Setting out from my Bay Ridge, Brooklyn Airbnb apartment, I was prepared for an hour long train ride + walk to Villain for the photography event I’d been anticipating since before I even got to New York : The EyeEm Photo Festival, 2015. How I found about the festival is also an interesting story that I’m unlikely to forget in my lifetime. One of my fellow-photographer-Facebook-friends, Farhan Hussain, excitedly announced that one of his photographs had been selected as one of the finalists at this photo festival that was going to take place in NYC sometime in September. I like Farhan’s work. I Googled “EyeEm” and the festival lineup looked particularly interesting. The festival wasn’t going to let other photographers pompously deliver discourses about “How to make a picture”. Instead, they had invited people from a cross section of industries directly related to the photography industry. There were marketing directors of international museums, investors that funded photography related startups, social media heads from news and space organizations, photo editors from print and online magazines, CEOs of interesting photography-related apps, senior photographers who were publicly engaged in mentoring younger photographers and of course some of my favourite photographers would be sharing their work. ( Do see the festival page for the entire line-up including links to the social profiles of each of the speakers. ) I thought it would be so cool if I actually went to the festival and took a selfie with Farhan’s selected picture that was going to be displayed!
I decided to write to the festival and figure out how I could be a part of it. Jenna wrote back and suddenly, I was going! There are lots of photos below – lots of photos of slides too – and I spent almost an entire day writing about this – so yeah, take your time!
It took me about 90 minutes to get to the venue from Bay Ridge to Villain – both in Brooklyn. I took the R Train and then the G Train. I was worried I was late but I’d made it in time. New York has been much warmer than anticipated and the venue was hot even though they’d installed two giant fans.
There were t-shirts, postcards, stickers, cold and hot coffee sourced locally and a whole table of snacky food and event bottles of Soylent. I’ve been to a few events in Europe and UK earlier and they usually don’t have food except – and I remember this rather starkly – apples dipped in caramel and further covered in sprinkles. Eeeeks. At least EyeEm had done way better than that! They had fresh bananas and apples too! The gathering looked like a small bunch of enthusiasts – mostly photographers – and I was excited about learning something new.
Below : the view from my seat. It was hot and I positioned myself strategically at a spot where I was get hit by the wind from both fans. It didn’t last long though, someone quickly took my spot when I’d gone out for a food break. There were lots of empty spaces and I edged forward and was in the third row from the stage by the end of the day.
The keynote was by the very kind ( and handsome ), Hans Peter Brondmo. I was too shy to resume our conversation later and tell him how I got into photography but if I get another chance, I’m certain I’ll talk my head off. Hans talked about Picture Tools and Picture Stories : the shift in narrative through technology. It was a very interesting keynote to kickstart the festival with. I loved how almost all the speakers emphasized that what we made photos with was no longer relevant – it was never relevant. Cameras are just tools. Making a picture still requires more than just pushing a button. Story-telling is even more relevant today when there’s an incredibly large number of tools available with a button that is even more easier to push.
The next people on stage were going to be discussing The Future of Photojournalism & Storytelling. Billy Murray of Resource Magazine was moderating, other participants were Ed Kashi ( I so adore his work and work ethic), Ron Haviv, Elizabeth Renstrom of VICE Magazine and Matt Craig of Blink.la.
Whenever I hear the word “photojournalist”, I want to usually make myself invisible because I don’t consider “luxury and lifestyle” photography to be particular life-saving / important news-making or constructive photography work. I always feel like I’m waiting for a career photojournalist to walk up to me and tell me that my work is bullshit. Photojournalists do important work that shapes politics, wars, daily life and the photography industry and I had already been following Ed Kashi’s work via his Instgram account. Each time he posted a new picture, I would sigh and wonder how he did it. During their panel discussion, each of the panellists was asked to share what, in their opinion, was important for a photographer to be or to do, today. One of the things Ed said was on the lines of, “You have to fucking care about what you’re shooting.”
I didn’t particularly care about what I was shooting most of the time. I plucked up the courage to ask him how one was supposed to find that thing to care about. Once the panel was over, there was a short break – Ed was surrounded by other photographers and I stood by and eavesdropped. A girl walked up to Ed to ask him to come meet her friend and he started to walk away from the table and I totally interrupted and asked him point blank, “But how does one find that thing to care about? I shoot lifestyle. I don’t particularly care about lifestyle – or fashion. I love to shoot everything – I just like to shoot.” He looked me in the eye and said something to the effect of, “So you already care about making pictures yes? You take pictures of things no one else cares about. You see them how no one else sees them. You care about the craft and the process.” By this point I was wide-eyed in disbelief. The answer had been sitting under my nose this whole time and I’d been SO botheres by not knowing what I cared about. I knew what I cared about. I cared about the photos I made. How I edited them. How I shared them. What I did with them. Just for that answer to that one question, it was completely worth it – travelling three hours on the G and the R Trains in Brooklyn.
