CD: Quite a bit of your web site shows your personal long term projects. How do you go about starting a project from research, scheduling and funding?
Naomi Harris: I typically find something that’s interesting to me, that I hope will be interesting to others and hopefully has never been done or if it has, not in the way I’m going to do it.
My first major project I was initially trying to photograph Holocaust Survivors in Miami Beach, but I changed my scope when I discovered this little SRO (single room occupancy) hotel in South Beach. This hotel was the last of it’s kind in that it still housed snowbirds and year-long residents while all the others kicked them out in the name of gentrification. This became the basis for “Haddon Hall Hotel.” I lived in the hotel for 2 months and then relocated to Miami to continue working on it as well as kick start my career by not being in New York. It was in Miami where I also discovered the world of swinging accidentally at the nude beach I used to frequent which ultimately became the “America Swings” book published by TASCHEN. I suppose much of what I end up shooting is born out of something else, happy accidents, or discoveries. But at the end of the day I want to shoot something I know will keep my attention for an extended period of time.
Scheduling is another story. Sometimes I’ll put everything on hold to work on a project like when I’m doing a road trip type project like “Oh Canada” or “US of Eh!” I’ll try to do a few work shoots along the way to keep the money flowing, but most of my time on the road was dedicated to the project. But usually I have to be a little more conservative with my project/time ratio.
One needs to work in order to survive but that’s where grants can be a tremendous help. It’s harder and harder these days to get them as the competition is stiff but every now and then I’ll hear of an interesting and obscure grant or prize directed towards a specific type of project. It’s important to do your research and see what’s out there. I’m lucky, as a Canadian I have had the great fortune of receiving two Canada Council for the Arts grants which is helping me complete the work on Canada. I wouldn’t be able to afford to do this otherwise.
It’s always great if you can combine client work with personal work. For example I photographed a 4 part series of portraits for a magazine called “Zoomer” (the Canadian equivalent to AARP) while driving across Canada. This helped offset my costs and also helped me look for interesting subjects that I could shoot for them but also use in my own project. Today with Instagram and businesses hungry for content I think it’s possible for a photographer to reach out to a company and potentially shoot for them while working on their own projects as well, if it’s the right fit.
I have put in my dues and shot projects solely on my own dime but I don’t recommend this unless you have deep pockets or a rich, loving family. Speaking of family I’m also on a very exclusive artist residency at the moment….it takes place in my parent’s basement…did I mention I’m 40?
CD: Let’s start with the “Oh Canada” project. I love how you used hard lighting to separate the subjects from the background. Tell me a bit about your approach with this project on meeting , interacting, and photographing the wide variety of people across Canada?
Naomi Harris: My goal for “Oh Canada” was to learn about my homeland. At this point I had been living in the US for nearly 15 years and had seen more of that country and Europe for that matter than Canada. I decided to drive from the west coast to the east coast zigzagging across the country during the summer months with no real schedule or itinerary. I did have a few key dates and places mapped out (like to be in Vulcan, Alberta for the “Spock Days” festival in June, or to visit Ituna, Saskatchewan to photograph the oldest Canadian, 112-year old Pearl Lutzko) but otherwise I was just going with the flow. When you open yourself to chance you meet the most fascinating people along the way and often these people give you the best suggestions of places to go.
It’s so important to not be on a set schedule with something like this. For example the weather was horrible for the first 2 weeks I was in Alberta so I simply extended my stay there. By doing so I found a town called Rowley that hosts a pizza party the last Saturday night of the month. Oh, and this town had a recent population explosion from 6 to 8 when one of the townspeople got a boyfriend and had a baby.
For me the experience is also as important as the photograph I make, sometimes more so. If you only shoot the entire time you forget to be there in the moment and sometimes the mental photo, the one only you get to experience when you close your eyes and think back to that event is better than any picture your camera will take. Fine, you won’t win any awards with it but is that the only reason you decide to become a photographer.
CD: As an American I am drawn to the EUSA project. I love how others depict the USA and in reverse how Americans perceive the rest of the world. As a Canadian and also an American Citizen what drew you to this subject?
Naomi Harris: How I stumbled across “EUSA” is a funny story and goes back to the previous question on how I start a project. I was at this nudist resort in the White County, Georgia shooting the last swinger party having done so for five long years, I had some time to kill before the party began that night and someone recommended I go visit this little town called Helen, nothing more. Well it ends up that Helen was a mining town and back in the 70s when the ore ran out and they were faced with a deep recession a local townsman recommended adding gingerbread to the buildings turning this quiet little mountain town into a Bavarian paradise and tourist destination. Well that got me to thinking, how many other places in the US might there be that have done the same and for that matter how many places in Europe might fashion themselves after America. A few hours on the internet and voila, EUSA was born (well minus all the travel and photographing).
