Interview with Greg Kahn: Documentary Photographer

Greg Kahn (b. 1981) is an American documentary fine art photographer. Kahn grew up in a small coastal town in Rhode Island, and attended The George Washington University in Washington D.C. In August of 2012, Kahn co-founded GRAIN Images with his wife Lexey, and colleague Tristan Spinski. 

How much of your work is on assignment, compared to individual projects?

If I was wealthy I wouldn’t be taking assignments, I would just be doing the things I wanted to do. There are passion projects, and then assignment work, and assignment work is how I make my money. It’s not always editorial, it’s anything – it could be a commercial job, three days in a studio doing portraiture for a commercial client, or even the New York Times saying, “Hey here’s the story, can you take pictures of this?” I will take anything as long as it matches creatively with what I want to do. I haven’t been tested on this but I don’t think I would take things that didn’t fit into my moral code, I just wouldn’t feel right about it. That’s where money comes into play. If Coca-Cola wanted me to shoot an ad campaign, and I’m not really down with Coca-Cola, but an ad campaign would be a good chunk of money. I think we all go through that and question it and talk to each other to ask, “What do you feel about this?”

What originally attracted you to social justice issues such as mass incarceration and the forecloses crisis in Florida?

I was in Florida and working for a newspaper, and one of the things that I noticed when working on a story was the recidivism rate that was happening particularly in the area where I was living. I’m a White male, about as privileged as it gets, and I heard in Florida about the recidivism rate of Black males coming in and out of prison. They have no money by the time they get out of prison and are dropped at a bus stop where there are drug dealers waiting saying, “hey do you want to make some money real quick?” It makes sense why the system keeps churning, and I wanted to photograph and tell the story of someone who is trying to stay out of returning prison. I think it worked out really well, I met this wonderful guy with two kids who was trying really hard, and I followed him everywhere. He went to job fairs, he was being the quintessential example of someone making the effort to not go back to prison. And people still found fault, they said, “oh he’s got too big of a TV, he’s clearly not spending his money wisely.” And that just cemented the idea that people don’t generally understand – he has two kids, when he needs to get work done he can turn on TV. We all do it! Why are you criticizing this guy? Building off that, you just keep going deeper into these issues.

Identity for me is everything. I’m fascinated by how we identity ourselves, how we want other people to see us. A lot of the projects end up asking what is the construct that people are using to say this is who I am, this is where I’m from, this is where I want to be. And a lot of that builds off each other.

How do you usually choose your stories, do you go in with research and a clear idea or does it develop with time?

Both, really it can be both. Sometimes I read something and think oh that’s an interesting fact, and research it a bit more, and that turns into a story. Or sometimes there’s an idea and you go into saying oh I want to look at mass incarceration or youth culture. In Cuba, for example, it was actually being there and stumbling across some kids that actually spurred the story. I didn’t read it anywhere and didn’t come up with the concept off hand, it was that I experienced it and thought this was something that wasn’t being shown enough, there is a cultural barrier that people find as mysterious.

Some of the ideas I have for projects aren’t based on any experiences, but on something I’ve read. Reading long term stories are super important because I’ve learned a lot about constructing a narrative from them just because they’re so masterfully done. Places like the New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine do such an amazing job of telling long form stories that it helps me as a photographer as I’ve learned about storytelling through them. The combination of that and actual experience is key.

Do you find there to be big differences between your work within the US compared to your international work?

Logistically yes, and it’s culturally different in some ways. But fundamentally we’re the same, we want the same things, we strive, we’re influenced by the same culture. I think that it’s something that if you invest the time and effort into it, you can accomplish telling that story anywhere.

Why did you decide to pursue photography in the first place?

I got into photography when I was in high school, and I got a week-long scholarship which meant missing school so i was all in. I went to California for a week to study with National Geographic photographers, mostly on the nature side. We went to the San Diego Zoo and photographed animals and they gave us tips and tricks on how to do, and then after that I was so hooked, that was it. I went to college and George Washington University and studies photography there, it was a little more artistic. when I got out, I was like, how do I get to Nat Geo? How do I end up there? I didn’t even start in photography at that point because i needed to pay bills, so I was a webs designer. And I hated being in the office, I hated it! And I saw a magazine article about workshops, and thought cool, why don’t I do that? I signed up and it kicked my ass, and it made me a 10-times better photographer in one week. After that I found a newspaper job, then another newspaper job, and after that I decided to go freelance. National Geographic does such a great job with telling stories with their captivating narratives, and it doesn’t matter if it’s domestic or abroad, the way that they tell stories is the best I feel is out there.

