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BEST OF 2012, John Haynes
Minneapolis, MN
Project: Studio portraits of bicycles that were involved in car accidents, as a way creating a portrait of the cyclists.

© John Haynes

© John Haynes

Photographing the damage to his brother’s bicycle after a car accident inspired John Haynes to produce a series of conceptual, still-life portraits of bicycles involved in car accidents, intended to make motorists more attentive to sharing the road with others. “The images of twisted metal — removed from the accident sites and photographed in a studio environment — leave an impression as well as ask questions,” says Haynes. “Who were these riders, what happened to them and are they all right? Often, I feel like the best way to tell a story about someone is to take a look at what they surround themselves with.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

John Haynes: Seven years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

JH: One year.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

JH: I shoot action, still life and portraits and tie them all together in a cohesive and unique way.

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

JH: At the risk of sounding like I’m avoiding the question, my brain. All the experience, education, inspiration, motivation, love, fear, knowledge, faith and humor is the only thing making my photos and my approach any different from anyone else.

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

JH: My laptop. It’s used on set, in the office and in my research.

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

JH: My background is in action sports; I grew up skating and taking pictures. I was a skater with a camera. Speed and improvisation were everything. Then I started working on big production shoots, where planning and precision are everything. I combine the two in a way that’s both practical for my clients and spontaneous enough for meaningful images.

ASMP: What inspired you to begin photographing bicycle parts that had been involved in car accidents?

JH: My brother was hit by a car and needed documentation of his surgical wounds for the insurance claim. We talked about his bike, which was totaled but didn’t look bad at all. I started wondering about how frequently bikes get seriously mangled in car collisions. My brother was a mess, and his bike looked fine. Then I thought about the relationship between people and transportation, in regard to biking as transportation (this is really big in Minneapolis). Often, I feel like the best way to tell a story about people is to take a look at what they surround themselves with.

ASMP: Why did you choose to remove these objects from an environmental context and photograph them in a studio setting? Please talk about the effect this has for viewers. What kind of response have you gotten to this work?

JH: The initial decision to photograph the bikes in a controlled way was purely out of necessity. I chose a studio setting as opposed to a street/traffic setting because when you are in traffic, whether on a bike or in a car, there are stimuli all around you. The common (and smart) reaction to this is to focus on yourself and the task at hand (biking or driving). By removing those distractions, you are forced to look at the wreckage of a bike crash. Since there is such a close physical relationship to a bike, the logical reaction is to wonder about the bike’s rider. If there is so much damage to the bike, how did the rider fare?

As for reaction to the series, it’s a real mix. Everyone seems to be moved by it. I have had many people volunteer their own stories of bike traffic incidents. Clients have also loved the work but seem uneasy about promoting this unsavory aspect of cycling. I am looking for a publisher or nonprofit to work more on this story with me.

ASMP: How do you obtain these wrecked bicycle parts? Do you get permission from the cyclists? If so, how do they react when you ask if you can photograph their damaged bikes?

JH: It’s really hard to find the bikes. Like I said, frequently, bikes don’t go through much physical damage. I posted on many cycling message boards, Facebook and Craigslist with only a few results. I had the best luck going to bike shops and talking to the people working there. The cyclists are always happy to let me photograph their bikes; for many, it’s a matter of “I cheated death,” and they are happy to have you document that.

ASMP: All the bicyclists survived their accidents with cars. Would you consider photographing the wrecked bicycle parts of individuals who did not survive? Why or why not?

JH: Fortunately, this has not been an issue yet. I would photograph the bike of someone who didn’t survive the crash, provided that the rider’s family and friends were in support of the project.

ASMP: What do you look for when photographing wrecked bicycles? Are there some bicycles or parts that are less interesting than others?

JH: Most of the bikes that I checked out for this project were useless to me. A lot of times the cyclist takes the brunt of the impact and the bike is relatively fine. If the bike is just bent up a little, I look to see if any of the components are usable. Frequently, I don’t end up photographing the bikes that people show me.

ASMP: Your images are meant to compel motorists to make a difference by sharing the road with bicyclists. However, your use of strong lighting and the resulting definitive shadows sometimes create abstractions, especially when the bicycles or parts are photographed close up. The beauty of the shapes becomes emphasized. Do you think this beauty enhances or detracts from your project’s intent?

JH: I want to clear up one thing; this project is meant to move all people to share the road. This goes for cyclists as well as motorists. Everyone needs to be responsible for his or her own actions.

As for the aesthetics of this project, I wanted these bikes to be beautifully composed and lit to contrast with the destruction of the subject. That juxtaposition compels the viewer to pause and process what they are seeing.

