Our next NODcast episode goes to Christaan Felber, a photographer commissioned for publications such as The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine and The New Yorker, and companies such as Nike and RedBull Records. He’s toured with The Vaccines and photographed Alabama Shakes. His book Boxeo Clasico, has sold thousands of copies.
Here’s what he had to say about what makes good photograph, how he connects with his subjects, and the ways photography helps you see things differently.
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Christaan: For me it was film, first of all. When I was shooting, we didn’t have digital. We only had film. It makes me sound really old… there was something really magical about not really knowing what you were getting… and thinking that maybe by cropping out certain parts of the world, you create something different. Which is a nice feeling.
That’s what I think it was about. It was about documentation and trying to look at things differently.
It’s really a tool. It’s a machine, a camera, and using this machine to try to look at the world in a different way. That excitement. Just getting back a roll of film and going, “Oh, cool. That looks …” It’s really about seeing, you know? Trying to see the world in a different way and then the camera just becomes a tool.
It helps you. It helps you I think see things differently. It’s just exciting. It was exciting to go in the dark room. It’s magical. I don’t know what I’m going to get and that waiting period of seeing what’s on your film, seeing what’s on the roll. I think that was always really exciting. And processing it and seeing it come out. Just that whole process. I love that process. That’s why I still like shooting film because I think there’s that time that it takes to get the film processed and even now I think when I get my film back, it’s like a present. It feels like Christmas. I get so excited to go to the film lab. I understand there’s a time and place for each thing, I understand there’s a time and place for digital and film, but I think that process is what I really enjoy.
I love editing. I love getting my film back. It’s sometimes even more fun than the actual shooting in some cases. I just enjoy it.
It’s a gift.
Jenna: Seeing the world in a new way, does that make you feel like you’re constantly curious about what you’re looking at… or are you purposely trying to see it in a new way? Not necessarily curiosity…
Christaan: I think you have to be inherently curious. I feel like if you try to force yourself to do something in a certain way, it’s not going to happen. It’s easy to become almost too self aware. If you’re too self aware, you’re not involved in the process and it’s hard. It’s really tricky, especially if you have clients who want something or if you have a magazine.
The worst direction is when someone is like, “Just make me a beautiful photograph.” It’s like, “Fuck. I can’t…” Can I swear by the way?
Christaan: It’s the worst, you know? It’s creating this… What does that even mean? It’s so subjective and then you start thinking, “what’s a beautiful photograph? What does that mean? What do they want?” I always have the tendency to get really in my head… so I don’t know. I think it’s best to take that step back and shoot. Just shoot and try to be curious. I think curiosity is the most important thing.
Especially when it comes to people, you know? You got to be curious about the subject. If you’re not curious about someone, you’re not going to get anything out of them. I feel like it’s really rare that people want to give you a photograph. I think that hardly ever happens, so it’s this process of trying to gain someone’s trust and trying to get them to open up and give you a photograph. They’re giving you a photograph. They’re giving you a gift and you have to get them to do that in a way that’s respectful. That’s really hard. It’s really hard.
I don’t know if you want me to keep going, but last week I had a shoot for the New Yorker and I had 20 seconds to take a portrait. I took 3 photographs. 3. 3 shots. It was so hard, but I got it and I was really really excited. I just felt like I was able to establish this connection. The guy I was photographing didn’t even speak English. He had a translator. He spoke Turkish and for some reason I just remember looking him in the eye and just having this really honest moment. Even though we didn’t necessarily communicate through language, I felt like we communicated on this other level and we both trusted each other and he trusted me to take a photograph and I got it. It was an amazing feeling.
That’s ultimately what it’s about. It’s about trust when you’re taking photographs of people. In order to do that, you need to be curious because you have to be inquisitive and open and asking questions.
I think people are really sensitive to that.
I feel like as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons, people will feel that and respond and… do it for the right reasons as well and give you a good photograph in exchange.
Jenna: What makes someone worthy of a good photograph? … Why would you want to capture someone?
