Interview With Photographer Aristide Economopoulos

Currently you are a staff photographer at the Star-Ledger in New Jersey tell us your photographic journey.

I took a high school photography class my sophomore year and I became hooked. I attended the Rochester Institute of Technology on scholarship and while in school I interned at 4 different newspapers throughout the US. After graduation I returned home to the Washington DC area where I freelanced for the Washington Post for almost 2 years. I took my first staff job at the Dubois County Herald in Jasper, IN and was there for 2 years and then another 2 years at The State Journal Register in Springfield, IL. Since 2000 I have been on staff at The Star-Ledger and NJ Advance Media in New Jersey.

Is it more difficult making a living as a photographer than before?  Yes! I’m fortunate to still have a staff position but a number of publications have cut their staffs. Friends of mine who won a Pulitzer Prize were even let go by their papers. There is more competition with the popularity of digital photography and less work to go around with budgets being cut. You just can’t be a talented photographer now, having good business skills are essential for a successful career. Sadly as I finish writing this, the whole photo staff at the NY Daily was just fired.

Is photojournalism a degree and career still worth pursing? Yes because stories will still need to be told. We live in a more visual society than ever before. Yes, there is a lot of competition but the cream will still rise. Also, with the rise of web publications there is a bigger demand for quality photo editors. More and more students coming out of school are not becoming photographers but are going into editing and multimedia. Students need to be realistic with their skills but also be willing to put in a lot of work because someone else will.

Has social media changed things for better or for worse? There can be arguments for both! With the internet and social media we have become more visually aware than ever before. One could even argue that social media has also devalued what a photographer does. Everyone is a photographer and we judge pictures by likes but not if they communicate anything while giving content away for free.

What’s the difference between documentary and street photography?  There doesn’t have to be a difference but I would say that there is more of a trend in street photography for photos that rely on graphics or quirky compositions. These types of photos might be visually fun but they can start to look a lot like each other. I feel that documentary photography relies more on photos with intimacy and emotion although they can be graphic also. The strongest photos rely on strong visuals, a decisive moment and either emotion or intimacy that makes you feel something.

Are you more of one than the other?  Both! Earlier in my career my photos were more based on just graphic elements. I’m striving for more intimacy and emotion in my photos these days. There are too many street photography photos where you are just the observer and you don’t feel anything. I guess working for a newspaper has made me want more than just something that is pretty. I was lucky early in my career to be surrounded by some really talented photojournalists and great photo editors that pushed me for something more.

Here is some great insight from one of my mentors who was responsible for 4 Pulitzer Prizes where he use to work

The Language of Photography in the Newsroom 

By JOE ELBERT

 The Washington Post

TWP pictures fall into categories: informational, graphically appealing, emotionally appealing and intimate. The right combination of these categories in a single image becomes an award winner.

INFORMATIONAL — This is the lowest standard of photography. I often refer to these images as real estate pictures. Shortly after I joined TWP and edited with a photographer, I knew that something just wasn’t clicking. The photographer explained that he had been taught to see each assignment as shooting an overall of the battlefield, and getting a mug shot of the winning general. We still shoot informational pictures, but we know when they’re needed and do not see them as a standard. Pushing informational pictures is lowering the bar.

GRAPHICALLY APPEALING — Most newspaper photographers discovered this trick in the early ’70s. Hell, they even won awards. But these are not a case of fitting an art form. They resulted simply because wide-angle lenses were developed. A photographer with a limited sense of composition could create an image that suddenly had dimension and depth. These images are intellectually appealing but don’t have much emotional impact. Many newspaper photographers consider these stunning, and too often rely on composition alone to carry a situation.

EMOTIONALLY APPEALING — Photographers talk about capturing moments. Cartier Bresson, one of the five founding fathers of Magnum Photo Agency, titled his 1952 book “The Decisive Moment.” The challenge was to push the concept of decisive moments from the magazine world into newspapers. Patience, sensing the environment, and intuitively sensing when the moment will occur are the building blocks for capturing emotionally appealing images. The skill is very much like that of a wildlife photographer’s, but the subject is humanity. This involves a lot of sitting in a blind and waiting, unnoticed, for the picture.

