Every week, host Adam Sockel interviews a popular member of the literary world about their passions beyond what they're known for. These longform, relaxed conversations show listeners a new side of some of their favorite content creators as well as provide insight into the things that inspire their work.
A picture is worth a whole novel with Kerri Schlottman
A picture is worth a whole novel with Kerri Schlottman
Kerri Schottman has always been fascinated by photojournalism. She loves the stories that can be conveyed by a single picture and she’s had a great deal of exposure to the artists who take them. She found herself thinking about the concepts of how photos can remove the subject's voice in a way when we only look at a picture. This is how her new novel, Tell Me One Thing, came to be.
This is a deep discussion about where stories come from, how we find them, and why it matters who they are conveyed.
Books mentioned in this episode
Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad
Abundance by Jakob Guanzon
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You’re listening to Passions and Prologues, a literary podcast. For each week, I’ll interview an author about a thing they love and how it inspires their work. I’m your host, Adam Sockel. And if this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining. If you’ve been around for a long time now, thanks for coming back. Excited to have you all here.
Today’s episode is a discussion I had with author Kerri Schlottman. She has a new book out called, Tell Me One Thing. And it is this really, depressing isn’t the first word I would use, but it is a slightly depressing, extremely powerful portrait of two Americas. It takes a look at examining power, privilege, and sacrifice. And it all came about because of one singular photograph that Kerri saw and was just struck by. And the thing that we talk about today is Kerri’s lifelong interest in photojournalism. And that, obviously as you’ll hear in the discussion, is the impetus for her book.
But what I really found fascinating about this discussion and a few discussions that are coming up throughout the month of December is this notion that if you want to be a writer, stories can truly come from anywhere. Kerri spends a lot of time looking into photojournalism and looking at artwork and all sorts of different things that have to do with specific photos, but she doesn’t do it just to want to write books.
However, she saw one photo that we talk a lot about in the beginning of this discussion. And what it ended up being was the kind of impetus for her to write her book, Tell Me One Thing. So very, very interesting stuff. I think you’ll really, really enjoy it. I do have, as always, a book recommendation for you. And the book that I want to bring up is, Between Two Kingdoms, A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad.
This is a book that I bring up because while not a photojournalist herself, Suleikais a journalist of sorts, but she’s extremely, extremely talented as an artist. Suleika was getting ready to graduate from college and kind go out into the real world when she got really, really sick and found out that she had a extremely, extremely rare form of cancer that was kind of eating away at her body. She got better, she was able to create this book between two kingdoms. But the reason I bring it up in terms of photojournalism is Suleika did a really powerful job of photographing herself and having photographs of herself put up on Instagram and social media throughout her struggle. And so it’s a really powerful way to understand what people go through when they’re going through chemotherapy. And the reason I wanted to bring this up again is because Suleika is once again battling cancer, which is horrible to hear about.
But I want to make you aware of her story, Between Two Kingdoms in the hopes that you’ll go and learn a little bit more about the amazing things that Suleika Jaouad is doing. So really powerful stuff. Just like the book, Tell Me One Thing by Kerri Schlottman is, and I think you’re going to enjoy both.
Before I get to the conversation. As always, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can find me at Passions and Prologues on Instagram or TikTok. If you email me any of your screen shotted reviews or ratings of this particular podcast, I will give you some customized book recommendations. And as always, I am giving away a bookshop.org gift card once a month to anyone who emails me their passions. I’ll pick one at random. So really love hearing those from you guys.
Okay, that is all the housekeeping. I am really excited for you to get to this conversation with Kerri Schlottman, author of Tell Me One Thing, Passions and Prologues.
Okay, Kerri, what is the thing you are super passionate about that we’re going to be discussing today?
We are going to be discussing photojournalism or documentary photography, which I’m super passionate about and very excited to talk to you about. And this is my first time actually getting to talk about this in relation to my writing. So I’m thrilled that you invited me. Thank you.
