Guestagrammer of the Week: Steve Moakley
Momenta welcomes this week’s guestagrammer, Steve Moakley
Current job: Staff Photographer at the Texas House of Representatives, and Freelance Photographer
Current location: Austin, Texas, USA
Connection to Momenta: A number of years ago a friend of mine told me about Momenta. Then I attended the 2013 Project South Africa workshop. I’ve stayed in touch with my instructor, Jamie Rose, ever since.
Tell us about your journey as an image-maker and how you got to where you are today.
I think my journey has been somewhat unique in that I’ve always been paid to learn photography. This has been both a blessing and a curse. While I’ve always received compensation as I developed my craft, I have had to learn in the field and from other photographers and by trial and error. So I feel like my development has come in fits and starts.
I began as a photographer in high school working on the yearbook. I learned the basics on film and fell in love with the darkroom. However, I put the camera down and went into college thinking I would be a writer and work in journalism; writing came very naturally to me. I quickly figured out that working a beat as a reporter wasn’t my thing, and I yearned to pick up a camera again. My brother was the managing editor at a community newspaper in a nearby town and called to ask if I wanted to shoot high school football for him. So boom, I had a camera again. The paper let me shoot the games and write the stories and that carried over to basketball season, the spring sports, the next school year….and when I (finally) graduated I went to work there as a fulltime reporter/photographer. It was an invaluable early experience.
Then I got tired of small town Oklahoma, and moved to Austin to sleep on a friend’s couch, armed with only a resume and a portfolio on DVD. Through a connection I had made in Oklahoma and a wonderful confluence of opportunity and preparedness, I landed a job as a staff photographer at the University of Texas Athletic Department. This was in the early 00’s, so I learned digital photography there, shooting major college athletics and the life that goes on behind the scenes. I cut my teeth on digital and timely filing at that job, and learned how to deal with pressure.
While at UT I figured out that I wanted to make photos that would help people who needed it, not just fed a wealthy corporate machine. I left and traveled the world for four months with a friend and discovered my attraction to the developing world. I just shot travel photos that looked interesting to me, and I realized later I was beginning to carve out elements of my style. I visited Africa for the first time, and the rawness and the vibe and the startling difference from the US both intimidated me and enthralled me. That place left an indelible imprint on my being.
Upon my return to Texas I needed to work and I landed a spot in the photo studio at Dell, Inc. This was very corporate, but provided my introduction into commercial and product photography. I learned lighting and working with models and different materials. I learned how to sit in on an advertising meeting and make sense. Then I lost that gig in the company-wide layoffs following the Recession.
I finally went freelance fulltime in 2010. It took a lot of work and plenty of accepting any job that came my way, but I finally figured out something important for all photographers to learn: what I liked doing and what I was good at. That juxtaposition for me falls at documentary photography and portraiture. This has come to include non-profit work, sports, events and commercial work. I just apply my storytelling-style to everything; that’s what comes out, and the clients seem to like it. I’ve been able to do documentary projects in Haiti, South Africa and here in Austin to benefit non-profits. My commercial work has included Fortune 500 companies, law firms and start-up businesses. I’ve kept a vibrant blend of different types of clients.
In 2014 I was hired on staff at the Texas House of Representatives and it has been a valuable opportunity. I document the legislative session in progress on the House floor; it is a circus and chaotic and full of photos – I love it. There is fabulous light in the chamber from the tall windows built in the 1800’s, plus 150+ people for me to work with everyday. I am still able to run my freelance business on the side.
What stories or issues are you most passionate about covering?
I’m still drawn to stories that have to do with struggling or marginalized people, and finding some way that my work can help them. Over the last few years my focus has been on refugees. While shooting at the boys’ shelter for Project South Africa 2013, I met and befriended some teenage boys who were refuges from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I became very good friends with one of them in particular, named Arafat, and I decided to shoot a side story about his life at the shelter. I thought his story would portray the shelter in a good light because he was working very hard to get through school and get on in life. I learned a lot about the challenges he and his cousins were dealing with. When I returned home to Austin, I wanted to do what I could to help refugees here. I began a project with the Multicultural Refugee Coalition, a non-profit which helps improve refugee livelihoods. It began a relationship with the organization that is still going today.
Where do you look for inspiration for your work: books, movies, authors, photographers, art, certain people?
I find that I’m drawn to the stories and work of conflict photographers. I discovered James Nachtwey in college; his work is tragic and violent, but wonderfully composed. Lynsey Addario’s work is beautiful, and her book It’s What I Do provides an insightful and raw picture of the life of a conflict photographer. The book The Bang Bang Club portrays the world of four photographers covering South Africa’s violent emergence from apartheid, illuminating the highs of winning awards and the darkest lows of dealing with what photographers see.
Finally, I recently read an article by Ami Vitale, a National Geographic photographer who has worked in conflict and other stories all over the world. She expressed how she really takes time to get to know the people she’s working with and spends time with them. She makes relationships with her subjects. This is HUGE in documentary photography; you must put in the time. This is what I intrinsically did with Arafat during my Momenta workshop, and it was a huge success to me. I am still in touch with Arafat and his cousins today, and my whole family has befriended them over social media. I think about Arafat often when I am out working on long-term projects and building relationships with my subjects. My knowledge of that ability began with him.
What social media or news feeds do you follow regularly?
I LOVE Instagram. I think it is one of the most efficient tools for exploring the world of photography and getting exposure to the work of different photographers from all over the world. I’ve discovered so many photogs’ work that I admire and find inspiring. To note:
Dotan Saguy – Fellow Momenta alum and excellent documentary photographer. His layering is fantastic, and he shows a wonderful sense of place. His photos are true compositions. I can look at his stuff all day.
Pete Mueller – National Geographic photographer based in Nairobi. I love the grit in his style and his topical work on masculinity and conflict in Africa and the world. Plus he posts video BTS updates from the field, which are cool.
Jay Janner – Staff photog at the Austin American Statesman. His work constantly amazes me; you can drop Jay into any scene and he’ll come out with a badass photo. He’s been documenting this crazy city we live in for years and producing fresh work over and over. He just ‘sees’. Plus, he’s a really nice, genuine guy in person.
As for news, I follow the BBC and The Economist for world events and insight, plus The Texas Tribune for coverage of all things politics in Texas.
What is one passion you have outside of photography that might come as a surprise to our readers?
I am one of the founders of the Austin Beer Run Club! It is the top social running club in Austin. Back in 2012, a few buddies and I started meeting every Wednesday at a bar near downtown Austin and running a 5k around Lady Bird Lake. We’d meet back at the bar for cheap beer and even cheaper tacos. After discussing how awesome this was, one guy went home and on a whim registered our ‘club’ on Meetup.com. The next week we had 25 random people show up to run and the club just grew from there. We now run out of a brewery-bbq place near the trail and draw 75-100 beerrunners each week. We’ve been featured in Runner’s World magazine and have drawn people from all over the world. I emcee the weekly announcements and generally greet everyone and make folks feel welcomed. I love it. I get my people/running/beer fix on and don’t have to carry a camera while doing it.
What can we expect to see next week from your “guestagramming” on our Momenta Instagram account?
- I’m going to highlight my work with refugees, both with Momenta in South Africa and my work with an organization in Austin. This is the work I’m most proud of and the type of work I want to evolve more of my business into. They say, “Show the kind of work you want to do”, so that’s what I’m going to do!
#seizethemomenta, and follow @momentaworkshops on Instagram to see Steve’s great work!
About the author…
Jen May Pastores
Jen May Pastores is a research and development team member and content developer at Momenta Workshops. Her expertise is in visual communications and social media.