A Special Profile by Keith “The Bull” Stevenson
MPJ: Today we’re profiling New Orleans based artist and photojournalist, Jill Ensley. Jill is not a military photojournalist and has no military experience or connection. So this is a little different. We usually interview combat camera photographers, photojournalists and videographers. However, Jill’s photojournalistic work caught my attention recently. I think that her work may serve as a great opportunity to provide a different point of view with respect to what it means to be a photojournalist, artist and visual communicator. A fresh look perhaps, something different, or even a new approach. Ultimately, The MPJ Connection is about supporting and advancing the art of story telling and whether you’re a military photojournalist or not is really not the issue. It’s about learning. So, keeping that in mind, let’s do this.
MPJ: Where are you originally from and what is your current position/job?
JE:I am originally from Topeka, Kan. Currently I’m a freelance photographer/writer as well as a hostess for a New Orleans restaurant. Gotta pay some bills. I recently quit a professional non-profit job to pursue my artistic endeavors.
MPJ: Tell us, how did you get started in photography? I mean, is photography or photojournalism something that has always been with you? When did you decide that you wanted to be a photographer/photojournalist?
JE:I remember taking over my mother’s Olympus in high school, and dabbling in photography then. At the time, and maybe to some extent today, it was just another tool in my artistic tool belt. I tend to gravitate to whatever medium fits the message. I try and be very aware of the reason behind why something should be a painting, or a photograph, or maybe something more, something more interactive and sprawling. As far as knowing that I wanted to be a photographer or photojournalist, I would classify myself as an artist first and foremost. I tend to work in photography or painting, each one offers a different kind of satisfaction, one is quick and instantaneous, the other time-consuming and intense. As a photographer, I do often feel more comfortable as a journalist. It feels natural, to be invisible, to slink back into the walls and capture daily life, perspectives that, hopefully, no one has captured. Every street in every city, in every country, tells a story. Sometimes it’s just easier to see this through a camera lens, to get a sense of the weight of the world, the connections that both tie us together and rip us apart.
MPJ: I’m going to ask, because I’m sure that some may be wondering, have you worked with combat camera personnel or a combat camera unit before?
JE:I have not, but that’s not to say it doesn’t interest me. Many of my favorite photographers are photojournalists, many embedded in combat situations. Truth be told, I’m a tough girl, but I’ve felt that my gender has sometimes put me in check. There are places that, as a woman, especially without training, that it would not be safe for me to go. But of course, there are places in my own city that it isn’t safe for me to go. Perhaps that’s just me getting older.
MPJ: How and where did you get your photojournalism/photography training?
JE:I hadn’t thoroughly explored the idea of photojournalism until college. My professor, Pok-Chi Lau, gave us story assignments, made us find narratives in everyday life. Then China. One day he announced that there would be a joint photo and design student trip to China. We would collaborate on photography and an installation upon our return. China wasn’t even on my radar. At that point, I hadn’t even been out of the country. He showed us his photos and I knew I had to go, so I found a way and made it happen. That trip changed my life. There’s something so humbling about being thrust into a foreign country, especially one as different, or the same, as the U.S. We spent twenty-six days traveling from the South to the North, gaining access to factories, stopping and staying with families in small villages. It was intense and amazing, seeing our similarities and our differences, seeing a country open up like that. I learned how to shoot on the sly there, how to not be intrusive, how to SEE. And there were times when I simply put my camera away, tired of shoving it in people’s faces. You have to know when it’s too much, when you are “wearing out your welcome”, so to speak. It’s a delicate balance for me, capturing a brief moment of something real and imposing on someone’s life to the point where you’re affecting the situation.
MPJ: How has that training affected your photography?
JE:I go back to that time often when trying to see a place for the first time, whether it really is the first time, or the city I’ve lived in for years. Sometimes I pretend I have someone else with me, a visitor, and I try and see with his or her eyes, a fresh perspective. And I always, always have a camera on me, sometimes two or three. There have been too many times I’ve been left with only a hazy memory of a beautiful or tragic and telling moment, especially here in New Orleans.
MPJ: Okay, I have to ask this question, because I’m NOT afraid to ask it…Are you a Nikon or Canon fan? Or, is there something else that you prefer? I mean, what piece of gear do you feel most comfortable with? What gives you your Chi? Or is it even an equipment thing?
