Katie Jett Walls has been shooting weddings, family portraits, events and the like for some 13 years. While growing her business has been satisfying, she also realized there was another aspect to her photographic passion that was difficult to ignore. Walls, who lives in Washington, D.C., found herself turning more and more to documentary storytelling — projects that allow her to shine a light on marginalized communities and, as she puts it, “witness the human experience.”
In the past year, she has traveled to Puerto Rico to document communities hardest hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria; has exhibited her family documentary work in a three-person show at Glen Echo Photoworks, and is currently working on a long-term project following an HIV+ veteran in Queens, NY.
Yet, what she was finding was that while she could fulfill her desire to tell stories that matter, finding an outlet for these types of projects is difficult when you don’t have a photojournalism background (and the network that comes with it). What she also found was that there were a lot of other emerging documentary photographers who had the same frustration.
That’s one of the things that inspired Walls to create her own online magazine — Confluence, which launched its first issue last week. The first issue features a project that followed an American couple to China for the adoption of their daughter and another that looks at the lives of two midwives who work with women of color. For Walls, it’s about giving a voice, not only to the people featured in the images on Confluence, but to the storytellers, themselves.
Confluence (n.) The joining together of two rivers, where one flows into another forming a larger mainstream. Confluence Magazine is the place where our smaller stream of documentary work meets and mixes with the river of stories being made and shared with the world.
Joe Newman: Tell us how the idea for Confluence came about. Why did you see a need for this type of online magazine?
Katie Jett Walls: Initially the idea was selfish. (And I don’t knock selfishness – sometimes as artists we need a healthy dose of selfishness to actually make our work, you know?) I’m in a year-long mentoring class and our major project is shooting a long-term personal project. Some students are working on
something family-related or personal, but a number of us are taking on something outside of our immediate sphere, something with potential journalistic merit – and I began to wonder for myself and others, what outlet this work might have. Telling stories is such an essential element of our humanity – but telling stories in an empty room looks a lot like madness. It feels discouraging, defeating, to put your all into creating a story when you’re fairly sure there’s no outlet for it. But if there IS a place to tell/show the story, it’s empowering. It raises the stakes in all the best ways when you feel like someone is going to see the work you’re making and hear this story that you care about. There’s another side to it too – when we as photographers take on a project about another person or people, there’s a sense between photographer and subject that the work will go somewhere, accomplish something. I noticed this when I photographed in Puerto Rico last winter – I felt the weight of the hopes of those who let me talk with them and photograph them, that these photos would persuade people to help. And what I learned, after doing the work in Puerto Rico, was that it’s very difficult when you’re not already IN the documentary photography world, to find an outlet for your work. Looking back, I think I should have realized that at the time. It was the right lesson for me. It made me hungry, you know, it gave me a problem to solve.
So Confluence was initially an idea to solve this problem of how we get our work out into the world. Instagram is great but it’s a lot like screaming into the wind – you might get seen but the chances are just really slim. I felt that aggregating the best work from this set of photographers, who have the ambition to get noticed and the work to merit notice, was a way to make it easier for photo editors and gatekeepers to find us. As for the need for this type of online magazine – well, I know there are a lot of photography magazines online and in print. Why another one? Because to my knowledge, there isn’t one yet with the purpose of seeking out publishing gatekeepers, there isn’t one yet for the green but ambitious photographer who can’t go to ICP or one of the leading workshops or courses where networks are forged. There isn’t one yet that’s the right kind of stepping stone for photographers who are well beyond their twenties and nurturing families and small businesses while also building their documentary/photojournalism portfolio. That’s the niche I hope Confluence can fill.
Newman: What kind of stories are you looking for going forward? What advice do you have for people who might want to submit a project for consideration?
Walls: I’m looking for work by photographers who’ve had little or no exposure for their personal projects yet – or have run into challenges along that path. I’m looking for long-term projects that have been shot with patience and attentiveness, and developed with a photojournalistic sensibility. I’m looking for work that touches on important social and cultural issues, and helps us better understand and appreciate the complexities of our world, while grasping the significance of an individual person or group within those complex layers. The work might be raw or in need of direction, but we all start somewhere and if I can see dedication and ambition in a project, I’m going to want to feature it.
My advice is, if you’re already working on a project, think deeply about the story you’re trying to tell. If it’s a micro-story, think about how it how connects to the big picture, and if it’s a big picture story, think about how to find the micro-stories within it. Make sure you’re capturing the photojournalistic “must have” shots: wide establishing images, portraits, details, close ups, and ephemera that give emotional tone to your story. Make sure you’ve got tension, and release.
