The Photographic Journal

Bee Walker

Interview 029 • May 14th 2015

Foreword

Part of the fun in an interview is the act of discovery, of finding out things about your subject you were unaware of. With so little online about Bee, much of the interview had that exciting air of discovery, with the answers being just as delightful as the conversation.

Interview

When did you start taking pictures?

My first photograph ever…I was 12 years old. My dad is really big about taking photos, so he gave me a camera when I was super little, and I just kind of played around and messed with it for a long time, so that’s the beginning.

When did you decide to become a professional photographer?

Well, I’m not really a professional photographer, but, and I can’t even say decided, it was more so I tried a lot of different things and I didn’t know I could be a photographer as my life’s work. I always saw it as a hobby. And then I met my husband, and that was about four years ago, he and his friends were just running around the city with cameras, shooting and having a blast. It wasn’t really about work, because no one was making any money. It was just having fun, and really being invested in the photographic image as a story-telling tool, at that time. And I just fell in love with that process.

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

Payden Hayes

Were there any kind of particular stories you were trying to tell that you found the camera was best for?

At that time or currently?

Both.

At that time, I really had no real intention, it was more just documenting the things we were doing, I guess being young and relatively free in the city. I don’t know, everything that was going on around us, our sort of mini-adventures. When I think about it, there wasn’t really any plan there, but we would just meet up with our friends, we would walk around or hang out, go eat, whatever, and were always taking pictures of it. And that’s sort of carried into what’s happening now. Although I think now I have a better sense of what I would like my camera to say. Before it was more documenting things that were already happening, but I’m trying now to be a bit more intentional about the stories I’m looking to tell.

What is it you’re trying to tell now?

I have these personal things that are poignant happening to me, mostly family things and history related things, a lot of identity stuff, those are the stories I’m sort of digging into. It’s actually more like internal stories or personal things that are happening, things I want to understand. I’m just sort of carrying the camera with me to document those explorations.

And you said you’re going to Africa next week?

Yeah, I’m going to Kenya. My family is from there, I was born there, and there’s just been a lot of changes happening in and around where my family lives. I’m going to take my camera and document those changes, document my family, and see what happens. I have a story in mind, it’s loosely called “My Grandfather’s House,” because the story is centered around him and the home there, and the changes that are happening there. But I hope to interview my aunts and uncles, talk to them about the changes they’ve seen first hand. And then see what comes of it.

How long are you going to be in Kenya?

I’m going to be there for a week, just seven days. I’m going to go do it and come back. I need to really give myself a deadline, otherwise I get really relaxed, so I just have to make it short. I would even honestly be there for four days, but it’s like 24 hours traveling, so I don’t want to get too jet lagged and be unable to shoot while I’m there.

Do you have plans for the photos, or is this something you’re going to present online?

I don’t know, I really want to make a book out of it.

Okay.

It will be my first book. It’s more understanding ways of non-linear ways of story-telling. Coming from that documentary perspective, it’s like we shoot a bunch of things, whatever happens happens, and then you end up with 5 or 10 selects, and it’s just so formulaic: this is what happened, this is the person, this is a detail shot, this is a wide shot… I don’t know, now that I’m working more professionally with photographers and photography, I see how systematic that is. I really want to tell the story in a more poetic way. I’ve been super-inspired by Bryan Schutmaat’s book, Grays the Mountain Sends. He did a lot of great work, and it has a theme, but it’s not a linear story at all. Something like that.

It’s not a narrative, necessarily, as much as a vibe, or feel?

Yeah, exactly.

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

Nadia Sarwar

 

So your day job, you work at VSCO?

Yeah, I’m part of the New York team. We do content here, so all our original content is basically coming from my husband and I, photographic content. So yeah, I’ve been doing that and it’s been pretty interesting, pretty cool.

What got you into…I did my research, as I tend to do, and there is not a lot on, you know, it always says “Born in Kenya, now a New York photographer.” There’s never anything in between. What was your journey from taking that picture at 12, to where you are now? What did you study that got you here?

I wish I could say that I knew the answer… I can tell you what happened.

Tell me what happened, and we’ll derive meaning from that!

