Interview: Photographer Robert Caplin
Robert Caplin is a Manhattan-based photographer originally from Athens, Ohio. He attended Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication and worked his way through internships and landed in NYC after a stint at The New York Times in 2005. He’s been freelancing for editorial and commercial clients worldwide ever since. In 2010 he and his wife Laia founded The Photo Brigade, an online community representing the best of the professional photography industry by promoting and advocating for the trade via podcasts, live events, and social media.
What made you want to be a photographer?
It was a progression, but I knew I wanted to become a photographer pretty early in life during high school. It wasn’t until I picked up my uncle’s SLR at my older brother’s wedding that the craft pulled me in. I was intrigued by the medium so much that I ended up purchasing my sister-in-law’s N50 and began shooting photos of my classmates and family on a daily basis. My high school offered a photography class, which was in hot demand mostly because students wanted an “easy class”, but unfortunately I wasn’t one of the lucky few to got into the course. So during my study hall period I would sneak into the darkroom with a friend of mine who was in the class and began learning how to use the enlargers to make black and white prints from my color negatives. The minute that latent image magically appeared when the paper hit the developer, I was hooked. My friend would take my prints outside to dry them while I hid in the darkroom and continued playing with the chemicals. It wasn’t long until the two art teachers took note, each thinking I was the other’s student, and soon I was “busted” when my friend was asked to escort me outside to speak with the instructors. Fortunately for me, they both figured if I was so intent on sneaking into their class, they would open up a spot for me...and I was official.
Soon after I began taking pictures for the high school yearbook, becoming the official photographer and photo editor. Then I began shooting athletic events and realized I could solicit parents to pay me to shoot a roll of film of their kids on the court or in the fields. At the beginning, I would hand over the roll of undeveloped film to the parents at the end of the game, but that soon changed as I began offering different size prints so I didn’t have to concentrate on a single student. I suppose the entrepreneur in me came from my middle school days as I was the official neighborhood lawnmower in the summer and official neighborhood snow-plower in the winter shoveling the snow off my neighbors driveways for $20 a pop. I continued shooting high school athletics throughout college as digital cameras and web storefronts made my life easier, which paid my way through university. I even had a roster of Ohio University students shooting local high school athletics for my company.
Shooting pictures in high school led me to bring a stack of 5X7 prints to the editor of the local newspaper, The Athens Messenger, who was my English teacher’s husband. I showed him my “portfolio” of sports images and soon I was accepted for a mentorship at the paper mixing chemicals, developing film, and occasionally shooting an assignment under the chief photographer for half the school day. My time at The Messenger introduced me to the world of photojournalism and I knew it was the profession I wanted to pursue, so I applied to Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication where I honed my skills, spent a summer in Scotland for their annual documentary field school, and eventually interned at The Columbus Dispatch, Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times, which let me to the Big Apple where I’ve been ever since freelancing for any and just about every publication I could connect with.
What inspires you?
Honestly, I’m inspired by all my talented friends and colleagues, like you, Pontus, who are constantly wowing me with their beautiful imagery. Generally I’m inspired by light, moments, and experiencing new cultures. Travel is one of my favorite things to do, especially when it takes me out of my element and forces me to adapt.
How do you approach your assignments. How do you keep it fresh?
My assignments have changed dramatically over the 12+ years I’ve been working professionally, but my approach has stayed the same for the most part. I try to approach every assignment as a life experience. I attempt to get to know portrait subjects and have a dialogue with them about interesting topics I’ve researched or that come up during the shoot. When I’m on documentary assignments, I try to adapt to the situations and simply live it whilst documenting and staying in the background as much as possible.
In 2010 you followed Justin Bieber on tour and got unprecedented access which resulted in the book "First Step 2 Forever”. How do you get a gig like that, and what was it like working that close with a star of that magnitude.
With all my assignments, whether editorial or commercial, I’m always looking at ways to build upon the work I’m doing at the moment. I was assigned by the New York Times to take pictures later in the day of the up-and-coming pop star at Madison Square Garden for a music festival, at which point I’d never heard his name. I googled him and immediately noticed the 3M+ followers he had on twitter….as a 15 year old…. It was at that point I decided to try and do more than I was assigned, which was to shoot the first three songs. I arrived early, got backstage, and when he arrived I found his manager and asked to tag along as a fly on the wall. Because it was so early in his career, prior to his touring and mega rise to fame, I was allowed into the room with Justin and Usher as they did vocal exercises. I took a combination of stills and video, which turned into a multimedia piece on NYTimes.com.