JE:I love this question, because it gives me a chance to say this, you are not your equipment. I am a firm believer in the photographer, not the camera. Much of the time, I’m shooting with a point-and-shoot or a lomo camera. That’s not to say you shouldn’t upgrade on occasion, but this gadget war has got to stop. I’ve seen some amazing things come from the cheapest equipment, and some really bad, really bad things come from top dollar gear. I would even say that half, if not more, of the images I’ve submitted for this profile are shot with a low mp camera or a film camera. All of my China images were shot with a Sony Cybershot (with an amazing Zeiss lens mind you) that was 5mp. 5mp! It was all I had in 2006 and that camera was an extension of my arm. I cried when I had to finally acquiesce to the speed of modern times. All that said, I’m a Canon girl, and not a high-end model either.
MPJ: Do you consider yourself to be a purest? I mean, are you determined to shoot images that don’t need to be adjusted? You know, is it your feeling that images should be captured purely, in terms of in-camera cropping only for example, or are post-production adjustments a part of your approach? Are you a purest?
JE:Somewhat, when it comes to photojournalism that is. Minimal editing, color correction, enough to make it look like it looked when I saw it, or to set the tone and feeling, sometimes good photos need to be rescued from bad technology. I try and save the bulk of editing intensity for fine art pieces.
MPJ: Who, would you say, has influenced your photography the most? Are there other photojournalists or artist’s work out there that you deeply admire and maybe makes you say to yourself, “Wow!Now that’s the kind of images I want to capture!” Whose work do you look at and get inspired, you know, get fired up about?
JE:I adore Lee Friedlander, especially his factory work. Robert Frank, Herman Leonard, Man Ray, Lee Miller, Elliot Erwitt, and Sally Mann. Love them all for different reasons. Edward Burtynsky and Richard Misrach for their context and depth. More recently, Zoriah Miller and Jill Coleman come to mind, as both deal with global issues and the people they affect. Mario Tama has done some amazing work, especially in New Orleans. He’s near the top of the list of photographers I admire and want to be more like. In my New Orleans sphere, there’s Kevin Kline, Louviere + Vanessa. On the non-photojournalism front, Francesca Woodman, my friend J.P. Rosa, Thomas Allen does amazing things with design and photography. I’m a sucker for miniatures and small worlds, so Paolo Ventura, Walter Martin & Paloma Munoz comes to mind. I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but that’s a good list. My tastes are varied, but I do tend to fall in for the photojournalists the most.
MPJ: There is no question that being a photojournalist/photographer can be tough. It really can be difficult in today’s information market. I mean, every time you go out it’s a new experience. So, what is it that you love about photography? What is it that keeps you hungry? What keeps you pursuing your ambition as an artist or visual communicator? I mean, are there days when you look and say, “Why am I doing this, or what am I doing here?”
JE:There are certainly days when I wonder if I should be doing this, if I have what it takes, sure. It’s especially true as time progresses. I’m a slow-mover and I advocate slow-moving. I don’t feel like we have time these days to really absorb everything that’s being thrown at us, whether it be information, noise, or new technology. There’s little time to sit and wonder about the necessities of progress. It’s hard to keep up, especially for someone who isn’t always seeking Bigger and Badder. What I love about photography is that for a slow-mover like me, it’s rather instantaneous. It’s that whole “know it when you see it” thing. I know when I’ve got the shot. I know good light, and shadow, I know composition. Without trying to sound like a braggart, it’s instinctive. I feel these skills translate to my other work, say, painting, very well. In the end, anyone can take a photo, but not everyone is a photographer, no matter how big the camera. I know a lot of photography professors might disagree, but some things are innate abilities. What keeps me going are all the things I want to share with the world, the beauty I want to create, capture, the stories left to tell. If you’ve got that lifelong urge, you can’t ignore it. I’ve never been anything but a storyteller, maybe sometimes it’s selfish, maybe it’s my own voice, my own pre-occupation with beauty, but it’s no less true. Authenticity, the search for truth amongst the ruins and the rainbows, that’s why you keep going.
MPJ: What experience have you had in photojournalism/photography that you look back on as a major learning point?
JE:Aside from my life-changing experience in China, New Orleans has taught me the most. When I came down to volunteer in 2007, I brought only my film camera and only shot b/w. It wasn’t even a name brand camera, total student grade $100 gear. It felt right; it felt like the medium fit the message. Here was this city, this often forgotten American city, devastated, brought back in time, down to the basics. Food, water, shelter. I felt like those images, from the first trip, were honest representations of how I saw this world. There was beauty and there was sadness, tied together with truth. The point of that trip, first and foremost, was doing some good, however small; the second mission was reportage. I made no money from those images, but I showed them wherever I could. I feel like you need to make things a little more personal these days just to cut through the noise. Aside from that first trip, living here, loving this city like no other, has taught me to see the unique in the everyday, just how special a place can be. I get it now, why people will defend this outpost to the death. I would do the same myself.
