Some of his images come out of a tradition that might include Larry Clark's Tulsa, without the guns and drugs. Robert's intentions are different; he seeks the vision of the poet, artist, and spiritual seeker, but within the borders of an America that many of us are not very familiar with. You can feel him searching for the edge; sometimes he fails, but he's rarely boring.
He has an intuitive feel for unusual lighting situations, but he's more that just raw talent. He works with reflections, windows and nights like a pro. Although he values purity of spirit, I don't think he'd mind if I said that his images are not always 'pure' unplanned street photography. He operates in a mixed theater of the mind, and frequently he works more like a painter than a street photographer.
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Robert, perhaps you can introduce yourself.
I was born in Japan and currently live in Phoenix, Arizona. I am 44 years old, but since I'm Asian, I look like I am 25. I'm a recovering alcoholic and drug user. I was in a bad marriage for 10 years and now have nothing to show for it. I'm a freelance graphic designer as well as a photographer. I want to show the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ through random moments that most people would overlook. We were born into an imperfect world, but that's the beauty of the struggle, the fight, and then the surrender to God through a relationship with Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
If we are not trying to make this world a better place, then we are just throwing our lives away. I love people and I love to photograph people. I love to capture fleeting moments in time that without a camera would have been lost. To capture that one image that can define a memory. To show that life imitates art and vice versa.
I publish to Flickr to be a witness to the power and glory of Jesus and hope that some will be drawn to God.
Which photographers resonate with you?
I like collage style of Alex Webb, the painterly expression of Bresson, the boldness of Gilden, the humor of Martin Parr, the beautiful oddness of Friedlander, the essence of Eggleston and of course the pure street essence of Winogrand. I like the Flickr groups Altered States of Agoraphobia, LPV, La Familia Abrazada, and Phenomenology. Although not all photography is Godly, I like the compositions and the colors, but mostly how photographs provoke the mind to thought.
What was the moment when you saw yourself as practising an art-form with your camera?
My first consciously composed photograph was in eighth grade when I took a photography class. The next memory I have was when I was thirteen and my dad built a house and asked me to take some pictures of the construction. I was twenty years old when I bought my first 35mm, in the Air Force. I think it was a Nikon N4004. In the military I was able to afford the cost of photography. I would sometimes spend my whole paycheck on film stuff, since the government fed and housed me. And it didn't cost me my life either. To save money I shot a lot of Tri-X.
I knew I had something to say with the camera, but I just didn't know what it was. I shot mostly on auto then, just concerning myself with the composition and content. While in the military, I took a photo of a police dog drinking out of the sink, and my commander loved it. He put it in a slide presentation. When I got out of the military I spiralled out of control with drugs and alcohol. I pawned my equipment and did not shoot for the next twenty years.
In 2003 I went to art school, majoring in graphic design. Digital cameras were around now and a friend of mine sold me a Kodak digital camera for forty dollars. Then I bought a Canon Powershot. I shot some pix, but not with any dedication. Then in 2007 my friend started to shoot women models and it looked like fun. I bought a Nikon D40. I saw an article on a blog about off-cam lighting by David Hobby. I bought his DVD, then his Strobist lighting kit, two Vivitar flashes and three Pocket Wizards and some light stands. I shot models that I contacted on Model Mayhem (modelmayhem.com). Then in 2008 I started to look at Flickr and fell in love with street photography.
Your work sometimes seems to flow seamlessly from your life and those of your friends.
I believe God called me to be a photographer and to document my own life and the people I love and meet. I believe we all contribute to art in some way or another from inspiration to execution. If you're asking if the process is easy for me, it's not and I don't think that you were implying it was. Its work; sometimes so much I don't get the chance to enjoy photography as a release.
There are a lot of disappointments in photography. Sometimes there are special moments when I get buck fever, or I am blessed with a great opportunity, and I pray that the camera was able to record what I thought I saw.
For instance, I photographed a red-headed woman in the record store. She posed for me for a few seconds then commented to her boyfriend that she could not believe she "posed" for me. Pressure is good; sometimes it helps and other times it doesn't. When I need inspiration sometimes I force myself to take more pix, and other times I just choose to live life.