Christaan: That’s a good question. I think there’s a couple different reasons, not necessarily one… Maybe one reason would probably be I just want to get to know them because they seem interesting. There’s just something about them that I’d like to… get to know them more… Or then I think the other case is that you just seem them in a vulnerable moment and you want to capture that.
I’ve always loved the painter Edward Hopper because he always captured these really quiet scenes. It’s always impossible. It’s so difficult to photograph. That’s why I think he pulled it off so well as a painter, but I always loved those quiet moments where people are staring off into space because it’s like they’re kind of vulnerable and in their head and they’re sort of unaware of what’s going on around them. It’s this really intimate moment. Even if they’re surrounded by a lot of people, it can still be intimate.
I see it all the time. Even on the subway, you see people staring off. Like, “Goddamn, I really want to take that photograph,” but then at the same time once you interrupt that, then it’s no longer there. Then the trick becomes the reason you want to photograph them is to try to get them back to that place and try to get them unaware of the camera and sort of in that moment, which is also really hard. I don’t know. I think … What makes me interested in certain people? I think it’s … I don’t know. I think there’s a certain openness or again, just a curiosity about someone. I think that’s a really hard thing to define, but I feel like if I’m curious about someone and there’s something about them that draws me to them, then I’ll do it.
Jenna: And you’re recording that. You’re documenting it. You’re capturing that moment in time for… what?
Christaan: I don’t know. I don’t know why anyone does that… Because I have to? I don’t know. It’s just an impulse I guess… It’s like, why do I take photographs? I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it. I’m sure I have, but … I don’t know.
I honestly don’t know what propels me to document people. I don’t know. I think in a lot of cases it’s an excuse to talk to people. If you didn’t have a camera, you’d be a weirdo to just go up to someone and…
Also, it’s not like the photograph is necessarily the end all, be all. It’s also the process.
I think it’d be wrong to just… I think it’d be really superficial to just be like, “Yeah, I’m just doing this for the photograph.” I think you have to love the process as well of getting to know someone, of learning something. Of an experience.
I think that’s ultimately what it’s about. It’s about an experience and then the photograph is just a document of that. It’s the same thing of why do people go on family vacations and take photographs of family vacations? Yeah, it’s about the photograph, but it’s ultimately about the experience. You want to have those memories. And I think that’s what it’s about. It’s about documenting the experience of getting to know someone.
It’s being like, “Hey, I met this person. They’re amazing and they’re really open. Here’s a document of this person. In that space.”
Jenna: You get to document people in that capacity also for your job.
Jenna: You’re a working, professional photographer, freelance photographer in New York.
Christaan: It’s crazy. It’s goddamn crazy.
Jenna: [Laughs] In a good way?
Christaan: Yeah, it’s awesome. It’s the best thing ever. I was thinking about it… I’ve worked in an office a little bit. It’s the worst. The worst. The other day, even something that’s seemingly tedious as editing, I love it.
Last Friday I was editing all these jobs that I shot and I was just sitting there, listening to the radio, editing. I was really content. I could just keep doing this, this is awesome. I feel really lucky and blessed to be able to do it. Because it’s rare. Number one, it’s a really competitive field. I think it’s hard to make a living doing it and I’m doing it, somehow. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s cool. I’m happy about it. It’s the shit.
It’s one of those things where people go, “What else would you do?” I don’t really have a plan B. I don’t know what the hell else I would do. I don’t know. Which is probably maybe a good thing, you know?
Jenna: Does doing this in a professional capacity give you more confidence to do it or does it make you feel like there’s higher stakes for messing up?
Christaan: I think I used to be really scared of messing up, but I think I’ve gotten a lot better and more confident in what I do. I think I’ve gotten to the point where it becomes more fun than anything. That’s the thing that sucks… I think it’s good to be nervous to a certain extent because I think anxiety can be a double edged sword in that it can light a fire under your ass and make you really prepared because you really need to be prepared when you’re shooting, but at the same time I think I’m starting to enjoy the process more. I think you have to. Otherwise, it’s a nightmare. I’m getting better at it.
