22 minutes with Caroline Tompkins
& Mo Mfinanga
- Published October 13, 2017
- Portrait by Damien Maloney
What is photography to you? Is it just making nice photos, a form of therapy, or none of the above? The answer isn’t the same for everyone, obviously, so what is it for Caroline Tompkins, a New York-based photographer and photo editor? For Caroline, it's a tool that gives her access to parts of herself and parts of the world, which results in her experiences being accessible. In this interview, we discuss this question along with other things that revolve around her career, such as being a photo editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.
Just to let you know
Photographs with nudity are below.
Mo: So, what have you been up to recently? I read in a recent interview that you're going to Montana for a while next month.
Caroline: Yeah, I'm gonna go to Montana for a little bit! Actually, I'm heading to South Dakota first and then Montana which will be super fun. I've been to Montana before, but on a truck, so I [only] saw it from a highway. I’m excited to see it in a real way. I think I'll be flying to South Dakota, camp in the Badlands, and then drive to Montana. I got this fire lookout tower near Glacier National Park that you can rent for like $20 a night, so I'm stoked!
Mo: Where did you get the idea to rent one?
Caroline: I don't know. I hear about things or I feel like people who know me are constantly sending me things going, "This seems like something you'd be into." [laughing] Last night my friend sent me something about a crazy gun show in this creek bed Kentucky where they blow up this car at the end. These things just come to me. [laughing] And I'll go, "Oh, I'm going to make time for that!"
Mo: Not only do they come to you, but you have to be responsive to them, which it seems like you are.
Caroline: Yeah, maybe that's why people send them to me, because I’ll end up doing it.
Mo: Other than the South Dakota and Montana trip, what other plans do you have for this year?
Caroline: I've been traveling a lot this year which is feels very good. I think it's the first year in my life where I felt like I'm in a good financial position to travel, and it's weird. When I was younger, I felt like I would pine over a place for a long time and then eventually be able to go, or not go at all. But now it seems like I can think about wanting to go somewhere and then I just have to press a few buttons and then it's like, "Oh, I guess I'm going to that place!" [laughing] It's very strange and privileged position to be in.
Caroline: I'm also going to go to South Africa in September which I'm really excited about.
Mo: For how long?
Caroline: For two weeks. I've been to Morocco, but that's the only amount of Africa I've been to. And I have a few other things that are happening but I don't think I can talk about them!
Mo: So one thing I’d love to address are your priorities as a photo editor and as a photographer. Do they intertwine or are there degrees of separation?
Caroline: Yeah, they definitely intertwine. It's very strange because I feel like as a photo editor I'm in this huge position of power, and I'm trying my best to be responsible to that. I think the archaic rule of photo editing is that you just pick ‘the best person for the job’, but that doesn't recognize the structural sexism and racism within the photo community. So I think that if there's anything I've brought to Businessweek is to be more conscious and responsible about that, and that's something my boss has been super responsive to, which I'm really lucky to have.
Caroline: My boss, Clinton Cargill, was a photo editor at The New York Times for 10 years, so he entered a very different world of photography than I did. I can come to him and say, “It’s not okay to choose a man to photograph all these women in Hollywood who've been sexually harassed.” Whether he agrees or not, we can have a dialogue. I guess I’m just saying I have a cool job. I've been working with the other photo editors here to make a directory of people of color and women photographers that we all can pull from. However, I think diversify.photo and womenphotograph.com are good starting points, too.
