In college you majored in economics? So how did you go from economics to photography?
At Chamblee I took dark room photography from ninth through twelfth grade. I also took AP Art History.
I studied economics at Vanderbilt because it seemed applicable. Junior year, everyone begins taking internships that lead into a job when they graduate. So I started looking at the internships that my peers in economics were getting and they were generally in banks. I didn’t really want to do that. I had taken all the photography classes they offered at Vanderbilt and had taken extra classes at a college of art and design. So I sent out a ton of emails to studio photographers in Atlanta asking if I could intern with them. I got one positive response from a photographer named Joel Silverman. I basically did clerical work for him, but he also gave me some photo direction. That same summer I also tagged along on a medical mission trip to Congo and did a ten thousand mile road trip around the country to add images to my portfolio.
During my Senior year, I went to an informational session on campus about the Fulbright Fellowship, and the guy speaking said that they were looking for creative proposals in addition to those for scientific research. So I applied to the Fulbright and also for an internship for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC). I got the AJC internship, but was made an alternate for the Fulbright. Fortunately, someone ahead of me turned down their Fulbright and on graduation day I got a letter saying that I’d been accepted to go to Kenya..
So you didn’t actually work for the school newspaper at Vanderbilt at all?
I wasn’t a staff photographer, but I contributed some photos. At that point, I wasn’t into photojournalism yet. It wasn’t until second semester my senior year that I did my first documentary project, about the growing Hispanic community in Nashville.
What was the coolest thing to happen to you while in college?
I had a great college experience, but in terms of photography, one of my Congo photos won Best Undergraduate Art Work in the student art review. It was a surprise because I was not a studio art major. It gave me a confidence booster that I could pursue photography as a career.
And so you ticked off all of the Art Majors…lol
Ha! Yeah, I guess.
Why did you do your Fulbright in Nairobi, Kenya?
When I told my parents that I wanted to go to Congo, they were concerned because a violent conflict was going on in the country. On the other shoulder, the guy leading the trip assured me I would be fine. I went.
When I got there I witnessed very challenging living circumstances and significant poverty. But I also found people dealing with their circumstance in a dignified way. I felt that would be a simple but compelling story to tell on a Fulbright. I decided to try and document the everyday life of a group of my age mates in Kenya. Nothing special, nothing dramatic.
For the Fulbright, you have to apply to a country where you speak one of the national languages, so I basically needed to go to a former British colony and I’d made some Kenyan contacts through my Congo trip. Kenya is also very easy to get to and has a very big expatriate community. Of all of the places one could apply to go, Kenya was very feasible.
When you came back from Kenya, where was your work featured?
The Christian Science Monitor did a full page leading up to the World Cup about one of the guys that I had photographed who wanted to make the Kenyan National Team. Then the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did another full page about me as an Atlantan and former employee and the experience I’d had in Kenya. It featured a number of my photos. And then there was a gallery exhibition that I arranged in Boston six months after I got back. That was a fundraising event that allowed me to send back a modest $3,000 to the youth group that I had been photographing. They have a lot of great ideas but few financial resources.
So how did you end up in New York?
I moved to Boston at the end of my Fulbright and freelanced for Bloomberg News for two years, after which I moved to New York. It’s worked out pretty well.
What is your biggest inspiration?
I got into photography because I wanted a career that was about more than just making money. I wanted to do something creative and something that helped others. Those desires ultimately motivated me to co-found a non-profit called Nuru Project.
We raise money for other nonprofits by hosting photography auction events. For example, after the earthquake in Haiti, we organized images from photographers who’d photographed Haiti, held an auction, and gave the proceeds to Partners in Health, a non-profit that provides healthcare in Haiti.
Nuru Project allows me to work with a lot of talented photojournalists and highly effective non-profits. I like running Nuru Project because I get to do a little bit of everything from marketing to curating images to communicating with our non-profit partners, etc. Its a very dynamic experience.
So when will you be doing a Nuru Project event here in Atlanta?
The first couple Nuru Project events were in NY. Last year, we had events in San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Dubai, and Pakistan. This spring, we have events planned in DC and Vancouver. I know that whenever we end up doing one in Atlanta, it will be well attended!
So a fellow friend said that you were thinking of doing a photography project about our elementary school, Kittredge Magnet School?
Lately I have been exploring photography projects about my youth, working in a mode closer to fine art. The first project that I’m working on now is about the neighborhood I grew up in. I’d like my next one to be about either my old summer camp or Kittredge. I’d like to do a portrait series on the students that go there now. Looking back, Kittredge was a unique experience. We were sheltered from a lot of outside influence. We weren’t fashionable. There were no cool kids at Kittredge. I think a school full of unabashed nerds in this day and age could be visually interesting.
What kind of advice would you give to a sixteen year old if they wanted to do what you do?
Media is a very challenging industry right now. The internet has changed the way media is consumed. People generally don’t pay for media anymore. So there’s this big scramble to figure out how to fund media. From a photographer’s point of view, you have to become more industrious. A photographer from my parents’ generation would have gotten a job at a newspaper and worked their entire career there. But that is just not the case anymore.
A lot of the best photographers are freelancers these days. They might belong to a photo agency, but they often don’t work directly for a publication. You have to be very entrepreneurial and proactive. You have to be excited about using social media. You have to buy your own equipment. You have to network. Facebook, Twitter, create your own Website, maintain a blog, learn how to do shoot video AND record audio AND do photography. I’m not necessarily good at all of those things!
In a lot of ways, digital photography lowered the barrier to entering the industry. It used to be that photography required craftsmanship that took a long time to learn. It protected existing photographers from an oversupply of new photographers. That is not the case anymore. Digital cameras are so good and so much less expensive that there are very few barriers to keep out competition. Look at the great images everyone is creating using Hipstamatic and their iPhones!
It is a lot more competitive and there are fewer paying gigs out there. It’s a challenge, but the flip side is that so many more people can try these days. And if you’re talented, you can publish your own content to the entire world, something unimaginable a generation ago.