Jenna: There’s a lot of different styles to photography and a lot of different ways that someone can take a picture. Often times it depends on the person that’s taking the picture themselves, right? Not even on their camera which you said before is a tool, but one person’s going to take a photo a certain way. In a different way than another person. If you could try and describe the way that you take a photo, how would you describe it and what makes that different than someone else?
Christaan: It’s interesting. You know… I’m sure I’ll give you an answer, but I don’t know how accurate it’d be. It’s like describing how you walk. I don’t know if I could describe how I walk. I think if someone saw you doing it, they’d be able to describe it a little bit better. It’s almost like you’re so close to it, it’s hard to see.
I know my intent. I don’t know if it’s working… I try to approach people just as openly and honestly as possible and hope for the best, and as respectfully as possible… I think that’s usually how I do it. If that makes any sense. Again, if someone saw me I’m not sure if they would have the same opinion, but I hope they do. Again, it’s a little bit tricky when you don’t really have that perspective on yourself. If that makes sense.
Jenna: Going back to photography as a career, I have a quote for you that I’m going to read out. “If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you only hear about it,” by Jay Maisel. The idea is that if you go to some boxing gym, things will happen for you or you’ll be able to capture those moments in a way that if you were just sitting at home, it would never happen.
Christaan: Yeah, of course.
Jenna: So actively taking photos is what brought you to this point.
Christaan: Yeah. I think it’s true of anything. You got to live your life. If you’re just sitting at home, nothing’s happening. What the hell’s going on there? Nothing.
I think it’s important to do that and it’s tricky. I can become lazy sometimes and sometimes you have to force yourself to go. I’ve done that a lot where even with that nightwalkers series that I’ve been working on. I got to get better with that. I haven’t gone out in a bit, but it’s one of those things where I’ll be sitting at home like, “Oh, I don’t want to go out.” Sometimes I don’t and sometimes I’m like, “It’s fine.” Then other times I do and I go, “Wow, I’m really glad I went out and did this,” because it turns out to be really amazing.
I think regardless, even if it doesn’t work out what’s the worst that can happen? It’s always an experience.
Who knows? That’s the best thing, doing it. Yeah, I agree.
Jenna: Just go out and do it.
Christaan: Yeah, totally.
Jenna: Another question. If aliens came to the planet and one of them knocked on your studio door and was walking around… I know. Crazy scenario, but I’m going with it. And saw your cameras and saw your books on the wall and turned to you and said, “What is photography?” How would you describe what it is?
Christaan: [Laughs] Good God.
Jenna: Where would you begin? And…
Jenna: [Laughs] If you could try.
Christaan: What is photography? In its bare essence I just think it’s visual documentation. That’s really what it comes down to. If you really want to strip it down the bare bones. I think there’s a lot of subtleties to it obviously, but it’s really about documentation. That’s what it is.
Jenna: Got it. And that same alien’s piecing through all of your photographs and he’ll see that you got your start in music photography and taking photos of bands. That same alien asks you why you started with music photography… Why was that interesting at the time? Or was it just a gig? You’ve done a lot of music photography. What makes that something that’s interesting to shoot?
Christaan: I think I’ve always been involved in music. It’s one of my other loves. When I was in high school, it was between doing photography or doing music as a profession. I was between the two, so it’s always been a love of mine. It’s easy to talk about. If you’re passionate about something, it’s really easy to talk about it… It’s not forced. Just something that was really natural, so talking with musicians, I feel like we have a good rapport and a lot of common interests. It just makes sense. Again, it’s like talking about how important that trust and making that connection is… it makes it easier if you have common friends or common ideas to talk about.
I actually just did an interview with Rangefinder Magazine about, it was asking how you got a specific shot. I was photographing Alabama Shakes for New York Times Magazine, so they were asking me about that whole process. That was one of the things I said, that it made it so much easier to gain someone’s trust if you know about what they’re passionate about, and you’re passionate about the same things. I think it’s just something that happened naturally. It wasn’t necessarily something that I was actively pursuing. I definitely had an interest in music photography when I was in high school. I always looked at Spin Magazine and Rolling Stone…
I remember I was 15 and I really wanted to photograph this band Primus at the time. I called up their manager in San Francisco. I remember his name. I think it was David Lefkowitz. I’m not sure if they still have the same manager, but I remember that guy’s name.
