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BEST OF 2012, Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber
Minneapolis, MN
Project: Assignment from the Miss Universe Organization to create behind-the-scenes documentation in stills and video showing what the 19-day pageant experience is like for the contestants.

© Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber

© Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber


Working in both stills and video, Jenn Ackermann and Tim Gruber were commissioned by the Miss Universe Organization to capture a behind-the-scenes view of what the 19-day pageant experience is like for contestants of both Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants.

“We tell people the girls are like athletes,” says the couple. “After waking up at 6 a.m., contestants work on dance routines and related activities all day, all while trying to look their best. Then they throw on a gown for an evening event that’s filmed for telecast. They do this for 19 days straight. Not an easy task.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Ackerman/Gruber: Since 2009.

ASMP: How long have you been ASMP members?

A/G: Three years. We joined in 2009.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

A/G: We take an authentic approach to our work and specialize in providing images of real people engaged in real activities.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

A/G: Our eyes behind the camera would have to be our most valuable tool.

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

A/G: When we can, we like to keep things simple. So it would have to be our camera with a couple primes, a 35mm f/1.4 and a 50mm f/1.2.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers and their work?

A/G: We would like to think of ourselves as thoughtful and methodical photographers. Rapport and trust are two things we believe you need in making great images, and we try to establish that from the very beginning of any work we do.

ASMP: The series “Miss” portrays Miss Universe and Miss USA beauty pageant contestants. Was it difficult to capture genuine moments with subjects who had such a strong relationship with the camera? If so, how did you overcome that challenge?

A/G: The first few days of the pageant were spent reminding the contestants that we are not like the normal PR photographers they’re used to dealing with and that our job was to capture their lives with work that went beyond “a pageant patty smile,” as they like to call it. It was a constant struggle, though, as these girls are coached and know they are competing based on their looks, so the idea of us documenting them in a way that they didn’t have total control over their look was a little frightening for some of the contestants.

ASMP: How did you go about making work for your client, the Miss Universe Organization, while also documenting the subject as the two of you perceived it?

A/G: We were very fortunate that they had a team of PR photographers who were responsible for taking the grip-and-grin-type photos that Jenn and I don’t enjoy. So, needless to say, we had free reign to explore the pageant without any filters, and we had the luxury of shooting it as if it were a personal project, even though it’s a commissioned body of work.

ASMP: You were there to document a 19-day pageant experience, yet this has been boiled down for the general public to select behind-the-scenes clips during a two-hour show. Can you tell us about some of the events happening during this time period that the general public did not get to see?

A/G: The weeks before the telecast, they’re rehearsing for the show, learning dance routines and so on. They also have sponsored events, which are basically PR events they have to attend at night. These events are filmed for the telecast and are used to promote the host city during the TV show. We tell people the girls are like athletes in the sense that they wake up at 6 a.m. every day and work on dance routines and competition-related stuff all day, all while trying to look their best. Then they have to throw on an evening gown and look their best at an evening event that’s filmed for telecast — and do that for 19 days straight. Not an easy task.

ASMP: What kinds of relationships are formed between contestants during this time period? What about relationships between contestants and various show staff?

A/G: The contestants are there to compete, and they maintain that mind-set throughout the competition. So while rivalry and jealousy exist, they know that they need to be courteous and likable in order to compete well. As for the staff, every four contestants have a chaperone who leads them through the competition.

ASMP: How did you initially get hired for this job? Given the visibility and high stakes of these competitions, what kind of contractual agreement do you have with the organization? Was there much negotiation involved? If so, please describe the key points on your end.

A/G: The organization reached out to us based on our previous documentary projects. We were very fortunate that we were free to explore and let our eye dictate what we photographed. Essentially we treated it like a personal project, which is an amazing luxury to have, considering this was a commissioned body of work. Getting that luxury took a lot of back-and-forth and explanation of the kind of access we would need to make the images they had in mind happen. So that first year became a lot of explaining how we work and showing them the images that resulted from that unrestricted access.

ASMP: Your project “Trapped” portrays mental illness in America’s prisons. How did this important issue first come to your attention? How did you gain access to this subject matter?

A/G: [Jenn] Like most projects, it started by reading a line in an article about the increase in mental illness in prisons throughout the country. That one sentence led to weeks of research and then a burning desire to bring awareness to the subject. I called the warden at the Kentucky State Reformatory and pitched the idea. After jumping through some tough hoops, I was granted access. After ten days of shooting, I showed him some of the short film, and he cried, saying it was the most honest portrayal he had ever seen. He then gave complete access, including staff badges and free rein to both of us to continue working in the prison for a full summer.

ASMP: You created another project set in prison titled “Served Out: Aging and Dying Behind Bars.” Was this project conceived at the same time as “Trapped”? Are prisons a particularly sensitive subject for you? Tell us more about your interest in making two projects in this type of setting.

