Justin Carter: Bearing the Torch of Inspiration

Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Justin Carter currently resides in Richmond, Virginia where he is studying International Social Justice at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has photographed Climate Action Portraits for the Sierra Club, is a drummer in the band Hazel Mountain, and is finishing the final edit for a community photo voice documentary that includes interviews and reflections on restrictions to healthcare, and a photo voice project that accompanied the conversations on the issue. Here, an emerging photographer reveals the evolution of his creative process and why self-awareness and honesty are essential.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: An evolving process and search. I think in a few years I will be able to describe my photography as honest. Traveling and talking to strangers is what I have been comfortable with my whole life, and my Akasha series reflects that honesty.

Q: Can you provide some background information on these images?

A: These images were made over a four-year period, some going back to when I first picked up a camera and began photographing seriously.

Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?

A: I think these images occupy a mythology that speaks to people. I think they’re a balance between filtering and telling the full story, which may be best in a still, or a series of images. Each place you travel or spend time gives its own impression, so when finding an image that represents an area I want to convey the feeling of actually being there.

Q: Are you a full-time photographer or would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast?

A: A serious enthusiast. The first few years I was shooting I never viewed my photographs as anything special, but I kept going. However I knew that I would eventually have to believe in what I was doing, and that alone is already starting to pay off. Eventually I would like to be full-time, and have a few projects in mind that need to be shared. I’m going to follow my heart and camera and see where it goes. Even if in the end if it doesn’t work out I will have spent a lot of time seeing the world and doing something I love.

Q: You shoot primarily with a Leica M6 and a 35 mm Zeiss lens, and presumably you shot all the black-and-white images that comprise the majority of this portfolio on black-and-white film. What is it that draws you to the black-and-white analog medium, what are some of the features and characteristics of the M6 that you find useful for your kind of work, and which film(s) do you use?

A: I started shooting primarily in black-and-white because of my love for the darkroom. My first two rolls after shooting, developing and waiting to dry, turned out to have been loaded improperly in my camera. But anyone who has been in the darkroom never forgets the first image breathing and coming to life. Black-and-white strips away what color implies; it’s like mutiny to shades of color, and you’re left with inky hues of gray. My favorite images when learning were black-and-white, and I saw it as a way to connect with people and moments better than color.

Eugene Richards’ work was a huge inspiration to me. I know one day I’ll be able to make people comfortable enough to let me reach them in that way. The M6 is straightforward, but it’s odd, and gorgeous. I like how simple it is — aperture, film, hot shoe, shutter speed. That’s it. I don’t like always having to charge my digital camera, and when people see that I shoot film, regardless of where I travel, people give me more respect. Working within the limits is what makes it the most rewarding. I use Kodak Tri-X and usually push it to ISO 800, but lately ISO 1600 has become the norm, with a few ISO 3200 pushes in between.

Q: As an emerging photographer it is clear that you are in the process of self-discovery and still defining the elements of your personal style. In that regard, you made a fascinating and telling statement, ”I think that in a few years I will be able to describe my photography as honest.”

The idea that honest seeing, and capturing and creating honest images is something that must be developed and learned cannot be assumed or taken for granted is, in itself, an impressive example of artistic honesty. Can you tell us something about how this process is unfolding for you and how you will know when you have achieved your goal?

A: At first it was, “Do you like this image you took? Yes? Why?” And if the answer emerged, it was something inherent. I knew what made it a good photograph. But the process of self-discovery is as varied as life itself. In terms of this trip it was a process of forgiving myself, and allowing those ideas that always seemed crazy to naturally take hold. I always wanted to hitchhike, much like I always knew I wanted to stand over the huge valleys of the west laughing and taking it all in. So really I think honesty is never lying to yourself about how crazy you are, and how beautiful it is. Some people only paint pictures of themselves, and will develop a unique outlook on their identity, or just end up with a lot of bad self- portraits. Either way you did what makes you happy, and you know intrinsically, I made this as good as it needed to be. Storytelling is selfish in that regard, never quitting until you feel its been told the best way. For me, I know I haven’t achieved that. I’m not as close as I’d like to be. I’m not afraid of the punches, and I just got tired of saying, “I’m not the guy to go off and photograph this.”

