Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Michael Rubenstein interview - Part A

© Michael Rubenstein

Please read Michael Rubenstein's biography and see additional images on his blog and Web site .

What do you do?
I'm a photojournalist that picked up and moved to Mumbai, India to cover South Asian issues. I don't really shoot spot news; but if there is a huge natural disaster or something quite important, I'd be on the next flight out. For the most part, I shoot editorial assignments for magazines, a lot of portraits and shoot documentary work as personal projects. We'll see how it turns out though; we've only been here for a month. A month today actually!
How did you decide to become a overseas photojournalist?
My fiancée and I had been promising ourselves since Bush got re-elected that we'd spend some time out of the country. About six months ago things just started to fall into place. I'd been looking for a new agency and decided I wanted to work with Redux Pictures. I met with the folks over there and - over the course of a few months - it was decided that they needed someone in India, and I wanted to go. That was that, and a few months later, here I am.
You were working on your master's degree at Ohio. Why did you decide now was the best time to make the leap into the pro world? Do you plan to finish the degree? If so, how/when?
I do plan to finish my degree. I learned quite a bit at Ohio, and I would like to go back and finish up. I'm hoping at some point they will let me take a couple of classes via Ichat; it certainly would make things easier. As for the leap to pro, when I was at OU in 2006, I got an offer to fill in for an ill photographer at The Oregonian. I was thinking it would be for a month or two, but they kept me around for six months, and then I worked nearly full time for them as a stringer for the first half of 2007. It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. The editors and staff at The Oregonian are incredible people and taught me just as much as I learned at OU while I was there. I made some life-long friends there, and I got to live at home with my fiancée - always a bonus.
Why did you choose Redux Pictures?
Redux is a great agency. They are small for the industry, and they spend a lot of time on each photographer. I'd always heard great things about Marcel Saba and Jasmine DeFoore, and - when we all met and talked over the specifics - it seemed like an obvious choice. Get a new agency you click with and go to India; who would pass that up?
What criteria do they use to select their correspondents?
You know, you'd have to ask Marcel and Jasmine about that. I'm guessing they look for people whose photography they like, and they think is marketable, and a person that will click with the atmosphere of the agency, but that's my guess.
I've read several horror stories about agency malfeasance. What are some pitfalls to avoid?
I know it's sad to say, but photography and photojournalism are a business. That's why newspapers shut down, and that's why some agencies take on a million photographers and take a year to pay you. I do what I do for everything else. I talk with people, I read up on them, I check them out, and then I go with my gut. Most of the time it works. If it doesn't, whatever doesn't kill you right?
Is your arrangement more like a stock agency or a photo representative?
Redux handles everything for me: my assignments, stock and commercial work. I wanted someone that could do everything in one place.
How does working for an agency differ from "just winging it" into a hot zone?
Winging it in a hot zone? I can't think of anything else that sounds as terrible as that. I haven't ever worked as a conflict photographer - not that I wouldn't, but I haven't just yet. Having the support of a team of people to get me assignments and sell images for me has been invaluable. I would never personally just hop on a plane to Baghdad or Kabul without having some kind support back at home. But then again, I've never worked in a "hot zone" and maybe that's why!
What are your thoughts on micro-stock? Citizen journalism?
I think it's great. Blogs and the Internet are changing the way information flows, and that is positive. I do, however, think people know professional photojournalists and journalists have a higher ethical standard to uphold, and - while they may read citizen journalism - they know to check it against professional accounts. As far as micro-stock.... a good picture is a good picture; why shouldn't we use it if its there?
How did you pick India?
Like I said earlier, it was more of a conversation with Redux than it was saying, "I want to go to India." I'd never been to India before; and after a lot of research and phone calls, we decided to take the risk and go. That's how it happened, and it's been great.
How did you prepare for the move, what specific advice do you have for others?
Moving to another country sucks - especially if you want to bring 20 cameras with you and computer equipment. Getting it overseas usually requires a relocation service (which we couldn't afford) or something of the sort. We just packed 11 bags and went. We should have gotten a Carnet, which would have allowed us to bring any equipment we wanted as long as we left India with it when we left to come back to the states. Unfortunately, we didn't know about it until the customs agents in Mumbai let us know we needed one. Let me tell you, that was a fun hour-long conversation at midnight after 27 hours of travel!
What obstacles have you needed to overcome and what advice do you have for others?
The language barrier has been fun and apartments are very expensive. We miss home sometimes and our friends, but - other than that - it's great. My advice is to be open, easy going and make local friends. After that, everything will fall into place. If it doesn't, that might be your sign to move on.
This seems like a very expensive undertaking. How much money should a PJ expect to have on hand before making a similar move? Where does this money come from? How long before you'll catch up on your finances?
A lot. A LOT A LOT A LOT. About a year's salary should do it. It's going to be about a year or so before things get back to normal; and where does the money come from? A money tree silly! It's in the back yard. All jokes aside, it comes out of my pocket; reps don't pay relocation costs.
What specific equipment did you need to take and what did you purchase on arrival?
You can't purchase gear in India. There are 100 percent tariffs on everything. Try paying $5k USD for a 5d. YUCK. We brought everything and narrowly escaped customs with my gear and our luggage. I have digital and film cameras and a laptop and hard drives and everything you'd have in the States. You just don't buy it here. It's cheaper to go to NY and buy it there, even with the flight.

