Erica McDonald interviewed by Luca Desienna
Normally I just wait for something or someone to catch me.

How do you define your style?
Style is one of those words that makes me cringe a little - I think of style as something layered on top of the essential, almost as artifice. What I identify with more is the concept of lineage, with one's inclusion resulting almost the same way one would be considered a speaker of a dialect of a language. I see lineage as something that is partly inherent and partly gained and understood from, and improved upon by the benefit of a natural closeness. In the case of lineage, I'd say the proximity has to do with an energy or an approach, or with the ways in which the world is understood. Given that, I'd put myself in the lineage of social documentary photographers with a bent toward portraiture.

How do you pitch your stories? Do you have a disciplined approach ? Do you research consistently?
The only time I ever pitched a story was because I couldn't get access myself. Normally I just wait for something or someone to catch me - I think when you are open it is easy to fall in love with that which is before you. Research almost never comes into it, people and places lead me. I'll research something regarding my own photography for practical reasons - for example if I have been assigned to shoot a portrait and I need to educate myself about that person. Once or twice I have thought I had some grand idea that would involve a lot of work and money, and I wanted to see if anyone had already done a fantastic job on the same idea; and they had.

I suppose looking at photobooks is a type of research, and that is something I do a lot. The process of sitting with another's work in book form, beyond appreciation, is to help me think in general terms, to cultivate something that is already in me.

In 2011 you joined the ‘Advisory Committee for Rehabilitation Through Photography and the Editorial Committee at Photojournale’ – what exactly do these organizations do and has it changed your perspective towards photography?

I'm very new to RTP http://rtphoto.org/ but they've been around a long time. One of their earliest activities was to use photography as a form of therapy for wounded soldiers returning home after World War II. Today the mission has expanded to provide programs, support and equipment to a variety of groups in need, so I am happy to be on board as I believe in what they are doing.

David Bathgate, Lisa Hogben, Anamitra Chakladar, Michael Fox, Tanya Habjouqa and I joined John Horniblow to create an editorial committee for Photojournale http://www.photojournale.com/. The committee's role is to give a cross style, cross cultural and varied geographical voice to the selection of submissions and the refinement of the work published on the site, which focuses on photo documentary stories from around the world. It's all very recent, so any tangible effects of my presence are probably yet to surface.

Neither of these activities have changed the way I think about photography, but Photojournale formed a partnership with the International Rainwater Harvesting Association, and hosted a photojournalism contest that I helped judge - and the process of judging another's work did make me think about photography from a new perspective.

The accompanying text for your series ‘The pilot light of memory’  is just a quote by Frank Deford. I found that quite beautiful and daring. How important is writing in your work?
For my New York City Portraits section I quoted Shakespeare: "What is the city but the people?" - something you might also find to be a bit daring, but hopefully still beautiful. The first quote came into play because I couldn't think of a title for that work. Those photos were made without a lot of thought, over a few days with family. I hadn't expected to like any of it for my site, but as I was scanning it I realized that I had taken the photos as a sort of personal childhood memoir, and I wanted a title that reflected that. For fun I brainstormed it with friends on Facebook, and the kids in the photos came up with a few ideas too. A handful of years back I had a residency at the Lower East Side Printshop, which is a studio for printmaking, something I had studied when I wasn't shooting. In any case, I had used that quote in a print I made and it came back into my mind. To try to answer your question, I enjoy writing and it is important to me, but I think if someone else said in a succinct way what your heart intends, it is fine to use.

By looking at your portfolio it seems like New York is your playground – How is photography perceived in NYC? Has the relationship of citizens-photocamera changed in the last few years?

