Andrew Reed Weller is an emerging, passionate photographer originally from Ohio and formerly based in New York City. He is currently in Karachi, Pakistan documenting the programs of a health organization, Interactive Research and Development. He recently began a Kickstarter campaign to extend his trip in Pakistan. In part 1 of our interview with Andrew, we examined his Peru portfolio. Now, Andrew tells us a little more about his photographic style and his portfolio from the 2012 West Indian Day Parade in New York City.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I am very much an emerging photographer trying to develop a personal style. I look to the old masters often for inspiration, and shamelessly emulate them sometimes. But at the end of the day I just do what feels natural, and that involves going to new and interesting places and trying to understand and capture some essence of each particular place or person.
Q: Who are some of the old masters you look to for inspiration and how have they influenced your work?
A: Certainly the traditional photojournalism school as exemplified by Magnum has been a big influence. Cartier-Bresson is the exemplar of this in my opinion, and his work and life continue to fascinate me. I also have tremendous respect for Josef Koudelka—I’d go so far as to say that Gypsies is my favorite photo series ever made. Other people like Bruce Davidson, Alex Webb, and Steve McCurry also never fail to leave me in awe, and always go back to the work of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander. I feel they were able to mine new veins of documentary work, which is nearly an insurmountable challenge faced by most people who pick up a camera these days.
In addition, the photographs of those who came out of the Becher school – Gursky, Höfer, Struth, etc. – have perhaps influenced my own attempts at taking half-decent images, especially my earlier less photojournalistic work. I would also throw Edward Burtynsky into this genre. They all have an aesthetic sensibility that is truly remarkable, and I sometimes find photojournalistic photos to be lacking this sensibility. I love seeing their work in museums and galleries…they are printed so beautifully and manage to sort of maximize the technical capabilities of the photographic medium.
Frankly, I’m not exactly sure how all these masters inspire me but it’s probably analogous to how food gives me energy. My body somehow processes these nutrients, which then fuel my heart and my lungs and as a result I don’t die. Looking at the photographs made by these people perhaps works in a similar way, but it is creative energy that is generated, and my mind and my eyes are what are sustained.
Q: You observe, with commendable candor, that you are trying to develop a personal style. How is that going, and is there any way to do this other than to continue shooting and assess the results? How do you see your creative process evolving over, say, the next three years in terms of technique, focus, or subject matter?
A: I don’t have a clear answer for this. I do know that I have progressed immensely in the past three years and hope that the next three years will take me even further. I’ve just been accepted into a graduate program for photojournalism so that should be helpful in this process as well. In the meantime, shooting and studying are what I have done and will continue to do. The act of just looking is the main point to all of this.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: I’d known the name for many years, but it wasn’t until I actually got that M4-P in my hands about two and a half years ago that I came to understand why these cameras get the hype that they do.
Q: What role does photography play in your life?
A: My life is so wrapped up in photography that it’s hard to untangle the threads. Sometimes I feel like I don’t ever want to take or even look at another image again. But I’m sort of stuck with it at this point. Ultimately, it’s the only way I know how to attempt to record and express the experiences of my life. And increasingly I am beginning to understand it as a way to help other people express their experiences of joy, suffering, pride, or any other emotion. Certainly this latter form of interpretation and communication of others’ lives is more tricky and there is more room for error, but it is also maybe the most powerful form of photojournalism. Developing this ability is something I will need to do with extreme care and unflagging dedication, and it’s definitely a lifelong process.
Q: Did you have any particular goal or plan in mind for shooting the West Indian Day Parade in New York City other than documenting a colorful and engaging event? Also what was the exact location?
A: I had been to the parade the previous year and enjoyed myself immensely, so I wanted to return and see how 2012’s parade would compare. In 2011 I took pictures of the event as well, but with black and white film. This year I wished to return and shoot in color. There was no underlying motivation other than having a good time and taking photos on what is perhaps my favorite day to be in New York.
Each year, the West Indian Day Parade is the largest outdoor event in the city, with crowds of up to two million people. The celebrations take place over the entirety of Labor Day Weekend in early September and the actual parade happens on Labor Day Monday. It runs down Eastern Parkway, starting in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn and ending at the Brooklyn Museum.
