Introduction: Point of Departure
Okay, first and foremost, I want to just say thank you to CreativeLive. It is like serious honor, it really was, when you guys called me, when Craig called me, I was just like, "Wow, this is cool." I never in my wildest dreams would've ever thought, you know, about doing somethin' like this, who would? But I'm glad I did, and it's an incredible honor, and the photographers that, the caliber of photographers that they bring in for me was just like, totally, it was a no-brainer. Some really good photographers, and to have my name, you know, stand alongside theirs, I was like, that's an honor, so I wanna say thanks to CreativeLive, and any time I have an opportunity to show my photographs, it's always an honor, but even more than that, it's a truly humbling experience for me, because these are, for me, making pictures is a real journey. And so I'm really humbled to show you my pictures today. (clears throat) And I also feel like, I feel like it's important for me to tell you my point of d...
eparture into photography so that you can understand the way that I make pictures today. I think that's really important, so I'm gonna spend a little time this morning kind of showing you some pictures of where I started. Because the way I make pictures today stems from when I started. It affects the way I approach subjects, it affects the way I photograph subjects, it affects the way my evolution in seeing a subject is affected by how I started in photography. And whenever I talk about photography, it is hard for me to not talk about feeling completely rejected. Being told no, feeling discouraged, having dreams, being vulnerable, aspiring to be better, and having the courage every day to keep trying, because in a nutshell, that is photography. It is all those emotions, and so much more. This career of photography has never been a career for me, it's a lifestyle. And so I have a way that I normally start a discussion like this, and I decided, I just had this incredible experience in the field, and I thought that that was a little more poignant, and I'll actually get back to my other way, but we have like three days to do this, so I'm sure there'll be a downtime where I'm like, "Oh, lemme tell that story." I was just on an assignment a month ago in Los Angeles, and I had, my editor called me and said, "Hey, we're doin' it, it's for "Savor" Magazine, and he called me and said we're doing an issue on barbecue, it's publishing next month, so I can tell you about it, because it's already gone to press, but I can't show you pictures, because I'm bound by my contract, I can't, but I'm gonna tell you about this moment, not the pictures as much. (clears throat) So, he called me and said, "It's for our feature for this big issue on barbecue, "and I want you to go to L.A." And I was like, "Totally, yeah, I'm there." So I left like three days later, and I got there, and I was working with this really well-known "New York Times" food critic, former food critic. And it was a story about this woman who makes lamb barbacoa. Do you guys know what lamb barbacoa is? It's a Mexican tradition, I don't know that they make it in other parts of Latin America, but it's a way in which the lamb is made, and it's typically, where I'm from, my family is from, it's cow, it's beef, so this woman makes a lamb barbacoa, and it's the process in which the lamb is cooked. So, barbacoa is always dug. You dig a pit in the ground, you put hot coals, and you put the meat in it and cover it up, and it cooks for six hours, or 10 hours depending on how much meat. So this woman lives in east, east, East L.A., in a place called, I probably shouldn't say (laughs). And she's undocumented. Her business that she runs is a non-licensed restaurant that she has in her carport. On Sunday mornings, she sells barbacoa, and this is how she supports her family. She lives in a little ranchito, which is like a small house with several houses around it, so it's a yard, multiple family dwelling, basically. And so it was not, this subject was delicate. Me, and in her life for a national publication, and telling her story was scary for her, because she could lose everything. So, there was a lot of convincing, and conversations. She's only a Spanish speaker, so I arrived on a Saturday, we were supposed to shoot Sunday, she only works on Sunday, she sells this barbacoa on Sundays, and so of course she canceled. So I knew that she was not comfortable with this, but this the feature wow story for this big issue, so I was like, crap. So she canceled for Sunday, so the writer and I spent like two days finding other stories as backups. You know, we shot some Greek barbecue, went and did some carne asada in East L.A., and then we got in touch with her again, and she was like, "Monday, let's do it Monday." And then she called me back and said, "I can't do it Monday." And I was just like, this isn't gonna happen, this story is dead. So I called her back, and I just tried to appeal to her, and said, "This is what we're tryin' to do, "and how 'bout tomorrow?" And she's like, "Okay, tomorrow. "Be at my house at 4 a.m." It's like, "Yes, perfect." I always Tweet about having to get up really early, and I normally do, but she was probably wanting me to be there at 10:00, when she'd already got the lamb in the ground, and was gonna eventually serve