Interview: Trenton Lee Stewart
TRENTON LEE STEWART
Conducted May 2015
Issue No. 8 – June 2015
Trenton Lee Stewart is author of the novel Flood Summer, as well as the award-winning, New York Times best-selling series of children’s books that begins with The Mysterious Benedict Society, which was recently included on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest young adult novels of all time. His short fiction has appeared in the Georgia Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review and elsewhere. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: We’re at the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Can you share some words about your experience documenting the aftermath? And after 10 years, what do these images mean to you now?
KENNETH JARECKE: Looking back, experiencing an event like Hurricane Katrina creates a mixed combination of feelings between rewarding, humbling, and frustrating. It’s rewarding to see that my skills, honed over an entire career, allowed me to tell the story of the people affected by the storm to the best of my abilities. It’s humbling to know that regardless of these skills I wouldn’t be able to tell these stories as well as they should be told. It’s frustrating to know, regardless of anything else, that nothing much changed and instead of working towards solutions politicians used the event to point fingers at one another for the past ten years.
Looking at the images now, to me as the photographer, is frustrating as well. I wonder if I could have worked harder, smarter or a combination of the two to have done a better job.
BA: Do you take photos every day, even when you aren’t traveling, or are photography sessions something you plan and consciously arrange? If so, is there a different feeling between an ‘at-home’ shoot and travel documentary?
KJ: Making pictures for me is never a casual thing. I wish this wasn’t true. I don’t have the ability to make snapshots anymore. I’m always thinking about an end-use beyond FB or Twitter. When I was working as a journalist it was no different. The end-use for me wasn’t a double-truck in Time Magazine, it was for creating a lasting image that would eventually find it’s way into museum collections. Having that mindset is a bit of a burden, but the only way I know how to operate. It would be like asking a chef to make a grilled cheese sandwich. A good chef isn’t going to be happy throwing a slice of processed American cheese food between two slices of Wonder Bread. It doesn’t matter if he’s serving a four year old or a food critic. So using an iPhone and a faux Polaroid filer and throwing that up on Facebook is hard for me. I know the difference between a sharp cheddar and the plastic stuff that comes wrapped in cellophane.
The other problem is I haven’t really had the proper tool to use since I switched to digital ten or twelve years ago. To pickup a Leica, loaded with Tri_X or Kodachrome immediately creates the opportunity for creating great work regardless of the subject matter. There’s a great tradition of photographers making lasting images in ‘at-home’ situations. So when you combine the two, the proper tool and the proper mindset, then it doesn’t matter whether you’re in your backyard or standing on the Great Wall of China, the potential for creating a lasting image is there.
I’m still waiting for the proper tool. The digital version of a Leica loaded with Kodachrome 64, that can be beaten up, hung on the back of a car seat, carried around without looking too serious. I think we may be close to that solution now. The takeaway being I haven’t had the proper tool for at least ten years. I see pictures that aren’t made, which I would have liked to make.
Now, this isn’t a bad thing. The popular mindset is the best camera is the camera you have with you. This is utterly foolish and has robbed many of us of the ability to enjoy an experience, whether that’s a concert, a child’s birthday party, a sunset, whatever. Many people live their lives looking at the back of their phones and any decent photographer can tell you that’s an excellent way of removing yourself from your own life.
So, to answer your question… when I’m shooting I’m shooting and it’s quite serious, but when I’m not shooting I’m soaking up that real life experience as much as I possible can.
BA: Lester Bangs once wrote, “If you accept for even a moment the idea that each human life is as precious and delicate as a snowflake…you’ve got to hurt until you feel like a sponge for all those other assholes’ problems, until you feel like an asshole yourself, so you draw all the appropriate lines. You stop feeling.” I think about this passage often when looking at war photography. Can you reflect on how relevant (or not) this idea was during your time documenting the Gulf Wars? How did you deal with the traumatic scenes you witnessed?
KJ: Okay, this is good. I think it was Rene Burri who said to be a photographer you need a comfortable pair of shoes. I think you need a healthy supply of empathy as well.
A photograph speaks about three things, the subject, the viewer and the creator. Most photographers are narcissistic and only want to talk about themselves so this is naturally reflected in their work. Unfortunately this is also the quickest path to success, so embracing the inner narcissus is rewarded. Regardless of who he was photographing, Richard Avedon spent his life doing self-portraits (It’s no accident that we’re drowning in a sea of selfies). Avedon was also a great artist. At some point I want to see what he has to say. Which is all fine and good, but the problem becomes evident when the subject of the photograph is lacking their own voice. I don’t need Avedon to look down his New York City nose at my neighbors out here in the West. Save that attitude for Henry Kissinger, not the single mother of three working to make ends meet.
