Photographer’s Q&A – Aaron Vincent Elkaim
This weeks Q&A is with Toronto documentary photographer Aaron Vincent Elkaim. His web site is www.avephoto.ca.
A model gets ready for the runway at the Betsy Johnson fashion show in Toronto. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim
What were your first steps in the industry?
My fist steps in the industry were the internships I had after graduating from Loyalist.
I spent a few weeks with documentary photographer Roger Lemoyne, in Montreal, editing his work and assisting on a few jobs. Seeing how he shot and approached his stories was really helpful. It showed me that not every frame is always going to be a winner, no matter how good you are. But if you stay focused on your subject and follow your eye, the picture will eventually happen.
After that, I spent thee weeks at the Windsor Star which was my first experience working full-time at a daily newspaper. It was great going from job to job and shooting such a variety of things in a day. It really helped me prepare for my summer at the Toronto Star.
Prior to that and my time at Loyalist, I shot for the University of Winnipeg’s paper, The Uniter, and a did bit of freelance for the Winnipeg Free Press.
81-year-old Lawrence King sits with the company of his dog, Lady, at East Meadows Ranch and goose sanctuary. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim
When you were a student, what did you want to do after graduation and are you where you thought you would be now?
As a student, I wanted to do the international-documentary-photographer thing and cover stories that were important to the world and me. I still do, but I also know the value of experience. I thought that the best place to gain experience would be working in the newspaper industry.
The rule to becoming a better photographer is: shoot, shoot, shoot. The variety of newspaper assignments and, often, the time constraints really force you to think and adapt. Sometimes, the locations suck and you only have five minutes, so getting a good frame can be a challenge. I’m not always successful but I try to learn from my failures.
I feel grateful and lucky to have had the Toronto Star summer internship and to be getting work now. This is where I hoped I would be and am grateful for it. But I am still new to the game there still much to learn, especially on the business side of freelancing and diversifying.
What or who are your biggest inspirations?
My favorite photographer is Josef Koudelka. Whenever I look at his work, I’m inspired. There are lots of amazing photographers out there but not many inspire me the way he does. I love the way he experiments with his photography and never restricts himself to a specific style. His Gypsy work floors me.
I think inspiration is one of the most difficult things to attain and maintain. It is hard to say exactly where it comes from. I think the most important thing is to try and nurture your own ideas and creativity. It’s very easy to let an idea fade away or become corrupted by someone else who thinks your idea may not be so great.
Palestinians protest the Israeli invasion of Gaza in Toronto. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim
Do you have a mentor?
I don’t have a mentor, per se, but there are a few people whom I trust for advice on projects I’m working on.
How important are mentors?
I think mentors are important but the most important thing is to find a mentor with whom you click. A person whose work inspires you, someone you jive with, and someone who can help you grow. I think that’s the most important thing in a mentor.
Everyone sees things differently but I think a mentor should see things on somewhat of the same plane as you. This way, they can not only provide positive feedback but also be able to give it to you straight.
What was a pivotal point in your career?
The Toronto Star internship last summer was definitely pivotal for me. Not only did it give me the chance to shoot a huge variety of assignments which helped me learn, but it also got my name out there, which is important in the freelance world.
How important is multimedia to you?
Every time I have worked on a multimedia piece I have enjoyed it thoroughly. The problem is that I rarely enjoy watching them. Not because I don’t want to, but because most just don’t keep my interest.
I feel that because they are so new and take so much time and effort, we often bring ourselves into the projects, in the sense that they become our babies. We may lose sight of how an audience might respond to them. I have seen a few great pieces and believe it is a fabulous and exciting way to tell a story. There is definitely incredible potential in this field.
I think the sky is truly the limit for multimedia which is an inspiring thought. But it is much more challenging than simply learning the skills. Many of us can capture good stills, video and sound. But to put it together in an interesting way, that will hold an audience, is definitely a challenge.
How do you ensure that you are progressing as a visual journalist?
I just try to keep shooting, thinking, reading, and learning from what others are producing. I think the philosophy of shoot, shoot, shoot, helps develop skills as a photographer. But there is more to this profession than just taking good pictures.
I think what Frank O’Connor (from Loyalist College) always said, “think, think, shoot”, applies not only to the moment of releasing the shutter but also to growing as a photographer as well.
You have to think about what you are saying with your pictures and that comes when the camera is not in your hands.
Becoming a better editor, in terms of what you’re communicating, and being critical of how you covered a story, is probably more difficult than just coming home with some decent images. Trying to apply that critical thinking to your next shoot is an important part of growing as a visual journalist.
What are some of the must-see websites you visit? Please include why you visit these sites (e.g. inspiration, guidance, information, education).
Well, I’ll try to come up with a few that others have not already mentioned but I’m sure there might be some repetition.
Slate has great articles and different angles from the mainstream media.
The Onion is essential because we all need a little humour, especially in this business.
Bombay Flying Club is by two Dutch photojournalists who are doing great multimedia.
The Sacramento Bee’s The Frame because it’s nice to see pictures that are not thumbnails.
Mother Jones is simply outstanding photojournalism with a broad, global perspective.
Also, check out The biz-biz. It’s a fun blog by my sister Lara and her friends. She’s a fashion designer.
What is your favorite way to unwind?
A really good movie, one that makes you think and, preferably, one that is visually interesting.
Just walking the streets in nice light, snapping frames and finding the creative energy.
Beer, photo books and friends with whom to discuss them. (The books, not the beer).
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
The best advice I ever received about being a photographer was to “never stop shooting for yourself”.
Once you stop shooting pictures for yourself then you lose something. Ideally, you can make a living shooting only the images you want. But that is not always possible.
His main point was to keep enjoying photography. If you don’t do pictures that make you happy, it will eventually become just a job like any other.
As well, if you ever change professions then the passion will still be there to keep photography in your life, instead of being jaded and selling off all your gear.
Makes sense to me!