The Travel Photographer blog will occasionally post interviews with both travel and editorial working photographers. This interview is with Justin Mott, a photojournalist working in South East Asia, currently living in Hanoi. His work is seen in the New York Times and Time magazine, among others, and he recently published photo essays on mysticism in Indonesia and Vietnamese orphanages. He's represented by World Picture News.
1) TTP: When did you decide to become a photographer? Who or what influenced your decision?
A: I used to be a bartender in the financial district of San Francisco for 7 years. I was taking some journalism classes at SF State and I just kind of fell into a photography class when I was registering for classes. I was really into Kerouac at the time and I use to escape the city life with little weekend road trips by myself. I started bringing my camera with me and I never really put it down since.
2) TTP: Do you have any formal training regarding photography?
A: I studied under Ken Kobre at San Francisco State University and participated in a few workshops that have had great influence on my life as a photographer. I didn't learn anything in school about being a freelancer or working in a foreign country: that process is ongoing, and from every assignment I learn something new about myself and about being a working professional.
3) TTP : If you had the choice, where is your favorite place to live and work as a photographer in the world and why?
A: I personally felt I had a choice so I'm living and working exactly where I want to be: Hanoi, Vietnam. I love the smiling faces, the adventures, the landscapes, and the cost of living is helpful.
4) TTP: Describe your own favorite image, and describe how you went about creating it.
A: My favorite image is a really simple image that I took one day wandering near the Red River of Hanoi. I slowly approached a child standing in the frame of his new house being built next to the tiny tent he was currently living in. He was just standing in the doorway of this shell of a house and I had to be stealthy approaching it (needing to get close because I had a fixed 35mm). Most of my personal projects are related to children's issues and about children living in isolation for a variety of reasons. That image represents a lot of my stories and has the lonely feeling to it that my stories have. Not many people compliment the image and some have even suggested that I remove it from my portfolio, but I dig it and I open my web portfolio with it.
5) TTP: Describe a day in your professional life.
A: It depends on whether it's an assignment or a personal project. I'll give you an example of a typical day of a personal project I recently finished up in the outskirts of Hanoi. I would get up at my shanty hotel before sunrise and untangle myself out of my mosquito net. I manke sure I have my battery off the charger and my memory cards, then I pack my Domke. Slam a coffee and then wait for my moto taxi to the orphanage. Wave at the random people on the sides of the streets wondering why an American is way out there. I would spend the entire day at the orphanage observing and photographing. In the afternoon I look for any quiet place to take a nap, unused office, tree, etc. I would typically leave when the orphanage closed down for bedtime and head back to my hotel. After dinner I backup my work on my tiny portable hard drive and go through the days take. The following day I will do the same exact thing.
6) TTP: Tell your funniest, scariest, most bizarre, most touching story from a photoshoot!
A: The funniest thing that ever happened to me came in Jamesport, Missouri while attending the University of Missouri Photo Workshop. My story was about an Amish teenager and his coming to age as an adult. His father was quite liberal and had allowed me to follow his 16 year old son for the week. On my last day while exchanging pleasantries with Pops I asked him one final question about his son John. I said "Jacob, what do you want for John" meaning for his future. Jacob glanced over at his son working away building furniture and without a smile on his face said" Justin, I'm not really interested in selling any of my children." I couldn't help but laugh out loud and rephrase my question.
7) TTP: What types of assignments are you most attracted to?
A: The last few weeks I have been to Indonesia and Malaysia for the NY Times working on a variety of stories ranging from palm oil, mysticism, feuding princes, and the death of the former Indonesian president Suharto. Each story fascinated me and each story presented problems that needed to be solved to tell the writers story with visuals. I love the challenge of solving those problems.
8) TTP: How would you describe your photographic style?
A: I shoot very loose and I love empty space. At the Eddie Adams workshop Magnum Photographer Eli Reed cropped my whole portfolio really tight and I got a good laugh out of it watching him mutilating my images. I respect his style and obviously he is a legend, but I like shooting with my fixed 35mm and I struggle with a 50mm.
9) TTP: Who or what would you love to shoot that you haven't already?
A: I want to expand to shoot in a studio more and learn how to work lighting equipment better. I want to learn on my own creative freedom and just have fun with portraits.
10) TTP: Describe the photo gear, as well as (if digital) your computer hardware and software you use.
A: I have a simple setup. One 5D (best purchase I ever made), Macbook Pro, a Canon G9, 35mm 1.4, 24mm 1.4, and a 100 F2, 580 Flash(never really use it because I shoot at 1.4 a lot). I love my fixed lenses even though it can be scary sometimes on one day breaking news assignments.