Interviews: Los Angeles Times Photographer Liz O. Baylen Discusses What it Means to Get it Right
Amidst the usual workshop flurry at the Project Los Angeles workshop, we sat down with Instructor Liz O. Baylen, a photojournalist at the Los Angeles Times, to ask her a few questions about developing relationships with the people she documents, growing into herself, and what it means to “get it right.”
Momenta: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Liz: To be honest, it’s usually the sunlight that is motivating me to get out of bed in the morning. The light just picks me up. I don’t want to be wasting the day away.
I have certain issues near and dear to me. I’m always drawn to anything dealing with mental health or nature versus nurture. If I have any amount of time to be with a human being to talk and connect with them, it’s not an issue that’s drawing me there. It’s just wanting to complete the connection and bring some wisdom out of it. It’s taking something they have given me they want to convey. And I want to show that in the most interesting, clever, thoughtful, and compelling way.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned throughout your career?
Oh gosh. I feel like I’ve learned nothing is ever simple and straightforward. Everything is complicated. Nothing is good or bad. It’s all so complex, especially with the kind of work I’ve been doing recently. I feel like in many ways when I am exploring other people’s stories, I’m learning so much about myself, and I’m comfortable saying that.
Is there a feeling you get when you “get it right”?
Yes. Especially with multimedia, there is this moment where I feel so strong with what I’m editing. Then there is a always a moment of nervousness where I think, “I feel like this is an honest, compelling interpretation of what I was able to share with this person, but I hope they think so too.”
For example, in the drug series, there’s a family I worked with who lost their son, and their story is really tough. I told them ahead of time, “I just want you to know the story is running this Sunday, but you might want to have someone else watch it first.” I warned them because the story is very sad, and they’re still very raw.
They called me back, and they were crying, and I was crying. They said, “It’s so perfect. It’s exactly how we feel, and it’s incredibly sad to know that that is how we feel, but it’s exactly how we feel.”
There is this sense where you think, “I did right by them.” I have those moments with me forever. There is nothing like that.
These are all very intense experiences. How do you take care of yourself?
I wake up really early, and I do something physical. That lets me be present and in a moment that is my own. It’s much easier for me to focus on others.
What advice would you give to the “younger you”?
People always tell you that you learn from your mistakes, and you grow from your failures. And, looking back on my career, that is very true. When one door shuts, another one will open. When you screw up and miss this moment, you made that moment because of it. Falls are a lot easier now because I trust that things will get better. They always do.
Can you talk about what it’s like to be a woman in the photojournalism?
Being a woman in the field is amazing. We are so lucky. Maybe people will get mad at me for saying this, but women are seen as nurturing listeners, traditionally, stereotypically. And what better way to be perceived when you’re trying to go into people’s lives, have them trust you and say, “Come in further”?
Sure, this is a tough business. It’s traditionally a man’s business. But there are women who came before us who put in tons of work and sacrifice. They had to go above and beyond to get the same respect men did. [To honor that], I would say, for me and for young women coming up, embrace it!
Are there any up-and-coming photographers who impress you?
I’m honestly excited by students, in general. To see work that is rallying with work by professionals who have worked for years and years and years…that’s impressive. What young photographers are doing and the level of work and the ambition and what they’re undertaking is so intense and amazing.
I remember being in college and kind of going along with…whatever. It just feels like this generation is so driven. It makes me sad when people discourage the young photographers because I’m thinking, “No! Please! Come and energize us and revive us!”
What do you think is the most surprising or unexpected thing about you?
I don’t know how I’m perceived, so I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. I would say maybe that I’m no happier with myself and what I’m doing than anybody else. I get mad at myself. I get disappointed. I’m insecure. I question myself all the time. I still feel like I’m trying to become an adult and have confidence. I’m trying to be concise. I’m trying to be a leader. And I’m still wondering, “When am I going to feel like my mom?”
I think I used to wonder, “When am I not going to feel like the intern?” And I guess now I’m realizing it’s a good thing to feel like that. I still have so many places to go and so many ways to grow. It keeps me on my toes, and it keeps me working hard.
About Liz O. Baylen
Liz O. Baylen has been a staff photographer with the Los Angeles Times since 2007. Prior to this, she spent five years with The Washington Times before embarking on a freelance career in New York City. Baylen prides herself in documenting homegrown issues affecting her own community, using both still images and video to give added dimension to her work.
Baylen has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three times, most recently in 2013 for her photography documenting the shattered lives of people entangled in prescription drug abuse. She was also a part of the team that was honored with a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 2011 for their coverage of the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake. She has won awards from Pictures of the Year International, National Press Photographer’s Association, White House News Photographers Association, and World Press Photo.
Baylen grew up in Ohio and attended Ohio University, graduating in 2000. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, renowned documentarian Rick Loomis and their dog, Cinnamon.
About the author…
Manuela Marin Salcedo
Manuela Marin Salcedo is a research and development team member and content developer at Momenta Workshops. Her expertise is in visual communications and social media.