I called him and I talked with his secretary and I think I lied and said I was from Spin Magazine and I was think I was 15. I waited behind Roseland Ballroom for two hours for them to show up and then Les Claypool showed up in a cab. Then I think they quickly realized that I was not from Spin Magazine. I was a 14 year old kid… with my mom’s camera, because I didn’t even own my own. It was a little Minolta camera. Their manager was really surprised. But they gave me tickets and it was cool. I saw them. It’s actually funny. I’ve actually ran into him … I hung out with him a couple years ago, and I told him that story and he laughed.
Jenna: Did you get to shoot them?
Christaan: No. I was dating this girl from this band and they were on tour together, so she was friends with them and they got us tickets to go see Book of Mormon, so I went to go see … It was pretty awesome. I got to go see Book of Mormon with Primus which was a childhood dream. I was freaking out on the inside. It was really cool.
Jenna: Before you shoot someone or before you would shoot a certain band, would you do any research on them in advance or listen to all of their albums or…? What’s your process pre-photograph?
Christaan: It’s a good question… I’m trying to do that more. It can be a good and bad thing though… Sometimes I think it’s good to be ignorant because you’re starting from a fresh slate. As long as you’re not disrespectful… I always have the tendency to get nervous if I’m photographing an idol.
I photographed Radiohead. That was one of my second assignments I ever shot and I was freaking out and I think it worked against me, honestly. I wish I had done that shoot now instead of 4 years ago or 5 years ago, whenever it was. It can be a good thing, but it can also work against you. I think it’s good… It’s so tricky. It’s obviously good to know what they’re about and have questions for them. I photographed Ewan McGregor fairly recently for the New Yorker and I was definitely nervous just because of his celebrity, but I didn’t really know he was into motorcycles until afterwards.
Someone was like, “Oh, did you ask him about motorcycles?” And I ride motorcycles. I was like, “Fuck. That would’ve been so good.” That would’ve been a great topic. If I had done research, I would’ve known that. Then at the same time, it’s fun to go into an assignment not knowing anything. I do a lot of like… I don’t know why, but I do a lot of sports photography and maybe that’s even why I get hired because I really don’t know anything about sports, so I approach it from this really naïve perspective. I was photographing this linebacker for New York Times Magazine… It was a linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons and I went out with his family to get dinner and everything and they’re talking to me about football. I literally know nothing about football, so I was just super honest and I was like, “Listen, this is what I know about football. I know that there are touchdowns and there are quarterbacks. That’s the extent of my knowledge.”
He was like, “All right. Thanks for being so honest.” I think it was actually a good thing because I wasn’t nervous around them. I wasn’t putting anyone on a pedestal because I think that can be a mistake. And it wound up being awesome. We just hung out at his condo and drank Bud Light and watched football. And he was trying to teach me about football. It was fun. I don’t know. It can work either way, but I think for the most part it’s probably good to know and maybe … I think the anxiety thing is my own personal problem and just trying to figure out how to manage that. That’s probably the best approach.
Jenna: You often times stick to ambient light sources or available light. You use a lot of … Your stuff doesn’t have a lot of manufactured moments happening. Is that true? Do you prefer to shoot that way and, why?
Christaan: Yep. I don’t know, for some reason it just feels more honest. I know it’s more difficult because you can’t necessarily control … You can control it to a certain extent obviously, but you have way less control over sunlight compared to bringing in strobes or something. I have the tendency to really not like equipment so much. I don’t know… Again, I think ideally it’d be great if you could just take a photograph from your eye, because that’s what it’s about. That’s what you realize. It’s about seeing. It’s about seeing something. And all this other stuff is just… It matters, but… not really. Again, I see things as tools, to do a job. I feel like having all these lights and stuff holds you down. It’s one more thing that can go wrong, one more thing to think about. I just like keeping it simple.
