A conversation with Brandon Tauszik

Photograph by Brandon Tauszik

Brandon Tauszik is a San Francisco based photographer originally from England. After learning the craft of photojournalism in Europe, and a stint at Invisible Children, a media based non-profit organization, he now assists Magnum photographer Jim Goldberg and co-founded Sprinkle Lab. His photos have been appeared in The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, The Chicago Sun-Times, NPR, Salon.com and GOOD Magazine, among many others. He was gracious enough to take some time to talk about his experiences as a photographer and Pray For Mercy, his recent project about Family Radio and Judgment Day.

When did you initially pick up a camera? What was your first memorable photographic experience?

I purchased my first cell phone at 15 years old. It had a little 1 megapixel camera on it and soon enough I was hooked. The fact that I could be anywhere at anytime and capture what was around me was thrilling. Eventually I moved on to borrowing my friends’ point-and-shoot cameras. After an evening of sneaking into someone’s hot-tub or going to a punk show, I would usually fill up someone else’s memory card with photographs.

How did you learn photography and was there anything about that experience that you would change?

After I finished high-school in 2005 I decided I wanted to be a photographer, so I saved up my money for a year and then went to Europe. I spent the next 2 years (on and off) backpacking alone through the Balkans and working here and there. These experiences made me who I am today and grounded me in a desire to photograph unfamiliar places and people.

I suppose you could say I’m entirely self-taught and I wouldn’t change that. I don’t have beef with photo schools, but if you can’t get out of bed and be a photographer without a professor requiring you to be a photographer, you probably won’t get too far.

What was the process of teaching yourself like? Was any part of it particularly easy or difficult? When did you begin to consider yourself a professional?

I think the process of becoming a skilled “self-taught” photographer will be more arduous and time consuming than relying on college to refine your skills. For the large part, you have to be your own motivator and toughest critic. However, there’s never been a better time to educate yourself with the vast amount of quality educational content online. If you have an idea that interests you, do some research and assign yourself to shoot it. If that doesn’t pan out, find another idea and shoot that. Critique your work or show it to others and repeat. I’m not concerned with considering myself to be a “professional” photographer and I still have so much to learn. There’s always more to learn.

Photograph by Brandon Tauszik

You mentioned that you assist Jim Goldberg. How has that been?

For his age he still works incredibly hard and has serious hustle. It’s intriguing to watch him straddle the worlds of fine art and reportage. I primarily work on web design and video projects.

Which world would you place yourself in, art or reportage? Is the distinction meaningful at all?

My goal is to end up somewhere in between or outside of the two. I think this notion is relatively new in the world of photography and it’s exciting to see where it ends up. With all this technology affecting visual media so directly, we’re seeing previously concrete distinctions turned on their head. It’s becoming more and more common for a photojournalist to be represented by a gallery, or a fine art photographer to be found working in a war zone. I think it’s becoming less about these distinctions and more about the depth and quality of one’s work.

Why did you choose to assist another photographer vs freelancing on your own?

I don’t feel that freelancing is what I need right now. I want to focus on developing my skill-sets as a “people person” and visual communicator, rather than make a buck off a newspaper gig. Pursuing long-term projects on issues that genuinely interest me have been remarkably enriching experiences.

Photograph by Brandon Tauszik

Tell us about Pray For Mercy and Harold Camping – how you found this story and what you find compelling about it.

Family Radio paid for a slew of billboard spots all over America, as well as in many other countries around the world. The billboards boldly proclaimed the eminent destruction of humanity, with a setting sun behind a silhouetted man praying. I was fascinated by all of this and when I discovered that Family Radio, Harold Camping, and his local congregation we all located 20 minutes from my house I knew I had to go hang out with them.

It seemed very easy for the media to dismiss him as “crazy”, talking about vanishing Christians and eternal fiery damnation, but 41% of Americans believe what Camping believes will happen at some point in time. So where was the lunacy? In the fact that he set a date? I feel like a large number of Americans began to privately ask themselves some tough questions, while ridiculing Camping and his followers.

How have you been received by the EDIT congregation?

Overall I was surprisingly well received by Mr. Camping and the congregation. I would sit and listen during the sermon, join in group conversations after the service, and partake in the afternoon potluck. My presence as a photographer and documentarian was obvious, but largely ignored.

