Golf, photography, and playing with the puppy he recently adopted with his girlfriend are some of Rob Liggins' favorite things to do. In no particular order. The Los Angeles based photographer and copywriter moved to the West Coast four years ago, along with Canon AE-1 and Yashica D. When the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement started in Los Angeles, it took him a few days of processing the events that were unfolding in front of his eyes before hitting the streets to document the upheaval. With a Simple Use Reloadable Camera and Metropolis Film, he shot the streets of Los Angeles turned into a stage for protesters.
Hey Rob, happy to have you here at Lomography! First, can you tell us how you got into photography? Specially analog photography?
It all started out with a Lighting for Video workshop that I took while I was in the journalism program at the University of Oregon. What attracted me to taking the workshop, was the fact that it was my first opportunity to have a Black teacher or professor in my life. I grew up in Oregon and for those who don’t know, it’s a very white state. So even though I had never used a camera nicer than an iPhone at this point, I was thrilled to take his class and learn from him. In the workshop, I did very well for a beginner and our relationship grew into a long-term mentorship. I would go to him for feedback and guidance on all the work I did, and still do to this day. His name is Leonard Henderson, and anyone who appreciates my work should appreciate the role he has played in my life. After graduating college, I moved down to LA and was doing a lot of short-form video work for the ad agency I worked at, in addition to copywriting and other personal projects. To further practice lighting and composition for my video work, I started making photographs. It started as a little side-hobby to enhance my skills. But as I started sharing my photos, I noticed people gravitating more towards those than my videos and I kind of just ran with it. I also started to love the process of making still visuals, rather than moving visuals more and more each day. What led me to analog photography, was just the physicality of the art form. I’ve grown up in the digital age, so everything I made was always an .mp4 or .jpg digital file. I wanted something I could touch and feel with my hands and I was most excited to learn the physical process of developing.
Why do you still shoot film?
I just enjoy it. It’s a lot fun to me and makes me happy. I love the variety of looks different film cameras and film rolls can provide. I love the sound of the shutter button and film advancing. I love learning the mechanics of different cameras. I love developing and scanning all my shots. I’m not a film snob or anything like that. I still shoot a lot of digital. But I love the process and all the little things that come with film. And like I mentioned, I love the physicality of film. A lot of the photos I take of my friends and family are on film, because I like bringing those photos to life in the darkroom myself, with my hands. A lot of love and care has to go into that process, as corny as that may sound, and it can make the photos feel a bit more personal to me.
Where do you usually draw inspiration from?
A lot of places. Personally, one of my biggest inspirations in photography is my Great Uncle Warren. He’s not a professional, but I believe he’s an artist in his own right, and I draw a lot of visual and emotional inspiration from the remarkable work he’s done in archiving my family’s history. One of my favorite things to do is deep dive through all his family photo albums and ask him questions about the pictures and the people in them. I also am a bit of a history nerd, so I also really enjoy and have always been inspired by history textbooks and the photographs in those. If I had to choose one piece of work that inspires me most though, it would be “Nothing Personal” by James Baldwin and Richard Avedon. I think the writing from Baldwin in that book is truly some of his best work and is under appreciated, if you ask me. The portrait photographs by Richard Avedon are also some of my favorites of all time. Especially the ones of a young Lew Alcindor and William Casby.
When did you decide to start shooting the protests?
When the protests first started, I had to wait a few days to start going and documenting, because I was frankly so enraged. With the immense anger I was feeling, I didn’t believe I could attend a protest without putting my camera down and picking up some bricks to join the folks rioting and looting. I was truly furious. But after the first 4-5 days, I was finally able to gather myself enough to go focus on telling the stories of the brave protestors out in the streets. I was finally able to put my own emotions aside and do everything I could to play my role and support the movement.
Why was it important for you to shoot the protests, especially on film?
Delicacy. That’s the main difference between film and digital. With film, you have to be delicate, thoughtful, and meticulous in every moment of the process. If you are not delicate and careful through every small detail and step in the darkroom, what is lost can never be recovered. It’s gone forever. I believe there is a heartbreaking lack of delicacy in the way we treat Black life in America. So I really wanted to emphasize the importance of delicacy and care through this work.
What do you think the role of photography is in such historic times?
I believe it’s one of the most important roles. As humans, we naturally have always responded more to visuals than writing or verbal words. Plus, no matter how empathetic you may be to listening to someone else's experiences, seeing them always makes them that much more real. I think that’s a lot of the importance of photography—the simple act of saying “This happened.” History can be rewritten easily, but it is much more difficult to reshape the reality of a photograph. For example, when you see the old photographs of lynchings, with people smiling and holding picnics next to a hanging Black body, that says a lot more about the country we live in than the words you may read in that same textbook, on that same page. I think so much of writing, and the goals of what we consider to be good writing, are persuasion and narrative. With photography, you are simply presented with a reality and asked to come to your own conclusion about how you feel or will respond to that. That’s why I think it’s particularly important at this current moment. It asks people to make their own moral decision from within, rather than agree or disagree with a presented argument. How do you feel about seeing moms get tear gassed or seeing young protestors get shot in the face with rubber bullets, all while they’re protesting police violence? That’s up to you. A lot of what I just said speaks to documenting the ills of society, but documenting the good things that happen in this world are equally important. Showing the good—the reality of millions of people across the world risking their health and wellbeing amidst a global pandemic to rise up together against racism and police violence is just as inspiring as the ugly images that enrage us.
From the pictures you shot and developed, do you have a favorite one? Can you tell us the story behind it?
I love the pictures of the ASL interpreters on-stage with the affected families. On that day, Doctor Melina Abdullah told the story of how they got involved with BLM-LA and how the movement came together as a whole through volunteers. In short, one of the ASL interpreters attended a protest, noticed they didn’t have any interpreters, asked if they would like them, and started bringing a rotating crew of 5-10 interpreter friends to interpret the speeches of the families. Another person noticed they were using megaphones at every protest and offered to supply mics, speakers, and higher-quality audio equipment for the protests. Another person noticed leaders and speakers were hard to see in the crowd, so they offered to supply a stage every week. I love how that image and story shows how there is a place for everyone in this movement to help. Even if they are not “experts”, everyone has something they can offer the cause. I hope the images I make are helping in some way also.
To check out more of Rob's work, head out to his Instagram .