What makes a great photographer? An interview with Nicola Bailey and Jen Steele
Bullitt Group, Kodak and GuruShots recently held The KODAK MOMENTS Photography Exhibition at the Usagi New York Gallery in Plymouth Street, Dumbo from September 15 through to September 24th .
This exhibition drew photographers from around the world to share their personal interpretations of what constitutes a ‘KODAK MOMENT’. In addition, Kodak presented Stories of Change. This part of the exhibition featured images captured on the KODAK EKTRA Smartphone by influential female photographers. Stories of Change is a thematic study of New York culture, society and population, showing how photography can capture and influence social trends.
We asked Nicola Bailey and Jen Steele, just two of the many professionals at the event in New York, to tell us about their love of photography, their motivators and the skills needed to be a great photographer.
Q&A with Nicola Bailey
How did you start out as a photographer?
My father was a Photographer and so I’ve been tinkering with cameras since I was really young – I’ve found photos of me as a two year old with a Nikon in hand. I did a number of short courses in Photography before going on to study it formally and my first work – and work that I still love to do – was working with international not for profits. I traveled the world doing interviews, taking photos and shooting videos to help organizations who worked in the fields of human rights, international development, women’s rights and disasters, to tell their stories and in turn raise valuable funds for their work.
What would say have been the most pivotal moments in your career that have led to you to becoming a successful documentary photographer?
I would say that one of the pivotal moments occurred when I was in Bangladesh in 2013. I was working for an organization there photographing various aspects of their work when Rana Plaza, a garment factory, collapsed and killed close to 1200 people, mostly women. I went to the factory and was able to photograph the rescue operation, as well as visit the hospitals where the survivors had gone, to the communities where garment workers live, and also to another garment factory to meet with women working there. It was a heartbreaking time that will stay with me forever, however on a professional level the imagery was able to be used to shine a light on some of the issues surrounding unsafe work conditions in Bangladesh and I also won awards from the photos that were taken.
Taking pictures of people intimately in their day to day lives and cultures must call upon other skills than just talented photography. What would you say these skills are?
I think there are a number of skills and characteristics that are required for good documentary and travel photography, particularly in a setting that might be quite different to what you are accustomed to. I think confidence is really important and so I try to approach these situations with a smile on my face and an open attitude. Generally you get back what you put into any situation and so you’ll get warmer and more natural photos if you are confident and comfortable in a particular setting. Interaction also helps in much the same way. If you can interact with people before even taking your camera out, you’ll end up with much better photos. Language doesn’t need to be a barrier, there’s plenty that can be said using body language though I always try to learn at least a few basic words and phrases because the effort is always appreciated.
What difference do you feel exists between telling a story through images vs text? Do you have any recommendations on how best to tell a story such as the one you’ve shared with us here?
A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the saying goes… I think that while both forms of storytelling are valuable, text based storytelling uses descriptors to clearly tell you what to visualise while imagery requires you to use what you know about the world, your emotions, your prejudices etc, to interpret what you’re seeing. Having said that, with visual storytelling you usually only have a series of a small number of images to communicate a story and so while you’re relying on individual interpretation, you still need to have a clear vision about what you’re going to communicate and try to guide the viewer on a journey.
Nicola arranged in-depth interviews and short and candid conversations with people from various Brooklyn neighborhoods; from Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bedstuy, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, East New York, Coney Island, Crown Heights, Park Slope.
Clearly people have genuinely and openly given you their time and thoughts. Why do you think this is? What have you learned over your years of taking photos respectfully that has allowed you this access to strangers?
As with taking photos, the same goes for approaching people to talk. It’s about building rapport and trust quickly by finding a way to connect and building on that. We all have at least one way to connect with strangers, even the people you think are nothing like you.
With so many cultures, customs, races, and differing social statuses, Brooklyn is one of the most diverse places in the world. Despite this, what would you say was the most common feeling, emotion and awareness that was shared amongst those you spoke to?
The issue of community came up time and again amongst people I spoke with. With housing becoming unaffordable to so many people, many felt that communities were being broken up and pushed out. People talked about no longer knowing their neighbours, about feeling like a stranger now in a neighbourhood where they had lived all their life. Community impacts on so many aspects of people’s lives, from the businesses that get supported to social interactions, safety, language, food, and having support networks generally.
Having travelled and documented so many lives of people from all over the world can you share any tips on ethical and non-intrusive photography storytelling?
As it turns out I did an article about this just recently! You can read about here.
How did you find using the KODAK EKTRA Smartphone? What sort of reactions did you receive from using the device on this project?
I loved using the phone because it’s got so many manual features and shoots great RAW files and so I was able to get results I was really happy with and that blew up into surprisingly big high quality prints for the exhibition.
Because it’s a phone it definitely feels less intrusive when taking people’s photo. People are more relaxed and feel less pressure when you’re not waving a big DSLR at them.
People were really interested in it when they realised what I was using. People feel nostalgic when they hear of Kodak and so they were pleasantly surprised to know that there’s a modern and good camera (phone) out on the market.
Q&A with Jen Steele
How did you become a photographer?
I started taking photographs as a teenager in WI with any camera I could find. Most often, it was a disposable camera or a Polaroid. My career as a photographer began when in 2012, I created Girls I Know, a platform featuring interviews and portraits of women I admire.
What is your style preference?
My style preference is to work with 35mm. Shooting on film requires confidence and strong knowledge of light, patience too, a fantastic exchange.
You interpreted the brief of capturing ‘stories of social change’ quite uniquely… as a romantic relationship that you have with these once crucial spaces and items to regular forms communication, which as you say are going through exciting changes. What is your connection with communication and the physical vessels used to facilitate this?
The post office is poetic. It’s limbo for modern communication. Time holds more weight at the post office. What I meant when said it’s exciting, I suppose, is that I recognize the value of these infrastructures, they may not always exist in my lifetime.
What are thoughts on using photography as a form of communication and storytelling?
I think patience with photography is special and in my work as a photographer I enjoy capturing the patience and intimacy that exists in life and people, when I accomplish that, the result is interesting and layered. Storytelling is layered, and in order to capture a story in a photograph you have to look and not just react.
How did you find using the KODAK EKTRA Smartphone?
As a photographer who mainly shoots on film, having the Ektra smartphone around as a second camera is a nonintrusive digital option, I like the way it handles light and depth of field.
More about the KODAK EKTRA Smartphone
In 2017, the KODAK EKTRA Smartphone won the Silver Award in the New York Design Awards for its classic style and iconic design.
The KODAK EKTRA has a look-and-feel similar to a DSLR camera experience with a wrist-strap, a dedicated dual-press shutter button, and a large-glass cover on the 21 megapixel/f2.0 aperture lens.
- This smartphone is ergonomically-weighted to feel like a camera in horizontal or vertical orientation, and the lens glass is coated to improve light absorption by the sensor.
- It is preloaded with curated Apps including SNAPSEED photo-editing tool, prints, and the Super 8 App featuring filters and vignettes including EKTACHROME and KODACHROME Films.
- It features a 13 megapixel front-facing camera, and a rear-facing camera with the ability to capture 4K video. Scene selection modes ensure great images based on the context including HDR, Landscape, Portrait, Macro, Sport, Night-time, Panorama and Bokeh.