Interview #15: Susannah Benjamin

5/30/09

CUS: First of all, the most standard question in the book: how did you get into photography? 

Susannah Benjamin: I got into photography when my mom bought me a little point-and-shoot Kodak easy share one Christmas when I was 12. I really hadn't wanted a camera and never felt like I would use one, but I brought it along on our Christmas vacation so that she wouldn't have her feelings hurt. Because I had already loved writing/storytelling, I quickly became immersed in visual narratives and started setting up small scenes. 

 

CUS: Tell us a little about where you live. 

SB: I live in a typical, boring suburb with not much to do. It's pretty and I have everything I need here, but the place itself doesn't have much character. It's quiet and nice, though, even if it isn't particularly artistic. I love the beach, though. 

 

CUS: Do you have a favorite photographer? 

SB: Yes, but my art is mainly inspired by the stories that I make up in my head and the characters that I project on my models, as well as the books I read. I don't really have as many favorite photographers as I do favorite photographs. But, I would say the photographers I admire are Diane Arbus, Lorretta Lux, Robin Schwartz, and Gregory Crewdson. 

 

CUS: What did you have for breakfast this morning? 

SB: Hmm.. had artichoke dip. yum--I almost never get it, and it's not exactly a breakfast thing, but I loveee it. 

 

CUS: If you could photograph any person (past or present) who would you choose?

SB: Oh this is a good question, particularly as my inspiration comes from people's faces. To be honest, my friends are absolute dreams to photograph. I have a couple of muses in particular, whose faces simply stun me with their unusually odd and beautiful features--one girl's name is Kira--she is probably my most-photographed friend and my first muse. Then I have another friend named Ellie, who is an exceptional ballerina, extremely young looking, long and lanky, with a bit of a pixie/nymph look to her. I have a friend who is a bit younger than me named Saskia, who is amazing at conveying emotions, and I have a friend named Victoria who is Swedish with absolutely pale blonde hair, white skin, pale eyebrows--she is another dream to photograph. Ah, and I have one more muse, named Desiree, who is Persian and has these incredibly long black eyelashes and dark black hair. As you can see, I am totally inspired by my friends, who are my ideal models. I think I found the people who I would choose above all other to photograph. My friends have absolutely amazing looks and what's great about my photography is that I can transform them into characters that they could never be in real life. One minute we're laughing and messing around, the next minute we've captured a moody, atmospheric photo that looks like it was taken in another world.

 

CUS: Do you believe that with the rise of digital photography the phrase “everyone can be a photographer” is true? 

SB: Hmmm...I do believe that photography is a very accessible art form. However, I think you need that "something special" to capture truly stunning images, because to me, photography is less about the camera than it is about the interaction with the model, the concept, and the decisive moment. The most important thing for me is the aspect of storytelling--therefore, even if you take "pretty" pictures, if you can't tell a story/capture some type of emotional narrative, I don't think you've made a real piece of art.

 

CUS: What kind of camera do you enjoy using the most?

SB: My camera, because I haven't really used any other type hehe. It's a Nikon D80, and I’m totally happy with it.

 

CUS: Do you always have preconceived concepts of what you want to shoot? 

SB: Most of the time, yes. I always like to have an intention when I shoot--sometimes, though, I luck upon a concept as my friends and I am goofing around, and often times these are my best shoots. But I usually I don't like to go out and just have my model standing looking pretty in a road or something--I like to have some type of character in mind when I shoot. I keep notebooks where I have loose sketches/story fragments/key words, which I use for my photo shoots. 

I definitely plan, but I don't like my photos to be so meticulously over staged with superfluous props and forced expressions, because I think a truly genius photo has to have a decisive moment. 

 

CUS: Do you have a favorite subject you like to shoot? And why?

SB: Conceptual, surrealist photography is without a doubt my favorite genre to shoot in, because you're creating new worlds. I want to be a fiction writer/photographer, simply because I adore making up places and characters and problems. In terms of my favorite actual thing to shoot, it would probably be one of my muses, Kira, or perhaps Ellie. 

 

CUS: How much time do you generally spend on a shoot? 

SB: It totally depends on my level of inspiration and also how much the model will put up with! But, I have to hand it to my friends, they really do put up with a lot. We joke about it all the time, about the crazy stunts they have held in position for me. Probably though, about an hour of shooting and multiple hours of editing. I really don't heavily edit at all, I almost never copy/paste things. In general I simply adjust sharpness and curves, because frankly I’m not that great at intense photo-shopping, and I think it takes more skill to capture it in camera. Of course by NO means am I a photography purist--I think it doesn't matter how you get the art, just as long as the final product is amazing. Personally, though, I take it as more of a challenge to capture the magic through illusion/shooting with a clever eye. My favorite thing is when people ask me "how did you take that? Where was that taken???" and it's often in my backyard or in the most boring place ever, and if I had just included another inch in the viewfinder, they could see the place for its boring banal reality. But, by being selective and cutting out certain areas of background, I am able to make new worlds.

 

CUS: What is your most treasured possession?

SB: Hmmm...hard question. To be honest, I'm really not a materialistic person. There's nothing material I’m really attached to--this sounds so corny, but my photographs and my stories are my most treasured positions. I truly am one of those people who live for art, so I don't really have an object that I'm attached to. I am attached to my stories and my ideas and the books I read, but of course that's not a physical connection. 

 

CUS: If every photograph should contain one key element, what would it be in your opinion?

SB: Story, story, story. To interest me, a photograph must have some sort of narrative. Of course, I agree there are beautiful photos that don't have narratives, but I think photography is more than just taking pretty pictures of a pretty model standing in a pretty location. I think it's about subtle storytelling, and communicating that idea/story in one image or moment. 

 

CUS: What’s playing on your iTunes right now?