Q: There is a very visceral quality to this image. On one level, it’s a straightforward picture of an old weathered track traversing a sparse rural field that looks like it was made some time ago, perhaps by a tractor or other piece of farm machinery. But this picture conveys an emotional element that is hard to define—serene and calm, yet sad and forlorn, that is emphasized by the cloudy sky and the dark tones in the background. Where did you shoot this picture, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: I was in Berkeley, California hiking with my friend and fellow photographer Ching-Wei Jiang. He wanted to take the long route to the top of the city through a park, then around the city to view a mountain. But on the way we came to a paved trail with this long road up to nowhere. I thought of serenity and longing when making the image. I still feel thar if I were to climb it, there would be something much more grand at the top.

Q: This image is an unlikely juxtaposition of beautiful jagged rocks and a woman in summer attire leaning her head toward the rock formation creating a visual complement. Again, there is something serene and calm, yet melancholy about this image, though its meaning, if any, is enigmatic and it really exists in the realm of feeling. Do you agree, and what were you aiming to achieve in creating this captivating image?

A: It’s about the mythology. I knew my trip and where I was all made sense at this moment. I met Claire, the woman in the image playing Quidditch at a park when I was broke and walking around Denver. She wanted to show me Boulder, and drove us both out there. Mountains inspire humility and wisdom, not melancholy. From this vantage point I bore witness, and honored. This image is honest to myself, and the moment.

Q: This shot shows an anti-circumcision rally in an urban setting, and the composition, shot from behind a row of demonstrators is very effective in conveying a visual sense of tension. The fact that the signs are very legible and the image is somewhat underexposed, or at least shot to emphasize the dark tones, enhances the sense of drama. Can you tell us something about the event itself, why you chose to compose and expose it in this way, and please provide the tech data for this image including lens, camera, film, ISO, etc.

A: This image was made in downtown Denver, but the image was shot originally with more contrast. When Aziz (Yazdani) scanned in my rolls all of them came back with low contrast, and I liked the way the image look with more subtle tones. Then, when making the final adjustments, I wanted to keep a bit of both worlds. I shot a few frames from the front, and it’s funny because the guys had fake blood around their crotches but the background was too distracting. These guys wanted to be center stage in front of the downtown area and this view presented them as they presented themselves, minus the blood of course. This was shot with the M6 and 35 mm Zeiss Biogon lens, on Kodak Tri-X rated at ISO 400.

Q: This image in color is a charming street shot. The setting has a carnival atmosphere with a riot of signs and posters in the background. I assume that this was well composed a grab shot. Can you tell us anything more about it?

A: This is Venice Beach, California. I think every photographer could spend days on end there, because it is a market that encompasses coast, mountains and so many cultures and performers you never know what to expect. The man in the wheelchair had this puppy pop up from his lap. And all them converged, the woman looked in appreciation and even the man in the left stopped to look while his friends kept going.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next few years, and how do you think you will be able to integrate your studies in International Social Justice and your passion for photography going forward?

A: The next few years will be me going on all in, which will be really fun, because I get to learn another fun and creative side of photography. I don’t think it’s going to be the way I make a living, but over the next decade or so, I have projects in mind and plan to apply for grants. A lot of projects involve extensive research in other languages in addition to planning, networking, and contacting people so it may take longer. But it’s not so much the time, but the quality. I think that my studies already have affected my images in both literal and non-literal ways. But what I care about beyond the realm of image making will naturally come into it, because I don’t think I can separate that side of myself from photography. I’m planning a project after Brazil to photograph my mother’s hometown and our family history.

Thank you for your time, Justin!

– Leica Internet Team

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One comment

  • Another interesting interview Leica team! And I really love Justin Carter’s work. I agree totally with him about Venice Beach: it is a fantastic place for a street photographer, so populated by interesting characters. Keep up the good work, Justin!

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