Caroline: The way it works here [to hire a photographer] is that when you get an assignment, you email Clinton four photographers that you think could be a good fit for the shoot. You're keeping in mind people who are in/near the location and whose work is in line with the story. We’ve worked on the fact that at least two of them should be women or photographers of color so that way there's a conversation always happening. I think we’re always striving to create an all-female or maybe all non-white male issue and not to put it on blast, but rather to let it be a subtle goal for ourselves. It’s a huge issue for us—during our redesign, we’d have weekly meetings just to bring in work of women and photographers of color and have continued that in post redesign. There’s still plenty of work to be done; I mean this is work we should have been doing. Now, I’m just thinking a lot about popular photo blogs, and the ways that a lot of them are run by cis white men that feature a lot of cis white men. [laughing]
Mo: Yeah, I think it's interesting. It took me longer than it should've to realize that as a black guy most of my Viewfinder guests are composed of white males, but there's not even a handful of minorities featured. So I think a lot about how conditioned it is for anyone to kind of fall into that narrative. It's good and inspiring to see people like you and Emily [Keegin] at FADER and other people push for that narrative that's rarely displayed and oftentimes pushed against. Sometimes people will put a blanket over this narrative and claim a fad of making things PC. But it's not a fad, it's just how things are moving forward.
Caroline: Yeah, for sure. I think the sort of strange thing—going back to answer the second part of your question—is going back to the idea of being a female photographer, and being in this somewhat disadvantaged place in the editorial world. It's strange because I get to be on both sides of the coin. I totally forgot the original question. [both laughing]
Mo: You're good. I think it was about if your priorities as a photo editor and photographer are the same or not, but it seems like they connect in your case.
Caroline: Yeah, being a photo editor is a job to me, and being a photographer is something I need to do. [laughing] I don't know how to explain it in a better way, but to some people photo editing is their total passion; people like Emily Keegin, Meagan Wood, and Alis Atwell, they're so good at it. For me, the act of making photos is where more of my priorities are, and therefore it’s more of a personal experience.
Mo: It's something you've done since childhood so that relationship is understandable. It's not like you've secretly been a photo editor since you were a child. [Caroline laughing] So it makes sense!
Caroline: I mean, even the way I use my Instagram is representative of how I feel about separating those things. I produce shoots a couple of times a week but I don't think ever posted one on the internet. [laughing]
Mo: Or your Twitter which is hilarious. [both laughing] But yeah, what are some other things you'd like to see represented in the photo community, if there aren't any?
Caroline: I often think about photography’s relationship to money and privilege. It’s expensive to be a photographer, and that leaves a lot of people out of the medium. I love to read long Facebook threads by photo groups freaking out that a Rolling Stone or TIME cover was shot on an iPhone, but I think it’s exciting. I guess this is to say I want there to be more mentors/mentees in photography. To be vulnerable, I would love a mentor, and have even reached out to people in the past to no avail. People have reached out to me to be a mentor figure, but it’s like I’m 25. I’m happy to help in any way that I can, but I wish there was more of an impetus with later photographers.
Mo: It's good to have that variety in photography because you don't want everyone to do the same thing. Are there any things that still trivialize you now since you studied at SVA?
Caroline: I think it's very clear to me when I meet with a photographer where their head is at with photography. Whether they see it as a shallow thing, which I'm not saying shallow is necessarily bad, but you can see it within a portfolio that has, for example, thin beautiful white girls and nothing else. At that point, I'll know that we think about photos differently. [laughing] Or often if a man comes in and says, "You know, I just picked a place on the map, bought a plane ticket and photographed it." [both laughing] It's sort of a clear indication to me that we think about photos differently in terms of the way they understand representation.
Caroline: To pick a place on the map and do that feels very colonial to me [laughing] so if someone has no filter for that, then I know they probably think of photographs as images, whereas I’m thinking about the greater metaphorical context. I'm not trying to place myself higher than anyone because there is a place for pretty images. There's a utility for every kind of picture.
Mo: I assume you find the responsibly of a photographer is to inform more than entertain. I find myself having a higher response to a photographer who creates work that represents an idea more than a style. It's worth challenging photographers to do that.
Caroline: Yeah, it's about owning it. When someone comes in and shows me a really exciting fashion or still life portfolio, something that is clearly only trying to convey aesthetic, I understand that they just want to sell things and as gross as that sounds, it's also like, "I respect that. I respect you for making a choice." I think the worst for me is when people are trying to be something that they're not, you know what I mean? I’ve had so many people who come in and they're like, "This is my photo project: I picked the exact middle of the country, went there, and photographed it!"
