Earlier this week I had the privilege to be in contact with photographer Camille Seaman who agreed to give an interview. I discovered Camille via Kickstarter, she is currently seeking funding for her project BIG CLOUD, which documents super cell storms on the American Great Plains. Camille’s work has been featured in a wide variety of publications from TIME and Newsweek to National Geographic and PDN. In 2011 (and again in 2013!) she was named a TED fellow and her 2011 talk can be seen here.
The following interview took place on May 4th 2013.
How would you describe your approach to photography?
I am not sure what you mean by this question. I think I am an intuitive type person, I do not have plans or ideas, I go by feel. If it feels right I move in that direction.
Was there a specific moment of period of your life you can identify as the time when you realized that you would –or resolved to– pursue an artist’s life?
Yes it was when I was 32 years old. I was watching tv news broadcast of a US airstrike on some middle east target, I just remember thinking that we were going the wrong way (as a species) and what could I do to show that there was something beautiful about this life and our planet. In that instant it was as if a switch was flipped and I knew I would use a camera to document my life’s experiences.
You began your current project in 2008 while chasing storms on the great plains; can you give us a little background on what you set out to do? How did you get to that starting point?
After spending so much time in the Polar Regions, I had great success with my iceberg images I began to wonder what I could pursue as my next project. My daughter who was eight years old at the time was watching Storm Chasers on TV and I saw this very interesting quality of light, she saw me looking and said, “mom, you should do that.” Three days later I was. I thought that conceptually it would be a perfect next step after documenting the melt at the poles, asking the question if the poles melt, what effect does it have on our lovely temperate zones? I realized immediately I was witnessing so much more!
What changed in the way you viewed what you were doing?
I saw that what I was witness to was so much more than an effect of climate change. Of course there is that element, but even in my work at the Poles I try to avoid mongering fear, I believe that people respond positively to beauty more than they do to fear. I was reminded of a lesson once given me by my Shinnecock Grandfather, as he taught us how everything was interconnected and that I was in effect part of the cloud that I was making images of.
What is it that keeps you pursuing these storms? What compels you to make these pictures?
It gets addictive. Because no two storms are alike and it is utterly amazing to stand before such awesome power and witness a creation and destruction force so closely. They are so beautiful. I see them as sacred events, and I feel humbled and privileged to witness and document them.
Among the images I have seen there are some pretty intimidating weather systems, what is it like to watch these storms gather?
Absolutely spectacular! Standing there watching these living moving breathing forces, that have smell, colors, motion, it can at times be overwhelming, I try to really be present, in the moment, and sometimes I do not photograph. I just stand and behold.
You’ve spent a lot of time, several year’s worth of images, in polar regions; what lead you there and subsequently what kept you there?
That as they say is a long story. But the short version is curiosity and opportunity lead me there, being in such places that cause you to truly face the fact that you are on a closed ecosystem isolated in space as we whirl about at staggering speeds has a powerful impact. That too became something that was hard to leave, and so I found ways to keep returning. It became a home to me.
Can you describe the role that science and history play in your work?
I love that science seems to be the bridge that you (white men/westerners) seem to embrace to explain the mysteries that my people have known for a very long time. I enjoy that I can communicate some very complex and difficult perceptions, realities and truths using scientific explanations. I cannot chase easily without modern scientific tools, nor could I easily spend as much time in harsh Polar environments without scientific technologies. I like using the science as part of the story, and language of what I am trying to communicate. As far as history. It is exactly that HIS story. I think it’s time to add a mother’s voice to this story we are writing, time to bring it all around to a place that speaks of mutual respect , compassion and understanding, this mindset that prevails and dominates currently is very harmful, potentially fatal. We need to shift consciousness. And I hope my images will play some part in that.
During your TED Talk in 2011 you mentioned a theme of interconnectedness in your work with the icebergs, would you tell us a little that?
I was raised to KNOW that all things are interconnected. This idea of separation, isolation and domination are all products of an old story that placed man above all living creatures. The fact is it was just a story, and we need a new/old one which reminds us that all life is interdependent and to act as though our selfish actions will have no dire consequence is folly. As a Shinnecock indian I was raised being actually introduced to and shown these interconnections. When I speak about the icebergs I need others to know that I do not see them as just cold dead chunks of ice, but as relatives to us in another state/form of life here on our planet.
On your website you have a frequently asked questions section where you offer the following advice for aspiring photographers: “Do this because you love it. I have been working on this project since 1999 and only now in 2007 am I starting to get any exposure for the work. You must be patient and passionate. For me personally I must honor my subject, be faithful to the quality of light and work hard.” This is such a humble and well stated response to classic question, what has your coming up story been like?
Every image I have made with my camera has been my privilege. I understand that what I am given are gifts whether it be from a storm, iceberg or person. It is my duty and responsibility to honor those who I have witnessed. I do not take this transaction for granted or lightly. As a photographer I am fully aware that an image has it’s own life long after you press the shutter. I know that intention is a powerful force and it is a good practice to be mindful of our intentions. This life as any other is not without it’s costs and sacrifices but I would not trade it for any other.
There are more photographers coming out of college right now than ever before, what was it like for you at that stage?
I have no idea. As I said, I did not become a photographer until I was 32 years old. I knew I had no desire to learn what I needed to know by going back to school, perhaps because I felt called to action, as if on a mission I did not feel the need to worry about what others thought, I just did what I felt compelled to do. I took the time to figure out what made they way I see different from others and embraced that. I always tell newbies that Nat Geo is not interested in anyone that can do a Steve McCurry photo, because they have Steve McCurry, they want to see what does a (insert name here) photo look like.
Was there anything you wish you would have done differently following your graduation from SUNY Purchase in terms of getting started on your career?
No. All happened exactly as it needed to, all of the experiences I had gave me skills and talents to enable me to do what I do now. I trust that the Universe has a much better ability of giving me not only what I dream of but so very much more. I do not try to control where the river takes me. I simply smile and enjoy the view as I float along.
What is on the horizon for you now?
My newest project is another long term one, (I only do decade or longer photo projects) called HYBRID. It is about captive wolves and wolf hybrids that people own as pets.
Beyond that I am flowing along and more and more amazing things keep presenting themselves to me. For example I was just named a Stanford Knight Fellow, we shall see where the river leads me.
Thank you Camille for graciously permitting me this interview.