Interview: Photojournalist Eric Thayer
Eric Thayer grew up in Los Angeles, just east of Downtown, and went to school there for creative writing. He wanted to be a novelist, but sort of fell into photography after a short stint as a reporter at a tiny newspaper in L.A. After Eric left the paper he went back to school at Brooks Institute, and right after he graduated he moved to New York where he has been freelancing for NY Times and Bloomberg among others. When Donald Trump became the President of the United States Eric decided to move from New York to Washington DC.
What made you want to be a photographer?
So while I was at that paper I spent some time covering spot news and became pretty close with the photographers and used to chase news with them. Their job seemed so much more cool. I used to run around with them carrying a point and shoot camera, probably annoying the hell out of them. After a while I bought a better camera and they started teaching me, not just about how to work the camera, but about the history. I remember the first time I saw a picture from Magnum, I was like, someone can do that with a camera? I'm sold.
What inspires you?
When you first start doing this you find inspiration everywhere and you're so excited to just be doing it, that pretty much everything inspires you. There are also times I can point to when I've looked at someone's work and been blown away, and it changes the way you see and shifts your understanding about what you can do with a camera. So I guess it really depends on the time in my life. Sometimes you shoot through personal things and it becomes an escape, sometimes you're at the mercy of your own unpredictable creativity, which can either feel like it's limitless or can feel like someone turned off the faucet. Sometimes you have to force yourself through. But the bulk of my inspiration and drive comes from my friends. I feel like friends are the most important thing you can have. Your work doesn't mean a damn thing if you don't have people around you that you can trust, who you can be honest with and who can be honest with you. To me that's more important than anything else. Our work is our work, and in some ways it's really not going to make any sort of significant sense until much later when it's a part of a collective history of the times we are living in, so the only thing you can really measure your actual level of success is the people around you.
You covered the US election extensively last year for the New York Times, how were you able to keep it fresh, to keep on making good pictures.
The great thing about covering an election is that if you miss it today, you're probably going to get it tomorrow. It's great in terms of having time to make something. What's that saying, if a monkey sat at a keyboard banging on keys indefinitely eventually it would create the works of Shakespeare? Well if you take thousands and thousands of pictures over the course of a year, you're bound to get one or two good ones. But it is a grind. In 2008 my friends and I had a blog and whoever had the best picture of the day owned the blog that day. We did the same thing in 2012. So it drove us whether we were on assignment or not. And it's you and your friends so if someone else wins the day you are as excited for them as you would be if it were you. When you work with people who are also your friends it makes it much easier to all push each other. Of course we all want to win, we wouldn't be where we are if we didn't. But that doesn't drive me. Getting to do this with my friends, getting to be in the middle of history, getting to do a job where you literally never know what will happen the next day, that's inspiration in itself.
When Donald Trump became President you decided to move from New York to Washington DC. Are you surprised by the huge interest in everything Trump? Do you have any anecdotes from any of your assignments covering him?
I'm not surprised at the interest after spending more than a year covering him. He's a fascinating story. My thought is that there are three kinds of power, money, fame and politics. I've seen financial power, living in New York for so long. Covering campaigns gives a window into political power, and growing up in L.A. you see the what Hollywood power is like. However in this case I feel like we have an example of someone who combines all three, which is something we may not have seen before. It's certainly something that I have never seen. And look, it's not my job to have an opinion. It's my job to document this moment in our history as a country, just like any other story I have done. As far as stories go, we were kept at an distance during the campaign, so I really don't have any personal stories of interactions. But there are some good campaign stories, probably best told over beers. Hahaha.
What’s your advice to your younger self?
So our path is a delicate one when it comes to that sort of thing, if I had changed one thing I may not be where I am. I've lived my life, I've made mistakes, I've made good decisions, bad decisions. I've been selfish. I've failed, I've lost, I've fumbled my way through, flailing on the edge. I've been lucky and worked hard when I was. It's true that no one is going to give you anything, but people are going to help you, people are going to believe in you, sometimes when you don't believe in yourself. I've enjoyed the hell out of my life. I don't regret much. Again, success is measured not by awards, money, accolades, fame within our tiny circle, but by your friends. But sometimes I get so wrapped up in my work and life that I am not always the greatest and staying present in the lives of the people I care about. If I could tell my younger self anything it would be to not take life so damn seriously and just be present. I'm pretty sure that dude wouldn't have listened though.