it, but I was like, "No, I wanna be there "when you wake up in the morning, "and I wanna go with you through the whole process." She actually buys the lamb live. We drove out to a ranch. So I get there at 4:00 a.m., we drive out to a ranch, 30 miles east, so we're deep, deep. I don't even know what, we're not even in L.A. at this point. They harvest, like the cowboy comes out, he lassos the lamb, they grab it, they harvest it. I was just like, she wasn't kidding, you know? Most people, when they say, "Oh, we're gonna get some fresh lamb", they go to the market, and that's the fresh lamb, and I was like, "No, this is the real deal." And the tradition in which she's making this meat, the barbacoa, is it is an art. It's something that happens in Mexico on the weekends. It's a celebratory thing, it is an artisanal, it's artisanal. You don't see it a lot in this country, so for me, it was like, "Oh, this is huge." She's probably in her, it's hard to say how old she was. I didn't wanna ask her, but I would say she's in her late 50s, maybe even 60. So, she did this whole operation by herself. We go out, she harvested the lamb, she didn't harvest the lamb, but the ranchers did, and she, they harvest the lamb, she puts it in the back of her truck, and we drive back to her house, and at that point, at 4:00 a.m., she'd lit the fire with the coals, and it had burned down, and I'm not gonna go into too much detail as to what she did, but she spent like two or three hours getting the lamb ready, and putting it in the pit, and she takes these big Agave leaves, actually they're Maguey leaves, they're big cactus petals, and she put 'em over the fire. This is her all by herself, she's sweating, and I'm just quietly making my pictures, telling the story about this woman, who, this is how she supports her family. This is a food story about barbecue, and this is, and I'm lookin' at this woman who started her day way before 4:00 a.m., and who will spend the next 12 hours making this barbacoa for me, you know, to photograph. And so she puts the meat in the ground, she starts by taking the leaves and softening 'em, she puts it on a grate, she takes the lamb, she puts it on the leaves, then she takes another set of leaves and softens 'em, puts it on the lamb, and the hole's huge, right, and she covers it up with this big metal doors and then she takes carpets, covers it, and then she takes a bunch of blankets, and then she lines it with rocks, so it's sealed, so this meat is steaming, basically. And then it's like, I think it was like six or seven hours later, and in that time, she's like making salsas, and hand-making tortillas, and a group of nuns stop by, and I was like, oh my God. They weren't dressed as nuns. They weren't dressed as nuns, (man in audience laughing) I should tell ya that. Like one of 'em had a great hat, and I was like, this is awesome. I love when those surprises happen, 'cause I was like (gasps). Of course she says, "Come and have, come back at 3:00 p.m., "and have barbacoa." And I was like, "Yes", because at that point, it was just gonna be me and the writer eating the barbacoa, and I was like, "I gotta photograph this, I can't eat." So people were stoppin' by, 'cause they would smell the smoke, and so anyway, she finishes kind of her prep, and the meal's almost done, and she goes, and the fire, at that point, the lamb was pretty much ready, so she goes and takes up all the carpets, and blankets, and gets the lamb out, and there's like a crowd of people watching, and it's like (gasps), and these are all just people from the neighborhood, and she, it's so much lamb that she has one of those Igloo, with a rollie, you know, and she's like rolling it, you know, so there's this funny photo of her rolling it, and the lights streaming. And then so this group of people sit down, and they have this meal, and it was like, at this point, I'd probably been with her for 12 hours, and she'd asked me all about my life, I'd asked her all about her life. We probably ate a taco together. In fact, we did, I went grocery shopping with her, and she was like, "Are you hungry?" And I was like, "Yeah." So we got a taco, anyway, so long story short, the writer and I, you know, the day has ended, this amazing meal, the food was beautiful, and I was left with this like, wow, this is awesome. This is a food, this is barbecue. This is barbecue, you know. I'm sure barbecue is what you see in Kansas City, or Texas, but this is really special. This is like, no one's gonna expect this. This is powerful, and so we go to say goodbye to her, and she looks at me, and she starts to cry. She gave me a hug, and I realized... (sighs) I was just kind of like, emotional. I wasn't expecting her to react like that, you know? So I gave her a hug, and we say goodbye, and we walked away, and I was kind of like starting to cry myself, and I looked at the writer, and I was like, "What was that? "What was that?" And she looked at me and she said, and she was taken aback, too, and she looked at me and she said, I was like, "What just happened?" And she was like, "You just did your job." And I just was like, you know, I made that woman, not me, but the act of being with her and making her picture for 14 hours, and celebrating what she did, what she does to support her family, the three daughters and however many other children she has