Afterward I felt I had such a nice body of work from just that evening, I had my girlfriend (now wife) design a prototype book with my work that evening. From there I connected with his publicist, sent prints and tried to arrange a meeting with his manager, which was nearly impossible to coordinate until one day my mother suggested I go check out Justin’s concert the following day on the TODAY Show. Since I’d previously photographed with the NBC publicist, she helped me gain access to the concert where I was finally able to hand the prototype book to his manager and he accepted my proposition to document Justin on the spot. He told me to meet them in Nassau, Bahamas where he was going to be the following weekend for a small concert, and then into rehearsals for his upcoming first tour. I bought a one-way ticket and ended up on tour for nearly a year across North America documenting his rising fame with a book deal from Harper Collins. Because of the new video technology in the new Canon 5D Mark II’s at the time, I also took hours of behind-the-scenes video which I later sold to Paramount, which became a good chunk of his big 3D movie.
It was a surreal experience traveling around the US and Canada in a caravan of 11 busses and 11 semi trucks with 100+ people on tour. I was fortunate and was able to bring my girlfriend on most the tour with me, bunking across from me in the bus. We even got engaged on the North Shore of Oahu when we were in Hawaii for two shows. Every day some of the biggest stars from Johnny Depp to Miley Cyrus to Barbara Walters….even Vanilla Ice and I had a chat once. Word to your mother.
I was in the right place at the right time both for Justin’s camp and in my world…with the flexibility to travel and change my life for a spell. The best part of the experience was making so many new friends on tour, some of which I have very close relationships with to this day…from the dancers, musicians, background singers, riggers, bus drivers, and even some of the wild fans on twitter. You’d be surprised how social media can change your life.
You are also the man behind the website thephototbrigade.com where you showcase the photography industry, review equipment, and podcast with interesting people in the photo community. How did you come up with the idea to the website?
Photo Brigade is a living, ever-developing photo community made up of predominantly professional photographers, editors, and industry-types, students, as well as those who wish to become professional or just those who admire the work of those in our industry. After seeing various photo collectives startup and use social to promote the work of their members, I thought it’d be a fun idea to start a collective of sorts with the sole purpose of promoting the entire professional photography industry and encouraging good business practices. We started the community on Facebook where we collectively brought together the networks of our peers. What soon developed was the blog where we have showcased the works of hundreds of photographers, review new pieces of gear, share our kits, and much more.
Because I live in the epicenter of the photography industry here in NYC, I was finding a lot of my friends and peers were coming through the city for one reason or another. I found myself regularly meeting old and new friends for a coffee and having very interesting conversations. One day I thought I should start recording these conversations because they were always full of great information, especially on the business of becoming a photographer in the industry as we talked about my guests career paths and projects. For about a year I would meet my guests in Central Park, coffee shops, and even on Amtrak trains back from photo shoots in Boston where I’d snap a lav mic and chat about the industry. We moved to video podcasts when Adorama worked with me to use their event space as a podcast studio and now the podcast has become an audio/visual presentation streaming live on Facebook.
Photo Brigade is always collaborating with those in the industry to bring the community closer, especially now with live networking events like our Quarterly Photos & Music Nights at CBS Radio, Monthly Photos Beer & Wings in the East Village, and more. We’re always looking for new ways to strengthen our community and want everyone to be part of the movement.
What’s your advice to your younger self?
I don’t necessarily know if I’d do too much differently, but perhaps to expound on some of what I’ve done throughout my career, which is to treat everyone how I wish to be treated, never hesitate to pass out my business cards as they are like planting seeds, and to not sweat the small stuff. Sometimes as a freelancer you stress about your income as it comes in waves, but the longer you stick with it and treat your peers and clients well, work compounds and opportunities present themselves. I would also tell myself to follow my passions fully, set more long-term goals, and do whatever is needed to put myself on the path to achieve those goals. I’m finding that as the years go by, time is moving quicker and quicker and I can see how saving some money here, or taking an extra job there, has given me the flexibility to pursue the passions thus far in life.