For this interview we’re honored to feature Billy Howard, a professional photographer based in Atlanta. Billy has photographed in Asia, Latin America, Africa and Europe, and his work is exhibited internationally. He’s also a 2011-2012 Rosalynn Carter Fellow in Mental Health Journalism and he’s currently working on a documentary on teenagers with mental illness. He kindly accepted to answer some questions about himself and his projects.
I find Billy’s work truly inspiring. His commitment not only to the photographic art, but also to the subjects in front of the camera is touching and outstanding.
Hi Billy, can you tell us how your adventure with photography started?
I was an English major and started my career as a reporter for a weekly newspaper. Photography had always been a hobby but I didn’t think I could make a living as a photographer. After a year writing for a small newspaper it occurred to me that I couldn’t make a living at that either so I might as well do the low paying job I enjoyed. They let me stop writing and start shooting.
What’s the biggest lesson photography taught to you?
I discovered that for me, photography is about relationships. My camera has been the ticket to travel the world and enter into the lives of people I would not have had the chance to meet otherwise. The greatest lesson I’ve learned because of my career has been the amazing strength of the human spirit and that is what I strive to capture in my work.
In your blog you mention that you had the chance to photograph a wide range of people during your career; what makes you decide the subject of your portraits and what do you think is the most important feature to a great portrait?
My subjects are either chosen because I am given an assignment or they come from personal documentary projects. I have been fortunate to have photographed Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and a variety of sports, entertainment and political figures, but it is the ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances that are my favorite subjects. One of my interests in documentary work is public health and I have photographed children with cancer, people with HIV/AIDS, the disabled and the visually impaired. How all of these people rise to the additional challenges in their lives has been an inspiration to me.
I’m not sure that I can define what the most important feature of a great portrait is, but my goal is to take a photograph that the subject looks at and feels they have been captured with dignity. I want them to recognize themselves in the image and I want to convey the best part of who they are. Many times this comes out in a flicker in the eyes. I can take dozens of shots that all look very similar, but in one, I will notice something slightly different in the eyes and that’s the image I choose. On the technical side, I love how light transforms and sculpts a face, bringing out some details, hiding others and adding drama and emotion.
Where does your inspiration come from? Do you have any favorite photographer at the moment?
My favorite photographers are also my mentors. Marilyn Suriani, Holly Sasnett, Louie Favorite and Tom England. One of the first photographers I followed was Dennis Darling; I first saw his images in a photography magazine while I was in high school and many years later met him and became friends.
The photographer I am following now is Kael Alford. She was one of four independent photojournalists working in Iraq during the U.S. invasion. Her current work on a dying culture in coastal Louisiana, Bottom of da Boot, is being published in a book coming out this June.
What suggestion would you give to an aspiring photographer?
I think the best advice is to remain passionate about your work. Some of the most affecting photography doesn’t always come from the greatest technical photographers, but from photographers who are more interested in their subjects than in the art itself. Explore your subjects, read, become knowledgeable about who or what you are photographing and then take the time to allow the image to take shape. The more comfortable your subject is with you, the more likely you are to capture that unguarded moment that resonates. I would also advise them to always have a personal project. It is important to make a living and we do that by providing images to clients, but it is equally important to express yourself without the constraints of a client needing a specific image or look.
How do you like the Tumblr community? And what do you think of the Lensblr-network?
I have discovered a lot of great photographers and inspiration on Tumblr but they are sometimes hard to find with a site that allows people merely to copy and reblog other people’s work. I was excited to find out about the Lensblr network, which mainly has original photography from the photographers.
Billy, could you please share with us a few images that convey your photography?
It is difficult to choose but here are some that I like, not only for the image but the experience that I was having while taking them.
The first one is a photo of Annie Maxwell from a project my wife and I are working on: “Blind/Sight: Conversations with the Visually Inspired.” I take large format portraits of the participants and my wife, Laurie Shock, creates an illustration that mimics what you would see if you were looking through their eyes. Annie was blind from birth but didn’t know she was blind until she was seven years old; she assumed everyone saw like she did.
The child staring into the camera had guinea worm disease and I was in Ghana documenting the Carter Center’s efforts to eradicate the disease. It was my first trip to Africa and it completely changed my world view.
I was on an assignment for the humanitarian organization CARE when I photographed the girl in the pond. I was hiking into a remote farming village when it began to rain. I rounded a corner in the trail and this girl, bathing in the village pond, looked up and held my gaze as I lifted the camera and shot the photo.
Thanks a lot for your time Billy! If you want to see more of Billy Howard’s work you can visit the links below:
An interview by Sara Tomiolo