Photographer’s Q&A – Lucas Mulder
This week’s Q&A is with Boston-based photographer Lucas Mulder. His web site is lucasmulder.com.
SANTA ANITA, GUATEMALA; 2006. Farmer Doña Vilma gestures to a bag of coffee beans being spread out in the sun to dry. Santa Anita is a small coffee finca (farm) run collectively by ex-guerrilla who fought together during the Guatemalan civil war. (Photo by Lucas Mulder)
What were your first steps in the industry?
Well, for reasons I can’t even recall, I was asked in my third year of high school to take over the beat of school reporter for the local paper, The Orangeville Banner. I had to file once a week, story and photos. I didn’t have a lot of prior experience but it came pretty easily to me and I eventually started hanging out at the paper more than at school.
My first big “break” was covering a clogging festival in nearby Dundalk, Ontario. I also covered township meetings in Mulmer, the occasional fire, and weekly Rotary meetings in Shelburne. Not the hardest-hitting stories available but they were a start.
I ended up putting down the cameras at the end of high school and it wasn’t until a good five or six years later that I picked them back up. By that time, I had done some travelling, learned a little more about the world, and was quickly coming to the conclusion that photography was connected to how I wanted to communicate.
I think the next thing I published was a cover for Fuse magazine – an image of Tariq Ali giving a speech outside the U.S. embassy in Toronto.
BARTA’A SHARQIYYA, PALESTINE; 2004. Israeli forces patrol the perimeter of the industrial zone, while in the background a Caterpillar D-9 destroys a factory. Barta’a Sharqiyya is located near the Green Line, and the buildings were being razed to make way for the wall Israel is building within Palestinian lands. (Photo by Lucas Mulder)
When you were a student, what did you want to do after graduation? Are you where you thought you would be now?
I was a desultory student at best. I dropped out of the University of Toronto during an orientation meeting – just walked out and headed to Europe. I tried again a couple years later. I managed two semesters at Concordia but with a little help from Gerry Shikatani (I studied poetry) I gave up that, too. I then took a couple years to study with individual poets: mostly Sharon Theson and Paul Dutton.
It was at the end of this time that I began seriously thinking about photography again. I tried hard but I just felt too detached from what I wanted to say via poetry, whereas photography put me in much closer contact with the people around me. I tried to straddle both poetry and photography for a time, but as I became more drawn to documentary work, I let the poetry go. I still tend to make what I’d consider poetic images, and am drawn to producing work in series, so my time as poet still informs me. But photography suits my voice best.
Am I where I thought I would be? Definitely not. Though I think that’s probably for the best.
What or who are your biggest inspirations?
I think most often I find myself being moved more than inspired.
I typically work in remote areas – e.g. Palestine, Guatemala, Bolivia – amongst people who are living very difficult lives with few resources and who are usually impacted by events totally outside of their control – occupation, poverty, civil war, crushing globalization, U.S Imperialism, Neoliberalism, etc.
Despite their hardships, these people exhibit a grace and a hospitality that has always moved me beyond words. I don’t want to speak in generalizations here, but the vast majority of the people I have had the privilege of working with have gone out of their way to welcome me into their lives.
Every time I’m feeling a little stodgy or bound up in my own problems, I remember the Palestinian family that beckoned me up to their home in one of the Bethlehem refugee camps. It was 2003, during Ramadan, and the city was under full military curfew/control by Israeli forces. From their roof, they could see a column of tanks approaching and were concerned for my safety. Those tanks were a large part of the reason I was there but still I conceded.
As I stepped into their home, they whisked me to the table and began preparing food. It was more or less mid-day, so this made sense. It took me a good few minutes to realize that this food was just for me, as they themselves were fasting. It took me a little while longer to remember that while I could break curfew and venture out into the streets, they couldn’t, and they probably didn’t have all that much on hand to spare.
I then tried my best to politely turn them down but they wouldn’t hear of it. The food kept coming and I kept eating, surrounded by a family of eight who smiled as I ate. We talked about the Syrian soap opera that was on the television, how hard the curfew was to live with this time around, and how well their kids were doing in school – all as if I had just dropped by to catch up with old friends.
An hour later, I took some frames from their rooftop of that tank column that had parked itself a little further down the road and I left.
“Thank you mister, you are welcome in Palestine,” the father called from the roof as I crossed the street outside their building. This moment continues to move me, even now. Maybe I’ve just been lucky but I don’t think so. I’ve been blessed with similar experiences so often that I cannot now help but trust in the good in people.
GIBARA, CUBA; 2009. A tent is set up as a classroom between two schoolrooms after several successive hurricanes ravaged Cuba is 2008. Gibara is located along the northeastern coast of the island, and as such took the brunt of the storms as they made landfall. (Photo by Lucas Mulder)
Do you have a mentor?
I never really had a photographic mentor, per se, but I would consider Paul Dutton, (one of the finest sound poets around), someone who definitely did my career good.
