects no matter who they are (well I guess I got nervous photographing Bill Gates but that’s because I had to draw dots on the ground where I wanted him to stand and I had 4 minutes, ugh!). maybe that’s why the pictures feel intimate, because I don’t have a lot of walls up and I talk about everything on my mind, not much of a filter and maybe that calms people.
I sometimes notice photographers take a very different aesthetic approach in their editorial work than their personal work. Would you say there is a common theme or something that informs both of yours?
I think the common theme for me is lighting, shadows and dreaminess. I don’t really like people or animals to look funny or silly in my pictures, even though i’m a joker most of the time. when it comes to portraits, I like to emanate an other worldliness in them. some kind of drama, which I think is there in everyone and it’s striking to find it and expose it.
How can a photo editor be helpful when giving you an editorial assignment?
I love it when photo editors tell you exactly what they want and then they say but shoot it your way. it helps a lot to hear a broad spectrum of what they are looking for or what they are hoping it to look like. One of my favorite editors Phil Bicker would really lay it on the line for me, “I don’t want you to make any one elses picture, just your own. photograph him the way you do the animals.” So I would try that and then try other ways too. it’s always nice when an editor let’s you experiment and tells you it’s ok to do that.
Do you have any advice for upcoming photographers?
Take pictures of something you love because it will probably be beautiful.
(Annie Marie Musselman is based in Seattle and is one of my favorite photographers. See more of Annie’s work, here)
Lisa is a freelance photo editor working in NYC. She graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2006 with her BFA in Photography. When she’s not working on editorial assignments, she can be found with her two friends at www.munchkinoftheweek.com, or baking and cooking in her small kitchen.