I used to be really into lighting. I went to a really technical college and did a lot of strobes, and I don’t know. For some reason I think natural lighting just feels more pure and has a certain aesthetic that again, just to me feels more honest and more natural. I know that it’s possible to get that from strobes, but it feels different. I know I’m going to have to get over that one of these days, especially if I’m going to be doing more commercial stuff, because that’s all about control. An art director wants a specific photograph. You better make that photograph. That’s when it comes in handy.
It’s scary, honestly, going into a shoot not knowing what the light’s going to be like, but that’s also kind of part of the excitement, it’s the spontaneity. Being like, “We’ll figure it out.” It’s kind of crazy.
Jenna: Your book Boxeo Clasico, am I pronouncing that right?
Christaan: Yeah, yeah.
Jenna: Boxeo?… Is a series of portraits and photos of a boxing gym in Bushwick. What’s great about that series is that not only are they beautiful photographs, but… it also has a root in your childhood. You studied boxing and you practiced… Studied? Practiced?
Christaan: I’m not a good boxer by any means. It was definitely not that formal. It was my dad just showing me the ropes. I think I really wanted to box. I think my mom was very much against it and talked… I’m glad I didn’t, honestly. I was some soft kid from the suburbs. I probably would’ve gotten my ass kicked, honestly. I like to think that I’m tougher than I am, [laughs] but I think it would’ve ended really badly.
Jenna: Well, the book, I’m sure it helps that you were interested in boxing and it manifested in this book later.
Christaan: Yeah totally, yeah it’s an awesome sport. I think it’s a really beautiful, incredible sport. I know that’s hard to see considering how brutal it is, but even MMA, there’s nothing really quite like boxing. It’s in a really bad place these days with this last fight with Pacquiao and Mayweather. It was just terrible. I think it was the nail in the coffin for a lot of people because I think it was a lot of greed in the sport, which has ruined it, but just conceptually I think it’s a really cool, amazing, dramatic sport that’s really incredible and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever been to a professional boxing match, but I went to another Pacquiao fight in Las Vegas and it was at the MGM. It was 70,000 people just losing their shit and just two guys getting ushered out in robes.
It was like modern day gladiators. It was so cool. And I think I enjoyed the fact that it’s really pure. It’s not like with MMA, there’s a lot of different styles and started off as something else. It’s kind of a mash up of different styles, where as boxing has been around since the Greeks. It’s been around forever. There’s something cool about that and the training. I think the training, there’s something really beautiful about it.
Jenna: So that’s the concept that you’re passionate about and that manifested in a book. What else are you chewing on lately? Different concepts, different ideas that have been or will make their way into your photography?
Christaan: Yeah. I don’t know, that’s hard to say because I don’t know how… Even with the boxing thing, I don’t know if I would predetermined that necessarily was. It just happened and it was more of an organic process as opposed to searching it out.
I find that searching things out in a lot of cases doesn’t always work because you can sort of have this idea in your head of what you’re looking for, and it’s never how it actually is. It’s very rare.
I think in a lot of cases it’s just finding a very broad or general subject and photographing it and then editing the work and seeing where it goes and you go from there.
I definitely need to latch into something soon. I think it’s been a while. I’ve just been so busy with commercial work and editorial, which is great, but I definitely need to find something to just, sort of, shoot.
That boxing project, I wasn’t really shooting before that. I was assisting here and there, but at that point I felt like I was done with photography, honestly. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it again and I was doing a lot of random art stuff. I was doing silk screening and, I don’t know, trying to do graffiti and stuff around the city. Then I was just like, “You know what? Let’s do this one more, one last time,” and I just tried it again and that was the project that I decided to sink my teeth into. It wasn’t anything I was really … I don’t know, thought about all that much beforehand. I think it was looking at the work and spreading it out and just trying to figure out in retrospect what I was doing. It’s like that quote. I think it’s about going out and doing it.
I think you can over think things and psych yourself out. And I do that a lot. I’m the master at it… so I think it’s jumping in head first and saying, “All right. Let’s see what I can come up with.”