ASMP: Do you gather any information from the cyclists (either written or audio form) or from the context of the accident? If you’ve not done this to date, is it anything you’d consider for the future to add another layer of meaning to the project?

JH: I haven’t done a formal story or video yet. I do have contact with all the riders (except one who has moved to Australia) and have kept this door open. I wanted to wait until determining if there’s a publisher or end-use client and what angle they would want to take with the story.

ASMP: Regarding the images you capture, what kinds of parameters or conditions do you deal with in composing or framing a shot? Do you previsualize what you want to capture, or is this a more spontaneous process?

JH: I usually take a moment to look at my subject, broken bike, skate trick, person, object or scene without even thinking about photographing it. I just look and allow myself to feel. This process does not take long, but it is how I work. Once I am compelled a certain way, I compose, light and direct. Sometimes with client work, things have to move very quickly, but the process is still the same.

ASMP: Are you interested in pursuing still-life work as a specialty area? Are there other still-life photographers (either contemporary or past) whose work you particularly admire?

JH: I feel like objects are part of our lives and thus can tell a bit about who we are. This is really where my interest in still life lies. I don’t see myself specializing specifically in still life, although I always hope to use it in my career and personal work. To this end, Irving Penn is a big inspiration to me. He shot portraits, nudes and still life, but it’s all unmistakably Penn.

ASMP: Many of your images have a somewhat monochromatic palette. Do you find yourself attracted to monochromatic settings, or do you create that look in postproduction?

JH: I have always been attracted to muted colors. That said, I very rarely shoot black-and-white. I am a big fan of subtlety, and in the information age, subtlety has become a rare thing. I think this is why I am always coming back to muted colors, because of their subtlety.

ASMP: Some of the portfolios on your Web site include diptychs. How do you know when two images are better served side-by-side? In your opinion, what elements create a strong relationship between images?

JH: It’s pretty hard for me to explain this. Some things just look good together. Sometimes, I know that something will be presented as a diptych while I am shooting it, before I have even seen the final product. It’s more intuition than anything else.

ASMP: In your bio, you say that the flaws in each of us define us more than the perfection. What is your biggest flaw? Is there anything about yourself you feel is perfect? What would you say is the biggest flaw of photography?

JH: My biggest flaw is my anxiety. I am intensely anxious — about family, work, relationships — pretty much anything. This leads to feeling inadequate, comparing myself with others and a whole host of other things that I then am tempted to take out on those I love. Also, being a freelance photographer is not an awesome career choice for an anxious person!

Perfection is not possible in our lives. That is not to say that it should not be strived for. How we deal with our own imperfection, while striving for perfection, is what defines us. The paradox of simultaneously accepting defeat and fighting for victory is, to me, the essence of humanity. My biggest strength is my ability to be honest with myself. I can be honest when I need to improve on something. I never kid myself about something I did being better than it is. I also hear that I’m really funny.

Photography’s biggest flaw actually happens to be its biggest strength. It can be an incredibly honest medium (when we let it be). When we stop trying to make perfect photographs and focus on making real photographs, really cool things start to happen. This is being manifested really big in fine art, and it’s trickling into all aspects of the medium. It’s similar to painting when photography was invented. Now that perfection is so easy to obtain, we are no longer tempted by its illusion. We are now free to be honest.

ASMP: Did you study photography in a college or university program? What was the most important thing you learned from your education? What were you not taught in school that you wish you had learned?

JH: I studied at Minneapolis Technical College, and I was a reluctant student. What I learned from my college is that there is always a chance to make good work. Even if some assignments (or later in life, jobs) are not exactly what you wish you were doing, any excuse to use a camera is an excuse to go above and beyond. I wish that we were taught to ask more questions. Frequently, young photographers feel they know everything. Not only is this annoying, but it cheats the photographer out of all kinds of great learning experiences.

ASMP: Please talk about how you market your services and reach out to potential clients. Have your marketing efforts evolved along with your personal vision?

JH: I do a combination of e-mail blasts, targeted e-mail, direct mail, and face-to-face meetings. I try to schedule meetings anytime I travel for any reason, as well as several work-specific trips to meet with potential clients. I used to try to be all things to all people. As I’ve progressed in my career, I have accepted that I am not perfect for every assignment and tried to really focus on what I want to do and whom I want to do it for.

ASMP: You recently mailed out a direct-mail campaign. What did you include in these mailings? Did you send the mailings to established contacts as well as contacts who do not yet know you? How did you get the contact information?

