Jonathan Blaustein: What’s the story with the beard? How long have you had that not-quite-quasi-ZZ-Top-looking thing?
Zack Arias: I have not seen my chin in sixteen years. I had a goatee after high school, and then in ’95, I went on a trip around the US, and I decided not to shave. It’s a really good device to cover up double-chins.
So I’ve just stuck with it. I had to cut it off once for a part-time job delivering pizzas. Other than that, I’ve had this stupid monster on my chin for a long time. One reason I keep it is it’s a reminder that I can’t go back to a normal day job. I have to make photography work for me.
It’s lost all its color, though, after four kids. It’s all gray and white. Part of me is ready to lose it, but none of my kids know me without it.
JB: I’ve had mine about as long as you’ve had yours. I can’t really imagine going back, they do become a part of our personality, no?
ZA: They do. I would not be able to think about things without it. Whenever I’m thinking, I twirl and pull on it. If I cut it off, I would be so lost.
JB: It’s a good point. It definitely is an advantage for guys like us. It makes us appear smarter…
JB: …and it gives us that extra beat. That extra two seconds to figure something out. You touch it, and look pensive, but really you’re thinking, “I don’t know what to say, and I need to come up with something quickly.” Is that about right?
ZA: (laughing) That is exactly it.
JB: Our secrets have now been divulged to the cyber-sphere.
JB: Isn’t it safe to say you don’t have any secrets from the cyber-sphere?
ZA: Not too many. I try to be a fairly open book, wherever I am in life. I used to operate differently. I would play my cards close to the chest, and embellish whatever I was working on so people would believe I was working on more important things than I was. The whole fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude.
That didn’t go well for me, and my whole life fell apart. I’ve always been active on forums, or some sort of water-cooler-esque type of thing where photographers commune and get together. I just decided that when I came back to photography, I would be truthful with myself, and my colleagues. For better or worse.
And it’s been a lot better. I don’t feel like I have to position myself with anyone any longer.
JB: And yet so many people are nervous and afraid to speak their mind. Wouldn’t you say?
ZA: Yes. I think so. Some people are nervous about sharing where they are in their life or career, because maybe they have to keep up the persona that “Hey, I’m busy, and things are going great.”
In a world where we all need to be nice, and professional, and everybody’s worried about sticking their neck out, or saying anything that isn’t nice…if you have a problem about something in your industry, you keep your mouth shut.
There are fantastic arguments to be made for that. I do bite my tongue a lot. But then there are times that I let it loose. I’m going to say what I think, and try to be professional, and hope that works out well.
JB: I can relate. When I started writing for Rob, almost 3.5 years ago now, he encouraged that type of honesty. I remember being really uncomfortable the first few times I let it fly. His advice, which I took very seriously, was that people respect honesty.
In my research, looking at the way people respond to you online, where you have a huge presence, it seems like there’s been a correlation with your success. Or am I assuming too much here?
ZA: I would agree with you. My goal is not to build a community, or build numbers, or get people to follow me or read my stuff. My goal is to interact with my industry, my peers and colleagues, and help out where I can.
But I am going to say what I think. The people I interact with, I want them to be the kind of people that understand that. They don’t have to always agree with me, but there has to be a mutual respect.
I don’t want to make everything sugar-coated and happy, trying to bring in as many people as possible without ever stepping on toes. I think people do react to people who are genuine. People who are honest.
You can tell that about someone by just going through their twitter feed, or reading a few blog posts. I think my number one hero in this industry today is Joe McNally, and he is the most genuine, humble, truthful, tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy.
He’s very helpful, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he’s honest with his success, and his failures. I love that man, as a photographer, as well as a person. There’s not many people I look up to more than McNally.
We’ve all met the divas and the rockstars, and their ego enters the room before they do. I don’t want to associate with that, really.
JB: As a photographer, have you found that working in such close quarters with people, under pressure-packed environments for years, that you can kind of smell that ego and attitude as soon as it walks in the door? How are you at getting quick reads on people? Is that a skill you think has evolved?
ZA: Absolutely. Maybe it’s a personal skill that you just bring to photography, or to life. But being a photographer, especially working in editorial or commercial fields, you never know who you’re going to be in front of, and who you’re going to be interacting with, day to day.