INTIMATE — Working with truly gifted photographers helped me to realize that we could push the decisive moment and emotionally appealing images a bit further, and I chose to call this category “Intimate.” The description scared off the wannabes, and I came to know whom to work with. I can’t give you a description of an intimate picture; it’s something that can be felt.

Walk us through your creative process when you’re out photographing? First, my question to myself is what do I want to say? I use to go a hundred miles an hour and right into looking for a photo but realized that some of the best photos are right behind me. I now like to walk around the periphery of a scene. Looking at the light and shadows and how they playoff each other. Then I look at the people, their relationships and their body gestures asking myself what really is the story here. With this knowledge I try to predict where moments will happen. I like to by the fly on the wall when I’m photographing but not the fly you want to swat. There are two ways to take a photo. The first is where the photo is completely candid and the subject has no idea that it was taken. The other is when a photographer gains the trust of a subject and then they start to ignore the photographer. One way is not better than the other. A talented photographer can be very inconspicuous even if the subject knows they are there and especially when there is a lot of drama going on around them.

Do you capture your street photos simultaneous when you are working on assignments or do you shoot on your days off? Both! You have to have a balance with work and personal photography. Otherwise you spend all of your life documenting other people’s life and not living yourself. I incorporate street photography into my daily assignments and especially on photo essay projects for work. I also have a couple of personal long term street photography projects I’m working on too. The light mirrorless cameras have made it easier to carry a high quality camera more frequently. I currently have a couple of the Fuji models I use in addition to my Canon work gear.

What’s your favorite subject to photograph? Generally speaking people. I like the diversity of subjects I cover being a newspaper photographer. That being said I specialize in documentary essays.

In regards to your photography, what are you most proud of?  Producing high quality work on a consistent basis. Anyone can get lucky with one photo but working hard and producing quality work daily for my publication shows my value to being on their staff.

Is there something you’d like to improve on in your photography? Any challenges you take upon yourself?  Getting closer not just physically to my subjects but emotionally. I know I and others sometimes get in a formula on how we like to shoot it be either a certain lens, a distance to a subject, a time of day or style of light. It’s good to break away from this and change things up. Years ago a friend of mine was a photo editor a small paper and a rodeo was coming to town. The staff of 5 photographers went to shoot it as a team project. They were allowed only a limited number of rolls of film with one camera and their favorite lens. Then they were told to give their favorite lens to the photographer to the right of them. The photographer who liked to shoot all long lens sports with clean backgrounds now had a 24mm lens!!!! As a staff they were challenged to work differently but as a whole they produced some great work. Things like this are great to do and occasionally push yourself to see and not get to comfortable.

Was there a photo or photographer that had a lasting impact on you? A couple – from a pure traditional street photography aspect Magnum’s David Allan Harvey and Alex Webb have been influential. I was fortunate to work with former Washington Post Photographer Carol Guzy who has won 4 Pulitzer Prizes. Her photos are visually amazing with a lot to say on important issues. Lastly, legendary LIFE Magazine photographer Bill Eppridge was a friend and mentor.

“A journalist does not necessarily imply ‘artist’ but you are not going to make your point if you cannot make a picture that people will stop and explore…the ‘artist’ in one instant must establish a sense of time, a sense of place, a moment of importance, a moment of aesthetic beauty all in the same frame, one moment in history. In terms of importance, the fewer of these present, the less significant the photograph. Anybody can take pictures, but not anybody can become a photographer.” – Bill Eppridge

A favorite photo of from your own collection –   I call it “Endless Summer.” I was working at my first staff job in Jasper, IN, and it was the 4th of July on Beaver Lake. The kids felt comfortable around me and just ignored me as I took their photos. To me this photo is timeless.

Any advice to you’d give to photographers?  Work hard because if you don’t someone else will. There are less job opportunities than the past and more photographers looking for work. Be flexible and diverse in your skills but be able to specialize or show an editor why you are unique and should be the right photographer for the job. Use all the tools and tricks of the trade but make your own photos and don’t feel you have to copy a style. Your pictures should rely on a moment and emotion and not on how you light the scene. Otherwise you’re bringing yourself down to just technique. Also extremely important is to understand the business of photography. Making a living through street photography is not an option for most photographers.

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To keep up with Aristide Economopoulos’s work:

Instagram – Follow @aeconomopoulos

Website – www.aristidephoto.com

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