31 minutes with Alec Soth

& Mo Mfinanga

  • Published February 6, 2017
  • Portrait by Mo Mfinanga

For Alec Soth, an American photographer and member of Magnum Photos, a photograph doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story, but it can, and usually does, suggest one. And you can see how his works supports that notion. From photographs that weave through the uncharted faces and places of America, to self-initiated publications that exploit the strength of tangible, photographic narratives, Alec has a restless and endearing effort towards using a photograph to connect with people. This has awarded him the ability to have work held in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and a number of worldwide private and public collections. In this interview, my friend Nick Hagen and I talk to Soth about challenges, obsessions, and the fleeting waves of cultural revolutions.



Alec: So, we had this conversation in our RV about our least favorite states in order.

Mo: From where you've visited during the trip or just generally?

Alec: Just in general. So while Veronica was asking people, she said that everyone had Indiana as their least favorite state. [all laughing] Which I was surprised by.

Mo: Why?

Alec: I honestly don't know why. You'd have to ask her. 

Nick: There's not much to do in Indiana.

Alec: That was my feeling as well. And I think it would be interesting if you asked different people from different places. If you go to the deep south, they'd probably say New York, you know what I mean? And certain areas would say Mississippi, but I love Mississippi. I wouldn't say it's my favorite state, but there's not many states that I'd say I actually hate.

Nick: I can't think of a least favorite state. They're all fine.

Alec: Yeah, I struggle with it. But actually, Sean here said Michigan as his favorite state. And I was like, "What?" [all laughing]

Veronica: Everyone was so mean. They were like, "How?" [all laughing]

Alec: And then I said that my least favorite state is Connecticut, because it has this crazy wealth and poverty, and tension in between. And Michigan is ripe with that. I mean, really ripe with that.

Nick: It's true. It really is.

Alec: That was my feeling traveling around. The Bloomfield Hills and Detroit separation is insanity. And the bus that doesn't go all the way into Detroit? It’s kind of a bummer.

Nick: You know Grosse Pointe?

Alec: Yeah.

Nick: So Grosse Pointe put a farmers market in the way of one of the roads that leaves on the way to Detroit. It's just a shed. It's not some racist gesture. It's just a shed! [Alec laughing] And everyone's like, "I think that's not okay, actually." They just did it without telling anyone.

Alec: That said, I think that Detroit is amazing. There's so much variety and the Upper Peninsula is interesting. So I think it's cool, but it’s full of all sort of tension and economic anxiety. I couldn't say its my favorite.

Mo: I've never been to it, but after hearing all the things I've heard and dealing with people from there, Florida is pretty low on my totem pole.

Alec: Oh yeah! What am I talking about? Florida! Thing is, I do like Miami, and the Panhandle area is really interesting, and very much the south.

Mo: I was watching Anthony Bourdain's CNN show and I think he was in Orlando, and I couldn't stop thinking to myself this place looks so depressing.

Nick: It's strip mall hell.

Alec: Orlando is the worst. I photographed these motels there that these near homeless families live in and school busses just drive there and pick them up. It's just hell on earth. It's so sad, too, what they've been through.

Mo: Ever been to Art Basel?

Alec: I have once. Yeah, that's also disgusting. [all laughing]

Nick: You do like Miami?

Alec: I do! The Cuban culture and Miami beach, though cheesy, is kind of entertaining. I don't hate it. But yeah, my thing with Michigan is that I like it. Detroit is its own interesting thing.

Mo: I feel like Detroit is still young.

Nick: What do you mean?

Mo: There's still so much potential there. I feel like places such as Los Angeles already live up to their potential.

Nick: Yeah, Detroit was there, at a time.

Mo: But maybe this is me being young and naive, but I feel like there's so much ahead of it. It can start back at Chapter 1, in a way.

Nick: It basically is there.

