Take a look at the above photo, and there is no doubt of the communicative power of a photo. The time. The place. The human connections. The history. The culture.
This is what photographer Andriana Mereuta talked about with me when we chatted about the why, how, and what of photography. Originally from Moldova, Andriana studied photography at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. This led her to an internship with the Miami Herald, the week-long Missouri Photo Workshop, and the week-long workshop with Maggie Steber entitled Daring To See The World In A New Way.
As you’ll read below, Andriana focuses on documentary photography from a departure point of concern for the environment and the human condition. She talks about storytelling photography being a language for communication across cultures, how she got to where she is, and lessons learned along the way.
Bryn: I read on your bio that you didn’t study photography first and you started with a couple of other things. Can you talk to me about how you got into photography
Andriana: First I took a few classes in photography, and then I took a break, because I wasn’t sure that it was something I wanted to do. I took several other classes, thinking that maybe I would like to become a sommelier, or a tax expert due to my studies in economics. However, something wasn’t clicking. After some soul searching, I realized that I always wanted to help others, and bring change, especially change with social character. I was spending my free time looking at photographs and reading the stories accompanying them, and it dawned on me that photography can be a tool that could help me to be able to help others. I thought a good idea would be to go to school, because that would save me time in figuring out how to make good photographs, and it would also provide a suitable, creative environment for me to grow. Being an immigrant here, it also made a lot of sense to me to go to a place where I could meet like-minded people.
Bryn: What you said about wanting to go into photography to help others, and to bring about change, I think that’s fascinating. I myself am very passionate about that, but could you talk more about that connection? How would you say that photography helps others?
Andriana: Because I love documentary photography, I believe that a photograph can have the power to change people’s minds. It has the power to create a conversation, to bring awareness to an issue. It’s a language. Everybody everywhere can understand a photograph, even if they don’t understand the language. It’s a very powerful tool in communicating an idea or to express something that you care about.
Bryn: That’s awesome! I could easily write a whole 700 word blog post on those two sentences alone. (And we both laugh.) So you say that you focus on documentary photography, but could you expand that more? How would you describe documentary photography to someone who is not that familiar with the concept, and what kind of documentary photography would you say you do?
Andriana: I’m concerned about the current state of the environment, and I also care about people, their living conditions, and different socioeconomic factors that influence people’s lives. I’m curious about other cultures and what makes us different. I’m also curious about what makes us the same. So, I am naturally drawn to those kinds of stories - about the environment or about people. Documentary photography is nothing else than storytelling. You learn how to express a point of view through pictures. If you go into a situation and you see that people are poor but find joy despite their challenges, for example, you are going to make images that are going to communicate that, that will show them in a dignifying way. You are looking for those instances and circumstances, images that communicate that message. You’re documenting, you’re not manipulating the environment. You’re just observing, and bringing that information to a larger audience with your pictures. As photographers and as human beings, we have our own sensitivities and ways to perceive the world, we tune in and see different things within the same situation, and that’s the beauty of storytelling, it gives the possibility for creativity and expression to manifest in a unique way, specific to each individual. It’s a way to act upon something you care about, are curious about, or share what you think is important.
Bryn: With the focus that you’ve taken, what kind of opportunities has photography allowed you?
Andriana: I went to school with a commercial influence, I was exposed to all kind of photography. From food photography, to architecture, to weddings, to fashion, lifestyle, editorial, portraits. But because of my interest in documentary, I always looked for opportunities to expand that set of skills. So, I went to workshops that provided that training. I applied for an internship with my local newspaper, the Miami Herald. Being at the newspaper, I received the confirmation that this is where my heart is, because I was meeting the community, and I was involved. I was able to see those pictures published, and other people had the opportunity to look at them. It was confirmation for me that this is what I need to be doing. And then I did the Missouri Photo Workshop, and Maggie Steber’s workshop. That was all even more strengthening. I felt connected with the people I was photographing, their story inspired me. In many ways, documenting people’s lives challenges me and shows me that often my beliefs and prejudices have nothing to do with how things really are. It’s a gift to be able to do this kind of work, because in the process everyone receives something. Either it is a learning experience, or a starting point for a larger conversation that ultimately will bring about change.
Bryn: That’s a really good point. You talk about your learning process. So, what advice would you give a younger photographer?
Andriana: I always seek local opportunities where I can connect with people and learn from them, ask questions, offer my support to assist them, anything that will help me create that network, and be surrounded by that environment in which I want to grow. That is every important. Surround yourself with people you want to associate with and learn from, with people that are more knowledgeable than you. It’s very important to assist other photographers at the beginning. Assisting really helped me identify what I don’t like, what I can do, and what definitely I don’t want to do. You learn problem solving and critical thinking skills. You expand your horizons on what’s possible and each experience adds to your toolkit, shaping your unique abilities as a photographer. Also, you can see what equipment people use, so you don’t have to really jump into big expenses at first. For younger photographers, I would recommend that they find a photographer they admire, and ask about opportunities to shadow them on a shoot or assist them - and expect to do it for free for the first few times. Adopting a beginner's mind is very important. Building relationships is everything. Photography is a lifestyle, not merely a job. It is as satisfying as it is demanding. Having a strong support system is critical, both in your personal relationships and among your peers. This is a very tight industry, and people know each other. Make sure that you build your career based in integrity. Patience is also very critical, adopt a long term view when it comes to what you would like to accomplish. Anxiety will suffocate your creativity. Lastly, have a very good attitude, be punctual, do not complain, be diligent and hardworking - this will go a very long way. And persistence is very important. Always seek opportunities to learn and grow, because it’s an industry that is constantly evolving.
Bryn: You gave me so much information in only 15 minutes with only five questions! Is there anything else you’d want to say for the interview?
Andriana: Do not to spend too much money when you are just starting out. One of my mistakes was buying a lot of equipment without really knowing what I would be doing and what I would need. I just went to workshops, and out of excitement, whatever was recommended, I went and bought. I did that because I didn’t have anyone to ask about what is wise to do. I would recommend to not jump into big expenses at first. Just buy a regular camera. Even a kit lens is fine, because if you are not going to shoot at night, it really doesn’t matter what kind of lens you have. More expensive lenses are definitely very important, but you need to know why you are buying a certain piece of equipment. Photograph with intention, and do it regularly. Seek advice from more advanced photographers, collaborate with editors and other creatives, learn about what makes a strong photograph strong, and work towards building that skill. This was a big lesson for me that took years to assimilate. Being a perfectionist and always in a learning mode, I was procrastinating in shooting, and that is exactly what one needs to be doing to become a better photographer.
In this short interview with Andriana, she touched upon so many important points. Photography as a language, and photography as a tool to communicate a story. She also gave tips for photographers just starting out. For any photographer who is a bit more advanced, she mentioned two workshops that are highly respected in the industry: The Missouri Photo Workshop and Maggie Steber’s workshop on Daring To See The World In A New Way. To learn more about Andriana, you can click on her image above, and visit www.andrianamereuta.com.