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BEST OF 2012, Roberto Westbrook
Norfolk, VA
Project: Multi-year, self-assignment at The Foxfield Races, a series of steeplechases set in the quiet, rolling hills outside Charlottesville, VA, with images that ask questions such as “how much is too much” and “when do we cross the line from celebration to abuse?”

© Roberto Westbrook

© Roberto Westbrook

In the multi-year, self-assigned series “Steeple + Chase” Roberto Westbrook documents collegiate revelry amid the quiet, rolling hills of central Virginia.

“The Foxfield Races are known in certain circles as a raucous and preppy tailgate party for college coeds. As a student at the University of Virginia, I looked forward to the pageantry and the carelessness of this singular day,” Westbrook explains. “While my photos are focused on this one event, to me, they center on larger questions crucial to modern western societies, such as: How much is too much? When do we cross the line from celebration to abuse?”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Roberto Westbrook: Six years. I went out on my own in February 2006. Before that, I worked for three years as photographer and photo editor at the Legal Times.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

RW: Four years

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

RW: I’m kind of a generalist who shoots editorial, commercial, advertising and some stock. If forced to select a specialty, I would say lifestyle, portraiture and travel.

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

RW: I would say it’s friends and professional connections. Some of my most interesting opportunities the last few years are the result of developing long-lasting relationships, both professional and personal.

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

RW: The Canon 24-105 has been attached to both my 5D and 5D Mark II for a very long time. It’s just a great focal length range for me.

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

RW: I try to bring three elements to all my photos, whether the photos are personal, editorial or advertising: great light, authentic moments and interesting composition. In addition, I have gotten pretty good at working quickly in challenging environments, and clients usually appreciate that.

ASMP: During your college years, you were a reveler at the Foxfield Races in Virginia, taking part in a raucous and preppy tailgate party, but when you returned to document this event, you saw “with new eyes the general excess of the culture: the drinking, the trash, the sex.” How long did it take you after graduating to gain this perspective and distance? What do you think keeps your subjects from being able to look at the setting as you do now?

RW: I graduated in 2000, and I would say 2005 was the first time that I really noticed the excess. But even then, the view was an evolving one. I don’t think one can generalize and say that that all the people who attend Foxfield don’t share my current perspective. Around 2008, I started seeing more signs that encouraged recycling and discouraged binge drinking. The initiative appeared student-led, so some students must have been thinking about the waste and the dangers.

ASMP: There are likely many people making photos at the Foxfield Races, providing you with an opportunity to blend in as you capture this event from more of an outsider’s point of view than from a fellow reveler’s. What was the extent of your documentation? Please describe your interaction with your subjects at the races. Did you often engage with them? Did your approach to photographing this subject differ from your other projects? Did your approach change over time or did you photograph with a consistent vision from beginning to end?

RW: The first time I went with the intention of documenting the event, I took only a Holga and two rolls of Fuji NPH 400 film. I had several motivations: 1) I thought the students would be less suspicious of the toy camera, 2) I would not risk having alcohol spilled on a much more expensive camera, and 3) most importantly, I wanted the pictures to look a little blurry and imperfect, the way a drunk person might see things. I really like those first photos. My approach was very much in the tradition of a street photographer. I walked around until I found people or scenarios that interested me. At least twice, I followed a drunken person for a few minutes waiting for a moment. That’s how I got the photo of the crowd cheering a girl in a green dress who has just fallen in some mud. On a few occasions, I stopped and talked to people. When I went back in 2007, I took along a Yashica Mat-124G with the intention of adding portraits to the project. For this, I stopped and asked people to pose. I didn’t like most of the posed portraits. I got very few keepers from this approach and I found myself preferring in-between moments when people thought I was done taking photos. I also tried to shoot the Yashica Mat like it was a documentary camera, which is not its strength. It’s a waist-level viewfinder. Despite this, I really liked the result. I liked the square format and the sharpness and precision of the lens. From 2007 to 2011, I shot mostly with the Yashica Mat, and used the Holga only occasionally for certain types of “drunk” photos like people passed out in the grass.

ASMP: Images from your series “Steeple + Chase” have been included in group shows at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). How did the local public react to your rather critical depiction of this longstanding Virginian tradition?

