Current Yale University sophomore, Susannah Benjamin, has attracted over 1.6 million web views and nearly 6,000 subscribers to her Flickr account. In addition to shooting the back cover of Beyoncé’s newest DVD, “Live at Roseland: Elements of 4,” Susannah was flown to Seattle to give a TEDx talk to over 1,000 live audience members. Being featured in the Huffington Post as well as being dubbed “International Young Photographer of the Year” by Digital Camera Magazine are only a few accolades among her many accomplishments. To follow Susannah on Flickr: www.flickr.com/ireland1324/
Below is an interview with this tour-de-force:
1) So. Photography… How did it all start?
Photography started for me when I was around 11 years old. My mom got me one of those Kodak point and shoots for Christmas; I had always loved writing and drawing, so she thought photography would be a perfect way to combine the two. What’s funny is that I really didn’t want the camera at all—I remember distinctly thinking that photography wasn’t an art form. How could it be, when you just clicked a button of whatever you saw in front of you? I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, though, especially because it was such a nice gift and she had put so much thought into it. So I took it on vacation and went around snapping photos, pretending to be thrilled so that my mom’s feelings wouldn’t be hurt. Lo and behold, I fell in love. I became addicted, and since then photography has consumed my entire life (in the best way possible!)
2) The next photo shoot on your agenda: what’s the theme?
I always have a million different ideas in my head that are all developing at different rates. I want my next shoot to be a surprise, especially because it’s a pretty extensive one—but a hint is that it’s about eyesight (or, more specifically, lack thereof). Concepts and narratives are always heavily thought out on my part, because I think it’s so important that a photo says something, and is not just pleasant to look at. I don’t believe in art for the sake of art or beauty for the sake of beauty—I think art should change people and should carry with it social impact. Aesthetics should captivate the viewer, but the narrative beneath should keep them looking and keep them thinking, even when they’ve turned away from the photo itself.
3) If you could photograph anyone, whether dead or alive, who would be your pick? Any reason in particular?
This is such a hard question, because I am obsessed with faces. Faces fascinate me to no end, and when I see a strange and beautiful face on the street, I just know instantly that I have to photograph them. I legitimately go up to people and tell them this straight off the bat. Then a take a picture of their face with my iPhone (straight on, then profile shot) so that I can study it further and think of photo concepts. The people I see every day become characters in my stories, which then translate into photoshoots. There are so many faces I will never get to explore properly with my camera, but if I could photograph anyone it would probably be my friend Saskia, aka: the muse. If you look through my photos, you will see a small blonde girl who transforms from one shot to the next, transforming from a housefly caught in a spider’s web, to a girl lost in a magic forest, to a disturbed psychologist’s patient, to fire dancing across logs. She is a total chameleon, and we just seem to have this special connection when taking photos, where she just understands exactly what I am thinking or what character I have in mind for her.
4) What’s your camera of preference?
I’m not really obsessive about camera lenses or models. I think people get really bogged down by that stuff, and have to remember that photography is much more about seeing creatively and thinking creatively, then it is about technical details. You can take great photos with a phone—it’s a copout to say that you don’t have an advanced enough camera to become a photographer. ISO, shutter speed, aperture, white balance, and all of these elements are definitely important, but should certainly not intimidate a budding photographer. Beyond a pretty hopeless kids summer course in photography, I am a self-taught photographer and learned all of these things through experimenting. The best way to learn is to dive head in and to focus more on the way you are taking photos (angle, emotion, narrative, setting) and less on the settings the camera is on, or the type of camera it is. However, it is certainly valuable to understand how shutterspeed and all that jazz works in the long run, because it enables you to have even more creative control! It’s basically just broadening your toolbox and letting you manipulate shadows, blur, grain, etc, to further build your narrative.
5) How does Yale and/or the surrounding New Haven environs inspire your work (if they do at all)?
My photos tend to isolate the models from any recognizable locations, largely because it is in uprooting them from their daily lives that I am able to transform them and make them stand for something larger. Day to day, my models are schoolgirls, but in my photos they are strange and powerful creatures. They become thorned roses, winged women, crying King Midases, and a huge host of other characters that have come from my head. When removed from the context of their own lives, they leave their real identities behind—a photo of Saskia is less a photo of Saskia, and more a photo of whatever creature she is being for that concept. She is not sitting for a portrait. As a result, I don’t feel think New Haven really influences my work (at least on a conscious level)! I think Yale is both a help and a hindrance to my work. First off, I’m not an art or photo major, so my work is done independently. I’m a double major in English and French Literature because I feel it’s the best way to improve my photography—photos (and all art) are about stories. It doesn’t matter whether it’s told through images or words, and by studying the greatest stories ever told, I can better understand what makes a good story, and furthermore how one can execute a good story. The classes I take are constantly sparking new ideas in my mind, whether it be bioethics or literary analysis of science fiction or neuroscience or even Major English Poets! At the same time, there is always so much work to do that I never have as much time as I’d like for photos! But I suppose that’s how life is.
6) What are your words of wisdom for someone venturing into photography?
- You’re right. You’ve gotten in on the secret—photography IS all it’s cracked up to be. It really IS as awesome and life-changing as it appears to be, so you should be over the moon that you’ve figured this out!
- Always try to say something when you take an image. Who needs another photo of a skinny girl in a cornfield? See photography for all of its potential—images can change the world, so take pictures that mean something, that tell a story or communicate a problem or asks a question.
- Get a Flickr. It’s like Facebook for photographers—you can comment, favorite, and follow other people, while maintaining a gallery of your own photos. I’ve had once since 8th grade and it’s like a diary to me, charting my growth as both a person and a photographer.
- Don’t get caught up imitating other popular photographers. Tim Walker and Ryan Mcginley and whoever else you may like…they already exist. There are so many people who can execute a good photo but have no originality, but why bother taking photos if you’re just copying someone else? What so often seems to happen is that photographers just look for inspiration from other photographers, and subsequently the same ideas get exhausted time and time again.
- The best way to stretch yourself as a photographer is to seek inspiration from other mediums. Find image ideas in books, current events, songs, science, anything! By looking for inspiration in mediums other than photography, you’re teaching yourself to formulate images on a much deeper level.