Ten Questions with… Robert Shults

PhotoVoice is interviewing established photographers to gain a wider insight into the power of photography and the different approaches to ethical issues. This month, we interviewed documentary photographer, Robert Shults on his photography and passion for the medium.

Shults has previously written on the ethical challenges of photographing homeless people and his older works have explored his own experiences of homelessness. His projects and interests now lay in scientific subjects. 

Where did it all begin and why did you chose photography and not another medium?

After completing my secondary education, I was living in Guatemala (a circumstance probably too complicated to explain here), and harboring ambitions of becoming a filmmaker. With a hubris typical of eighteen year olds, I felt certain that I understood all aspects of the filmmaking process sufficiently well to have an illustrious career, with one exception. Somehow, I was at least self-aware enough to know that I didn’t really understand the photographic components of filmmaking, and resolved to learn them.

By pure chance, through a friend, I met the late Canadian photojournalist Barbara McClatchie Andrews, who was working for an extended period in the Guatemalan highlands. After persistent pestering, Barbara agreed to offer me the occasional lesson in exchange for help in bearing her equipment around the countryside.

Shooting alongside Barbara was among the greatest honors of my life, and she laid the foundations for my entire photographic career, both through her wise instruction when she had the time, and through the example she set in engaging equitably and respectfully with her subjects (even those she passed fleetingly in the street). Most importantly, she also taught me (after much practice on my part) not to rush or force an image, but rather to be mindfully present with your subject and wait for your composition to unfold.

Why exactly photography stuck with me so tenaciously, even after my cinematic aspirations had released their grip, is still something of a mystery to me. I suspect it has something to do with the challenge presented by its numerous intractable contradictions.

It’s an ultra-realist medium which has long claimed a monopoly on truth, but which depends on the exclusion of the majority of objective reality in order to bind its subject within its finite frame and, therefore, imply a narrative cohesion that may not exist. Thus, despite its pretense of neutrality, it is always (and, I suspect, only) a reflection of the perception and priorities of the person wielding the camera. This contradiction, of course, explains why photography is the most effective propaganda medium humanity has ever invented. But, it also affords it a unique status as, arguably, the most effective means of inciting our emotions for virtuous purposes as well.

I’ve also often wondered if photography’s subtractive nature might also hold some therapeutic value for me. Since photographic composition requires ensuring that the bulk of the world remains invisible outside the frame, I do sometimes get a brief sensation that all other personal concerns and anxieties cease to exist when I place my eye against the viewfinder.

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“Research associate Dr. Gilliss Dyer enters the target bay of the Texas Petawatt Laser, in preparation for an experiment. Researchers from universities around the world utilize the unique timescale of the Petawatt for experiments exploring rare states of matter, such as those found within stars or in the aftermath of supernovae. A staff of thirteen scientists, technicians, and engineers reconfigure the laser and its target chambers to meet the needs of visiting researchers.” © 2010 by Robert Shults

Tell us a bit about your approach to photography.

I’ll admit a feel a bit uncomfortable pontificating on my approach, as I feel I’ve only recently matured enough in my practice to identify something resembling a cohesive method. Nevertheless, over the last several years, I’ve come to borrow a term from cultural anthropology and ethnography: participant observation.

It is, in fact, an accurate descriptor for how I’ve come to work, embedded in a particular place, usually with a particular group, for an extended period of time in an effort to observe every behavior and task undertaken there. Often this may involve working alongside my subjects, and, essentially, doing everything they do for however long I’m able to observe their lives.

My last two major projects were shot at university research laboratories. In each case, I spent more or less the entire day, nearly every day that the university was in session, on site in order to observe the totality of the experience of working in these labs. During my most recent project, I even took a handful of the same courses as the graduate students I was working alongside. My hope is that this working method brings me as close as possible to a first-person perspective of a place or group of people.

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“Graduate student Alexis Goots examines a donor’s skeleton during master’s degree coursework at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, November 9, 2015.” © 2015 Robert Shults

How do you decide if something is worthy of being captured?

At the risk of sounding deliberately contrarian, I usually shy away from terms that refer to “taking” or “capturing” photographs, as that seems to imply an extemporaneous or, at least, fortuitous interaction between photographer and subject. I don’t typically go into the field looking for photographic opportunities in general, rather I am usually aiming to make specific pre-conceived photographs.

Following on from my previous answer, this partially explains the investment of time I generally make in a particular project. It may seem odd, even counterintuitive, to talk about pre-conceptualizing a documentary photograph in advance.