Alec: What’s interesting is that I decided not to go to Detroit on this trip. And it was a tough call. I don't totally understand why, but part of it was that it seemed too obvious, and New York is obvious in its own way, too, but we were already doing that. I liked doing Milwaukee more than Chicago. And somehow Pittsburgh instead of... you know, it's just a little off of the expected thing. I mean, these guys probably would've loved it, but we're already going to Brooklyn. I was very wary of working in Detroit because of the obvious tropes.

Nick: It’s tough enough to not fall into them.

Alec: Exactly! Going through Cleveland... Cleveland is its own fascinating version of that fall from grace.

Nick: Pittsburgh, too.

Alec: And we're going to Syracuse, which is a very messed up city.

Nick: It's like a rust belt tour.

Alec: A rust belt tour without the hipsters. [all laughing]

West Point, New York, 2008

West Point, New York, 2008


Alec: Sorry we're not doing much here [motioning to the room full of students hanging around].

Mo: It's fine. It gives us some space to see what’s going on without being disruptive. You don't find a lot of photographers doing a lot things that bring people into where they are [universe wise]. I think what you're doing is interesting and arguably rare. Rare in photography, at least.

Alec: I had this amazing out-of-the-blue class from Maryland who contacted me, and the students said that their teacher was really into my work and teaching it. And they wanted to know if I could give a gift to him, and then we had this great exchange. So I thought about all those teachers out there. It would be cool if we could make something to give for free to the teachers.

Nick: Like an instruction book?

Alec: Not exactly. I mean, for example, this [trip] is not sustainable in any sort of way. It's crazy expensive. To do this in any kind of scale would be impossible. A lot of people think that what we're doing, and I didn't make it clear on the website, is a group of artists that's going to a town, and working with teenagers there. Which would be really great, except that I'm not that kind of a teacher, and wouldn't make any kind of progress. That wouldn't be enough time.

Alec: What's great with this is that we've worked multiple times together so we're like a sports team. We're developing a language together. So, they're not all stressed out about the fact that they have a pop-up show in New York. They know they can do it because they've done it before.

Mo: That familiarity is important. I was listening to Kid Cudi say in an interview something along the lines of, relationships between artists in person are preserved better than the ones via email.

Alec: Yeah, exactly. So, this isn't scalable, but that teacher was really inspired by what we were doing. So he had something to get students excited about going out in the world, because, quite often, you're stuck in classrooms. Like, we went into the studio of this painter in this amazing building, and its just a crazy universe you go into. And you're like, "Wow. Here's another way you can live your life." Talking to this guy who lives in Milwaukee but commutes between LA and New York as a freelance art director—that's a life that's cool. So to see the different ways you can put it together...

Mo: For a lot of people starting out, like me, they realize that there's not one set way to do this. You can go through all the stories of amazing creatives and notice that hey, I can do this without that. You start having less pressure on your career when you have that in mind.

Alec: Absolutely. I think it's really hard when you're young because you think there's a path, and [inaudible], an art director, was talking about the art world, sort of more my world, but you go to Yale, you get your MFA, you get paired up with a small gallery, you go to a medium-sized gallery, and then you go to et cetera. And there are people who do that path, but the majority of people are in some weird combination of things.

You just don’t judge a person as a photographer on Snapchat. No one is going, ‘Ooh, that composition could’ve been a little bit more put together.’
— Alec Soth
Photo from   Broken Manual  , published in 2013, where Alec worked with writer Lester B. Morrison to create an instructional manual for those looking to escape their lives.

Photo from Broken Manual, published in 2013, where Alec worked with writer Lester B. Morrison to create an instructional manual for those looking to escape their lives.

TIME Magazine

Mo: Something funny I've recently noticed are the publications on Snapchat that somewhat fail miserably with it, because there's no personality from them on it. They're used to approaching journalism with facts only. But you can't just throw out the facts only on Snapchat. That's boring! You'll see Vogue going to Spain for a fashion show, which sounds cool, but they make it so boring! [Alec laughing]

Alec: It's a fascinating problem for those people. Sometimes I don't get it because some of them have these huge followings. But it can be so lame because there's no voice to the thing.

