Raised in an artsy suburb of New York City and exposed to art, Venetian architecture and photography in his formative years, Justin Guariglia has had a lifelong passion for documentary photography and Leica M cameras that eventually led to a distinguished career as a magazine and travel photographer. His wanderlust has taken him and his cameras all over the world, but he has settled in Asia, a vast region he has revealed with an incisive and compassionate eye in stunning books and splendid feature articles in major magazines including cover stories in National Geographic Traveler and Smithsonian. Here, in his own thoughtful and unflinchingly honest words, is his remarkable story.
Q: What camera and equipment do you use?
A: Everything from Leica rangefinders to handmade Swiss large format digital cameras.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, and as a profession?
A: When I first fell in love with photography I was all consumed by street photography and the chance, fleeting moment that one could capture with the camera in hand. I was a big fan of Andre Breton, and the whole surrealist movement. I spent days and nights on the streets of New York City with my Leica M cameras recording everything in black-and-white. After falling in love with the works of Baudelaire, I was inspired to travel with my camera. It was really a case of wanderlust, and I attempted to record what I felt deep within as a traveler moving through foreign places, as opposed to simply recording what was happening.
Of course, one cannot travel without money, and that is how I discovered photojournalism. Even back in the late 1990s, unlike today, there was still a good amount of work available—a shoot here, a story there, a portrait needed…so magazine work became the way to pay my bills and to travel and see the world, but I always came back with lots of personal images that editors usually never saw. At that stage National Geographic Traveler and Smithsonian magazines ran short stories on distant countries, and that helped pay my way to see the world. I moved further into larger-format photography with the help of commercial jobs, which also freed up my time to focus more on personal work. I’ve recently moved back to Asia to reinvent myself creatively. Here I’ll be able to work almost exclusively on personal work—in a way, coming full circle, and back to the creative side of photography that originally drew me to the medium in the first place. From my new base in Asia, I’m able to travel around the world and execute my projects. My photography is evolving, constantly.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, work with a mentor, or were you self-taught. Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: My family introduced my brother and me to the arts when we were both very young. We received both hands-on education, the making of art, and being very close to New York City, got to visit a lot of museums. In college I got a special opportunity to study Venetian Art History under one of Italy’s great art historians, the late Terisio Pignatti. I was part of a small group of 20 students that got to study with him while living next door to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, and every day got bombarded by art—if not in the museums, then in the churches, or simply by taking in the remarkable local architecture. This experience changed my entire understanding of the confluence of life and art forever. This art background is essentially my foundation in photography since I never formally studied photography.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: It was THE camera used for street photography because of the hyperfocal qualities inherent with the wide-angle lenses and manual everything—you would be hard pressed to find a camera that an experienced photographer could work faster with on the street than a Leica M camera.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: It really varies based on the task at hand. For magazine work, it’s all very straightforward – you document what’s been laid out for you, or what’s taking place—it’s often highly subjective, but made to appear completely objective. With my personal projects, it’s more representational, but there are underlying concepts that ground and unite my work. The work is understood to be subjective, which is something not permissible in the world of photojournalism.
Q: You mentioned that photojournalists had once laughed at you for using a Leica Camera. Can you share that story?
A: It was in Jakarta back in the late ‘90’s and there was rioting during the elections. The press moved around in a big pack, but I was an outsider of course. I was on assignment for a big American newspaper, but I was treating the story like a personal project. I showed up at one event and was the only shooter without 50 pounds of gear around my neck and began taking photos when several European photographers began laughing at me for my street photography approach. There was some comment about the size of my camera, and the size of theirs… haha! I think they were half kidding and half serious, but personally I could never use the larger SLR cameras comfortably—I was never a press photographer. When the police opened fire on the crowd I was in, I got a quick wake-up call and realized I was not doing what I really wanted to be doing with a camera, so I focused on travel photography—to continue traveling the world, but with much less risk of getting killed in the process.
Q: How has shooting with a Leica Camera influenced your work or help you grow as a photographer?
A: The biggest influence might be on the subject matter I select. Because the Leica is so small and quiet, it’s the antithesis of a large SLR/DSLR, which, when raised and pointed at someone, is not far from being an act of aggression. The rapid-fire sound and recoil of a DSLR camera firing off frame after frame, to me has always felt like a machine gun in the hands of a photographer—as though you’re at war with the subject in front of the lens. So I prefer the slower and quieter rangefinder, or view camera with cable release—it feels a bit more in tune with the environments I like to work in.
Q: How did you come to work at National Geographic? Can you tell us about your cover story on Bali?
A: I was looking for a magazine connection to help get me out in the world to travel and learn more about life and National Geographic Traveler proposed that I do a story in Bali, Indonesia. I wanted to make sure since it was my first job for a major magazine, that I did a job that would make them call me back for more travel, so I worked extra hard to produce something I felt they would be happy with. The Bali issue turned out to be one of NGT’s best selling issues of all time, so they called me back.
Q: How long have you worked for National Geographic Traveler and what other publications has your work been featured in?
A: I’ve worked with NGT for about 10 years, and with the Smithsonian Magazine for almost as long, plus I’ve done freelance work for dozens of other publications around the world.
Q: You’ve mostly focused on Asia. What influenced you to specialize on this area of the world?
A: I came to the Far East in 1996 to study Chinese before it became the hip thing to do. I arrived at a time when Beijing was attracting a lot of people who were stimulated by China on an intellectual level, as opposed to today, where most come for a slice of the gold rush taking place—that is, for business reasons. In my small class in Beijing in 1996, my classmates included the current China correspondent for the New Yorker, another was the son of a famous sinologist who was President Clinton’s advisor to China, another was the son of the US ambassador to Hong Kong, and there was even a French-American polymath who began writing for the Economist while we were still in school. It was really inspiring to be around these guys, and it was here I really picked up a camera seriously for the first time. During school I was bitten by the Asia bug, and would end up moving around the region, living in Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Taipei, and Shanghai, in that order, over a ten-year period.
