S ince I interviewed Charlie Hess, I’ve had the pleasure of continuing the conversation with him over the phone and email, always talking about photographers whose work we love. In one of those discussions, with a great sense of respect, he simply said “I’m going to introduce you to Mathieu Young.” I went to Mathieu’s site, saw the unique mix of beautifully shot, powerful and moving reportage work for Rolling Stone, Fortune and Time alongside equally stunning film and TV publicity stills from “So You Think You Can Dance,” “The CW’s The Secret Circle,” and Fox’s “Glee” and knew right away that I wanted to interview him.
An email later and I was on the phone with Mathieu having a very interesting conversation about how he bridges these two seemingly disparate worlds (and how skills from each help the other), how personal projects built on a passion for shooting and storytelling helped him land his first jobs and how he built trust with commercial art directors.
I often interview photographers, reps and stylists who are approaching collaboration and sharing of information in a way that pushes outside of known and accepted boundaries. Something related I’ve been seeing is a breaking down of barriers and ideals we once held tried and true, a pushing past the old dichotomies to a place where it’s less about a polarizing idealism and more about the values we bring to whatever we are doing. This is what came through so clearly in my interview with Mathieu.
Incredibly professional, fun, good-natured and generous with his time, we had a deeply considered and entertaining interview in one call and one round of back and forths. Turned around in a week with 30 requested images with full captions, while he was in the middle of two major shoots.
A big thank you to Mathieu for sharing so much with POP and for letting me ask what it was like to photograph the cast of Glee. And for sharing so much great work with us. Please visit his site and to see his full portfolio and complete photo essays.
POP: Your work spans advertising for major studios and networks as well as reportage work for editorial and international NGOs. What is the relationship between the two?
I know they seem like disparate pursuits, but I love doing both. They push me to access different parts of my brain and use a different skill set, but at the foundation I think they’re both about communication, and of course great light.
One of my consistent goals is to find intersections between the two, like bringing my commercial lighting knowledge to stylize my reportage work, and bringing journalistic storytelling to my commercial work.
The commercial work can be technically challenging, but a lot of people can do it. So the question becomes what else are you bringing to the table? At a baseline you have to be able to run a set, to foster relationships with talent, to have a solid collaboration with a great crew, but I think that having this other element to my work gives me a broader experience to share, a stronger foundation to stand on.
And there’s also an element of flexibility that I’ve learned doing reportage work that has helped me be able to be quick and creative in solving problems when I’m working on commercial projects.
So I think the two pursuits feed each other; that they build on each other. I sometimes still get people telling me that I need to pick one, but I am passionate about the idea that I can continue to successfully focus on both. I’ve often thought that if I was to pick one and focus all my energies on it, I may be farther along, have more awards or publications or clients, but I wouldn’t be as happy.
POP: Any projects that intersect the two?
I’ve made two recent trips to Cambodia, doing volunteer shooting for different NGO’s and social enterprises. The photos have been used for a wide range of purposes, from advertising to activism. But the style has always been the same, environmental portrait based reportage. It’s been an opportunity for me to give back, and also to create the kind of projects that I would love to be assigned. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you have to self generate work to get people excited. I feel like I can trace back all of my successes to self generated projects. All of them.
I’ve also been working with a group here in LA called Taproot, which connects a team of creative professionals together to do probono projects for vetted non-profits. It’s a great opportunity to collaborate with other creatives for a good cause. I recently shot an annual report for a non-profit that connects families with child care professionals. It was ostensibly an advertising shoot, but for a good cause, and starring real people in real situations. It was something that I could put my aesthetic stamp on.
I just directed a short film called The Goldfish (it’s based on a short story I heard on This American Life.) It was an incredible process, and I think it was a perfect opportunity to use the different skill sets that I’ve been cultivating in both the reportage and commercial worlds. You’re there to tell a story. You have to connect with these characters and create a space for them to develop. But it’s also a huge production, there are a million moving parts, and you have be able to move quick and accomplish a lot in a short amount of time under a lot of pressure.
POP: Do you have an example of how a self-generated project led to work?
The first time I went to NYC to show my work, I brought two books: the first I had been working on for a few years while I was assisting. It was everything commercial I had done, plus dozens of test shoots with actors, musicians and artist friends. It was everything I thought an editorial book should be. The other was a personal project called Walkabout, where I had spent 4 days pushing a light across LA making the kind of environmental portraits that I thought were interesting. By the 4th meeting in NYC, I had stopped showing that first book altogether. Nobody cared about what limited commercial work I had done, but Walkabout, this quick personal project, got a lot of attention, and got me my first editorial assignments.
