SEEK Interviews: Spencer Platt

This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with SEEK instructors, our colleagues and friends, curators, photographers of all different kinds, our influences, and people who we think you might find interesting. Starting off this series is an interview with SEEK instructor Spencer Platt, who is Senior Staff Photographer for Getty Images in New York City. Spencer's long career has taken him around the world, covering international events ranging from wars, famines, and refugee crises to Presidential elections and stories of daily life. Follow Spencer's work on Instagram @plattys1 - and read more about him on his bio page here: http://www.seekworkshops.com/s-platt/ For now, please enjoy this interview (which was conducted by email).

SEEK: Can you tell us a bit about your experience in Albania in the mid-90's? How did you feel working there? What was something you encountered that was challenging, and how did you overcome it?

SP: I went to Albania in 1996 out of the frustration of working at a small regional newspaper. While it was the perfect setting to learn the craft of photojournalism, there was a monotony to my life that I wanted to alter, to throw it all into the sea. I went on the encouragement of my mother and the experience committed me forever to the life of a photojournalist, one of the last romantic careers. The country was in chaos, there were riots in the streets and the old communist order was being pulled apart. At the time I don’t think I was aware of the bigger historical picture or what it all meant for the future. I was simply happy to be roaming the country for 10 days with two film cameras and a rucksack. In one southern city they burned the police station down as I arrived on the night train; I somehow found a hotel and managed to get some food. I barricaded myself in the little room with an old dresser against the door, there was shooting in the street and I was terrified. It was one of the happiest nights of my life.

SEEK:In your bio you mentioned the theme of "a life worth living." What does that mean to you?

SP: I desperately wanted to be a “witness” to history, to be engaged in something larger than myself. What I learned from the experience is the idea of personal agency, how we have the power to shape our lives and careers in ways I never quite understood. Prior to my experiences in Albania I was of the impression that we primarily reacted to external events as humans, that we had only modest control over our destiny. While I was very young and naive on that trip, it taught me that action, decisiveness and original thought will often bring rewards…or at the very least experiences that give your life a durability that you can profit from. I haven’t always taken this lesson to heart in my photographic career, but it I strive to keep this idea in mind and am certain it has shaped my life. We live in an age that is increasingly passive, where too many of us are relegated to voyeurs on social media, television or other forms of entertainment. 

SEEK: How is being a flaneur, or, "a stroller of the street," important to you as a photographer?

SP: The beauty of street photography is that it demands engagement with your world. You can’t pursue this kind of work from an office or bedroom, from looking at a screen or listening to a podcast. One needs to be physically and spiritually in the present moment. One of the most beautiful aspects of street photography is that it’s an instrument you can play for the rest of your life, constantly tweaking it or re-examining it, but it ill always be there for you. I think once a person becomes comfortable with their personal vision it is a very therapeutic way to get through life. 

SEEK: Can you tell us a little about your friendship with Q and how your teaching together will be an interesting experience for students?

SP: I’ve forgotten where I first met Q, but it was certainly while covering a war some place. We worked very differently but somehow managed to be good traveling companions. In conflict situations it is always better to travel with someone else in case you run into trouble. You must also trust this persons advice and feel at ease with their decisions on how to proceed with the day; where the pictures will be made. This is very important and Q has always had a sense for how news events will unfold. Before you make an important picture there is often much thinking and debating, much walking and watching.

SEEK: Can you elaborate on how you think photojournalism and photography can be a way of "demanding more from life?"

SP: If there is anything I want my work to achieve it is the idea of the “rugged” life, both physically and mentally. A life that doesn’t divert from risk or discomfort, that seeks to constantly improve on our skills and to being a committed actor in our time. This sense of engagement involves literature, music, photography and a deep empathy. This sense of empathy, or compassion for others, is only fully realized through art. Street photography, when deeply pursued, it is the study of the theater of the street, of the small and large dramas that define who we are.