I stayed mostly in Crown Heights, as I have found the action to be a bit wilder there and people are generally more spirited than where the parade ends.
Q: What camera and which lenses did you use to shoot the parade? What techniques do you employ to provide comprehensive coverage of an event like this using prime (single focal length) lenses, and what are their assets and liabilities?
A: I shot using a Leica M4-P made in 1982 and all the shots featured, with the exception of one, were shot through an even older Leitz Canada 28mm Elmarit lens. The wide angle of the 28mm allowed me to be in the thick of the crowd and still capture much of the pandemonium that was going on all around me. I find the combination of close range and this focal length to provide a very immersive viewing experience, more so than a longer length and without the sometimes distracting distortion of wider lenses.
These technical choices didn’t necessarily provide complete coverage of the parade, but this setup was what I chose to portray the chaotic, sensory-overload nature of this event.
Q: This fascinating picture of three cops in front view that shows two officers on the left, who look almost like identical twins, has an Arbus-esque quality. Can you tell us something about this picture and what it means to you?
A: I don’t find that image to be particularly strong but I did want to include it because it indicates the frailty of security during the parade. Even with a large police presence, the event can feel more like a riot than a traditional parade, and every year a number of people are killed or injured. This year two people were stabbed to death during the parade, and the previous year violence levels over Labor Day Weekend reached levels unseen in New York since the 1980s. So I guess I want the image to communicate the fact that cops are there, but they can’t/won’t do much in the case of any major disturbance arising.
Q: You have captured several images of participants that have fallen down in the course of the revelry, but this one of a young girl who has evidently fallen down on top someone, with a buxom masked woman on the right seems very random in terms of composition, yet it captures a feeling very effectively. Do you agree, and can you tell us something about it? Do you think the responsiveness and speed of the Leica helped you capture this spontaneous moment?
A: “Fallen down in revelry” and “buxom woman” are certainly polite ways to put it but I will say this outright: the parade contains plenty of explicit content that is the result of the highly sexual nature of the dancing characteristic of West Indian nations. This dancing, also known as daggering, is essentially a dramatic and rhythmic form of simulated sex, but with the participant’s (skimpy) clothes still on.
I do agree that this image captures the feeling of the scene, and that the composition is somehow slightly off but also fitting. The leading line coming from the left corner, and the horizontal line of the people grinding on the pavement abutting against the vertical line of the woman on the right do follow some conventions, so the composition isn’t a complete wreck.
As for the camera, the main thing I love about the M4-P is its simplicity. The thing doesn’t even have a light meter, and there’s no battery, no on switch, no sleep mode. It’s just a purely mechanical machine that – so long as the shutter is cocked – when you touch the release, a picture will be taken. So yes, in this case, this specific camera probably did help capture the moment. I may or may not have even focused; in an instant I put the camera to my eye, pressed my finger down, and heard it go “click.”
Q: In general, your West Indian event images seem to convey a sense of spectacle with crowds intermingling with participants. Was this intentional, and what were the aesthetic or technical reasons you didn’t include any real close-ups of people or detail shots?
A: It wasn’t necessarily intentional, but that is what comes across – the parade is, more than anything, a spectacle. I was not there on assignment and I had only two rolls of slide film on me to shoot, so my focus was simply on communicating some sliver of what it feels like to be in the middle of such an environment. Getting people to pose for a portrait or shooting some detail of a particularly fancy costume would not have contributed to that goal, so I didn’t shoot anything like that.
Q: The image files you sent are all quite contrasty and you mentioned shooting with slide film. Can you tell us a bit more about how you shot these? Did you tweak these images in post-production?
A: I was shooting film so these are all scans of the negatives, with zero or minimal digital manipulation. I shot two rolls that day – Fuji Velvia, one roll of ISO 100 and one roll of ISO 50. I accidentally shot the ISO 50 as 100 so had to push it a stop during processing. Also, I had the slide film cross-processed in color negative chemistry, resulting in the high contrast and strange color casts. This was a conscious decision I made beforehand, and the funky colors help convey how surreal this event feels.