Caroline: There’s this strange urgency within photography where everyone needs to have “a project”. It’s ultimately a way to get money but disguises itself as meaningful or part of the greater photographic conversation. Often I want to tell these people, just make work about things you care about. If you don’t care about anything, go into the world for awhile without pictures. You need to feed yourself, you know?
Mo: What is "the greater photographic conversation" to you at this point in your life? It doesn't have to be definitive. [both laughing]
Caroline: That's a hard question! I don't want to sound trite. I think it's about exploring something real while being vulnerable. I think that question is too broad to answer because there's so many facets. You could be having in the Photography is Magic Lucas Blalock type of conversation or there's the fashion work that gets treated like art, or there’s more of a documentary approach—I could go on. For me personally, I'm interested in vulnerability and exploring something that feels exciting.
Mo: Is that excitement inherent to a consistent or idea or is that excitement inherent towards a motivation in something?
Caroline: I think both. Something I've been excited about lately is a documentary style of shooting, but then place photo manipulations within it that you can't even distinguish—someone like Chris Maggio. I'm excited to see things that I'm not sure are manipulated, as opposed to photographs that are obviously not "real".
Mo: You mentioned something in an interview that I've always thought about where I was thankful not be the only one who was aware of it. You said that everyone has a reaction project to New York and I loved that.
Caroline: [laughing] Thanks!
Mo: I started to think if it only applies to New York, or do people just have a reaction project to a certain point on the globe, or graduating college, or something else?
Caroline: It's hard because I went to school here so it's easy to see everybody responding to being in a new environment, especially within the context of school because you're like, well, I have to make something! [laughing] So I would think people, myself included, would respond to that by going home and seeing it in a new light, or make work about their new home. I think everyone’s work changes when they move.
Mo: Yeah, of course because people's work is reflective of their experiences. You can't be a good photographer without living, you know? Photography is a selfish medium.
Caroline: Yeah, maybe when you get to a certain point, you know yourself a little bit better and you don't change? I’ll let you know in 30 years.
Mo: Maybe. But going back to everyone having a reaction project, one could say the same for your photo project "Hey Baby".
Hey Baby was a project where Caroline took photos of the men who catcalled and harassed her on the street
Mo: It was really interesting in the interview where you mentioned how you didn't want that project to dictate your career. That takes a certain sense of discipline to acknowledge something you did and you have to continue creating other things. In my experience, from observing other photographers, you'll see them capitalize on something that gave them notoriety or social currency, for lack of a better term.
Caroline: I was lucky that I had been done with the project and still understand that it was a lot of luck to have it known as it was. It was during a time where the media wanted to focus on catcalling, and I got swept up into that.
Mo: Because you work in both capacities as a photographer and photo editor, how does the internet affect the working photographer compared to how print does?
Caroline: I think the internet makes people appear in a very heightened way. I have friends who have 30,000 followers and don't get work. It costs $15 to buy 3,000 followers if you want to pull a good prank on someone. That facade is really funny to me because it underscores the fact that it really doesn’t matter. I think anybody who's younger and starting out in photography should understand that followers/features doesn’t translate to actual “success”, varying on whatever success means to you. I ran into someone this weekend who said I seem to be super busy lately and it's like whether that's true or not, it’s interesting to think that the amount I post Instagram dictates my busyness. The actual thing that makes people successful or non-disposable is persistence and putting the work in.
Mo: How does a working photographer communicate that to you?
Caroline: Just making photos. Sometimes I'll have friends that say they're not getting hired and don't understand why, but it's always so clear to me: you're not making pictures or you’re not making people aware of you. It’s delusional to think someone’s going to find you out of nowhere. Sure it happens sometimes, but generally It takes work; sending the emails, focusing on the craft, and being persistent about making work.
Mo: It's interesting because when you mentioned the internet displaying a facade, you might have someone who people would say is working like crazy but that person might hate it. They could just be working for validation. Who knows.
