“Behind the Curtain” | An Interview with Ryan Donnell
With the 2010 Mid-term Elections just days away, I thought this would be the perfect time to talk with friend and inspirator, Philadelphia-based photographer Ryan Donnell, about his personal project “Behind the Curtain: A Look at Philadelphia’s Unique Polling Stations” Photographed between 2008 and 2010, the project takes a look at some of the weirdest, unreal polling places I’ve ever seen.
Matthew: Before you talk about your Philadelphia polling places project, tell us about yourself, your background, when you became interested in photography and why you decided to make a career and life as a professional photographer.
Ryan: There seem to be two types of photographers: those introduced to photography early on by a family member and become obsessed with it and those who discover it on their own later in life, usually during an “art phase” in college or during a mid-life crisis in the office. I’m of the former type, my aunt giving me my first camera when I was about 10 or 11. As we move forward, keep in mind my memory is suspect for most things, but I recall back then really enjoying shooting pictures of zoo animals and plants at the botanical gardens. By the time high school rolled around, I was obsessed with those Canon EOS ads in PDN that featured photojournalist Christopher Morris, with his awesome scarves and that wavy hair. The one memory I can vividly remember is the horrified look on my dad’s face the day I told him that I wanted to be a war photographer. I could see him grasping for other career suggestions, but coming up short, probably because he knew that I was right…war photographers are cool as shit.
So it makes sense that I was immediately drawn to newspaper photojournalism. My career started off with a bang when I became the youngest staff photographer, and eventually the youngest photo editor, at my high school’s newspaper, the illustrious Kirkwood High School Call, in suburban St. Louis during my freshman year. After graduation I decided there was no way that I could make a decent living as a news photographer (How prescient I was back then!), so I went off to Colorado State University where I majored in Biology with plans to become a globe trotting biologist. After three months of biology classes, I came to the realization that I couldn’t make a decent living as a biologist either, and compared to photography, there was a hell of a lot more math involved. So after a blissful year of R&R in Fort Collins, I went home and enrolled at the University of Missouri with the intention of becoming a newspaper photographer.
Once in the photojournalism program at Missouri, I struck-out on almost every newspaper internship I applied for, save for one awesome summer in DC at The Washington Times (praise be to Julie Elman and Glenn Stubbe, wherever they are, for helping me with that opportunity) during the Monica Lewinsky trial. This photojournalism thing was AWESOME! Eight-hour stakeouts of Monica Lewinsky, unbelievable. Meeting new and interesting people everyday, killer. Police ride-alongs, freaking amazing. Telling stories, addictive.
Then I graduated and I couldn’t find a job to save my life until Tom Fox gave me a chance as a part-time photographer in Texas at the Arlington Morning News, a smaller sister paper owned by the Dallas Morning News. After a year or two (fuzzy memory due to massive amounts of bourbon) I got laid-off from the AMN (again, ahead of my times) and was convinced to stick around Dallas in order to freelance for the DMN with the hope of getting a staff job.
The DMN was an unreal place to cut your teeth as a young photographer. There were about 30 staff photographers and half as many full-time freelancers, all covering an enormous metro area. I was there at an exciting time, during the transition to digital photography, and I learned a lot from some of the best and most successful photojournalists in the country. Everyone was competitive, but supportive. We had crazy Friday nights, sometimes covering three high school football games in an evening. I saw almost every part of Texas. I covered car races, murders, pro baseball, more football, parades (wait, that’s not as fun), more football and then more football. It was awesome, until it wasn’t. They treated and paid their freelancers great, until they didn’t. The industry was changing and after a few more years at the DMN and being passed over for a few job openings, I decided to leave. I applied for more than 40 jobs and no one would look at me. So, I did the only sensible thing, I ran away to Mexico for a few months with a painter friend of mine and just shot pictures for myself.
M: So how did you end up in Philadelphia? What is it like working there? What are some of the challenges? What are some of the perks or what’s the upside to working there?