MPJ: What do you consider the best photo assignment you’ve covered to date?
JE:That time that I was assigned for follow George Clooney around. Crazy. Did you know he has six toes? Total. Kidding, of course. He has ten, on each foot. Seriously though, the best assignments have been the ones I’ve given myself. I don’t know if it’s a rarity or not, but I don’t struggle for ideas. I have a recipe card holder that I use to organize them, and various notebooks with 3 a.m. scribblings scattered about to disorganize them. You have to be able to feed your own creativity and have that thirst for knowledge. It’s the pace and drive problem that I need to work on. Hmm, maybe I do need assignments. For assignments contact: email@example.com
MPJ: What do you think is your strength as a photojournalist today?
JE:It’s sometimes both a strength and a weakness, being constantly fascinated by the world. You tend to get distracted sometimes and end up with too many balls in the air. But without that hunger, you would just be snapping pictures, not capturing images. Your heart and soul have to be in it, and I feel like I’ve at least had that my entire life.
MPJ: What goes through your mind when you’re out on an assignment? Really, describe what you’re generally thinking when you feel you’ve connected with your subject?
JE:There’s a rush of relief, of excitement, when you know you’ve got it. You may have shot hundreds of images, but it all hinges on that one. For me, it’s usually a direct gaze. Because I tend to try and catch people un-posed, unaware, it’s that moment of truth that I love. It’s alive, two human beings seeing each other for the first time. You’ll never re-create that.
MPJ: What advice would you pass on to young photographers just starting out?
JE:Stay true to yourself. People can sense a fake and you don’t want to be a flash in the pan. Don’t get bogged down in what other people are doing. Pay attention, but don’t let it weigh you down or distract you. Most of all, push yourself and be disciplined. It’s something I struggle with, discipline. Life does get in the way, health problems creep up, but when you start getting older, you either tend to give up or just get more determined. I haven’t given up yet.
MPJ: What creative or personal goal(s) have you set for yourself as a photojournalist/photographer?
JE:Short-term, to publish a book. It’s always been a goal of mine to get a book (or three) out there. Other than that, I just want to be able to pay my bills by doing what I love. I have no grandiose dreams of NYC galleries or big art sales. I wouldn’t turn it down, but that’s not the explicit goal. I really just want to share want I see with the world and know that, at least some, people get it, love it even.
MPJ: What is your favorite piece of equipment when working (e.g., camera model, iPod Touch, a certain lens, etc.)?
JE:Honestly, I’m in love with low-tech. I know it’s fairly hip these days to shoot lomography, but I adore my Holga, and my Diana to a somewhat lesser extent. When forced, I will get tech savvy, but by nature, I’m not that girl. I love the spontaneity, the surprise and suspense of, often, really not knowing what you’re going to get. I don’t like lugging a big camera around unless I need to. I like to remain inconspicuous.
MPJ: If you could create your own self-generated and funded project to cover for a year, what topic would you pursue and why?
JE:Only one? I can’t pick one. I would love to re-photograph China, maybe at the ten-year mark from when I was last there. I would love to do something on the disappearing coastline of the Gulf, on the upswing of manufacturing in the U.S., perhaps a re-envisioning of Robert Frank’s, “The Americans” as well. Something about colony collapse disorder, about soul-sucking office work, about Haiti, about Cuba, about melting glaciers, the list goes on…. There’s no shortage of topics these days.
MPJ: What do you want people to take away from your work as a photojournalist/photographer?
JE:Honesty. I hope I come across as truthful. It’s often an indescribable quality, but “truth” and “honesty”, as well as “authenticity” are as close as I can get. Again, you know it when you see it. I would love for people to feel something when they look at my work. Maybe they feel anger, or sadness, or joy. Whatever it is, I hope my work evokes some sort of emotional response, maybe even an awakening, but that’s up there with those grandiose NYC gallery dreams.
MPJ: If you could do things over again, what if anything, would you change?
JE:I would work harder and travel more early in life. There was a lot of searching going on in my 20′s, a lot of time spent working retail in Los Angeles. Maybe that’s good, maybe not. I’ve often felt that I’m a later-in-life kind of girl, again with the slow-mover thing. I honestly don’t have many regrets. Regrets get you nowhere
CONCLUSION: Jill it was a pleasure interviewing you today and getting insight into your mind as a photojournalist and artist. I think we all can take away something positive from what you’ve presented today and perhaps all be challenged in our thinking. Ultimately, that’s what we want; to grow and develop. Again, thanks for sharing your work with us. Good luck with your future endeavors.
For more information about Jill Ensley see the following link: http://www.jillensley.com/