Dirk Anschutz shoots a lot of things, but what strikes me the most are the faces of the people he photographs. From The Sultans to this project, you see people being uncompromising in allowing us to know them when we look into their faces. There is no self-consciousness.
Dirk's obvious compassion and interest in his subjects really shines through. When I saw this project I was curious to know how Dirk approached his subjects and how the project came about. The strong collaboration between photographer and subject is evident and made me want to know more, so I asked Dirk how it was for both him and his subjects.
Tell us a little bit about your background as a photographer
Well, I’ve worked for magazines and ad agencies, and produced stock. I shoot sports, landscapes and conceptual images, but what got me into photography and what I still love the most in this field are good portraits. They just never get old for me.
What about this upcoming exhibition?
The show is called “Upstream” and is a portrait series of young people with a range of developmental and cognitive disabilities.
How did you get interested in photographing these people?
Sometime late in 2009 my girlfriend’s sister, Julie Guidry, called me up and asked me if I was interested in applying for a grant to shoot an image library for her non-profit, Upstream Arts.
Upstream Arts is a Minneapolis based non-profit whose mission is “to enhance the lives of adults and youth with disabilities by fostering creative communication and social independence through the power of arts education”. The classes are taught by working artists, including painters, sculptors, actors, and dancers, who help their young clients explore different ways of expressing themselves. A pretty big deal for the participants, as it turns out.
Well, we didn’t get the grant, but filing the application started a thought process about how to portray people with disabilities. Most of the images we found out there were of sporty triumphs or happy-happy family moments, but almost nothing showed the complex human beings behind the disabilities. There was definitely a need for straight-on portraiture. The more we talked about the project, the more interested I became, and eventually we decided to go ahead with the shoot, grant money be damned.
In the summer of 2010 the misses and I packed up the car with a bunch of gear and made a little road trip to the twin cities.
Was it difficult to get what you wanted from the
portraits? Were they willing to do what you asked?
Over all, the shoot was intense but fairly easy. Most of the models were really into being photographed, except for the first person we shot, Caleb, who happens to be the stepson of Julie Guidry. His shoot was a bit difficult. He was not in a great mood and we had to be very patient with him. But we showed him the whole camera set-up, how the lights worked, how the pics showed up on the computer screen and so on, and whenever we did that he gave us about 45 seconds in front of the camera. Of course he is now on the postcard for the exhibition and on the cover of the Magcloud Magazine we made from this project.
The entire shoot happened in one afternoon at the Jewish Community Center in St. Paul. We photographed 17 people and there was a pretty constant hustle-bustle. A lot of the communication was non-verbal and many creative decisions were based on gut feelings and intuition. Most of the participants were very excited but managed only about ten minutes in front of the camera before they were exhausted.
I didn’t really give many directions but tried to create room for the models to show themselves.
There is such a lack of self-consciousness with these portraits, tell us about that
Yeah, I thought that was very interesting. When you photograph small children you sometimes get that lack of self-consciousness, but children are usually kind of boring (sorry parents) because they haven’t lived yet, they haven’t had many experiences. Once people have lived a little they become much more guarded.
What I like about these images is that you can see an incredible openness but these folks are not children, they’re young adults and they had (and have) to overcome many obstacles in their daily lives. They had to figure out many things on their own for their unique circumstances and had to face many challenges that I can’t even imagine. They’ve lived and experienced a lot already and I think it shows in their faces.
What have you learned (if anything) from this project?
Well, it not easy to put into words, but I have to admit that the first contact with a person with a disability is kind of uncomfortable. When Caleb first walked on the set I definitely felt a bit insecure and not quite sure what was expected of me. What helped though was that when we planned the shoot we decided to treat it like any other production. And so I treated Caleb like I would any other person in front of my camera. I talked to him, I explained what I was doing and why and I gave him room to collaborate with me while letting him know where he had to be and what he had to do for the picture to work. Surprisingly within a minute my nervousness was gone and stayed gone for all the other models, too.
Sometimes, when other people look at the Upstream photos, I recognize that same nervousness and discomfort that I originally experienced. But once we talk about the shoot, people seem to become more comfortable with the images.
On a larger scale, I think it would be good for our society to create more interactions between people with and without disabilities and to encourage a dialogue. Hopefully this project is a small building block in this process.
How do the people you photographed feel about their portraits?
From what I heard so far, pretty good. But I have not been in direct contact with them since the shoot, so it’ll be interesting to see most of them at the show and find out first hand what they think about the images.
Anything else you want to say about this?
There is a tremendous amount of work being done by non profits, schools, volunteers, and by parents, relatives, and caretakers, who all collaborate to provide these young men and women with safe AND interesting lives. It’s a great cause to volunteer in and/or donate money to.
When is the exhibition and where?
The show is at
2822 Lyndale Ave. South
Minneapolis, MN 55408
April 5th through April 18th, 2011
Monday-Friday 10AM to 6PM and Saturdays 12PM to 5PM
There will be a closing reception and Upstream Arts Benefit on Monday, April 18th, 6:30-8:30 PM