Yeah, absolutely. And we will, for people who will continue listening, you’ll hear about Kerri’s book in a little bit in a very specific photo that we’ll talk about. But first, how did you get into photojournalism? Do you remember your first experience with it or when you started being fascinated in this really interesting space?
Yeah, well, I’ve always been a writer and a storyteller even since I was little. So anything… I was always drawn to anything that had the ability to tell a story in a really different kind of way. So I immediately, as a young person, was interested in art and specific kinds of art. So I actually when I went to school I studied English, but I didn’t do a kind of traditional MFA. I decided to do more of a hybrid arts and English track.
And so I remember being an art history class and when I was being brought up, I kind grew up in a low income community in southeast Detroit. Didn’t have a lot of arts exposure besides going to the Detroit Institute of Arts, the one time a year school field trip. But I was around a lot of books growing up. My mom’s a big reader, so I didn’t really… My idea of art for a long time was the mummies at the museum are basic, I didn’t know context for contemporary art or for the power of metaphor that you find in art.
So I remember being in my first kind of art history class, contemporary art history class and being exposed to photography. But then specifically to photojournalism and documentary photography and realizing as a writer like that, a good photo is a full story, which is a really compelling idea, I think when you write, I’m not a flash fiction writer. I think they might be able to connect with that idea a little bit better. But you can tell a story really briefly. I don’t tell stories briefly. I can’t even write short stories. I’m like a novel writer from day one, for better or worse. But I’m totally intrigued by the fact, and I always was that you could look at a photograph and see the whole history of it and it’s real. That’s also what’s super compelling. So these are real subjects, people, and then I’m talking about stuff that’s not staged, that’s really kind of that documentary style.
And I remember the photograph we’ll talk about in a bit, that was one of the first photographs I ever saw was Mary Ellen Mark’s photograph, Amanda and her cousin Amy, and then the rest of the body of her work. And kind of in the context of the era of looking at photojournalism as an art form instead of just as photo journalism or something that’s done for magazines or commissioned.
And that was the nature of that class that I took. So we had some really exciting conversations and it was a spark went off and I thought, I need to figure out how to take that kind of storytelling, that glimpse of storytelling into a writing arena and what does that look like? How do you get inspired in that way?
So yeah, from then on I’ve just been massively excited about artists and photographers who are doing that kind of work. And I think it’s super challenging work also because again, a lot of the stuff I’m drawn to is looking at culture, looking at parts of culture that people don’t want to look at. Things aren’t really challenging to see what that are happening all around us. And I think these are stories that need to be told and that art is really telling that story, which is beautiful.
Yeah, I mean there’s… It’s a cliche, but there’s a reason people say a picture’s worth a thousand words. ’Cause it’s… That is so true. I just think back while you were talking, I found myself thinking about history books that I saw when I was in high school where you would see, and I’m probably getting the places wrong, but the naked little girl running in Vietnam away from a fire and Tiananmen Square, the man standing in front of the tank. And even when I was in high school, 9/11 happened, that photo of that the person diet, but basically jumping out of the burning, building upside down, they do really…
It’s not even a thousand words, I think you see an image like that and there’s tens of thousands of words you could create and craft from an image like that. Yeah, to me, I guess I’m just realizing it now as you’re talking about, I love photography, but I love photography in a way where I’m like, I want to take an interesting angled photo of my dog’s nose. That’s not exactly the same things. When you discovered this, and like you said, you started trying to think, how can I write this way? I guess a really blunt question is how do you work to write in a way that mimics what you see in these stunning photos?
Yeah, I think I’ve thought about this a lot because I have spent a lot of time really thinking about how those two things mirror each other. And I think a lot of my writing is very character driven and I think it’s because when you look at that kind of photography, it’s so subject driven. And again, when you look at that kind of photography, I mean even with something like the person jumping out of the building, which is such a devastating photograph. But you can almost understand everything about that person as another person in the world. What would be happening, what kind of person are you, that that is your choice and that that’s the way that you’re going to deal with the situation. And I think some of the photography I’m most drawn to our, again, these sort low income areas, the way that people are living. And some of that was also kind of…
The first time I ever saw photographs like that, it was also a mirror of some of the way that I grew up and some of the people I knew growing up. And I never thought that there was a connection between that and art. And so when I started to see that, I thought, oh, there’s a place for our voices in this, which is a really powerful thing. And I think it happened to me at a moment where I was just learning really how to compose my writing.