that aren't living with her, or sending money back to her family in Mexico, or whatever it is, but we celebrated her for 12 hours. She probably never had her photograph made professionally ever, ever, ever, ever. She took a chance, trusted us, let us come into her life, let us document this lost art that she's actively doing, and I think, it just blew me away. It was this moment in myself where I realized, oh my God, and that is so powerful, and that is exactly why I make photographs. It's that feeling right there where you realize there's a connection, and you can tell that person's story. That is powerful, that is photography. That range of emotions I mentioned earlier, that is photography, and I was reminded of the first time I felt that, and I've been chasing that feeling, that emotion, that exchange, that connection, that vulnerability, that humility since the first time I felt it, and so I wanted to show you that set of pictures this morning. The first time I walked into a place and felt like, (gasps) take my breath away, this is powerful. I have to have a camera to tell this story. So, that's what we're gonna look at right now. So, I was in graduate school, and it was my thesis project, and I'd found out about women in prison on one of the most dangerous cities in the world now. It's where the drug cartel has completely overrun the community. It's in Nuevo Laredo, Texas, and I'd found out about this prison that allowed women to keep their children with them, and so I was like, "That's an amazing story." I actually have family on the U.S. side, in Laredo, and so I carved out nine days. I gave myself nine days, I didn't have any money. I was in graduate school, I had no money, I borrowed miles from my brother, and I flew down, and I didn't have any access at this point. I had made one contact with a relative who was a lawyer, and he and I met in the morning pretty early, we went to the prison, and we just like completely just went in and said, "Hey, can I come in and make pictures? "I'm a photographer, it's for a graduate thesis project." This is before this part of the world exploded with violence and drugs, this was before it was a threat, sort of, and they said yes, to my surprise. They let me in, but I had borrowed access from him because he knew the warden really well. And so I got in, and so it was a story about these women who are able to keep their children with them up until six years of age. A lot of these children are conceived in prison, so it's a co-ed prison. I believe there were 3,500 inmates, the women were separated from the men. And so this little girl was actually conceived in prison, that's her father, and that's their relationship. He's incarcerated also, so they walk down that fence together, and that's how they spend time together. They do get visits, like to be with each other, but those are limited, so actually I only got three days in the prison because it was very dangerous, and I didn't wanna stay there any longer. But it was, again, it was that moment. I had a lot of people when I was in prison wanting to tell me their story, and of course I wanted to listen, but it was hard for me to listen and make pictures because it was really dangerous. And then, after I did the initial body of work, I used this body of work to, it's this body of work that caught me my big break with "National Geographic", so after, I was then sent back like a few years later to, by "Mother Jones" Magazine, to go back into the prison and do some more photography on this, and I actually had a harder time the second time getting access because the drug violence had escalated. We're talking 2005, so I had to, in this case, it wasn't easy, I actually had a representative from the Mexican government who helped me get to the door, and he had basically won the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in Mexico, and we never even met the warden, they were just like, "No, you can't come in here." So I was like, crap, you know, I'm on assignment now, I'm getting paid. I need to produce the story. So I called a friend of mine who's a writer for "Texas Monthly" and has done a lot of work on the Border, and along specifically with the drug cartel and the drug violence, and she told me to contact the publisher of the local newspaper, and that maybe he could help me get access, and so I met him, he was like, "Meet me at 11:00 p.m. in this bar "on this street," and I was like, "This sounds kinda sketchy (laughs)." The guy, so I walk into this bar and it's all men. It's like a gambling bar. You could see TV screens everywhere, and they'd have like a baseball game, horse races, and I dunno what else, but they were all gambling, and he was there. Really nice man, he's probably watching and going, "What the hell." So after like, I dunno, a couple of beers and I dunno how many shots of tequila, he was like, "So, why do you wanna go to this prison?" And I was like, "Well, there's this story I really wanna do. "I already did it, and I wanna go back and continue, "and this magazine put me on assignment." And he was like, "I can get you in." I was like, "Okay." He's like, "Go there tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m." And I was like, "What?" So I go back to my hotel, and you know, it's really dangerous. I'm back in my hotel, there's like police guards almost at every hotel. The