R: After returning to the States, I didn’t know where to go or how to start a freelance business. Even though I had been freelancing for the DMN for a number of years, I was treated basically like a staffer. They were my sole source of income. I freelanced for the St Louis Post-Dispatch and The New York Times for a while back home in St. Louis. I quickly realized that I was falling back into the same trap I was in when I was in Dallas, i.e., a never-ending freelance career of $75 assignments and no benefits. I was never going to retire on that. Plus, I was working under a work-for-hire contract and never retained any of my copyrights. I knew I needed to get closer to New York, but I never wanted to live there. So it was fortuitous when two good friends from Dallas got jobs at the Philadelphia Inquirer and my older brother started graduate school in Philly. So, I packed up the car and headed east.
When I first got here, I was still working as a freelance news photographer, mostly for The New York Times. There was quite a bit of work, at least enough work for someone with no real expenses, like health insurance. I never learned how to run a business while in school at Missouri, always assuming that I would work for a newspaper. Once I switched my mindset to one of “I’m a small business and I need to get serious about it,” I started finding better work.
Philadelphia is a great place to be an independent, creative person. At least it’s been great for me. There’s a large community of like-minded people creating, supporting and buying art, but without the level of competition you find in New York. And of course, our cost-of-living is like 10,000 times cheaper than NYC. Well, maybe not that much, but a lot. Regardless, I find it a supportive and lively community, one that is becoming better every day. But being so close to New York is also a blessing and a curse. I’m close enough to easily take a day trip north to meet with clients, but Philly is also close enough that those same clients can easily send their favorite NYC photographers down here to work for basically nothing.
M: Tell me about your project “Behind the Curtain.” Where did the idea come from? How long have you been working on it? Is it finished? Do you have any plans of publishing it in a tangible way? Gallery exhibition?
R: So, I’m going to get in a lot of trouble if I don’t give the proper credit for this project to my wife, Catherine. She’s the city hall reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. So, we’re a pretty politically involved couple. That is, we like following it and talking about it, a lot. When we moved into our first shared apartment in south Philadelphia, our polling station was housed in an Italian-American social club. The first time I walked in I was greeted by two huge guys smoking cigarettes and eating donuts. Photos of Frank Sinatra and bikini-clad women adorned the walls and our two polling booths were stuffed amongst a folded up ping-pong table and some faux leather couches. I remember thinking: A) whoa, B) this is cool as shit and C) man, this is weird. Catherine had heard stories about polling stations housed in bars, funeral homes and in people’s houses! And she’d also heard that the city was beginning to phase out a lot of the more unusual locations because of American Disability Act compliance and maybe the fact that voting in a dead man’s basement might look a little weird to outsiders. So the idea of documenting these places while they still existed really interested me. I kind of filed the idea of the project in the back of mind. This was around the fall of 2006. For another year and a half, I was building my business and like all of us, found it hard to find time to work on personal projects.
When the 2008 election came around I was feeling a little weird since I wasn’t doing anything of importance photographically or journalistically, and it was such an IMPORTANT election (remember that feeling?). So I felt I should participate somehow. I started researching some of the more unusual sounding polling places in the city. The Philadelphia Elections Board actually posts a list of all the polling stations and every place has a small description next to the address, such as “Residence” or “Storefront” or “Water Department Laboratory.” So I made a list of the weirdest sounding places, packed-up my Hassy, tripod and film in my car and basically just drove all over the city of Philadelphia for about 10 hours on Election Day. I’ve done that every election since Nov. 2008.
It’s hard to tell if a project like this is finished or not. I’ve compiled a lot of awesome locations. I could continue shooting, but I’m pretty sure the Elections Board here in Philly is not into the project. Every election it’s gotten harder and harder to talk my way into the polling stations with the camera. It’s always depended on the particular mood of the polling station staff, but it’s gotten worse in the past year or so. So, I might head out this mid-term, but without much expectation, and mostly because a crew from the History Channel might produce a small segment about the project and they need some footage of me in action.
As far as publishing it beyond the Internet, I’d like to. I haven’t really shopped it around much, beyond a few mailers, printed and electronic. I’ve had a few magazines offer publication on THEIR websites, but I’d like to see it in print myself. And I’d love to get a gallery interested in the project, because I think that would be an appropriate venue for the work. I’m pretty much a fish out of water when it comes to the fine art world though.
M: Other than the art/photography world, is there another audience you are hoping to reach with the project? If so, how are you going about it?