Again, I didn’t really study creative writing, it was a bit entwined in what I did. But having not done an MFA, a lot of it was self driven. So the way that art inspired that was really to think about I get really inside the character’s heads for better or worse. So this is my style and if you like that kind of thing, it’s really great.
But I think that I’m most interested in that what’s the psychology of your characters and then how do they relate to each other because of that? And I think a lot of that is driven by looking at those photos because again, photography, these are real people in real situations. And I have the luxury of making up a story, but I still need it to be as realistic as possible so that you really do believe these are people and believe that these things are happening to them and that this is how they would interact with each other.
So when I think about writing scenes, I try to think about if you stepped back from it, what would the snapshot look like? What would a photograph of that scene look like and how… What could someone take away from that moment? And then really try to inspire that same kind of feeling that you get when you look at something that’s been composed in an artistic way.
I love that so much because one of the things, and a recent episode, I was talking with Dawn Kurtagich and we were talking about one of the main things that makes an author. Yes, it’s the ability to write well, to craft a sentence, to say something in a way that makes people want to read the next sentence. But a lot of that comes from being perceptive and looking around and seeing, I always think this is a weird way of thinking about it, but it’s the way I always think about it when I think of things like details and stories. There’s a bar in Las Vegas and New York, New York called the Nine Fine Irishmen. It’s an Irish pub where they play live Irish music, but it’s a big, very big bar. I look up in the corners and they have these old faces of these old Irish authors.
I’m like, it’s just up in this space that no one would ever look. And I always anytime I’m there, I find myself looking up at those and I’m like, who put those there and who are those people and what are they? But when you go to a museum saying you… And they have a photojournalism set of things up, do you find yourself doing that same thing standing in front of a picture and crafting a story in your head? Or, is it have to be a very specific photo that takes you back and you’re like, whoa, I need to really examine this?
I think I craft… I definitely craft a story. Almost everything I see, nobody wants to go with me to see art because I’m there for a long time. But I’m compelling the idea too that this is art. The idea that you’re these photographs and this is where I struggle a little bit with it. A lot of that photography is very provocative. And again, these are real people in real situations and they’re consenting to have their photographs taken, which is an important part.
But that crossover from being something that might be more of ethnographic in nature to something that’s literally fine art that’s in the MoMA collection now or that’s a kind of crazy thing if you think about it. And so yeah, I feel almost like obligated to spend time with that when I see it because I feel like I owe it to the real people in those photos. And I’m so curious about who they are, what’s going on, what were the circumstances of this. And I have a really, obviously most every author, I have a very active imagination.
So I craft stories very quickly about that. And I think it just, it’s not something that is forced it just I think again, when that photography’s done well, that’s the result. Ideally you should be looking at it and wondering what’s happening here? Who are these people? What happened right before this? What happened right after it? Where are they now? Et cetera.
It’s sort of designed to, I mean not, sort of, it’s designed to stop you in your tracks in a way that I think of, this is going to be a weird way of countering it, but Instagram now is this app where you’re supposed to, not supposed to, but you see the most idyllic version of everyone’s lives. You see the most perfect picture of the 40 they took in front of the sunset at the beach. Photojournalism to me is that stuff when on Instagram I’m scrolling until I see something actually interesting because all of those things just look the same to me. Whereas photo journalism, I think of, I’m trying to think of the account, I think its on Twitter, people of New York or the Lives of New York.
Well, Humans of New York.