drug violence has escalated. I knew, so I go, I'm just painting, I'm giving you the background here about how intense it was. So I go back to the prison. Remember, the day before, I couldn't even meet the warden, and the guy was like, "Sorry, you can't make any pictures." So I go back at 8:00 a.m., and the warden's there waiting for me, and he's just practically like escorts me in, and I was just like, "What just happened, who did I make an agreement with here?" So anyway, I got into the prison, I made these pictures. Actually, that guy, the one before, see if I can get back here, yeah. That is his child. He is not incarcerated, his wife is, or his partner, girlfriend, and so they actually had a conjugal visit, and they conceived the baby in prison, so she had just given birth to the baby. They birth the babies outside of the prison, obviously, so he was walkin' around with his newborn son. So the women share cells, and tons of drug usage. This is a conjugal visit, I actually was able to get, I didn't need to see much more than this, but I think they paid like $5 for a conjugal visit, I can't remember, but it's totally appropriate, and acceptable, and it's not a big deal, but I love that they brought their appropriate accoutrements: the water, the cooler full of I dunno what, but anyway, sorry (laughs). (audience members laughing) And then this is one of the cell blocks in one of the actual cells, three women. I just wanna give you a sense of this situation. A totally different story, but again, I'm accessing those same feelings, you know, and vulnerabilities, and really trying to connect with the subject in whatever way I can, be true to who they are. I wouldn't say, I don't wanna say celebrate, but I'm really trying to honor who they are and their story. So this was, one of the ladies had come up to me and said, "Hey, there's gonna be this great picture, "do you want it?" And I was like, "I guess so", you know, and she was like, "Okay, it's gonna be upstairs "in like five minutes. "They're gonna take down this other woman." So there's gonna be like a fight, and I just thought, "What?" I dunno if I wanna do that, so I actually went up the stairs, and I did a total about face. I got up the stairs, I saw kinda the women gathering, and I did an about face, and in my heart, I was like, "I don't wanna photograph that." I don't wanna do that. The story is about women and children in prison, and yeah, that's a element of life in the prison, but I knew that being a part of that could've compromised my access, so I was like, "No." And my gut was like, get outta there, so I did an about face, I walked down the stairs, and literally, this is what I saw. This little girl came out from around the corner and started twirling in this little toupee, and I was like, it was this amazing gift, and so it was like one of those first lessons for me, that trust your instincts, you know, and I think it's easy to make the pictures that are hard. No, lemme take that back. I think it's easy to make the pictures that are not easy, but in a place like this, it's easy to make a picture of someone getting beat up, and a downtrodden life. But the pictures where you see hope, or you see any glimpse of joy, that's the harder picture, and so it was like this, I learned that. In that time, I learned that. So, I started working for "National Geographic", and they did a whole series on zip codes, and I dunno how many of those I did, but they did like every state in the country, and I did a ton of 'em, and this was one of the first ones I did, and it was this island that in the summers, it's inhabited by all these campers. It's a big summer camp island, and so basically, they sent me to summer camp for like a week, which was kind of a nightmare, because I hated summer camp. My mom forced me to go to Girl Scout camp, and I was like, "Dammit." I didn't sell a single cookie, I was like, "Screw that, I'm not sellin' a cookie, "and I'm not goin'." And she was like, "Oh, yes you are. "You don't have to sell a cookie, "I'm payin' for it." So I was like, "Man." So okay, so I go to camp. That was a fun, that was a great assignment, and I just totally had fun with it. I got an, I took out an underwater camera from the "Geographic," and I practiced my underwater photography, and so I made some pictures underwater, and then this is the photo of them leaving camp. They are so sad, they're grasping their teddy bears, and the boat is leaving to go take them to their parents, and it's like the end of their summer, you know, back to school. So for the past, I don't know where I should start counting, but I would say at least the past 10 years, I'm a true believer in personal projects. I think that you have to, I think you have to self-assign your dream assignment, because I don't know that you'll ever get it. I don't know that they exist, but they do if you just give it to yourself, so self-assign your dream assignment. That is the best advice I can give all of you. If you wanna be a great photographer, find great pictures, find great stories, just go find 'em and do 'em. That's like, I just gave you my secret to my career. I should just leave right now. (audience members laughing)
[Woman In Audience] Can you repeat that for me? (audience members laughing) Lemme Tweet it. No, just kidding. (audience members laughing)
Yeah, somebody will.
