“The best part of photography is that it is always an adventure. It is always a new environment, new lighting scenario, a new subject – an entirely new world to explore.”
Greta Rybus (born in 1986) is an editorial portrait and documentary photographer from the USA currently residing in Portland, Maine. She studied photojournalism at University of Montana. She is a member of “Wonderful Machine” and a Getty Assignment photographer.
Interview with Greta Rybus
Greta, what was your most memorable moment shooting pictures?
I think you can work really hard to make a great image, but the best images come from a stroke of magic; a gift that can come in the form of incredible light, an interesting element of a location, or a fascinating subject. For example, I once was driving through rural Montana, at the end of a day of taking photos and interviewing. The sky opened up into this stunning light, and I pulled over and began photographing. I met an amazing family that evening, and they allowed me to document them and their home. Two images from that day are still in my portfolio. I returned to visit them again before I moved to the East Coast, and I think of that family often.
Why did you become a photographer? And why photojournalism?
I initially fell in love with photojournalism because it is an art form with the potential to create change. I love the camera’s ability to tell a story and be a witness to the realities of life. Although I hope it will, I can’t be sure if my photography will be a catalyst for change. But, I know that it does change me. The things I work to develop to become a better photographer – patience, lack of judgment, creativity, the ability to listen, responsiveness, an appreciate for beauty – are also the things that will make me grow as a person.
What does photography mean to you? And what do you want to transmit with your pictures?
There’s a poem by William Carlos Williams about an old woman eating a plum. It’s a beautiful poem, simple and striking: filled with simple details. As a reader, we know how the plums taste because we, too, have tasted a plum. We know how the woman might feel because the poet has told us about the moment and allowed us to know the importance of it. I want my photography to exist in the same vein as this poem.
I always say that I want my photography to feel like a conversation, to feel warm, interesting, approachable, and present.
To a Poor Old Woman
Munching a plum on
the street a paper bag of them in her hand.
They taste good to her.
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her.
You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand.
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air.
They taste good to her.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
Lately, I’ve been inspired by painters. They use light in ways that I can learn a lot from. I’ve been looking at Dutch Golden Age painters like Vermeer. And, I’m always the most inspired by my photographer friends, because I’m able to more clearly see the motivation that propels them and the obstacles they work through.
What’s your favorite inspirational quote about photography?
“And, wherever you are, avoid gimmickry. Good photography is based on truth and integrity (…) Let your picture composition be honest, pure, strong and well-defined. It is a matter of design, and the less complicated a design, the more pleasing it is to the eye.”
This quote is from George Rodger, one of the founders of Magnum. It is an excerpt from a letter he wrote his eight-year-old son when he expressed an interest in photography. It was written in the 1950’s I believe. Every so often, I read the whole letter.
How would you describe your photographic voice and way of working?
“The best part of photography is that it is always an adventure.”
When I’m working on assignment, I usually have very limited time with my subject or on location. Much of the process is trying to find ways to learn and connect with the person or the story. The best part of photography is that it is always an adventure. It is always a new environment, new lighting scenario, a new subject – an entirely new world to explore.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
My images are typically naturally lit, reality-based, and centered around the lives of everyday people.
What qualities and characteristics does a good photojournalist need?
I think all artists need to have an inner drive to create, and this is especially true for photojournalists. You make images because you can’t NOT make them. Specifically, photojournalists need to have a reverence for human dignity, the ability to tell a visual story, an understanding of journalistic ethics, and an evolving and creative mind.
Greta Rybus, what does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes? Especially keeping in mind the over abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society.
It needs to be genuine.
What do you consider to be the greatest changes photojournalism has gone through in recent years and what will be the challenges in years to come?
“I believe that change never looks the way that we expect it to, and I foresee exploring and adapting to a mercurial photography industry throughout my career.”
I’m at the very beginning of my photography career; I’ve only been working as a full-time freelancer for about two years. The challenges I face may be different from those of my mentors and peers who have been in the industry for decades. For example, I haven’t worked as a photographer for a thriving newspaper, and Instagram has been present for much my professional career. I believe that change never looks the way that we expect it to, and I foresee exploring and adapting to a mercurial photography industry throughout my career.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
From everything. Ideas for photos can come from anything. Usually, the best ideas are simple ones.
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
I have a very, very small photography kit. I’m not as interested in cameras as I am in content and story. I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark ii, the L series 24-70mm f2.8, and the L series 70-200 f2.8.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
“National Geographic’s Found Tumblr” showing images from their archives: www.natgeofound.tumblr.com. I also like “Feature Shoot” and “The Image, Deconstructed”.
What book about photography would you recommend?
Growing up, I read Osa Johnson’s “I Married Adventure”. It’s favorite in my family. Published in 1940, it’s the autobiography of a young woman from Kansas, who fell in love with a traveling photographer in the 1910’s. They traveled throughout Africa with George Eastman of Kodak. She became a skilled filmmaker, photographer, pilot and writer. Her book is not a photography book per se, but it’s a book about adventure.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) photographer?
Take a lot of photos. Be curious. Start by walking out the door, or talking to a stranger. The best stories are often in your own neighborhood. Self-assign photography projects that you care about, and assign yourself goals and projects that will improve your business marketing and financial skills.