Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Conversation with Susana Raab

Liz Kuball's blog is where I first encountered the work of Susana Raab. And when I saw her mesmerizing images from Bolivia for the New York Times recently, I just wanted to get on a plane to South America to follow Susana's footsteps and explore Bolivia, that is how excited I was by her photographs. Since that was not possible right away, I proceeded to do the second thing that came to mind, which was to email Susana and request an interview. She kindly agreed and very compellingly spoke about her process and how to keep the pictures coming.

Bolivia © Susana Raab

NP: Tell us a little about yourself.

SR:. I am terrible at answering open-ended questions! I live in D.C., right across the street from the zoo, with my partner, Stephen Crowley, also a photographer, and our dog, Ted. We love it. I have been a photographer here since '98 when I returned from a wee sojourn in outer Mongolia teaching English to D.C. and began taking steps to become a photojournalist. I took a break with 2 years at Ohio U getting a Masters from 2003-2005. Since I've been back I've been trying to refashion my career from photojournalist to doc/editorial feature/travel/portrait/fine-art photog -- is the best way to describe the amalgam I'm aiming for.

Mongolia © Susana Raab

NP: How did you discover photography?

SR: It was really a Eureka moment. I was in graduate school in English at University of Oregon and I stumbled across a copy of Truth Needs No Ally by Howard Chapnick, Black Star photo agency founder. It really resonated with me - the mix of art, social purpose, communication, anthropology. I love intertextuality - and photojournalism, as I saw it then, was a fantastic vehicle to have all these conversations captured in one rectangle. I had always taken photographs, been designated the de facto documentor of all events, and have had cameras in all the formats to prove it: the beloved disk; the 126mm, the 110mm, there were others now forgotten. But I had never before seen photography as a vocation, as I feel it now. I've always loved museums and art, reading the paper. I had been searching for a purpose, and really trying to find something I wanted to spend the rest of my life practicing - I had no idea what I was doing and then suddenly it was right there in front of me.

Peru © Susana Raab

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

SR: I'd say most of my inspiration comes from reading. I'll pick up anything to read. I troll waiting rooms just to sample new literature (well, not quite). Lately it's been the sun magazine, Wendell Berry, The Washington Post, Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Then there is walking and just getting to that blank head space where free thought just outs itself, and then ideas just come. Also just being curious and following through leads you to a lot of inspiring things.

D.C. © Susana Raab

NP: How do your projects come about?

SR: Of the 3 personal projects I'm working on right now, two were started as school assignments (though I knew I was going to pursue consumed before I went back to grad school and it was a major reason I wanted to go back was to develop something like this), and one was a newspaper travel section assignment (a sense of place) to photograph Flannery O'Connor's farm inMilledgeville, Georgia. But I have 3 nascent projects additionally right now - one is just a portrait of my adopted hometown, D.C., b/c why not? It's a really interesting city that most people have no clue about beyond the white pillars and podiums, one idea I'm going to work on this winter, is an idea I'm developing from a conversation I had with someone I met at a conference, and the third is about Peru, my country of birth.

If you mean, how do I fund them or get them published? I just save my nickels and dimes and live low-budget, especially when traveling. I ansel-adams it in my photo-safari wagon and get looks of disapproval from campground matrons for traveling solo. I prefer a nice Lutheran campground. Not so judgmental. ; )

And then getting published is the usual rigamarole of taking your wares around to your contacts and wringing your hat and telling your story and hoping they will bite. But I am looking for other ways to modify this process. For example, via my blog and website, I am selling a limited edition magazine, rank strangers, of work from my consumed and off-season projects, and will debut a second from the Sense of Place series later this fall. If these ventures are successful in paying for themselves, and adding a little more to the production pot that will be fantastic to help me produce more work. Maybe it is too micro-business, who knows?

The hardest thing for me since I am so over the map with all my projects and always pursuing something, b/c I get burned out on one, and inspired by another, and then the situation reverses, is finding the time to get them all done. But I enjoy the process so much, so if I can earn a living and still produce the personal work - then I'm not in a huge hurry for completion, because making it is the best part.

A Sense of Place © Susana Raab

NP: What's next?

SR: The website redesign/update. Then perhaps a trip to Kentucky this fall to work on additional writing for Sense of Place. A portfolio review and road trip down to New Orleans to Photo NoLa in December which will also mean 2-3 weeks off from paying gigs, a road trip! And lots of new work for 3 different projects, hopefully. Then this winter a trip to Peru, to work on a new series. In between hoping to be doing a lot of assignment work!

NP: Thank you so much!

To see more of Susana's work visit her website:, to read her blog head to: or ro browse her prints & books shop, click here.

Find more Nymphoto Conversations, here.


Rona Chang said...

This is great! I was just as inspired by her NYTimes photos of Bolivia as you and to hear about all these other projects makes me want to make more work. Thanks Nina and Susana.

Anonymous said...

I just discovered this blog and love it!