Jenna: Did you psych yourself out at that point? Was that why you were going to leave photography forever?
Christaan: Ah… No. I was assisting a lot. I just wasn’t feeling it. I worked with a couple of my idols and it was amazing, but it just left a bad taste in my mouth. There’s a lot of pressure in shooting, a lot of stress, and I was just kind of sick of it too. Where I went to school was really intense. It was four years of intensive study and I just felt, felt sick. I didn’t want to do it and even now, there’s certain days where I feel that way. Where I go, “I don’t want to do this today.” It’s not always inspiration constantly. I don’t think it ever is for anyone. I think if they told you that, they’re lying.
I remember seeing this really good video of Jack White, I don’t know what it was from. It was just this one interview that I saw on YouTube, and he was talking about inspiration. He was talking about how he goes into the studio, people assume that it’s like the clouds parting and this gift of music gets handed to him. He’s like, “No. It takes a lot of work, and just doing it and being disciplined about it.” He used to be an upholsterer before he was a musician and he was saying that. There were days when he didn’t want to upholster furniture, but he just did it, and I think that same worth ethic came through in his music.
I think there’s obviously a certain struggle. It’s not always roses and you have to work through that, which is hard and I have a really difficult time doing that sometimes. It’s something I’m working on and trying to get better at.
I heard this really good interview with Jerry Seinfeld that was on Howard Stern and he was saying how he’s out eating Chinese food with his wife and he was thinking about jokes.
Howard was like, “That must be torture. Always being on and always thinking about jokes constantly.” He was like, “Yeah, but there’s nothing that’s ever not torturous and I think it’s about choosing your torture.”
Whether it’s work, whether it’s relationships. Choosing that thing where the good outweighs the bad and it works out.
Jenna: Going back to the photographer/subject relationship, do you feel like you understand people more as a photographer? That you have an ability to connect with them more or is it, is it that same struggle where you’re still having to work at it?
Christaan: I think so. I think it’s about being observant and figuring people out a little bit. I think everyone has clues based on their appearance. I’m really obsessed with that idea of looking at someone and trying to figure them out, and then trying to find a relationship between me and them. Trying to find a common thread. I realized that that’s always what it’s about.
The other night I was out, I was actually … I was out with a friend and we were at this restaurant and I was looking at this guy. I’m like, “That guy’s really interesting looking.” He had this bag that said KEXP on it which is that radio station from Seattle. I was like, “I bet you he’s from Seattle.” Then he had this bike with two seats and the rear seat was a banana seat. I was like, “Huh, that’s interesting. I wonder if he has kids. I bet he has a daughter or a son that rides on the back of that.”
Just coming up with these ideas. It’s basically judging. [Laughs] That’s essentially what you’re doing, you’re judging, and then… asking.
I wound up having a conversation. I was like, “Hey, are you from Seattle?” He was like, “Yeah, yeah, I am.” I’m like, “Oh, how long have you lived there? Oh, KEXP, I love that station.” Then just finding those similarities and finding those roads and going down them.
And that’s how you establish trust really really quickly.
Or it’s like the other day I was … I love doing this on the subway. I’ll be on the subway, especially when I wear a hat like this. I’ll block out people’s faces with my brim and just look at people’s shoes and try to figure out what they do and their back story…
It’s amazing. Sometimes there’s some really small things that you can look at and figure out… You look at someone’s shoe and you’re like, “Oh, the right side of their shoe is ripped. They’re probably a skateboarder.” That’s from ollying or whatever and it’s from the grip tape. I saw this other guy on the train and he had a P and a backwards S burnt into his shoe and it was hiking shoes. And I used to be in boy scouts and that was from the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. So I’m like, “Huh. I wonder if he’s an eagle scout or if he used to be a boy scout. He’s really into outdoors obviously, he’s wearing hiking boots.” And that’s an “in.” You go, “Hey …” And I asked him if he was an eagle scout, but it’s just that little thing. It was a brand on his shoe. Just knowing what that’s about.
I think that ties in with just experiences and trying to…
The more experiences you have and the more things you know, the easier it is to talk with anyone.