Humans of New York, stuff like that. Every time I would see a photo I would stop. And I think that to me, ’cause I always like to say I love going to art museums. I do not have a art history back… I know nothing, not a single, I couldn’t point out a single artist, but I know I’m… It makes same things make me stop and look at it and I’m like, I’ll find myself in front of a painting for 10 minutes just thinking. And I think that’s photo journalism. It’s best like it… Like you said, it forces you to think what happened here and what is happening now?
Absolutely. And it’s totally fascinating to me because this whole photojournalism kind of had its begin its beginnings in the 1930s during FDR time, they sent a photographer Dorothea Lang out to photograph migrant workers experiences across the country as a way to make a case for people needing support, more financial social support into the country and et cetera.
And now her work is in the MoMA collection and it’s… I wonder about this all the time because we are so saturated with images because of social media. That was really powerful when she did that in the thirties. It basically was the game changer. People saw those photographs. They saw how hard people’s lives were and then they really, it was the tide change that FDR needed to get people to agree to allow more money to be funneled into social services. I don’t know if that’s possible anymore. I think people are too used to seeing things. And I think you’re right. It takes a lot to actually stop you we’re very desensitized now.
Yeah. And it’s not even just photos and sorry to everyone listening who was listening to me for a long time. I’m going to talk about a book called Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, again for four seconds ’cause I talk about this book all the time. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s by Kathleen Rooney. And it’s this story of this 87 year old woman who lives in New York City and she basically goes for a walk on New Year’s Eve and thinks back to her life when she was in advertising for RH Macy’s. She was the highest paid woman in advertising in the country.
And she talks about how when she first started they would write these long page long descriptions and they’d be playful writing, would it be about an ice box or a vacuum? And she kind of laments about you couldn’t do this anymore. And then I’m in my mid-thirties and I lamented, I would love to see a full page ad in the paper about a vacuum.
That stuff I long, I know I’m born in the wrong time type of a person. But you’re right, I think the whole desensitizing, it takes a lot. I think of George Floyd, that wasn’t even a photo that had to be a video that had to be a nine minute video for people to realize what’s going on a ’cause I want to get to the actual photo we’re going to talk about in a second year. But do you think there’s any type of a photo anymore that could, I guess, shock people into action like that? Or do you think it has to be a video like a live streaming thing?
I mean I really think it has to be video or live streaming thing because I do think… Also because I think there’s this weird skepticism about photographs now because anybody can take them. It’s so easy to do and you can manipulate them that kind of time where, I mean you could always manipulate them in the past too through different kinds of ways of working in the darkroom. But it’s so different now. The fact that anybody can take a photograph of their cell phone and edit somebody out of it, put somebody else. I think there’s just a weird relationship now that people have to, that I feel very unsettled by. And I do talk about that in a little bit roundabout way in my book.
But I think that even videos I worry sometimes isn’t enough. And I hate to ever say that people need something to happen personally to them because nobody should have to deal with any kind of trauma, personal or otherwise or witness it firsthand. But it’s almost as if, again, we’re so used to that kind of imagery that until something does happen personally to someone, then it’s really hard for them to really understand that this is the severity of these kinds of things that are happening. And that’s a sad commentary on where we’re at as a society.
Want to get to my doom and gloom.
You said it in a much more eloquent way. I was going to say it sucks.
We’ll be back with more Passions and Prologues after this break. And now back to Passions and Prologues.
We’re recording this on November 11th when Twitter’s in a total hilarious dumpster. Honestly, being on Twitter this week has been the best thing ever. ’Cause it’s hilarious. But there’s dialogue going on in real time right now and people will probably know what I’m talking about when this airs about the price of insulin because somebody created a fake account for this pharmaceutical company and basically insulin’s now free and the company had to come back and say, we apologize for anyone who saw the misinformation.
And it cost that pharmaceutical company 20 billion dollars. And in this how their farther their stock fell. But people are tweeting about it and I just think I’ve cared about this for a long time. My sister has diabetes. It’s like I think about the price of insulin. But you’re right, people are having fun with it on Twitter, but they’re going to go back to lives and not think about it unless they are directly affected by it.