During this panel, Ed and Ron also announced an additional mentorship program for five photographers on VII Photo. Read more about that and an additional collaboration with EyeEm.
The other very interesting new thing I learned about during this panel discussion was this thing called Blink. I had not heard about them earlier and two slides into Matt’s description of what Blink is, I had opened the website on my mobile phone and requested for an invite. Do check it out. Brilliant stuff and I can’t wait for them to invite me – I hope they do.
Elizabeth talked about her journey as a photographer and photo editor and how what she initially thought was weird work that would have no market, turned out to have a cult market indeed.
I was very curious to hear Rebecca Roth‘s talk. She is an image coordinator and social media specialist at NASA – sounds like a really cool gig and job description. It was neat to learn about how NASA uses social media and how thousands of people respond to their photo challenges, sending in photographs of the Super Moon or an Eclipse from all over the world. All connected by that one moment, via photography. We’re all looking at the same sky from different parts of the planet. She also talked a bit about photos of Pluto and how they’d waited so many years and even now, it takes about 15 minutes for then to receive a photo from Pluto.
There was a break and I found this message on the water tank in the restroom. Villain looks like a cool place for events!
Then it was time to get some coffee before heading to the next set of sessions. I was getting really sleepy and yawny at this point and I blame the heat.
Evan Nisselson‘s talk was Content Is King : How will visual technologies empower your creativity? It was an interesting perspective from the point of view of a photographer that needs to find their way in the upcoming technology-crammed years. But from the point of view a photographer who thinks of themselves as an artist first – and that tools and technology are just enablers, there were more than a few things that bothered me. I hugely dislike calling myself a “content creator”. While I see where the whole “content is king” bit is relevant for business today, approaching it only from that view point is a disservice to the craft of photography. ( Ron Haviv had earlier said that for photographers today, it is extremely important for the photographers to acknowledge that their photography practice is a business. It might be a small business but that the “starving artist” thing is disservice to the craft. I spoke with a Bulgarian photographer who was also at the festival and they said they were self-funding their next cool photo project. I mentioned that they must think about finding a sponsor or a brand that might see value in their project and I will not forget the look of abject horror on their face. This photographer avoided me for the rest of the conference. Yes, monetizing an independent photography practice is hard and uncomfortable and you have to start somewhere – but I would highly NOT recommend starting it from the point of view of looking at yourself as a “content creator”. )
I had massive issues with what came next – I’m only sharing two slides but you get the picture. “Blue is more popular than Red” and you get more “Likes”. Really now. It is interesting that we can deduce such information from the billions of pictures uploaded online these days but I have yet to find someone who can tell exactly what one is supposed to do with this information. Do I now publish only photography that have blue in them? For more “Likes”? I don’t share my photographs and my work online with other people and photographers because I want them to like my work. I share it because I want to share. Compulsively. “You might even be deleting those photographs from your stream that get few likes or no likes.” Wow. No. Most certainly not. Who the fuck has so much time anyway? I can barely keep up with the comments on my multiple social media feeds. It’s all gone in one hot minute and then it’s time to move on to the next exciting photo gig. In the early days I used to agonize over, “OMG why didn’t more people like this photo! It’s my favourite damn photo!” – couldn’t they see how awesome this photo was? But then if they had the same eye as I do, they wouldn’t be my audience.
I hate oversimplification of photographs based on what colour or contrast was used and how many “Likes” they elicited. So many people don’t even share their photos publicly so this might not even be an accurate conclusion.
The next panel was The Camera of Tomorrow : beyond the image. The title sounded interesting and there was Christian Plagemann of Google on the panel – which is primarily why I was interested. But I couldn’t keep up. I was yawning too much and all the tech stuff was flying miles above my head. I’m more interested in existential angst I guess. So I got out to the slightly more cool food section, ate a banana, Instagrammed a bit from the conference, looked at photos, took selfies with them – yes I took selfies with the photographs shot by Farhan Hussain, Gregory Hogan and Fiorella Macor – Fiorella won in the Food category too!
Then it was time for Show & Tell with Amy Lombard, Austin Merrill and another one of my favourite photographers Daniel Arnold. All three were delightful. The EverydayEverywhere initiative on Instagram is fabulous! Austin spoke about how they started it all with EverydayAfrica and how people’s perspectives about Africa changed when they were shown these images. I didn’t think I could possibly love Daniel Arnold more but after his talk, I do. I already adore his photographs and he is so much like his images. Obsessed with his work, almost neurotic – I can look at a picture and almost always correctly identify it as having been shot by Daniel. I follow him on Instagram and if you’re into photography like that, you should too.