Are there any questions?
There are always questions.
Just 'cause I wanna, oh, maybe I should just go into this, but do you guys have any questions? Are you there with me?
Yeah, okay, cool, cool. So I, where do I start counting, I think I did this for 10 years, at least, and I'm still doing it. I'm obsessed with the borderlands of Mexico and the U.S., and I proposed to "National Geographic" to let me do a documentary project on it. And they said okay, and so I got their photography grant, which, I wanna say it's $75,000, and so I stretched that money for six years, and I slept on couches, I stayed with relatives. I lived on that, I took assignments from other magazines, I took assignments from them, but I used that money specifically to fuel this project, which will be, this is a personal project for me. So it's about culture along the Texas/Mexico Border, which in Texas, we call them Tejanos, people of Mexican descent who live along the Border, and so it's really a story about the evolution of immigration in this country, and there's a cross-section of Mexican-Americans, undocumented people, Mexican Nationals, who are all along this border, and some of the wealthiest communities in this country are along the border as well as some of the poorest, and so for me, it was like it's a completely different culture. And this young girl is a debutante, and she's getting fitted for her introduction into high society, in this town where they invite young girls based on their family lineage and their family heritage to be inducted into high society. It's pretty exclusive, and very expensive thing to participate in this, like crazy expensive. This is just a aerial I did of the Rio Grande, which is the big river that separates Texas and Mexico. So I always have to give a sense of place. That's a really important aspect of what I do. I can send an editor, or a magazine can send me anywhere in the world, but if I don't show where I'm at, I've completely failed my assignment, so a sense of place is like a key photograph, that establishing shot that sets up where you're at. That's very important, elemental. So I spent some time with the Border Patrol. These guys are sign-cutters, and they basically walk the entire desert looking for signs, as in footprints, stuff that might've fallen from people who've crossed, who've crossed without papers. I don't know the numbers, but I feel like the last time I checked, there's like 10,000 Border Patrol that patrol this border, just in Texas, it's like a phenomenal amount of people. And these are day-laborers, they're waiting for work. So I'm always looking for light, you know, trying to create a, always thinkin' about composition, and you know, trying to layer my photographs, and adding light to that kind of elevates the value of that photograph, the visual potential of it. This is a portrait I made of one of the girls who was gonna be inducted into high society. I don't like to say how much their dresses were, because it's a bit of a controversy, but yeah, I won't, I just won't. So this is the screenshot, or this is the photograph I made of the stage, and this is all the girls kind of lined up, being presented during the actual high society ball.
[Woman In Audience] Is this in Texas, or--
It's in Texas, in Texas. So it's in Texas, yeah. Are there any questions about this?
[Woman In Audience] No, but they look like dolls. Is that sort of your intent for shooting it downward like that--
Totally. I had gone back to the "Geographic", and we looked at all these pictures, my editor and I, and he was like, "You need a photograph "that kinda gives it this space "and shows this idea of how vast it is." And so we had talked about pulling back, and maybe getting up in the rafters and making a picture that would communicate that, but we didn't anticipate it feeling so, like those are real people, it feels like maybe it's not, you know. And so I spent time in a lot of the colonias. Colonias are undocumented, unincorporated towns along the U.S./Mexican Border. A lot of people that live there are undocumented, and many of them live without running water, electricity, sewage, and this is in the United States, so I couldn't, this was an important element to me in telling this story. So this is one family just hanging out late at night on their porch. I got invited to I don't know how many parties, and pachangas, and fiestas.
[Woman In Audience] Penny, are you fluent in Spanish? (Penny speaking in foreign language)
Yes, I am.
