In this series, we interview some of Bittersweet’s long-standing and talented contributors about the art of storytelling. Bittersweet stories are only as good as the people who tell them, so in this series, we go behind the scenes to capture a glimpse of the faces behind the faces of our stories. From what sparked their interest in the craft to what makes a good story to why they contribute, these interviews delve into the personal, the professional and the transformative.
"Stories are a communal currency of humanity." – Tahir Shah, in Arabian Nights
Part I of this series features contributor Erica Baker – a documentary photographer, Michigan native, DC transplant and world traveler. Erica has contributed to over a dozen Bittersweet stories over the past six years and shares her insights with our readers. Read the full interview below.
What first sparked your interest in photography?
EB / It’s hard to say what first sparked my interest in photography. I have been drawn to images since I was very young. My parents used to buy me those little yellow one-time-use cameras and I remember lining up my dolls to take their photograph. I can also remember the anticipation going to the drug store to pick up my little paper packet of prints after spending a week in the summer carefully choosing my clicks as the shots counted down on the meter. I vividly remember the first time I looked at a National Geographic magazine. We were staying at my friend’s uncle’s lakeside cabin in Michigan. He collected issues for decades and had an entire wall full of yellow covers lined back to back. I can remember lying on my stomach, flipping through the pages and feeling as if I’d been transported around the world through the images. I still feel the same way when I see phenomenal photo stories. I still feel the same anticipation culling through images after a particularly wonderful shooting day. I once heard the photography bug described as ‘it just kind of bites you.’ If you haven’t been bit by that little photo bug, perhaps you don’t understand my reference - but once you’ve been bit, well, it’s hard to go back.
What is your greatest challenge in storytelling through photography?
EB / One of the greatest challenges in storytelling with photography is trying to take yourself out of the story – to remain unbiased and observe – while still using your own eye and creative voice. It’s impossible to be completely unbiased, but I think it is so important to be a listener first and come to the story with an open mind. At the same time, some of the best photo stories seem to be made when the photographer feels personally connected to the subjects in the story. It’s a hard line to walk sometimes.
What makes a good photograph?
EB / Every photographer who shoots documentary work will tell you that the ultimate goal is to shoot ‘stand alone’ images – photographs that tell a story without any further explanation. However, these types of images are the most difficult ones to make. Generally, I am striving for relevance to the over-all story I am trying to tell, emotion, and something interesting and unexpected.
Is there a person or character from one of the stories you’ve contributed to who stands out?
EB / It’s difficult to choose just one person out of the dozens I have met working on Bittersweet stories, but I will say the theme that sticks out to me is the ability of humans to rise above the most difficult circumstances. I think of the refugee who underwent reconstructive facial surgeries after a bomb exploded in her home country and is now building a life in a completely new country and culture. Or the maintenance worker who recently got clean and secured employment after decades on living with addiction under a local bridge. I think of an eighteen-month-old orphan in Beijing, China, fighting for his life after open-heart surgery. I find the fight for hope and for a new life after experiencing tragedy to be incredibly inspiring.
If you had to choose one shot you’ve contributed to Bittersweet, which would you choose and why?
EB / The shot I captured of a young boy practicing the cello in his class with the DC Youth Orchestra program stands out to me as a memorable photo. This frame was made while I was on one of my very first assignments with Bittersweet five years ago. I can remember turning the corner into his classroom and seeing him having a quiet moment with his instrument while the chaos of children practicing on squeaky strings clamored around him. The sun was beginning to set and was streaming into the windows behind him and I quietly knelt down to take his photograph. Wandering through the orchestra’s summer classrooms that evening five years ago I fell even more deeply in love with documentary photography and with visual storytelling. I had just stepped away from my desk job to pursue freelance photography, so shooting that evening just felt like confirmation that I was moving in the right direction. After shooting that assignment with Bittersweet Monthly, I continued my relationship with the orchestra, shooting photos for them consistently for five years now and now hope to enroll my son in their program when he turns four. The shot will always remain special to me both because of my love for the organization and because of its significance as a new beginning for my journey as a photographer and as a Bittersweet contributor.