Caroline: I don't know if people could work that way. I think those incredibly prolific photographers often really love doing it. It's like when people say that they wish they could be good at cooking. It's like, well, you just cook every day. It's clear you don't want to be really good because you're not at the store buying ingredients.
Mo: Yeah, and there's a difference between being a good cook and chef. One thing I'm curious about is what you find the purpose of your photographic work to be, as well as your work as a photo editor. I was going to ask if they compliment each other but I guess they have to, right?
Caroline: I think my work as a photographer is to work on my own issues; not to use photography as therapy necessarily, but to use it as a tool in understanding. It's a way of getting access to parts of myself and parts of the world. It's clear when I'm making pictures and I don't know what they are yet, but then I sit down with them and I’ll have an epiphany about how all these things work together. An example would be, "I really want to make a picture of a car on fire, or people fighting," and I'll keep a log of those ideas and ask myself what are the similarities? How does that relate to a picture of two people kissing or a boob being pulled a certain way? Then I’ll realize it’s about my relationship to desire, specifically female desire, and being alienated by it.
Mo: When you mentioned not using photography as therapy but more so as a way to understand yourself, do you find that understanding yourself could arguably be therapeutic?
Caroline: I steered away from that thought because I was reminded of my time in art school where people were using photography as therapy in a way that no one else could relate. I think that my goal for my photography is to speak from personal experience but allow it to be accessed by everyone. You want to be specific about your life but not too specific. [laughing]
Mo: How does one make that possible?
Caroline: In "Hey Baby" for example, a common response from my male peers and teachers were, "That doesn't really happen," or, "Of course it happens because you’re standardly attractive." However, from women it was a constant, "Here's my catcalling story." I was using those photos as a way to deal with my experiences, but it's not like making them made me feel great about catcalling. I didn't feel super strong or “badass” by making them, as the internet liked to explain. It did feel good to legitimize it as a problem and have other women feel like they could share their experience, and have men understand that it was more of an issue than they previously understood.
Caroline: When it comes to making work about my own desires, I think that I have felt alienated from those. I think most if not all women feel that way.
Mo: How so?
Caroline: I think having sexual desire as a woman is still something to be explored and represented. Growing up in Ohio, I have this perspective as to how most of the country feels about women. I'm super curious about the homosocial activities of men, like finding and watching porn with each other at a young age. I did this with my female friends, but it was always “as a joke”. I still feel bad about this, but when I was 16 my best lady friend asked me if I watched porn (which I had been for years), and I lied and said no! It’s that sort of shame that I’m trying to tap into. That and how the media conditions you as a woman, like before you're even ready to have sex, you know what a blowjob is, you know the action of it. I don’t think men have that ingrained training.
Caroline: Now I’m older and it’s a bit different, but growing up it felt like, as a man, It was optional to be reciprocative about sex whereas it wasn’t for me. I feel like it takes until you're my age or older to unlearn all that stuff; unlearning that you don't have to be ashamed of what you want and how to ask for it.
Mo: Do you find that it would've taken you sooner to unlearn that if you were born in a progressive place like New York or LA?
Caroline: I don't know. It took until I went to college for me to actually talk about sex with other women and not feel like it was this wrong thing. But on the other hand, I think my parents were on the open spectrum of talking about it and it being a thing that was discussed. I think it’s important to remember that the PC attitude of our current culture is still pretty new. Cultures create words based on what’s important in the moment - slut shaming is a new term.
Mo: What was a general idea that was prevalent in Ohio that you found in New York, and what was one in Ohio that you didn't find in New York? And how did they affect your career?
Caroline: I have a kinship with people from the Midwest here for many reasons. I think the Midwest and the actual Midwest, geographically, are often forgotten or have very little where you're like, "That's a Nebraska thing!" [both laughing] I think that fosters a certain amount of humbleness. I often find people to be more patient and kind, on a surface level, from the Midwest, but I know that I'm generalizing. [laughing] I feel like when I first moved here it felt like people I met who were from here had a general sense of arrogance, impatience, or had a harder time finding beauty in things. They expect that they’re getting taken advantage of. A lot of people I've met in New York are the kind of people you hang out with and they don't ask any questions about yourself. [both laughing]
Mo: How often does an assignment dramatically change from its initial concept at Businessweek?
