Five Questions with Steve Moakley
Current Occupation: Professional Photographer
Workshop: Project South Africa
Nonprofit Assignment: The Homestead: A Project for Street Children
Instructors: Jamie Rose
What motivated you to take a Momenta Workshop?
One day I was talking with a friend and mentor of mine, Sung Park, who knew Jamie Rose from when he was in grad school at Syracuse. I told Sung I wanted to get into non-profit photography and he suggested I look up Momenta and what they do. I did just that and knew I wanted to attend a workshop from that day on.
What surprised you most about the location you visited or the experience of working with a nonprofit?
I was fortunate I had been to Cape Town, South Africa once before and I had also worked with a non-profit before. So there where not a lot of surprises there. It was my particular non-profit that provided my biggest surprises: The Homestead: A Project for Street Children.
First, I had no idea about the degree of the problem of street children living in Cape Town. This was an eye-opener. Second, I met a handful of refugee boys living at the shelter and learned about their struggles fleeing their respective countries to South Africa, while also meeting refugees in my daily life in Cape Town, such as a Congolese taxi driver whom I befriended throughout my stay.
What was the best lesson you took away from your workshop?
On my very first day of shooting I learned an extremely valuable lesson: treat your subjects like humans first, and subjects in a story second. Be human first, then a photojournalist. I was a little too eager to get shooting during an early encounter with a boy on the streets, and he ended up not trusting me and strongly requesting I delete my images of him.
That night at review we all sat around and told our stories from the first day. After I told mine, Jamie thoughtfully and artfully explained how I might have approached the same situation in a different, more caring manner toward the boy.
I employed this methodology from the next day forward, and it proved absolutely invaluable to my project and to my experience on the workshop. I have carried it along with me in my work since the workshop and it has made me infinitely better at relating to the people I photograph and in earning their trust.
What was your favorite photograph from this workshop and why?
My favorite photo from the workshop shows Arafat, one of the boys I met at The Homestead, on the back porch of their central Cape Town shelter washing his school shirt in a tub of soapy water. Jamie was working with me on my number two best-lesson-I-learned, “Don’t fight the light!” I was making a point of finding nice light in the challenging and dimly-lit shelter. I had already struck up a friendship with Arafat (see Best Lesson #1, above) and was beginning to formulate doing a side-story on his life at the shelter when I took this photo one afternoon when he returned from school.
I love the warm light which falls nicely on his face, while the cool, blue surroundings of the porch allow him to stand out. The yellow bucket provides a stark warm counter-element to the blue. This photo would help me solidify my plan (and convince Jamie) to do a photo story on his daily life during my two weeks in Cape Town. My story on him is my favorite work from the workshop, and we became good friends. We have stayed in contact ever since and he and his cousins (also at the shelter) have befriended my family via social media. I feel like this photo helped begin that entire process.
What would you tell a potential student to help them prepare for their experience with Momenta?
You will really need to let yourself totally open up before the workshop. Relax, breathe deeply, and be prepared to soak up a ton of information, feedback, inspiration and knowledge about photography. Let yourself be immersed in your work here. Be ready to learn from the other students, too. If you do all of this right, you’ll learn just as much about yourself as you will about photography. You’ll also learn about how you and your photography fit into the wider world.
Steve Moakley’s Biography:
Steve Moakley is an editorial and commercial photographer based in Austin, Texas. This does not make him special. Instead, he is known for putting his subjects at ease and garnering trust, whether he is working with executives in a corporate headshot session or documenting life in a boys’ shelter in South Africa. A documentarian by trade and people-person by nature, Steve has photographed for numerous publications, news outlets, Fortune 500 companies and non-profit organizations. He has traveled extensively and is available for assignment worldwide.