Susan SeubertView Slideshow »
Award-winning photographer Susan Seubert's first official assignment was for a Newsweek article back in 1994.
The nation was following the story of Tonya Harding, a champion figure skater from Portland who had made the headlines due to her connection to an incident that left another skater injured.
At the time, Seubert was working as an assistant for photographer Robbie McClaran, who was assigned to get pictures of one of the men accused of attacking figure skater Nancy Kerrigan.
"I think it was Shane Stant — his arraignment," says Seubert, referring to that first job.
"We really had no idea what we were doing out there. Clearly we were out of our element," acknowledges Seubert. "But it was a first job and you don't always get to be choosy starting out, especially as an assistant. But I knew after we were finished that this type of work wasn't really for me."
Since that day, a lot has changed for Seubert. The Portland-based photographer still makes her living taking pictures, but she has turned her lenses toward capturing stunning shots of landscapes, life and leisure. She talked with Arts & Life about what her career is like today.
Ifanyi Bell: How much has the travel photography business changed since you first started?
Susan Seubert: Well, one thing is that [magazine publishers] generally aren't 'travelling' people as much as they once did.
IB: Is that just a function of the economy?
SS: Right — definitely a function of the economy. It’s been that way since 9/11, or actually I'll push that back a little bit, since Bush. Seriously, it had started to tank when the dot-com industry started to tank, then it really started to tank after 9/11 happened. Before that editors just had a lot more money and the web wasn't that much of a consideration. Now you have to consider not only still photos, but oftentimes clients are going to ask you for video and audio.
Also, now that everything is digital, you are "the lab." Back before the war, I could just put everything in a baggie and put it on FedEx, then pick it up at the lab, ship it to the client and that was it. Now, I spend days processing — going through thousands of images that [I] make.
IB: On average, how many pictures do you take on a single job at a location?
SS: It's usually in the neighborhood of 1,500 to 2,000 per day.
IB: Wait, per day?
SS: If it's a location-heavy shoot, yeah.
IB: I’m no mathematician, but if you're on a shoot for three days, that's close to around 6,000 shots. How many shots are the publications looking for out of that 6,000?
SS: Well… 14 to 20. [Laughter]
IB: That's quite a ratio.
SS: Part of it is that you’re shooting very quickly. It's a lot of street shooting... you’re in 'burst' mode. If it's wildlife, you're certainly in burst mode. [Clients] aren't going to see that many pictures.
IB: But that's work for you?
SS: Yeah, you have to go through each individual image and delete — the delete button is the best button. And so you delete everything that's out of focus or that you don't want your name on, basically. Not every magazine works that way; some magazine editors demand to see the entire take, which is fine. But I prefer to send my clients an organized shoot — that’s what I call a 'technical edit,' taking everything out that is not in focus or has a technical problem with it.
IB: So you are a very busy person.
IB: I know so many people who look at magazines and say, "Oh man, I wish I could have a job taking photos!" and "It must be so awesome to be able to travel all over the world and just take photos for a living!" Is your life privileged and glamorous like this?
SS: Hmmm… We haven’t had 'glamour' for about 10 years. [Laughter] Sometimes I get to stay in really nice hotels. The food is usually good… when I get to eat. Umm… it's just not glamorous! It's just not. I mean, it's neat to be able have a job where your work is out in the public. When you see a story in a magazine, people think, 'Wow, that must have been really fun to shoot.' Well, yeah, of course it was, but .... there is always some challenge that creeps up.
IB: What is the relationship between the photographer and the writer like? Do you know the person who writes your stories?
SS: Sometimes there's no relationship. Sometimes you're just sent off. For instance, I had a job where I had to shoot unique hotels of the Caribbean. There was no writing. The author was very familiar with the Caribbean and picked out 12 hotels. The editor and I went online and looked at the hotels, saw which ones would give us a range of options and then I could just go to each location and shoot whatever I wanted — whatever looked good. And then I came back and that was it.
IB: Do you ever think about becoming a writer and a photographer — becoming a one-stop-shop?
SS: Absolutely not! If I had to add writing on top of getting video and audio and stills and managing all the assets, there's no way you can focus. You have to be completely present for one or the other. As a writer, they have to go and have a real experience that they can write about. Then I, as a photographer, will follow in their footsteps or have my own experience that's parallel to theirs.
IB: What makes you good at this job?
SS: I work my tail off. That's what. I work very, very hard. I think that's what makes me good at this job.
IB: You have mentioned that one of your goals is to take a photo that people aren't going to see on Flickr the next day. What do you mean?
SS: That means doing your homework before you leave [for a shoot] — if you can. Which means going to Getty or going to Flickr. You get your assignment and then you go and look at what's been shot before. Then you'll have a very good idea of what's accessible to anybody. Then you try to see it at better light... better exposure... make a better image of basically the same thing. Or try to find a different angle on the same subject so maybe it's less didactic. I had to shoot Haleakala for the Smithsonian. The picture that you think they would use is the one at sunrise from the crater rim, but instead we hiked 27 miles in less than 72 hours and did the entire crater interior.
IB: So you were looking for a different angle — for a different perspective.
SS: Yeah, and I had copy at that point. I had a writer that had written his story; the story was great and it was very specific. It was about Haleakala, the geologic formation, the history of the place. I had the quotes from Jack London about it being the 'beginnings' of the Earth — and you can see that there. But most people don't hike that far into the crater.
IB: Does it become dangerous, sometimes, when you're trying to look for that unique shot — a shot that no one has captured? Do you place yourself at any particular risk?
SS: The biggest risk to any editorial photographer, to any photographer that travels, is car accidents. More photographers are lost to car accidents than to anything else. Yet there are dangers associated [with] travelling to foreign countries. You want to go and check with the State Department and make sure they know you're there. I was just in Thailand. A week before I left for the assignment, there were three al Qaeda bomb makers who blew up their apartment, and then when I got to southern Thailand there were five car bomb explosions.
IB: How much is that on your mind when you're shooting?
SS: None. [Laughter]
SS: It's just like any other city. I mean if you're going directly to a place that's a 'hot-spot,' you want to be careful. I try not to go to anyplace that ends in '-stan.' But that's just my nature. It's just one of those things where you're aware of your surroundings. As a travel photographer, we're trying to send our readers to this place. We don't want to put them into danger, but travel is inherently a risky thing. That's part of what makes it interesting — part of why we go.
To learn more about Susan Seubert, watch our story on Oregon Art Beat.
- Photographer Susan Seubert Oregon Art Beat