You get an email that says you’re assigned to go shoot Mr. Jones, over at ACME company, and when you walk through the front door, you have no idea who you’re going to meet. It is a good skill to be able to size people up quickly.
In photography, you don’t have very much time to interact. If I feel like this person is puffing themselves up, that lets me know how to deal, and get the best picture out of them. Sometimes, I’ll play into that, if it lets me make the best portrait I can.
Other times, I feel like I need to bust through the veneer, and I understand the veneer, because I too had that myself. But I want to bust through that, and get something different.
It’s a good skill to have, but I can’t say if photography has taught me that, or not. You get that gut feeling about someone, when you meet them.
JB: Speaking for myself, it’s definitely a skill that I’ve learned over time.
JB: I know I was naive and worthless for some time. But pushing 40, I feel like I’ve begun to figure it out. It’s funny, because in a youth-obsessed culture, we often under-value these skills that you can only learn from taking your knocks.
ZA: Have you seen Craig Ferguson’s rant on youth?
ZA: It was one of his opening monologues. Fantastic. He comes out and says, “I’ve figured out what all the problems are.” He talked about the fact that society used to appreciate experience, wisdom and age, and then it turned to celebrating youth, and became stupid. That kind of thing.
I just hit 40, and I start to worry, am I going to be as relevant? Every art buyer I meet is fresh out of school, and twenty-something, and here comes the gray-haired old guy. But the reason that I really appreciate where I am in life now, though I know I still have a long way to go, is that I bring experience to things that don’t have anything to do with lenses, cameras and lights.
I can walk in a CEO’s office, or a hip-hop studio that’s filled with weed smoke, and I can do my job. Experience is invaluable.
JB: We’re all looking for that sweet spot. Because we’ve all seen work by older photographers, and we scratch our heads and say “when did he lose it?” So a lot of people are wondering “how do you keep it?”
ZA: I hope that the hunger to evolve always stays with me. This October marks the ten year anniversary that I left my day-job, and put a stake in the ground. I said, “I’m gonna be a photographer, dammit.” I had failed before at this venture, and this was my second chance to make it.
I’m proud of what I’ve done over the last ten years, but I want the next ten years to look different. When I hit 50, I want to change it up again. I don’t want to settle in.
JB: But for you, it’s not just shooting, of course. I think a lot of people are familiar with you through your web presence. You’ve got a popular tumblr in which you answer people’s questions, and you just turned that into a book.
You make yourself accessible to others, and you teach workshops, sell T-shirts. Do you see teaching as much a part of who you are as clicking the shutter?
ZA: I do. I actually had to back off on teaching, because I’m a photographer. I’d been asked to do some workshops, and I really enjoyed it, so I did some more. Then, a lot of my regular music-industry client work fell out from under my feet.
Teaching kind of caught me, so I started doing it more. But then, all of the favorite pictures I was creating, at that point, were at workshops. Not personal projects, or going out and getting steady client work.
I was becoming miserable as a photographer. I’ve watched photographers become popular with their web presence, start teaching, and stop shooting. We don’t really see them take pictures anymore. Yet they’re constantly out there saying, “Come on photographers, I’m going to help you out…to do the thing that I don’t do anymore.”
I love teaching, and I’ll continue to do it, but I want you to find me with a camera in my hand. I don’t want to just set up at the end of the dock and sell bait. I want you to find me with a hook in the water, and if you ask me what I’m doing, I’m going to tell you, and share my experience.
I don’t think I can be a relevant teacher, if I’m not out there shooting, and working with new technology. If all of your stories are, “Well, ten years ago, I was on this job…” I’d rather say “Ten days ago, I was on this job, and this is how I dealt with it.”
JB: I want to talk to you about Cuba, because the Santa Fe Workshops is sponsoring this interview, and a little birdie told me that you did a workshop with those guys in Cuba. Then I saw on your blog that you made some images down there as well. So I thought maybe we could consider you our resident Cuba expert for the day.
ZA: For the day, yes.
JB: Are you comfortable with that moniker?
ZA: I’ve only been one time, with the folks from Santa Fe. They brought me in to lead a group of photographers through Havana.
