Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Matt Eich interview - Part B

© Matt Eich

Timmy Goins, 25, of Chauncey, Ohio is mentally handicapped and has cerebral palsy requiring around the clock care.

Please read Matt's bio, Part A of this interview and see his images.

Your internship with The Orange County Register seemed to have been an eye-opener. Please talk some about your internship and what was so different about California?
(laughs) Everything was different about California. Coming from Ohio, where the drivers are really, really bad - there's one interstate around here and everybody goes the speed limit - to being dropped in the middle of this strange, foreign place with a whole bunch of really weird people with lots and lots of money that drive 20 miles over the speed limit. It was a jarring experience.

Everybody is wired differently on the West Coast somehow. I'm an East Coaster, but I've been living here in the middle of nothing for the last couple of years. It was nothing I was used to.

It was an eye-opener in that I was working with a really talented staff of people. I was "The Intern." The Coffee Boy. I had to prove I could do an assignment. Once they realized I was capable of keeping up with the stuff they threw my way, they started chucking assignments at me and they were really good assignments. The editors really wanted to see me succeed.

It was a give-and-take thing. Whenever I did really well, they'd give me another good assignment. They were really nurturing and encouraging and tried to see some potential in all these hap-hazard frames I'd end up taking.

It was a good experience, not only photographically, but in terms of (laughs) exploring the United States and learning more about those weird people on the Left Coast.
After your National Geographic internship, are you looking for additional internships?
I've been applying to Fall internships and Summer internships as well - just to see what I can rustle up. I'll fill up whatever space around them Geographic happens to have free.
How are you pacing your college experience?
That's been an evolution. I rushed through high school. There was a girl I was dating that was about two years older than me. She was in college, and I wanted to be in college too. So I just scooted right out of here early and came into college with the same kind of mentality.

Then I was like, "What's the point?" (laughs)

A few weeks ago I started thinking about taking it as it comes and not trying to cram it all in. Life happens too fast anyhow without me rushing it. I'm just going to play it by ear.

That's where the music comes in handy I guess. I was never good at reading music.
You're going to be a junior this year. Typically, the CPOY is a senior and is already a struggling pro by the time the award is announced. Does staying No. 1 put any additional pressure on you for the next two years?
(laughs) It really does. The day after the awards were announced, I was trying to get through some B.S. class work, and I started thinking, "Man, I wish I hadn't won the contest or crap." It was just a couple of people's opinion. I don't think I deserved it. Now I've got to live up to this and what's more there's going to be that voice in the back of your head - whether you want it there or not - saying, "Come on, take it easy. You've accomplished X, so you don't need to do all your Z while you're in school." So there's a threat of a lack of drive.

That's going to be a question of staying focused and staying passionate. I've heard more people then I care to recall say, "So you won CPOY. When are you going to burn out now?"

A lot of people that have won it have completely fallen off the map. That's the last thing in the world I want to do.

[I must] keep stamina and keep driving and pushing and remember what I'm in it for, which isn't the contests. It's a really easy way to get derailed.

It's got its benefits, but it's got its down sides too.
Pressure to win again?
Yes, kind of. My friends have been hassling me about that already. I don't know if I'll even enter again next year. But at this point, it gives me something to shoot for. "Last year, you made this body of work. It was OK. It got recognized. So, how can you do better?"

It sets the standard and now I've got to up the ante a bit. Even if I don't enter, that's something to shoot for.
Are you leveraging your award to get freelance gigs? If so, how's it working?
Actually, I haven't been trying to do that at all. Most of the places I've applied for internships have heard by word of mouth. I printed my portfolio books before the award, so it's not even listed on the resume.

Freelance, I really haven't figured out how to milk it yet. I was thinking about going up to New York, but I know everyone is going to be stressing about the holidays. I'm just ready to go home and see my family.

I did get a freelance gig from the AARP Bulletin because of CPOY. That's what I was shooting today. I don't know. It was amusing. A little stressful, but it is some work. So, yes, there is some benefit from that.
What advice do you have for young photojournalists?
I've gotten a couple of e-mails from people asking, "What does it take?" That's something I'm constantly asking myself [and] asking professors.

For me, and everybody is different, it took a lot of drive and focus. I was eating, breathing, sleeping photography. I was always looking at someone's work if I wasn't looking at some seasoned professional's work, and checking out books in the library. I was looking at some recent project on Blueeyes magazine or looking at a classmate's work.

It's constant absorption of these different photographic materials. One of the first things they teach you here is, "The more you know, the more you see."