This is how it works for me: after spending as much time as possible with a subject, I take some time for introspection and try to articulate my own feelings about or reactions to whatever I encountered in their space. At that point, I usually seek out other images that elicit the same emotional reactions in me. These come from all sorts of different sources. They might be movies, photobooks, online essays, occasionally even graphic or plastic arts. Then, I pull these images together into a sort of “storyboard” for the finished project.

Note that I’m not seeking to copy those images in my own work, and those reference images are almost always entirely unrelated thematically to the work I’m making. Rather, what I have is a collection of images which, when placed in sequence, take me on the same psycho-emotional journey as my experience with a particular subject or setting. I can then ask myself, ‘what is it about this image that makes me feel a particular emotion?’

They then serve as guideposts for the emotional “beats” I need to hit to ensure that the viewer has a subjective experience similar to mine, and what compositional strategies (in an abstract design sense) I’ll need to rely on to accomplish that effect. At that point, it’s a matter of being present as often as possible to seek out those compositions within the raw visual material of the place I’m photographing.

Is there a single image that defines you as a photographer?

Probably as a result of the cinematic origins of my practice, I tend to conceive of images in series, always considering how one image will interact with the one preceding and following it. It’s a tricky balancing act to ensure that a given photo “works” on its own, but also fits into a sequence, and I can only hope that I’ve been successful in my attempts to do so. As a result, I’m having a hard time thinking of any single image that might fit the bill. Perhaps others would be more capable of answering this question than I am.

Can photography bring about positive social change?

I think so. At least, I hope so.

Circling back to one of the contradictions I mentioned earlier, we tend to think of photography as being primarily superficial, because of its realism. But, photography is uniquely suited to communicating the experience, rather than just the appearance, of an event. If, after encountering a photograph, a viewer can feel some small sensation that they, too, experienced a given event, that can be a powerful motivation to act differently, to cease “otherizing” the subject of a photo, in short – to empathize.

I suspect that this is particularly important here in the United States where, for at least several decades, the ruling class has worked tirelessly to perpetuate a fallacious equivalency between poverty and the personal character of the impoverished.

Has charity photography changed since you started?

Expanding a bit on my previous answer, I think that in a world where the means of both producing and publishing images has been so thoroughly democratized, raising awareness of social justice issues has, in many cases, taken on a diminished urgency. Images, in particular, disseminate so quickly now that, excepting willful ignorance, there are often very few social ills of which we are unaware as a society. Increasingly, the mission, as I see it, is no longer ensuring that people KNOW about an issue, but rather making certain that they CARE.

When advocacy photography concerns itself less with objective documentation, and works to establish a clear point of view, preferably one of direct and sustained experience, it is capable of rising above the “din”. More and more often, I seem to encounter affecting non-fiction photography projects that utilize new aesthetic strategies, not in the interest of raising awareness, but rather as an attempt to raise empathy.

Consider the relatively recent trend that has come to be termed “documentary still life”, projects such as Shannon Jensen’s images of refugees’ shoes, Jen Reel’s arrangements of unidentified migrants’ possessions, or Huang Qingjun’s photos of homeless people with all their resources gathered together. What these series do for me is impart a very real sense of what it may have felt like to live through such experiences, rather than merely depict what the precipitating events looked like.

What is your approach to the ethics of photography?

I do often find myself in a somewhat unique and fraught position in this regard, having one foot in “both camps”, as it were, walking a fine line between “art” photography and photojournalism.

Since my images are frequently utilized in a journalistic context, often after the fact, I work diligently to ensure that I am complying with journalistic ethics. When in the field, I conduct myself in a strictly non-interventionist manner. During post-production, my non-fiction work receives a similar treatment, adhering to accepted limits of manipulation.

All of that said, I actually take care not to identify myself as a photojournalist when approaching subjects and collaborators. Instead, I tend to rely on the more malleable (though, unfortunately, decidedly more pretentious) term “documentary photographer”. This is because I generally make no claim to neutrality or even objectivity in my approach. I am often advocating for a position, while my work may indeed be non-fiction in as much as it is factually accurate within the frame, I am concerned primarily with depicting a more subjective experience.

