Who is this Photographer, Lyle Owerko?


You have already read the touching story, “Millennium Promise”, by Lyle Owerko right here on Apogee and have seen his incredible black and white portrait photography, but who is the man behind the story and the photos? Let’s find out what makes him tick.

Lyle Owerko is a New York City-based photographer and director whose photographs have made appearances in places such as the remake of the “The Omen” (2006) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, as well as on MTV and publications such as Tokion, Nylon, Blackbook and Planet Magazine. He is probably best known for the photograph that appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine, of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 (which was recently ranked by the American Society of Magazine Editors as one of the 40 most important magazine covers in the last 40 years). And that’s not all; he has also directed Robert Redford in a series of Sundance Channel commercials and was engaged in “Faces of Poverty”, an exhibition project for the UN. His credits just go on and on…. Current work includes two book projects and the organization of a touring exhibition of his African portraiture imagery.

Copyright © Lyle Owerko

Great wall of China, photo of two guards who protect and take care of the wall — image taken on a hot July afternoon in 1999.

The Interview

Q.(MM) Do you remember the first time you picked up your camera and said to yourself, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life? What was that photo? Do you still have it? 

A. (LO) I do remember a “turning point” photo–a picture that was a distinct departure from the imagery I shot before it. I was in China in 1999 and I was on a remote section of the Great Wall of China. While stopping for a rest, two Chinese guards walked up the wall towards me. I remember snapping off a few frames that captured the decayed snaking stones of the wall and the moment of exhaustion we were all sharing. That picture was really the first time I felt that what I shot represented what I was seeing and experiencing. It was a real coming of age for me as a photographer. I’ll always remember that photo as the crystal seed from which everything else grew. I knew me before that picture and I know me after. Others may not see the difference, but I could see it and that’s all that matters.

Q.(MM) Early on, many photographers were inspired by other photographers. Which person or persons gave you the inspiration to move forward as a photographer and how exactly did they inspire you?

A. (LO) I have such a wide visual background and am inspired by so many things, not just photographers. In the art of painting it’s Rembrandt and many of the renaissance masters. In the contemporary art scene I’m a fan of Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly and James Rosenquist. As a teenager I was attracted to the major contributors to the Pop Art movement. My tastes changed as I was exposed to more and I quickly moved beyond Warhol to other artists like Basquiat, Rothko, Pollack and Goldsworthy. Currently, the work of many of the popular street artists inspire me, like: Swoon, Os Gemeos and Andrew WK, as well as the urban literacy of Banksy–who is a modern graffiti equivalent to the Scarlet Pimpernel. In photography I am humbled by the collective work of all of the photographers in Magnum, both past and present, as well as the imagery coming from the founders of Vii. I enjoy the work of Malick Sidebé and especially the masters’ eye of Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Robert Frank. As a young photographer the pop culture point of view of photographers like Albert Watson and Anton Corbijn had a great impact on my creative consciousness. I enjoy so many artists and am not informed by any single medium or person as much as I am informed by all of them.

Q.(MM)Following your studies at Pratt Institute and with thousands of photographers competing in the photography market, how did you open the doors to that market? Along with your learned skills and personal talent, how much was being at the right place at the right time? How did that then lead you to gaining your recognition – a bit of history?

A. (LO) I think you are referring to 9/11. It’s interesting–despite that body of work’s place in history, I’ve never once received a commission from those images. In fact I’ve never even sold one print to a collector. I’ve had it run as editorial, but have never been commissioned for a job because of it. I think that work is so sensitive in New York that it receives a bit of backlash of sorts. It’s been a strange journey with that compilation of imagery–I’ve had many reps and agents review my portfolio, only to tell me they hate those images. I hope the world eventually wraps its mind and heart around those pictures. Since that time, for commissions, I’ve had to hustle hard. Most of my projects are self-initiated–putting myself in the right place and time rather than being hired or approached by an art director to execute against a concept. I guess in summary, to stay solvent, one really has to learn to be a self-starter and certainly to not expect commissions because you are doing poignant or relevant work.

Q.(MM) What characteristics and attributes have helped you on your path to success – those you feel you inherently possess and those which you have developed?

