Interview by Jim Mortram
Jim: After you discovered your passion for photography were you instantly drawn to make images of people and the human condition and why do you believe it’s the genre you’ve gravitated to?
Robert: Not instantly. I went down all the normal roads. I started out photographing my own interests which were really not so different than most males at my age. I started taking pictures at the beach… photographing sunsets and empty streets. I felt like I had a pretty big breakthrough when I was allowed to photograph my first naked girl, then soon after I also got into night photography… long exposures in cemeteries and what not. Some of these phases lasted longer than others, but pretty much from the start I was taking pictures of my Grandma and Grandpa who I lived with at the time. Looking back, they were the number one consistency in my life… not just as a subject but also as parental figures. I have always had a close and healthy relationship with my parents, but they went through trying times of their own and Grandma and Grandpa were always right there. So if I go back and connect the dots… I was led to care about the human condition in whatever way it is presented to me, through my love for them.
When you’re in the moment of a shot what are you aware of?
Myself. If I feel nothing at all I shouldn’t be taking pictures right that moment, but if I am… I am aware of either the mood I brought with me or how the scene in front of me is effecting me at the moment.
Do you find a situation you’re faced with is emotionally enhanced or subdued within you whilst you make an image?
In the moment it is a bit subdued… but that is an investment, because having that image provides a long term enhancement to whatever emotions I did have. I get to re-live it again and again every-time I see the picture.
Are your documentary images solely an instinctive reaction to what faces you or do you permit yourself to intercede and direct moments?
The pictures from Haiti are instinctive. The other work I do varies. If I am asked to describe my pictures I say they are documentary STYLE. Emphasis on the style. Sometimes you have to intercede in order to be honest. Sometimes you have to say… “no, go back to what you were doing and ignore me”. Some people cannot help but react to a camera.
After working on a series as emotionally intimate and personal as ‘Grandma and Grandpa’ have you naturally gravitated to an emotional tie with people within subsequent stories? or do you try to maintain a distance? or do you find that an emotional tie is essential in the act of photographing everyone and maybe that tie exists for the most fleeting of moments?
I prefer to photograph people whom I have a close relationship with. At the very least, be introduced into a situation by someone whom I have that connection with, and their blessing. I have never been a complete stranger in someone’s private space… photographing them during an emotional moment. If I have, I can’t remember it right now. I am not a news photographers and there is no pressure to get things done quickly.
I photographed the saddest moment in my life. I tend to find beauty and inspiration in sorrow, not just in the images, but by the experiences themselves.
What led you to shoot in Haiti?
I had always been fascinated with Haiti, even as a child. I imaged it as a very dark and mysterious place. I was raised in a family that would have considered vodou to be of the devil. So of course I was enamoured. I had done a lot of traveling between 2005 and 2010 and was beginning to figure out what I did, and did not enjoy photographing. During my trips I would often feel like I had no purpose. There was nothing emotional in the travel images I was taking. A pretty scene here… an interesting face there, oh look at the colors how exotic! Blech. At the same time, when I was home, I craved adventure. My childhood dog died in 2007, as I was crying and making my way to the backyard… I was unconsciously looking for my camera. I lifted her out from behind her favorite bush, placed her on her bed, and I photographed her. It was therapeutic. Up to that point, it was the saddest moment in my life and I felt it needed to be saved. Not long after, I asked my Grandma and Grandpa if I could photograph them once they had died, they both quite literally said “yes of course”. They actually found it amusing! So when my grandfather passed away, my family and I were there by his side, and again… I photographed the saddest moment in my life. I tend to find beauty and inspiration in sorrow, not just in the images, but by the experiences themselves. All this to say… when the earthquake struck Haiti, everything came together in a tragic way. I needed to go and take pictures. It was important. I wanted to turn off CNN and go witness and photograph history first hand for once.
Is there an environment you prefer to work in, a moment of day or night that you feel gels between you, the camera and the light?
Night time, once the sun has gone completely down. If I could avoid ever having to photograph during the day, I would. I think that the sunlight robs the world of all its mystery.