RW: MOCA is in Virginia Beach, which is three hours from Charlottesville. I don’t know of anyone who had a problem with the photos at the show. The most interesting reaction was from some middle school students I talked to. They were disgusted and disappointed by the trash. I remember one of them saying, “I thought college kids were supposed to be smart.” They were just dumbfounded by the trash and apparent disregard for the environment. I would love to show the photos in Charlottesville, but the opportunity has not presented itself yet. I would like to point out that while the photos are a critical depiction of this event, I’m not judging the people in the photos. I was one of them, and I still like to party when I can find a babysitter. I want people to discuss the broader culture represented in the project. Also, I find a lot of humor and joy in these photos. Judging people is not really a fun way to live, and it’s not an effective way to change behavior.

ASMP: “Steeple + Chase” was inspired by your past experiences at the Foxfield Races. Similarly, you photographed life near the Croatian/Serbian border years after a memorable family vacation there in 1985. How often are your photographic projects a direct exploration of your past?

RW: Those two projects definitely have the strongest personal connection with my past. I don’t get to work on personal projects as much as I’d like, but I’d say most of them have at least a loose connection. Right now, I’m interested in churches that don’t look like churches. That’s related to my own interest in architecture and faith.

ASMP: The bio on your Web site emphasizes your personal life more than your professional life. What message or information are you trying to convey to potential clients who read this? Do you feel that your bio is successful in differentiating you and your services?

RW: Yeah, it’s kind of a long bio, and there is a risk that people won’t take time to read it. Still, I want to give out-of-town clients a way to meet me without physically meeting me. I’m trying to build a connection while also sharing a sense of narrative. My photos have narrative, so I think my bio should, too. I have no idea how many people actually read it, but I occasionally get emails about it. After a mass e-promo two years ago, I got an email from an art buyer telling me how much he loved it. It’s rare to get any immediate response from e-promos, let alone such a nice one.

ASMP: You were raised by an Italian mother and an American father, and spent a decent amount of your childhood in Italy. Do you have dual citizenship? If so, is it beneficial when it comes to assignment work? Are you particularly inspired to photograph in Italy?

RW: I am not a dual citizen. I have looked into obtaining it, and I would have to live in Italy for a year to get it. I don’t think that part of my background has directly led to assignment work. I do think it has helped me feel comfortable in foreign environments. I love Italy, and I have an ongoing series on scooters and Vespas, but I am currently more interested in other parts of the world. Kind of related to this, though, is how my Italian experience has influenced my photography. Italians have an expression called “bella figura,” which literally means beautiful figure. It’s a way of life that emphasizes making a good impression both in physical appearance and in one’s manners. I think this obsession with beauty and appearance has influenced me. Even in the Steeple + Chase project, I have tried to organize these ugly scenes into photos that are pleasing to the eye.

ASMP: You have also spent time living in South America. What prompted your decision to move there and how long did you spend there? Did you work as a freelance photographer while based there?

RW: My wife and I moved to Argentina because we needed a change from our personal and professional lives in Washington, D.C. At the time, I was a staff photographer, and I had reached that point where I was shooting the same assignment over and over again. It was tough to get excited about work. Before leaving, I met with as many editors as I could in Washington, D.C. and New York, and some of those meetings led to assignments. I freelanced for Getty Images, Budget Travel, Smithsonian and a few places that are now defunct.

ASMP: Your online portfolios include a wide range of international travel destinations. What is your favorite destination to photograph? Where in the world have you not yet photographed but would like to, and why?

RW: I don’t have a single favorite, but one place I’d love to go back to is Patagonia, specifically the area around Monte Fitz Roy. I would love to go to Japan. I’m really interested in the dichotomy of the population density and the solitude of Buddhist spaces. It just seems like a visually stimulating place.

ASMP: Among the honors you’ve received is a financial grant from the Alexia Foundation for World Peace. What project did you fund using this grant? Do you apply for grants often?

RW: I received a student grant, and I used it to fund a project on schizophrenia. I have not applied for a grant in a long time. If I were to begin a project today that required a lot of money, I think I’d try one of the crowd-sourcing sites like Kickstarter. You control your destiny more that way.

