This is another installment in our continuing series where we talk to photographers whose work we’ve appreciated on Flickr.
This week we feature Claire Martin.
cinemafia: In your artist’s statement you indicate that you moved into photography from the field of social work because of its ability to affect change. Could you elaborate on the qualities of photography that give it a greater power over other forms of social work?
Claire Martin: Well, I wouldn’t say it has greater power, just that it also has power to create change. An image can’t create change all on its own; it needs the momentum of people in other industries like social work, politics and law, etc. to put the feelings that a photo incites into practice, so they work together. An image only has to be seen to be understood, so there is potential to reach a very large audience with photography. That said, if an image strikes a chord with people, it can change the way they think about certain things and in turn their actions may reflect this change.
cinemafia: Is the end result, the images themselves, of a greater importance than the process of taking them? Why or why not?
Claire Martin: The process of taking the image is about changing and challenging my own ideas and perceptions, a fairly self-indulgent process. The end result, hopefully, if it’s any good, is about changing and challenging a broader group of people – and if you can do this, it is invariably more important. Personally though, I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t express myself with photography.
cinemafia: How does having a camera in your hand change the outcome of what you do?
Claire Martin: Hmmmm, this is a difficult question. I guess it means I want something from the person I am photographing. I need to be clear in my intent because I am going to make public our encounter and hence certain aspects of their life. If you mean with regard to my social work background and creating change, this often means photographing people in unfortunate circumstances, so I need to be sensitive to their needs and the repercussions the photo may have on their lives. Mostly people don’t care, but it is worth considering. On a more literal level, having a camera definitely changes the outcome of events. Most people behave differently in front of a camera. It is a blessing when you find a person who is unaffected by the lens.
cinemafia: Have you personally seen any instances where the power of one photographer’s images was used to affect society in a negative way?
Claire Martin: I can’t think of any offhand. I tend to think of all the images that created change for the good, like Mary Ellen Mark’s pictures of Mother Theresa’s plight, the naked girl in a napalm attack in Vietnam by Nick Ut – countless pictures. But of course I am sure there are many examples of photography images used to affect society in a negative way. Recently, I saw a photo of John McCain having Thanksgiving dinner with his family, and the editor cropped it down to him sawing at the turkey with a maniacal grin on his face and published it this way. Uncropped, it was his whole family at the table with him carving for them. It’s definitely easy to manipulate the truth.
cinemafia: One of the running themes I see in your work is the sense of an anthropological pursuit. You seem to have a strong desire to arrive at unique faces of humanity that show themselves in the corners and niches of our world. You seek out the odd and quirky, the isolated, the disenfranchised. Could you describe how you go about finding your subjects, and why you choose them?
Claire Martin: You are right, I have always loved anthropology and studied it alongside my social work degree. Culture fascinates me. I seek out things I am interested in shooting, and I am interested in issues of social justice and quirky cultural niches, so when I hear about something odd or interesting to me, I do my best to explore those avenues. If this means financing a holiday to get there, I’ll do my best to do just that. If it’s in my area, I spend my spare time searching around trying to meet people who will let me photograph them.
cinemafia: Have there been any instances where a particularly interesting, potential subject turned you down?
Claire Martin: There are images that stay in my mind as vividly as photographs, but I never was able to take the picture – in particular, when I was in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. One huge, strong young man was dressed up as some kind of grizzly bear king with an Indian feather headpiece and a fur blanket wrapped around him – and it was so perfectly executed. The guy was an absolute vision. I crossed the road and initiated conversation, and I had my camera out, but he was so intense and aggressive and out of touch with reality. He started talking about all the nice young girls who had gone missing in the area and I freaked out and kindly excused myself and left. He didn’t want his photo taken and he was tapped. I wasn’t going to push it, although to this day I still think about what a perfectly amazing image it would have been.
cinemafia: Do you ever feel that in your commissioned work the odd, the quirky, the isolated – come to you?
Claire Martin: I don’t think it is a coincidence. I work hard to craft work opportunities that lie within my interest areas. Of course I do commissioned work that bores me senseless, but when I get an interesting job, it is because I have laid the foundations in those areas.
Cinemafia: Your images of Slab City have defined the place in history. They represent an intimate, almost native view of the people and events that take place in that unique community. Could you describe what drove you to embark on that series?
claire Martin: My friend Lung Liu has done an amazing series documenting the environment of the Salton Sea in California. Slab City lies near the Salton Sea and he introduced me to the area. His main series is on the derelict human wasteland left after the sea flooded. I focused on Slab City and its residents. More esoterically, I suppose I am driven by a sense of adventure and a desire to experience the unusual. My dad dragged our family off to the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea when I was a baby to work as a doctor, although most of my life I lived in Perth, Australia. And my mother is an eccentric musician type who borders on the edge of sanity, so I guess I inherited a desire to explore such geographical and metaphysical things from my parents.
cinemafia: The photographs neither condemn nor flatter Slab City’s residents, as if you were simply a part of their world. Did you feel that you were accepted by them?
Claire Martin: Yes, I was accepted by them. This will sound really cheesy, but if you want to get good photos of people and places, you have to kind of fall in love with it all for a while, get really intimate and explore the people, culture and environment, and want to know all about the good and the bad. I can’t do it without becoming friends with the people and without being invested emotionally.
cinemafia: Have you been back to Slab City since completing the documentary? How do you think its residents felt about the documentary that you produced?
