Dave Baker

A Conversation with Photographer Jake Rutherford

How did you first get started in photography?

Smelling like developer and with an old Minolta 35mm, I watched paper images of tree limbs and puddle splashes appear in the red light-tinted liquid developer. The high school darkroom is just about extinct, which is a shame since it inspired me so deeply. Despite this magical rapsody, I didn’t pick up the still camera again until I was in my early to mid-20s.

Professionally, however, I began in video as the editor of my high school news channel and transitioned into being a partner of a video production company doing regional commercial work and documentaries. When I sold off my share, I bought a Nikon D90 and started shooting stills heavily. Storytelling is storytelling and light is light, so switching over was an easy task–not to mention I spent less time editing stills than endless video.

What has your creative journey been like? Where are you now?

Creative journeys are, unfortunately, not very linear nor do they make a whole lot of sense. Mine has been filled with inspirational highs and the pain of many lows. It’s still quite wobbly–I don’t even know if I will ever be a professional photographer again. Yet, I am certain I will always be collecting and sharing stories in some manner.

My early creative development flared up when I taught photography workshops in New Mexico. I was exposed to a choir of unique, talented voices and began to form some of my own perspective. I was outside a lot, which always helps the mind. I used each new week of workshops to mimic a different genre. One course would be landscapes and the next abstract existential expressionism and the next flashy portraits with paid models.

The best of times and the worst of times was when I was an editor and producer at the National Geographic Magazine. I can’t articulate the education and exposure I received from past and present storytellers, the lessons of experienced editors, and the personal relationships with demi-gods of the field. Simultaneously, the heavy burden of those important stories on your mind day after day while witnessing no outright change in the world began to get weighty. Now, I’d like to see my eye and hand more intertwined with cause-based work. Storytellers are a dime a dozen, but the hands that serve are few.

Finally, I have returned to a phase where I am re-learning the genuine joy that is needed for well done photography. I’m shooting less but hoping to make more meaningful frames–mostly of my son.

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Austin, Texas, September 2017

What is your most memorable assignment?

Out of the many, one moment in Kenya sticks out to me today. I was following an American aid group and handful of Kenyan school teachers to their homes in the Ringroad slum near Kisumu. The houses were compact, cobbled together complexes with single bed, sometimes a door, and typically dirt floors. These teachers had left their hometowns and cities to live in these homes to be closer to the slum’s orphans who attended their school.

The three teachers I photographed were proud of their homes. It was a place to call their own, and I sensed that. However, when we arrived at the third teacher’s house, we gathered in the inner courtyard. Without prompting, a pastor from the States felt an urge to express himself, as he was accustomed to do. He ranted about how people in America have so many beautiful and wonderful things–so much better than this home. He went on by saying Americans were spoiled, but yet this Kenyan teacher had a dirt floor shack and nothing to be proud of… that Americans should be ashamed of our quality possessions. He was naively trying to encourage this man for his humility, but in reality, he was covering the man with pity.

Although the teacher was proud of his home, he now felt less than encouraged by the rant. From that moment on, I witnessed the shift in the teacher's eyes to downcast and sullen. It was my turn to photograph this man, and deeply angered as I was about the loud, uncalled for rant, I had to try to show this man honor and respect overtly. How can I make this image not be about his possessions, how can I not pity him with my frame?

To this day, I include that photo in a portfolio for myself. It haunts me how he looks downward with a pocket watch gripped in one hand and his entire belongings packed into suitcases in the corner behind him. He has downcast eyes, but an austere pride in his smile. I can’t articulate the combination of emotions I read in his body language. The moment has shaped me into aspiring toward more sensitivity in my approach.

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Ring Road Slum. Kisumu, Kenya. 2012

When you’re looking through the lens of your camera, what is going on in your mind? What do you look for?

Usually it’s an intense anxiousness about getting the “shot”–if I care about the project. However, if I am bored with the frame or the assignment, I’m usually frustrated, and not in a positive way. Then, I get even more anxious, because if you aren’t interested in something, what makes you think someone else will be when you share it?

Otherwise, what I am searching for is the moment, above all things–a gesture, the frame, some sort of unique and genuine form of life.

Do you ever get nervous photographing strangers?

Every day of my whole life...I even get nervous about photographing non-strangers. I don’t think that will ever go away. I am a shy person, and perhaps that’s why I like to be behind the shutter. Just like when I was six and preferred to pretend to be the band when every other kid at daycare was pretending to be at a dance.

Sometimes I leverage that nervousness into a healthy, respectful approach to making portraits. But more often than I’d like to admit, I see a beautiful moment, and my fear prevents me from approaching it. They may say “no,” and I guess that stresses me out. But “no” is the worst that can happen, right? Well, I suppose the worst that can happen is probably much worse.

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Plant it Forward Farms // Bittersweet Monthly, August 2017

Are there any philosophies you live by when it comes to how you approach your craft?

Probably too many…

  • The person in the photograph has just as much ownership of the image as I do.
  • The lens can be the great democratizer, everyone before it is equal.
  • Avoid projecting your philosophies over a story, as best you can.
  • Make yourself less, so the subject can become more, louder and in focus.
  • Practice creative sabbath so you can resurrect your gift.  

How do you get over a creative slump?

That is the million dollar question. I wish I knew. Maybe the answer is to just keep taking photos–not necessarily more photos, just don’t stop the process. Perhaps read a new book, write poetry, try painting or a new kind of camera. Give yourself limitations. Once I gave myself a challenge to shoot only one camera and one lens for a week, but then that week turned into 3 years.

Slumps don’t just affect creativity. It is connected to your everything health.

What life lessons have you learned while pursuing this career?

Nothing lasts, and nothing is guaranteed, especially getting well paid for doing creative work. Do your work because it is good in and of itself. This is why I like shooting film these days. The frames may get ruined by a bad batch of rolls, a light leak, a bad mix of the developer...but it’s still worth it to make that momentary frame - because you were there, you were witness to that moment and gave it your attention.

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White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Is there a piece of advice you have received over the years that has really stuck with you?

So many that I have forgotten...

  • A famous quote attributed to Arthur “Weegee” Fellig was “F/8 and Be There.” The right moment means more than the polished framing or the aperture you used.
  • The kind and sensitive Lynn Johnson taught me that you are first and foremost human, then a photographer. Therefore, show respect, be sensitive and attentive, be that person's voice–instead of transplanting your own. Try not to take out the camera when you show up on assignment for the first hour or day or week.
  • The infamously brilliant Bill Allard once told me over a once-in-a-lifetime dinner in France: “How can you expect to make good pictures when you don’t have a camera in your hands?” Then he asked if the publication would pay the check for dinner.
See more of Jake's work:

Instagram: @jakerrutherford