ASMP: You’ve worked for a wide range of prominent companies, from The New York Times to IBM to CNN. From your perspective, what do these types of clients’ value most in a photographer? Are there particular strategies you use to stand out from other photographers you compete with for assignments?

RW: A lot of my work for bigger name clients is regional. Part of the reason I get these is that I am in the right place for that particular job, and I save the client travel costs. Still, the client has other local choices, and I think they hire me because I am both creative and reliable. My Web site features only my best work and not a bunch of different specialties. Sure, I occasionally shoot architecture, but it’s not my bread and butter, and it’s not going to be featured on my Web site. I don’t want to look like someone who is trying to do everything, and clients appreciate that.

ASMP: You first earned a degree in finance from University of Virginia. Later you pursued photojournalism at the University of Florida. What caused you to realize photography was a better fit for you than finance? Had you already made a career for yourself in finance at that time? If so, how did you transition from your finance career to photography?

RW: I never worked in finance. I interviewed with a few consulting companies my senior year, and I could tell from the interviews that I probably would be very unhappy in that industry. I think they could see the same thing. I had been working for the school yearbook and for an online magazine, and I was beginning to think about a career in photography. My girlfriend at the time was at the University of Florida, and that’s how I learned UF had a budding graduate photography program. I used graduate school as a way to transition into photography. I was lucky and was able to get hired as a teaching assistant and take on very little debt. I would recommend that anyone thinking about transitioning to photography via school find a way to do it with as little debt as possible.

ASMP: Are there specific attributes or skills from your finance studies that are particularly helpful in your photography business? Does this background give you an edge in being considered for projects? Based on this background, can you recommend any business/finance essentials that photographers should heed, which they likely don’t?

RW: Yes. The School of Commerce at UVA is a very rigorous program that emphasizes analytical thinking and real world communication skills. My classes were not just in finance, but also in marketing, IT, communication and management. We regularly worked in teams to analyze companies, develop strategies and present our projects in an environment that required public speaking. All of these are helpful to me today with client interaction and strategic planning. I think that more photographers need to think strategically about what they offer as a photographer and why. For example, asking questions like, “Why are you jumping into video? How many jobs will you need to land to pay off your new equipment? What is your strategic advantage over everyone else who is jumping into video?” I think a basic book that walks one through doing basic market analysis would help a lot of photographers.

ASMP: You speak several different languages: English, Spanish, Italian, and a little French. As someone who has studied languages extensively, have you been able to discern any similarities between the way we read language and the way we read a photograph?

RW: I have seen differences instead of similarities. I’m often surprised by what people of different languages or cultures find interesting about a photo.

ASMP: On your Web site you point out that the meaning of “epiphany” (a Christian feast day, which happens to fall on your birthday) is to show or make known, which is what a photograph does. Do you view all photographs as epiphanies — sudden, intuitive perceptions of the essential meaning of something?

RW: Yes, on the most basic level all photographs show us something, whether it’s a landscape, a person or a material item. But, no, not all photos are “sudden, intuitive perceptions of the essential meaning of something.” Only a few are, and those tend to come out of personal projects or outings with a camera. These moments are usually the result of exploration. Commercial assignments usually don’t offer the chance to explore. Instead, one is usually hired to create an image similar to previous work. Editorial assignments sometimes offer the opportunity to explore and have those epiphanies.

ASMP: What, in your opinion, do all successful images have in common?

RW: I once heard Tom Kennedy say that a great photo needs light, gesture and composition, and I totally agree with him. You need great light, it needs to be composed well, and if it’s a photo of people, there must be a moment, humor or a movement or something unique going on. This is the gesture part and it’s the hardest in my opinion.

ASMP: When creating images suitable for stock photography, where do you find inspiration? Do you set up shoots in advance, with something specific in mind, or do you make stock images inspired by your daily life?

RW: My inspiration for stock shoots comes from many places. I pay attention to various media; I keep tearsheets, I have access to market research, and I bounce ideas off my editor. More often than not, I start with a non-professional model whose face I find interesting or would be fun to work with. I come up with a few shoot ideas that would be a good fit for this person and then I talk to my editor about what the agency is looking to fill in its collection. This approach is personal but market-oriented.

