It’s about trying to tell a story within the frame of a
human body or
is a Miami-based photographer who specializes in editorial, portrait
and photojournalism for his magazine and advertising clients. He is
also the editor in chief of Blueeyes Magazine.
You first started stringing for your local Florida newspaper when you
were 15. How did that happen, and what kind of assignments were you
I stumbled into journalism and photography during the beginning of high
school and pretty much immediately fell in love with it. I was actually
probably way too serious about it way too quickly, and in that first
year I was lucky to befriend a couple of photographers at the local
newspaper in Tallahassee, [Florida], and started to shadow them on
shoots and then eventually became a sort of intern / stringer. I shot
small assignments here and there, but mostly just during the summers.
Everyone at the Democrat was really wonderful to me, and I ultimately
grew to relish the atmosphere of working at a newspaper and swapping
stories with everyone.
How long and in what ways were you involved with photography before
then? What other photography did you do before you ended up at the University of
Before high school I really don’t remember any significant tie to
photography. I had always been involved with art, and was an avid
painter for years. But I’m not one of those photographers with a cute
story of how their parents gave them an old Kodak when they were four,
and their life was changed. Quite honestly, I didn’t really fall in
love with the medium of photography ever… I fell in love with
to communicate and understand the world around me through art and using
that medium to tell a story. That’s what was really powerful to me. And
to that end, and because I loved newspapers, as soon as I learned about
the University of Missouri, that it was where the word
“photojournalism” itself was invented, I was sold and knew I wanted to
leave [Florida] for college.
You were already working semi-professionally / professionally before
school. Why did you decide you needed to study photojournalism? Why the
University of Missouri? And what did you think of the program once you
I already had some experience, at least a little beyond working on a
school yearbook (I was very lucky, by the way, to go to a high school who
had a very serious and historic journalism department—which is probably
rare) but I knew that I had a lot to learn. Also, at the time I had no
idea how people actually got a job in journalism as a photographer, and
so I thought that college was a really good idea. And it was. On this
side of school, which I really loved but ultimately grew to feel very
held back by it, I can see that what was ultimately the most important
part of my education was the amazing group of friends that I made and
was challenged by to push myself and my ideas about what great
photography was all about. Beyond my friends, I had two really
wonderful professors and mentors, in David Rees
and Kim Komenich,
who gave me so much in their friendship and passion.
Wayne: How helpful is a formal study of photojournalism?
Outside of the unique opportunities of Missouri (POY, CPOY, speakers,
MPW) that allowed me to meet a lot of very cool people in the industry,
which helped me out a good deal, journalism school itself is something
that I don’t find all that important. I get asked a lot, or read about
debates between which photo J-school is the best, and I think it’s a
bit of a joke. None of them are better, really. In my opinion it was
not the school, it was my tremendous luck to attend with some really
wonderful people that made the
difference. Journalism is one of those great fields where you can’t
learn much from a book, and only after you throw the book out the
window and run outside to start trying, and fuck up, can you start to
make sense of the job and what it means to practice it well. Journalism
school doesn’t do any harm, I guess, but it’s very possible to go
straight through and never be really challenged.
Wayne: Why did you also decide to
I had always studied English at school, and as I got further into
college I began to drift away from journalism classes and towards my
literature classes because they just made a lot more sense to me.
Around the same time of this shift, I took a very important photography
class taught by Komenich,
which I audited (I wasn’t allowed to actually enroll because it was a
I was exposed and really engaged for the first time with a ton of
documentary work that I had never seen before. It was a revolution for
me. This was Magnum work and Robert Frank and Errol Morris films
Plachy. Kim had us
go through dozens of these incredible books from his collection every class—books
that went so much further than I ever knew was possibly in expressing a
personal vision of the world that had absolutely no interest in debates
of “objectivity”—and lectured on the connection between photography and
jazz and literature and everything else. So, after that class most of
the other photography classes didn’t mean much to me… thus my English
major. Later even English wasn’t enough for me, and in my senior year I
left school to start freelancing.
Wayne: Can you talk about the
evolution of your career since you went to Missouri?
First, at the risk of sounding cagey or a bit ridiculous, I’d like to
say that the “reasons” some people look for—in the paths that others
have taken towards some goal–going freelance or deciding to photograph
conflict, for instance—usually end up being pretty hollow and
inapplicable to their own career. Learning that Jim Nachtwey
perhaps woke up one morning and knew he was ready to move to New York
city and get freelance work doesn’t really do me any good, and I’ve
tried to steer clear of comparing that sort of thing because it’s all
extremely specific and personal logic… and it should be. I mention this
because I feel that whatever I may have done, for whatever reasons,
doesn’t really mean anything to anyone else… to say otherwise in my
opinion is just bullshit, and I’m tired of bullshit.
think I really chose to go freelance; it sort of
chose me. All I did was have the courage to trust myself and take the
next step, and then the next, and then the next. I hope that I have, at
the very least, grown smart enough to learn from my inevitable and many
mistakes. But that’s my career up into this moment… really that’s it.