I've been thinking more about the emotional and psychological aspects of photography as opposed to the technical. I'm trying to figure out how I can smooth over all these technical things from exposure to composition so it all becomes automatic. So I can go straight into the meaning behind the photograph.
For younger students?
Study. Figure out what you're passionate about and focus on that. Not everybody is going to want to do documentary work. Some people want to be the next Bill Frakes, so they should look at a lot of Bill Frakes.

Constantly be shooting. The people who really care about photography here at OU, wherever they go, you see them toting their cameras around. They're always photographing their life outside of the projects they're doing.

That's something that's been really crucial for me too: photographing family members. One of my portfolio shots was of my mom and my sister this year.

I think [for] people who truly, deeply care about photography it's something that's going to transcend their daily life. It's not a day job. It's just something they do. That way, you love what you're doing because someone is going to pay you to go out and take pictures of someone else's life, but you're already taking pictures.
How did you start in photography?
I guess I was about 10 when my grandpa gave me a camera. It was a point-and-shoot. Just to document a road trip he and I were going to take. I remember one photo I took. We went to Cades Cove park in Tennessee. I took one really bad landscape photo I really liked at that point in time.

That sparked a little bit of something, enough for me to pick up Mom and Dad's camera. It was a Nikon N2000 with a 50mm lens. I guess I was probably 11.

Then, I worked all summer mowing lawns and odd jobs to save up for a camera. My dad really likes telling people about how I walked into the Ritz Camera store and dumped a whole bunch of nickels, quarters and dimes out on the counter and asked for an N-70, which at this store was the coolest thing they had.

(laughs) The looks I got from the people that worked there.

I was reading lots of photography magazines - just about anything I could get my hands on. It was mostly nature photography that mainly interested me. I took photos of my younger siblings a lot too.

I started shooting slide film because I really liked the colors. I think that helped me a lot with the technical aspect of getting the exposure right.

I did a workshop with John Shaw, who's a nature photographer that I really admired at that point in time. He looked at my stuff, patted me on the head and gave me some free film. That was encouraging and cool.

One of the things that really kicked it towards photojournalism was the Truth with a Camera Workshop when I was 12 to 13. It was the first year they started doing that. Mom heard about it and she took me there on opening day.

I got to see what work was being projected. Jim Blair, a National Geographic shooter, was talking about his work. He was kind enough to look at my stuff and was encouraging despite the 12-year-old's content.

I later found out one of my favorite photographers, Rich Facun, who's with The Pilot now, that's where he found photojournalism too was that same day, that same workshop. He was college student at the time and decided to completely shift gears. It's just one of those cool, shared events.

I enrolled in the Truth with a Camera Workshop right after high school before I came to OU. (laughs) They taught me I didn't know anything about what I was majoring in.
How did you choose Ohio University?
I heard of its reputation. When I was researching schools, OU, [University of] Missouri and Western [Kentucky University] were the top three [universities] everybody talked about. I was thinking about the Corcoran College of Art and Design because it was in D.C. and closer to home. They seemed really inviting when I was there.

When I came to OU, something just clicked and I didn't even visit Missouri or Western when I found out about OU. I just grabbed hold of the opportunity.

I don't know why they let me in because my stuff was pure crap. (laughs)

I think it's a person-by-person basis. If they see something or some potential in you, they take risks. I'm glad they took that one.
What's missing in your education?
From my peers I hear it seems like the newspaper world is shrinking. I wish they were teaching us how to freelance so we could actually make it when we get out of school if we don't have a newspaper job.

There are a lot of people that have been thrown into the freelance world that seem to not know what they're doing. They have to feel it out. That can be difficult, especially if you've got to support a wife or kids while you're going about that.
Is it important to freelance while in college?
It's been extremely helpful for me. Before I could get an internship, before I was interested in an internship, I was freelancing at The Pilot. They were giving me sometime three or four assignments a day.

That taught me how to turn stuff around on deadline, how to shoot something publishable, tone, caption and they were very forgiving when I made little college kid errors. They didn't ever give me anything big when I was first starting off with them because of that. But, it was a really good foundation.

This past summer, I wandered around and freelanced for The Fader magazine and that taught me how to be resourceful if you end up in some place, you don't know where you're at, you don't know how to get in touch with anybody, the shoot's not going well, and you've got to figure out some way of making a publishable image your editor is going to be happy with.

It's also a way of sustaining yourself. It's not like most of us are making much money one way or the other, so freelance offers that opportunity. You're building connections and working with other people. There's lots of built-in benefits of freelancing while you're still in school.
How will other students who don't freelance do upon graduation?
It really depends on the person. They could go out and get a great newspaper job. A lot of them, that's what they aspire to. Some people want to walk out the door and be ready to freelance. That's not necessarily being taught depending on the curriculum.

