When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?
I remember wanting to take pictures quite early–I asked for a camera for Christmas when I was ten. I’m not sure where that impulse came from, but both of my grandfathers and my dad were amateur photographers. It took me a long time to realize I wanted to do it professionally. I was good at science, and I went off to college wanting to be a theoretical physicist. Physics was too abstract for me, but I stuck with engineering until I had an internship during my junior winter. I remember sitting at my desk every afternoon watching the sun set and being miserable that I wasn’t outside. That spring, a friend and I spent four months hiking and biking across Scandinavia. Afterwards it was clear to me that I wanted to spend my life out in the world with my camera.
I know you get asked this a lot, but tell me about your project Furries!. What led you to shoot at a furry convention? You mentioned that many of the people that partake wish to remain anonymous, how did you get them to pose for you without their masks?
Initially, it was curiosity, and I knew that the fursuits would make the pictures inherently interesting. It was tricky to get access to the convention–the furry community has felt burned by the negative press it’s gotten. I was persistent in getting the organizers to agree to let me come. Once I can talk to people in person, they seem to trust me. I was genuinely curious about the community, and I can be quite empathetic, and I think that came across. Of course, some people didn’t want to pose for me, or wouldn’t pose without their masks on. That’s just how it goes.
This project was very important for me because it was one of the first subcultures I photographed. I was fascinated by how important the community is to them, and by how accepted I felt when I was there–this is something I’ve noticed at a lot of the gatherings I’ve photographed. I felt like an outsider growing up, and a lot of my pictures are investigations of people who have found this sense of belonging.
What do you love most about being a photographer, and what do you find to be the most difficult part of the job?
I can’t imagine that I would have gone to Woodstock Poland, or a Furry convention, or even Lake Havasu if I wasn’t taking pictures. I love being able to experience a place or a subject in a meaningful way–I never feel like I’ve been somewhere until I’ve photographed there. Photography gives me access to these intense experiences, and then the photographs are this amazing record of all the things I’ve experienced.
There are a lot of difficult things about the job–the business aspect is very challenging because our industry doesn’t really operate like a business. But what I think is hardest for me is how much is outside of my control. You need the right circumstances to take a good picture, and those don’t always align. I’m a perfectionist and I like to work hard to accomplish something, and photography is more devious than that. At the same time, this really pushes me to flexible, which I like.
If you could go back 10 years and give yourself advice, what would it be?
I think for me the best piece of advice would be to be patient. I was in a rush to take “good” pictures and have a career. My pictures weren’t always motivated by curiosity, which was a problem. Ultimately I needed to learn more about myself and give myself the time to figure out what I was really interested in before I could hit my stride taking pictures. I think the bad economy has actually helped me, at least on a personal level, because it’s removed the distraction of creating a certain kind of picture that might be more commercial and make me a lot of money.
Any words of wisdom for the up and comers?
During a steak dinner on a long, strange shoot in Hannibal, Missouri, Greg Miller once told me that photography is a combination of the technical and the emotional. Mostly one side comes easier to people, but it’s important to develop both. Since the technical side is more obvious, many people focus on it, but it’s equally important to learn about yourself and explore the things you’re interested in.
I look at my pictures now and they’re a catalog of what I’m attracted to, the things I’m insecure about, memories and desires and questions–of course, not in a concrete, straightforward way. I think this is what makes the pictures good, and it’s certainly what makes photography fascinating to me as a lifelong pursuit.
(Peter is based in Los Angeles. See more of his work, here.)