Bio. Offer us a short, snappy (not-copied-from-your-website or any publication), fun biography. Who are you?
I’m Naomi Harris, a nearly 45-year-old Canadian-American photographer (though I identify as being Canadian as I only became a US citizen in 2013 so I wouldn’t lose my Green Card and my right to work in the US if I left for long periods of time). A resolute self-described hobo, I spend months at a time doing road trips with my trusty sidekick Maggie, a Shih Tzu whom I rescued off an Indian Reservation in Saskatchewan, Canada back in 2011. In fact I feel more at home sleeping in the back of my car in a Walmart parking lot than anywhere else.
Beginning. Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera? The first picture you took? Tell us a story about your beginning.
I accidentally stumbled onto photography in my third year of university as I was studying printmaking but wanted to be able to make photographs to use in my work if I couldn’t source an existing photo (this was before the days of Google). I took an “Intro to Photography” class, which was pretty technical and more about darkroom practices than content. I don’t really remember what I first photographed in that class, but what I do remember is going to Europe that summer on a solo trip and shooting lots of film, bringing it back, developing it when the school year started up and being like, “Oh yeah, THIS is what I want to do.” I was hooked. Frankly I hated being in the darkroom (I wasn’t the best printer) but loved this new ability to come up to strangers and begin having conversations (I’m real nosey) solely because I had a camera and I wanted to take their picture. I visited ICP in New York that spring, saw they offered a one-year documentary program and decided to apply to it even though I had only been taking photos for about a year and the rest is history. I don’t think I “morphed” into a photographer per say—I think I must have always been one I just didn’t have the right tools to do so until I purchased that Pentax K-100 in 1995.
Being. What are you working on now? Where? How? Why?
I’m currently working simultaneously on a few different projects. This summer, thanks to a Canada Council New Chapter Grant, I’ll be embarking on an 8-10 week long canoe trip recreating the fur traders’ route from outside Montreal to Thunder Bay dressed in period costume as I channel British painter Frances Anne Hopkins. This is the new direction I’m taking with my work: performance art. I’ve been a documentary photographer specializing in portraiture up until now and have just had this urge to try something completely new. I mean I always try to change it up with my projects in both subject matter, in what format I use, etc. but using myself as subject is a huge departure for me. I’m a little (ok a lot) scared to be honest as it could be a complete flop but I’m eager to challenge myself and try something entirely different and new. Don’t get me wrong, I love photographing other people but lately I’m bored at watching people always on their darn cell phones.
I’m also working on another series called “Always a Bridesmaid” in which I’m also the focus and explores being a single woman in her mid 40s and how society responds to those of us who are not married. And also a really fun pet project but it’s in the really early stages so I’m going to keep that one under wraps.
Blown-away . Show us an image by you that takes your breath away. What makes this image great?
“Marie and Sonja By The Pool” from my series Haddon Hall. This was one of those photographs that hit all the right marks for me. I love that it’s so colourful. I love the small details like the crumpled Kleenex in Marie’s hand and her one eye being open behind her rose-coloured glasses. But most of all I love the no-fucks-given mood Marie is evoking. She’s like, “I’m in my 80s, it’s hot, I’m going to open my blouse and bask in the sun, you got a problem with that?” To this day this project is still my favourite, maybe because it was my first or maybe because of the memories I associate with it. It’s nearly 20 years since I began this project and I’m hoping to release a book of it, finally.
Between. Discuss the relationship between you and your subjects (whether people, objects, land). What is the nature of your relationship with the things you photograph?
I’d say that my photographs are really a collaboration between myself and my subject. Not that I ask them for their input into where or how I photograph them necessarily but more that it’s an experiential exchange. I’m usually initially attracted to someone based on what they look like but then so much of why I photograph them is based on who they are or what they have to say. I want to tell their story, or, more specifically, I want them to tell their own story but I’m just giving them a platform to do so. That’s why my photographs are taken so closely and set up: my subject is well aware of my presence and my intention of why I am photographing them. Hopefully we both walk away enriched from this experience.
Burden. What are some of the difficulties or challenges of being a woman who photographs?
I tend to think of myself as simply a photographer, not a female photographer. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing but I just go about doing my business not giving my gender much thought. But if the truth be told I would say that being a woman in this industry does have its limitations.
Take my project America Swings, for example. I spent 5 years photographing at over 40 events across the country and ultimately publishing a book with TASCHEN. My career was on a pretty high upward trajectory up until then and then suddenly I lost a lot of work. In my mind, I thought editors would be like “whoa, somehow she managed to gain acceptance by this otherwise camera-shy group; boy is this woman daring and can really get herself into any situation.” But no: the reality was just the opposite. People questioned my lifestyle (for the record, I am not a swinger) and I was told by advertising art buyers “oh we love your work but if a client finds out about the swingers project they won’t want to associate with you.” I guarantee you that had I been a man, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I can think of some male photographers who have done some extremely racy personal projects and then got big ad gigs, no questions asked; in fact, they are lauded for taking such risks.
On another note, I’d say being on the road all the time is a work hazard that affects our personal lives. I’ve missed numerous special events of friends and family because I’m on assignment. And one’s love life suffers. I’m not saying this is true for all female photographers, but time and time again I’d meet someone and when things started getting serious they would say they couldn’t handle someone with such a peripatetic lifestyle and want someone more settled. I think women are more likely to be drawn in to dating a roving male photographer as it seems exciting (look at all the movies about it) but it doesn’t seem to work the other way. At least this has been my experience. Finding the balance between social/personal life and work life can be difficult.
