23 minutes with Emily Shur
& Mo Mfinanga
- Published February 8, 2017
- Portrait provided by Emily
You can sit and wonder why things aren’t working out the way you wanted, or you can use that energy to engage with what’s in control: you and your work. For Emily Shur, a Los Angeles-based photographer born in New York, she tries to promote the notion of maintaining resilience and positivity in her life, because what good does negativity provide? This mindset nurtures her healthy relationship with photography, and allows her to create buoyant images sought out by clients such as HBO, Esquire, and The New Yorker. In this interview, Emily and I talk about self acceptance, using competition as an inspirational source, and why no matter where you are in your career, you should always be patient.
Mo: Do you believe in New Year's resolutions?
Emily: If that's the time of year for people to think about their intentions, then I think it's a positive. But I don't necessarily believe that it needs to be done at one specific time per year.
Mo: I agree. I think it's important to have a long-going goal or a spectrum of goals, really.
Emily: Yeah, like a check-in.
Mo: Exactly. At the end of the year—though it’s cliché—everyone gets the chance to reflect and see what they want to do next. It's so important to not get caught up.
Emily: It's helpful to look back on a year as its own entity, but then you have to keep in mind that there’s a much bigger picture than one year, especially in this type of career. You can have a bad year, a good year, a great five years and then a bad year, so it's good to look back at what you did well, what you'd like to do better and keep in mind the grand scheme of things. I do think it’s important to not get too weighed down with the small stuff or the one bad shoot, if you can. It’s hard to look at your own career objectively, but I think that would serve us better. Just be nicer to yourself! [both laughing]
Mo: Have you had the chance to do that recently?
Emily: I have! I've definitely had some thoughts at the end of last year . It probably wasn't the best year I've had as a photographer so it was interesting to look back and think about why that might've been.
Mo: Without intruding, what ways do you feel like it wasn't the best?
Emily: There's a lot of stuff in this industry that you can't pinpoint reasons to. If you sit there and try to figure out why you didn't get that job, or why this person that you want to work for isn't hiring you, you probably won't ever find those answers. All you have control over is doing what you consider to be your best work. You have to guide yourself in a way that feels right for you and your work; you have to be critical and not too precious about your work or yourself. I think that when things aren't going exactly the way you want them to, you have to sit back and critically think about why. You can't be a victim or blame a bunch of people—you have to figure out what you can do to change the situation. I've had to do it many, many times over the course of my career and I'm sure I'll keep having to do it. Sometimes there's only a few things you can grab and think, "Okay, this is something I have control over and I can change." Other areas we don’t have control over, and it’s taken me awhile to be more at peace with that, but I’m getting there.
Mo: It's true. Even though you can analyse something you did wrong, you'll try to rework your approach for the next client and then it still doesn't work. So you're going, "What am I doing wrong then?" but the thing is there's no template. You just have to be adaptable regardless how long you've been at it. One can think that this career will become more transparent the longer you're in it, but I'm not sure if that's true.
Emily: And you can't keep searching for the thing to change about yourself, because you'll just get farther and farther away from yourself. You have to make it work with you and your work. If that can't happen then that’s the whole survival of the fittest industry we find ourselves in. I agree that you would think as picture takers and self-employed creative people, it would be a more transparent industry, but, you know, there's all different types of people and business practices, and everyone has a different way of expressing their failures, successes, insecurities, and confidence. It's really hard to tell what is actually going with some people. [both laughing]
Mo: What has been one of the most scariest yet defining moments in your life?
Emily: In terms of individual shoots, there's not one that is jumping out at me, but there have definitely been shoots where I was beyond nervous and petrified before or during the job. I still get nervous all the time! I have ways of coping and preparing myself now that I didn't really have when I first started, but at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I would probably say that September 11 was a pretty big moment for me in my life. I was just a couple blocks away when the first tower came down. I was with my boyfriend at the time and we didn't know what was going on. I really was living in fear for a while after that. There came a point where I sort of surrendered and told myself that I can't control all the things that happen to me. I didn't want to fly anywhere, I didn't want to travel, I didn't want to take the subway; there were a lot of things that I was not able to do for a while. I was worrying about all the "what ifs" nonstop. And I'm not going to say that I don't worry about stuff now, because that would be an absolute lie. [laughing] I definitely worry all the time, but whether you worry or not, you need to travel and you need to have experiences. So that wasn't necessarily a turning point specifically in my work, but it was a turning point in my outlook on everything, which I guess, in turn, affects your work.