JB: So what did you think?
ZA: It’s an Un-Believable place. And the people are so amazing. Cuba is just an unreal, fantastic place. The thing I tell people, when I start talking about it is, get your ass to Cuba. Get there now, before it opens up. Before the casinos come back, and there’s a Starbucks on every corner.
It’s a remarkable place that is just on our back door.
JB: What were some of the things that were most appealing to you?
ZA: The people were the most appealing, number 1. Number 2, it was meeting fellow photographers, Cuban photographers and artists.
They have done so much with so little for so long that they can do anything with nothing. Some of the best photography that I’ve seen in a long time was done by Cuban nationals that are down there.
The stories that they tell, like when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was the red-headed step child, and they got dropped. “Sorry, you’re on your own.” One photographer was telling me that during that time, there was no film. But he had gotten his hands on some expired, 35mm movie film, and he and a buddy of his cut it up, and put it into canisters. But they didn’t have any chemistry. So they went hospitals and doctor’s offices, and got the expired chemistry that they used for making X-rays.
With vinegar and water and such, they built their developer, stop and fix, and it was super-contrasty, but it worked. So they kept shooting.
I met another photographer who had gotten hold of an old Nikon D40, or something like that, and he had an old Minolta lens. Of course, the lens didn’t fit on the body, and there were no adapters. So he would take pictures by holding the lens in front of the body, and focusing it, and he made it work.
As far as other forms of art, it’s like, I’ve got some phone books, and a cardboard box, a broom, and someone’s going to make prints. It’s a purity, and I walked away from that experience in Cuba looking at all of us photographers in the West, in the developed world, and we have everything, and we’re not doing anything with it.
They have nothing, and they are pouring out their heart into the craft. They are so sincere about photography, and art in general. We went to a ballet school, and a boxing school, and the kids are so passionate.
It blew me away, and showed me how fat and rich and spoiled we all are. I left half my gear in Cuba. I dispersed it to people who needed it, and the next time I go, I’m going to buy some used stuff, or things I’m not using much, and leave all the gear there.
“You need a camera? Here you go. You need a flash, here you go.” You take down some AA batteries with a recharging unit, and you’ve made a friend for life.
JB: It sounds like the experience offers the photographers who come down to the workshop more than just the chance to photograph old cars and beaten up doors and windows.
JB: It seems like degraded, weathered old Cuban things are images that we’ve seen so many times. How are you able to guide people away from just clicking the shutter at cliché?
ZA: You’ve got to remember, some people just enjoy photography for the sake of photography. They’re not trying to cure cancer with their camera. They’re not trying to be the next Richard Avedon, or Mary Ellen Mark. They go to Cuba, and they cannot wait to shoot an HDR picture of an old Chevy.
That is their dream, and they’re going to go home, and make a big print of it, and put it on their wall. Then, they’re going to sit back with a huge smile, because they’re going to remember going to Cuba, and getting their HDR picture of an old Chevrolet on the side of the street. And they’re going to love that.
You and I will scoff, and gag, and say “NO!” and tear at our clothes, but you’ve got to let people just enjoy it. Sometimes, I’m jealous, because there’s a lot of pictures I never take because everyone takes that picture, and I’ve seen it a million times.
What I tell people, especially on something like going to Cuba, is let photography be secondary. Your camera is your passport into experiences. There’s an old Jay Maisel quote that I harp on all the time: “If you want to become a more interesting photographer, become a more interesting person.”
You do that through increasing your experiences in this life, with the people you meet, and the things that you see. Going to Cuba will definitely make you a more interesting person. It opens your eyes to things, socially, politically and economically. You come back different, with a new perspective on life.
The pictures are good and fun, and of course you want to go down there and make photos. My thing is portraits, so I wanted to get some of those, and street photography and such. But when I think of Cuba, it’s not about the photography. I think about the people, and the music and the food and the art. Sitting out by the ocean, watching the young kids jump in the water. And the rum, and the cigars.
And the stomach bug I had for two weeks after the trip…
ZA: All of that. I don’t think about the pictures, but the camera is what took me there. It allowed me into the doors of people’s homes, places I couldn’t have entered otherwise. The camera was the excuse to share a coffee with someone, which was far more valuable than whatever picture I took.