Not just with photography, but meeting anyone. Whether it’s meeting a friend or meeting a girl at the bar. Whatever it is. It’s about human connection and finding those things that are … Finding that common ground and just getting better at that. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at it.
Jenna: Speaking of life experience, you took a road trip across the country recently and took over the New Yorker’s Instagram when you were doing that. What were some of the experiences that you had on the road and how did they result in good photographs?
Christaan: It was amazing. It was with my brother and he was moving from Atlanta to San Francisco for a new job. He called me because I’d been wanting to do this for a while. I’ve been wanting to do a road trip across the country for a really long time. The opportunity just never really presented itself and this came up and his company was basically paying for the gas and the food, so that was pretty awesome. I had to be in LA in two weeks after that so I was like, “All right, that works perfectly.” Part of the rule that we set was that for the majority of the road trip that we’d take small county and state roads instead of large interstate highways because it’s just like all the same… Just lots of fast food restaurants. You don’t actually get to see the countryside you’re driving through, so we tried to go on as many back roads as possible, and it was amazing.
I think I told you this before, but there was that … I think it was on the second day, we were driving through Mississippi. We took a county road through this really small town called Rose Hill, and we reached this fork in the road and there was a gas station and it had those old-turning-number-style gas pumps. I don’t know what the name of it is, but we stopped there and there was this guy just hanging out at a picnic table and he looked really interesting. He had these really amazing looking eyes. I was like, “I got to take this guy’s photo.” I asked him and he agreed, so I set up the camera and I was just talking with him while I was shooting. I was like, “So… What’s your deal? How long have you lived here?” He goes, “Oh, you know. I was a musician.”
“Okay, cool. What kind of stuff did you play?”
And he goes, “You know that song Fever?” and he starts singing that song that was covered by Madonna and Elvis famously and I think it was Peggy Lee, the Cramps. All these really famous bands. He starts singing it and I was like, “Yeah, yeah. I know that song.” He’s like, “Oh, I wrote that in 1956.” I was like, “What? No.” In the back of my head I was like, “He’s lying to me. There’s no way.” Then he was talking about where he grew up and where he moved and my brother was behind me fact checking on Wikipedia, and it was totally him.
The weirdest thing was the last entry of Wikipedia was like, “Nothing’s been recorded of his life since 1961.” I think that’s pretty crazy. That was cool and just meeting a lot of people like that. It was great. From all different walks of life and different places. I’ve never been in the southwest, so that was an experience.
I don’t know. I loved that. I love that whole process of just getting to know people and seeing different ways of life. It gives you own life a sense of perspective, you know? It’s probably what it’s all about, really. [Laughs]
Jenna: Just being able to understand your own experience?
Christaan: Getting to, I don’t know, maybe understand your own life better by looking at other people’s too.
Jenna: It’s pretty cool that you get to do that as a job.
Christaan: Yeah. It’s the shit. Are you kidding me?
Jenna: [Laughs] Ah… so… awesome moments.
Christaan: I’m trying to think. Last week I photographed this amazing rock climber for ESPN Magazine. This was literally a week ago.
She’s 14 and considered the best rock climber in the world. She’s awesome. The sweetest girl, and the sweetest family and it was me and an assistant and we drove out to the Catskills. She just rock climbed and I photographed her and she was amazing. Her parents were amazing. It was a really beautiful, incredible time and then we drove back home… We stopped by a farmer’s market and all hung out and ate together.
You have moments like that and it’s really beautiful. She was great.
She was like, “Oh, we should go rock climbing together.” I was like, “I would love that.”
You know, 95% of the jobs work out and are amazing, but then obviously there are times when it doesn’t. As long as I think the good outweighs the bad, you’ll be fine.
Even in a lot of the work I do, especially the music stuff, started with the Vaccines and that was amazing, going on tour with them. That was one of the best times I’ve ever had. It was amazing. I was lucky too because I think it’s always really tricky working with veteran celebrities or musicians because they’re so jaded and they’ve done it a billion times. They’ve gotten their photograph taken a billion times. When you’re working with someone young, they’re still innocent and it’s a good thing. They’re not jaded by all these photographers and it was awesome. I was one of their first photographers. I met them in 2011 and they invited me to go on tour through England and it was one of the best times I’ve ever had. I came out of it with a great body of work and they’re great friends of mine. They’re awesome.