So that's helpful in these situations, because they're not, even though they're speaking Spanish, and--
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think you, you don't have to be bilingual, but I think that it's really flattering for anybody who speaks another language if you try to speak their language. I mean, I didn't fit in the community just by default, I just didn't, they knew I wasn't from there. I actually, this is funny, I actually ended up buying a, I had a nicer, not a nice car, but I had a used Volvo, and I actually ended up selling that and getting a truck when I started shooting this part of the project, because if I drove up in a Volvo, which might be perceived as something, you know, a little, you know, affluent. I just didn't wanna put anybody off, so my editor was like, "Why don't you just buy "a crusty old truck?" And of course I loved that idea, so I did. Anyway, so what I hope you're getting in this is that this is where I came into photography. This is where it started for me, and from here, it evolved into like telling food stories, so it's not that much of a difference. I'm still, I'm just changing the subject. It's like, the center is food, but I'm still working what is around it. So, these two girls are waiting for their dates. They're on their way to their quinceanera, they're twin sisters. I got invited to I dunno how many quinceaneras. I mean, I can do a book on quinceaneras, I actually thought about that. Maybe I should do that, I just gave my idea away.
[Woman In Audience] There's quite a few people watching right now, so be careful of the ideas you give away.
That's okay. I'm giving out my whole entire career away right here, what are we talkin' about? So yeah, this girl is on the way to the church for her quinceanera Mass. Again, I'm thinkin' about just the moment in composition. This is like at 2:00 a.m., and the moms are passed out. The feet are killing 'em, and they're just like sprawled out on the floor. This is a field worker who is harvesting Agaves, no, aloe veras, sorry. Aloe vera plants. And this, I followed this woman, I was spending some time in this one community, and every morning I watched this woman walk her little girls to the bus. It was the sweetest thing, and then she would get them on the bus, and then she would just watch them take off, and it was like they were leaving to go away for months, it was the sweetest act. So here's my progression in food. This was an assignment I did in Bahia, in Brazil, in Salvador de Bahia, it was a story on tropical fruits, and so I was in the market, and I just waited. I framed this shot, and I waited for the energy and the moment to kind of happen, and I probably, I was there with the writer, and she was like, "C'mon." And I was like, "No, no, go ahead." So I'm waiting, I'm always waiting for the action to happen, and I will stay put in a place for a long time until I make a frame where I feel like I got it, and then I'll stay even longer to get it again, and then I'll stay even longer to get it again. Because it changes, and it evolves. This was an assignment I did in Greece. They have a day, it's called a Name Day, and so if your name is Christopher, then on St. Christopher Day, you go, it's like your birthday there, so this was in the Peloponnese, in a small village, up on a mountain, and so we went to this one particular family, one of the little girls, it was her Name Day, and so that was a great assigment. This was a story I did for "Savor" on Mexican food in El Paso, and so I was supposed to meet this family, and I was gonna photograph their food, but when they all started to get together to sit down to eat, they were just like reaching over each other, and grabbing stuff, and I was like, "That's the picture." And actually, "Savor" ended up running this huge, and then the plated photograph kind of was a little smaller, but this to me is food photography. This is telling a story around food, looking for a moment, and really trying to evoke an emotion for people as they're looking at photographs.
I have a question.
How much time, like between when you submitted your story in "National Geographic", and they sort of brought you on board, and then you worked for them until you went with "Savor"? Is it years, is it?
Yeah, years, I mean,
Hundreds of assignments?
I still do stuff for them, yeah, it's been, I don't know. I've worked with "Savor" for like six years now, so not much, I guess.