Out of curiosity, I decided to stay in my seat for the Taking Stock : An evaluation of stock photography’s impact on culture talk by Stephen Mayes. As I’ve said a million times earlier, I’m not a fan of stock photography. Mainly so because while it seems like a really lucrative form of business, it’s a business that would consume you whole. It is a genre of photography that has very specific requirements and one of those requirements is that if you choose to be a successful stock photographer, you are required to do just that and nothing else till you reach a point where you can maybe just live off the royalties of all the work you’ve produced in the last 25 years. To me, it seems tedious to produce and the whole process after the photo has been made ALSO sounds like too much work. Don’t get me wrong, any kind of photography genre is a lot of work but stock photography seems like there’s way more “office” work involved and I already struggle with keywording my images.
Luckily, I stayed in my seat and Stephen Mayes provided a perspective about stock photography that wad delightful to learn about. I’m still never getting into stock photography but it was nice to recognize that impact it possibly had on popular culture and to learn the realities of how stock photographs are sometimes made. For example, after a couple of slides below, the photo with the girl and a guy sharing a hot dog, in that, the girl is actually vegan and the hot dog is well NOT. It took more than a handful of takes to get that picture and then the guy model gladly ate the whole hot dog.
Then there was the Twitter wall. And lots of my tweets on it. You know I love tweeting! Especially when it’s at such a wonderful conference like this. Check out the entire timeline of my #EyeEmFestival15 tweets – I hope I helped them trend!
The next panel with moderators Ulli Barta and Fabrice Nadjari of Studio 55, panellists Massimo Portincaso of the Boston Consulting Group, Bethany Powell of National Geographic Digital and Michael Shane of Bloomberg Digital was about The Visual Revolution : the impact on communication, art and society. Each of them spoke about how they made decisions about purchasing photography and hiring photographers unique to each of their brands and situations. It was interesting to hear Massimo’s viewpoint about crowdsourcing and that he emphasizes the importance of curation now more than ever. There are so many ways of having a brand’s photography needs fulfilled and crowd-sourcing could be one of them, instead of hiring just one photographer who might dictate what the brand’s campaign looks like instead of the campaign dictating what the brand’s positioning should look like.
I’m not a fan of crowdsouring because it promotes speculative work – younger, newer talent is pushed to work for less money and sometimes just for the “exposure”. But I also see how a brand might benefit from sourcing campaign-specific imagery from a variety of photographers. I don’t shoot advertising so it is not my place to comment on whether such an approach might be convenient or cumberson for advertising photographers.
Bethany spoke about how NatGeo reproduces content across its print edition and digital edition and on the digital edition, how that content flows across on various devices. I know it’s fabulous because Natgeo is one of our only paid subscriptions online – of course the visual stories are fabulous but apart from that, no other magazine displays its stories in the fabulous way that NatGeo does. We just LOVE looking at NatGeo stories on the boy’s iPad.
Michael spoke about how it was important to source images for news stories quickly but that the accuracy of those images was even more important than the speed at which they were acquired. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to balance these two decisions.
The next talk was by JiaJia Fei who is the Associate Director, Digital Marketing at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. I was really really interested in Art in the Age of Social Media and the talk turned out to be a perfect closing for the conference. It was lovely to hear about social media and the billions of photographs one sees online, from the point of view of a museum. JiaJia talked about one of the museum’s most popular installations and how even though the museum did not allow photography of the installation, more than 5000 photographs showed up online. The installation had more than 420,000 visitors and visitors also took selfies with the installation. Any museum or creator of art would feel threatened I suppose – how does one keep a work of art relevant when anyone, anywhere in the world can simply Google it? Why would someone actually visit the Mona Lisa room at the Louvre for example, when they could see, literally, thousands of photographs of the painting online – all they have to do, it Google it?
I thought these questions were wonderfully relevant! And I couldn’t help but wonder how JiaJia’s job was made any easier by the crazy new technology for photography popping up each month – equipping more museum visitors to take more photos of exclusive pieces that only Guggenheim’s collection has!
JiaJia ended her talk with “Can social media create art history?” and with that tantalizing question, I immediately accosted her when she got off stage, asked for her card and tried to have her invite me to do a blog story of my visit to the museum! She kindly shared her card with me but warned me they were super busy at the museum till the 9th of October – I leave on the 30th of September and will probably drop by as a regular visitor – I hope the museum will let me photograph and take selfies!
And that was a wrap! I could finally sample the beer at the open bar – I was so excited to try a new beer that the one photo I took of the bottle was blurry. Boo.
You Chen asked me who the important photographers in India were and after three beers, the above names are the ones I could think of. I like their work, their marketing, their eye and the respect they generate. Their work seems authentic – even when it’s advertising work, you know what’s been re-touched. They seem like some of the most genuine, currently relevant photographers in India. Check their work out : Prabuddha Das Gupta, Raghu Rai, Atul Kasbekar, Dayanita Singh. There are so many more of course.
And that was that! What a lovely, tiring, hot day that I’m not going to be able to forget for a LONG LONG time.
This story is part of our #EyesForNewYork #REDHUxNYC trip. Lots more to see there – New York Fashion Week, #EyesForDining and #REDHUxAIRBNB.
(*I received a media pass to the event.)