SB: Right now, "Pan's Labyrinth Lullaby" lullaby is playing, which is in pretty sharp contrast with the song that just finished, which was Taylor Swift's "Picture to Burn." I loveeee Taylor Swift. 

 

CUS: If you could go anywhere in the world to take photographs where would you go?

SB: I'm fortunate enough to have intense-travelers for parents--I actually just got back from a trip to Morocco, which was visually stunning. But, to be honest, the place doesn't really matter for me. I like turning unremarkable places, like my boring suburban town, into a surreal kingdom. It's not about the place, it's about the place that I creature through costume and lighting and illusion. In fact, I often shoot in front of a blank sheet, and create my universe from scratch.

 

CUS: What is the thing you like the least about photography? The most?

SB: The thing I like least is certainly the amount of hours I spend in front of the computer. It depresses how much time I waste in front of the screen, constantly staring at art, researching magazines, editing photos, etc, until my eyes burn. I literally spend about 3 hours a day minimum doing something photography-related on my computer.

 

CUS: What are some of your favorite films?

SB: Pan's Labyrinth is my favorite. I love foreign films. I also like La Choriste and Afterlife (japanese), as well as March of the Penguins, the Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Slumdog Millionaire. My favorite movies of all time are anime miyazaki movies--I view them as amazingly creative pieces of art. Miyazaki is frankly a genius, and one of my favorite things to do is curl up and watch 'Spirited Away' or 'Whisper of the Heart,' or 'Howl's Moving Castle.' His movies are some of my main inspirations, and I find his level of narrative/visual detail exceptional. The fact that anyone can think of such beautiful surrealist concepts makes me so happy. I hope to create as many amazing worlds as he has.

 

CUS: What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you on a photo shoot?

SB: Weirdest thing--there have been soo many. Probably when I tied two of my friends in the middle of a road with yard string, and had one hold a pair of garden shears. Then I stood on a chair and shot from overhead. It was embarrassing, because an older boy from our school drove right past us and laughed. But all for the sake of art, I suppose. 

 

CUS: If you could be anyone for a day who would you be?

SB: Me.

 

CUS: What’s your fondest childhood memory?

SB: Wait, I’m not in my childhood anymore? Ahh, but in all seriousness, probably the Christmases I spend in Ireland. I love Ireland, my mom is from there, and I feel so alive there. It's so nice to have tea and toast, to walk in the rain, and to go to the amazing book stores they have there. 

 

CUS: Where does your inspiration usually come from? 
SB: My ideas usually come when I see an interesting face. Unusual faces inspire me. And I love to read, so great books (usually surrealism or fantasy books), always put me in the creative mood. 

 

CUS: What are five things you can’t live without?

SB: My camera, my laptop (specifically photoshop and the internet), artichoke dip, a notebook, and pizza.

 

CUS: What are your other hobbies besides photography?

SB: Creative writing, slumber parties, lacrosse, philosophy, poetry, French, psychology, and singing.

 

CUS: Do all your photographs go through some sort of post-processing treatment? And if so what kind of effect do you try to produce through Photoshop/other post-processing tools?

SB: Almost all of them undergo sharpening and curve adjustments, but that's basically it. I'm very into high contrast photos.

 

CUS: What is something that no one knows about you?

SB: I am an extremely loud and outgoing person, so that's a tough question. Perhaps that that my deepest fear is growing up. 

 

CUS: What is your favorite time of day to shoot? 

SB: On a misty afternoon.

 

CUS: What’s have you always wanted to photograph but have thought was too hard or difficult to execute?

SB: Oh this is so appropriate because for months I wanted to have a bird photoshoot, with a huge nest. I never could find the funds for a huge straw nest and beautiful feathered/sparkled wings, and then I was FURIOUS when I watched America’s next top model and they did exactly what I had wanted to do/had been planning for months. It was quite funny, a lot of my friends emailed me laughing when they saw the episode, saying "aha that's what you were going to do, if you had a million dollars and were Tyra Banks." 

 

CUS: What sort of themes do you try to explore through your photographs? Is there any one in particular in which you try to convey often? 

SB: I always explore innocence vs. adulthood, youth and age, etc. 

 

CUS: What advice would you give to your fellow up-and-coming photographers? 

SB: Write and draw in a notebook. Write down ideas the minute they pop up, take photos as often as possible, and please please please try not to fall into clichés, even if the clichés seem visually pleasing/easy to execute. 

 

CUS: Where do you see yourself in 20 years? Do you think that photography will still be a big part of your life?

SB: I can't imagine doing anything else with my life but take photos and write stories, so hopefully I'll either be a famous writer or photographer. But of course, that's not very likely :p 

 

CUS: What are your plans for the summer?

SB: I'm hardly ever home--the day school ends, I go on my foreign exchange trip in France. I am staying with a wonderful French girl my age, who lived with my during the school year for a month and who I totally related to. I go to her school, do the classes in French, and bond with her and her friends. Then, I come home for 4 days. Then, I fly to England where I will be at an academic camp studying psychology, philosophy, and literature. Then I come home for a week, then I fly to Ireland for 10 days. Then I fly home and have a week and a half before school starts, which will hopefully be jam packed with all the photoshoots i have been DYING to do but haven't had the time to do.

 

CUS: Our last interviewee, Matty Franklin Jenkins, wants to know: If you were put into pure nothingness for eternity, but that nothingness had a color... what color would that be?

SB: Baby Blue!

 

CUS: Last but not least, what would you like to ask our next Interviewee?
SB: If a genie could grant you one wish, what would it be and why?

Susannah Benjamin, b. 1993 from the outskirts of New York City 

flickr.com/photos/ireland1324/

 

Images provided by Susannah Benjamin. All rights reserved.