Sometimes I just feel something is about to happen. I know it's the Holy Spirit telling me to get ready. Just one element might be in place for me to take the picture, like I see a pattern and if I am aware of maybe two other elements, then I take a couple of pictures.
I don't like to do a lot of post-processing. I do some initial processing in Photoshop. The RAWs from my camera are horrible, so I shoot only in jpeg. I spend about two minutes in Photoshop, then I post. I never crop and I rarely ever sit on a photo. I sat on a photo once and after I posted it no one liked it. If I do sit on a photo it's because I didn't see it from the start. Any sense of seamless flow is a gift from God, not born of my own strength.
Let's talk about an individual image. How did this one come about?
Well, actually it was the first time I met these people. It was a fellowship at a church called Sovereign Grace. These three sisters were having a Sunday worship and lunch. Two of them are in the picture. The guy with the accordion was a guest too. He just happened to bring the instrument. I knew I had to get some pictures of that.
When I enter a new environment that I have been invited into I always want to take picture. The key is to get everyone comfortable with you and the camera. So I prayed for favor and God blessed me. It was near the end of the fellowship, and the sister in the back was trying to give away the extra food. I was very close to the people in the foreground and and used a very small camera. Praise God, I was able to get a few pix and this is the one I found the most interesting. Everything just fell into place.
When you got serious about photography, what was your roadmap?
During some down time at work I started to study and look at other street photographers work; mostly Bresson and Winogrand. I wanted to know how they were able to get so close to the subjects and how they were able to go unnoticed or how they were so accepted. Bresson would use a handkerchief to cover the camera and Winogrand just was fast and bolted. It was just a different time. And I have learned to try and control what you can and let the rest go. Basically I use the serenity prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
I could control the camera I used and what lens I used; if I wanted to use color or black and white, film or digital, day or night, inside or outside, etc. I used a D80 and always ran into issues. It was large and noisy. When I snapped a pic it sounded like I was cocking a shotgun. Security and workers would not allow me to shoot. People were always asking questions. I was always concerned with someone grabbing it and running. The camera would bump into objects, and I stuck out like a sore thumb. But it did build a boldness in me, and tested whether or not I was committed to SP.
What camera do you use?
Eric Kim (erickimphotography.com) recommended a Ricoh GRD IV because of its sharp 28mm lens, film-like quality and small size. It's silent and very responsive. Has customizable presets, and with a small tripod it's very versatile. It's small and I don't feel like a poser and I can take it anywhere.
My friends were accustomed to me carrying the D80 which required a large bag. I'm able to get more shots with them because they don't think I have a camera on me. Eric also recommended a camera that has a retro look. He thought it made you look more like a hobbyist or a student than a weirdo who needs to be questioned.
He also has this really funny routine about how to disarm people who don't like their picture taken; Phoenix is a very paranoid city. I don't use RAW anymore on the Ricoh. I think the jpgs look amazing. I think you should use the camera that works best for you. Some people use the 5D and have great works to show for it.
How do you get in shape emotionally to go out and do it?
I get to know the camera and build boldness and confidence. I try with everything within me and see if God will bless it. I can be a bit of a loose cannon. It takes mistakes to learn what not to do sometimes. And it's practice and persistence. Sometimes when I'm not as inspired, I start shooting a lot. Just shoot sometimes. Maybe just one small element in the entire frame that catches my eye. Other times I just practice my framing speed.
Many of your images are set-ups..
The shot of the front of my friends apartment with the porch light is a film shot. I used a Olympus Epic that I got from the Goodwill store (a recycle store). I used a Kodak 800, hand-held but staged. I liked the lighting and it felt right. I asked my friend to stand there and I shot three pix to make sure I wasn't shaking. It was taken on my birthday right before we went for Mexican food. God has blessed me with great opportunities. I believe with the right lighting and elements most any setting can be interesting. The key is to find those elements.
Thank you, Robert Bender
More of Robert Bender's work can be found here : http://www.flickr.com/photos/robertbender/
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