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cinemafia: Like a lot of folks, myself included, you've come from a background in IT- but have invested a lot of creative energy in pursuing photography, as well as music and even now film production. I've come to realize that there are quite a few people in the IT industry who are trying to find ways to express themselves outside of the corporate culture and scientific approaches they deal with, and photography seems to be one of the more popular methods. What do you think are some of the reasons why this is?
Justin Waggoner: It is actually interesting that you have made that observation as well. Working in the IT industry, generally it is a faceless environment. Long hours behind the desk, hardly seeing the light of day, and a non-existent social life. As a result I feel that those working in the industry become dehumanized indirectly. After so many years of working in such an environment you begin to crave some serious creative outlets that plug you back into humanity.
Personally, I was becoming a bitter individual before I started the pursuit of my creative outlets. Photography takes the cake easily because it is like an instant injection of life; dispelling any lingering black clouds. What I have found is that when people are constantly creating they are happy, especially if it something they enjoy doing. This is one of many reasons that brings photography to my doorstep as a first choice in expression, and I am sure it is the same for others.
cinemafia: At one point you actually jumped completely out of the corporate world and into the photography business, at about the same time that the country was sinking into what has been described as one of the worst economic disasters since the depression. What was it that motivated you so strongly to make photography your main source of income? What kind of difficulties did you face with marketing and growing your business?
Justin Waggoner: Well, I'm not sure it was the smartest choice by any means. I did it because I was so desperate to get away from that type of environment even if it paid the bills. You could say that I was losing touch with myself and humanity as a whole. At that point in time I didn't care too much about the consequences, which I should have. The reasoning is relatively simple, I did not enjoy working in IT and photography provided me with a satisfaction that nothing can even come close to.
I faced a lot of difficulties and hardships as a result of that poor decision, however, if given the opportunity to go back and change that choice; I wouldn't. One of the obvious difficulties is the realization that there is a photographer on every corner of the market. In this day and age, everybody has access to a camera and claims they are a photographer. It was rather challenging to find a way to separate myself from all of that in order to make a name for myself. Once my name was established I really didn't have to do any advertising. Word of mouth was my advertising based on delivered work.
I should notate that one of the biggest hardships that I endured was the strain on my relationship. That relationship greatly suffered and has not lasted the ages as a result. I refuse to sit here and pretend that I have made it as a photographer. The truth is, I still struggle, but that struggle isn't as bad as it once was. I am at a place where I cannot look back, I can only push forward and will continue to do so. We only live once and I find it is better to live than to exist. To anybody else reading this and considering doing what I did, really think it through thoroughly, it is by no means easy.
cinemafia: One of your more recent turns in photography has been to become primarily involved in street photography. How did you arrive at the conclusion of doing this type of work? Are there any photographers who inspired you to do so? Knowing you've shot in various cities around the Midwest, I'd like to ask if you have any sense of the changing atmosphere of street photography? By that I mean in terms of how the public reacts to it -and to you as the photographer- and how the 'authorities' react to it.
Justin Waggoner: I'd like to think that I have done various forms of photography, yet I was never really satisfied, something seemed amiss. It took me a few years to realize what was missing. When I was working with models I really didn't like posing them, and instead, found myself giving a lot of misdirection in order to capture a candid look. I greatly enjoyed combing through the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Charalambos Kydonakis, Bruce Gilden, and your work believe it or not. Every time I would look at street photographs I'd find my mouth open wide and I would be utterly excited. The defining moment was looking at a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson with the kids playing, the man walking with his hat behind them, and behind him a wall with little square windows in no specific pattern. It was then that I knew street photography was what I wanted to do.
As far as working in various cities throughout the Midwest, I think Bruce Gilden said it best, in the aspect that everyone tends to look the same. Same styles, same trends, same cell phones glued to their ears, but you will find that anywhere you go. If we were to hop into a time machine and go back to say 1940 - it would be no different really with a few exceptions. Some of those exceptions would be the fact that most people these days do not want their picture taken, it feels intrusive to them. Yet, at the same time, there are plenty of people who enjoy having their photograph taken randomly; it makes them feel important.
