10 minutes with Ackerman + Gruber
When did each of you know that you wanted to be photographers? How did you two meet?
Jenn – I began writing about photography from a critical perspective when I was an undergrad. As soon as I graduated, my interest in photography grew. I was writing for a business magazine and decided to concentrate on photography so I enrolled in the international photography program at the Danish School of Journalism in Aarhus, Denmark. That time laid the foundation for my interest in documentary photography.
Tim – It was late during my undergrad. I took a trip to Europe to visit my sister who was studying abroad. It was my first trip to Europe and I thought it’d be a good thing to document so I bought a cheap point and shoot and away I went. I returned from that trip with a boatload of terrible photos, but friends and family kept telling me how great the photos. I bought the hype and have been making photos ever since.
We both met at the first day of our grad program in Visual Communications at Ohio University. Slowly our relationship grew into something more than just evolving around photography and we have since enjoyed working as a husband and wife team.
When did you decide to work as a team professionally? What are some of the benefits and challenges of working together while also being married?
It came about rather organically. During our time in grad school we spent some time shooting together and then we were both hired to
document the pageants. That gave us our first real taste of working as a team in a commissioned environment and we were hooked. At the same time we were both sending out email promos and postcards individually and realized we were both competing with each other for the same work and spending twice the amount of effort and money in the process. So it seemed natural to combine our forces and start marketing ourselves as one. We also enjoy the collaborative nature of working as a team. Simply, working together seems so natural now the idea of a doing this alone terrifies us.
One of the biggest challenges for us has been making sure our life revolves around more than just photography. It’s easy to be in photography mode 24/7 when you are married and work together. Striking a balance between our photographic life and personal lives has been something we have had to work at but we have finally found a balance and could not be happier. The things we have found outside of photography have been a healthy distraction and you could easily argue they have also made us better photographers.
Can you tell me about your recent project, Miss? You got incredible access to the behind the scenes at the Miss USA and Miss Universe contests. How did you get the assignment and how did you approach the way you would shoot it?
The organization reached out to us based on our previous documentary projects. We were very fortunate in that they had a team of photographers that handled all the PR type photos so Jenn and I were free to explore and let our eye dictate what we photographed. Essentially we treated it like a personal project, which considering it was a commissioned body of work is an amazing luxury to have.
Your project, Trapped, on the mental health facilities available to prisoners in jail. which you shot at the Correctional Psychiatric Treatment Unit of the Kentucky State Reformatory – received a lot of attention including an Emmy for the short film. How did you get access to the jail and prisoners? Had you always known that you wanted to shoot video for this body of work or was it a decision you made later? How do you see video being a part of your future projects?
Before gaining access to the reformatory I tried calling other prisons and got turned away. My persistence and desire to work on this topic told me to keep pushing. Eventually I connected with the warden at KSR. Our first conversation was over the phone and he told me to send him a proposal in the next 45 minutes and he’d think about it. For all the projects I want to work on I write a proposal before even starting the project just to clarify in my own mind why I want to work on the project. So luckily I had that proposal I was able to send him. He read it over and invited me to the prison to look around and explain in more detail what I was hoping to accomplish. The warden has since retired but I can’t state enough how incredibly trusting and understanding of a person he was. He initially invited me to the reformatory for 10 days to work on the piece, which I did. I returned shortly after that to share with him the work I did in those 10 days. He sat and watched the short-film and cried, which was the highest compliment I could have received. He then invited both Tim and I back for a the summer. He ended up giving us staff badges and entrusted us with full access to anything we wanted to photograph in the reformatory. It was a responsibility we didn’t take lightly. I ended up continuing to work on the mental illness piece and Tim did a piece about aging and dying in prison.
I knew video was going to be a vital portion of the project after visiting that first day and hearing all the sounds I knew the still image would not be enough. As much as I love the still image I knew to do this story justice it was beyond the scope of what the single image could do. Video at that point became as important to me as the still images.
Commercially we seem to find ourselves bidding on more jobs that now have a motion competent to them. For our personal projects we let the project dictate whether it’s worthy of video or not. Not all the projects we work on are a good fit for video, but some are. It’s hard enough to make a killer still image so unless motion is essential in enhancing a piece we are fine with focusing on making great still images.
Any words of wisdom for the up and comers?
Stay curious and keep shooting. You’re trying to find your voice and the best way to find it is by feeding it a ton of photos. Also enjoy this stage of photography where you have this unquenchable thirst for everything revolving around the photographic life.
Ackerman Gruber are based in Minneapolis. See more of their work, here.