And so yeah, it does suck and be a little morbid, but it’s okay. It’s a rainy day for both of us. But, I want to get to your book in the specific photo because the way I want to frame the question is, as someone who is so fascinated by photojournalism and like you said, you’re so often seeing a photo, whether it’s a museum or online or anything and crafting stories out of it. Tell me about first this specific photo that kind of stopped you in your tracks and then why you wanted to dedicate so much time to writing a novel about that photo.
So this photograph is by Mary Ellen Mark who began doing photography in, I think it’s the early seventies. She had a very long career. In 1990 she took a photo called Amanda and her cousin Amy. And I first experienced this photo in grad school and it’s mega stopped me. It’s a photograph. It’s actually pretty simple in composition. It’s two girls in a kitty pool. They’re young. I think at the time Amanda was 10 and her cousin Amy was around the same age. Amy is sitting down in the kitty pool and Amanda is standing up and she’s smoking a cigarette and she’s got makeup on, fake nails and it’s obviously in a kind of rural setting and it’s not staged.
So it’s immediately just catches your attention. I was unfortunately drawn to it because there’s a photograph of my sister and I when we’re little in our front yard in a kiddie pool, not smoking cigarettes, but not dissimilar in composition. And I remember thinking, wow, there’s something about that kitty pool. Again, you can just imagine the story and then this girl who’s so provocative in this moment.
So I was so drawn to that photograph and there I hadn’t really known that much about the background of it or the relationship that Mary Ellen and Mark had with the subjects. And I think maybe a few years later there… She’s done a lot of books with Aperture she did in her lifetime. And I remember reading that the Amanda was that Mary Ellen and Mark had been sent to photograph by one of the magazines, this school for troubled kids. And that’s where she met Amanda, the young girl. And then ended up spending a couple of days with her and her family and she happened to catch that photograph right as she was leaving town. She went to say goodbye to Amanda and found her like that and took that photo.
So that was really compelling to me. And then a few years later, and it’s always been in my head and I always talked about that photograph. And then couple years later, this was I think 2015, Mary Ellen Mark passed away and NPR did a news segment on that photograph on the occasion of her passing away. And they actually went and found Amanda, who at that point was in her late thirties and they interviewed her.
So I was in the car, we were about to, my husband and I were about to take a road trip. We were about to leave New York and go through Pennsylvania. And so we were caught in tunnel traffic or something listening to this NPR segment. And I was like, this is the photograph. And so they had Amanda on as an adult and they asked her about the photograph, about the experience with Mary Ellen Mark and also why she allowed herself to be photographed. And she… You can look this up to get the exact wording, but essentially said she thought someone would see it and come and help her, which was such a devastating thing to hear someone say because again we know that that just doesn’t happen.
And she had a really hard life. She was in and out of foster care, she was in and out of prison. She was still having a hard life in her late, I think she was 38, 39 at the time that they talked to her. And it just really kind of shook me ’cause I thought that is really devastating that she really thought that something would come of that. And then we happened to be driving through rural. So that photograph was in rural North Carolina, but we happened to be driving through rural Pennsylvania and stopped for gas in a very small town. And immediately I thought this is the setting for something like that to have taken place. And so the story that I crafted began to take shape in that moment and a few years later I have my book.
So I was just going to say that I know that feeling that you talk about. So I’m currently querying a novel and for almost a decade now I’ve been interviewing authors. And I would always, a personal question I would ask them for me, not for the audience was where not… Well I hate what inspires you question, but it was more so just whatever specific book we were talking about, I’d be like.
So what was the kernel of an idea that you started with? Because that was always my issue. I would always start writing something, I’d be like, this isn’t it. And then that happened for me. I woke up one morning, I just had a clear as day picture in my mind of a scene that was the opening scene. I was like, I don’t know what comes next, but I’m going to go from there.
And so hearing you talk about this photo, it sounds like instantly you knew not only seeing the photo but then hearing the story behind it that you had that not even kernel, I would say a whole bag of popcorn worth of ideas here. So tell our audience little bit about the book and then how, I’m curious how closely you wanted to have the story be to real life and how you decided where to pull and push those aspects of the story.