Caroline: Most of my assignments start from a story that is already existent. An editor or writer comes to me and says, "Here's the story!" [laughing] From there, I’ll assess what we need visually. So if we're talking about a company that came out with a new VR headset, we will most likely have to show the VR headset; there's little room for creativity there.
Caroline: Then there's other aspects where we want to do a story on plants for your office, so it'll be up to me to go, "I think this should be the set. I think this should be the idea," or if we’re doing a story on rum drinks, it’s like “let’s do it pirate themed and hire a monkey!” and that's the great thing about working here: everyone is pretty receptive to being wacky. The more serious side would be where photographers are coming to me and saying that they have done or want to do an essay on “X” topic. Often, for us, there has to be a business theme or money related aspect of the topic. Money has to be flowing!
Bloomberg Businessweek page spreads
Caroline: The magazine's redesign will be more photo based and in line with more serious photo essays. Something I think people don't often do enough is pitch stories to photo editors. It's a golden back door to the photo world because it's mutually beneficial. The photo editor has to do less work [laughing] and you get to shoot the thing you wanted to shoot. I shot some of my first photo jobs from pitching stories. The trick is to know your audience and understand what that magazine tends to run. When you have a meeting with a photo editor, ask them what kind of pitches they accept and how that process works for them, and then follow up on it. I suggest people send me pitches all the time, and I very rarely get them. That's what I mean by persistence.
Mo: Yeah, it seems like you guys know how to have fun but also produce serious work. By talking with you the past hour I can understand what photography gives to you, but one thing I don't think we've covered is what it takes away from your life.
Caroline: Great question. Probably a lot. [both laughing] There's that Nan Goldin quote, which I’m paraphrasing, that goes like, "Photography shows me everything I've lost." I think it can make me not experience moments the way that I should. I think it can be difficult on my relationships, especially when I'm interested in intimacy and what that sort of means when I'm photographing an intimate moment, or if I'm photographing an intimate moment with someone I'm not intimate with. I think it can be confusing.
Mo: Do you find it more confusing for other people or for yourself?
Caroline: I think for other people. I understand photography in a very pragmatic way. I think that just because I have a photo of an ex boyfriend naked that means very little to me. I don't look at those photos with longing; I look at them as my projection onto them. I just see it as a part of an idea I'm trying to convey, whereas other people can place a lot of sentimentality on it that I don't.
Thanks for reading
Where can we follow you?
- Website and Instagram
Last thing you googled?
- Watch Showgirls online free
Catch me waiting in line for a salad most days of the week in midtown. I think my last meal would be sweet potatoes and brussel sprouts over pearled quinoa. Corey Olsen told me I have the biggest sweet tooth of anyone he knows. Sweets are the way to my heart.
Jonathan Richman, Takeshi Terauchi, Townes Van Zandt, The Shirelles, Kendrick Lamar, Neil Young, Vince Staples, Dej Loaf, Harry Nilsson, Slim Whitman, Big Thief, Girlpool.
The Daily, Fresh Air, Longform, Death, Sex & Money, Dear Sugars, Savage Lovecast, 2 Dope Queens, Modern Love, Where should we begin?, sometimes TED Radio hour and Radiolab if they aren’t corny as hell.
What are your hotspots?
Jungle Jims and Eden Park in Cincinnati. Gantry Plaza in Long Island City. Point Reyes in the bay. Chapmans Peak in South Africa. Cinque Terra in Italy. I guess I love a good view.
What do you read?
I read The New York Times daily. Most recent library checkouts: Rebecca Solnit, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Fran Lebowitz, Joan Didion, Maggie Nelson, James Baldwin, Gilles Deleuze, and Esther Perel.
Light Meter app lol, SwellInfo, Evernote, TeuxDeux, Google Maps, Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, Notes, and Chase banking.
What will your tombstone say?
Time Shreds Us All
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