Mo: You have all this ammunition, but you're shooting at the sky.

Alec: I don't know if you saw this TIME Magazine Snapchat takeover I did.

Nick: When was that?

Alec: Saturday [three days ago]. [all laughing] I actually thought you were referencing this. So, the art director there is really into Snapchat, so they set up an account but were scared to launch it, because they couldn't figure out how to do it. And then all of a sudden, with the events in St. Paul, they knew that I was interested in it so they asked if I would do it for a day. And it was cool because they gave me free rein over their Snapchat, so I didn't have the expectations of journalism.

Alec: I thought there were only going to be three people watching, but they tweeted about it, and they have millions of followers, so there was a decent number of people tuning in, and it was fascinating because the people were direct-messaging me. A lot of them were confused about was I was doing because it wasn't journalism at all. It was actually a really great experiment and I got super-good feedback.

Nick: What did you shoot?

Alec: I don't do spot news, and I resist from that. I was in Paris when the attacks happened there and I feel stupid if I do it, because what am I going to bring? But with this Snapchat project, I knew that it’s going to disappear so I don't have to live with the consequences. So I did these videos from a tripod for my phone. [all laughing] When I got it, we got a little dark cloth for it as a little joke. [all laughing] So, I did these video portraits where I got really close to people, and I did these other little videos of the site of the shooting, protests, but mostly of these faces.

Alec: It was a hell of a challenge to get a cops face, because cops are under instruction not to be photographed or interviewed. And there was a triathlon going on so I thought I'd go there and try since they're not feeling under siege or whatever, but still, I had trouble. It was actually at the Black Lives Matter protest that a cop agreed to do it, which was amazing. My idea there was to not treat them as cops but as individuals and look at them while having them look at me. So people were commenting saying, "What are you saying?", "What is your point?" [all laughing] Which was great.

Nick: Have you seen Baracka? They just look at the camera and slowly pan away.

Alec: Yeah! It’s kind of like that, in Snapchat form. But also there were atmospheric things to keep it quiet so there wasn't the cliche of shouting at a protest.

Mo: I'm curious about your first impression of Snapchat, and what's your general impression of it now.

Alec: I first thought that the interface was horrible. But now? It’s intentionally bad.

Nick: It’s to keep the older people away from it.

Alec: It almost is, but they keep updating it. Like, this new Moments feature they did.

Mo: It’s confusing because Snapchat, to me, was elusive due to the idea of having a moment disappear after 24 hours, but now we can post something from seven months ago and share it? I already do that with Instagram.

Alec: It's really a pain in the ass because I did the whole TIME thing and I wanted to save it, but it saves them up there [on Snapchat]. But anyways, it makes you feel like you're 70 using it. I simply got on it because my daughter was on it. Of course I first thought it was super-stupid and then I found it weirdly compelling. My big thing is, there's a form of photography that's turning into pure conversation, and what’s really interesting about the non 24-hour-story side is what my daughter really uses it for: one-on-one conversations. She's 13 and they're really into their numbers and streaks, but it’s just talking. It’s like texting with pictures but faster.

Alec: I love that you can build something over time and it was really interesting working for TIME because I had to edit. So, after I photographed a cop, I knew the next thing I'd photograph would be really loaded.

Mo: It's a narrative. Let’s say you take an image at 4 o'clock and another one at 6, and someone views that Snapchat tomorrow at 5 o'clock, they're not going to see that 4 o'clock post.

Alec: Yeah, it's crazy; it's like solving a puzzle. And I find that weirdly interesting and engaging, for now. It might last out there, but my interest will wane. I mean, my interest is waned on Instagram because it turned more into a marketing machine. Something about it is getting less cool. This Pokémon thing is...

Nick: Have you tried it yet?