But was there a moment where it's like, okay, this is our go-to, food, that culture versus where you were workin' for "National Geographic"? It might not have been--
Was there a moment were it was like, "Oh my God, this is where it's happening"? Yeah, there was, there was an amazing moment, and I will tell you that tomorrow, or on Sunday, yeah, I had like an epiphany about food, for sure. In the same way that I had a moment when I was with that woman with the barbacoa, yeah. I think once I started shooting food culture, something changed for me. A lot changed for me. I feel like I opened up, and I feel like I saw the world completely differently, and I realized the potential and the stories around food, and it makes perfect sense, if you think about it. Because think about the industry, think about our country alone and how obsessed we are with like, "Top Chef", and all these real life kind of food shows, and I mean, there's like, I dunno how many, there's like a million blogs about food. We are, it's an art, so it was like, it was this perfect moment where I realized there's so much potential in telling those stories in the same way, you know, when I was in the prison, I realized the potential and the power behind telling that story, and the same way with my personal project along the Texas/Mexico Border, and telling that story, food is an even bigger story because everybody relates to it around the world. And it's something that connects all of us, and it's about history, and geography, and culture, and within that itself, there are all these little fingers of amazing connection, and story, it's just super powerful for me, yeah. I think that I got, I mean when I started shooting food, that first assignment, I was in the first international assignment, I was in Chile, and literally, I had a lightbulb go off in my head, and I remember calling home and going, "Oh my God, this is amazing." This is like amazing, it is so cool, it was in context of people just celebrating life, and telling these really powerful, passionate stories. It was, it's so hard for me to articulate, but literally, my heart just leapt, and I haven't looked back, I mean food has really been this amazing journey for me, and I honestly feel like my career took off once I started shooting food. It's like, I found my passion, you know? It just made sense.
I have a question about all of these pictures that you've been showing, because a lot of them are so familiar to many of us, and it's so amazing to look at them and then realize that you were in that room, because the idea of this being a photograph disappears, and all you see is the story, and to see that story, I think almost, you have to disappear to your subjects so that they can come out, but how do you, that's the big question. How do you disappear so that their story comes?
Very well said, the internet's asking that same question.
Can I add to that? Because I'd just like to know, I know from traveling, especially in different countries, a camera is different, it means different things in different countries. It's a much bigger deal in some places to have someone with a camera than it would be in the United States--
So it intensifies it.
Yeah, how do you disappear? I always tell people to ignore me, and that doesn't work normally, but I always tell 'em to ignore me, but I think you disappear by asking a lot of questions first, not picking up your camera right away, listening, and looking people in the eye, making sure that they see that you are open, and that you are available, and that you are there with the best of intentions, and I think I do tell them, I think I tell them, "I'm here to tell your story." And this is the key, this is really the key. I spend a lot of time with people. So I don't just spend an hour or two, I spend days with them. It doesn't always work out, because sometimes the subject is really delicate, like with the Los Angeles story, but I spent as much, as many hours as I could with her, and she would let me, you know? That's really how you disappar: you put in your time, because there's a lot of pictures, in the first part, you know, you're not making great pictures that first day, or the first five hours, or however many, but then they start to get used to it, and like in the same sense, when these cameras turned on, we were like, "Whoa, my God." And then we kinda chilled out. I kind of feel okay now. But you know what I mean? We're not used to it, and now we're just, you and I, all of us here, connecting, they're hopefully connecting. I think that's how you disappear, you make yourself available, you listen, you're quiet, you know. I don't talk a lot. I ask a lot of questions intermittently, but I don't engage in terms of, "Lemme tell ya about, oh my God, me, me, me." No, I mean, when I'm behind the camera, the most important person is the person on the other side of the camera. That's the other way that you really disappear, is you make it about them, 100%. Does that answer your question?
Cool if I just add one too, Penny?
It sorta sounds like what you're saying is I think when you first go into photograph someone, they feel kinda vulnerable, so I think what you're doing is showing them that you're also vulnerable, and once they see that, that's when you can get photos of this?