“Evolution” is a pretty strange way to put it, I feel, because I’ve
been roughly trying to do the same thing since the very beginning.
Slowly over time my understanding and consciousness about what I want
for myself has changed; everything else has remained the same. And
despite describing it so abstractly, I really like where I am right now
Wayne: How did you decide to locate to
Miami? How does that city and
the state of Florida color your work?
After living in North Carolina for a couple of years I was looking for
a change and thought about heading back home to Florida and to Miami,
where I was born and [where] my family had lived for generations. What
I really wanted was more energy in my environment, and South Florida is
definitely a great place for that. Additionally, and certainly not
playing a very small part in my decision, my girlfriend had just
started medical school down here. Any other reason after that, I’ve
learned, sort of gets muted out.
terms of working in Miami, I really hope that some of the color and
passion has infused into my work. It’s started to, but it takes time to
really uncover the true texture of a place. I think where it’s come
through the most so far has been in my personal project work that I’ve
begun here—essays that are deeply inspired from the new energy I’ve
felt in South Florida—and that, along with being close to my family,
has made the move really wonderful.
You do a lot of corporate and environmental portraiture. How did you
train yourself for such work? Can you share your thoughts on what goes
into good portraiture? You also do a lot of work for the business
magazines; how do you overcome the time constraints associated with
that kind of work?
I do some, but it’s more of a reflection of the industry than my own
personal interests. Portraits are at least 60 percent of what I and
most photographers are assigned to shoot, and because that’s the case I
do them in order to stay in business and fund other types of work that
I’m passionate about. I never really trained at all to do business
portraits—outside of buying a Hasselblad
when I was first starting out—and I just approach each portrait on my
own terms, trying to find something, anything, to make me interested in
the subject or their environment. Even when I don’t care about some
rich white guy in a suit (which is an unfortunately valid stereotype),
I usually can find some beautiful ambient light to fall in love with
instead… and sometimes that’s really what I’m photographing. (You can
imagine that I don’t share that philosophy with my business clients.)
But in my mind really important portraiture goes beyond light or
composition, or even a connection between photographer and subject.
It’s about trying to tell a story within the frame of a human body or
background in journalism made dealing with the pressure of deadlines a
not especially daunting problem, thank god. If I’ve been granted 10
minutes, I’ll get 20 out of the subject often times, simply because I
demand it. When photographing someone who is used to being in control I
never allow myself to be another person who is under their orders. I’m
not rude, but I make it clear that I’m in charge and I’m there to do a
job well and make them and their company
as good as possible. Nine times out of ten they are extremely helpful
and give me what I need to make something work for my client, both
because it’s in their self-interest, and because I feel that people
generally want to please each other.
work with because of a CEO’s busy schedule can
also be freeing in a sense, because you focus in on just a couple of
variables and work them as hard as you can. On documentary shoots where
I have a never-ending amount of time, sometimes I have more difficulty
in trying to find that focus.
Wayne: So, why a magazine like BlueEyes?
the startup, and how was it launched? What was
the market missing? Why is it online, and what advantages and
disadvantages does the Internet hold for documentary photography?
John: Blueeyes Magazine
was created in 2003 by myself
in order to create a home for passionate documentary photography work.
In a sense, the reason for it is because of that 60 percent that I
alluded to before. There is just not enough editorial space for
important long-term photography which explores political, social, and
cultural issues around the world. I found it important to try and help
foster an online publication which could support and celebrate what I
believe to be the most difficult and rewarding genre of photography.
The seed that created the magazine was cultivated at Missouri among the
same group of friends who inspired me with their incredible work which
they created and then had no place to share it. Since that time the
magazine has been expanded and we now have a seven-member staff who all give their time for
this labor of love.
wasn’t any other options
when I created it, during the beginning of my freelance career, nearly
broke and living in my hometown. The Internet allowed me to publish
stories without an eye on length, and that freedom was an important
part of what I was trying to encourage; that projects didn’t have to
subscribe on a traditional 8 to 12 picture format that I had learned in
college. The obvious advantages inherent in publishing online, some of
which we are still trying to take hold of, are creating a worldwide
base of viewers who can interact with the magazine anywhere at anytime,
through which we may help foster a dialogue between the subjects,
photographers and readers. The main disadvantages that I’m impacted by
is that I love holding photography in my hands, or seeing it up on a
big white wall, which I miss with Blueeyes,
working towards very slowly.