Stephanie Keith seems to have been at the right spot at the right time. She was one of the first photographers to cover the Occupy movement in New York City. While doing so, she even got arrested. But right before the cuffs were applied to her wrists, she took one of the most recognizable photos of that movement. Find out how Stephanie works in our interview.
Please tell the community a little bit about yourself, what you do for fun, what you do for a living.
I’m a mother of two small children, so my idea of fun actually is getting a chance to hang out with them to laugh and play. I am a freelance photographer for a living which keeps me busy often on weekends, evenings and holidays, on days other people are spending with their families, so if I can carve out some time to be with my kids, then that’s fun. Other than that I am a total cinephile and when it snows, a snowboarder.
How long have you been a photographer and how did you get started?
I’ve been a professional photographer for about 10 years, with a break in there to have my 2 kids. Before that I was in school, first at the International Center of Photography and then getting a Master’s at New York University in photography. I got started right after graduating from NYU by buying a digital camera, which was a new idea back in 2003, and calling up a contact I had made via ICP at Newsday, a local newspaper. They gave me a job shooting high school sports, which wasn’t very glamorous or well paid but I was happy to be shooting.
Then I got an idea to photograph Egyptian Soap Operas and managed to get a small magazine to pay for my trip to Egypt. I had made a contact at this magazine at a photojournalism conference. The story ended up doing extremely well and was published in the New York Times. From there I started working for the New York Times although I haven’t been shooting for them lately, basically ever since I took a longer than usual maternity break.
Your work has been published in some very prestigious publications. Is it all about the right image at the right time or does a photographer have to establish a strong professional network to have the chance to be featured prominently in big media outlets?
It depends, before I took my maternity break, I had good contacts at various news organizations and could regularly pitch them stories. It always seemed like a way to get to work on a visually interesting story if it was a self-pitched story. When I started photographing professionally again after the aforementioned maternity break, I had no contacts in news organizations at all. So in my case, during the second part of my career, it was all about getting the right image at the right time.
Good contacts help, but it can be done without them under the right circumstances. During Occupy, I went out and shot the news as I saw it and was going to worry about publication later. The Occupy protest was a special case though. It was big, unpredictable and news organizations did not take it seriously enough at first. Usually when a new story hits NYC, the wire services and newspapers send all their guys out to cover it. But in the early days of Occupy this was not the case. That’s how I ended up on the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge when many news organizations hadn’t assigned anyone that day or maybe just one person. Also, on the roadway, it wasn’t easy to get a good shot because the police had pushed the press way back away from the action in a little pen. Some other photographers and I broke away from this group to photograph up close, leading to my arrest. The photos that I took that day that ran again and again in the newspapers were the ones I took in those brief moments between breaking from the pack of other photojournalists and getting arrested, but they were the ones in which I was close to the action.
Since there was such a huge demand for images of this under-reported action, my images became the right place at the right time, and helped me establish myself with the news organization, the Associated Press, making it easier for me to sell images at other times. The Associated Press has a massive distribution system and if you get a good news photo and they buy it, that photo will run.
Your pictures of the Occupy Wall Street movement have received particular interest. What was it like to capture that movement?
Documenting the Occupy protest was great, I loved working on this project. Who could have imagined a national news story just a twenty minute subway ride from my house in Brooklyn. I had a quasi anarchist past living in Oakland, CA and previously had always been disappointed by the tame protests in NYC. Before Occupy, all the protests were “with permits” and people with signs stood behind the barricades and went home when the permit time ended. Occupy was totally different. Nobody went home and nobody stood behind the barricades. It was the first time in NYC that I’ve seen protesters stand up to the NYPD and see protesters taking the streets.
It was exciting and it was exhilarating. It also had this unpredictable nature. Things would just spontaneously happen – marches, celebrations, arrests, near riots. It was inspiring to see these protesters putting it all on the line for their ideals. And twitter helped a lot. I would watch the tweets non-stop about what was going on. Often times I would drop whatever I was doing at anytime day or night to rush in to capture an event.
Has your professional approach to Occupy Wall Street changed with time?
My approach to Occupy has been a response to their ups and downs. While they were holding Zuccotti Park aka Liberty Square, I was down there all the time. Once evicted, it was harder to get a hold on what the protest was. People were scattered all over the place. But anytime the group had an action or march, I was there. In the new year, the beginning of 2012, I knew Occupy was still very much alive although all the mainstream media outlets were saying they were dead. I still followed them through every crazy action they did. The numbers got smaller but the opportunity for good photos remained. Plus by that time, I had made some friends within the movement and wanted to keep seeing them around. These were good, interesting people who I was happy to have in my life.
What can you tell us about one of your most recognizable photos, the image of a young female demonstrator being arrested and looking up at a point outside the image with a sad expression?
I saw this woman getting arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge roadway and it is what inspired me to break away from the other photographers and get in close to the action. I find that I often, when photographing the news, focus on women, perhaps I am subconsciously providing a counter balance to all the male shooters out there, who knows. She was in the first line of those being arrested. When she looked up she seemed so angelic to me and I felt happy that I was able to capture that moment. A few frames afterwards I was arrested and handcuffed so not able to photograph anymore. I never saw her again, even though I had always kept an eye out for her. Luckily she contacted me recently. As it turns out, she lives in Australia, but I still don’t know much of her story. It must be odd for her to be unwittingly such a symbol of the Occupy protest.
What is your advice for someone starting out as a professional in your field?
The news field is very difficult these days. I really feel for the people starting out. But news is exciting and rewarding so if you are committed to doing news then go for it. I would suggest trying to find a small paper to work with at first and then working your way up. Or find a reputable news agency to syndicate your work. There are a lot of organizations out there that would sell your work for pennies. I advise strongly against working with these organizations. They may seem good at first, but they undermine the entire business by flooding the market place with inexpensive goods. The reason it’s hard to find a job now is that too many people are willing to work for free or for very low pay. Have respect for yourself and your images don’t feed into this industry destroying mania.
Please share a trick of yours that will always result to a great photo.
I don’t think there are any real tricks that always result in a great photo. Getting a great photo is like harnessing a little bit of magic, there’s no sure way of doing that.
Lastly, do you have any new projects coming up? Anything we should watch out for?
I don’t like to talk about the projects I’m currently working on for two reasons. One, before its finished and associated with your name, someone might rip you off and Two, a lot of photo projects fail. Often times I will start three or four projects and see which one “gels” and the other ideas get shelved.
You want to hear more from professional photographers? Check out the other interviews in our Meet the Pros series.