Tell us a little bit about how you got started in photography. If I understand correctly, photojournalism is your bread and butter, but when you shoot for yourself do you become a street photographer?
You could say that. I'm usually just carrying my phone when I'm out (not on assignment), and most of the shooting I'm doing is more focused on candid moments… so “yes” would be the short answer. I'm not so much interested in telling deep stories as I am in finding neat lighting and interesting scenes. I'm a lot more focused on aesthetic, which is a big part of street photography (in my opinion).
In some ways photojournalism is very similar to street photography. What would you say are the main differences between the two?
The best photojournalists these days are all about going deeper: they make strong connections with their subjects and create images that really show that. Even daily news photography and breaking news is best when the photographer takes time to really understand and portray the nuances of a subject.
Street photography, as lovely as it is and as much as people can talk about “capturing moments” comes up short there. It can be gorgeous and telling and even revealing of deeper truths, but the basis for street photography is more on the side of art photography: it's about creating the photograph as an object to be inspected, whereas photojournalism is more immediately concerned with the subject itself. When they're done well the two can be remarkably similar, but they come from different angles.
Then again… some of my favorite “classic” photojournalists (Elliott Erwitt, Gordon Parks, of course Cartier-Bresson) could all be called street photographers today. Matt Black, Sebastiano Tomada, Finbarr O'Reilly; they all do work with an aesthetic quality that reflects art photography. I suppose it's an easy distinction to make, but it's hard to define.
With that said, do you think that street photographers have the responsibility of journalistic honesty?
For photojournalism, honesty is inseparable. It's the foundation. It's the second half of the damn word. In street photography it's more of a byproduct than it is a purpose – if you're capturing a moment, it should actually be a moment. One of the critical aspects of street photography is a certain candid, unposed aspect. Of course (and this may sound childish) I think everyone should be honest. So of course I think there's some responsibility, but I think it's more of an affect in street photography, whereas honesty is (ideally) the basis in photojournalism.
The camera, in my opinion, is objective. But can a photograph be objective?
I studied philosophy in undergrad, so the words “objective” and “subjective” can send me into incredibly convoluted rants. I'll try to not make this one of those.
Simply put: the camera is inherently objective. It's an object that captures reflected light through a lens against emulsion or a sensor or whatever (or something like that). Even the photograph itself is objective: it's an object that comes from the camera. But the way we interpret images, or how we use photographs to represent an event or a person or a situation are incredibly subjective.
It's hard as hell (frankly it's outright impossible) to be objective, but we can be honest. But even photos that are honest can be repurposed or misused or misinterpreted. All we can do is try and make the most accurate records of a situation possible and try to make sure they're presented as such.
Some say that the authenticity of a scene can be compromised by a simple crop? Would you agree?
I think I answer this above. Yes, of course it can. The photograph is only a representation of the photograph, and if it's changed it may not represent the scene in the same way.
Photojournalism is considered a disappearing profession yet communication online seems to be becoming predominantly visual, probably because a picture is worth a thousand words and nobody wants to read a thousand words. What is your take on that? Do you think that photojournalism is just in a stage of transformation and we will see a resurgence?
People don't mind reading a thousand words, they just hate reading a thousand boring words. Photojournalism, just like the rest of journalism, is less and less about just being there and is more about knowing how to tell the story in a coherent, relatable way.
I doubt we'll ever regain all the photojournalism jobs we've lost, and that kinda sucks. But there'll always be a need for people who know how to take more meaningful photographs than just the “I was there” shot. I don't know exactly what the industry is going to look like in the next 5 years, but the people who keep working are going to be the ones who know how to go deeper, not just click the shutter at the right time.
(And as an aside: if an editor ever contacts you because he wants your “I was there” shot that you posted on social media, ASK FOR MONEY. They have it. And if you don't, it just means more photojournalists not being paid. We're all pretty poor as it is.)
Valid point. Okay, a little bit about field skills - how do you approach shooting in sketchy areas? How do you know when not to point your camera at someone?
If they say “Don't take my picture,” that's usually a hint.
I'm not a particularly big guy or anything, but I do have the advantage of being tall and serious looking. I'm not the first guy that most people will fuck with, so I usually feel a lot more comfortable in “sketchy” areas than others.
That said: if it seems like a potentially dangerous place, I won't immediately take out my camera. I'll get a feel for the situation, and in some situations – I've shot during riots, in gang areas and while people have openly threatened my safety – I'll keep the camera out but only shoot sporadically. And if I take a picture of someone who gets pissed off … well, you'd be amazed just how far a wide, shit-eating grin and an earnest sounding, “Oh, hey, sorry about that,” can get you.
Do you ever feel resistance to getting good images? Are there times where you have to push yourself to get a shot?
Constantly. I had to learn the importance of “shoot first, ask questions later,” for photojournalism, but in street photography there's a good chance that you're not asking that many questions. You're just getting the picture, and you may not be able to explain yourself. All you might get is a pissed off stare. “That shadow on your face just looked really interesting,” is kind of weird to say out loud, and most people won't understand that nearly as well as “I'm doing a story for the local paper about this pertinent local issue.”
When it's happened enough times, you start to feel that pissed off stare even before raising the camera. One of the hardest things for me with street photography is getting over that bump and just taking the damn picture. And, as I mentioned above, it's amazing how far a shit-eating grin can get you.
Why is the camera so powerful? Why do people react so strongly when you take a photo of them?
Photographs of people can capture a lot of details that may go unnoticed in the passing context of daily life. Slightly off-kilter expressions, rumpled clothes, that acne scar that just won't go away: they're all a lot more obvious when they're frozen for eternity. Most people are self conscious, and it's unsettling to not have control over those little details. And that happens with candid photography and street photography.
I've been lucky enough to travel a lot with the work I do, and people react very differently to the camera depending on where you are. Without getting into it too deeply, the impression I have is that the more conscious a person is about his public image, the more unhappy he'll be with truly candid photos. A New York hipster who carefully curates his Facebook photos and makes sure no one photographs him under fluorescent lights is going to be a lot more pissed off about an unexpected candid snap than a kid out in the sticks who isn't old enough to be worried about wrinkles. In both cases the reaction – pissed off hipster or joyous kid – is to the affirmation that they exist in the world. But candid photography means that the person isn't controlling how they appear in that world, and that can be really awkward.
Are there any personal projects that you are currently working on?
I have a bad habit of starting up new project ideas on Instagram that I don't necessarily stick to. I started a “Close to Strangers” project (#closetostrangers) a month or so ago which I'm still interested in, but it's proven surprisingly difficult. The idea is to take pictures at an awkwardly close distance through windows, when people don't realize they're susceptible to being photographed. The point, however, is to get people really engaged on the other side of the window, so I can take time with the shot. It's winter now and not that many people are dawdling outside of windows in New York.
Where can people see more of your work?
I tend to post things to my blog (skyreid.tumblr.com) that aren't directly related to work. Otherwise, I work all over: The Village Voice, The Guardian, Vice, wire services (AFP, Reuters, the AP), GlobalPost… it's freelance. Somehow the bills get paid. My Instagram is the best stream for street photography-type stuff (and I need more followers!): instagram.com/skyler_reid.
Or, you know, Google me.