Q: What books have you written and what are the themes?
A: The Shaolin: Temple of Zen (Aperture Foundation, 2 007), and Planet Shanghai (Chronicle, 2008) were my first two books. We have a new book about Malaysia coming out in 2011.
Q: You had mentioned that your Leica camera’s unobtrusive nature really helped when you were shooting a story on child trafficking in Cambodia. Can you share that experience and tell us how you captured the photos?
A: Well, you need to get in and out without getting killed by people who don’t want you there, and certainly don’t want any story getting out that reveals what they’re up to. In short, you need to be as discreet as possible.
Q: What’s your approach to getting to know a location so you can capture its essence in your assignments?
A: The key to great travel photography is always lots of research, lots of exploration on foot, meeting lots of people along the way, and of course, spending lots of time.
Q: Going forward, what do you hope to achieve with your photos or what are your goals with photography?
A: For me, photography should present a new way of seeing. If a photograph doesn’t challenge how I already view the world, then that photograph has little or no value for me.
Q: You evidently lived in New York City as a youngster, and studied Venetian Art History in college. Other than being introduced to the arts and visiting museums, how do you think growing up in New York influenced your photography, and do you believe your profound exposure to classical art influences your work today?
A: I grew up in Maplewood, NJ, a suburb of Manhattan. It’s a small arty town with a lot of creative people. I grew up a few houses down the street from where Asher B. Durand lived, the Hudson River School painter. It’s a small village with rolling hills, lots of trees, lots of green, and only a few miles outside of Manhattan. Clearly it was another world when he walked the earth, but the spirit is still there. I think this has had a deep effect on how I’ve looked at the world, and only now am I interpreting this and is it coming to the surface in my work. I think one’s environment has a profound effect on the way one thinks, sees, and creates, and I’m no different than anyone else in that respect. I think sometimes it takes months, years, or even decades for one’s experiences and environment to effect one’s work… but eventually all of our work is effected by our environment and especially our early influences in life.
Q: You mention that the Leica M is discreet, unintimidating and quiet, but are there any specific operational characteristics such as the viewfinder, ergonomics, basic rangefinder concept, that you find especially beneficial in your work?
A: The camera is a tool for me—I’m not a technical person, but I love great design and things that work. The M cameras function perfectly and embody both these concepts.
Q: You said that your favorite lens is “the one that solves the problems at hand.” Fair enough, but which lenses do you use most often on, say, the M9, and what lenses do you favor for specific purposes such as shooting street scenes, architecture, landscapes, etc.?
A: I’m trying to cut myself down to just carrying a 35mm f/2 Summicron, but I only own 3 lenses—the 24mm f/2.8, and 35mm f/2, and the 50mm f/2. I think the idea is to keep it as simple as possible to free up the mind. If you get too caught up in all of the lenses and the technical aspects of photography, you begin to enter another world.
Q: In describing magazine work, you note that your approach is very straightforward and literal, but that “it’s often highly subjective but made to appear completely objective.” You go on to say “with my personal projects it’s more representational” and “the work is understood to be subjective, which is something not permissible in the world of photojournalism.” Since all photography entails selectivity—what to shoot, what lens to use, what shooting angle, which instant to record—do you think objectivity is really possible with any kind of photography—or is it merely an illusion?
A: Good question—I think it’s definitely an illusion. It’s an idealistic concept that doesn’t exist.
Q: How do you plan to earn a living with photography going forward, and how does living in Asia fit in with your career or personal passion?
A: I’ll be exhibiting my work and selling prints exclusively going forward. We’ll also do books – but it will be through print sales that we’ll keep the studio going forward. That’s the plan. Asia is where I’ve chosen to raise my family. It makes for an interesting, and comfortable base, but also it acts as a place where as a foreigner, I can be more independent with my thinking because I’m naturally isolated from my surroundings by the mere fact of being an outsider. I have no pressure to conform, I’m not restricted by rules, or social norms, simply because I’m foreign, and this helps me with my work. As a result my work today looks nothing like the work I was producing just a few months ago before I got back to Asia.
Q: We can well understand why you no longer want to be a photojournalist covering conflict zones, but do you plan to pursue any aspect of street photography or documentary photography that’s conceptually distinguishable from the broad genre of travel photography?
A: I think I will always be a documentary photographer in the sense of cataloguing life on the planet, only now going forward, I’m taking greater artistic license in my work, which I’ve never really afforded myself. So street photography, travel photography and photojournalism acted as steppingstones for me in my career. They afforded me the opportunity of getting to where I am now. They have also given me a rather unique perspective from which to become an artist working with a camera.
Q: In characterizing the difference between film and digital for you, you succinctly observe that they’re simply different tools for solving different problems. Since you’ve been shooting for some time did you make the transition from a 35mm Leica M to the M8, and then to the M9? And specifically what kind of problems to you think digital capture solves better than film?
A: I put my 35mm Leicas away about 6 years ago and went to medium format digital and to a DSLR because there was a period when Leica digital cameras either didn’t exist or weren’t up to snuff in some respects. I just went back to Leica with the introduction of the M9 and will use my M9 as a camera to carry everywhere—primarily to record images of things that excite me, things that might inspire ideas for future work.
In terms of digital, the workflow is the main advantage— you can photograph, download everything immediately, and receive instant gratification. Of course, digital is both a blessing and a curse, but the M9 accentuates the former.
-Leica Internet Team
To see more of Justin Guariglia’s work, please visit http://www.guariglia.com/ or http://www.facebook.com/pages/Justin-Guariglia/210974111577.