Yeah, so I should also say I’ve spent most of my career working with artists. So that’s been my primary job in addition to writing books. So I’ve had a lot of exposure to artists directly. And I always knew also that I wanted to write, there’s actually a lot of artists in the things that I write, but I wanted to write something about the 1980s New York art scene. ’Cause I’m super inspired by that too. It was just such a wild free time.
So I think that we… When it all kind of came together… So as far as how closely setting, I definitely didn’t want to have a kind of based on story. I wanted it to be a very different story. But it felt very much the most important thing was that the little girl’s voice got heard too. Because that’s something until all these years later, it was what Amanda’s almost 40 at that point to finally have her side of this story of being in this photograph told was kind of that moment where I thought the subject voice was just so missing in it.
So I knew my story at that point. I wanted to be able to tell parallel stories. Also by the time Mary Ellen Mark took that photograph, she was already really well known in not launch her career. But I thought, what happens if you actually launch a career off of a really provocative photograph and not forget about, but don’t really acknowledge the subject’s struggles and that, what does that do to you professionally? And how do you cope with yourself as you’re earning recognition and building your career off something? There’s a very question about objectification when it’s there. And again, that crossover of that kind of photography being seen as fine art, that still is something that I just needle with because I think don’t know how I feel about that. And so a lot of times when I write, I’m also trying to figure out how I feel about things.
So all those kinds of pieces came together. So my story is about a much younger photographer who’s on a road trip with a friend and passing by this area does meet this little girl. This is set in rural Pennsylvania. Meets the young girl, spends a day with her and as she’s leaving, it’s obvious that this young girl’s mom is a prostitute at this little kind of truck stop motel. And again, this is very much inspired by the setting where we have stopped for gas in real life. And I thought, wow, what happens if you grow up in a place like this? Who are you? What is like… And I saw kids running around, I thought, what is your life like? There’s nothing here. And so it was kind of the perfect way to tell the story of someone being able to slip through the cracks of adult attention and the kind of care and security you needed at that age.
And then this photographer kind of comes along and catches this photograph of a young girl and she’s sitting on the lap of one of the truckers outside of a motel. And so there’s this illusion to what’s actually going on in the motel when the truckers come into town. And she’s raised by this single mom who’s having a lot of issues and who has a problematic boyfriend. And so there’s a lot of, again, inspired by a lot of the troubles that Amanda herself went through, but in a very different setting.
And then the young photographer who comes back to New York City and who’s trying to get the gallery, trying to do all the things you have to do when you’re just out of school and you’re really, really hustling. Which allowed me to tell a very, very interesting story I think about the New York art scene at the time too, and how that photograph really becomes what launches her career. And in the meantime, this kind of parallel story of what’s happening with the young girl.
And it goes through both of their lifespans, I mean till adulthood for the young girl and this tension of if what will end up happening and eventually the author has a retrospective at a museum in New York and that becomes a big deal in the news. And this is how the girl who’s now a woman finds out that this photograph of herself has been, had this whole life that she didn’t even know about, which is what happened with Amanda in real life too. She had no idea that that photograph had so much life after it was taken of her. So that’s the story in a nutshell. And it digs into a lot of ideas about privilege, about sacrifices on both sides, what people are willing to do to try to succeed.
It looks very different for both of those characters based on their circumstances and what their needs are. And then also the challenges. I mean even though the artist has a different, and in some ways easier life, she’s not without her own challenges. And the eighties in New York and through the nineties et cetera was a really challenging time and artists really struggled. And then there was kind of an emergence of the art market that changed the nature of a lot of things. So there’s a lot of things compacted into the story and it kind of revolves around these two characters, but does kind of skip through time a bit to show you some different eras of these things.