Alec: No, I'm not interested as usual. [Nick laughing] The speed at which this happened! [widens eyes]

Nick: Yeah, it blew up and then the think pieces started coming out within two days. My favorite was a guy talking about how playing Pokémon Go as a black man is dangerous and he had this whole thing about it. I never thought that would be a thing that came out of that. It hasn't even been a week.

Alec: We've been literally on the road for the entirety of this Pokémon phenomenon, but the mash of those two things at the same time is mind-blowing. Talk about a think piece waiting to be written.

Nick: I'm sure it’s in the works.

Mo: It begs the question if there has been anything that has grown as fast as Pokémon Go in the span of a week.

Alec: I mean, what’s scary to me—and this makes me sound old—are these waves of cultural revolution happening one day and three days later a technology revolution, and it's so fast. You can't keep up.

Karl Lagerfeld at the Grand Palasis for   Fashion Magazine Volume 3  , 2007

Karl Lagerfeld at the Grand Palasis for Fashion Magazine Volume 3, 2007

A server at the Grand Palasis for   Fashion Magazine Volume 3  , 2007

A server at the Grand Palasis for Fashion Magazine Volume 3, 2007

Social Media

Mo: As much as digital allows for accessibility, it also stabs it in the back. If you're not part of that, you're missing out and not being paid attention to. Imagine the photographers who don't use the internet. They're missing a dialogue that they could catch on.

Alec: I try not to judge on both sides. I try never to talk about people photographing their food or whatever, because I think that's fine. You're just sharing your stuff with your friends. I try not to be judgmental about artists that don't want to engage with that kind of conversation. It's fine; you just find your own path through it.

Mo: As a photographer on Snapchat, you can share what’s going on behind the scenes, however, it's a double-edged sword because if you have five people Snapchatting the entire shoot, then where's the spontaneity? It's good to share behind-the-scenes, because you get to share what’s going on but at times it can pull the curtain out further than it should.

Alec: In terms about my openness to social media, it's a little deceiving because I avoided Facebook originally because I couldn't say, "Would you be my friend?" It was really awkward and it looked like Walmart to me. And it was probably a mistake because there's so many things that people use it for that are good or helpful, and I really missed that boat. And then Instagram came along, and I liked Tumblr, too, because you could do anything with it, but it never had a lot of traction in my universe.

Alec: But anyway, Instagram comes along and people at The New York Times were obsessed with it, and they asked me to do something with it, kind of like what TIME Magazine did, and I said no because I was so against it, actually. And it was at the time when it was all about the filters, too.

Nick: Bad era. [all laughing]

Alec: The filter era of Instagram! I knew that I would be judged as a photographer on it so I felt this pressure and so when I started it, I played with the medium itself. I did things to play with likes and get them. So yeah, I took this sideways approach to it, but I got on it eventually because of Little Brown Mushroom and I realized that I enjoyed it not for the marketing reasons but for other reasons. [However,] I'm always self conscious with it, because I know that people see me as a photographer and that's weird. [Funnily enough] I like Stephen Shore, but his Instagram is boring.

Nick: But that's his thing!

Alec: It is his thing! But it's weird because he's famous, so lots of people are like, "That's amazing!" [all laughing] But it's not amazing! But there's this whole thing that's happening because he's a famous photographer. Some of that stuff troubles me. So Snapchat, I like, because it doesn't last and it’s fleeting. You just don't judge a person as a photographer on Snapchat. No one is going, "Ooh, that composition could've been a little bit more put together." It’s really freeing.

Alec: Do I wildly enjoy other people's Snapchats? Not really. They're so forgettable. It’s like, not this conversation, but a dumb conversation that you're having at a coffee shop. There's no reason to record it. You don't judge it. And I like Snapchat because why would you judge something that's so fleeting? Who cares? You're complaining that they're talking amongst themselves. It's fine.