ASMP: For the client Blackboard Inc., you shot a custom library and created a flexible license pack allowing for use across media, including print, web, billboard and in-house publications. Have you done assignments like this for other clients or was this a first for you? Do you find that a lot of companies are seeking such flexibility in licensing? What considerations are most important in pricing out and producing this type of assignment?

RW: The Blackboard image library was a first for me, but it’s a business I’m trying to pursue more. Everybody wants “flexibility” in licensing. This client initially wanted a “buyout” or what I prefer to bill as a license in perpetuity. After some back-and-forth, we negotiated a three-year term. I think 80 percent of clients today start the conversation with “buyout,” and we photographers have to ask many questions about how they really intend to use the images. You have to consider how much value the photo would have to you as stock and also the term for which the client will really use these photos. The client might say they want a buyout, but use the images for only two years. Production-wise, you want to have a good team and be honest with people about the length of the days. This type of shoot tends to be about quantity, which means long days. You should make sure everyone, including yourself, is paid fairly for his or her time and talent.

ASMP: Do you do postproduction on images yourself or do you outsource these tasks? If the latter, do you have any tips about effectively communicating the work you’d like to have done on any given shot?

RW: I do almost all postproduction. On occasion, a client will ask for RAW images and use their in-house people.

ASMP: Do you employ support staff, such as a full-time administrator, assistants or tech support? How many regular freelance helpers do you work with, and how wide a range of sources do you consult when assembling a crew? Do you have any tips for keeping a crew motivated and working well together?

RW: I do not employ anyone full time. I have a few assistants, stylists and producers I like to work with. If an assignment is beyond driving distance, I’ll ask other photographers for referrals or consult Wonderful Machine or Workbook. I think being an easy person to work with is the best way to keep people motivated. I rarely hear assistants say, “I worked with this guy who had a huge ego, and, man it was so great.”

ASMP: Have you explored in the past, or do you have an interest to incorporate in the future, motion, video or other hybrid forms of imaging among your business offerings or creative output? Please share your thoughts on the future of visual media in its widest sense as well as the relationships between various components.

RW: I’ve done one small paid video job and I’ve played with video on personal projects. It’s not part of my business, and probably will not be for a long time. I think that people’s attention spans are getting shorter, and that a great still photo is much more effective at grabbing attention for three seconds than a video is. Still photography will always have a place in visual culture, especially in advertising and journalism. Not everyone wants to watch a three-minute video about a news item. For a lot of people, photo and headline are enough. Video will increasingly be used to build connections and brand loyalty. Video on a mobile phone will be a way to pass time on a commuter train or when you are bored. Successful video will build a connection through narrative, not simply through pretty HD imagery.

ASMP: You maintain a blog showing newly created images. How do you drive traffic to your blog? Generally speaking, what do you do to create an online presence and how much time do you dedicate to this?

RW: I’ve been very bad about updating the blog recently. But when I do update it, I post about it to Twitter and Facebook. My online presence comes partly from listings with Wonderful Machine and Workbook. Both drive traffic to my site. I am more focused right now on in-person networking than on internet-based networks. However, I do add my new “real” connections to my virtual network.

ASMP: You’ve also posted the Steeple + Chase series on the Behance network and you include a gallery of this work on your Photoshelter site. What kind of response have you received from either/both of these platforms? Do you consider this outreach to be successful or beneficial to your business?

RW: I posted the project on Behance because I wanted to keep the fine art work separate from my commercial work, and I also wanted to see what kind of exposure it would get on Behance. It’s been viewed 1,300 times, but no one has ever contacted me directly about it. I just recently put it on Photoshelter, and that will be part of a push to drive print sales in the near future.

ASMP: Please describe your procedure for handling print sales directly. Are any of your images represented through art galleries or other types of distributors or do you handle all print sales directly? Generally speaking, what is the timeframe between someone purchasing a print and the delivery?

RW: I’ve not actively pursued gallery representation, so I currently handle all print sales. I use Photoshelter to process online sales, and then send my files to a local printer that I know and trust. Delivery time varies by size, but from order date to delivery date it is probably five to 10 days.

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

RW: That’s a tough one. Creatively, I would like to do more personal projects. Professionally, I would like to diversify my income beyond photography. When you look at what’s going on in the broader economy, the opportunities seem to be more in content distribution than in content creation. You might think I’m crazy, but I’d like to start a stock agency.