R: Oddly enough, the majority of attention that the project has gotten has been from the political world. It was featured during the spring primary season on a few political blogs, locally and nationally, including Politico, Salon and I think one of The New York Times blogs.
I’ve also had some interest from a local elections watchdog group called the Committee of Seventy. They loved the work, though I’m not sure what will happen with them.
M: Looks like you shot most of it on film with your Hasselblad. Any particular reason for choosing this format?
R: I’m not really sure why I shot it on my Hasselblad. I’m not really a one-is-better-than-the-other photographer. I just really like my Hasselblad. And I think with this project I kind of wanted a little slower pace: loading the film, taking meter readings, etc, etc. And I just love that camera. I also think the square format works well for the spaces in which I was shooting. It has this feeling of looking in through a window, like a diorama, almost. I shot all of it with a 50mm lens, too, which is weird, because I’ve used that lens maybe twice before this project. It just felt natural.
I will tell you that scanning film is a bitch and I don’t miss that when I’m shooting digitally.
M: Other than the fact that Philly has some of the most unique polling places I’ve ever seen, were there any other motivating factors for pursuing this project?
R: A lot of my business has become produced portraiture and shoots for corporate and advertising clients. I think I was feeling out of touch from my documentary and photojournalism roots. I miss that kind of work most days and maybe this project was a way to feel connected to my original career aspirations.
M: I know in a lot of states photography is not allowed inside the polling stations and in some places you need to stay pretty far back. Did you have any problems or issues with access?
R: I think technically, in Philadelphia County, a member of the media has to register as a poll watcher with the Elections Commission in order to gain access to a polling station. But, that said, each polling station has a judge of elections. This is the person responsible for making decisions and running the polling station. In Philadelphia, each judge seems to rule their station as if it were a little fiefdom. So, really, it was different from polling station to polling station. Some places they were like “Come on in. This is awesome. What TV channel are we going to be on?” and others wouldn’t even talk to me, except to tell me to leave. Of course, some places I could shoot exteriors from the street, which is public property. This issue gets even more complex when you factor in that a lot of these places are also private residences or businesses. In those instances there was another person I had to get clearance from. At times, there was a lot of pleading on my part and also a lot of killer locations that I never got to photograph.
M: What kind of reactions did you get from people as you approached the various polling places with your camera? Talk about your approach a bit, logistically. Did you have examples of your work to show people you were working on a serious project? Did you have to explain in detail to people what is was you were doing? Or was it a more passive approach where you just showed up, made some photographs and moved along?
R: When I first started the project, I didn’t have any previous work to show, so it was just a matter of convincing people you were there for a good reason. The amount of or type of equipment you carry helps with some of that. I mean how many non-serious people carry around $4000 worth of photo gear into the ghetto to photograph people voting? But, I really relied on years of experience in approaching strangers to ask to photograph them. As a news photographer that’s all you do. I’ve always thought it would’ve made me more adept at hitting on women, but no.
It also helped that most people in Philadelphia are Democrats and everyone was very excited about the Obama election. So at many of the places I went that first day, a lot of good vibes were being thrown out. But in most places, if you’re honest with people and you ask questions and listen, eventually they warm up to you and that often leads to photographs. On subsequent forays, I took a portfolio of prints with me in case people were curious. I often found I didn’t need it though to convince people. They either let me in or they didn’t and regardless of whether or not I photographed other places didn’t matter.
M: Was there a certain aesthetic look you were trying to achieve with this project? Did you approach it differently compared to how you approach and execute your editorial and commercial work and why?
R: I’m really conscious of trying to find a look for my images. I was just having this conversation with someone the other day: the idea that when an image or composition works there’s a feeling that it has to be made. It’s all kind of a gut feeling for me. It might be a little like having to pee. You know when you need to pee, but you’re not going to just pee your pants. You’ll wait until it’s the right time or place. Making a nice photo is much the same: you know you need to make a picture, but it’s totally uncomfortable until all the elements (light, composition, timing) are correct. Then you can relieve yourself and make the picture.
