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best of 2015
Mick Stetson
Miyazaki, Japan

Mick Stetson's interest in Eastern culture began as a child, when a family friend introduced him to Japanese culture. The experience commenced a lifelong curiosity about other people and cultures. "Living Hinduism: the Short Stories," a series which portrays the daily rituals of Hindus, is a testimony to Stetson's long-held passion.

© Mick Stetson

© Mick Stetson

Of his practice, Stetson says: “I have found that with photography there is always something more to learn, discover and be astounded by — it's a horizon that can never be reached if you allow your imagination to travel with you.”

ASMP: You are primarily a self-taught photographer. Why did you decide not to enroll in a formal program? How have you benefitted from being self-taught?

Mick Stetson: Learning photography without the support of a full-time program wasn't a choice, it was fate. It was at a time when I had a family, a "day job" and a whole lot of responsibilities. I needed to find a way to balance my personal obligations with photography. I attended some workshops where I was exposed to new ideas and was able to communicate with other people who were passionate about photography. But mostly I was alone in this pursuit, relying mainly on texts and my own experience.

Although it was a difficult road, I gradually learned how to discipline myself so that I could accomplish my goals in as short a time as possible. I also learned to believe in my ideas, value them and recognize that they are unique to me as an individual.

ASMP: Since 1997, you have been based in Asia. Where were you born? What prompted you to move to Asia?

MS: I was born in a small town in New England, which is in the Northeastern part of the United States.

My interest in Asia began as a child when my mother's friend first introduced me to some of the cultural ideas and behaviors of Japan. While attending university, I visited my mother in Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf, where she lived for a short time. This event was a turning point in my life; it helped me see that the world and its diverse cultures have many different expressions for living. When I returned to the U.S., I immediately quit university, got a job and earned enough money to fly back to Bahrain, staying there for three years.

Eventually I completed university and finished a master's degree so that I would have opportunities to teach at international universities. In 1997, I was offered a teaching post in South Korea, so I packed my camera equipment, some clothes and my bicycle and headed off to Asia, without knowing anyone or what life would be like there. Fortunately, my three-year experience in Bahrain helped prepare me for my new life in Asia.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

MS: My photographic specialties are a mirror image of what personally interests me. All my life, I have been curious about other people, especially people from cultures different than my own. I want to know what's different about us, and what's the same. My photographic interests are centered on the diversity of people and how they express their unique cultural identities. Since the majority of my intercultural experience has been with Asian cultures, this is the area I am currently focusing on.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach that sets your work apart from other photographers?

MS: Regarding color photography I love deep, saturated hues, but not every situation lends itself to that kind of interpretation or rendering. If I'm in a situation where color can't be effectively used in the composition, I'll photograph it in black and white, focusing on tonal contrasts. Sometimes the content must be the most salient aspect of the image, without the distraction of color. I try to combine strong composition with social content as well as fine art aesthetics with a journalistic style.

I always do research about the subject I am documenting, but I never look at what other photographers have done with the same subject. I want to be open to the events as they unfold in front of me.

It's also important that I make a relationship with the people I'm photographing. I need to make a connection with my subjects in order to make meaningful photographs that artistically express the dignity of the moment and its participants.

ASMP: What stories do you tell through "Living Hinduism: the Short Stories?"

MS: Hinduism is one of the world's oldest religions. As a result of its long history, there are numerous rituals and ceremonies that Hindus practice, and a multitude of different sects that have their own methods for performing them. In "Living Hinduism: the Short Stories," I provide a glimpse into the multifarious rites that are part of a Hindu's daily experience. I want to show the exotic of the Hindu tradition, but, more importantly, the ordinary majority of Hindus and how that tradition is intrinsic to their lives. I also want shed light on the fact that although Hinduism as it is practiced today is generally a patriarchal system, its ancient roots are matriarchal.

ASMP: How did you choose who to photograph for the series, and how did you form a relationship with them?

MS: If I find a comfortable location, I always go back to the same place or person. In that way, these people get to know who I am and what I'm trying to do; I'm no longer anonymous to them. The relationships I have formed like this often develop into friendships, and it's these friends who guide me to places and situations I could never have found in a guidebook or by following a news story.

ASMP: The series comprises both color and black-and-white images. How did you decide what to present in black and white and what to present in color?

MS: Generally, I make the decision of which rendering to use when I first begin a project. For this series, there were a lot of saturated hues that I felt would help express the emotional content of the events. Later, when I was editing my photographs and deciding what to put in the series, I found that in some cases, there was too much of the same dominant hue, image after image. That's when I decided to see what it would look like in black and white. The beauty of digital capture is that you have both available at any time (during capture or post) as long as you get your exposures right.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member? What initially prompted you to join?

MS: I've been an ASMP member since 2013. I was invited by ASMP to join as an emerging photographer.

ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?

MS: The business resources, the webinars, the profiles of featured photographers and the latest news regarding industry-specific issues, such as the Copyright reform. Since I'm not based in the U.S. I rely on ASMP to help me be informed of the latest developments and to continue my education on the business side of photography.

ASMP: What is the best career advice you have ever received?

MS: Photographer Bill Allard once said to me, that you have to take photographs that no one else is taking. You have to go (perhaps physically, but more importantly, mentally) where no one else is going. You have to learn to see beyond the obvious and be open to serendipity.

This was relevant when I first heard it, but it is even more important today as the world is inundated with visual media. Following your personal vision is absolutely essential.