Okay, very cool. I always had a camera on me, since that time, and it was always my dad getting me cameras, buying me new cameras, showing me things like, “don’t shoot into the light,” or not to take just snapshots and to actually think about what you’re doing. That kind of stuff. But it was always parallel to a more formal education. I went to University of Virginia, I studied religious studies, I was trying as best I could to get myself out of the job market, I don’t really know what that meant, but I knew I didn’t want to be in it. So I got a really random liberal arts degree that I really enjoyed doing. My last semester, I went to India as part of my studies.

Is that where you were in a monastery?

That came later. So I went to study, basically like an adventure study abroad program. We stayed in a town for 2 months, and then we hiked all throughout the Himalayas for the last month. I had my camera the whole time, that was probably the most concentrated shooting I had done up until that point, where I just knew that was important. I spent all the stipend money I took on developing and getting everything done there.

So it was all film?

Yeah, it was all 35mm film on this little Yashica Zoom Mate, or something my dad got me. It was all duct-taped and stuff, I still have it just cause it means so much to me. It’s my first camera that I really shot with. Then I just came back and tried to do a bunch of things that didn’t work, you know what I mean? I was trying to have a real job and be a functioning human being, and I was so bad at it, I had no idea how to do that. So I just jumped around all over; I tried to live in New York, couldn’t afford it doing what I was doing, and then I went and lived in a monastery, and I was like, “okay, I’m going to see what happens,” like one would.

As you do, yeah.

Makes perfect sense.

Everybody I know did their monastery year.

You just have to, it’s a rite of passage. It was a really weird 8 months of cleaning toilets, and making beds and stuff, and trying to meditate. I was so bad at meditation, I would get so pissed. I would just be sitting there like, “”why are we doing this,” and looking around. It was real monks. They were hippy people who in the ‘60s decided they were going to do it, and have lived there since.

You mean white-guy monks.

Yeah, exactly. They’re wearing their full-on gear, like so hard body about it. And I would just look around and be like. “why am I here? How did I get to this point and what am supposed to be doing?” It just felt so wrong, but it was really important, looking back, for me to have that time where I was like, “this is not life,” but I needed to figure out what life is. But honestly, it was a while before I figured it out. I was like, “I need a Masters degree, I need a real job.” So I went and tried to do that, and when I got that real job, then I met my husband, my now husband.

What did you get your Masters in?

I got it in… I don’t even remember the name of the degree, oh my gosh. It was this long, ridiculous degree, it was so stupid. Essentially, counseling psychology. Yeah. So it’s listening to people, understanding what’s going on, getting in people’s heads, so to speak. I don’t know if I even use that now, I try to think, I hope that everything makes sense. I imagine when I’m talking to people or shooting them, that I can connect with them because of that degree. I don’t know. I did that, yeah. I was actually going to go on to a PhD, I got into one of the best higher ed PhD programs in the country, and I’d picked out an apartment and everything. I’d met Rog a few months before, and we were having a great time in New York. When I went to go see my apartment in Michigan, I was on the phone with him the whole time. They were doing exactly what I was talking about: running around, taking pictures, just being out in the city. So I was like, “why the heck am I moving to Michigan?”

There’s no good reason to move to Michigan.

Exactly! I was looking around, I’m on the phone with him, and I’m like, “there’s a Whole Foods near the apartment.” But then there’s New York. All of New York. It was a weird decision, but I just knew it was the right choice to make, to not go. So I turned down the program and stipend, this, that, and whatever. I told them I had a very promising creative opportunity in New York. Turns out, I was right.

Ha! So what was your next move when you decided to not take this beautiful job in gorgeous Michigan?

I didn’t have any plan, honestly. I just was hanging out here, I was commuting here from my parents’ house in South Jersey to New York every weekend. I would just hang out, shoot, take these creative meetings. Because at that time, people were asking Rog to photograph and do certain things, and he was like, “you should come along, chat, meet this person.” He was really awesome with bringing me into his process, so really from the beginning he was starting to think of things together, we’d go to meetings together, and I just saw how things were working. I was working part-time in South Jersey, in Philadelphia, and at some point, I just met someone really awesome who lived in Brooklyn, a good friend of mine, who said, “if you ever need a place to stay, come stay with me instead of commuting all the time.” So I stayed with her one weekend, and literally, under cloak of darkness, moved all my stuff out of my parents’ house, and just moved into her place. And then I was just living in New York, it was an overnight thing.

Just like that.

I realized I needed to be here all the time, and it was really good, cause then I was here full-time to do things, and meet people, and be around when stuff was moving and happening.

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

For GSTAR RAW

How did you end up at VSCO?

Oh, that’s the strangest story. You know Rog’s project with Street Etiquette,Slumflower?

I am familiar with it, yeah.

So we were just…that came out so interestingly. Rog one day was just like, “Josh asked me to shoot this thing, so I’m going to go out and do that.” So I said, “okay cool,” I forget what I did that day cause I wasn’t around, and it grew. And it’s still growing. They got into Cannes, which is amazing, with the film. But yeah, he came back, and it turned into “VSCO is willing to support them and do a gallery show for this work,” and same as all those other creative meetings, I came along to a meeting to look for space for the show. There was a guy there with a huge bucket hat on, you could barely see his face, and he had a notebook. I didn’t know who he was or how he was related to the project. But I just figured he’s probably just another creative in the city. But I decided to chat with him, talking about the space and if he thought it would work, and he was like, “yeah, it’s okay, but it would be better if we had more space,” and he showed me his notebook, and he had these dope sketches for how they would conceptualize the show. So now I’m thinking that he’s involved with the program and the project, whatever, but I still had no idea who he was or how he was related, I thought he was just doing the interior set up of it.

It turns out that was Wayne (Wu), one of the execs at VSCO, and at that point, the only VSCO employee in New York. He was so quiet and so humble, he never really said anything about what he did or what he was doing. We ended up working together for the whole thing. The show was awesome, his idea was to lay grass down inside the gallery. So the day of, we were unloading pounds and pounds and pounds of grass into this gallery space together. It was absolutely insane, we were covered in dirt and stuff. It was really cool and really fun, and at some point he said, “if there is ever a New York office, it would be really cool to have you guys come work with us.” And I was just like, “oh, haha that would be awesome, I would love that!” And then a year later, it all sort of came together in this cool way, and now here we are.

What’s your day-to-day at the company like?

Well, we do a lot of what we’re always doing with the people who come through. Josh is here now, actually. A bunch of folks. We chat, we talk, we always shoot, and we always talk about making things together, so it’s usually that. We have some really interesting moments here, really, it’s an adjustment to get used to office life. Because it’s so different for me. We’re used to working out of our house, or having just the two of us around. So it’s been good to have a lot of other people, but it’s also an adjustment.

Do you and your husband work together or separately, most of the time?

Both. We definitely have our own styles and projects that we work on, when it comes to photography. But when it comes to the functioning of, I guess, making things, yeah, we do end up working together in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it’s just conversationally, talking about concepts or whatever, things that Rog is working out. I do a lot of production at VSCO, so I end up, in a sense, sort of figuring out how to do things and what needs to be done. We work together, and we also work separately. There are a lot of things, like he’s really into film right now, so that’s what he’s doing, intensely. I’m not really into it, but I’m gonna let him rock with that. I have bigger interests in graphic design, and speaking with type, so I’m going to move in that direction with my photos. Those are the things we do separately.

Is it important to you to make sure you have your own voice, photographically? Separate from him?

Yeah, you know I never…in the beginning, I didn’t really think about it, and it’s important to me, but it’s not something I want to stress in my process, because I don’t know if that will make my work any better. I just think that it’s really important for people to find the thing that they’re meant to do that no one else can do. I think we all have that. So for me, I love to see all the great things that are happening for Rog and his work, he’s really really gifted and open to good things happening, so they do happen. I definitely take pages like that from him, to not strive, or really really try hard, but allow things to come to me, allow myself to be led in things. So that’s what I’m working on now, I really do believe that there are projects that are only mine to make, which is why this one coming up is really important to me. Because I don’t think anyone else can tell that story.

The idea of being led…I’ve always considered New York the place you go to hustle, where people who really embody that spirit flock towards, it seems to foster that kind of idea. The idea of just being open to stuff, and not striving, not trying hard, kind of seems in opposition to the city. Does that seem like you’re going against the grain, in some way?

That’s a really good question…

Why thank you.

Hahaha! In a sense, yeah, it is a bit against the grain of the city because…I think from the outside, New York does look very brand-focused, in a sense of people as brands, projects as brands. People pushing it, and being really intentional and forthright about who they are and what they do. I think all of that is really important. Again though, I’m not sure that it would make my work any better to focus on that. I do want people to see what I do, and I do want it to matter. I do take steps to try to have people see it, because it doesn’t make sense for it to just stay with me.

But, then again, I don’t want to push for something that’s not authentically me, or I don’t want to push hard into a space that is not for me. I would much rather focus on my work, and focus on what I’m led to do, again. But I think that a lot of these things come from that monastic experience I have, which saying it as a phrase sounds so weird!

“My monastic experience?”

Yeah!

That should be the title of your first book.

Oh yeah! I’ve been thinking about going back there to document that place, because it’s a trip, it’s so interesting.

I bet! Where is it?

It’s in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

Of course.

It was so weird! But it was a very interesting experience. I think that I’ve always felt like New York was one of the easiest places to live that way, honestly. I don’t know how people take monastic vows in Virginia, where there’s nothing around, you know what I mean? If there’s no good espresso, you can’t take a vow against drinking espresso. You don’t have to do that, that’s easy. But in New York, if you only make, I don’t know, $400 a week, that is your monastic life.

It’s forced upon you.

Yeah. It’s like, “oh, so you have a part-time, hourly job,” and I was there bagging groceries. How do you make it work? Then it’s monastic, then it’s like, “we can’t afford this, I don’t have access to this sort of experience.” I figure out how to make it work. And the same thing with work, I don’t necessarily have people knocking down my door like, “people really want you to shoot this.” When people do come and say that, it’s really cool, I love it. But it’s not like I’m just overwhelmed and inundated with work. So I have to make things myself that mean something to me, and that show who I am. People who understand it and people who appreciate it will come, and I can appreciate them because it’s real.

So authenticity is obviously very important to your life?

Yeah.

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

Haiti

Do you find that you’re drawn to documentary work in particular, photographically? Or, where do you feel your interests are broadening as you shoot more?

Definitely drawn to documentary work. Definitely drawn to travel, you know, I went to Ghana, I went to Haiti, and just being in a foreign place and documenting what’s happening, I really enjoy doing. I feel like I’m broadening, in the sense of interacting with it, rather than just being on the outside shooting and documenting. I’m getting more comfortable asking people to do things for me, like, “could you stand here? Could you move? Could you hold this thing?” Sort of having the experience with them that creates the photo. I think that’s making the work better, and it’s making me more engaged in life. I really am trying to move away from just being an invisible person with a camera, because you can’t be. I have this huge, very ornate-looking medium format camera, and the hair and everything is like…I never blend in. So instead of pretending, it’s much better to have the conversation with the person. The photos are better, and the experience is better, I think.

This is something I ask of all my interviewees. Which is more important: the process of taking pictures, or the result?

The result is so important. It’s so important, I have to be honest. I can have a great experience with someone, we can chat, and it will be dope. We’ll vibe and everything…but if I don’t get a shot that works, it’s not like the whole experience is wasted, but if the point was to shoot…then I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense, because you don’t always see the person again. It’s different if it’s a friend and you have someone over, I’ve done that so many times. “Oh we have people over, let’s take a photo.” The lighting is bad, didn’t meter right, didn’t expose right, SOMETHING. In that case, it’s all good, I’ll see them again. But if I’m in Haiti…I have an image in my portfolio of this woman holding two dead chickens, and she was just walking in the street. If I don’t get that shot…it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if she smiled at me or if I smiled at her, I’m going to forget that. What was interesting to me was the way she was just walking with those chickens. She’s doing her thing. And when I lifted up the camera and shot her, she didn’t even flinch. Her face just stayed so perfectly herself, she didn’t change for the camera at all. For me, that was awesome. Even if she cussed me out afterwards…the shot was the important thing.

The interviews and pieces I did see on you tended to focus on your style, or your hair, or your relationship. Are you conscious of that, does it irk you that it’s not focused on the work?

Yes, short answer.

Ha! Oh, long answer would be great.

Ahahahah, yeah, I haven’t been very intentional about the way I’m interviewing, or what I say, because I haven’t thought about myself as any kind of public figure. Also, it’s a function of how people approach me, too, that’s a lot of what I get approached about. I’m definitely getting more intentional about speaking about my work, and taking interviews as they relate to my work, and not so much about how they relate to my appearance. Yeah, if I think about it now, those interviews were great. StyleIQ is amazing, I love love love the people there and everything. But I think, if I look at it now, it is irksome, because none of those things are really about who I am. They’re very easy to latch onto, so when people are on the street and people are like, “oh my god I love your hair!” That’s cool, I love that. It’s really nice, a great compliment. I’m always open to that, I’m not going to be mad. I know some people who are mad, you know, like, “why are you talking about my hair, let me live!” I get why people will say that, and it’s really cool and I appreciate that…and that’s why I really like this. I saw this, I saw The Photographic Journal, and I was like, “oh this is so legit.” And it’s about photography. That’s what I love, that’s what I do, that’s what I’m about, that’s what I think about, that’s where I want to grow in life. I’m really happy to do things that are focused on my work.

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

Rog Walker

Would you consider your “come to Jesus” moment, photographically, when you started shooting with Rog?

Oh! Hm…that phrase threw me off! “Did he mean photographically, or…”

I’m following the bachelors in Religious Studies, the time in India, the monastery, I’m making a stew out of all this!

I see, I see! The stew’s good! I’m trying to think of what that means, what that experience was for me, photographically…I don’t know if I’ve had that moment yet. Actually, I sort of really long for that settled feeling…that, “this is my purpose in life.”

Right.

You know? I don’t really…

Because, your previous answer was that you think about it all the time, it’s what you want to be known for, it’s what you want your life to revolve around. Perhaps this, right now, is your “come to Jesus” moment for photography!

Yeah! You know, in a really big way, this trip (to Kenya) is so huge. This is the first time I’ve said, “this is what I want to do, this is what I want to photograph.” It’s an idea I’ve had for years, so its been marinating in me. It’s the first time I’ve had my own money, been able to afford it, and now I’m just taking the time, and I’m going. I think it’s such a timely interview and a timely question, because it’s really happening right now.

We are a timely website. We’re right on the cutting edge! I want to talk about Haiti, but before I ask about that: what are you bringing, gear-wise — we’re not a gear site, but I am curious — such a long trip, such an important project. What are you bringing with you?

Yeah, I am bringing my Rolleiflex 2.8 GX, very excited about that, and I’m bringing a lot of 120 film. And I’m not bringing any other camera. Part of my process has been this…it’s been a long process of figuring out the camera: the right gear, the right format. I’ve been through so many cameras in the last year and a half or so.

Whaaat?

Yeah, I’ve been shooting Canon 1DS—

That’s a big camera.

Very great camera, I love that camera.

It’s a BIG camera.

It’s a big thing, yeah. I’ve always had big cameras, I don’t know what the deal is with that.

So, the Canon 1DS, 50mm. Shot the heck out of that. I got my first real photo gig, I shot the Levi’s Commuter lookbook thing, which was real. They flew me out there, paid me good money, it was amazing! And at some point when they looked at the photos, they asked, “what were you shooting with?” And I told them it was the Canon 1DS, they were like, “the original one?” And I was like yeah, that’s why they’re kind of small. It worked out. Anyway, so the process of what I’m carrying. I went through that, I had a Pentax 67…

Did you sell the Canon for another camera eventually?

Sort of this churning motion of in-and-out. At some point, I had that and the Pentax, and the 1DS went, the Pentax went… I’ve shot Hassleblad, I’ve shot small 35mm, I’ve tried the big original Canon 35mm, everything. But when I went to Ghana, oh wait, Ghana’s not really relevant… Ghana was good, I just carried a lot of equipment. I had the 1DS and the 35mm. I loved the photos, but nothing compares to medium format. Recently, I went to Paris and shot only medium format the whole time for everything. Yeah, I think I’ve really honed down how to carry that thing, how to shoot with it in the street, and how to think about shots. So I don’t feel like I’m wasting film, but I’m also covering exactly what I want to cover. So yeah, just one camera, it’s what I’m going to do.

How much film are you bringing with you?

A lot. I have 3 boxes of Ektar, 3 boxes of 400 speed… I have 2 boxes of 800 speed, a lot of film. I’m just going to shoot my eyes out, I’m not going to be super-concerned about each individual frame costing anything. I feel blessed, and again blessed that I’m able to do this now, I was not able to do this in the past. I’m just going to shoot everything, and ask people to dress up for me and stuff, I’m not going to be shy.

That sounds fantastic. So Ghana, Haiti, Paris… Were these trips just for-fun vacations? Was there an intention behind those particular places?

Yeah, Ghana was a great trip. A friend of mine is shooting her first feature-length there, so she invited me out to shoot her actors, and shoot some locations she’s interested in for making her film. I was just walking around with her, traveling around Ghana with her for two weeks. Saw so much of the country, shot so much. I really love those photos, but she’s got a big project coming up, she just got Guggenheim funding, Tribeca Film Festival funding, so we’re keeping the photos close because they could potentially be shown. So I’m just holding on, trying hard to stay excited. I’m very excited about it, but I really want people to see them, so there’s that. And then Haiti, I was actually with Rog and our friend, Joe Kenneth, to document his motherland. He’d never been, and his mom passed a couple years ago, so he wanted to go and document her life and Haiti, and see it for the first time. I was just there along for the ride, so that was really cool. Again, I got to have fun shooting whatever I wanted. I really love the shots I have from there, as well.

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

Gabriel Marques

So you’re self taught?

Essentially. My dad taught me a lot. I took a camera photo dark room class in high school. Otherwise, just learning from experience, and people I’m around. I do a lot of online research, which right now I’m kind of straying away from, just because I need to figure out what I’m trying to say. There is so much good work out there, and I’m a bit of a sensitive creative, I just get like, “oh my gosh they’re so good…” So I gotta be careful to not take in too much other stuff. I do a lot of research.

Do you have photographers that you look to for inspiration?

Well, I have a ton of bookmarks and stuff, a lot of people that I think are amazing for different reasons. So yeah, I don’t always look to photographers for photo inspiration, sometimes it’s like lifestyle or perspective, more so. I’m shooting Rolleiflex, so when I first got it, I did a lot of research into who else shot Rolleiflex. Vivian Meyer is of course a very interesting person. I took my camera out for the first time on Halloween, and I don’t know if it was a subconscious thing, but I started wearing this long coat with a hat on and my Rolleiflex. And I started walking around, I kept looking at myself and catching myself in mirrors and stuff and thought, “I look just like Vivian Meyers, that’s so weird.” I was sort of channeling some of her. And then right before I stepped back into the office, this guy was like, “Oh my gosh, are you going out as Vivian Meyer?!” I was like, “actually, no, but I totally get why you say that.” So I think I just take in a lot for a lot of different reasons. Maybe that sort of way that she was on the street, which I’m extrapolating from her photographs. Things like that.

Do you… because I know there’s some photographers that try to limit what they look at online so they don’t end up..do you follow trends as it were? Or does your photographing seem more internal?

My instincts when I’m shooting are definitely internal. As much as I look at stuff, when I get into a place where I’m just shooting, I’m never thinking about anything besides the light, what my subject is, how the camera works, where I want to stand. I never consciously think of things I’ve seen, it’s a very immediate, present moment thing. I’m aware of, I guess, prevailing tropes in photography, as they were. I don’t follow a lot of photographers, I don’t follow any of my friends who are photographers on any social media, really. Especially not if they post their work, and that’s not because I don’t want to see their work, I really appreciate what other people are doing, but I like to see… I check in on them, so to speak. After some time, I’ll go and see what someone is working on now.

I feel like starting to get too familiar with peoples’ work, makes it less impactful, in a sense, I don’t know. Also, I want to appreciate them as people that I know who love the same thing that I love. I don’t ever want to start critiquing what they’re doing. Or somehow reflecting my own work in their work, and vice versa. Which is why I follow people on Tumblr, why I want to see images. It’s why I like following Street Etiquette, they post a ton of different things, so I can take in a lot like, “oh I like this, I don’t like that…” I never want to do that with my friends, I just love what they do so much, it’s never about bringing their work into that space in my mind.

So you, by not looking at your friends’ work on a daily basis, there’s more impact when you do look at it, and less of unconscious bleed through?

Yeah, I would love to…especially, for instance, Andre Wagner. He put out this book, “The Purist,” and I hadn’t seen anything he had been working on for a long time, he just told me he was going to Paris and that he was really excited about it. And then we were all in New Orleans, and he said, “I would love to show you the book, as it is.” I saw the whole thing on the iPad, and it was so beautiful. It is so beautiful, his book, “The Purist,” is amazing. That was so cool. That’s how I want to see my friends’ work. “This is something I’ve done” or “this is something that’s almost done.” Rather than just flipping through it on Instagram, or even just seeing it go by on Tumblr.

It has more permanence this way.

