Andrew Reed Weller: Photojournalism With A Hint Of Art, Part 1

Andrew Reed Weller is a passionate, adept and articulate young photographer formerly based in New York City who is currently in Karachi, Pakistan, documenting the programs of a health organization, Interactive Research and Development. The youngest of three boys, Andrew was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, fractured his skull in a sledding accident, dropped out of high school, and eventually earned a degree in Spanish from Cleveland State University. After “growing up in a log cabin and reading too much Jack Kerouac,” he began traveling at a frenetic pace beginning at the age of 19. This has continued unabated for 10 years and has carried him to 33 countries across five continents, with long stays in Argentina for study and in Thailand for work.

His current plans involve more travel and taking photographs, further involvement in global health communication, and graduate school for photojournalism at Ohio University. This is the first time his photographs have been featured in any large media outlet. Here are his heartfelt and engaging comments on photography, life, and his ongoing creative quest.

Q: What equipment did you use to shoot your Peru series?

A: I used a Leica M9 and two older Leitz Canada lenses, a 50mm and a 28mm.

Q: What motivated you to travel to Peru to capture these images? What was the idea or inspiration behind them?

A: The trip was mostly just a vacation, but also a “warm- up” for a larger, more ambitious photo project going on in March. I had been down to Peru some years ago to see Machu Picchu; however, I knew I wanted to return to explore other parts of the country. This trip I crammed surfing at the beach, spending a few days with a shaman in the jungle, and visiting little towns in the high Andes for three weeks.  The idea was simply to document these experiences and some of the many interesting people I met along the way.

Q: All of the images in your Peru portfolio are in black-and-white. What was the reasoning behind this?

A: I think color photography is very difficult. Other than the work of Steve McCurry and Alex Webb and maybe a couple others, I find most color in documentary style photos to be somewhat distracting. Unless controlled masterfully, I feel that it often interferes with the flow and coherence of a series. On top of that, many of the scenes I shot were in fact so immensely, almost overwhelmingly, colorful that converting to B&W is an effort on my part to simplify the photograph, to make it more easily digestible. Finally, I think B&W lends a somewhat timeless quality to an image, and some of these shots – especially those from the Andean markets – feel to me like they could have been made 60 or 70 years ago. The places themselves felt more or less unchanged from that era, so I wanted to reflect that in the images.

Q: Do you have a favorite Leica camera or lens or any thoughts on why the M-system works for you?

A: I started out with a well used M4-P and the old 50mm and 28mm lenses I mentioned. Shooting with that setup finally clicked with me, and I knew that “this is right tool for what I am trying to do.”  I have my qualms with the M9 and am very much looking forward to the new M. That being said, the M9 is the only digital camera I’ve used that can give me the same sort of shooting experience as my film Leica. This is probably also true of the M-E and Monochrom but I have yet to shoot with those.

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

A: I work in the photo industry full time and I have spent the last several years working as an assistant in the fashion/commercial photo world in New York City. However I am currently trying to get away from that and find work shooting my own stuff, which is more in the documentary or photojournalist vein. So any agencies, editors, galleries, or whoever else might see this and want to get in touch, please do! Okay that’s it for shameless self-promotion.

Q: Have you always done photography full time or did you have a previous career?

A: Photography has been my main interest and passion for the past 10 years or so. Now it’s a matter of turning my own photography into a career, which is proving to be difficult. My previous “careers” involved exciting activities such as driving a delivery van, digging holes, parking cars, and mopping floors.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?

A: When I was a teenager I came across a book called Magnum 1968, a collection of images shot by all the Magnum photographers that year, which was a particularly eventful and tumultuous one across the globe. Looking at those photographs, I came to understand that being a photographer can mean experiencing history in a way that most people don’t, and from there trying to eloquently translate that experience into visual terms. This was tremendously inspiring.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught.

A: I took a black-and-white darkroom class at a community college shortly before those where phased out and digital took over. I’ve also had contact with a number of older, established photographers who have helped me get my bearings. These weren’t quite mentors, more like kind people who had faced some of the same issues and problems I was and still am up against. Other than that, I am self-taught. I feel museums, galleries, good photo books, and the Internet hold most of the resources one needs for a photographic education. From there it’s a matter of shooting, making mistakes and learning from them.

Q: In what genre, if any would you place your photos?

A: At their best I’d call them photojournalism with a hint of fine art. At their worst, more like a mess in a rectangle. But I don’t really want to label anything. They’re just things that happened in front of my camera, an incomplete and imperfect representation of what I was seeing and doing.

Q: You note that the Leica M9 is the only digital camera that provides the same sort of shooting experience as your M4-P, but also that you have some qualms about it and are looking forward to the new M. What is there about the M that attracts you, and given your penchant for black-and-white why not choose the Monochrom instead?