A/G: [Tim] I was shooting “Served Out” at the same time that Jenn was photographing “Trapped.” Jenn is especially interested in prison issues. Our main interest in doing prison work is the desire to show things that are not often seen. We all have our ideas about what prisons are like, but very few of us ever experience or see what happens behind that wire fence.

ASMP: The short film you created for the project “Trapped” won an Emmy. What is the process for having a film in the running for an Emmy?

A/G: There is a submission process, and once you submit, a number of films are nominated for each category, and then a winner is chosen from that list.

ASMP: Your photography output covers a very wide range, from large- and medium-format stills for some projects to video capture for others. Theoretically speaking, do you have a favorite medium to work with, or is this totally project dependant?

A/G: We don’t have a favorite medium, and that is what keeps photography exciting to us. We let each project dictate what medium we should use. One of the most exciting things about starting a new project is determining the medium that would be most effective. Sometimes we walk into a setting and know right away that we need to do video like “Trapped,” and other times we start a project with one medium and realize that something doesn’t feel right until we shoot it with something else, like the “Frozen” project, shot on a 4x5 camera.

ASMP: Several of your projects incorporate both still photography and motion capture. Can you discuss the relationship between the two mediums and how you use them to tell a story?

A/G: We find that the two feed each other in terms of creativity. Our still photography helps our motion, and our motion helps the way we see stills. Each on its own is a powerful means of storytelling, but when used successfully together, they can really help a project sing.

ASMP: When did you begin incorporating video into your work? When you first began experimenting with this media, what did you find most challenging about the audio and video components? Do you find that the volume of your video work has recently expanded substantially in relation to still projects?

A/G: We are bidding on a lot of video jobs these days, or at the very least, they have a video component along with the stills. When we first started, we had no idea that video would be such a large part of our business and a valuable skill set to have. We didn’t start shooting video with the intention of it helping us commercially but simply because it further enhanced our storytelling abilities for our personal projects.

ASMP: When working with video, do you ever shoot simultaneously using two cameras, or does one of you typically do the shooting with one camera only? How do you divide up tasks for postproduction and editing work? Do you utilize any outside assistance with video work, or is it just the two of you working together?

A/G: Every shoot is different, but for the most part, we seamlessly switch between the two. On some shoots, it’s good to have one person focus mainly on video and the other, stills. For the most part, it’s just the two of us working together on the editing. The majority of the time, Tim will lay down the start of the video narrative/project, and when it gets to a decent point, Jenn will step in and finish the piece and finalize things like tweaking the audio, transitions and so on. You could say Tim lays down the rough sketch of the project and Jenn comes in and provides all the polish and makes it shine.

ASMP: What role do you feel video work will play in your future?

A/G: The majority of the jobs we are bidding on now seem to have a video component in some way. We have also recently bid on jobs that were video only. So from our perspective, it’s going to have a vital role in our future as photographers.

ASMP: You are a husband-and-wife team. Which came first: your professional relationship or your personal relationship? Please explain how your partnerships started and evolved.

A/G: We met in grad school, so it was simultaneous and came about rather organically. During our time in grad school, we spent some time shooting together, and then we were both hired to document the pageants. That gave us our first real taste of working as a team in a commissioned environment, and we were hooked. At the same time, we were both sending out e-mail promos and postcards individually and realized we were both competing with each other for the same work and spending twice the amount of effort and money in the process. So it seemed natural to combine our forces and start marketing ourselves as one. We also enjoy the collaborative nature of working as a team. Simply put, working together seems so natural now that the idea of a doing this alone terrifies us.

ASMP: How do you maintain healthy personal and professional relationships when you are together both at work and at home? Are there any particular time periods when you’re apart?

A/G: We work really well together, but we also know our boundaries and when to step away or take a breather. We talk through issues right away because we know it will affect not only our marriage but also our business if we don’t deal with them. We have different times when we are most productive, which gives both of us some time alone at some point in the day. We found that to be an important ingredient to our productivity. Also, finding outlets outside photography was very important to us. When you work together and are married, it’s really easy to let photography consume your life 24/7, so luckily we have distractions/hobbies outside photography that now allow us to disconnect from our work.

ASMP: As far as your professional relationship goes, do you each take on certain designated tasks, or are you more flexible in your roles? How do you keep the workflow organized in your partnership?

A/G: Each of us has our strengths that we are naturally drawn to. It took a couple of months to determine specific roles, and while we are still flexible in them, we both have certain tasks that we are responsible for. Because there are two of us, we have to be extremely organized. We each have our way of doing that for daily tasks, but we have multiple systems in place for the larger picture. Our photo archive and finances are very organized, with a specific naming and filing procedure so that we stay on top of everything. While there are only two of us, we have a weekly meeting so we can make weekly goals and delegate tasks. We also have a server, which serves as a central location for all our files, and, whether we are home or on the road, we always have access to all our work.

ASMP: How did you gain the practical experience to become professional photographers? Did you have significant photographic mentors or work first as assistants?

