When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?
When she was about three years old, my older sister was photographed on Easter day. All the photos from the little shoot were placed together in an album, in sequence, showing how things progressed: girl with hat on, coat off, coat over the shoulder, next to the tree but not touching it, then leaning against the tree, and so on. Most families have photos like this, but I was only about five when I found the album, and it was an awakening for me about the nature of time and the power of the visual record, as well as the possibility of a singular voice presenting that record. The photos allowed me to see my older sister in real time as one younger than myself. Because I was already older than she was in the photos and no such document existed of me, they also made me understand that what is undocumented remains undocumented. Sounds a bit heady for a young kid, but at the time it was a natural, and profound realization.
My grandmother lovingly kept the Polaroid filled with film, and I started photographing the people and animals and things around me with this new awareness. I also orchestrated some self-portraits that I thought revealed something about who I was. It was never that I wanted to be a photographer as much as I wanted to preserve something; it seemed wrong not do so. There was a second little epiphany in high school, when I saw one of Walker Evans’ perfectly alive photos of a church, and that closed the deal.
Who are some photographers that inspire you today?
The classic greats still do it for me – Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Eugene Richards, Susan Meiselas, Garry Winogrand, also Penn and Avedon and Hujar, Arbus, Levitt, all of them. And Koudelka, of course Koudelka. But just recently I have been seeking inspiration from photographers who are masters of color and light, like Joel Meyerowitz.
How long did you spend photographing OWS?
I started the 25th of September, a week after it started, but it took awhile to figure out what I wanted to try to do there. The first two days I brought three formats of cameras with me and I spent a lot of time trying to get a handle on the people and place. My first thought was medium format portraits, my second was to just do protest dogs, but I figured the first would be too obvious coming from me and the second though fun, was too reductive. There were photographers who came in for just a day or two and made strong work, but I didn’t have that in me – I needed to become part of the fabric of the place. In the end I did two distinct essays, one on the general goings-on (link here) and one inside the homemade shelter (link here) at Zuccotti Park. Because the conditions spanning the two essays (crowded but with an often stagnant vibe alternating with high emotions, occasional suspicion, tight spaces inside tents and extreme darkness, physical limitations from police, other photographers all around) were so different from what I have worked in before, there was nothing easy for me about shooting OWS. My solution was to take it on like a self-taught workshop and to try new approaches.
If you could go back 10 years what advice would you give yourself?
Ten years ago I was in a self-imposed hiatus from shooting because of a promise I had made myself. Essentially I wouldn’t allow myself to shoot until I could do so without mental chatter. I think I did the right thing with this exercise, but at that point this had already gone on for some time. I probably would tell myself to get on with it already, but there wasn’t a lot of pressure to do so because at the time I was thinking of photography as a vocation and not a career. It blows me away how kids today are able to focus on a path and follow it toward an actual destination aka career. I was a meanderer and though I don’t regret that creatively, career-wise it would have been nice to have set out on a course earlier.
What else are you up to?
I’ve been teaching a bit and am working on something called DEVELOP to provide resources for the enrichment of the photojournalism, fine art and documentary photography community. Much is still in the works, like an online research library, but right now there are two video channels that are live under the name DEVELOP Tube, one on Vimeo link here) and one on YouTube (link here) . I am also co-curating an upcoming exhibit and acting as an occasional editor and consultant.
Any words of wisdom for the up and comers?
Find something to shoot that is meaningful to you; eventually try shooting a longterm piece. Be authentic. Embrace the photobook, galleries, prints, lectures, workshops, but teach yourself as well. Connect with other photographers, learn from them and help others when you are able. Don’t expect to work until you have found your voice, and then be a pleasure to work with but stand up for your rights if need be. Understand your photo lineage but don’t limit yourself to one visual approach. Be a realist but tune out the doomsday speak and create your own way if there isn’t another way in. Forget about competing against others and focus on your own work.
(Erica is based in New York. See more of her work, here.)