The truth is, everybody secretly wants to be remembered one way or another, even if by a no name street photographer. Don't even get me started on the authorities. I don't think I need to say much on how the times have changed post-9/11. I can understand and appreciate, for the most part, why the authorities and public are the way they are today. However, I think it is a bit exaggerated and taken to the extremes. I've been detained a total of 3 times now by authorities, but this happens to a lot of photographers, so I am not alone.
cinemafia: This might be getting a little away from photography for just a moment, but I wanted to mention something interesting that Robert Scoble said about the recently released film, the Social Network. I'm paraphrasing here, but he made the indication that writer Aaron Sorkin missed the most important point of Zuckerberg's creation- the fact that he didn't ask any one's permission to create Facebook, he just did it. I think in many ways this notion is a sign of the times. It's the idea that in the last ten years, our culture has changed in such a way that individuals with very little funding have become empowered to produce very meaningful work -in our case art, or photography, or film- that can reach many, many people -without the permission or even the recognition of traditional media distribution avenues. How do you feel about this notion of empowerment, and have you encountered it in your doings?
Justin Waggoner: In all fairness Alex, I can think of many times in the past 50 some years where permission wasn't needed to create anything; they just did it. The answer to your question, undoubtedly, is yes. The Information Age has nearly empowered everyone to do, for the most part, as they wish. This is true if they take the time to research and see what mediums are available to accomplish their goals. With the Internet I am able to publish my photographs anywhere. If it weren't for the Internet, my work would never have been published in Italy on 250,000 some novel covers.
The Internet has also connected me with benefactors of the arts, which have funded me on numerous occasions so that I may continue doing what I do best; taking photographs. I will say that it is a bit pretentious to think that meaningful work, with little funding, has been the product of the last 10 years or so as a direct result of the Information Age. This in fact is not true, and has been going on well before our time. The Information Age has made things slightly easier.
cinemafia: Finally, and I tend to ask this of everyone I interview, I'd like to know what kind of advice you'd like to give to the next generations coming up. Whether they're interested in working with photography, or producing music, or making films- what are some of the most important decisions they're going to have to face? What kinds of things should they be doing while they're still in college? Do they even really need to go to college?
Justin Waggoner: Regardless of working with photography, producing music, or making films - One should first determine what they are truly in it for. Are you in it out of passion or for the money? If you are in it for the money, you should reassess that. You should be prepared to accept the fact that not everyone will like your work, and that just because a group of people do not like it, doesn't mean you should give up on it. If you think you have mastered it all and are the best; you are wrong. Accept the fact that there will be people 10x better than you and that the learning experience will never cease.
Explicitly photography, if you still think you are a master, then just put the camera down and go on to do something else. Remember that the consistency of photography must always be redefined in order to maintain it's inconsistency, and with that, you will find originality. Look through as much work as possible, experiment and play. Be a kid for today. What does that mean exactly? Do you remember being a small child and how everything was interesting to you? Nowadays everything looks the same and is seemingly boring. This is because it has become part of the scenery that you have grown accustomed to since you were a child.
To be a kid for today means to look at the things within your environment as if you were that child so long ago. Study, research, ask questions, try new things. As to the kinds of things they should be doing in college, I think my opinion is rather insignificant with the exception of one thing. Do not let your teacher tell you how a photograph should be taken or tell you if it is or isn't art. Do what you must in order to obtain your passing grade, but never lose sight of thinking outside of the box. Understand that college or any school for that matter cannot make you a great photographer, as that is dependent on your own vision and how you utilize the tools to realize that vision. I am a firm believer in education; however, I do not believe education creates an artist. It will either come together for you or it will not. Passion is everything first and foremost.
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Justin Waggoner Photography