When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?
I remember sitting in a NYC bar with a friend roughly 11 years ago (I’m 36 now) and turning to him saying something like “wouldn’t it be cool to be a National Geographic photographer?” He nodded in agreement and we imagined the fantastic lands and people they all must come across. So the next day I hiked over to B&H camera store and I bought my first camera ever. My new found toy and excitement faded once I saw how terrible my photos came out. I was dumbfounded as to why my images didn’t look like they looked in magazines. I really wanted to throw my camera out the window. It was frustrating. A few years later, I was walking through the botanical gardens in Atlanta and was just amazed at the amount of unpronounceable scientific names there were for plants. I just couldn’t get over the fact that someone was so curious about plants that they became an expert on the subject. They became a botanist. I wanted to be an expert. I wanted to love something so much that I would always be amazed at new discoveries. So photography became my obsession. I wanted to learn as much as possible about photography. About light. About people and environments. However, the thought of making photography a career didn’t happen until I turned 30. I was tired of the 9 to 5 grind. I was tired of waiting tables. I wanted something more. So I wrote a business plan and decided to call myself a photographer. It was a scary but liberating thing.
For your project, Hidden Away in the Open, how did you get your subjects comfortable with having you photograph them, and the places that they worked?
This on going project was born from a commission for Texas Monthly Magazine about sex trafficking in Houston, Texas. To be honest, just like many others, I knew very little about the issue. You would hear about victims once in a while on the news or learn about an illegal parlor being shut down here and there or workers held captive in sweat shops. But those worlds seemed far away and distant. Slavery couldn’t exist because our history books told us so. However, my mindset and naivety would change. After a few nights of capturing exteriors of these massage parlors by way of secret drive-bys, the magazine called and got clearance for me to go on raids or “inspections” with the sheriff’s department. This would be my chance to witness first-hand a small piece of a $9 billion dollar industry. I was shocked at what I saw. Behind all those neon lights and blacked out windows is a dark and real world. One filled with broken dreams, violence and little hope for these so-called masseuses. My goal was to capture images that weren’t heavy handed. The girls were already been taking advantage by everyone possible, I just didn’t want to do the same. So I focused on the interiors of the parlors but knew I had to at least get a few frames with the girls. I didn’t have much time and wanted to avoid shooting their faces. The sad part of all of this was how detached all the girls were in each parlor we visited. They just stood there unmoved while cops searched around and “johns” scrambled, collecting their things and making excuses. These girls were like zombies. After seeing trafficked victims held captive and in our prisons first hand, I just couldn’t stop once the assignment was over. I needed to know more. I needed to learn, and educate, and be involved. This led me to the Polaris Project Fellowship Program, nationally recognized as one of the premiere leadership development programs exclusively focused on the issue of human trafficking. I applied and was accepted as a 2010 fellow. Once I was able to make sense of what I saw down in Houston, I knew that these images would just be the beginning of my journey into this dark and very real world of heavy secrets and eerie silence. A world where everyone disappears into the shadows once the lights come on.
When you get an assignment, what is the process that you go to get ready for a shoot. I assume you read whatever text you have and contact the subject when you have one, but how much time do you spend thinking of ways to get the shot? Do you have back-up plans in mind in case what you plan for isn’t possible?
I love editorial photography. Each assignment no matter how big or small is so exciting and challenging. My preparation for a shoot is usually split between technical and creative considerations. Once I get the details of the shoot (subject, location, etc.) and understand what the client’s needs are, I then decide on my lighting schemes. Technically, I like to have at least three lighting set-ups in mind and one is always with available light. I’m a big fan of the environment so I also will light for the background as well once I’m done with lighting the subject. However, I think I spend most of my time on the creative considerations. I like to visualize the shoot prior the actual shoot day. I think visualization is so important, kind of like how athletes will visualize their performance before game day. I think this helps me prepare for the unexpected and help come up with new ideas. I get bored easily with my images so I always want to try to make the next photo different from the last – including lighting, composition, mood, color. Sometimes I would sketch ideas and a lot of times I will choose a word, phrase or theme in my head and have that as my goal. For example, “odd but yet familiar” – so I would visualize the subject and ways for me to make the image odd but yet familiar. But things don’t really happen until I arrive at the shoot and then everything kicks in. I have found out all the plans you make usually go out the door – you just end up really relying on your instincts.
If you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?
I’d tell myself: – you have all your life to make art, but a month to make rent. – keep staring out the window, great ideas are out there. – don’t regret or beat yourself up for not going to art school instead of business school. – spend more time with your mom.
(Van is based in Los Angeles. See more, here.)