Yeah, first off, I can hear the passion in your voice about all of this and it just, that’s my favorite thing, talking to authors and you can hear in your description how much all of these aspects of your story means to you. And I’m curious, having said you’ve worked with people all your life artists specifically, have you ever had a chance to talk to photojournalist about that weird dichotomy of, I’m here to take photos and then I’m going to go my separate way.
And this photo could be something that becomes a huge deal. And that push and pull I guess of I can’t really help these people. I can take these photos and it can shine a light on what’s going on here, but having these people in the photo, it could very well take on a life of its own. And have you a ever had a chance to talk to actual photo journalists about this since I can’t imagine that internal struggle they must go through?
I have talked a little bit with some artist friends about this, not who are specifically only doing that work, although I think they all kind of struggle with this depending on what their subject based work looks like. It’s interesting because at some points, Mary Ellen Mark did intervene in circumstances later on in or at some point in her career. I remember reading a book about how she thought there might be some sexual abuse going on. So she reported it. And so I think when she thought that there was something that there should be some intervention, she did take some action. It wasn’t necessarily so direct. And I think I do play around with this in the book too, what can you do even if you feel super compelled that you should do something? What is it? I mean in my story, she can’t take the girl with her.
Maybe she could have tried to stay longer. There’s a lot of questions about what that looks like. And I think that that’s where I think for artists what’s the… I don’t know, a single artist that doesn’t struggle with questions about their relationship to whatever they make, whether it has a subject based content or not. But I think it’s really hard to do either. It’s really hard to get involved and it’s really hard to not be involved.
And I think that because there’s no good solution and then no one’s really equipped to figure out how to deal with some of these big issues that can be apparent in that. But there are some interesting examples. There’s an artist, Brenda Ann, I’m going to say her last name wrong and I feel bad, but it’s like Kenneally. She did a really fascinating project called Upstate Girl, I think she’s from Albany, New York.
And she stayed in Troy for a long time and photographed people in that era or in that area after it just had become disenfranchised. Basically all the business had moved out and people were really struggling there. It’s such a compelling project and she spent… She lived there with them and would mentor the girls and would really do a lot as far as trying to intervene in these soft ways, role model ways. And I think that was because she was from a community very similar to it.
So it felt more natural. I think it was probably harder for someone like Mary Ellen Mark who was not from that kind of background. She said that she felt like she could relate to the girls, to Amanda and the other girls in the Trouble Girls school because she had been a precocious kid. And I was like, that’s not necessarily the same.
But I think there’s other artists who, if they are documenting culture that they’re from, I think that they feel more comfortable maybe having a little bit of a more interventive role in that with their subjects than someone who’s sent on assignment from a magazine for instance, to take photographs.
So as someone who is so interested in this field, do you now ever find yourself wanting to take photographs of just the, I guess, do you do any photography? Again, I mentioned my photography is close up photos of my dog, but do you do anything like that personally?
I don’t. I feel like, because I write about, it’s interesting because I love photography. I don’t know if I would take good photograph. I take a lot of photographs of my dog too. Nobody really wants to see them. I try to show people and they’re like, that’s great. We don’t need to see more of your dogs. I feel like you know what you’re good at and what you’re good at. And I think I’m good at writing about that. I think I’m good at understanding what might be happening in the settings and scenes that we see in that kind of photography and being able to relate to how it feels to be in a circumstance that a lot of these people find themselves in.
But I’m more naturally drawn to wanting to write that out versus and play around with words with that, try to figure out what are the other scenes, we only get certain moments in these series. So again, what’s before and after and what’s 10 years from now look like in this setting.
So for people who, other than obviously going to museums and for anyone who doesn’t know you live somewhat close to New York City, it’s like you have world class museums there. We actually, here in Cleveland, we have world class museums as well where I can see things like that. But people who may not be able to have access to that type of thing. Where are maybe some places online that people can find compelling photos like this? Or just where can people find journalism that is still moving in 2022 that in the time when a lot of places are cutting these types of jobs?
