Jessica Lehrman Interview: Capturing Stories You’re Meant to Tell

documentary photographer - Jessica Lehrman

On page SR6 of Sunday’s New York Times, an article appeared with the headline “A Family Hits the Road”. In it, documentary photographer Jessica Lehrman writes about a 3,365 mile journey taken this past summer with her family. The article begins: “Rusted Root’s song ‘Send Me on My Way’ is blaring as my sister, Cassidy, winds our little Nissan Sentra through the serpentine roads of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. The fresh basil my dad bought as a ‘car freshener’ is wilting on the dash . . . ”

Lehrman goes on to write about her childhood, of moving town-to-town in a RV, and about hiking canyons, handling rattlesnakes, and finding herself on the road — all between the ages of nine and twelve. But tucked at the very end, sounding as a whisper or a dedication, is a sentence about a small tattoo written on her wrist. This tattoo is a word, and the word a symbol. For her family, though, it’s a dedication: Gypsy.

documentary photographer - Capturing Stories You're Meant to Tell

There are stories that you’ll remember for the rest of your life: Friends who become more than things in your head but principles that guide you. People who, though unknown to you, reveal their life through the stories you remember. I found one of these stories in interviewing Lehrman. She told me about an old palm reader who once said she would live the life of a magical gypsy.

After reading “A Family Hits the Road”, the tattoo and the palm reader became the same thing in my mind. In the palm reader, I saw a reminder to trust your talents, and, in the tattoo, I saw the responsibility of living up to them. But, to avoid getting too mystical, I’ll return to truths. One truth: to tell a story is to understand what matters. And that’s what makes Lehrman’s photographs so great. She listens. She knows that her photography’s ultimate responsibility is to the lives within them, and she captures stories only she could have found.

In this interview, Lehrman talks about her family and growing up in a RV, explains how young documentary photographer can get their work noticed, and reveals what the palm reader said about making empathetic work.

documentary photographer - shoot musicians

You grew up moving around a lot and traveling in an RV. Now, you shoot musicians you love, exposing underground artists to the world. How did you get your start with photography?

I got my start by accident when I failed to sign up on time for the already at-capacity painting program at RISD pre-college, leading me to take photography because it was the only one with an open space. I instantly fell in love with the darkroom, and after shooting my first photo on the street and getting chased by a group of people who didn’t want me to take the photo, I was hooked on the power of visual storytelling.

documentary photographer - visual storytelling

How would you describe your work?

(Aren’t there like workshops for artists to learn how to describe their work? –fuck, I need to take one of those!) I would say I create images that tell stories about hard-working creative communities of people I love. My work is personal, environmental, biased, intimate, and sporadic. I am inspired by movement and by kinetic energy — and excitement and love and violence and sex and music and passion. I would say growing up traveling has made me a sucker for adventure and spontaneity, and I try to capture that in my photography.

documentary photographer - adventure and spontaneity

Does photography come easily to you? Were you ever unsure of your talents?

I’m always unsure of my talents. I’m my worst critic, and I rarely feel that I have done something that warrants self-celebration. My work is much more about my subject’s story than my own, so if I have felt that I’ve successfully told a story that needed help being told, then I feel I have done something right. Photography as a documenter and a storyteller comes easy to me. It is an extension of how I gather information about the world around me and helps me to remember and to appreciate. Photography as an art took much more time, and I am still learning new techniques with light and new equipment that pushes me further every day.

documentary photographer - self celebration

What was your first – very first – childhood memory? Do you think this first visual memory and its emotional pull might have influenced your work?

Green eggs. I remember in our first little apartment on Capitol Hill in Seattle, in the backyard there was a chicken coop with chickens that laid green eggs. I’m not sure if green eggs seemed like a weird thing to me then, since I’m pretty sure I must have assumed all eggs were green as those were the first eggs I remember. But I do remember going out to gather the eggs with my parents, and the idea of eggs appearing everyday was MAGIC . . .  and the chickens flying up at us. They seemed bigger than I was and scary and awesome at the same time. I would say all of my childhood memories greatly influence my work. My parents were constantly putting me into weird situations (in the best of ways) and being forced to adapt in them has made me much better at doing so in any situation, or community, in my current profession. Not sure if the green eggs have influenced my work, but the idea of surprise and magic definitely has.

documentary photographer - childhood memories

You’ve said that your opinions are obvious in your photos. I agree. Your photos can be reverential. This one is a great example. How do you navigate between personal feelings and getting the image? Is there any separation you make? Or do feelings motivate the shot?

I am very much influenced by emotion. I’m super sensitive and dramatic and way too opinionated on things to not have emotion come out in my work. I don’t know if I have ever really been able to make lines between myself and my art, as it is all interconnected, and I find the whole “you’re my subject” thing to be weird and ostracizing. My feelings motivate me completely. It’s not all about if I like you or not. It’s much more of a question of intrigue and interest. A lot of people I shoot are incredibly sweet and intelligent and creative, but the images of them I see out there don’t show this side, so maybe that is why I tend to want to hit my shutter when I feel that sense of deepness from them.

documentary photographer - influenced by emotion

Sometimes this reverence isn’t extended to some members of the audience. This is an example. If your images are biased, what’s your opinion on the relationship between the audience and the artist? Why the shift in tone?