I guess my project is more of a reaction to the homogenization of European and American cultures. The fact that globalization has made the uniqueness of a particular country less significant thus creating an indistinguishable common world community. Being enthralled by another country’s way of life does not mean that it is always an accurate portrayal rather it becomes a sentimental and idealized depiction; an homage to a heritage that isn’t ones own. These locations are a perception of fantasy, a sense of what the other wishes the reality would be.
In America these “European” venues resemble a land of make-believe. Like something out of a fairy tale, they are magical, whimsical and quaint. In Europe, where many are critical of the modern American way of life, their fascination lies in an America of the past, when the US was considered glorious and free, a place full of fresh starts and opportunities. Photographing these various maudlin locations within these 2 continents I aim to illustrate the enthusiasm we have for one another’s culture and demonstrate this universal phenomenon that is a reaction to the homogenization of our cultures.
It’s also really fascinating to me how seriously the one culture takes the other. For example go to Wurstfest in New Bruanfels, TX and you’ll see people wearing lederhosen with running shoes or worse they might be simply wearing a tee shirt with lederhosen painted on it. When you go to Europe to a reenactment camp people are wearing authentic clothing that say the fur trappers or American Civil War soldiers would have worn 200 years ago made in the exact same manner: no machines used to sew, replica fabrics, nothing modern. They put their cell phones and electronics away for the weekend sleeping in tents made of blankets with no modern materials or luxuries.
CD: Some of your recent editorial work has focused on sex and the sex industry. Did the personal project and book “America Swings” lead to these assignments? Any difficulties in shooting the recent stories for Marie Claire UK and Bizarre magazines?
Naomi Harris: When I shot Haddon Hall Hotel most of my assignments after that were about senior citizens so I guess it’s only natural for me to get sexy assignments after the swingers work though there’s really not much sexy about it. I suppose I make people comfortable even in awkward situations so that makes me appropriate to shoot stories of strong sexual nature, plus I don’t blush easily. I can’t recall ever having any difficulties shooting the sexy stuff, but I have had some difficulty in having editors take me seriously for other assignments because of it. Guess that might partially be why I’m shooting very “shiny, happy people” PG-13 type projects right now.
CD: How did you get involved with Greenpeace and shooting in the Arctic?
Naomi Harris: I had seen an interview with Greenpeace photo director John Novis in PDN a few years ago and emailed him to say I liked what I read and was coming to Amsterdam where the offices are based out of and could we meet for a coffee. I had expected him to say he had been swarmed with photographers who contacted him after that posting but to my surprise he said I was the only one! We met for a coffee in July 2012, he emailed me in August to ask if I’d like to go shoot on board the Arctic Sunrise and I was boarding the ship in September! That was a once in a lifetime experience, the reason I got into this job in the first place.
CD: How important are self-funded personal projects in developing a voice and audience for younger photographers?
Naomi Harris: I think it’s critical for photographers to always be working on personal work. This doesn’t mean doing something that involves a lot of travel and breaking your bank (like I tend to do) but finding something you can go back to over and over again creating a cohesive body of work. Personal work is what editors want to see more so than just your tears and who else you’ve worked for. They want to see what you have to say for yourself when left to your own devices.
It’s also an excellent way to develop and hone your skills. When I first began shooting the “America Swings” work I had barely shot with Profoto lights, I was used to using just on camera flash, but I wanted to develop my lighting style in my portraits. Back then you’d use a Polaroid back and had to wait for the Polaroid to develop to see how your set up looked before shooting, it’s so much easier today with digital where you can immediately see if you are happy with your lighting set up or if you need to adjust it in any way. But it was this project that I really developed my way of lighting on location as every situation was different and I essentially taught myself how to light from trial and error. I really believe personal work is a great exercise to force oneself to push their practice and grow as an artist and individual.
Today with the abundance and variety of blogs and other outlets photographers can share complete projects or works in progress with a wide audience. Often this is how editors and art directors discover new talent for assignments.
What’s in Naomi Harris’s bag?
I love shooting medium format, my go to camera is a Contax 645. When photographers were making the switch to digital cameras a very wise photographer (and good friend) Monte Isom recommended I get a Phase One digital back for my Contax instead of buying all new 35-mm digital gear as portraiture is my thing and I already owned the lenses and bodies. I leased to own (36 months) and let me tell you my monthly payments were akin to leasing a Range Rover! I still use this back (A P25) and it takes great photos so I can’t justify upgrading. I also have a Nikon D800 for more on the fly stuff.
For personal work I sometimes still shoot film, like the EUSA project is being shot on a Mamiya C330 but I suppose it’s because I started shooting it in 2008 before I switched to digital plus I always try to shake things up and shoot each project differently from the previous one and 2 ¼ just felt right for this one.
I practically always shoot with lighting too because I’m a sadist and love to break my back. My go to gig was the Profoto Acute 2400 but since I travel to Europe for the EUSA and also with living in the car for long periods of time and not knowing if where I’ll be shooting I’ll have access to power I’ve really amped up my usage of Quantum Turbo batteries and Q-Flashes. Recently I purchased a grid set for them and loving the control I have with them and the portability. I think I’m up to 5 heads now…