Yeah, absolutely, it's that humility, and vulnerability, and all those things that you guys did in your videos, you know? You put yourselves out there, it's the same thing, yeah, yeah. This is the story, so again, this is a food story. I was sent to Idaho to do a story on this lamb rancher, and I spent like three or four days with him, and literally, every day I was like, "So, where are the sheepherders?" And he was like, "Oh, they're up in the mountains." And I was like, "Uh, can we go hang out with them?" And I just was like, man, so I spend a lot of my time in the field getting access even though I already have access. Like people think, "Oh, you're here to take my picture, okay." And then they just kinda do something and that's it, like I'm constantly educating people about my process, and the way that I make photographs, so finally, after 2 1/2 to three days, the rancher said, "Oh, you wanna photograph them?" And I was like, "Dude, I've been saying that for three days." So he was like, "Okay, they're gonna be moving the sheep "across the pass tomorrow morning at like 5:00 a.m." And I was like, "Oh, thank God, yes." You know, I'm there. So of course, the writer was with me, and I was like, "We're getting up at 4:00, "because I don't wanna miss this." We're gonna be there by like 4:15 or something, so we get there, and the light hadn't even started comin', they're moving 3,000 animals to another pass, and so of course I start shooting, I get in the back of the truck, and these are the sheep-herding dogs, and so there's this beautiful light comes in, and this didn't run in the magazine you know, I didn't need to make this picture, but I saw it was, for me it was like (gasps). I'm kind of goin' around the entire truck, and I ran up, I have a handful of these that I normally show, but I wanted to give you guys kinda just a condensed version. This is actually a photograph I made when I was working on my Texas/Mexico project, the Borderlands, and so this is to me foreshadowing, because I wasn't shooting food at this point, but you know what I realized is that I've been shooting food for like 10 years. All of my assignments started in the kitchen. Where's the first place people invite you in to their home? "Can I offer you somethin' to drink, "somethin' to eat, please come in." And you go into the kitchen, and you sit down, and that's where the first conversation is, normally. Especially in Latin America, they're always gonna try to feed you. I've been shooting food for a long time, so this was like a natural progression for me. This is in a flea market, they call 'em pulgas, along the Border, and you know, I just love that this family put all these grapefruits in the back of their truck to sell 'em. That's how they displayed them. This, I will talk about this assignment a couple of times, but this is a story I did in Lebanon, in Behrut, and this is at a market that I went to. I went, they sent me on assignment to Behrut during Ramadan for a food story. (audience laughing) Done. I was like, "Okay, guys, they only eat once, "and it's at night." I don't know how to get great light in that one, so anyway, but this is a market during the day, so I wasn't happy with the photos I'd made, and so I asked my fixer if we could, you know, spend a few days just going to markets in outlying areas, so we did, and I'm really glad, 'cause then I felt better about the material I was getting. So when I go on assignment, that's it, you're there for that amount of time, and you gotta get back, because I have a budget. I have to honor that budget, I have to be, you know, be responsible with the money I spend, which is their money, the magazine's money, so yeah, that's this picture. So again, I feel like the similarities between this one and the grapefruit shot, I mean, they're just, a theme has been in my body of work for years. Are there any questions? I can take some questions right now.
All right, let's do some questions. Let's see here, I guess people are just really interested in how you're getting into all these places. I don't know if it's really the logistics of that, or you know, how you're getting into these people's lives, and how, I guess, the job puts you directly in there. Is that, you're just doing it all on your own?
Yes and no, it depends on the assignment. Usually, (clears throat) usually a lot of that has been predetermined, like when I was in Behrut, I knew I was gonna be photographing this group of men, so that was already made, but access can be very fragile, so you can lose access, and then you're really screwed, and then you have to find a follow-up idea, or figure out some way to pull it back together, so a lot of this story has kinda been solidified, so I've got parameters that I'm working around. I'm trying to think of an example of a story where it didn't work out, or where the parameters really, I just went to Honduras on an assignment, and I knew the subject, I knew where I was going, and so all of that was pretty much set up, so typically, they're set up, but there is the off chance that that access gets totally negotiated, and falls through, and then I'm having to scramble, but also, you know, when I was sent to a location, I'm not just, I don't just go to that place and focus on that one story. So I'm always goin' to markets. That's a done deal, like that is the first thing I do, is I go to a market. It's like, for me, you can really feel the heartbeat of a community based on their market, especially in a developing country. You get a feel right away for how that place is in relation to food, so think about all the best markets in the world, and the food is usually pretty fantastic. India, Mexico, all of Latin America, I mean.
It's the hub of the culture.
Yeah, it is, the culture happens in markets, and they're great, great places to make photographs. That is not the case in this country, in my opinion. I feel like markets in the U.S. are a bit cliche, and they are hard places to make photographs that are original, and different, and evocative, you know? Our markets are a little too clean and nice. Yeah, I hope I answered that.
Yeah, and the Behrut, did you have a guide that was hooking you up--
I did, I had a, I'm tryin' to think if I had, I always, if I can, if it's not a language I speak, I always have a guide and/or a fixer.
And a driver, perhaps?
Yeah, definitely a driver, if I need it. So yeah, in Behrut, I had a fixer, and a translator, yeah.