Beauty. What are some of the joys of being a woman who photographs?
I’d say the greatest joy of being a female photographer is this escape hatch from ordinary life it has awarded me. One of my upcoming projects is inspired by a British painter who traveled by canoe with the fur traders in Canada, an impossible feat for a woman in the 1860s. But her ability to do so was because of her social status: she was married to a high-ranking official in the Hudson Bay Company otherwise there is no way a woman, especially a European woman, could have accompanied the voyageurs. But for me, it’s the fact that I am not married and have no responsibilities of a family (other than my dog who is my co-pilot) that gives me the freedom to pick up and just go. I like the sense of adventure that goes along with being a photographer and if I didn’t have the camera I guess you’d just say I was just playing hooky from life.
Being a woman often means I’m accepted and in fact taken under people’s wings when out photographing. Even though America Swings was a double-edged sword in that I got to publish my first monograph but then in the long run it actually cost me work, I don’t think I would have been able to get embedded with this community if I wasn’t a woman. When I do my lengthy road trips and tell people I sleep in my car in parking lots, I find they express concern for my well-being but also admiration for being so brave (or naïve) and want to help me out so are maybe more agreeable to being photographed. Women aren’t regarded as threatening and perhaps this is what helps us gain the trust of others. But I would say this isn’t purely a gender trait but who you are as an individual and what kind of energy you put out there in the world.
Bolster. Whose work do you think deserves a shout-out here, and why? Who haven’t I been hearing about and whose website I should check out immediately?
A few women stand out in my mind. Street photographer Michelle Groskopf is someone whose praises I wish to sing. It’s funny, we have a very similar background history (both had a similar upbringing from the same area in Toronto, both lived in New York at the same time) but we only met a couple of years ago here in Los Angeles. Our work is so very different as is our approach to photography but I’d say what draws us to our subjects and our compassion to people are the same. Watching her photograph is like watching a boxer in the ring: the way she dances around someone she’s set her mark on and capturing them in her own unique way. I’m really in awe of her. (P.S. she has her first book, Sentimental, coming out in April).
I’m also a big fan of Canadian photographers Amber Bracken and Sarah Palmer. Bracken is a documentary photographer based in Edmonton, Alberta who just received an ICP Infinity Award for the brilliant work she made last year at Standing Rock. You can really get a sense of her empathy and longing to help the people she’s documenting. A lot of her work focuses on issues affecting First Nations people in Canada and how colonialism and intergenerational trauma continues to affect them today. And Palmer lives in Toronto and makes these remarkable collages of sorts by shooting double exposures. That takes a lot of know-how to be able to pair up opposing themes all in the same photo but all done in camera on film. She just got back from the Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea and over there she paired images from the Olympic village with scenes from the heavily-militarized North Korean border. They’re super cool. She also did a terrific series shot at Trump rallies in 2016 and at his inauguration in DC.
All these women’s work couldn’t be more different but isn’t that what makes photography so special and wonderful, these completely different ways of seeing? And I guess the fact that they are all Canadians doesn’t hurt either (we’re taking over the world don’t you know!).
Balance. When you are not photographing, what are you doing that keeps you grounded? What (else) do you do for fun?
Balance? Fun? Not working?
Ok: first of all, I’d say that, like most photographers, taking photographs is maybe like 20-25% of what your job is. The rest of the time is spent doing office chores like chasing down delinquent invoices, researching new stories, applying for grants, working on self-promotion, going to meetings with editors, and answering interview questions.
So when I’m not working I’m trying to do as little photo-related as possible. People always say I must have the best holiday photos but to that I reply, “no way, I don’t bring a camera on vacation, and by the way, what’s a vacation?” They are always surprised but I continue with “does a dentist bring his drill on holiday?” There are times I just need a break, and that includes a break from photography and technology in general. In fact I just started practicing “tech-free Shabbos.” I’m not a religious person but from Friday at sundown to Saturday sundown I’m not going on my computer, phone etc. No texting, tweeting, watching movies….I’m spending one day a week not performing any work and catching up on my reading and let me tell you—it feels great! Otherwise I can often work 7 days a week and this just leads to burnout.
I find having a dog is the greatest thing freelancers can do for themselves. It forces you to have some sort of structure and routine in your life. I start every day spending an hour and a half walking my mutt, then I need to break at some point in the day to walk her again, and I go to bed super early so I can repeat this all the next day. Am I missing out on things? I don’t think so; I love my 8 hours of sleep!
Best. What is the best advice you have to offer someone reading this?
I think if I could go back to 27-year-old me, I’d tell her to get a “real” job and do photography on the side. In 1999 I had been offered a photo editing position at Esquire but was about to go to Miami to work on my first project, Haddon Hall, so turned it down. It was a very important decision for me; this was the work that got me my first assignments, but I often think that had I taken the photo editing job I would most likely be a Director of Photography somewhere now with a good steady paycheck, benefits etc. Don’t get me wrong, I have loved (almost) every moment of being a photographer; I have had tremendous experiences and I’ll always cherish that, but I also think one sacrifices a lot to be a full-time photographer and run the risk of losing the love they have for their art when they aren’t financially sound. So I think what I’d impart to others is that there is no shame in working at a day job and then taking time off to do personal work. In fact, it might make you more focused if you don’t have to hustle so hard when making your income solely through photography.