Mo: Yeah, and Snapchat has that new car smell. [Alec laughing] A lot of people are still getting on it, and others have been on it, but honestly need to get out. [all laughing] I feel like Instagram is a club where if you didn't get into it first, then it’s way harder to get into now because everyone is already in there and there's very little room [to be discovered].

Woodville Farm Labor Camp. San Joaquin Valley, California,   Songbook  , 2014. Alec travelled around America to highlight America's "individualism and the desire to be united." Read more at  Magnum Photos .

Woodville Farm Labor Camp. San Joaquin Valley, California, Songbook, 2014. Alec travelled around America to highlight America's "individualism and the desire to be united." Read more at Magnum Photos.


Mo: Everything, including Snapchat, has its own language, though.

Alec: It does. And in terms of these evolutions of these things, we know there will be another thing that will be “the new thing”. You can feel that one of these things will die off. And will I be able to keep up with them? Not necessarily. I will or I won't—I don't really care. But is it changing my practice? I think it probably is, but I don't really know how it is, but how could it not? And on the RV we end up talking about social media a lot, so yeah, it’s the language of our time.

Mo: Do you feel like there's a digital transition going on in photography now, or at least in the universe you're in?

Alec: It’s interesting. To me, it’s not digital. The conversation of transitioning towards something digital happened 15 years ago. This organization that I'm in—Magnum Photos—has this history of a certain kind of photojournalism. So being in there long enough to watch these older photographers deal with that [digital] transition was what photographers talked about all the time.

Part of my interest in working with teenagers is to remember why I became a photographer.
— Alec Soth

Nick: When did you join Magnum?

Mo: 2008, right?

Alec: Yeah, but that’s when I became a full member. So it was actually 2004 or 2005 when I applied.

Nick: Which was right in the middle of the [digital] transition.

Alec: Yeah, but these older photographers transitioned later and tried to fight it off. But now there is this other social media thing that's like that—it's full of turmoil but it’s actually different. That's the topic of the time. I have this sort of ongoing conversation about this topic with this photo historian—via email—who specializes in ephemeral photography, but I'm not obsessed with it, but I do think about it a fair amount.

Mo: Well, what have you been obsessed with recently?

Alec: For a number of years, there was this evolution where I went from working alone. I was a photographer because I liked working alone and then I got interested in collaboration. And this is, in some ways, a culmination of a lot of that. In fact, in 2010, I started this project with other photographers in Magnum called Postcards from America. So, five photographers and one writer made this road trip from San Antonio to Oakland and did work on the road—it was interesting. We did more projects like that but it was a little too complicated for me, and I ended up pairing up with this writer in creating the Dispatch series.

Alec: Meanwhile, I have Little Brown Mushroom, I'm collaborating making books, and my obsession at that time was the relationship between writing and photography. All Little Brown Mushroom books have that within them. I became interested with how writing, photography, and design could be blended and collaborative. 

Alec: More recently, I became more interested in education and putting all those pieces together and collaborating with students, like this [Winnebago Workshop]. And now I'm right in the middle of transitioning back to working alone again. This sounds weird, but I'm practicing being alone and not having an assistant and stuff. The funny thing is, for the TIME Snapchat thing, I had an assistant when I shot Snapchat. [laughing]

Alec: It sounds really stupid, but I had this fear that I was going to get something that I really needed to photograph, so I needed someone with my camera gear at the ready. And it ended up being really useful because it was so weird what I was doing. I mean, a phone on a tripod and then saying that you were working for TIME Magazine! [all laughing] They're not going to believe it, but somehow it added authority to have another person. My big thing with having an assistant is that it makes me more productive, because I have to produce; somebody's watching me! [laughing]

Alec: But going back to what I'm obsessed about: Part of my interest in working with teenagers is to remember why I became a photographer. I went through this whole process with getting really jaded about photography and coming back to it again. With students, I don't want to be jaded because [for them] it's new and exciting and I don't want to piss over enthusiasm. I want to remember that feeling of, "Wow, I can go out there and explore something."

