[April 16, 2010]
Welcome to 10.Q series. This section usually features interviews to humanitarian photographers, their work and photography for non-profit organizations. But today we have our first 10.Q featuring the work of a Cultural & Travel Photographer.
This week 10.Q features John Batdorff.
“ Some would say John Batdorff was born to be a photographer. The son of two avid photographers, John started his craft while shooting pictures for the family’s newspaper business as teenager… John’s work has been showcased at the prestigious National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. His work has also been featured in numerous publications. He has a strong following on his photography blog and he gives photography instruction and seminars in Chicago where he resides.” [read more]
1. Tell us about you and your photography.
I grew up in newspapers. My family owns several newspapers in Northern Michigan and I had the great opportunity to work in about every department starting at the age of 12. One summer when I was 16 I was assigned to the photography department and fell in love with the entire process. When I left for college I focused on my business degree with minors in journalism and economics, but I never truly abandoned my love for photography. I still remember getting yelled at by my roommates for having all those stinky chemicals in my makeshift darkroom (the bathroom). I’ve dedicated most of my adult life to managing our newspaper operations, but about seven years ago I decided to reallocate my time and energy to also pursue my passion for photography.
How long have you been shooting?
I’ve had a camera since I was seven years old. It was sort of like a rite of passage in our household (given both of my parents were journalists). But, it has truly been within the last seven years that I’ve become very serious about improving my art.
What kinds of shooting have you done? Can you name any current or former clients?
While most of my photography revolves around travel and landscape images, I really don’t have a set of clients I work for since most of my photography is shot for personal reasons and sold to private collectors. Most recently my work was displayed at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming. Because I am a self-taught photographer, I also offer workshops and mentorships to individuals looking to improve their skills through an informal education.
2. How did you get into Cultural/Travel photography?
I’m not sure I really got into Cultural/Travel photography consciously. In many ways I feel that travel photography found me. I have always loved traveling to study foreign cultures, and as I stated before photography was a rite of passage in my family. However, things really changed for me about ten years ago when I lost my mother to a heart attack and my best friend to an accident within a two year period. I found myself in the middle of a sort of personal crisis, and when I emerged I found clarity through my photography. There’s something very satisfying about creating an image. Photography helped me realize that there is more to life than staring at balance sheets. I decided to reallocate my time and resources to allow more time for my two passions that were becoming one – traveling and photography. Of course the more traveling I did, the more photos I took, so I would say the two have come up together.
Where did you get your vision for it, and what are your dreams?
Most of my vision or drive comes from a basic need to understand and natural curiosity. I like to capture the way places feel. If an abandoned building gives me a feeling of desolation and loneliness, I like to get that feeling across in the photo.
I think my ultimate dream is to spend a year traveling the world with my family while focusing on my photography (you said dream, didn’t you?)
What things called your attention back then?
I think one of the first cultures to really capture my attention were the Maasai. That was when I first realized that I really enjoyed travel photography. Also the landscapes of Kenya/Tanzania were simply spectacular. The experience of traveling there to capture the beauty of the place and the people is what probably got me hooked. I’d love to go back again to see how I would take photos now. I went there 6 years ago, and my photography has changed so much that I’d like to go back and try again!
3. Do you go into a situation with a specific shot in mind? Or do you take it as you go? If so, how do you plan for the situations?
I research the location and generally where I need to be, but I don’t spend a lot of time researching specific shots because I don’t want to go in with a preconceived notion of the shot. Often times I find that if I’m out and have a particular shot in mind, I will look for it, but I try to react to the environment as best I can to make it work. I don’t like putting a lot of expectations on myself when I’m traveling because I’m concerned that if the situation doesn’t meet my expectations exactly, then I’m sort of at a loss. I try to be really flexible. I know of a landscape photographer who traveled a 1,000 miles to get a particular image as he “envisioned” just to pack up and drive home because the cloud formation never was quite right. Of course he’s extremely well established and has the luxury of doing this, but for me it is more important to react to the environment and to turn the situation into something that works.
4. What are the characteristics that a good cultural photographer needs to have?
A keen respect for people and other cultures. I think it’s important to have an open mind and be resourceful in challenging environments. I think that you have to go into another culture reserving all judgments, otherwise you may lose out on some of the more special aspects of a culture. I also think being resourceful is important because you need to be able to problem solve, and problem solve fast. I think the ability to move quickly is key. Especially when trying to capture an event. You don’t want to miss key facial expressions or the best light. You know if I miss a chance at the Chicago skyline, I know I’ll have many more chances to get it right. But when I’m in a foreign country, the time is limited as are the experiences, so you’ve got to be ready to get the shot at all times.
How is that different from other fields in photography?