You’ve worked for several different news agencies such as the New York Times, the Atlantic, National Geographic; what’s been your favorite?

I like interesting stories and they come from all over. The first place I’m typically pitching is National Geographic because my stories align with them best, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only place I would want to see work. I’ve got a list of dream clients, but the funny thing is that you never know when a great assignment is going to come along and where it’s going to come from. It can come from a publication that not a lot of people know about, it doesn’t have to be the most famous publication, it’s just a matter of what the story is. The first thing I did for the Atlantic was a wild story about teen sexting, which is a difficult assignment, but it gave me a window into doing something that wasn’t visually set up on a platter for you. And then they came back and said here’s mass incarceration; they always come up interesting stories. The Washingtonian is a regional publication mostly for people in DC, but every assignment I’ve done for them has been so much fun. You never know where you’re going to get good assignments.

How do you see photography as a medium changing?

Photography is in weird place right not because the barrier to entry is so much lower now than it has been, which is good because it allows everyone has something to say to visually tell their story. However, there is a sense the images are losing value, which is tough because you want images to say something and for people to see them and say this is one-of-a-kind and important, and when you flood the market with too much imagery there is too much supply and not enough demand and you end up making images possess less value overall. There is a give and take with what’s happening. I do know that photography is an important medium using and will continue to be, but where it goes I’m not sure.

You’re seeing big magazines hire photographers based on Instagram. It’s different landscape than just a couple years ago, as a photographer you need to stay light on your feet and be able to get into whatever is the next trend.

I love it, but on the business side of things it’s terrifying because you don’t know, as a freelancer, when the next time your phone is going to ring or the next time someone is going to send you an email. I’ve gone two months without getting a single email or phone call and just been like “Is that it, am I done? I guess now I’ll drive for Uber or Lyft.” You never know! But I guess the idea is that over time you just learn to have faith that with hard work and being persistent in the work you’re doing that you will eventually get another call, another email, and that it will keep you afloat. Freelance is really high-highs and really low-lows, and sometimes you get a dream assignment and then there’s nothing. You need to plan and save because you never can predict what will follow.

What are some of the ethical concerns you have when navigation others’ hardships?

There are a lot of photographers having a hard look at the industry itself, especially the exoticization of other cultures. It’s a very real thing, and something that I’m very conscious of when I travel, because I never want someone to look at the pictures and feel like it’s just another white male colonial viewpoint. I really want to change the way that I photograph so that the images say something and don’t fall into a stereotype. I’m very cognizant that I don’t go down that road.

You don’t want to get into photographing things like homeless people who stick out on the street with the mindset of “oh that’s not normal.” There are a lot of easy traps to fall into, but it’s necessary to question yourself and what the intentions are and why. When I worked with a newspaper before, I learned my legal rights that I could photograph anyone in public without their consent. And while I still work within this frame now, I consider it slightly differently. If it’s something that requires a genuine moment I usually won’t say anything, but if I’m doing something where I tend to collaborate more with the person I’m photographing, making it more of a portrait than just a fly on the wall, I like to talk to them and ask how this represents them. I take total input from the person I’m photographing so that it makes a better image, and so that it makes more sense. They know I’m there, there is hardly any a situation where someone doesn’t know a photographer is taking their picture so it’s silly to me that photographers try to pretend that they’re a fly on a wall. Personally, I can’t just take photos of people because it just feels like taking, it feeds into that colonial, conqueror kind of view.

This project I recently did in Columbia, I photographed people who were basically homeless, refugees from Venezuela living on the street. I didn’t want them to not have their dignity, I want to capture them being proud of who they are and didn’t want to show them as just homeless and poor in a foreign country. They all had past lives, and I want to show them as human beings with a sense of self-worth.

Just over a year ago these kinds of conversations were not being had at all, and I think the photography community is going through a very painful yet necessary process to correct these things that have existed for a long time. And it’s sad because a lot of the idols that we looked up to are part of the problem, but I think it’s okay to understand someone’s work and know it differently, and compartmentalize these things so that it doesn’t ruin the body of work. But when you understand the person who made it and you think about the work in today’s context it changes, and that’s important.