His teachings were all by example, just by hanging out at his place. At that time, I was still quite seriously focused on being a poet. But I realize now that I was learning how to live and work in a creative field and moreover, how to do so with purpose.
Outspoken, Dutton always used to joke (maybe) that people had stopped asking him how he was because they knew he’d tell them. He was incredibly disciplined and the dedication he had for his work was unmatched.
Lastly, he was also very generous with his time. Thinking about it now, it’s these traits that I have worked hardest to cultivate in my own practice. I was far too meek then to take full advantage of our time together but after processing it some, it’s done me well.
(Geez, re-reading the above it sounds like he’s dead. He’s NOT!! Everyone should check out Paul’s work. I’m still trying to figure out how to take a photo like Paul makes sound.)
POTOSI, BOLIVIA; 2003. A tin miner prepares to leave the Cerro Rico tin mine in Potosi after his shift. Miners work in conditions largely unchanged since colonial times, most using only crude hand tools, with little or no safety equipment. The hours are long, spent in total darkness. The work is extremely dangerous, and the pay minimal. (Photo by Lucas Mulder)
What was a pivotal point in your career?
Definitely that first year working in Palestine, 2003. I went in shooting for an agency, hoping to “cover” the conflict and maybe make some money. I felt I’d done my research; felt I was ready to get my hands dirty, etc. It became apparent within the first week that I had absolutely no clue what was really going on, and that if I didn’t want to sink (emotionally and physically), I’d better educate myself.
I tried my best to take the photos the agency needed (i.e. “balanced” on both sides of the conflict), but as I looked around and spoke to people living under the occupation, I was increasingly at odds with the politics involved in those shots. It was then that I knew I wasn’t going to make it as a press photographer and needed to look elsewhere.
I began making fresh contacts, reaching out to various Palestinian NGOs and community organizers in the West Bank, looking for work there. It was a time that set the tone for everything that has come after and I’ve been working in a similar vein ever since: NGOs, local grassroots organizations, etc.
How important is multimedia to you?
I’ve started to see some truly amazing multimedia work in the last year, and I’m beginning to imagine ways I can start creating work differently. I’m still really tied to the idea of a book being the logical end result of a series of photographs, and is something I’m working toward now. That said, I definitely see where a multimedia component, done well, can add incredible depth to a project.
But really, I don’t think we can limit ourselves to discussions about technology, or immediately hail new developments as the be-all end-all, nor relegate what’s come before to the trash.
What’s fresh and new today will eventually take its place amongst our already available tools, each fitting together as needed. The story, and how deeply we choose to look, is always going to be the basis of our work.
How do you ensure that you are progressing as a visual journalist?
Sometimes I don’t really know. This last couple years have been about finally getting my photo archive in order, and working to “professionalize” myself somewhat: getting my web site together, dedicating time to building contacts, investing in professional development, promotion, etc.
Prior to that, I just had piles and piles of work from all over the place, in no particular order, not well-sequenced, not working for me at all. If I look at the images from those years, there’s certainly progress being made, as a photographer, but it wasn’t within the larger process of working as a journalist.
Having defined these new practices, and having incorporated them into my daily workflow, I now feel in a much better place to evaluate where I’m at right across the board.
I also recently started a small photo cooperative with Jonathan Boulet-Groulx, a great photographer from Quebec. It’s just getting off the ground and there’s still lots to evolve with it. But it, too, was a conscious effort at moving things forward with a collective focus, finding like minds to help push me when things get stuck.
CANTEL, GUATEMALA; 2005. A man carries a load of firewood through a mountain forest that contains the endangered Pinabete, a tree sacred to Maya, but also favoured as Christmas trees. The sign above him reads, “Cutting, transporting, or selling branches of the Pinabete tree is sanctioned by law with 10 years in prison.” (Photo by Lucas Mulder)
What are some of the must-see websites you visit? Please include why you visit these sites (e.g. inspiration, guidance, information, education).
I don’t really surf the web for fun much. I spend too much time on it for work. I regularly scan the web sites of the local and national newspapers in the countries I’m working in. So right now, Central America.
I also usually have a few other sites that I look to to add depth and commentary on these sources, for example: NACLA (nacla.org) or Narco News (narconews.com).
What else? Let me look: Z Net, Al Jazeera, NewsTrust, Google News (all aggregators), Al-Ahram, etc. So really, just lots and lots of news, and then additional sites that add commentary and depth.
I make lots of notes and keep updating and evolving them into ideas for stories. Most I’ll never move on but there’s always lots of cross-pollination. On my Mac, I have a program called Together (great little app) that lets me make clippings of things I’m reading, then link them all together. I work in actual notebooks too, but often just clip digitally.
Of course, I also check out the links of photographer sites I come across or I see mentioned in magazines, to see who’s working on what and where.
What is your favorite way to unwind?
Going out to eat, spending money I don’t really have. I also walk, without a camera, just to look without thinking.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
Capa’s “Like people and let them know it.”