And I totally approached it differently then my other work, mostly because I wasn’t having to worry about anyone else’s opinions. At a magazine, even if I know and love the photo editor or art director, we still have to worry about everyone else who’s going to have a say in the final image. And in the commercial world, come on, forget about it. You might have 10 different departments at 3 or 4 different companies fretting about an image. I mean, I try and put most of that stuff out of my mind when I’m completing an assignment because you’d like to believe they’re hiring you for your vision and process, but when you’re working for someone else, you can never fully do that. In the end, you’re working for someone else.
But this is why we all do personal work, because it’s personal. It gets me back to the time I was shooting pictures of birds at the zoo. I don’t have to worry about anyone telling me to pull back farther so they can crop in post or make sure I have negative space for the text. The only person I have to impress is myself. And, it may sound dopey, but in my experience, that’s the hardest person to impress, but also the most fun person with whom to work.
M: What kind of response have you received from people who have seen the work?
R: Everyone really likes the project. I mean it’s weird, which makes it funny and fun, like Philadelphia itself. And almost everyone that has talked to me about it likes the fact that it’s a little window into the wonderful world of Democracy here in the States.
M: Was there ever a time with this project when you just thought it wasn’t going to work? Did you ever doubt your own vision, and if yes, what did you do to forge ahead and keep working on it?
R: Not really, because I never had any expectations for this project. It was a way for me to have some fun and return to a type of photography that I love and to bond more closely with a city that I love as well. And if others saw the project and liked the images, than great. But it wouldn’t have changed the time and effort that I put into it or what I’ve taken away from it.
M: Did you draw inspiration from any specific photographers, artists, other projects, books, movies etc… when you were conceiving and working on “Behind the Curtain?”
R: Well, I’ve always loved Simon Norfolk’s work, especially his recent 8×10 work. I met him in 1998 at the Imperial War Museum in London when I was studying abroad there. He was exhibiting his genocide work and it just blew my mind. I had been a true acolyte of the 35mm format documentary work of Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Richards, Sebastio Salgado. You know, action-oriented documentary work. Fly-on-wall stuff. Here was a guy taking a tripod and a medium format camera and making beautiful, story-telling pictures in places where nothing was happening. Where nothing had happened for like 90 years. And the pictures were as powerful as anything I’d seen those other guys create. Poof…mind blown. He was also, a super cool dude and his work has only gotten better.
There’s a lot of people doing this kind of documentary work, especially now, that I love. But I’d say that in addition to Norfolk, Jeff Brouws, Walker Evans, Taryn Simon, Joel Sternfeld and my good friend (and former Dallas Morning News staffer) Allison V. Smith are some direct influences on this work and, really, they heavily influence all of my work.
M: Can you talk about the process of working on a long-term project like this? I know it takes a lot of time, patience and determination to stick with it and not abandon it half-way through and move on to the next one. How do you stay motivated, what drove you to keep working on it?
R: Well, this project, like so many others, was born out of two things: a love for the subject and the fact that I didn’t have any paying work going on. The hard part isn’t so much sticking with the same project when you have free time, but, if you’re lucky enough to get busy again, finding time (and motivation) to continue working on the project. With this project, I’m pretty lucky because there are built in days to shoot, twice a year, on very specific days. I can plan my schedule around those times, waaaaay in advance. And by the time a new election cycle comes around, I’m excited to go out again.
They’re called “personal projects” for a reason: they should be very personal to you. You should want to go out and make the photographs. My wife and I love politics and democracy. We talk about it constantly, so this was a very natural project for me. Hell, I’ve considered simply volunteering as a poll watcher and not shooting pictures, just because I like hanging around polling stations. But photographing these places gave me a great excuse to hang around a lot of different polling stations, meet various and interesting people and then (hopefully) share my love with other people.
You shouldn’t start a project because you think it’ll get you more work or because it might get you accolades down the road. People will see through that kind of disingenuousness. And the likelihood is, assuming you’re not one of the celebrity photographers out there who can just get a book published when they snap their fingers, not that many people will see the project. Even if you do get a book published, or a gallery show, or even a feature in a magazine, the fact is, with so many people making and publishing photos and other content these days, it won’t stay in the collective conscious for very long. So in the end, the images and the project has to be for yourself…and maybe for your subjects.
I mean if it wasn’t personal and you didn’t enjoy it, wouldn’t that just be work? And who wants to do that?