As strange as it may sound, my experience is that far fewer people are doing dedicated work about New York City than I would expect. It is of course, financially prohibitive to stay here for an extended period of time. Many of our finer shooters are a bit older and managed to buy property at the right time, or have that elusive wonder called rent-control. So I don't think New Yorkers feel exhausted by photographers, and in fact are probably accustomed to it in part because of the number of students who pass through. Certainly there are plenty of 'citizens with a camera' but the only effect on my photography I've noticed is that people want to immediately see the photo I take of them. Film cameras tend to disappoint in this way. It's nice to think of NYC as my playground, but it would be nicer if I had the energy and freedom of a kid in grade school. Still, there are boundless things to shoot here, and it is wonderful in that way. I teach an annual weeklong intensive workshop http://www.spaziolabo.it and many of the students have never been to New York City - developing ideas with them for their projects always makes me remember just how much of a playground NYC is. This year I'll be co-teaching with Jason Eskenazi; it should be a memorable experience.

What does exploitation mean for you in photography? When does a photographer exploit his subjects?

I'm not sure I can verbalize well enough where that line lies, but I can tell you that most anyone with a developed sense of self and awareness knows when they approach it. Misrepresenting your intentions strikes me as exploitive, but there may be exceptions to this. Of course I am speaking outside of news journalism, where the rules differ. When we are shooting personal work I think it is important to remember that we are not PR agents - it isn't our job to limit imagery to what the subject would hope for, but at the same time I think it equally shallow and pointless to photograph through the lens of cruelty.

The media channels for distributing photographic works have been changing rapidly thanks to the digital format and the internet; by living in NY you can foresee future changes better than anywhere else. What are your visions in respect of this matter? Will the paper really be replaced by the digital form or is it just a momentary trend?
Earlier today I was reading an article  that cites USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future's director Jeffrey I. Cole, saying "We believe that the only print newspapers that will survive will be at the extremes of the medium - the largest and the smallest...Most print newspapers will be gone in five years."  The question that concerns most people accustomed to earning something of a living through print media isn't so much about the format of the outlet as much as it is about strategies for generating revenue from the new distribution methods. Obviously, there are some incredibly astute people working on answering this with solutions that reach beyond the paywall and into areas like profit diversification, maximizing unique content, rethinking the relationship between audience and advertiser and the role of the commercial market in journalism.

Your series ‘Same-Sex Marriage’ has been widely published. Does the ‘receptive success‘ of certain stories influence you and your modus operandi ?
Has it? I wouldn't say that. More so 'the dark light of this nothing', which was a long term project. Same-sex marriage was a one day assignment, and the dark light of this nothing consumed me for a couple of years - not that commitment is always the measure of how well something is received. But my response to a degree of 'receptive success' is that it makes me want to try something completely different and to grow beyond what has been well received. I actually began working in the 35mm format for dark light because one time too many for my liking someone had referred to me a portrait photographer. After working in 35mm film for awhile, I chose to shoot Occupy Wall Street digitally, in part for similar reasons - because I aspire to be a photographer, not a this or that photographer, even if that means some people won't care for some of the work.

What or who would you like to photograph if you had the opportunity?
I'd like to have a ready response to this one, but my photography is more about the circumstance before me. To be completely honest, project wise I'd like to do my own version of the NYC subway system, I obsess over the idea every time I ride the train. I've never mentioned this to anyone though or really allowed myself to do more than obsess, for reasons that sway between Davidson's complete and timeless virtuosity and the prospect of spending a good portion of my life underground. So it will probably just remain an obsession. I know at some point I would like to do something that I feel is deeply meaningful, maybe even helpful in a tangible way.

What are you working on at the moment?
I'm happy to say that I am co-curating an exhibit with Laura De Marco in Italy that opens at the end of January; it has been an interesting process because also I am one of four photographers in the show. The other three are Amy Stein, Juliana Beasley and Amy Touchette. Photographically, I am trying to figure out where I stand with Occupy Wall Street, whether or not I will continue documenting it. Also, I am working to fully launch DEVELOP Photo, which I founded to provide resources for the enrichment of the photojournalism, fine art and documentary photography community. As of now, DEVELOP Tube is live - it's an educational resource which features interviews, profiles, lectures and films about photojournalism, fine art and documentary photography. There are two channels, with distinct content, one on Vimeo  and one on YouTube. So, much is going on, but i like it that way. Thanks for asking.


Erica McDonald
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