JH: Most of the information I got from Adbase. The mailing was relatively small, mostly targeted at clients whose message I think would mesh well with my work.

ASMP: When exactly did your mailing go out, and what kind of response have you received to date?

JH: Clients are so bombarded that direct mail pieces may sometimes go unnoticed. I feel like it’s my way of staying on people’s radar. I noticed more traffic on my Web site, and I got a few compliments.

ASMP: What is your opinion about the effectiveness of social media? Do you find social media useful or overrated? Which social media sites, if any, do you use? And how do you currently integrate (or do you anticipate integrating) social media for the purposes of your business?

JH: I am part of a generation that grew up with social media. Its importance to me and my friends is more general knowledge than something that we try to master. I use Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram. I’ve started a Tumblr that I only work on in the winter, which goes along with my portfolio. The site is I’m connected with many clients and prospective clients through all those mediums, and I also follow a lot of photographers who really inspire me. The inspiration I get from some of the Tumblrs I follow — Ryan Schude, Lauren Lemon, Scott Pommier, Joshua Scott, to name a few — is a great resource on its own.

ASMP: The homepage of your Web site displays your logo in a giant scale. Discuss your reasoning for choosing to present graphic branding instead of an image on your homepage.

JH: My work all tells a story, but I can’t really choose one single photo that I want every person to see when they visit my Web site. My brand is an umbrella for all the work I do, and it’s what people see on my direct-mail pieces and e-mail promotions.

ASMP: You are currently transitioning from assistant work to your own photography career. How long have you been assisting other photographers, and whom have you worked with? What (besides monetary payment) is most important for you to get from a photographer you sign on to work for?

JH: I’ve worked for Erwan Frotin, Justin Stephens, William Waldron, Jeff Riedel, Paul Nelson, Tom Connors, Curtis Johnson and John Christenson. Each of them has taught me something, and sometimes it’s what not to do! Assisting is like anything else: You get what you give. If you work hard, apply yourself and invest yourself in the shoots you’re part of, you are always rewarded. I am always happy when photographers are willing to share with me the business end of what they do. Many of them figure it is better to have knowledgeable and savvy young photographers who won’t just underbid them without knowing better.

ASMP: What’s been your favorite assisting job to date, and why? At the other end of the spectrum, what’s been your most challenging assisting assignment? Can you share any stories about going above and beyond the call to ensure the success of a shoot you worked on?

JH: I worked with Erwan Frotin, a Parisian photographer on a long project for Target. It was totally different from any other shoot I’ve been on. He was building these sculptures, and the whole crew was part of his creative process, either by problem solving with lighting or helping him find the correct parts for his masterpieces. Long days of really unique problem solving, combined with Erwan’s cheery personality, were great.

Going above and beyond is more the norm for me; one tale that stands out is when I called another photo studio to ask for a 30-by-20-foot blackout curtain, and deploying it on top of a roof to block a dozen or so skylights that were giving us trouble. It was over 100 degrees that day, and the black curtain combined with the black roof made for a sweaty return to set.

ASMP: In your opinion, what does a photographer most want or expect from an assistant? What qualities of a good assistant are held in highest regard?

JH: Photographers want assistants to be independent thinkers, who are knowledgeable about their gear and invested in their shoot. Once someone understands the fundamentals of most lighting/camera/grip systems, the questions become the “why” rather than the “how.” Once assistants get to this point, they become a real asset to their photographers.

This knowledge must also come with discretion. I have been on hold many times with two different photographers who were bidding on the same job. Once awarded, both photographers need to know that I am not sharing their tech or creative secrets with the other. Discretion and professionalism is key.

ASMP: What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned as a photographer’s assistant? In your opinion, how important is it for budding photographers to get some assisting work under their belt as they develop their own work?

JH: What I’ve learned is that once you have an intimate, second-nature knowledge of photography’s technical aspects, you’re free to explore your creativity with confidence that you won’t be foiled by a tech snag. Without assisting, I am not sure how anyone could have the real-world knowledge that’s necessary to make meaningful pictures. Also, it’s hard to know who does what on a shoot. Many people who haven’t been on a commercial set really don’t know what a digital tech does, or a producer, or an art director and so on. Getting the chance to learn on someone else’s dime is great.

ASMP: What are your plans for the future? Where do you hope to be professionally ten years from now?

JH: My plans are to kick some ass. I am excited about the direction my work is heading. Professionally, I hope to be much more nationally established in ten years and more diversified in my investments. If, in ten years time, I’m learning as much and as excited as I am currently, I will be really happy.