CD: Let’s start with a bit of backstory. Actually, lets start with the Cholita project on your web site. In many of the images, it feels as if you are a participant but also an observer who understands but isn’t a part of the scene. My favorites from that series are the Inka Dog portrait and the young girl, Eva holding her friend’s hand. How did this project come together? How did you fund it, and more importantly, how did the show come together?
Susana Raab: This project has evolved over time. I was initially assigned by super Italian photo editor Arianna Rinaldo to shoot a project on the theme of leisure time in Peru for a book being produced by an Italian paper company. After a lifetime of estrangement from my Peruvian father, I had been visiting the country regularly for the previous ten years. One of the things that first struck me about Peru is that it is a coastal country with a vibrant beach culture. But this is not the story propagated by popular consciousness, guidebooks and tourist brochures. So I chose to begin the project by focusing on the beach, with a working title of La Mar. I saw the ocean as this sort of watery umbilical cord that connected all the races and classes in Peru and the sea was also a healing balm after the decades of terrorism and agrarian reform. It was a romantic notion, and possibly purely my projection, but one has to start somewhere.
I came back annually to work on the project, using it as a way for me to understand Peru better – and gave myself permission to just photograph anything I felt like, without agenda. I stuck to the beach, as I liked it as an ambiguous backdrop to a very class-oriented society. The project became what Carl Jung would describe as a sort of freeplay, in which my unconscious projected itself upon the landscape and it became a gestalt of my unclaimed desires and losses. I learned a lot about myself from that project that I hadn’t let myself acknowledge prior. Therefore you might see themes of family, loneliness, connection and isolation in it. Or not. As my friend, the photographer William Greiner has so eloquently written, “It doesn’t matter what I say, all that matters it what you see.”
I funded it the same way I fund most of my personal work, by saving my money from my editorial assignments and making it happen. I have not received any grants for Cholita, but I did have a generous film donation by Kodak, which I use in all my personal projects. As for the shows? I was selected for one show at the Art Museum of Americas by my friend photographer Phil Nesmith. I met Brazil based curators Claudí Carreras and Íata Cañabrava in Lima, they had initially contacted me about being in a show in DC, Cotidiana US, and showed them the Cholita work. Later they invited Cholita and I to the Latin American FotoForum in Saõ Paulo, whose theme that year was about society and classes.
CD: The “East of the River” series is haunting at times. Maybe because I know the area and have lived near DC most of my life. How do you approach your subjects so that the images ring true and without pretense?
Susana Raab: Thank you. Well, I am a very no-BS type of person, authenticity is a core value. That said, like Mary Ellen Mark said, “I function out of terror.” If I’m scared to do something I’m probably going to do it. So there is this invisible wall we draw between the races in DC and it goes both ways and I think anyone who says they don’t function within that paradigm is either lying to themselves or really evolved. So I want to break through that wall and that is how I approach people. Often I’m using the 4×5 because I want everything to be very intentional and out in the open. Also there is some kind of respect you get by putting yourself out there with the 4×5 in the middle of the street. Your not trying to take advantage of anyone. So I just put all my vulnerability and honesty out there – all I want is a human connection for us to break down that invisible wall and be like – hey I want to represent you collaboratively. Obviously yes, I’m doing it because this is SE or Ivy City or wherever, but that doesn’t mean that what I am attempting to do is invalid. So I think you just approach with your heart open and hopefully they recognize that and sometimes they don’t and that’s fine you just walk away, but more often they do and that is a beautiful thing. The beauty of the 4×5 is it is such a process for me that the subjects kind of relax while I am setting up the camera, then I just kind of talk to them and wait for that gesture or whatever. I know I’ve touched people by just giving them my attention and time, and they have certainly done the same for me – at it’s best it can be a very transformative experience, even when the photos stink – as they will.
CD: Many of your images have a sense of place about them, that you are seeing the subject as a participant. Is this intentional or does it just seem to work out that way? Or, are you aware of it, now or when shooting?
Susana Raab: I’m hyper-vigilant which makes me a keen observer and I see everything as clues to a greater narrative. I don’t think I’m consciously aware of any of this, I just intuitively understand allegory and metaphor which is what I’m trying to do at my best in every frame. Things without context make me uncomfortable. I like to contextualize everything, to understand and know – it can be quite exhausting. I’m learning to relax more into ambiguity. I also believe that there is a symbiotic relationship between humans and their environment. You can create a portrait of someone through their objects, right? What we make and where we live is part of the alchemy of who we are whether it is a choice or not.
CD: There is a photo-j sense of timing to the images but very much of a medium format, color negative palette to the images. Are you shooting color neg film on medium format for personal work and shooting digital for assignments?
Susana Raab: I live for the dearness of the vanishing moment – that is the photoj aspect to which I think you refer, thank you for noticing! And yes, I do shoot medium or large format for all my personal work, and digital for most assignments. It is the rare client that wants film. I can think of three occasions in the last four years. I shoot C-41 Kodak Porta for most things, but am experimenting with some expired Fujichrome right now for a personal project on objects – love those blacks. The process of shooting film is so different than digital – it engages all my senses and puts me in that Zen zone. I need that tactility.
CD: Your images are without pretense. They feel real and honest. To me, many of your photographs look like they were shot with a normal lens on medium format. How do you check yourself to stay true to your vision without letting cameras, software, lenses, strobes, assistants, and crew intercept the process. As a follow on: how do you collaborate with photo editors to shoot photographs that stay true to the story as well as your vision?
Susana Raab: Well, maybe it’s because I shoot with one normal fixed lens on a medium format camera and zoom with my feet? I’ve never been a gearhead – that’s not why I became a photographer to play with a bunch of toys. That said, I’m shooting with a rangefinder medium format camera, sometimes a polarizing filter, and manually calibrating my ginormous off camera flash with my free hand, so I’m not exactly NOT technically astute. I like being the master of my medium, but as you say the tools can aggravate the process. The two most important tools I have are my heart and my head. Everything else is interchangeable.
I don’t work with a crew. I dislike working with assistants on my personal work because it is a lot of waiting and seeing and interacting slowly with your environment, and when someone else is on the scene, it’s hard for me to empathically disconnect and not worry that they are bored or sunburned or whatever. Whatever I do, I do it with the minimum of gear and personnel.
Regarding photo editors and my personal vision, well honestly, most of the time they are not hiring me for my personal work, or that’s what attracted them to me, but the assignment does not have those parameters with which to produce the work. Funny does not happen on command, unless you want me to set something to look like the funny found moments I happen upon which is not reportage.
I decided at the beginning of this great recession and the corresponding demise of the editorial industry that I wanted to put myself in a position of leverage where I could produce the work I needed to without being beholden to assignment work to make it happen. I got a part time job as a photographer at the Smithsonian and that position has given me the best leverage in the world. I live simply, shoot my personal work and am in complete control of it’s distribution (or lack thereof – I’m terrible about the finishing up part). I was tired of clients dictating what rights they were taking and for how much. That is fine for the assignment I work I take, but I want to be in control of my personal work. Also no one could assign this work (well maybe Geographic has wide enough production parameters) – the function of time and alchemy just does not let the work happen on a dayrate schedule.
CD: What advice would you give a young photographer about to embark on a career in fine art or editorial photography?
Susana Raab: I would say study something else, something that either offers you critical thinking skills or a vocational career that you can earn a living in and that will offer you the time to do what you need to do. In this age of Instagram/iPhone ubiquity the only thing that will separate you is what you have to say. I doubt it’s enough to go for the low-hanging fruit of the exotic foreign engagement anymore. Editorial photographers are at the mercy of lawyers grabbing rights in perpetuity through every means of distribution- this career is dying on the vine as far as I can see. No one has really figured out how to commodify the internet in a way that is as lucrative as before we were just print publications. The only way to circumvent that process is to have leverage and that means not relying on them to feed yourself. I’m not blaming anyone here, it is what it is. Accept the reality and adapt. But adapt to a place of strength not weakness. If you want to make pictures bad enough you will. Look at Vivian Maier. It wasn’t about recognition for her it was the pure joy of doing it. That’s what you must have, the pure joy of doing it. As Rilke said to the young poet, “Ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night: must I write? Delve deep into yourself. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this question with a strong and simple ‘I must’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.” If the answer is no, he wrote, please go and do something else, to which I would add: your parents will thank you.