I think with studio photography, you have much more control over your environment than you do in field photography. If the lighting isn’t right, you change it. But when you’re outdoors and shooting strangers, there are a lot of variables at work. That’s not to say that working in a studio is easy work, because by no means is it easy, but you just have different things to take into consideration. I also think that language barriers can present a problem in the field. I was photographing a parade in a village in Peru when I saw a little girl sitting on a fence taking it all in. I wanted to take a photo of her but it was going to require me to get in her face so to speak. I did my best to ask her dad if I could take her picture but because my Spanish is non-existent, I wasn’t able to properly convey the question and instead he posed her for the shot. I went ahead and took the photo anyway, and thanked him and the girl with a smile but the original intent had passed. I think communication can be interesting in the field, in capturing people in their natural state, in getting them to stop posing and just carry on like you’re not there! (Easier said than done, right?)
5. How much do you travel every year?
I’m not on the road nearly as much as others, but I would say I spend a total of two months a year traveling. I split the remainder of my time between my home in Chicago and my cabin in rural Montana.
How do you manage your family time?
Family is by far the most important thing to me. When I can, I try to travel with my family. My daughter has become one of my biggest fans and critics. The other day we were looking at one of my landscape images and I asked her what she thought. She replied that she thought the trees were “a little distracting.” I promptly pointed out the obvious, “The image is of a forest… so what you’re telling me is, you don’t like the shot?” She replied, “Pretty much.” How I love the honesty of a child. The older she gets, the more I plan on bringing her along on my trips. I think it’s great for a child to be exposed to different cultures first hand. Otherwise, I just make sure I bring back nice souvenirs, that usually helps with the warm welcome after being gone from dishes and laundry for a few weeks.
6. Who’s been an inspiration for your photography?
I know this is where you’re supposed to give a list of all the great photographers such as Adams, Cartier-Bresson or Steve McCurry, but the truth is it’s probably my parents. My parents were very involved in photography for years as newspaper reporters. My mother won several Associated Press awards for her photography, and was always coaching me on my style. I truly consider her my first mentor. I blogged a bit about it here. She was another harsh but honest critic whose opinions I wish I could still seek out today. Sometimes, other times I’m not sure if I really want to know what she thought, because she had no qualms about telling me my composition was all wrong. My dad continues to love photography, so we go back and forth sharing shots and techniques. We are always pushing each other and learning from each other. We keep one another on our toes.
How do you stay inspired?
Flickr has been a wonderful source of inspiration. There are so many talented photographers on the site that it amazes me that I haven’t heard of more of them. Of course, I stay inspired by following fellow photographers and their blogs.
Do you read blogs? If so, which ones would you recommend?
I read a ton of blogs, way too many to list but a few of my favorites are Pixelated Image, The Digital Trekker, Gavin Gough, Light Stalking and Strobist. How often do you get to sit on the sidelines and listen to the masters?
7. What has been your greatest satisfaction in sharing your work?
I think what I really enjoy the most is the interaction with fellow photographers. I’ve learned so much in these past few years that it’s really helped me focus on honing my skills. I get some of my greatest satisfaction via my interaction with my blog readers. I try to connect with people just like me that are in the process of growing as photographers.
8. Is social media/Internet important in promoting your work?
I think this is an amazing time to be an artist. The marketing synergies are simply incredible. Never before have we had such an opportunity to promote our work to such a large audience. Yet, I still think nothing beats good old fashioned “word of mouth.”
If so, how? Is it over rated?
I think if anything it’s underrated. I think those of us that feel we don’t need be online are just fooling ourselves and missing out on crucial contacts. Keep in mind, I’m not saying social media/internet should be your only means of promotion but simply one of many tools that you should leverage when promoting yourself to the world. I’m a big believer in avoiding paralysis of analysis, as the saying goes “throw enough mud at the wall some of it will stick.”
Due to this, have you been forced to change your branding or the way in which you do business?
I think if anything it’s forced me to be more thoughtful in everything I do and promote. I’ve spent more time planning my promotions and making sure my brand or message remains authentic throughout all the different social media streams. It’s key to have continuity throughout in order to avoid sending mixed signals to your potential clients.
9. Tell us about the last piece of gear that you deemed important enough to buy. How about the one that’s been most important in your career?
Hands down I would say it’s my Canon 5d Mark II. The full frame images are simply the best and I truly feel the quality has allowed me to raise my work to the next level. Other than that I would say I really enjoy my 20D that I had converted for infrared.
10. What would be your advice for a photographer who is just starting out in this field? What is the biggest obstacle you see facing new photographers who want to work on this type of photography
Learn from my mistakes. When traveling take your camera with you everywhere. The images I beat myself up for are the ones I missed because I didn’t have my camera in tow. Secondly, It’s never too late to chase your dreams but don’t quit your paying job to blindly pursue a career in photography. Have a plan, stick to it and don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and explore. I believe personal and professional growth comes from taking calculated risks. I think the biggest obstacle new photographers face is believing in themselves. If you have the passion, the confidence, and most importantly the work ethic, then you have the building blocks to be successful.
Finally, I want to give you some other links to keep following John’s work: