Josh Birnbaum

As a photojournalist, do you predominately have to shoot with digital?
I started shooting on film for my first assignments, and then for 10 years, I shot digital. Now I explore other realms of fine art, specifically with medium format film.

Do you edit your images before they get published in a paper or online?
I have a rule that I spend less than two minutes per image. If I spend more than two minutes, it’s not good for the image. I’ll do basic contrasts and color adjustments, but this is a personal rule that I stick to.

That’s refreshing to hear because these days, many photographers use Photoshop without a second thought.
Yeah they do. There are some ethical concerns about editing images. Photography is strange because it’s one of the mediums closest to reality, only that we use different cameras to represent us. Some photographers play around with Photoshop to stylize their images with vignetting or over-saturating the colors from what we think would be normal. I think that’s part of the creative process. I’m not one to say what is right or wrong. We’re just creating our interpretation of reality.

Do you remember one of your first photo assignments?
It might have been a high school football game. I think my journalism adviser [in high school] said to go and shoot some pictures, so he sent me with a Nikon D1 and a giant battery pack that had to be strapped to a fanny pack. It was really embarrassing! There was a cord that also wrapped around me. I ended up getting some good shots, but it was so nerve-wrecking.

Now I first came across your work through Uphill Battle. Can you talk us through this series?
Uphill Battle was a self-generated story idea. When I was pursuing my own documentary work, I decided to do a long-term project. After I met the Illinois Wheelchair Basketball team, I ended up pursuing this project for four years. I literally became a member of the team because I went to all their away games, ate meals with them, had a team nickname, and the coach would yell at me if I was late. It was a good example for me of what immersive journalism is, where the documentarian immerses into the subject matter to tell the story first-hand and more accurately.   Even though I only shared twelve images or so, it took a long time to make relationships and create images that had an overarching meaning.

Uphill Battle is one of the only series that you’ve shared on your online portfolio that is exclusively black-and-white. Why is that?
Because these were taken over a long period of time and at many different locations, the team went through different uniforms. I thought that color in the images confused the viewers. Taking away the color helped shape the consistency of the narrative and made Uphill Battle more cohesive as a visual work.

You mentioned that you became very close with these players. How did you know when you draw the line between photographer and honorary teammate?
It was hard. I would say I never necessarily drew a hard line. There are situations when I have to act like a human being and it’s not appropriate for me to photograph. I need to be aware of the implications of my presence. There are also times for me to be present by talking to the players and be involved in that moment, so that I can translate that understanding and empathy into another image at a later date. Being a photographer is about knowing which moments are important to be present for and which are important to document and communicate. There were also times when the team didn’t want me photographing, like when they lost a final match. The whole team was naturally very upset. There wasn’t any censorship though; everyone knew I was there to capture moments of thick and thin, good times and bad times, and I did it because I cared about them. It was a judgment process. Having those in depth relationships and mutual understandings of my role helped to create some boundaries but also some freedom.

You’ve traveled a lot to cities with very rich cultures. How much research goes into the locations before you delve into these cultures?
A lot! Many of the locations that my work centers around are linked to the location I was living at or working in at the time. On my website, if it’s not listed under the “commissioned” heading, it is a self-researched, self-edited series. Some projects, like Kings of Peoria, were pursued during my nights and weekends. It took a bit of time to find those [hip-hop] guys. I found them in a park one day, started talking them, and when they asked me if I could take their album cover picture, I said, “Hell yeah.” I showed up at their studio, met their family and friends, and it became acceptable for me to photograph them on a more casual level. It was a series where I was working at Peoria Journal Star five days a week and I had the late shift from 2pm to midnight. After I got out of work, I would hang out with them and jam at the studio until 3-4am.

How crucial is it to you to foster these relationships with your subjects before you start shooting them more regularly?
It’s an essential part. I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I didn’t try to understand them and make them apart of the work. I build relationships because that’s what I love about photography. The camera is a ticket to other people’s lives and an excuse to go past my social anxieties and learn about other people. There’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship that is formed, where they give me feedback and tell me how they would like for me to see their lives.

How familiar were you with bluegrass before you shot Banks of the Ohio?
I grew up in LA, which is not known for its bluegrass, but my dad was really into the genre. He was a big Grateful Dead fan, a “deadhead,” so he would play bluegrass at the local park on Sundays. When I went to Appalachia in 2008, I wanted to discover the culture myself, so I started researching this project and found a local musicians and went to the events. I went to West Virginia and Kentucky to photography the bluegrass culture as well.

What’s so special about bluegrass?
Bluegrass is interesting because it’s uniquely American. It’s a fusion of a lot of genres that are both American and not. It has elements of western swing, blues, jazz, and CKeltic music. Bluegrass is firmly rooted in the geography of the region and people’s connection to the land. The rural lifestyle is particularly appealing to me because I grew up in a city made of concrete, so it’s completely different from what I am familiar with.

It’s very interesting to hear you describe this bluegrass culture that I didn’t know even existed in America.
There are places in America that don’t seem like this country. I live in Athens right now but I can drive ten minutes and it’ll seem foreign because people are living without electricity and water on hills and in barns.  There are a lot of interesting places in the crevices of our country.

Moving forward, what other cultures are you interested in exploring through photography?
The one thing that is consistent in my work is my interest in music culture and how that shapes people, their lives, and how they see the world. There’s the project on blues and gospel called Deep Texas Soul, hip-hop [Kings of Peoria], and bluegrass [Banks of the Ohio]. Music is linked to geography, so I’m interested in every place. I want to go to New Orleans to understand the creole music and jazz. I thought about a piece on Detroit and Techno. Essentially, I want to travel to where different music originated and create a visual survey of where that music stands now and how it’s changing.

I’ve noticed that your locations are all in America. Have you thought about going abroad?
I think someday I want to apply for a Fulbright or save up, quit my job, and explore a certain culture. The one that interests me the most, and this is broad, is the gypsy people, who live anywhere from India to Europe. There are a lot of variants in their music and how it’s linked to the transient gypsy culture.

What musicians do you love?
Because my visual interests are so broad and I am interested in discovering, over time I’ve broadened my taste in music. I used to only like rock and blues. Now, I started listening to hip-hop and the people I photograph give recommendations too. On any given day, I’ll listen to Bill MonroeTom Waits, Miles Davis, the Grateful Dead, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and A Tribe Called Quest.

What’s your favorite movie?
Latcho Drom, an obscure semi-documentary film about the gypsy people and their music. It’s what turned me on to that culture. The music and cinematography borders on fiction; the director is setting up scenes with these people and musicians and filming them as if it’s a Hollywood movie, but it’s a candid situation of them in their village. The film has  beautiful scenes. There’s no talking either, so it’s all music and the film is linked through a conceptual narrative.

What’s a documentary that you recently watched?
I recently watched Harlan County U.S.A again. It’s about the coal strikes in Kentucky in the early ’70s and the music of that time as well. They interview one of the famous musicians in that region and the soundtrack is a lot of bluegrass like Hazel Dickens.

What books do you gravitate towards?
I stopped reading fiction and read more theory and criticism. I recently picked up Susan Sontag’s On Photography. It blew my mind. I definitely don’t agree with everything she is saying, but the value of it is that it challenges me to rethink about my assumptions, practice, and work. I also teach full-time, so I read Bell Hooks’ Teaching to Transgress: Education is the Practice of Freedom. The book doesn’t ever talk about photography explicitly, but the concepts of teaching, working with people, and helping their journey  applied to my teaching, my photography, and the relationships I build. It spanned all realms of my life.

What’s your favorite beer?
I don’t drink beer because I don’t consume gluten. Dogfish Head makes a gluten free beer called Raison D’Être, which is a sorghum, raspberry, honey beer.

What’s your favorite food?

Favorite cheese?

And lastly, what is beauty to you?
I think beauty is a space where something can exist without judgment or censorship or changing into something else. It’s a space where things can exist as they are.


For more of Josh’s work, check out his website.