Photograph by Brandon Tauszik

As the first rapture date approached, the perception of the event from within the church and by the general public were very different. Were members of the congregation aware of the incredulity of outsiders? Were they shielded from it?

They were in no way shielded from the messages in the press and definitely knew what the general public thought of them. That didn’t seem to factor in to their own outlook though. From what I witnessed, pride played a big part in their collective mentality. The whole “we’re so right, they’re so wrong” conversations were commonplace.

Did the congregation have different views about the skepticism in the media and by the public at large after the second date passed without incident?

Again, they knew what was being said but that was of little concern to them. Their faith in Camping’s word was pretty infallible and most people I spoke with just found different ways to rationalize what was (not) happening.

Both dates passed without incident. Is Camping’s congregation still intact? How have members responded to this turn of events?

Family Radio and Camping’s congregation are still intact, to varying degrees. It’s very difficult to get a factual exposé on the direction and financial situation of Family Radio, however they have sold off some of their stations around the country, each worth millions of dollars. They are still broadcasting daily.

Before May 21st, attendance at Camping’s local congregation averaged well over 100 people. Despite the fact that he hasn’t attended or spoken to his congregation since June, dozens of people still show up every Sunday morning. Attendance on October 22nd was lower than normal, but not by as much as one would expect. The whole service that day was about Camping’s predictions, and about how to move forward since the second date didn’t happen. Everybody was discussing and trying to get to the bottom of it; figuring out where they went wrong, where Camping went wrong.

Photograph by Brandon Tauszik

How has Camping responded?

I managed to speak with Camping at his home on October 16th, a week before the world was supposed to end. Among other things, he told me that “no one knows exactly when the world will end” and asserted doubts in what he had interpreted from the Bible. This was the first time his had expressed apprehensions like this. He also told me that he had “retired”.

Has working on Pray For Mercy been different than working on your other projects?

It was in the sense that it had a timeline on it. There was a group of people following a leader preparing for a specific date. After that date, the dynamic of the the story changed and I couldn’t revise what I’d previously shot. While shooting I had to try and prepare for where the story would head and make sure I had sufficient images that would link the story together. I have a ton of unpublished images from after May 21st that I haven’t used yet. Maybe I’ll wait for the gallery show, any curators reading this?

What are you working on currently? Any future projects we can look forward to?

I’m currently working on a project which explores barber shop culture in Oakland. I’ve never seen a place with so many barber shops, sometimes two to a block, all independent and thriving. I have been visiting as many of these as I can, where I interview and photograph the barbers themselves. The shops are hubs of community, gossip, and wisdom; each one with a deep history in the area.

Photograph by Brandon Tauszik

In terms of photography, what inspires you at the moment? Have you seen any notable projects or single photos recently?

I’m always searching for new work… Lately Shawn Nee, Chantal Heijnen, and Kuba Rubaj are making me smile.

Any advice for young/emerging photographers?

As far as documentary and reportage work is concerned; If you’re not good with people, stop shooting and work on that now. It’s just as important as refining your image making skills, except you wont make the images if you don’t click with your subjects first. You require of someone a certain amount of emotional access in order to willfully make a picture of them. This is always a challenge for me as I’m a pretty introverted person, but I’ve worked hard to become more “open” to the people I photograph. I don’t want my images to feel detached or removed, but rather close and personal.

How do you see your future in the business now with the digital boom and the change in publishing?

I’m happy to be alive and kicking at this time in photo history! There’s near unlimited possibilities with new avenues of distribution and emerging technologies. For example, as a relatively unknown photographer my portfolio website was receiving 30,000 hits a day around May 21st because of my photo-essay. That’s more exposure than any small book run or gallery show could yield… and for free.

Now, was I able to monetize on all that traffic? Yes I sold photos to a few publications, but the rates I received were a real wake-up call to the realization that I can’t come close to supporting myself with my photo projects, however “newsworthy” they are. I’m not interested in weddings or corporate work, so my dream of making my entire income from photography has changed; but we need all need to adapt when necessary. Earlier this year I co-founded Sprinkle Lab, a commercial video firm which has allowed me to continue shooting projects of personal interest and forget about monetizing for the time being.

I’m not sure what will come of this huge transition from print to web, but I think it’ll be OK in the end. Our culture is becoming exponentially more visual, so the demand for quality visual communicators will expand with that. I hope.

Out of curiosity, what profession do you think you’d be in if you weren’t a photographer/videographer?

An anthropologist.

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