And if you’re not working on a project but there’s an idea in your head you haven’t acted on: get on it. Ideas are gifts and you shouldn’t leave them to drift away. Take one step right away to get working on the project. Reach out to another photographer who can help you brainstorm your first few steps. Shoot. Let the idea lead you where it needs to go and just make some damn work. The world needs your vision and you have to get off your butt and act on it. I’d also say, find a mentor who can help you really craft that project.
Newman: Who are the photographers past or present that you consider a model for the type of documentary photography that you hope to inspire through Confluence? What do they do really well and what about their work do you find most compelling?
Walls: Two photographers who inspire me also terrify me. Dorothea Lange: she was a successful portrait photographer in San Francisco with a family and a business, bucking the norms with her business for sure, but then she took off to shoot documentary work. As we all know, it remains some of the most compelling American documentary photography ever made – from migrant workers, to Japanese internment camps to the American South. And, her family fell apart. Dedication takes a toll. Diane Arbus: also had a good job assisting her husband in his portrait business. But she felt the drive to make her own work in the streets and strange pockets of New York City, and has the same caliber of iconic images that Lange does. And her marriage ended and later she took her own life. It seems likely that Arbus had depression or other mental health needs, and maybe Lange did as well… but I hate the idea that dedication to craft can be so deadly to the relationships and stability of domestic life. I hope that our age is kinder to women photographers, but I don’t really think it is at all (reference recent allegations of sexual harassment in some of the most prestigious photojournalism organizations.)
Sorry for the dark turn, but it ties into what I want for Confluence: I want to be a part of an effort to make new pathways into producing documentary work, pathways that take into account what’s required to be a healthy human being and still produce good and vital work.
A little more positive answer:
Dorothea Lange and Diane Arbus both made successful pivots from one type of photography to a more demanding, personally satisfying, and culturally important body of work. They both pushed social and personal boundaries to be able to make their work and were not ashamed to advocate for their work to be taken seriously, and both really created important images. And they were both willing to challenge social perceptions about their subjects by ensuring, thorough those photos, that their subjects were seen in a way people can’t always see with their own eyes. A photographer should be a faithful intermediary between a subject and the viewer of the photograph.
Tish Murtha is another excellent model, and thank god for her daughter Ella who has made the effort to get her mother’s work the acclaim it deserves. Murtha knew exactly what she wanted to photograph and went about her work patiently and authentically. She sought the training that would develop her skills, and she documented people on the margins of society but within her own sphere, so she understood and fit in among those she was documenting. It’s evident in her work that she had the trust of the community and she understood them with empathy and respect, yet also without hiding the realities of their situation. I think it’s important to make work “close to home” – in the same way that writers are told “write what you know”, photographers should “shoot what you know” – which means also that publications need to value work created by photographers within a community over sending in someone from outside of it to tell the story.
Newman: What advice do you have for aspiring documentary photographers entering the field without a background in photojournalism or storytelling? What are the biggest challenges they will face? What can they do to develop the skills and mindset they need to do it right?
Walls: I’m a terrible person to give any advice on this. I don’t know shit. But I can tell you what I’m doing, if that’s any help. I’m investing in opportunities to learn and trying to be very judicious about which opportunities will take me the farthest – is it a workshop, a mentorship, or a portfolio review? I want to be sure I can pinpoint exactly which void in my understanding I believe an opportunity will fill – I can’t afford to scattershot, taking every low level opportunity that passes my way. I want to be targeted and strategic. Because I can’t take a year or two “off” and move to New York and enroll in ICP, I have to craft a “course” for myself that pushes me and gets me in front of the right people. And while I’m investing in learning, I’m making work. In addition to my business (family photography in Washington DC) I’m shooting one major personal project, and have a second about ready to start shooting. As I learn from the courses and mentorships, I apply what I’m learning directly to the project(s) I am shooting, then seek out feedback on that work. Learn -> Practice -> Get feedback -> Repeat.
Take yourself seriously. If you want to create a meaningful project treat it as if you’re turning it in to James Estrin in six months. Take it seriously and work with integrity. Learn about photojournalistic ethics and shoot accordingly. Learn how to get vital information to properly caption your work. And nurture the idea that there’s work only you can make, people in need of your witness. Believe it in your bones and then get to work.
The biggest challenge you’re going to have is that no one knows you and you don’t have the network to show your work to the gatekeepers. That’s where I hope Confluence will help.
Joe Newman, a writer and photographer in Washington, D.C., is the founder and executive director of Focus on the Story.