I find stillness and sensitivity in my images come out more in getting to know people, and I seem to know artists better than I know their fans. It’s a learning experience and a funny courtship between me and the fans. I see artists in the calm before the storm and fans only in the eye of it, typically when the energy is at an insane high of adoration or excitement. I don’t mean to mock any fans, and if it seems that way, I am just trying to capture the intensity and hunger I see with my own eyes beaming from theirs. I find musician worship and fan craze to be an interesting phenomenon. I guess I don’t understand it and constantly try to explore with my camera.

documentary photographer - musician worship

You’re allowed into environments I’d imagine have strict uneasiness regarding outsiders. How are you able to capture these intimate and personal shots? How do you build trust?

I really only shoot communities of people I consider my friends. If I don’t feel a connection with someone, I don’t feel the need to document their life and be part of it, so most of my images are of people I have a deep love and understanding of. That being said, I find a lot of my work is within subcultures that are different from how I was raised but encourage me to find common ground and acceptance with them. I’ve always been an outsider and always will be. I love people. I love getting to know them and learning about their lives, and I think that curiosity has helped me develop friendships in environments where there aren’t really ‘new friends”. Yeah, I’ve always been the new girl in schools having moved often, so I guess I’m just used to it — and it probably helps that I have horrible mom jokes.

documentary photographer - horrible mom

This one is really funny. Could you explain how you were able to capture this moment?

Haha, that’s family! This was right before Worlds Fair’s show at the Fool’s Gold SXSW party this past year in Austin, Texas. Remy Banks had shaken up the champagne after a toast with the crew, and everyone ducked before he planned to spray it onto their performance clothes. Worlds Fair is a group of my best friends who also happen to be rappers (story of my life), and I shoot them like I would shoot my own family so everything they do ever. The moments that matter to me are the ones we want in our family/friend scrapbook, to remember what the fuck happened during this crazy time.

documentary photographer - friend scrapbook

What advice would you give other women about securing staff jobs, or getting published? Have you learned any specific strategies to getting a foot in the door?

I personally wouldn’t really advocate getting staff jobs to anyone honestly. I mean that would take the fun out of having your own freewill to decide what projects you want to find yourself focusing on (although financial security would be a nice new feeling, I’m sure.) As far as getting published, PITCH! So many photographers I see waiting around for stories to come to them magically. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a focus and research the world you are interested in and find your own exciting stories that you have personal access to or will to get access to, and just go for it! If you are excited about it, chances are that will beam out of you and inspire others to be excited too. Magazines and sites are always hungry for access into worlds they don’t know about or can’t relate directly into, so give them an in.

documentary photographer - Magazines

A palm reader once told you that you’d live the life of a magical gypsy, and that it’s important for you to tell your stories. I’d love to hear about this encounter. What happened? How did those words affect your approach to photography?

During my freshman summer at college, my best friend Avery and I decided to raise money to take a trip to India to volunteer at a small orphanage in the jungle that was on the brink of closing due to lack of help. Lots of crazy things happened that summer including almost dying with Swine Flu, almost dying by cobra, cow, scorpion, and shock from grabbing a giant spider by accident. But one of my most memorable experiences was with an old man I met while walking down an alley in Laxman Jhula who told me he needed to give me a reading and that he would not accept no and would not accept money. He spent about an hour telling me about all the things that have already happened in my life (which is a weird experience when you know there is no way this man could have know these things yet he does) and then told me I don’t have a true love (to which I freaked out and was like, Whoa dude I think that’s not what you tell a girl), and after some tea and assurance that that’s definitely not the most important life goal in one’s palms, he dived into a life-changing speech about my mission, saying you need to stay focused to help tell the stories of all the people you will encounter on your journeys, and that you will have many journeys — and then he went on for a while about all the crazy awesome adventures in the future and threw in at the end if I wanted a true love, I could have that too! Haha damn my palms! But that notion of my photography being for the people in the photos has stuck with me forever, and I live by the concept that I can use this tool as a medium to bring light into the dark and reveal people who have stories crazier than I could imagine that need to be heard.

documentary photographer - adrenaline junkie

Your mother calls you an adrenaline junkie with a death wish. Since your mother probably won’t read this, what’s the most dangerous situation you’ve ever been in? What have been the most practical lessons photography has taught you about life?

Haha, well first of all, my mother reads EVERYTHING that involves me, and probably got this interview in her Google Alerts for my name. But I’m pretty sure she knows all my dangerous stories too, so it’s okay. Hmmm, I would probably say honestly it was this one time at a Flatbush Zombies show when ASAP Rocky jumped on my head and I fell under the crowd and started to suffocate and almost got trampled. There have been more physical dangerous times than that, but that for some reason it was the scariest to me, being that I’m so claustrophobic.

documentary photographer - claustrophobic

Be sure to check out all of documentary photographer Jessica’s work on her website!

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