Q&A: Susana Raab

© Susana Raab

On the first day of class, we had a chance to visit the Dean Jensen Gallery to see Rank Strangers, an exhibit of work by Washington D.C. photographer Susana Raab. Dean spent time with us, discussing Susana's pictures, and how the show transformed from an initial idea to pictures on the gallery walls. Susana kindly agreed to participate in an interview with the class. Each student submitted 3 questions, of which I selected ten below. - Kevin J. Miyazaki

Andrea Payne:
Do you prefer to work independently or is it nicer to work with a company like the New York Times? Does one give you more satisfaction than the other?

Susana Raab: I prefer to work independently, I view my paying assignments as creative exercises that will build and inform the performance of my personal work. That said, most everyone treats you exceptionally nice when you are working for the Times, so there is no denying the benefit of that aspect.

Mandie Louiser:
Do you think color plays an important role in providing the intended meaning within your work?

Susana Raab: I think color helps seduce and create a mood. Of course it's very important to my fast food work because color is such an important factor in the advertising industries' strategy, and I am trying to mimic that strategy in that project. People respond to color, and understanding this does help create a more successful picture, in my opinion.

© Susana Raab

Rebecca Gaimari:
Are the people in these towns fairly willing to let you take the images?

Susana Raab:
People never seem to mind me taking pictures, if they did I would just move on, there is always another photograph around the corner. I think you have to be comfortable with the idea of taking strangers pictures, and when you project confidence and security, people respond to that. On a few occasions I have had people tell me not to take their picture, to which I always acquiesce, but by the time we finish having a conversation they are literally begging me to take their photograph. Just happened last week.

Mandie Lousier: After working on a project for over a year, how do you begin making a rough edit, followed by the final edit?

Susana Raab:
I love editing, and find as my projects evolve there are so many ways to edit the project. For me the most important thing is how the pictures play off each other, the flow. There are a million ways to do it, and I usually just make thumbnails and storyboard them out. After you play with editing and sequencing for long enough, the process just becomes kind of intuitive. Stephen, my partner, is usually my only other editor, he understands how I think and we banter about different sequences, but I have never been one who needed to show my work before ten different people to get a sense of how it should be edited. I know what I want to say and how I want to say it. Probably am too decisive!!!

Rose Tarman:
I personally tend to work with color medium format imagery quite often, what is it that draws you to the format? How do you think it relates or fits with the subjects and ideas you portray? It can be a difficult medium to work in at times, there are challenges with speed and agility and many of your images depict candid, quick flashes and moments, which I find difficult in my own work much of the time. What are your thoughts on working with medium format?

Susana Raab: I love working in medium format analog. I love the process, how you have to be completely focused on technique the entire time, no chimping on the back of the camera, the uncertainty of the capture, and of course, the quality of the print achieved from the format. I find I respond more to prints made in medium and large formats than small. To be able to capture moments with the medium (am still working on the large format achievement of this) is just a question of practice and patience. It brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, and the 10,000 hours spent practicing a skill before becoming intuitive or proficient in it.

© Susana Raab

Debra Leal: With A Chicken In Love being one of my favorite images from the series, I wondered if you had to tell the models to hold the pose. If you did, do you feel that it could have been a better/more honest photograph if you hadn’t told them to pose?

Susana Raab:
No posing! No models! Those are just real people, not posing, not paying attention to me. I find it amusing how seldom people will pay attention to you when you are holding a ginormous camera to your face. Of course, not using a flash during that moment helped. For me the story is truth is stranger than fiction. The photography is somewhat conceptual, but only in the way that I conceive of what I will say through the picture in my mind, not by setting up situations.

Aimee Keil:
While we were visiting the Dean Jensen Gallery, he mentioned that you will be having a show in Shanghai. How do you think the Chinese culture will view these photographs?

Susana Raab:
I have no idea how the Chinese will view my photography, since I have no conception of the contemporary Chinese art market. (My education sadly ends around the Terra Cotta warriors). And honestly, I just don't even think about it. It's like producing art with the intention of selling it, it is not how I operate (for my personal work). That would take the joy out of it. The joy is in the production. I don't want to overthink the process.

Priscilla Whitenight:
What advice would you give young photographers who are interested in documentary and editorial photography, but have a primary focus in their fine art work?

Susana Raab: You know, I always think about Rilke, who wrote something to the effect of "You must ask yourself in the stillness of the night if I could not create would I die? If the answer is no please go and do something else." There are about a million different things you could do that would be easier than what I am trying to do. But if it is a compulsion within you, then do it. There is no path, but by being involved and pushing yourself, and working constantly you will make a way - and it is the way that is the important thing, not the result (I mean of course we don't want to die in complete obscurity, but if I am able to sustain the process than I consider that success). I am not trying to evade a clearer answer, I just feel that making a living as a photographer is about doing whatever you need to do, there is no straight way. For me producing work is the best part, making new images, and all the other stuff that goes into getting it out there is necessary drudgery. But for that 10 percent of time that I making work, it is sheer heaven. It is enough to keep me going for the other 90 percent.

© Susana Raab

Todd Langkamp: Who are some of the people and artists who have influenced you in your work over the years?

Susana Raab: Stephen Crowley, Karl de Keyzer, Martin Parr, Margaret Bourke White, Steichen, Martin Chambi, Sam Abell, Edward Hopper, Turner, Jacob Lawrence, Alice Neel, John Singer Sargent, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Willa Cather, Wendell Berry, Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe; it's an endless continuum!

Andrea Payne:
What is the best advice you can give to a photographer who is struggling to find their voice? How did you find your voice?

Susana Raab:
Well if it wasn't a struggle to find one's own voice, what would be the point? Struggle is good! I think it helps to be an independent thinker. Be sure of yourself and your intention. Read and read more. The struggle is what makes it worth doing - what gives your voice the meaning. What is it that really motivates or engages you? Also, I don't go into projects knowing what it is I'm going to say or how I'm going to say it. The discovery is in the process. Allow the process to engage you and you will find the conversation flowing. That is really what it is about, getting into a kind of flow that happens when you are fully present - when everything that you have studied or read inhabits you unconsciously and it becomes a part of your performance. It's about practice. After you practice enough it becomes innate and integral. I always think of Faulkner and James Joyce who wove so many archetypical thoughts and images throughout their texts that everything became layered with multiple meanings. I love this idea of intertextuality, because everything informs us. At whatever locus you are standing on is a composite of cultural interactions that inform you. Use this vantage point to communicate your vision to the world. When I started thinking like this, that is when my images became more layered for me (maybe not for everyone else though!). Also working in a series form helps build the conversation. The single images are not as important as the story they tell collectively. Don't read People Magazine, tune out popular culture as a primary method of information gathering, turn off the tv, and pick up a book, go for a walk. Enjoy silence. Write a letter. Go to a museum. Be engaged in your world and don't worry about getting to Point B.

Thanks all for your thoughtful questions and for visiting my show. I hope I have enlightened you on your photographic journey in some small way!

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