Alec: For example, Chloe showed me her idea that she's working on, so I then I said the annoying thing of, "That's kind of like the other people doing the same thing." But here's the thing, if we were in grad school, I would be tough, I would be like, "You can't do that. That's like this person," but I'm not; but I am pushing to make it different.

The Key Hotel. Kissimmee, Florida,  Songbook , 2014. Alec travelled around America to highlight America's "individualism and the desire to be united." Read more at  Magnum Photos .

The Key Hotel. Kissimmee, Florida, Songbook, 2014. Alec travelled around America to highlight America's "individualism and the desire to be united." Read more at Magnum Photos.

A Desire for Narratives

Mo: What were the series of moments that led you to intertwine photography with another medium?

Alec: I have a desire for narrative and to connect pictures; it's this sequence from beginning, middle, to end. And you treasure that sequence because now you have these individual pictures coming at you constantly. It was the book form that I fell in love with. I didn't go into a museum and saw a single photo and went, "A-ha!"

Mo: And what do you find to the be the most important elements in a narrative to you?

Alec: Here's the contradictory part: photography is inherently non-narrative in the sense that it actually doesn't have a beginning, middle, and end in the way that a story does, or even suspense and all those things. It's always a failed narrative or a longing for narrative, so I'm in a perpetual battle with that. All the Little Brown Mushroom books with other writers and photographers are playing with that desire for storytelling, and we're doing it on these trips. It's like, do we tell the story of how we went to the transcendental meditation? Or do we evoke it and suggest it? And inevitably, photography suggests a story rather than it tells a story.

Mo: Do you find that if you focus on a narrative first, that it'll detract from the ability to entertain spontaneity?

Alec: Yeah, you have to let go. Since it’s not narrative, in the end, you have to let go. A part of this workshop is enabling serendipity—finding a story and letting it take you somewhere. You have to allow it, you can't force it. But I personally need a narrative; I can't just wander. I have to have some mission even if it's something like photographing a 7-11.

Alec: I've done truly narrative things where they really tell a story, and I have a philosophy about photography where the photography has to be not as good; it has to be dumber photography. In fact, I did a book with a disposable camera with a writer where it’s mostly text because I had dumbed down the pictures.

Alec and Winnebago Workshop students talk to a passerby who recognised the Winnebago RV, photographed by Mo

Alec and Winnebago Workshop students talk to a passerby who recognised the Winnebago RV, photographed by Mo


Mo: What you said earlier reminded me of the idea of piecing an image together when you first look at it. I can look at a Helmut Newton photo and feel like it was a frame from a movie, and be left wondering what happened before and after that frame. It's interesting and good that photography has that. Because with film, you're getting the entire picture, to an extent, but you're not getting time to absorb a frame or scene for as long as you want.

Alec: And I'm attracted to it. I'm not a filmmaker. I've made little stabs at it, but I naturally want to leave those gaps so that people can fill it in.

Mo: Do you find yourself trying to challenge the viewer?

Alec: Oh yeah.

Mo: Why?

Alec: I am really interested in sharing work so it's not just for me. I don't want people to just enjoy it. I want people to be challenged by it. Like that TIME Snapchat thing I did; it challenged the audience in a good way. In fact, I probably did that too much, and had to back away from it.

Mo: Nick, do you feel like you've been challenged by one of Alec's photos?

Nick: By the time I started seeing your work, [looking at Alec] I was looking at a lot of photography, so I think I had gotten through the stage where I was no longer like, "What is this?" You know what I mean? Not to say that it wasn't challenging, but more so like, "This is fitting in with the aesthetics that I enjoy looking at." I don't know. I think Andreas Gursky and Stephen Shore were probably challenging initially. When you first look at it, you're like, "Why did someone a take a picture of that billboard?"

Alec: Absolutely, and I never started with challenging. That was never my goal, but more so a response over time to being boxed in.

