Last year, photographers around the globe captured 1.2 trillion digital photos, according to estimates from market research firm KeyPoint Intelligence. It’s a statistic that suggests we’ve been exposed to more images in the past year than at any other point in history.
Now, imagine you have to take photos for a living. How do you create images that have a chance of being noticed? It’s a challenge, to say the least. And yet there are pro shooters who continue to distinguish themselves, creating provocative, compelling, powerful photographs that make us laugh, wince, weep, and feel our connection to humanity.
Two such pro photographers are Sarah Blesener and Jessica Pettway. In different ways, each produces exceptional photos that stand out in our image-saturated world. We talked to them about why they shoot what they shoot and the way they capture their vision of the world.
Looking for Contradiction
Sarah Blesener is a photojournalist and documentary photographer from New York City whose work has appeared in National Geographic magazine and The New York Times, among other publications. Her latest work revolves around youth movements and culture in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the United States.
PCMag: What important characteristics do you look for when you’re photographing people?
Sarah Blesener: The first thing I look for is there has to be some bit of contradiction. So I’m looking for individuals who can’t be defined or described in one way … I’m really drawn to photographing young people, adolescents, and teenagers. Almost all of my work revolves around that time period. Essentially, I like people who are in between states of being young and old, which is a complicated time of coming of age—of not being sure of who you are, of being somewhat fluid, and thinking you know everything, but still being very open to the world, which is the kind of contradiction that’s very, very beautiful for me to photograph. That time period, of 15 to 18, is fascinating.
(“Elizabeth Nelson, 17, in the parking lot of Home Depot waiting for her friends after watching their team lose their first football game of the season, 25 August 2017, Omaha, Nebraska. Nelson enlisted in the Army the summer before her senior year of high school, and will ship out to boot camp three days after she graduates. ‘I feel like Omaha is not really the place for me. So, I definitely want to move out West if anything. I do kind of want to get the hell out of here.'”)
What photographers, artists, or works of art inspire you in your work?
I read poetry and literature obsessively and am really inspired by words and writing. However, I do find inspiration from photographers, too, like Alec Soth and how he creates the environment surrounding his subjects. I like the nuance and delicacy that he delivers. I also find his photographs are very complicated. And I love the soft light he uses. I also like Anastasia Taylor-Lind. I love her portrait work and the way she photographs females and young people.
What draws you to working on long-term photography projects?
I’m drawn to long-form stories because I have lots of questions. In the past, I’ve been disappointed when I’ve done shorter projects. I end up with “flat answers”: The images don’t beckon as many interesting responses or questions, and they’re just not as complicated. What I’m looking for is that nuance between wanting to deliver a message and a story and also wanting to keep it open-ended. It’s why I think long-term work has a really beautiful way of opening up that kind of dialogue.
When I’m working thematically, I generally don’t focus on a one-person story. It’s normally about a theme or a topic I’m interested in, or some of these deeper questions that are not easily answered, or probably not able to be answered at all. I’m asking questions about nationalism or indoctrination or topics like this, which take a lot of time, not only photographing it but wrestling internally with these questions and trying to find my own answers.
Also, practically speaking, I find I like the images I take toward the last months or weeks of a project, even if it’s a three-year project. It just takes me a while to really dig into a spot where I can see beyond the most obvious images and find those delicate and not-so-obvious pictures.
Since your work is more about a series of photos, rather than a single image, how do you like to show your work?
I like to show my work to audiences who aren’t only photographers … like having a panel in a town and having a lot of time to have a dialogue or a Q&A session with a larger group … I think it really brings images to communities or the public where you can really talk about it together and digest it in different kinds of settings. For one of my current projects, “Beckon us From Home,” which is basically about politics through the eyes of young people, I’ve been showing it in high schools, which has been the most fantastic way to have a home for this work.
Do you enjoy speaking about your work in public settings?
I’m actually not an outgoing person by any means, and I get terrified of speaking in front of people and am uncomfortable doing it. But for me, I get so much fulfillment [from] having this conversation happen. I want to talk to people who are completely different politically … I want to have a real conversation about the content. I also want to hear different opinions, maybe hear, “I hate this, and here’s why.” Or “I think you’re wrong.” I want to hear every aspect of it.