A/G: Neither. We read a lot, took a number of large chances and made some mistakes. Luckily our risks and successes outweighed our mistakes and failures.

ASMP: Do you find it advantageous to be based in Minneapolis instead of bigger cities such as New York or Los Angeles? Explain why you’ve chosen your location.

A/G: We love Minneapolis! We often joke that Jenn should work for the Minneapolis tourism board since she promotes the city so much. We were living in New York City and realized early on that we were not going to be there for the rest of our lives, so we decided to start looking elsewhere while we were still young. After looking at the pros and cons of most of the major metro areas in the United States, Minneapolis kept rising to the top, given its dedication to the arts, abundance of advertising firms and green space. We moved here two years ago, and it was single-handedly the best business decision we have ever made.

ASMP: Discuss the emotional impact of the projects you create. After working on a project like “Served Out” or “Trapped,” did you feel the need to recharge a bit by taking on lighter subject matter for a while?

A/G: Those projects were emotionally taxing, and it’s one of the reasons we are still together. We knew that if we could work on two projects that intense and still enjoy each other’s company most of that time, then we had something special. Having each other to talk through our emotions and experiences was one of the ways we were able to get through it and start on other projects — although it took a while to recover enough to start another project.

ASMP: In your opinion, what is the key to maintaining inspiration? How do you keep your eye fresh?

A/G: We continue to photograph projects on our own in addition to our client work, which is crucial to being fresh. It also allows us to show our clients and prospective clients what we like to shoot and allows them to see not only our eye but our heart. We also started our own Photo Book of the Month club, where each month, we will buy a new photo book we have been eyeing. Sometimes we cheat and end up buying a couple, but nothing beats getting away from your computer for a bit and flipping through a photo book or two to recharge. We also read a lot and listen to NPR to try and stay informed on the latest happenings in the world. Sometimes a random idea will take shape from a radio story we hear or an article we read. Minneapolis is also an incredible biking city, so we get out and bike a lot — it’s been a wonderful way to clear our minds.

ASMP: Some photographers have separate Web sites for their personal photography and commercial photography, but your Web site includes reportage, personal work, client work and short films. Explain why you’ve chosen to display all your work on one Web site.

A/G: This was something we struggled with and still talk about. While there’s definitely value in having a very tightly defined body of work and one look, it’s not who we are as creative creatures. We love the process of creating and using various formats and mediums in which to do that. It’s part of what keeps us fresh and inspired. Although limiting our “voice” might make it easier for clients to put us in a box as a certain kind of shooter, it’s simply not us.

ASMP: You each also maintain an individual Web site, in addition to having the Ackerman Gruber Images Web site. How much time do you each spend on an individual personal vision versus the personal vision of your partnership?

A/G: We value both our collective voice and our personal voice, and we put the same amount of passion and energy into both.

ASMP: Tell us about one of the biggest challenges you faced while on the job. How did you resolve the issue, and what did you learn?

A/G: I think our biggest challenge has been striking a decent balance between our work life and our home life. No job has presented bigger obstacles than that. It’s easy to be in photography mode 24/7 when you are married and work together. Striking a balance between our photographic life and personal lives has been something we have had to work at, but we’ve finally found a balance and could not be happier. The things we have found outside photography have been a healthy distraction, and you could easily argue they have also made us better photographers.

ASMP: Both of you initially earned degrees in fields other than photography. Jenn received a degree in social research from James Madison University and Tim, an advertising degree from Saint Cloud University. When did you each first become interested in photography, and why?

A/G: [Jenn] I became interested in photography during undergrad from a purely critical perspective. My thesis was about the perpetuation of stereotypes of female athletes through sports photography. My dad handed me a camera and told me to try it, and that’s where it all started.

[Tim] It was late during my undergraduate studies when I took up photography. I took a trip to Europe to visit my sister, who was studying abroad. It was my first trip to Europe, and I thought it would be a good thing to document, so I bought a cheap point-and-shoot, and away I went. I returned from that trip with a boatload of terrible photos, but friends and family kept telling me how great the photos were. I bought the hype and have been making photos ever since.

ASMP: Do you find that your degrees in other disciplines are an advantage when it comes to running a business? In what ways?

A/G: It would have been nice if one of us would have been a finance or marketing major, but we are so glad that we went to grad school for photography. Tim’s undergraduate studies in advertising and our graduate classes in design have helped in giving our brand a polished look, but we still hire freelance designers to help with a lot of things. Going to grad school for photography gave us an opportunity to focus on our vision and the time to work on personal projects, which is just as important as knowing how to run a business — you can always hire someone else for that.

ASMP: How much time and money do you allocate to tasks such as applying for grants and entering contests? Do you plot this out in an annual budget and with a strategy in mind, or do you approach it in more of a freeform manner?

A/G: We keep an annual budget, and we try to be selective when it comes to contests. We base our entries on who the judges are and the work we have created in the past year. We consider the cost of contest entries as part of our annual marketing budget and see it as another outlet to get our work in front of potential clients.