Yeah, and I like to appreciate their work with them. It was cool that he showed it to me in that I could look him in the eye and tell him how great it was, you know? Unlike being a passive observer of things that I really like. If I really like it, I want to really see it. And I want to be able to give feedback, it’s a great experience, for me. I really hope to, but haven’t gotten there yet, I really want to create that for other people. I think, like you’ve mentioned the style and hair and stuff, I think it’s really easy also in New York, city vibe, to become a “cool girl” on Instagram, or something. I would love to show people what I’ve seen in the world, through my photos, and real space. I am working on…No, I’m not working on, I’m open to doing that. If I say, “working on,” it sounds like I have a list of places and an idea, I don’t. I would just really really love to show my work printed large-scale for people to come and see and appreciate. Not appreciate my work, necessarily, but see Haiti, see Kenya, see New Orleans. See these places that are in our world, currently, and are amazing. That’s really what it’s about for me.

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

Haiti

When you’re shooting Haiti, or Ghana, are you conscious of what you’re looking for in a shot?

Yes and no? A lot of times I see something, and I don’t know what the shot is, I just know that it’s beautiful, and I’m sort of going to point the camera at it. Other times, I see something in a person. There’s one shot particularly in Ghana where I was in a bus, and there was a guy in a bus next to me, we were stopped at a red light, and he was just leaning out, looking out into the distance as if he was really lost in thought. I thought, “oh my gosh,” he looked so beautiful. The whole thing looked so beautiful and peaceful, and I was thinking, “I want to capture what he is exuding into space,” that is what I want in a picture. And I’m always aware that the camera sometimes pushes people out of that space, so if I’m going to go for it, hopefully he may look at me, he may smile, he may talk to me, something. And the most amazing thing happened: he didn’t even move. He didn’t even acknowledge me, didn’t have any kind of change in his demeanor. That was one time that I saw what I wanted and I shot that, and that happened. But then again, any part of that process can sort of fall apart. I’m cool with it. I don’t know if that answered the question.

You did! When I shoot, I’ll often times have a goal in mind of what I want to capture. Do you go into a situation having either a narrative, or an idea of what you’re looking for? Or is it you are waiting and looking?

Definitely both, yeah. Maybe like 60/40 with a plan, you know? I have a much stronger plan for this upcoming project than I think I’ve ever had, really, because I have a sense of the story I want to tell: this is what it’s surrounding, I want photos in service of the story. But then, I’m also open, because for me at least, I’ve found I can be such a stickler for what I want to happen. So I’m definitely open to a little bit of life’s tidal forces. Just a little bit. Because things can take you way off, especially family. I’m going to go shoot family, and I don’t see them very often. People have sort of a prevailing lifestyle. If there’s one thing about New York, I think lifestyle and perspective is really different. So for me, to go into a situation where I’m thinking, “this is what I’m trying to do,” photograph, there for a few days, and leave. People understand that here, that if you’re making something or shooting something, you’re trying to get something going.

But Kenya, and a lot of other places, people are way more chill. “Let’s sit, let’s have tea, let’s talk.” Where nothing is “happening,” so to speak. I’m open, as in, I’m understanding, because it’s a cultural difference. Same thing with Haiti, understanding that there will be a cultural difference there. So I’m open to that, but I’m still aware of my intention and my goal for being there. That sort of has to be fulfilled. It’s so overbearing, but…I hate that in other people, but I realize it’s important; you have to get done what it is you’re here to do. It would be ridiculous for me to spend my whole life being turned about by forces around me. Instagram is a game, I always talk about it like it’s Farmville. Back when Facebook was a thing, I would get Farmville requests and I’d think, “what the hell are y’all doing over there?” That is not a thing, that is not life.

That’s not a farm. You can’t eat any of the food from Farmville.

Yes! And I’m talking about people who I work with professionally. At that point, I was in school, but they were professors and stuff. I would think, “you’re sending me Farmville requests?! This is ridiculous!” So I think of Instagram as the same way, like is this going to pass. I don’t want to ever think, “this person has this many followers, I’ve got this, I’ve got that. I’ve never really lived my life, I’ve never really done what I was gifted to do,” you know what I’m saying? I sort of did it. I have a lot of Instagram followers, people are checking for my pictures on Instagram, but it’s not like…I didn’t ever really fulfill a greater goal as it relates to what images can do, or how we can talk about the way our world looks, or how we can connect with people through vision.

