Interview with Photographer Suzanne Stein

I’ve been following Suzanne’s work on instagram for over a year. Although her style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I myself appreciate her photographic style. I really like her work and wanted to learn more about her creative process and how she goes about with her photography. Check out the interview below!

Can you start off by telling us a (brief) story on your background and how you first picked up a camera?

I was a mm artist, played around with one of my dad’s film cameras briefly when I was seventeen, but I didn’t do much with it or  nor tried to learn. To me it was complex, and technical, and uninteresting.  I was an artist but was bored and very unhappy with drawing. In June of 2015, I went to Europe with my son and I started taking what I soon learned were street pictures.  I couldn’t wait to get a camera, and as soon as I returned from Europe in August of 2015 I got my first camera, a fujifilm Xt-1.

How did you end up photographing Skid Row?

Two months or so after I got my first camera I drove to downtown Los Angeles.  I had never been there before, I had only been to West Los Angeles and Hollywood.  I was unprepared for the kaleidoscope of sights and people. Just an intensely interesting and shockingly place!  I saw skid row for the first time that day and found it to be completely absorbing and was very determined to figure out a way to be able to walk through and make photographs.

At first were you afraid? If so, how did you get over the fear?

Yes, at first I was afraid.  I was very afraid!  Since then, I’ve been in worse places–Skid row is warm and inviting compared to other places in the world. But I met people because I made a tremendous effort to, and also forced myself to get out of my car and walk in.  It’s just a force of will, like anything else you desire.  You find a way.

How do you go about photographing the scenes and people of Skid Row? You talk to them first or do you just snap away?

You can’t walk into skid row and start snapping pictures!  You cannot….people need to feel familiar with you, and if you meet the “right” people there, then a certain measure of protection is conferred upon you.

Are you a familiar face in the area by now?

I was a familiar face to many, but I’ve been absent for the past 6 months due to traveling.

I find it absolutely insane that we have areas like Skid Row more or less all across the United States. We do have them here in Hawaii believe it or not…for a while I’ve been wanting to document these areas to show the other side of Honolulu and that it’s not all paradise…Do you have any advice?

Advice?  It’s hard to say without first observing your manner and style.  It’s really important to preserve one’s safety first.  Second, be honest.  Never never never sneak a shot.  Tell people what you’re doing and have a “show album ” in your phone and offer to show samples of your work.  Shake hands….yes, some homeless people aren’t squeaky clean but be ready to embrace, shake hands, touch people.  People have actually tested me to see if I’d shake their hand.  Don’t be one of those fake photographers who swoop in, steal images, and then flee.  Stay awhile.

Do you think being a female has helped you as a photographer specifically documenting Skid Row? Or not?

Yes and no.  I’m smaller and more easily ripped off than a male, and more likely to have situations with people who have an axe to grind and see me as an easily intimidated woman who they can hurl abuse at.  On the other hand, people will often admire my ability to walk in and respect and hang w others despite my clearly different background and appearance, and that goes a long way.

Your creative process, what stands out for you to make a photo on a particular subject or person?

I don’t know….some people just resonate and inspire me.  Sometimes they are vulnerable and hard and scary and poignant all at once and I want to capture that.  Some people are like rockstars in skid row really, and I love to shoot that and make a picture that is over the top, a little punch in the face because they are very cool and interesting people besides being in dire straits.  Sometimes it’s just injustice or inequality that I want to highlight or it’s just simple….they’re super interesting and I want to make great photos of them.

Through the interaction, photos, and stories you hear from these people. How are you able to cope and go about your day?

Just have to feel bad for a while, eat ice cream, and drive home.  Let it go, because it’s critical….but not always possible.

What’s your overall goal with this project? A book?

I would like to do a book….I don’t know how, nor do I have the time.  I had a promise for one which, in typical bullshit Los Angeles style, fell through!

When will you know that you’re done shooting Skid Row?

I’m done in Skid row….,it’s all over my Instagram, I’m in Paris and was in Istanbul where I did a series on homeless and otherwise exploited and forgotten children….That project is important to me and I’m NOT on skid row.  I hope to one day return and revisit for sure.

I’ve noticed most images of yours are in black and white but others in color. How do you determine what’s left in black and white and what’s left in color?

In skid row I decided color was the way to go, because color best represents the neighborhood.  In Downtown Los Angeles I’ll use bnw….but color is important as a method to convey emotion, especially as saturation levels and differing approaches and usage of these levels in post can dramatically affect the final image and impact.  In Paris it’s desaturated colors, in skid row much less desaturation.  So bnw is overused at times because the masses who think they appreciate street photography seem to prefer it. I think it’s an overused camouflage used  to “dress up” or render more artistic an otherwise dull photograph.  So… if color is an integral part of the picture, it’s in color.

In your opinion what makes a photograph work or interesting?

Everybody has a different opinion here and mine is going to be sounding bitchy to be frank!  But what makes a good photograph?? There’s a dearth of these in popular social media.  Technical aspects must be there (exposure, no tacky overuse of vignettes, compositional elements) but a few of these can be pushed aside for a great, fast snap. It’s all about narrative and story for me!  Much of what hobbyists and magazines devoted to photography prefer is technical, correctly executed stuff that’s good to look at but completely void of story, of emotions and content.  Conventional executions of technique leave me without passion.  This bothers me….I think that subtlety is lost on many, and that there’s no substitute for narrative.  It’s hard as hell to find an audience for good true narrative pictures though….it exists, but in places that are populated by people who don’t know photography.  They’re regular people who can appreciate a picture that’s got a story.

Do you have GAS (gear acquisition syndrome)?

Do I have GAS?  Hell no!  I wish….I’m in desperate need of a few basic lenses that I can’t afford right now.

What have you learned about yourself or society from shooting the streets?

I’ve learned some things that I wish I could unlearn….that there’s no happy ending for most, that the world is full of dire tragedies that go unnoticed.  That people don’t care about what they say they’re moved by, and that in practice we can help out on a daily basis and most don’t.  I’ve witnessed some truly good people who try and who remain completely unrecognized by others, toiling on skid row or helping animals.  I’ve learned that animals  get horrifically abused before being eaten in many places, and live lives of brutality that are a sin and a shame.  Life, I’ve learned, is one hundred percent unfair.  I’ve learned that people want a gimmick in a photo and that sometimes the gimmick is critical, and the truth is not very important.  I’ve learned that the world of photography is self serving, fatuous and full of benchmarks that are irrelevant.  I’ve learned that I’m both a better person than I thought and a callous shooter that takes pictures of moments that are private.  I’ve learned that perseverance is actually a skill, and more important in photography than most realize.

What do you have to say to those that may criticize your work or style?

What do I say to people who criticize my work?  I don’t care anymore….I used to, but I am too concerned with creating a body of work to give it much thought.  I think my style can be over the top at times so people who are less able to take risks tend to criticize those of us who take those creative risks.

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Follow Suzanne Stein’s work!

www.suzannesteinphoto.com/

Instagram @suzanne_stein