Does that make sense?
JB: Of course. It’a heck of an answer. So good that I’m going to spin it on you. Given how well you just described Cuba, now I’m a little curious about where you’re based.
I’ve only been through Atlanta, the ATL, one time. It was very brief, many years ago, and let’s just say my memories were clouded. We’ll leave it at that.
What’s it like down there in Hotlanta? You’re from Georgia, right, so this is home turf?
ZA: Home turf. Yes. I wasn’t born here, but I moved here when I was three, so close enough.
JB: That will qualify. Is everyone hangin’ out with Ludacris, smokin’ blunts and going to Braves games? Or what?
ZA: That’s just our life. No, Atlanta a great, big city that allows you to do whatever you want to do with your life. It’s got a big enough population, 5 million and growing, that it can handle that, but it’s still a small town kind of feel. The life in Atlanta is all about the neighborhoods.
Our downtown kind of sucks. Don’t bother going there. The life is in the neighborhoods. We’re a networking city, so we love to connect people with other people. Whenever I’m out talking to someone, very often I’ll say, “You know what, you need to meet this other guy I know, because he’s working on something you could connect with. I’ll put the two of you together, because I think y’all could do something with that.”
I get a lot of work in Atlanta like that. Two people are having a conversation, and then my name will get dropped into there, and then I get an email connecting me to someone else.
We’re a great hub. I love our airport, because I can go anywhere in the world I need to be.
And I would say we rival New York in food. If you want to come and eat amazing food in Atlanta, I will send you home fat, happy, and bloated out of your mind.
JB: Something tells me New York wouldn’t necessarily compete with you guys on the biscuit and gravy front. I would think you have that all wrapped up.
ZA: I’m talking international cuisine. Not just southern food. One of our favorite places to go eat is this little dive called Hankook Taqueria. It’s a Korean taqueria with a little Southern flair to it. It’s unreal.
We have the best pizza you’ll ever put in you mouth, in this town. And I’ll say that to any New Yorker.
JB: Are you intentionally trying to provoke controversy here? I feel like you are. If you’re going after pizza…
ZA: It’s hip hop. You’ve got to have some rivalry. We got to talk crap about other places and people.
JB: (laughing.) So this is now the pizza version of Dirty South claiming supremacy over NYC-style hip hop? Is that where we’re at?
ZA: That’s where it’s at.
JB: It’s hard out here for a pimp. Is that what you’re telling us?
ZA: (laughing) One of my top three favorite movies ever, right there. Hustle and Flow.
JB: It’s a great, great film. I actually found that out by reading an interview you recently did in which you claimed that those interviewers were the most prepared and excellent that you’ve ever interacted with. So I felt that, given I was guaranteed to not be number 1, I could just be lazy. I didn’t have to do any prep.
I really felt empowered by the fact that someone else was automatically better than me.
ZA: (laughing) Well you should. Because Tina and Ryan at The Great Discontent are…
JB: They’re better than me.
ZA: They’re blog gods.
JB: I hear you. I’m not even being sarcastic. I accept the fact that I am a blog human, and not a blog god. I’m empowered by it. You’ve done me a favor.
ZA: Come on? Don’t you want to rise up to the occasion?
JB: Nope. Nope. I’m a lazy, GenX slacker, man. You’ve been generous with your time. Is there anything else you’d like the audience to know about? When did your new book come out?
ZA: It’s been out a month or two. I can’t even remember.
JB: Where can people find that? Amazon?
ZA: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, things like that. But I don’t want to toot my own horn here. I do want to give a shout out to you, and Rob, and everyone working with A Photo Editor. You’re my number 1 photography-related blog that I follow.
There are a lot of good photography blogs, but about the industry, and working, and the people that you profile, everything Rob’s built has been fantastic.
And a shout out to the Santa Fe Workshops too. They took a chance on me, doing this trip to Cuba, and I appreciate that. Get your ass to Cuba. That should be the name of this article.
JB: Get your ass to Cuba. That’s the un-official title. And that was very classy of you. In all of my interviews, you’re the first person who’s ever turned it around with a reverse shout out to us. Good on ya.