Q: The image that comes nearest to being a close-up is a compelling image of a young woman holding a water bottle. How did you manage to grab that shot and did you anticipate the action beforehand?
A: Again it was just a matter of being ready and fast. I find the photos of Cartier-Bresson and Winogrand in particular to exemplify why speed is so important in street/documentary work, and perhaps this image speaks to that as well. I did anticipate the action to some extent, the same way I did with many of the photos: look…look…look, set exposure/use zone focusing/compose quickly, and shoot. I’d like to try hunting large game one day – I imagine there are some similarities between that and street photography.
Q: Perhaps the most singular image in your entire West Indian Day portfolio is a man clad in a giant mandala-like costume that transforms him into some kind of otherworldly creature. What’s going on here, and how did you compose this picture so perfectly—did you ask him to hold his pose or did you just go for it?
A: That is for sure my favorite image from the set as well. He wasn’t exactly racing down the street – being in such a getup made him sort of amble along at a snail’s pace. I believe this was the only time I shot two frames of the same subject during the parade. The first is an image of a woman adjusting his costume, shot more or less from the same spot. Then I stood there and waited for her to finish, perhaps using this extra moment to compose, and finally took the shot.
Q: One of the funniest images here is of a rather serious looking policeman in the line of march with a group of ecstatic revelers just behind him. Were you smiling when you took this shot and do you also find the juxtaposition amusing?
A: I wasn’t actually smiling but certainly the humor of this juxtaposition registered with me and that’s why I took the picture. There was a lot of that – police officers trying to look serious and official while everyone around them is laughing and having a blast. Some of them looked downright nervous, but I didn’t get any photos that manage to capture that.
Q: How do you think your West Indian Day parade coverage fits in with your other projects such as your Peru portfolio, and do you thing this is also qualifies as “photojournalism with a touch of art”?
A: It’s a delicate business calling anything one does “art,” and for me photojournalism is something better described as the combination of a certain lifestyle and a technical craft. In this case I did make some conscious creative (artistic?) decisions that influenced the end results – for example cross-processing the film to achieve a certain look. But one could argue that this was just a technical step. I didn’t even process the film myself, so maybe the guys at Manhattan Color Labs deserve more artistic credit than me.
This work fits with the Peru portfolio in that it is all part of a process. I am not a great photographer, but I am working hard at being a better one. Shooting these parades was one step, my work in Peru was another step, and now my time in Pakistan is another. Actually being here is more like running, which is great.
Q: Do you think you learned anything useful from your West Indian Day shoot that you might bring forward in future projects, either aesthetically or in terms of technique?
A: Yes it was definitely useful in that shooting there is about as close as one can come to being in a state of anarchy or civil uprising within the United States. After two years of covering this event I learned how to keep my cool amidst chaos, to be able to think about things like exposure, focus, and composition while simultaneously evaluating safety issues, cultural sensitivities, and aesthetic appeal.
So if I do find myself trying to cover a real riot or some other kind of active conflict, I feel like I have at least an inkling of an idea of how to shoot in such a situation. Obviously police with batons raised over head or real bullets flying through the air are factors that weren’t present at the West Indian Day Parade, but the principals of “Am I safe?” and “How can I shoot this?” apply in all of these situations. And I think many times great photos are made simply by the fact that no one else is taking them. Such photos are made though a combination of risk management, control of fear, and a sort of autonomic relationship with a camera.
Q: Are there any other upcoming events in New York or another large metropolis that you plan to cover?
A: National elections are scheduled to take place here in Pakistan on May 11 – it’s the first time a democratically-elected government is handing over power to another democratically-elected government since the country’s birth in 1947. So hopefully this will lead to peaceful celebrations and perhaps even mark a turning point in Pakistan’s history. I plan on documenting these events as much as possible.
Thank you for your time, Andrew!
– Leica Internet Team
Click here to learn more about Andrew’s Kickstarter campaign. Visit Andrew’s website or find him on Instagram.