Mo: It's unfortunate that, that happened to you and many others in that way, but it’s something that has happened and you can only go one direction from that point.
Emily: Yeah, and to be honest, though I would rather it not have happened at all, that experience brought my friends and I closer together. We were all there and we saw it and we dealt with it. It was a huge, horrible thing but it was defining. Now it’s been so long, which is crazy to think about, but that was definitely a big moment.
Emily: I think in terms of scary moments within my work, when I first moved to LA—which was in 2005—I had a couple of bad years here. I moved to a new city, I was trying to get work, and the publishing industry was really going down the toilet. The transition to digital was being forced on me, and I didn't want to do it.
Mo: Did anyone want to do it, though? [both laughing]
Emily: I think so! I think some people welcomed the shift and were excited about it. I think some people weren't and I just happened to be one of those people that wasn't that excited about it. I didn't want to change anything I was doing because I had worked hard to get to the point where I was with my technique. I've always been a large format and medium format shooter, and I was really comfortable doing my editorial shoots with my 4x5 and getting into a rhythm with people. The technique was a big deal to me, so a lot of factors came together to make life a little difficult at that time. I mean, I wasn't working—it sucked! [laughing]
Emily: I had a lot of free time so I started to focus more on my personal work which I had always made but never really put much time into. I never spent time editing after the fact, printing, or thinking about it, because I was always so career-minded and driven to get work—that was my whole world, but I had no work. So I started spending time on my personal pictures, which are more landscape-driven—pretty much no people in them at all. So, that was a big deal for me in terms of my photography, because it helped me place importance on that [side of my] work and treat it just like I do my celebrity and portrait work.
Emily: Over time, I'd say in the last eight to ten years, I've gradually incorporated more and more of my personal photography into my work life, and I'm really glad I did. It's been very fulfilling for me, not necessarily financially or anything that has to do with the business side of photography, but as a photographer it's just been very fulfilling.
Mo: It can be a catch-22 because you want commissioned work to sustain your personal work, but if you work on too much commissioned work you don't have time for that personal work. It's not that you're not happy about it, but—
Emily: Yeah it makes you think about "What is happy?" I mean, how do you define happy? Is happiness making a lot of money? Is it shooting for specific clients? Is it photographing specific people? I think, personally, for me, that answer has changed and transformed as I've gotten older which is a good thing and a bad thing. [laughing] You work so hard at one thing and eventually you realise that you have other needs and need to be more well-rounded.
Mo: It's true. And, for me, it boils down to the fact that generally, this career makes me happy. I mean, it's the only thing that I kind of know how to do. [both laughing] But getting your foot into photography is hard, too, just like any other career. You can sacrifice a lot for it and later realise that it's not for everyone.
Emily: It is definitely not for everyone and I think there's a misconception that being a working photographer is just about taking good pictures. There is so much non-picture-taking that goes into maintaining longevity as a "professional photographer". Photography can be for everyone, but the job of being a working photographer is not for everybody.
Mo: Going back to sacrifices, what have been a few that you had to make when you came to California and even now?
Emily: Not too many! [laughing] I mean, I think the main sacrifice is, or has been, and this has definitely changed in recent years, but the arts and photography community was smaller than what I was used to in New York. Most of the magazines I shot for and still shoot for are in New York, with a few exceptions like one or two in LA and San Francisco. But for the most part, New York is the heart of editorial work and publishing, and that’s what I shot pretty much exclusively when I moved here. It was a little bit difficult because I was so close to everyone when I lived in New York; you could just drop your book off and have a face-to-face meeting at a moment’s notice. Here, that wasn't happening. It was hard at first to get people to think of me as a Los Angeles-based photographer. That took a minute for sure.
Emily: I think that the community here has really grown, which is awesome.