Yeah. Well I think as you mentioned, Humans of New York I think is one of the best sites. I think that Brandon has done an amazing job of capturing the beauty of storytelling. And for anyone who hasn’t experienced that site, it’s available. I think he’s on all the social media platforms and he’s got a website too. But anyhow, he’s done books, but he goes out and meets people and talks to them and takes a photograph. So the photography part is a little bit different cause it’s kind of just capturing who the subject is, but then in their words, they talk about their circumstance. It’s kind of an amazing combination of both forms of storytelling.
As far as sites, I don’t know, because I usually go even to see it in real life, it can be challenging because I’m really interested in who’s doing that work now. I’ve seen a lot of the stuff that’s already in the collections here or when there’s shows of it, I think, and I’m really drawn to American photojournalism, I think because it’s happening obviously globally, but I think it’s particularly interesting because it is a reflection of our country that doesn’t like to think about the things that aren’t good about itself.
And so I think it’s really important to see, and Brenda Ann Kenneally, who I mentioned who did Upstate Girls, that’s a really recent project. I think she started that in 2017. There’s been other projects too that are similar. But I think interestingly, if you’re a New Yorker reader, the New Yorker actually does a really good job at profiling these series based projects when they’re happening. They’ve done a couple of profiles now on artists who are doing this work. So that can be a really good way to find it. But I don’t know of any specific sites. And if anyone else says they should tell me because I really stories to tell.
That’s the perfectly acceptable answer. Ok, so last question I always leave authors with is, give us a recommendation. It could be a book, it could be a specific museum you think people should visit, it could be a TV show, a recipe, anything that you just think you really love and more people should know about. It’s just something you want to recommend.
All right. I like this question. Can I give two things?
There’s two, there’s a book and then a project. Danna Singer is another photographer who’s doing this kind of work and she has this incredible project that the New Yorker actually featured I think in 2020. It’s very recent. And she’s photographing people who are living in motels and it’s just an extraordinary series. You can find her online. Her name is D-A-N-N-A singer. And her work is just phenomenal. I was just looking at it actually yesterday and I thought there was another photo in it and I was like, oh, this is a whole story right here waiting to happen.
The other thing is, I love this book, Abundance by Jakob Guanzon, and I don’t know if you’ve read it, but I think it came out during the Pandemic, unfortunately. But he published with Grey Wolf and it was his debut and he writes, and I think maybe because I’m in the Danna Singer phase right now, his story is about a father and a son who are having a very challenging economic time when they’re living somewhat homeless and then also living kind of in a motel situation.
And I think those two things together right now, I’ve just been thinking about them a lot the past few weeks, that book Abundance is so good and Jakob tells this story. It’s very heartbreaking. But if you love to torture yourself with challenges like I do, it’s so good. And he did a very unique thing where every chapter starts with how much money the father has in his pockets and you know, just keep wanting to root for these characters and you know that this is really challenging and that, you know, just want to flip the page to the next chapter and be like, please let it say a thousand dollars. And it’s like $10. And so he’s about to devastate you again in another chapter.
But I think it’s one of the most important books that’s been written recently. And in general, I think that all these projects are really important because they are looking at economic inequality in this country, which is a conversation for some reason that we just keep refusing to have. And it’s, I think, the one thing that could actually bring everybody together. And I think that’s why there’s forces greater than us keeping us from having that conversation altogether. But that book and that project are phenomenal and I highly, highly, highly recommend them.
Those are fantastic recommendations. As people have heard me say in the intro, Tell Me One Thing is available for pre-order now, so please, please, please, if you’ve been interested in this conversation, go preorder it. As a person who has spent a long time in the literary world, I can tell you pre-orders are the most important thing you can possibly do for an author. I literally went on mute a few times and pre-ordered it while we were talking. I’m so, so excited. Kerri, thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you so much for having me. This was so great.
Passions and Prologues is proud to be an Evergreen podcast. It was created by Adam Sockel. It was produced by Adam Sockel and Sean Rule-Hoffman. And if you are interested in this podcast and any other Evergreen podcast, you can go to evergreenpodcasts.com to discover all the different stories we have to tell.