You earned a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Do you approach photography as a journalist? My graduate degree gave me a foundation for storytelling, but I often feel it limits the way I approach stories. When you’re making art, there is something very liberating. There are no rules. You can approach it from all sorts of perspectives. It’s a bit different when you’re a journalist. It almost feels like you are in a box, and you can only operate in the space you are in. That’s limiting as an artist, but I recognize that’s where I started, and I am not interested in that—at least not anymore. My thinking now is to have one foot in each world. I like the idea of bringing both forms together to show the fluidity that can be found in merging the processes.
As a visual storyteller, what kinds of narratives capture your attention? I often find myself drawn to nostalgic or emotional situations. I want to be vulnerable when I am making my work—there has to be something that pulls me in. I don’t take pictures just to take pictures. I need to feel things and to see things beyond what everyone else is seeing. I am still not quite sure why I am drawn to certain places or people, but this connection allows me to create. For example, the piece about my father, Mornings (With You), was less about the image making and more about the process of connecting with someone I had been separated from for many years.
I don’t take pictures just to take pictures.
How did you come to live for a time in Chechnya, and how has this experience affected the way you take photographs? I had just moved to Moscow, Russia. I wanted to go where nobody else was going. I wanted an adventure. I made a few trips to Chechnya before moving there full-time. There was something really special about being there. It was unlike any other place I had been to. The people welcomed me, and I became a part of their family.
The experience allowed me to build a portfolio. I made my first project there. It also gave me confidence as a photographer. When I was first starting out, I needed to prove to myself that I could make images. My time in Chechnya gave me this sort of confidence that I had been missing before.
How do you overcome the challenge of feeling like you don’t have enough authority to cover a subject as a photographer? Time. I spend months and months getting to know the story I want to cover before even making an image. This involves reading a lot about the subject—I often read more than I photograph. It is part of the process, and you have to trust it.
What do you feel is your greatest responsibility as a photographer? To keep growing. To push myself to think differently. And to create work that’s original. So much photography repeats itself without pushing things forward. It’s something I fear with my own work. I don’t want it to just be about the images I make. The challenge for me is to find new ways of visualizing what I want to say in my work. I don’t want to repeat myself. I want to continue to push beyond the pictures that I’ve already made to find a new language, a new medium of storytelling. I want to push the conversation forward—at least in some small way.
Right now, I am interested in exploring ways of bridging the relationship between photographer, subject and medium. I don’t want to just be an observer with the work I make—I want to be engaged. Although collaborative photography is not a new way of approaching work, it tends to lend itself to new ways of thinking and engaging with images. There’s so much room to play, experiment and fail. It’s exciting.
What advice do you have for people just starting out in the field of photography? Slow down; take time to create your own work. Don’t worry if it’s not what anybody else is doing. Be your own judge and jury.