Your work feels natural and personal—even for large companies like paper producer Sappi. How did you develop your style? The subject—whether professional talent, a landscape or an object—completely drives the tempo, pace, feel and relationship. I let my subjects do their thing, and then I direct them as I find out what works. I constantly move around, asking them to do something again or do it differently, but always defer to them.
But I also bring it back to the overall message the client needs to communicate. Photography is communication. One side of the conversation is always going to be driven by the subject, and I have very little control over that. But I do have control over my half: the technical approach, the message and the thought I bring to the shoot. These are how I can communicate authentic feelings and a client’s message without being untrue to either.
I try to relate to subjects, then photograph that relation. They know I am there—why try to hide it?
Your personal projects feature everyone and everything, from millennial farmers to runners to ice surfers to wrecked bikes. As a visual storyteller, what kinds of stories are you interested in telling? I am always looking for new, interesting things to shoot. If something is particularly interesting to me, I go way in. For example, my Crashed Bikes project started out as my brother’s insurance claim when he was hit by a car. At a glance, his bike looked fine, but it was pretty messed up. I started thinking, “Perhaps bikes are really jacked up sometimes”—until I went to a friend’s house. His bike had been run over by a bus and was completely destroyed. I hadn’t been actively seeking out bikes like his; the story just came to me, and I had to photograph it. As far as how to tell the story, the bikes told me.
For my Ice Surfers project, an art producer friend had wanted me to send some work for a cool surfing road-trip job. I didn’t have any surfing-related work, so I didn’t get the job, but it turned me on to the idea of shooting surfers, which I had never really thought about—I live in Minneapolis, the center of the continent. Then when my wife and I were vacationing at Lake Superior, we saw people surfing. Suddenly, it made sense to me how I could photograph them. I started learning everything I could about fresh-water surfing, forecasting and underwater photography. I decided to focus on the surfers and landscape rather than the actual waves and action of surfing. These guys are surfing in the middle of a continent, in the freezing weather—that was the most interesting thing.
To what extent does the process of interacting with your subjects inform your photographs? For my Riverside project, I wanted to take portraits of the Somali Americans who live in these big high-rise buildings in Minneapolis’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, but I didn’t know how to express my idea to them. I realized it would be really helpful to take on an intern who both knew the Somali language and culture and wanted to learn more about photography. A young Somali man who I had met for coffee introduced me to Fatimah, and she agreed to be my intern. She would help me explain my project and translate, and in return, I would teach her photography.
One of her ideas for getting more people involved in the project was to print out a short paragraph explaining Riverside in English and Somali, then stand in front of the building entrances with a stack of these papers. I thought it was a waste of time and frankly, a little weird, but Fatimah convinced me to try it. This method ended up being the main way we found subjects for the project. It’s also how some of my favorite portraits came to be. We would have never met these people had I not listened to Fatimah.
Tell us how Riverside came about and what it means to you. This project is special to me. At first, I was mainly interested in gaining access to the Riverside Plaza apartment complex to photograph the buildings themselves, but it became increasingly evident that I was missing something by focusing just on the buildings.
I didn’t really know anything about the buildings—I had assumed they had a lot of crime and poverty. There is poverty, but not the caricature of poverty I had assumed. I knew a lot of immigrants and a lot of Somalis lived in the buildings and the neighborhood. After meeting more and more Somalis and learning about some of the challenges the community faces, my idea started to materialize. By presenting an honest view of Riverside Plaza, as well as portraits of Somalis who live there, I could take a step toward removing mystery from both the buildings and the Somali community.
Why did you decide to showcase the facades of the apartment complex as well as portraits of the Somali Americans who live there? There is a ton of mistrust and negative assumptions from Minnesotans about Somalis. Many Somalis are Muslim, and Minnesota has traditionally been pretty homogenous, racially and culturally. There are very few newcomers, much less a big refugee population from Africa. I think that to a lot of Minnesotans, Riverside Plaza is a symbol of that mistrust and mystery. Limiting the backgrounds of the subjects I photographed to just the buildings was meant to challenge those sentiments.
Poverty is a huge problem affecting the Somali population, and a very small number of them have even been lured to Islamic extremism. These problems faced by the Somali community are real and need to be addressed. Helping to solve them is in everyone’s interest, and they will not be solved without permanently involving Somalis in the efforts of the state, federal, and local governments and societies.
People’s personal possessions stand out as details in Riverside, such as a photo of Hillary Clinton and a stuffed bookcase. Why was it important for you to capture such details? The things people choose to display in their homes always interest me, no matter who they are. I was struck by the love that some Somali people I interacted with have for America. The love they feel for America is more intense and much more patriotic and idealistic than my own.
The decision to photograph what I photographed was driven by curiosity and what I felt the subjects responded to or would tolerate. I didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but at the same time, I knew they were already uncomfortable with someone coming into their homes with tons of photo equipment. It was a really weird feeling. I just shot as much as I could of anything that struck me at the moment.
Do you feel any responsibility as a photographer—besides taking beautiful images? This is a question I really struggled with in my Riverside project. I am not a journalist or trained in any way to tell someone’s stories. As the question suggests, my usual role is to take cool pictures of cool things.
I didn’t feel compelled in this project, nor any other, to remove myself from the situation. Subjects are hyperaware of the fact that I am taking photos of them, and to a varying degree, uncomfortable in the same way most of us are uncomfortable being photographed. I didn’t feel the need to hide that. Rather, I try to relate to subjects, then photograph that relation. They know I am there—why try to hide it?
As far as my social responsibility, I felt a lot of discomfort when taking these photos. I didn’t want to appropriate the stories of the subjects involved. These photos are a representation of my interaction with the Somalis in my city and nothing else. I think it’s incredibly important for Somalis to tell their own stories in their own ways, if they see fit. To that end, I worked with Fatimah, who translated and helped me relate culturally with the subjects. If she wants to tell stories or make her own photos, I want to help her in any way I can.
Where do you gather inspiration? Conversation and exploration. I am fascinated by history and politics and how that impacts what is viewed as “normal.”
I also look at a lot of work from a huge range of photographers—Justin Fantl, Jake Stangel, Pieter Hugo, Irving Penn, Pari Dukovic, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Christopher Wilson, Dan Winters. I’m all over the place, but the main thread is that I love photographers who make photographs of a broad range of subjects.
What do you think of the photography industry at the moment? Like pretty much any industry, there have been a few people who have done really well, but increasingly, more people are fighting it out for less and less. We have seen the middle class erode across all of society, and photography reflects that.
I think there has also been downward pressure across all of advertising to make more work with the same amount of money. We never figured out how to value the pixel, which leads to a weird paradox: the budget for a print ad that very few people see can be larger than a social campaign that is much more a part of a brand’s strategy.
Advertising clients rightly want the control and flexibility they are used to having on shoots, but seem to have no ability or will to pay for a production that makes that flexibility possible. There seems to be an overall reluctance on the part of agencies and photographers to explain that gap, because everyone feels replaceable—and I would definitely put ad agencies in that basket. Advertising has changed as much as the photography industry, and all of us are trying to keep up. There is a lot of incentive to say yes and figure it out on the fly, but we are all in this together. The cure seems to be more trust between clients and the people they hire, which can only come from relationships. Relationships are still the most important thing in this business.