A: The M-System just instantly felt right as soon as I started using it. It’s relatively small, ultra simple, quiet and discreet, built like a tank, and the lenses have a particular character. I don’t fall for the whole Leica mystique—I just recognize that this feels like the right tool to capture the sort of images I wish to make. Sometimes I’m at a party and I really like shooting with a plastic $85 film point and shoot that I once fully submerged in a river—it still works, and takes quite good pictures. I also have a Mamiya 7 that is a joy to use and makes beautiful images. And I’d love to shoot some 8×10 at least once in my life—why not? So it’s really just whatever tool suits your needs at the time.

As for color vs. black-and-white, I realize that at some point, either for clients’ demands or for my own interest,  I will want color photos, or at least the option of color. I recently converted one of the Peru images back to color and it may actually be stronger than the B&W version. Anyway I decided to pass on the Monochrom. I’d still love to use one and I’m sure doing so would make me want one. For now, however, I’m holding my breath for the new M. It turns out my dealer in Seattle got ONE camera last week and I am number three on the list. So I’m still waiting. Frustrating, but what can you do?

Q: There is a definite sense of humor expressed in some of your Peru images, notably one of a solemn looking old man holding the leash of his dressed up dog wearing sunglasses, a smiling woman lifting a glass of wine under a disparate street scene, a surrealistic image of mannequins and girls’ dresses on both sides of a butcher shop. Do you think that humor or whimsy is a significant element in your photography and can you say something about that?

A: Most of these photos were in fact taken while experiencing a sense of whimsy—I was wandering around, enjoying myself in a beautiful and stimulating environment, and something caught my eye. For example, I saw the woman butchering meat right next to a store selling clothes and thought, “There’s definitely a photo here.”

Humor is not a main thrust of my work but I enjoy observing and trying to capture the many interesting, ironic, or funny juxtapositions that surround us all the time in the world. It’s just a matter of training oneself to look for them. I think of Elliott Erwitt and Martin Parr in particular when speaking of this theme in photography.

In any case, I don’t really think too much when I shoot. It just sort of happens. Any labels of “funny” or “grim” or whatever else things are I leave up to the viewer. Maybe as my skills and career progress that will change, but I still primarily enjoy trying to shoot with a “blank slate” state of mind that is influenced only by curiosity, innocence, and playfulness.

Q: Many of your Peru images convey a strong sense of place and culture, especially those of women in and around the marketplace in traditional garb and hats. Did you have any other aim in taking these shots besides showing a distinctive group of people and how they live? Is there any implicit social commentary, and do you feel that it is possible as an outsider to capture something deeper than showing things as they appear to the photographer, or is that quite enough?

A: Those marketplace shots were all taken with only the rather shallow aim of capturing an intensely visually rich environment. I do not know these people and thus have no right to try and impose some preconceived social commentary through my photos. I would love to learn Quechua and go hang out in the Andes for a year or two, and I know that approach would lead to better photos that might convey some deeper message. Nonetheless, I am happy with these photos and feel that they at least reach the goal of portraying a reality that most people do not get to see or experience. And in the modern world of giant supermarket chains and grocery delivery services, I hope these pictures can help preserve society’s recollection of “going to market.”

Q: There is a rather lonely feeling to your image of people on a deck with a staircase in the foreground and it’s a bit enigmatic because it’s hard to determine whether this is a ship, a railroad station, or a promenade. Where was this picture taken and what do you think it says about Peru or Peruvian society?

A: It was taken at an upscale outdoor mall in Lima, which sits on a cliff that overlooks the ocean. It was a foggy morning, the shops were on the verge of opening, and people were just milling around. This doesn’t say much about Peru per se, or at least I didn’t intend it to. Yes, perhaps it does feel lonely…but that probably reflects my own feelings at the time I shot it. I was alone, it was the day before my birthday, and it was the end of my trip. So perhaps the photograph conveys those feelings of isolation, confusion, and distance.

Q: There is a very compelling picture of a man who looks like an Indian Saddhu in repose. His glance seems otherworldly and inward, and he is clearly a person with spiritual depth. Who is he and what was your relationship with him?

A: His name is Javier and he is indeed a deeply spiritual and amazing man. I met him on the street and was immediately intrigued by him. I asked to spend some time with him and we met a couple of times and chatted about many things. It turns out he was a clinical pharmacologist who left Peru in the mid 1960s and ended up spending 25 years away. In that period he traveled to 36 countries and lived in India for 6 years (apparently living with Timothy Leary for part of that time). When I met him he was living on the beach in this tent with his dog and working as a painter. He had his own paintings on small canvases and also worked doing murals and such for restaurants. Needless to say, it was really wonderful to be around him. I do feel that he had some sort of spiritual insight or wisdom, and I’m very pleased that some aspect of this was captured in the photograph.