Photo from   Looking for Love, 1996  , published in 2012

Photo from Looking for Love, 1996, published in 2012


Mo: Are you attracted to the idea of boxing yourself in, or do you want to be undefined, if that makes sense?

Alec: No, because you're going to be defined no matter what. No matter what, someone is going to. Everyone says one sentence about you and they do it for all of us. Like, [pointing at Nick] "He's the Jewish-looking guy from Detroit!" [all laughing] And you can't really create that sentence, but you can help shape it a little bit. It happened to me where it was like, "He's the large format portrait guy." Sure, there's certain things like living in Minnesota, creating work about America, and I'm cool with that; that fits me.

Alec: My bigger fear along those lines is that I know the temptation of comfort, money, and stuff like that. I know how I can make money now but I know it’s going to make me lame. [Nick and Mo laughing]

Alec: So what's up with the sleep thing? [referring to why I emailed Alec at 4:30 a.m.]

Mo: Since I'm currently living with my family, I’m really productive from 12 a.m. to 6 a.m.

Alec: What do you do around that time?

Mo: Lately, a lot of it is research for the Viewfinder Collection. It’s time consuming because I want to talk to people who I feel will nurture an engaging conversation, not because they have a cool title or such. I didn’t want to talk to you only because you're a Magnum photographer. I wanted to talk to you because there's something from your work or words that spoke to me, and same goes for other people I reach out to. So yeah, it takes a lot of time to find the right people, along with other things.

Alec: Ah, I understand. Do you listen to music while you're doing this?

Mo: Music and podcasts. Speaking of, do you listen to any podcasts?

Alec: I love the idea of podcasts and I'll listen to 99% Invisible and This American Life, but I'm not obsessive about it. I listen to old-time radio when I fall asleep.

Nick: Where do you find old-time radio?

Alec: Oh, it's all over the place! [all laughing]

Mo: Really?

Alec: Oh yeah. There's endless apps. I love it. [There's] radio dramas.

Mo: What do you listen to while editing?

Alec: Well, it's weird. I probably don't edit in the same way as you would, so when I'm traveling I love hotel TV. I just like having it on, and also because probably why I asked you. You're alone and you'd like to have voices around you. I used to work in darkrooms for many years and I hate darkrooms for that reason. I came to love going to a lab and seeing the fresh print. I love hanging up a print at the studio and responding to it. That's my preferred editing style. [laughing]

Mo: It's a process in itself.

Alec: Yeah, but also, I have a very normal work life. It’s like an office, not very glamorous. And I never shoot in studio and then I have to travel, so I have these two lives in a way. One that's a very conventional family life and another with all this other stuff. It's weird.

Photo from   Dog Days Bogotá  , a photobook where Alec and his wife traveled to Bogotá, Colombia to adopt a baby girl.

Photo from Dog Days Bogotá, a photobook where Alec and his wife traveled to Bogotá, Colombia to adopt a baby girl.


Mo: When you had kids, how did they impact you creatively?

Alec: I got more productive because I felt like I had less time. I had less time so I had to use it better. But I have an amazing wife who does a lot so I can travel, and understands my travels. It's very complicated to be away from my kids. My studio manager, Carrie, is an artist and she has a child and I realized that I'm very lucky to have resources to help me.

Mo: An interesting thing a friend of mine told me when he had his first kid was how it made him look at the world through the kids eyes. His kid was so happy over grass, so why couldn't he be happy over it, too?

Alec: Yeah, I did a book with my daughter where she did all the photographs.

Mo: The one in Brighton, England, because you couldn't legally take a photo?

Alec: Exactly!

Nick: Would you do one with your son?

Alec: It's funny. He's nine, but when he was her age, and still now, it would never happen. He wouldn't have the focus. He's too different. My daughter was in a sweet spot so it worked, but it wouldn't work now, too.

Nick: There was a video of this, right?