Claire Martin: I haven’t been back because I relocated back to my hometown Perth, and Slab City is a million miles away. I have spoken on the phone to one guy and emailed another. The first is ambivalent and the latter asked that I not place any pictures of him in the series that I publish or [in any] exhibit because he felt I focused too much on the negative, but he said he really liked the photos as art. Mostly the people I photograph don’t have a problem with the pictures because I’m clear with them from the beginning that I want to hopefully publish them and I get their verbal, sometimes written consent – and anyone who doesn’t want to be photographed or published or whatever, I respect that and I don’t do it. I think people get pissed when they’re shot with a telephoto lens or when someone puts words in their mouth by way of captions.
cinemafia: For your documentary work in Vancouver, you’ve taken us deep into an element of urban living that goes beyond the borders of Canada and is, ultimately, a global problem. How did your subjects there come to allow you into their daily lives, especially in situations where crimes may have been involved?
Claire Martin: I got intimate with my subjects there by asking for street portraits, then returning with photos for them and continuing that pattern. I think in the case of the DTES [Downtown Eastside] the peoples’ lives were so honestly desperate and hopeless that a little positive attention went a long way. So many of them also have such horrific stories that the desire to tell them is overwhelming. Also, these people are [at] rock bottom, literally. They have nothing left to lose. They are in and out of the legal system, they’ve lost loved ones, respect, dignity and hope – so why would they care if someone photographs them shooting up? It’s the least of their worries. I would love to return to the DTES and do more work there.
cinemafia: Do you believe that the problems these people face are purely economic? That is, if they simply had more money, would their problems go away?
Claire Martin: There’s plenty of rich people in the suburbs who’ve lost respect, dignity and hope from addiction and mental illness, too. I think these are the defining problems. When combined with poverty, it is exacerbated because homelessness and crime become entwined in the problem.
cinemafia: What do you believe that Vancouver’s government should do about this situation? Is it the responsibility of the government to help the poorest of their poor, or is it the responsibility of those poor to help themselves?
Claire Martin: There’s no right answer to this one. There is a strong presence of aid, both government, private and not-for-profit, in the DTES with a safe injection site, methadone programs, clinics, shelters and countless other facilities in the neighborhood. Is it enough? It doesn’t appear so. Can these people just change and help themselves? Wouldn’t they have done that already if it was that easy?
cinemafia: People who view this type of work often wonder what they can do themselves to take action against the social directions that lead to homelessness, prostitution, drug abuse, etc. What would you tell them to do?
Claire Martin: Well, there’s volunteer work of course, and giving generously to charities that work in the particular field of concern, but not everyone is willing or able to give of their time or money, and that is perfectly fine. I think the most important and most feasible thing to do is just learn a little about whatever cause it might be, and when it’s appropriate, try to educate others to see things from a different perspective, or to be compassionate about a given problem. But no need to lose your sense of humor and become a nasty, lecturing hippie. But if you can help demystify problems, diseases, wars, ethnicity, whatever – it’s a good start.
cinemafia: No one at this point can deny that the state of the industry has changed dramatically – through the forces of technology and the economy, we have left the golden days of photojournalism and documentary photography far behind. How do you feel that you and your photography fit into this new world of photobloggers, career-microstockers and Jacks-and-Jills-of-all-trades?
Claire Martin: Well, at the end of the day it’s still a marketplace, even if it’s a digital one – and I am just going to be choosy. The Jack and Jills can have their clients. There is interest today in documentary photography; I am reading about it constantly. There’s grants, NGO funding, online journals and traditional print media. But, I do think multimedia is going to be an important tool to stay relevant. Even in the “good ol’ days,” documentary photography would have been considered an obscure, challenging and difficult path to choose with only a few at the top making any money, and the rest plodding away. I am under no illusion that it should be easy. I am optimistic that there will be a new digital golden age of news and documentary photography in my time (even though I’m a hopeless techie and love the old ways).
cinemafia: As a working photographer making documentaries alongside commercial and fashion work, have you ever felt that your personal vision and sense of values and ethics were misunderstood, or even compromised by your clients or the media?
Claire Martin: It’s difficult, yes. When I first started, I did a freelance job on a protest between First Nations Aboriginals and the Shell mining company, and while I was there, I also did a series on life in remote communities. A local paper ran the story. I wanted them to publish the mining protest shots and that story, but they liked my personal photos better, and ran them under the mining protest context. The protesting Aboriginals got upset that I associated them with the local drunks, the editors got upset that people were getting upset, and I had wanted the other photos published – it was the editors’ decision to run the personal photos. It was a big learning curve for me to be careful, and always consider the consequences a photo might have when published. And to always present a concise and finalized story. With commercial work it’s about the photographer understanding the client’s vision, so I can’t really get upset if they don’t get me.
cinemafia: What words of advice would you give to an eager, young photographer looking to make a living with their camera?
Claire Martin: Be prepared to whore yourself in areas you don’t love, but if you really have a vision of yourself somewhere in the future with a camera in hand, always prioritize most of your spare finances and energy into that. Always stay true to that goal and make it number one. Don’t get lost in the money-making – if that’s not what you’re into, it’ll never make you happy. Having a personal vision and a unique style is important. Be prepared for a hard slog. And, don’t listen to all the naysayers, they’ll just bring you down.
Interview by cinemafia.