They are countless… good moments.
Jenna: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start out in photography or better yet, what advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time?
Christaan: … That’s a good question… I don’t know what I’d tell myself because I think everything has generally worked out pretty well.
I’m really happy with where I am now…
I think it’s important to also be realistic about it and maybe that’s something I would’ve done differently. Is maybe taken some business courses or something, because at the end of the day, it’s not always just about shooting. You’re making a living and it’s a profession. It’s about making money and owning a business. You’re a business owner. That’s definitely not my forte, so I wish I had learned a little bit more about that. I think it’s important to understand that you’re not always going to be shooting if you want to do it professionally. Ideally, that would be great, but that’s never going to happen.
All day yesterday I was doing invoicing. That’s what I did. That’s part of it. That’s what you do when you own a small business. You’re invoicing and you’re trying to get people to pay you and paying other people and paying your assistants and doing taxes. That’s the shit part of it, but also that’s life and I think being realistic about it is important. The industry is hard. It’s tricky. There’s a ton of photographers and it gets really really really competitive.
I think the best advice I ever heard and I really took it to heart was, do you remember when Conan O’Brien left NBC and he gave this really heartfelt speech? It was his farewell speech and he basically… It was to all the kids in the audience. He goes to all the younger audience people or audience members, he’s like, “Don’t be cynical. Just for the record, cynicism is my least favorite trait. If you want to get anywhere, just work hard and be nice to people. No one ever gets exactly what they want, but if you work hard and are nice to people, great things will happen.” I’ve always loved that. I think it’s really really good advice for anyone.
Regardless of what you’re doing, if it’s photography or whatever. I think it’s really important.
Jenna: All right, I think I have one last question. In a few of your articles, you mention that street style, punk rock, your motorcycle, alternative culture inspires you. Do you self identify with that?
Christaan: I think that’s just what I listened to when I was growing up. I was an angsty teenager, that’s what I listened to.
I think another thing about being a photographer is that you also have to be comfortable with being an outsider because you’re always going to be an outsider. You’re always an outsider. You’re not a participant, you know? And that’s something that I struggle with too sometimes because there’s definitely times when I want to be a participant and I can’t. If you’re photographing people doing things, you’re not participating. You’re documenting. So you have to be an outsider in order to document.
I think that that’s where that comes from and I think punk rock is celebrating… It sounds so cliché, but all those guys were outsiders back in the day. I don’t know what the equivalent is now…
I also don’t think it’s necessarily good to hold onto that. I think it can be childish or whatever, but I think I hold on to certain aspects of it that I think are important to me.
I think it’s important, at least in my mind, I think it’s important to be individualistic. Especially as an artist. I think it’s important to stand out and not be afraid of that. That’s what I think makes you good compared to other people.
And if you are going to stand out, it’s tough. You can’t be really afraid to do that.
I think that all that ties in with those movements and those cultures. They’re all counter-culture. They weren’t afraid to stand out. They were doing their own things. They were independent. Especially in the ’80s, all the DIY, do it yourself culture of promoting your own stuff, not going through record labels…
I mean my book, I didn’t go through a publisher. That was all self-funded, self-promoted. It’s being sold at the Strand and a bunch of bookstores in the city, which I’m happy about. I’m sure it’s not selling as well as it would if it was with an actual publisher publisher, but there’s something nice about that. I just ride around the city on my motorcycle and deliver books to bookstores. It’s the same sort of thing with that style of music. It’s not like, I don’t know, Minor Threat came out on Atlantic Records or something. It was very much against that.
It was about creating something and creating your own thing. Instead of waiting around to be accepted or… to wait on someone else to give you something.
I’d rather just make it for myself.
Thanks for listening to this Notes on Doing Episode 003 with Christaan Felber.
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Until Monday. In the meantime, always do.