Photography, to me, is a visionary tool. How can that be great? How can that really change people’s lives and be a beautiful thing? That’s more so what I feel like, that I have to stay focused on that. I can’t have tea instead of doing that, I can’t just sit around. There are so many things. I can’t even focus on my job instead of doing that. It’s really a balance of things, but it’s not a balance, because there’s only a few things that I think really matter in this world, and I’m not saying photo is one of those things, but one’s purpose and one’s impact on the world, in a positive way, those are a few of those things that really matter and I really care about.

Do you feel a desire to see more of your own experience reflected in your work? In photography in general?

I can’t speak for photography in general.

You can, I won’t stop you.

Hahahaha! I feel like I live in a bubble where so many creative people I know are people of color. To me, it seems like it’s happening. Generally, that’s happening, it occurs. You don’t have to try hard to find a great photographer who’s African, or Jamaican, or who is mixed, or anything. You don’t have to try hard. Maybe some people do have to try hard to find that. They should send me an email, because I can send them to a bunch of people.

I’ve noticed that you and your husband are part of, not a collective, and a movement is too active a word, but a community in New York that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

That’s cool, that’s amazing!

You look in Los Angeles, I can’t point to anything in Los Angeles, I know a few scattered through the midwest, but in terms of…I know communities of photographers, but the only community like yours, is yours, that I’ve found. I am but one man.

That’s so dope! Man, that is really really cool. That’s kind of what I was talking about with things that matter, my husband is really big on legacy…that is really cool to think about. Sometimes you’re…like, a fish isn’t aware of water type thing. There are a lot of really great towns of people who are doing a lot of amazing things. So many, actually. But I do feel like, I don’t know. I guess I do want to see it happen to photography in general. If we were a bubble, I really do want to see people branch out and reach out and be found and be seen. People are so talented, they’re making amazing things. Everyday, great ideas and great small things that seem like they could be huge things. There’s so much happening. For my work, personally, yeah I definitely want to see that come in. I’m really good at… can I say that? I’m better at documenting things that are around me.

You can say you’re good! We didn’t call you up cause you suck!

I appreciate that, thanks! It’s easy, but when it comes to what’s inside me, like who I am, that stuff is so hard to say. Someone asked me today where I grew up, and it’s a laundry list. For a long time, I didn’t think any of that was important, I mean, I didn’t make myself. My story is not because I made it. I can tell it, I can say “this is interesting.” I did live in Scotland for 3 years as a kid, I had a Scottish accent, did Scottish line dancing. I did weird stuff, why is that there in my head? That’s part of who I am, for better or worse, not of my own choosing. So if I want to go to Scotland and photograph the Highlands, that is bringing me into it, and I do want to see more of that in my work, I do want to tell those stories. Who in New York is going to necessarily say, in my community of very talented people of color, gonna be like, “you know what? I’m gonna do a project in the Scottish Highlands because that means something to me,” probably nobody. That’s what I want to do. I want to bring those stories up. Maybe that’s something that complicates traditional ideas of blackness or identity or whatever. I hope so.

It’s not that one-dimensional for anybody. There’s not one person I’ve met who shoots, and is a one-dimensional person. Nobody straight up shoots out of their appearance. Rog isn’t a black male photographer. If you ask him questions, he’ll answer the same way. He wants to see more people, he wants to show the people that we know. But he’ll fight you if you say, “oh, were you trying to talk about black-identity politics in this photograph?” No, we were just hanging out. We went to get food around the corner, and sat on the stoop in Harlem. It wasn’t that serious. So it’s complicated, it’s not one-dimensional, and I guess for that reason I do want to see more work from people that I really respect and love, and more depth in my own work.

Do you have a vision for where you want to be, in terms of your photographic journey?

Where I want to end up?

Where you want to go, not necessarily end up, but a photographic space you want to arrive at at some point.

Sure. I definitely want to do gallery shows, I definitely want the work printed – that’s a big part of it, I want it printed large scale so people can see it in space. I guess that makes it more like art photography? I recently changed a lot of things on my site, because I’m not so much interested in being a photographer for hire, or commercial photography at all. So it’s definitely more an art space. Maybe printed books as well. I really like, for instance, Viviane Sassen, the way she shoots. The way she’s oriented is kind of interesting, she publishes a lot of books that are personal work, but she also does more high end, commercial fashion work, but in her own style. It’s not as if there’s any difference between her commercial work and her personal work, necessarily. I think that’s a really great space to be in, that’s where I want to be.

Interview 029: Bee Walker for The Photographic Journal

Rog Walker