It’s a challenge for me, but it brings me a lot more understanding. I feel I have the opportunity to have people critique my work, not from a technical point of view but from an emotional or ideologically point of view. I don’t want to hear people who just think like me. It’s so fascinating, and it’s really needed.
What advice would you offer a novice shooter who wants to photograph people?
The relationship with your subject is crucial, because even if you could create a fantastic portrait or photo, if the subject doesn’t feel fully immersed in his or her own headspace, it’s not going to be a good image. Oftentimes, you’ll either have a very comfortable and emotionally open subject or a fantastic composition. If you can get those two to blend, that’s obviously the sweet spot we’re all looking for. Another piece of advice is to keep things very simple. Look for lighting that creates a kind of tension and mood you find compelling in your subjects.
Is there a tech tip you have for those who want to create similar types of images to yours?
Keep things simple, and master whatever you have in front of you. I shot both the “Beckon us from Home” and “Russia” projects using one lens the entire time. I never changed it. I have more lenses I can use for commercial work, but for my personal work, I keep it really simple. I use a 35mm prime lens, and it’s my absolute favorite. I think it’s just such a good translation of what I see in front of me without any kind of distortion. It feels the most natural to me.
Making Everyday Items Fun
Jessica Pettway is an editorial and commercial still-life photographer from New York City, whose work has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, Time magazine, and New York Magazine, among others. Describing herself as “a visual artist and grilled-cheese enthusiast,” Pettway shoots humorous, cleverly composed still lifes that are provocative and visually stunning.
PCMag: What projects are you currently working on?
Jessica Pettway: I’m in between projects, so I’m just playing around and sourcing materials that I like or that I’ve been wanting to work with and seeing what can come from that. I’ve been eating a lot of junk food, too. [Laughs] So, that will probably come into play. But that also leads me back into thinking about childhood, junk food, and things like that. But I’m really just playing around with materials right now.
What draws you or attracts you to creating humorous still-life photos?
I think it goes back to what I’ve always been interested in: Different types of antics and humor I saw in cartoons growing up, like Looney Tunes or “Tom and Jerry.” These cartoons are basically set in a home, but there were so many random, unexpected, and crazy things that went down. So I’m thinking back to these memories and figuring out how to make everyday items fun.
(“This photo shows one of my favorite vegetables, spaghetti squash, pretending to be a pineapple, one of my favorite fruits. I love shooting my favorite foods and eating them after the shoot.”)
Where do ideas for your photos come from? How do you develop and turn them into photos? Do you improvise if the idea doesn’t seem to translate to a still life?
I’ll think of different materials and shapes that I want to work with, and then, while I’m shooting, I’ll give myself time to just play. Maybe I’ll just take a few photos and think on it and see how it looks. Often, I’ll keep moving things around. But I always have to see it, and then decide: If I like the setup, great. If I don’t like it, I’ll try to attack it in different ways. But it’s always easier for me to instinctively experiment in setting up my still lifes.
What is the biggest challenge when you’re working on a setup for a photo shoot?
Physics. [Laughs] Sometimes, I just have these ideas that are not physically possible. No matter how much rigging or planning, it’s just not feasible. But it’s fun to try it.
What is it about color that you find important in your images?
For me, color is really fun and relaxing. Bright colors also bring me back to my childhood. My work relaxes me and takes me to a different place, which is what I want other viewers to experience.
What kind of gear do you use?
For lighting, I like using strobes. For the type of lighting I tend to use, I like either soft light or harsh light that emulates a bright, sunny day. In the studio, I mostly shoot with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV or Canon EOS 5DS D-SLRs. For lenses in the studio, I like to switch between a 50mm and 85mm. Outside the studio, I’ll usually use a 50mm prime lens or maybe a 24-70mm, if I need some flexibility. I’ll also bring along a speedlight.
Do you do a lot of retouching on your images?
I don’t like to spend a lot of time in Photoshop or retouching. I would rather spend an extra 10 minutes to rig something up the right way, rather than spend more time in Photoshop.