Alec: Yeah, a little video. She took some amazing pictures. It’s kind of crazy, actually. That's how easy photography is in some ways. I always tease Carmen because her Instagram is just the worst. I’m like, look at my work! Learn something! [all laughing] But it’s terrible.

Nick: What is it?

Alec: Selfies and all that. Like, every cliché. We'd go to Paris and she’d want to go to the Eiffel Tower. Its frustrating. [laughing]

Nick: What does she think of your work?

Alec: It’s hard to say. But we did this book when we adopted her and it’s been interesting to sort of watch the progression of her opinion of that work. And that's a pretty sophisticated opinion because she's been asked about it a lot. It's weird because I'm doing this project with teenagers, and she's a teenager, but we're not talking the same way about photography, probably because I'm her dad.

Rie Sakamoto, a workshop participant at Dr. Madan Kataria's "Laughter Yoga" class, 2016. Photographed in Bangalore, India for  The New York Times

Rie Sakamoto, a workshop participant at Dr. Madan Kataria's "Laughter Yoga" class, 2016. Photographed in Bangalore, India for The New York Times


Mo: What are you scared of?

Alec: I'm scared of not being a great parent. My parents were not creative people or whatever and I was finding my own path. They were encouraging but skeptical. And now they're proud and all that stuff. But something happens when you’re a parent—all they want to do is keep you safe. So it's naturally conservative. You want to keep them safe in the nest but, simultaneously, your job as a parent is to push them out of a nest. And so it’s this very contradictory impulse.

Mo: Its like you want to push them out but still leave a string hanging, yes?

Alec: Yeah! And I would be so proud if they showed the confidence to have a vision to present to me. But at the same time, to get to the place of having the confidence to present a vision means they have to do things I don't want them to do! An artist at a certain stage—perhaps in grad school—could say, "My advisor told me that I'm not supposed to do this." And I'm like, "If you're at this level in grad school, you better be able to say what you want, believe in it, and have that confidence." But I don't think it’s natural to have that at your age [gesturing to Mo] but there comes a point where you need to have that, and you need to face those people that you want to be proud of you or whatever, but it’s challenging.

Mo: I think that it attributes to putting yourself in that situation. You put yourself in a place where confidence is needed or else you'll be chewed out.


Throughout the day, I recorded several audio clips of topics Alec, Nick, his students, and I talked about. I can’t remember what we were talking about at this specific moment since I recorded it halfway into our conversation, but I feel like the following words are a good anecdote to end on.

Alec: I once said to my daughter, Carmen, "It was not to be happy. It was to make something great," which I don’t think is good advice. So, I want her to be happy; that's all I want for her. And I wouldn't want her to answer the question that way.

Mo: Why not?

Alec: Because I want her to be happy. I probably want to make something good because I'm fucked up! [all laughing] But I want them to be happy.


Thanks for reading

    Writer's endnote
  • It was a treat hanging out with Alec and the students from his Winnebago Workshop—a mobile art school for teens—during their stop in Michigan City, Indiana for the day. The workshop was a two-week tour that spanned from St. Paul, Minnesota to Brookyln, New York, where the students hosted a pop-up exhibition and worked with the Museum of Modern Art’s education department. It was fun witnessing their enthusiasm towards not only creating new things, but also sharing them. And a big thanks for Nick being the person that got me into Alec's work. Glad I could include you in this, bud.

  • Q&A
  • Where can we follow you?

  • Website, Instagram, and Little Brown Mushroom
  • Last thing you googled?

  • Ilayaraja
  • Favorite foods?

  • I just had the most amazing variety of mushrooms in Shanghai.

  • Favorite music?

  • Wandelweiser.

  • Places you like to visit?

  • I prefer quiet spots. I love Hokkaido in northern Japan.

  • What gear do you like using?

  • Ebony 8x10 film camera and my iPhone.

  • Any books you love?

  • Poetry. Currently reading Mary Oliver's new book of essays.

  • Read more conversations