Digital equipment:
2 - 5ds
1 - 35 1.4
1 - 24 1.4
1 - 50 1.2
1 - 85 1.8
1 - 135 2.0

Film Cameras:
1 - 4x5 field camera with 4 different lenses
2 - Leica M6 with a 35 and 50 mm lenses
2 - Mamiya RZ 6x7 cameras
1 - Rolleiflex TLR 3.5
1 - Mamiya 7II with 80mm 4.0 lens
1 - Mamiya 6 with 60 and 75 mm lenses
1 - Linhoff Master Technica 6x9 with film roll capability
1 - Mamiya 645 AFD with 80mm lens

Marantz with a Sure mic

Canon HD20 1080 camcorder

Mac Pro
What do you expect to shoot and which clients do you expect?
I shoot everything. I'll do a lot of documentary, travel and editorial work and maybe some commercial. Probably not any fashion. I don't really know that business. As far as clients, I'll work for, any magazine or newspaper I enjoy reading, and I think will respect my images.
How has the magazine industry reacted to your agency affiliation and relocation?
They seem to like it. I've been getting more work these days.
Do you self-generate work? If so, do you funnel all work through the agency?
Yes and Yes. All my work goes through Redux, and I am constantly searching out stories to photograph.
Does the agency get paid for all your work - no matter who acquires the assignments?
Yup. They sure do. They deal with billing and our agreement is that they take a chunk of all the work I do. In turn they promote me, handle my archive and deal with the money. I'm ok with that.
How important a role will convergence (photo, video, audio, text) play for you?
I am happy to shoot stills and video and audio. The writing, well, I'm not all that eloquent, but Apple's grammar check is helping with that.

I like multimedia. I like being able to give viewers/readers firsthand information. I like that my subjects can talk for themselves; although here in India, it is hard for Westerners to understand the accent. What I don't like is editing; for me, the best case scenario is working with a team where I gather the stills, video and audio; and then I work with a producer to make something that is great. I think it's rare to find one person who is so good at all of the different aspects of multimedia capture and production that they can pull off a fantastic story alone. I think that as we get more into extensive multimedia coverage with newspapers and magazines that the team effort will become more common. In fact, the first thing I'm going to train my assistant to do is video and audio capture and tagging.

In all seriousness though, I think multimedia is great, and it will have a place, along with stills, in magazines and newspapers. For me, it's interesting to start to think cinematically about the stories and projects I'm working on. I think every student that's in a photojournalism program should go take some introductory classes at a film school. I wish I had when I was in grad school. In fact, the Knight Fellows at Ohio University both took film classes while I was there. Perhaps the students should have taken their lead!
Do you expect to change the world with your images? If so, how?
I don't expect anything. I am happy to be here in this crazy, beautiful country and that's really all I can ask for. If someone is touched by my photographs, then that is wonderful, but I'm not here expecting to change anything.

Please read Part-B of this interview.

Enough for now,


John MacDonald said...

Excellent interview as always. Just another great reason to keep on coming back to your blog time after time.

Mark M. Hancock said...

Thanks John, but Michael deserves all the credit. He answered all the questions via e-mail.