Emily: Not to discourage anyone, but I can't imagine what it's like starting out right now as a younger photographer, because I feel like even when I first started, I thought, "There are so many photographers!" Now looking back it doesn’t seem like there were that many compared to today. Now there are so many different genres, specialties, and photographers in general, so I feel like you have to hone in so acutely on one thing, which kind of sucks because it’s limiting. But it's tough to be young and relatively unknown and try to compete with a ton of other people in the same boat. Something about your work has to stand out and be memorable. And that doesn’t change as time goes on. I still have to maintain a strong perspective and compete with lots of really strong photographers.
Mo: Yeah, in my perspective as a young photographer, it's been really hard. You realise a lot of things about yourself and the industry. At the end of the day, everyone has to take care of themselves, obviously, but I think it boils down to showing potential clients how much you really care about making good pictures. It seems to be about showing them how much you want this, because everyone else wants this, too. You're in a playing field where someone who's 24-years-old might produce better work than someone older and the client might pick the younger person because of their determination, or they'll pick the older person because of their experience. It's tricky for everyone.
Competition & Patience
Emily: Yeah, and that's definitely a recipe for feeling bad about what you aren’t doing. If I'm always measuring my work against what other people are doing or even what they did when they were my age, that can get pretty rough. [laughing] I really love looking at what other people are shooting, being inspired by other photographers, and I like feeling a little competitive. You definitely need to have competitive energy, but I do feel there's a line you don't want to cross into the area where you're not helping yourself, you know? Competition should be inspirational and a driving force, even if the feeling is “I'm gonna show them!" I think as long as not it's done in the spirit of, "I don't want that person to succeed," but more of, "I want to be making work at that level, so what can I do to up my game?" I think that is a positive thing as long as it’s about bettering your own work and not hating on other people.
Mo: It shouldn't be you versus that person. It should be you versus—
Mo: Exactly. The possibility of you getting to where you want is there.
Emily: Yeah, it can happen. There's no reason why it couldn't happen for you, for me, for anyone. If I think, "Oh, that's never going to happen," then it definitely won't. Try to be patient. Think about all the steps involved and all the time the other person has put into their work and their career; think about how difficult it might've been for them. But I think what you said a few minutes ago about learning about yourself by feeling out the industry, and seeing how you deal with adverse conditions is so important; because then you start to have pretty realistic notions about what is or isn't going to happen for you based on what kind of person you are. Like, "Hey, I'm never going to be that kind of person and that's okay." Those are lessons that I think are very important to learn. It's taken me years to learn certain thing about myself that I have now accepted and I hope that I continue to learn. Accepting yourself is a really big part of what will eventually make you successful.
Mo: One thing you touched on that got me very curious was when you don't rush things. Do you mind expanding on that?
Emily: Sure, I think that the job will dictate the speed at which you move, you know? I thought that by the time I was 30 I would be doing this-and-that and shooting for this person and that person, but a lot of things just don't happen by the time you're 30, or on your clock. A lot of things in my career have happened way slower than I wanted them to. When I first started working, I realised just how slow everything can move. You [can] show your work to someone once and keep in touch with them for years before you get a job from them. The conversation will always be positive, they’ll like your work, and they’ll want you to keep in touch and you do, and you get positive feedback about how much they love your work, but it can take years to get that one shoot—and that's just one shoot! That's not a career or really even your bills or rent or mortgage payment. So to build that into a career that will last years and years and years, you have to think about how many relationships like that you have to form, and in my experience it takes some time.
Mo: For sure—it does. And it reminds me of how doomed I am! [both laughing]
Emily: You are for sure not doomed! [laughing] Look at how proactive you are and how interested in the work you are. I never understood photographers who aren’t interested in looking at others’ work, or aren't aware of what people are doing—I don't get that! So I feel like your interest alone is really commendable and you clearly have a lot of relationships with lots of people, which is a really great thing. That's a huge asset.
Mo: It's really interesting to notice the weight relationships have in this industry, and also realising what a certain relationship is for, in a sense. It's not transparent, especially in LA, but in New York I find it easier to label a relationship between an art director or someone in the industry.
Emily: That's surprising that you say that about New York and LA. There can be a misconception that people in LA aren't "authentic".