Until very recently, nearly all the images on my website were from self-generated, unpaid work. It’s only been recently that the work that I want to show is also work I’m getting paid for, but that doesn’t slow me down from self assigning—I feel like that’s the only way to get your dream assignments—keep shooting them until people take notice and someone decides to pay you to keep doing it. I think there is a long history of that in photography.
POP: What was your training?
I don’t have much of a formal photography training. I went to UCLA and studied theater directing. When I graduated I assistant different photographers for several years, and used that money to self fund different reportage projects, like living in Western Kenya for 5 months, staying on Skid Row in LA, and traveling to different parts of California for photo essays like Harvest and Tent City.
My first real assignment came from CNN—I was brought on to help them cover the 2008 elections. I got to learn while shooting next to really seasoned, versatile photographers, and then working late into the night with their amazing editors. We had to cover everything, from spot news to feature stories to PR events. The expectations were really high and it was an amazing experience that really pushed me.
As an assistant I worked with a lot of different photographers, and I would always try to identify at least one skill that they did better than anyone else: creative freedom, technical acumen, a great talent for communication. I would try to incorporate whatever that was into my methodology as best I could.
I also attend all the workshops, lectures and portfolio reviews that I can, and I think they can be a great way to learn and connect with the photo community at large. I did the Eddie Adams Workshop in 2011, which was a brilliant educational opportunity that I would highly recommend for anyone who qualifies. It was massively inspirational. I believe the applications for 2012 are open now.
POP: How did you build confidence with commercial art buyers that you could handle an ad or publicity job?
I think that there is a specific language to commercial photography. You have to be able to deliver a lot, on time and on budget. The more work I do, the more complex problems I am able to solve, the bigger budgets and crews I can coordinate, the more confidence I get. I had an art buyer recently tell me that he was looking at some seasoned photojournalists for a certain assignment, but decided to bring me on to the project because he was confident that I could work with real people in real situations and tell a story, but that I could also handle a complex schedule, manage a large crew, light it on the fly and get 10 shots in a day.
POP: With more ad clients looking to connect with their customers, do you see the intersection between photojournalist, documentary style and commercial photography?
I hope so. Advertising seems to go through phases, and I feel like we’re entering a phase where this style of work has a home. HDR seemed to have it’s day. Right now a flash on camera, devil-may-care style seems to be reaching critical mass. I’m hoping that a real, but more studied and stylized look is next up.
I love light, and I love people, and I love story telling. My hope is that if I continue to pursue those things, I’ll continue to work, and that the assignments will continue to get bigger and better.
POP: There seem to be two different philosophies informing reportage and commercial work.
There’s a funny situation that has happened several times: I’ll be doing reportage work somewhere, and after I pop a CF card into the camera I’ll press play to make sure that I’m not accidentally shooting over images I haven’t downloaded, and the image staring back will be from what seems like a million miles away. I remember when I was shooting Tent City I pressed play and it was a gorgeous actress on the card. When I was in the Cambodian rainforest I pressed play and it was fancy people enjoying Sundance. Those situations always drive home that feeling of living between two worlds.
But that said, I think I’m the same person shooting both. I don’t feel like I put on two different hats depending on what I’m doing that day. I set out to fulfill an objective, to connect with people, to record real moments in great light, whether it’s a slum in Asia or a studio in LA.
POP: I think it’s unique to reconcile both in the same person.
I’ve been thinking lately about this notion that we have to be one thing or another, A or B, but I think that life isn’t so black and white. For some it may be true that someone shooting reportage has different values and goals than someone shooting entertainment, but I don’t look at it like that. If I were to just do commercial photography, I don’t think I would be paying enough attention. I wouldn’t be doing enough to try and make the world a little better. But if I were just doing photojournalism, I wouldn’t get the opportunity to direct stories, to stop the action and craft a narrative, to coordinate and collaborate with big crews of talented people, which I also love.
We fall into these proscribed roles, and we sell this idea of ourselves, especially online, on our social media outlets. If I’m a commercial photographer, I have to be having more fun than you, I have to be saying ‘look how sexy my lifestyle is,’ just like the lifestyle I’m selling in my photos. And if I’m a photojournalist, I need to be serious, I can’t be silly, I can’t engage in luxury. But the reality is never so black and white, and I’m feeling more and more comfortable with the grey.
POP: The real reason I wanted to talk with you is because you got to shoot the cast of Glee.
Ha, I’ve been told that before. I think that there’s a fascination with the ‘other’—like people from the photojournalism community are really curious about the entertainment work, and people from the commercial world are really interested in the photojournalism work.