Across the board, everybody would benefit by having some foundational years of technical things being taught. I keep hearing students say they wished teachers would teach more about the emotional and psychological side of photography and how you can take it to that next level.

That's where I feel a lot of professors here at OU are excelling because they do push that. They want you to think beyond the very bare bones of it and into some of the other realms.
Is it good or bad to take internships?
It depends on the person and the internship at the time. I was offered an internship at The Pilot [at] the beginning of my sophomore year. I turned it down because I would have missed a core class, which was really important. I'm really glad I turned it down because I learned a ton that year.

Now - in theory - (laughs) I could go back and maybe be an intern there later and do a better job for them now that I've learned what I did in school. Sometimes internship opportunities come up and publications have needs to fill positions with warm bodies.

Students are warm bodies, and they're cheap labor. The students need to realize that. So, it's not something they should always jump on if they're offered an internship. They need to figure out how it plays into their life and their classes on a case by case basis.
How important is competition in the industry?
That's something I have limited experience with. I'm still in school, and it seems like it's pretty competitive out there. I think one of the good things about college is you can build a network of camaraderie and trust among the student body. Hopefully, not only at your school, but at other schools as well.

I just met some students from Western Kentucky. They were really cool guys. We're going to start sending our work back and forth and keeping in touch and inspiring one another because everybody's learning different things. We're all in it for the same reason. So, we may as well push one another as best we can.

Competition in the industry seems really prevalent, especially in the freelance world when it comes to saying, "This is what I can offer you. I can do your assignment. I can do it in a way nobody else can."

There's got to be something that makes you unique and to market to [get] any business. That's at least my perception of it at this point.
Are you successful in the profession?
(laughs) Not by any stretch really. I certainly can't make enough to support myself if I were trying to.

There's always going to be on days and off days. I just did an assignment that I thought was going dreadfully wrong. I had to go scramble and find somebody new and crank it out. It ended up working out.
What have you discovered about the profession that you did not expect?
I really didn't expect much. It's been a road chocked full of surprises and realizations not only about photography, but myself and art and the world I live in. That's what I love about it is it's constantly got me on my toes.

Just this past week I attended the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar. I saw a piece by Kristen Ashburn with Contact Press that she had done with Media Storm called "Bloodline." It blew my mind.

That was something about music. Every now and then you hear a song that will send chills up and down your spine, and it's the same way with photography. I can see a piece sometimes that really grabs my heartstrings and makes me say, "That's why I'm in this. That's what I'm doing this for."

The thing I realized is photography is communication. It's just like you and I speaking, but it says something totally different.

Everybody wants to be heard. Everybody wants to be able to say something unique. She said something really powerful and really unique with those photos that were so technically flawless that even the most anal retentive photographer couldn't get hung up on any technical aspects of her images. It just became a pure flow of communication.

Because she combined audio and video with the still images, it was these people speaking to me. They're speaking to the viewer.

That made it incredibly moving because a lot of photographers take pictures and you see more of them in the photographs than you do of the subjects. That's something I fear in my photographs and something I'd like to grow out of. I think that's kind of a sophomoric thing.

Her stuff really transcended that. It took it to a different level for me. That's one of the many things I've had running through my head about photography recently.
How important is it to be technically proficient?
It's something that needs to be foundational. Once you get it down, don't worry about it so much and let it flow. Let it happen. Take risks. Make mistakes. Paolo Pellegrin is one of my favorite photographers. There's a lot of photos of his or [Antonin] Kratochvil. A lot of photo professors would look at it and say, "This kid gets and F. It's not in focus. It's blurry."

But, there's a feeling in that photograph that anybody can access. It's easily understandable. It goes beyond the technical aspects of the image.

I think [students] need to get the technical foundation down first before you can justify it to any publication or a professor. You have to understand what makes a good photograph before you can break those rules.
What are your thoughts on flash or studio lighting?
I think they've all got their place. I'd like to be better at studio lighting. There's a lot of people that are really, really proficient at it and can make some very moving photographs that way.

Generally, I find flash to be obtrusive. There's certain subjects that when they know they're being photographed are OK with it. Your presence is accepted. Then, you can go in and do what you need to do. Other times, it's something I want to avoid because I don't want to draw anymore attention to the fact I'm there and taking pictures.

I try to go incognito whenever possible - dress down, don't carry tons of cameras. I don't wear a photo vest.
Occasionally, but generally it's a really small bag that can just carry a couple of lenses.
Anything to add?
I think Casey said it last year, but if anybody's got any questions, I'd be really happy to ramble at them. (laughs)

Matt welcomes feedback through e-mails and calls from anyone who would like to contact him.

Enough for now,

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