Mo: They can be but it's about finding those people. In my experience, it's harder to filter through who's who in LA than in New York. There's this weird analogy I use to describe why: New York and LA have their own vampires. In New York, they'll suck your blood and they'll tell you that they're doing it. But in LA, they'll feed you a little bit before they do it! [Emily laughing] To be honest, there's some truth to it. I'm not saying that this or that place is bad—that's just the general dynamic of those places to me. It can help you understand as to why things happen a certain way in a certain city.
Emily: Yeah, and I also feel like the whole getting-to-know-yourself really comes into play there, because New York, LA, or wherever else, you're still presumably working for the same clients; you're still trying to get the same work you would be in any city. Just for myself, with the entertainment industry being in LA, there are lots of photographers here that I look up to and I would love to someday be doing the jobs that they're doing. But I also recognize the differences in my personality and some of their personalities, and I know that I'm never going to be them. Now whether or not I get to the same place as them, that is still very possible, but I have to get there as myself. Just by navigating the world of working, the people I photograph, the publicists, etc., there's no way for me to pretend to be a way that I'm not. It doesn't work for me and it comes off as inauthentic. There will be some people that I connect with on a real level that I've wound up working with for years, and then other people that I might have a pleasant day with but we're not going to be best friends afterwards. But, you know, we all did our jobs and everyone went home happy—great!
Mo: At the most minimal level, that's great.
Emily: Yeah, and of course you want it to be a good experience for everyone, and it can be, but I have to be me, and they have to be them. That's the way that will work best for me and I know that now.
Mo: When you mentioned the fact that there are photographers who don't like photography, I think—to play devil’s advocate—the reason why they don't look at other people's work is because they feel that by not looking, they'll create something that's solely inspired from themselves; that they'll create something original, or never seen before. But that's impossible. Everything that's out there has already been done before. We're just putting our own spin on it.
Emily: I think that we're just so inundated with all types of imagery that how could you not be influenced in some way, shape, or form by things that you're seeing around you? If photography becomes your chosen path, [then] I'm assuming you've seen some photography. I think to block yourself off from inspiration is... I don't know. What's the difference between looking at photographs, watching a movie, or listening to music that inspires you? To me, it all gets you to the same place so I don't get why someone wouldn't want to look at work, but you know...
Mo: I agree with you on that. Everyone has their own way of working so bully to them for approaching photography that way.
Mo: What do you find the purpose of your work to be?
Emily: Man, that's a tough one. [laughing] I think that my goal is to make work that I'm proud of, regardless of what the subject matter is and who I shot it for—myself or a client. I was looking at Joe's interview and he answered that question really well. [laughing] And now I'm trying not to use his answer. [both laughing] When you're working for other people, the purpose is to walk away with something that everyone is happy with. I think about what I want to say with the work, or what I want that work to say about me. Ultimately, the goal and purpose is all the same: To make work that I'm proud of that'll be respected by people that I respect, and hopefully it can add something to the community of photography.
Thanks for reading
- It was a blast getting the chance to talk to Emily after hearing her name come up from mutual peers so many times. She’s funny, smart, and seems to be really aware of the truths that pursuing a creative career holds. For me, this conversation introduced a personal reminder that I think is important for all of us: No matter where you are, and what you want, things will probably come to you at a slower pace than expected, so accepting that allows you to have a realistic perspective on the things you want.
Where can we follow you?
- Website, Instagram, and agency profile
Last thing you googled?
- Luxury safari
It's a toss up between really amazing sushi and movie theatre popcorn... any good, fresh, salty popped-at-the-movie-theatre popcorn.
My go-to music to play for someone whose music tastes I don't know would usually be David Bowie or The Talking Heads. My husband gives me a lot of recommendations that I’m not familiar with because he listens to music like a normal person!
What are your hotspots?
Japan is my number one favorite place in the world. In LA, I love a movie at The Arclight.
What gear do you like using?
I use lots of different cameras: I shoot with a Hasselblad, Canon, or Sony camera for work. I use Capture One for processing. I still shoot film. Still use a Mamiya 7, an RZ, and I have a few different 4x5's when I'm feeling frisky. My Mamiya 7 is pretty much my camera of choice now for film stuff. They stopped producing it so everything available now is used. I have two 7II bodies and three lenses.
Native Son by Richard Wright is one of my all-time favourite books. I love When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris.
SeeSaw Magazineis great; Aaron Schuman is doing amazing interviews over there.
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