Q: While many of your Peru images document people who are evidently working class and living in rural or urban environments, there is only one photograph that is positively grim, the image of boxlike housing structures with a hill and electrical towers in the background under a featureless sky. Where was this picture taken, and do you agree it is kind of depressing?

A: I don’t find it depressing at all. Sure, it’s a picture of what is definitely not the fancy swish part of Lima. But that doesn’t necessarily imply that all those who live there are impoverished or miserable. I have spent some time in the slums and have found residents there to be warmer and more welcoming than just about anywhere else, certainly more so than those found in modern Western cities. I’m sure there is hardship in those neighborhoods but this photo doesn’t contain anything that reveals that—it’s just a picture of some homes on a hill. Now a photo of a bunch of matching cookie-cutter 4 bedroom houses on cul-de-sacs in suburbia…THAT is what I would find depressing!

Q: There are a few impressive portraits in your Peru portfolio including a man in traditional garb and headdress holding a glass in one hand and a fat cigarette in the other. These images have a strong emotional component that conveys a sense of the person and suggests his or her life experience. Was this intentional on your part and how do you think you achieved it?

A: It was definitely intentional and I’m glad you felt that emotional component. I don’t really know how I achieved it; there’s definitely no exact formula to be discovered. But I’ll turn back to those “old masters” for more eloquent and useful words on this process:

“The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” – Robert Capa

These two made way better photos than I ever will, but I think their work and these quotes helped me realize the intimacy and trust that must be created when taking someone’s photograph. To take all the photos you mentioned, I spoke with the subject and tried to form a relationship and understanding before putting my camera in their face.

Q: Did you shoot all the pictures in your Peru portfolio with the Leica M9 and your old Leitz 50mm and 28mm lenses? If so, which lens did you use most often and when do you use the other? Have you ever considered acquiring a wider or longer lens, or perhaps splitting the difference and trying a 35mm, a focal length favored by many street photographers and photojournalists?

A: Yes all were shot with the M9 with the 28mm or the 50mm. I don’t know which lens I used more—looking through the photos I submitted it seems to be about half and half. I have a 90mm also but didn’t bring it with me on this trip. I would love a 35mm but haven’t had the extra cash to buy one. So if any kind soul at Leica or anywhere is reading this and looking for a belated birthday present for me…

Q: You observe, with commendable candor, that you are trying to develop a personal style. How is that going, and is there any way to do this other than to continue shooting and assess the results? How do you see your creative process evolving over, say, the next 3 years in terms of technique, focus, or subject matter?

A: I don’t have a clear answer for this. I do know that I have progressed immensely in the past 3 years and hope that the next 3 years will take me even further. I have a 2-3 month major photo project in Karachi, Pakistan—that experience will almost certainly shape my work in some profound way. And I’ve just been accepted into a graduate program for photojournalism so that should be helpful in this process as well. In the meantime, shooting and studying are what I have done and will continue to do. The act of just looking is the main point to all of this.

Q: You said that you’ve supported yourself as a photographic assistant in fashion/commercial photography in New York City, but want to move on by finding work shooting your own stuff. Do you think that being an assistant has helped to hone your technical skills in any way that is useful in your present work? And since it’s challenging to support yourself as a photojournalist these days would you consider doing any commercial or fashion photography?

A: I actually worked primarily as a digital technician and I’m sure it helped me in some way, probably just by having to look at and evaluate so many images from a technical and creative standpoint. Looking at content, lighting, and composition is the way to study photographs and doing that all day is a side benefit of my job. Granted, sometimes I wanted to claw my eyes out after looking at boring pictures of a boring girl in a boring dress in a boring white studio background for 14 hours a day.

Thankfully, though, my “boss” for the past couple of years is a ridiculously talented and hard-working young British photographer named Benjamin Lennox, whose work I really admire. He does super creative stuff with incredibly intricate lighting and is also just a stand-up guy. Ben’s knowledge, advice, and support have been very helpful in my own work. His techniques don’t really translate to documentary work, but I think that’s part of why we challenge and respect each other as photographers.

I would definitely consider shooting commercial or fashion photos, but this is not really my strong suit, or at least I haven’t tried very hard to work on this side of photography. I’d rather focus on my documentary work and pay the bills by any means that allow me to keep that singular focus. Then, hopefully at some point I will start getting paid assignments to shoot what I want to shoot.

- Leica Internet Team

Visit Andrew’s website or find him on Instagram @wellerisnothere.