One issue of marked personal importance to me is that of consent, particularly as it relates to those experiencing homelessness. When photographing in public, photographers tend to rely on the established standard that one has no expectation of privacy when in public, and, therefore, that consent to be observed (and, consequently, photographed) is implicit in one’s presence in public. Unfortunately, such a reliance on less-than-affirmative consent becomes problematic when a photographer encounters someone who has no choice but to be in public. Since they cannot choose to remain in a private setting, they have no substantive method available for revoking consent.

As I mentioned earlier, I tend to address this issue by working in a transparent, collaborative, immersive manner, with mutual trust and a certain level of intimacy established over an extended period of time.

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“Flowers from a nearby tree have fallen on a donor’s body at Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) in San Marcos, Texas, January 6, 2016. Donors to Texas State’s Forensic Anthropology Center (FACTS) make a whole body contribution. After decompostion is completed in the outdoor laboratory, the donor’s skeleton will be held in perpetuity at the center, where it will contribute to osteological research and education. This image has been digitally altered to preserve the donor’s confidentiality.” © 2016 Robert Shults

What is your greatest achievement as a photographer?

This may be uncharacteristically succinct of me, but I honestly have no idea…

I will say that I’m rather proud of the long-term work I did building personal relationships during my latest project, an extended embed with the graduate students at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University. Documentary photography is, first and foremost, all about access, and to my mind, access is all about trust.

How important do you think equipment is?

I know that I’m in the minority among my colleagues, but I happen to think it’s critically important, and I’ve never bought in to the whole “the camera doesn’t matter” philosophy (a stance that I’ve noticed seems suspiciously prevalent among those who enjoy the resources of major publications / agencies or those who have endorsement arrangements with manufacturers). It’s certainly possible, of course, that I simply lack the necessary gifts to craft a nuanced, moving image at any time, no matter the equipment at hand, but I also think it’s undeniable that the brushes selected affect the stroke painted.

I have no doubt that I could make a technically competent (and perhaps even aesthetically pleasing) photograph with any camera that happened to be handed to me, but the important question is: can I make MY photograph; can I make a photograph that elicits in the viewer my own subjective reaction to the subject? And, honestly, I don’t know that I can, if I have not first selected my tools with intent.

Let me put it another way. Suppose I commission a sculpture, but that I provide the artist only a particularly rough stone and a set of broad chisels. That sculptor can almost certainly provide me a sculpture, maybe even an impressive one, but can they extract their unique vision from the materials provided? Can they accomplish the delicate cuts and subtle texture they “saw” in their head? Except by pure coincidence (should the tools happen to match their vision by chance), probably not.

So, a compromise has to take place. The vision must be revised to fit the materials, and another strategy for eliciting the intended emotional response in the viewer must be developed.

Now, obviously, we can’t all just run out to the camera shop and pick up a new set of lenses for each project, nor can we call up our sponsoring manufacturer for a loaner. Instead, what photographers should do, I think, is ask themselves prior to firing the shutter (assuming they are concerned with making images which are something more than technically competent and aesthetically pleasing) how will my equipment limit my working method and how can I use those limitations to accomplish my intent? For example, if a photographer wants to undertake a portraiture project, but owns only a wide-angle prime, they will have to invest in building a certain kind of trust and intimacy with their subject prior to shooting, so that they can move in closer once they are shooting. They will also need to spend time considering their subject’s relationship to their environment, since the setting will form a significant part of the composition. In any case, though, they will not make the same image they would have made with a wide-aperture telephoto, and they should spend time considering the implications of that fact ahead of time.

This should not be seen as an entreaty to hoard unnecessary gear and constantly upgrade to the latest equipment. Rather, I think, we should spend time learning the intricacies of whatever “brushes” we have at our disposal, and finding methods of combining their unique “strokes” in a way that matches our personal reaction to a given subject.

Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Given just how verbose I’ve been with most of my answers here, I can’t imagine that there is much I could add at this point, at least not without evoking even more reader exhaustion than I have already.

I suppose it’s worth reiterating the suggestion to make images with intent – to meticulously work to engage empathetically with your subject and establish as much genuine trust as possible in the time available, and to have a clear vision of the finished, published image before firing the shutter. In short, make photographs, don’t take them.

Featured image: “Research associate Dr. Gilliss Dyer and laser technician Ted Borger discuss the experimental configuration of Target Chamber 2 at the Texas Petawatt lab. During experimental campaigns the target chamber bristles with sensors and imaging devices, all synchronized to the laser’s ephemeral pulse. The scientists prefer aluminum over steel for these structures in order to avoid cumulative irradiation of vital laser components.” © 2010 by Robert Shults






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