Especially with the entertainment work that I do, I think that sometimes folks forget that the art directors and editors hiring for those jobs love photography, that’s why they do what they do. They look at journalism and fine art and appreciate beautiful work, it’s not all about celebrities. That’s one of my favorite parts of doing commercial work, getting to collaborate with people who really appreciate great photography, even if at the end of the day we’re selling a product that we don’t necessarily use.
That said, the cast of Glee is great, they are always a lot of fun to work with. Jane Lynch is amazing, so professional, so easy going, such a great talent.
POP: With reportage, you are taking portraits and trying to connect to the person and their situation. With entertainment, one would assume you are portraying a character or publicity version of an actor. How do you approach each?
I think it’s the same: you are trying to create an environment where people are comfortable letting their guard down; letting you in, expressing themselves. In a reportage situation, I try and explain why I am there and why I am interested in their story, and once they’ve accepted my intentions, to fade away and let the action unfold. It can be harder with actors, because they can hide behind a character. Sometimes that’s what you want, but sometimes you want to get in a little deeper than that. Unfortunately you don’t always have the time, so in those situations it helps to be able to specifically communicate what you’re looking for from them, and then create the space for it to happen. Actors are usually pretty good about understanding what you need.
POP: How is it to spend so much time shooting celebrities?
It’s really fun. They’re generally very nice and talented and dedicated. You build relationships with some people over the years and it becomes fluid and easy. For the most part, I think that they have the same gratitude for being an actor that I have as being a photographer. We are all happy to be there and to do this for a living. I don’t think it’s easy having your photo taken with 50 people looking at you, and I always admire people that are good at it.
Every once in a while someone will seem to forget that you’re there on the same team, that you’re working towards a shared goal, and those days can be more difficult. But it’s rare – in general there’s an easy understanding that they’re there to promote a product and you’re there to help them.
POP: How are you led to or how do you choose the reportage projects you shoot?
Sometimes the projects are assigned, but generally they come from me, from being interested in a subject or really wanting to visit a certain place. This last trip to Cambodia came about because I was there a year ago, and while I was there I serendipitously volunteered to photograph the TEDx conference in Phnom Penh, and I met some really wonderful people that I wasn’t able to collaborate with during that trip. So we kept in touch, and when this project in the forest came up we organized it and I jumped on a plane.
I’ve also had the great experience of shooting something purely because I’m interested in it and then having a magazine see that work and commission me to do it again for them. For instance I shot a series of recycling facilities just because I was curious, and then Los Angeles Magazine hired me to do a feature story based on that called “The Secret Life of Trash.”
My current theory is that a project is worthwhile if it’s going to satisfy two of the these three criteria: it’s an adventure, it’s creative, and it might help to make the world a better place. Or at least not make it worse.
POP: How do you decide on the level of production for a reportage project?
The equation in my mind is always how much can you stylize it without it getting in the way of the story. If my reportage work is lit, it’s never more than one light. I’ve found that bringing too much gear can be a mistake, it can get in the way.
The situation can determine what’s appropriate as well. On this last trip to Cambodia, the only way to access the areas we went to was via motorcycle, and there wasn’t going to be any access to power for a week. So I had to pack light, and bring a lot of batteries. That determined what kind of kit I brought with me. When I was doing the police officer story, I would have a light out and be shooting and he would get a call that he needed to respond to, and I needed to be able to have my light in the trunk of the car before he peeled out and left me there.
I feel like artificial light can add a lot to a scene, can take it out of the ordinary and entice viewers to look at situations a little longer, but I never want to miss a shot to tell the story because I’m worried about something technical. I feel like I’m getting better at finding that balance.
POP: How much post do you to to your reportage work?
I stay within the rules of newspaper photography: don’t move any pixels. A lot of entertainment work is obviously post heavy but it is generally done on the studio side, which is great, because I don’t love sitting in front of a computer. It’s not my favorite part of the job. For my personal work I generally only do some corrections in the color, contrast, and curves.
POP: Inspiration? What are you looking at?
I’m always looking at photography, I love it. Museums, galleries, magazines, advertisements, blogs. I also get a lot of inspiration from film and theater, from commercials and music videos as well.
But I would say that my biggest source of inspiration is adventure. From traveling and meeting interesting people doing interesting things. From Burning Man and TED talks. From meeting people trying to solve the world’s problems through entrepreneurship and art and innovation.
I feel so incredibly blessed to be able to make a living doing something that I love, and to find opportunities to give back, even a little.