To put this another way, the famine, war, or earthquake didn’t happen for the photographer to improve their portfolio. It’s not about them. Now, I’m also not interested in the photographer as photo-robot. I don’t want to see detached images of record. The building was here and now it’s gone. That’s what Google is for. What I need to see, and what the every viewer needs to see, is something that makes them say, “if not for the Grace of God this could be me, this could be my child, this could be my home”. That’s the definition of empathy and that’s what great photography accomplishes.
The photographer, brings their photographic, diplomatic, and survival skills to the image, but without empathy for the subject these are all meaningless. The viewer, well they bring all their baggage and personal experience to the photograph when they’re viewing it and there’s no controlling that. That’s why one person is incredibly moved by a certain image and the next person isn’t. The subject…the subject is the person that allowed the photographer to be there (maybe the only reason is because nobody has ever paid attention to them before), and to abuse that trust is, well abusive, but also doesn’t normally make good pictures.
The photograph is always going to be about the photographer there’s no way around that, but a great photographer manages to keep the focus on the people they photograph.
For me, the “appropriate lines” is crucial as well. Somehow, one must create a buffer around themselves while still remaining connected to the person they’re photographing. The camera does this automatically, but that’s more of a problem than a solution. The bottomline is this, I’ve got no reason to be there, to take up space and be in the way, unless I’m working to create a lasting image that captures the situation (the subject) in a way the will put the viewer into the shoes of the subject (however briefly). I can’t do that unless I’m concentrating on all the technical and ascetic elements that give the photograph a chance to be successful. To say it another way… to be concerned about your exposure when someone is dying in front of you is arguably asshole-ish, but to miss the exposure, or have a tree in the background growing out of that person’s head because you aren’t concentrating on your composure is unforgivable.
BA: How can photojournalists best take responsibility for their subjects? Put differently, how can photojournalists be ethical in their practice?
KJ: I’ve touched on this a bit already. Sadly, plenty of photojournalist aren’t ethical and they eventually pay a dear cost for this behavior.
If you ask a young photojournalist what they hope to accomplish they’ll usually give you a grandiose, Quixote-ian response along the lines of “I want to change the world”. What they don’t realize is they’re correct. Every photojournalist changes the world, even if the only part they change is themselves. If they’ve gone into a war zone (for example) for the wrong reason, like to win an award, they’ve tarnished themselves in a deep way, and made the world a worse place. If they’ve gone into the war zone for the right reason, say, to simply show the plight of those affected by the war, there’s a good chance they’ve made themselves a better person, if for no other reason they now realize or appreciate their own circumstances. Of course, even if they’ve gone in for the right reason, they still could be a jerk if they didn’t manage to make any decent pictures.
BA: On a related subject, how can editors be ethical in their practice?
KJ: I think it’s hard for an editor to be ethical. It’s a different skill set. Maybe it’s impossible for a photojournalist to be ethical as well. We live in a world where self promotion is king. Honesty and hard, intelligent work, making the perfect grilled cheese, is no longer as important as getting the 5000 likes and getting Kraft to sponsor your Instagram feed.
BA: What non-photographic-based art do you find yourself drawn towards?
KJ: I like Jazz. I don’t really know what it is about the music. I don’t understand the music, the structure, how it’s done or why it works. I think it has to do with a couple of people reaching into their bag, pulling out a musical instrument and creating something that is lasting, that moves the listener as well as the creator(s). I think its similar to the idea of having this tool, a camera, and being able to capture an enduring image that speaks to the viewer, does right by the subject but can later find a life on a wall someplace that transcends the moment or circumstances of when it was made.
BA: Which photographer’s work are you most excited about right now?
KJ: That’s hard to say. I’m a little cynical (in case you haven’t noticed). It’s not just about the photograph. If it’s not done in the right way I can’t appreciate it. For example, I can’t appreciate music that is too perfect, because I know it’s been scrubbed and polished in the studio, but hearing that same artist live might make me a fan.
BA: And last, what kind of projects are you working on these days? Are you still keeping your focus on American spaces and the West, or do you see yourself branching back into global optics?
KJ: Currently I’m the Creative Director for Hail Varsity. I’ve just completed a short film as the Director of Photography. I do various art projects in Billings, Montana. I think if I get my hands on this new camera system, the digital Leica I mentioned above, I would start making the pictures I’ve been seeing for the last ten years. I’ve got a documentary film to shoot. I sell a lot of prints to collectors which keeps me busy. I’ve got a few students to mentor. I’ve got two different books to finish writing. But really my main focus is being a great husband and father, which is a full-time job.