People take photos of the stereotypical moments and colorful outfits, and those do exist, but they aren’t the full story. The stories I want to tell exist outside of the narrow focuses that have existed for so long.

What is your opinion on photojournalism?

I’m starting to have a problem with photojournalism for nothing else than the moral authority that photojournalists claim in saying that their work is the purest form of photography. I was one of the carriers of the photojournalism banner for a long time, and upon going freelance started developing other forms of photography, I realized that just because a photo doesn’t hold to the ethical standards that photojournalism has placed on it doesn’t mean that it’s not telling a non-fiction story. For example, Daniella Zalcman has this story Signs of Your Identity for First Nation People and the schools they were placed into to indoctrinate them into Canadian or US culture. She’s gone all over the world documenting these people who were placed into colonial schools to wipe out their identity, and it’s without a doubt some of the most important work that’s been done in the recent years. Her photographs are a portrait combined with a landscape so that they make a double image, which is just breathtaking, just gorgeous stuff. It would be called a photo illustration in the photojournalism world, but it tells the most effective story about what is happening – so why are we dismissing it? Photojournalism says that it’s unethical, but is it? The goal is to inform people and to have them care, and to make a difference. If that story is accomplishing it, I don’t care how you do it. It’s non-fiction, she’s not making anything up, she’s not taking something that doesn’t exist or photoshopping things in. Photojournalism creates such a narrow structure for photography exists, that anything that falls outside of it gets called fake and phony and manipulative.

So that’s where I find a problem with photojournalism, as the people who carrier it’s banner have become even more hardline. Even when it comes to toning, they say oh that’s toned too much, but what would you say about black-and-white photos then? And if you go to someone’s house to take photos, they’re going to clean up before you get there. Nothing is completely pure. This notion that photojournalists never effect the scene, don’t even move water bottles, so what? How would that impact the story? Why does that matter? And I think that’s what photojournalism isn’t doing, it’s not changing why the rest of the world evolves. There are so many amazing projects that would never fit into the narrow vision of photojournalism, but told stories that made people more engaged and more aware than photojournalism can do with its restrictions. I love what photojournalism is meant to do, but I hate how it’s become so strict that it doesn’t allow for true story telling in a non-fiction way that is effective. It’s cutting off its nose to spite its face, as it won’t be able to expand its idea of its own genre.

And who are your favorite photographers right now?

I’d put Carolyn Drake at the top of the list, and Alec Soth for sure. There’s this fashion photographer I’m really into right now, Erik Madigan Heck.

What advice do you have for young photographers trying to break into the industry?

I would just have to say follow your passion. One of my pet peeves is unsolicited advice, because I honestly don’t know myself. I’m publishing my first book now with my Cuba work, and it’s been a lot of fun, but it’s also a learning experience and sinking into a lot of money into something makes you question if you should have done it. I’m still making mistakes all the time, so all I can say is that if it’s something you really want to do, then do it.  And don’t be afraid to continue with it and when you come up against challenges have faith that you’ll get through it and keep developing into the photographer you want to be. Many people believe that you get to this stage where you just are who you are, but I’m still pushing myself to get better and think differently and come up with better ideas. Myself and my collective that I’m a part of were just in the South of France and pushing each other to get better at our craft, and that’s a long-life journey. You look at someone like Alec Soth, and his book on Mississippi, he defined an entire generation of photographers. And since then he’s continued to develop his style, he’s evolved again and again and again and every time he’s mastered whatever he set out to do. I look at him as someone who a lot of people can look up to because he constantly finds new ways of photographing someone where he doesn’t get stale, and his ability to tell stories evolve.

Safia Southey

Safia Southey

It’s probably easier to list the countries Safia hasn’t been to than the ones she has - frequently found in her natural habitat of Garavan station, she’s always ready to strike another sovereign state off her list. When she’s not off on an impromptu adventure, Safia is known to her friends as the Kitchen Gremlin, serving up hotcakes and hot takes on media, politics, and global issues. As a Dual BA with Columbia student, Safia looks forward to getting nearly run over while rushing to class in her native New York. Look her up if you ever want professional headshots (not that way), life-changing conversation, or just a couch to crash on in any major city in the Western Hemisphere.
Safia Southey

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