A. (LO) The biggest battles have been internal–of dropping all notions of fear and certainly learning to stick to your convictions. In this industry you need a thick skin and you have to love what you are doing (and that means all aspects of the process), otherwise you won’t last long. I was raised to believe in myself and that certainly has helped. I also question authority, which is good and bad, but it certainly helps to sharpen your sense of intuition. I think the greatest gift from my parents was being raised by two people who both had deeply ingrained senses of intuition and personal values. It set a strong standard for living that I’ll always carry within me.

Q.(MM)With years of experience under your belt, how has your approach to photography changed? What do you think you do best?

A. (LO) I think I engage people really well. My early work was more concerned about regarding the landscape of the image and the framing, the technical issues and the lighting jargon. Now my process is more about engaging the subject and relying on the technical stuff to fall in to step with what I am creating. Clicking the shutter is the final step in the process.

I really like taking portraits and could shoot them all day, every day. I really enjoy the human to human interaction.

Q.(MM) At this point in your career, what has been your greatest challenge as a photographer?

A. (LO) The challenge now is how to keep going–how to keep doing this and to retain momentum of purpose and commitment. The photo industry is going through a great deal of change and one has to be diversified in their thinking and approach to the medium. You also have to know what you want to say. That’s an important and necessary part of progress and maturation as an artist. You can’t really wander through photography and make a living. Focus and commitment to the craft is extremely important.

Copyright © Lyle Owerko

9/11 — NYPD Policeman covered in fall-out and dust just after the 1st World Trade Center Tower collapsed. Photo taken near ground zero September 11th, 2001.

Q.(MM) You have many dramatic and poignant photos of not only 911, but your involvement with the impoverished/starving people of Africa. Both depict the cycles of life and death in one form or another. How have both witnessing these events and taking these photos impacted and changed your life and your photography?

Copyright © Lyle Owerko

Mogotio, Kenya – young man transporting water from the local river to his family as storm clouds threaten overhead (read meta data for more information).

A. (LO) 9/11 shattered my innocence and still does to this day. I have a hard time with those images, as my main goal as a creative has always been to dignify the human condition. On the other hand, Africa offers a way for me to console and reconcile my proximity to the cycle of life and death by using the camera to engage suffering and to raise the voices of the tiny and overlooked. Africa also brings to me the ability to celebrate the uniqueness and differentiation in us all as a sign of beauty and magic by being so close to the razors edge of life and death. As 9/11 shattered my innocence, Africa has always managed to keep my inner child alive and stimulated. It shows in the work–it’s serious fun no matter how tough the circumstances.

Copyright © Lyle Owerko

Lepaisle, an elder Samburu warrior from the Sereolipi area of North Kenya.

Q.(MM) Which photo subject/s resonate with you the most – touch your heart & soul? Why?

A. (LO) It is always someone or something that is innately representing the unique qualities of itself. I am drawn to the vernacular and uninhibited characters of the world.

Q.(MM) When working with subjects that move you emotionally, what strengthens and creates balance in you? How do you handle those very emotional circumstances?

 A. (LO) What strengthens me is never shying away from looking the subjects in the eye. If I fear them or feel shame for them, even within myself, it will show in my eyes. If they don’t see fear or distraction in my eyes then a bond of trust is created. No matter how tough the circumstances, if trust exists in the situation, a bridge will be formed between two people.

Copyright © Lyle Owerko

A young Himba girl playing in a jumping contest — photographed in the Northern territory of Namibia near the Angola boarder.

Q.(MM) On a lighter note, what photo has brought you the greatest joy – that feel good photo? What is the story behind it?

A. (LO) There are many images that create a sense of Joy–especially of my girlfriend Shaundra and our dog Luna. Those two souls provide daily inspiration and emotional feeding. On the other hand, I think it’s a series of pictures I took in Namibia not long after 9/11. I was traveling with my friend Ian Lawless on a bit of a walkabout. We were visiting the Himba tribe and I got into a jumping contest with some of the children. I never thought much about it–I would jump–they would jump. This went on and on and on with laughter–an innocent competition in which everyone was a winner. Eventually I took some pictures. It took me a year to discover that series in the negatives and see how very positive they are. They were my favorite images for a long time and brought a smile and goodwill to so many peoples faces.

Q.(MM)Do you feel that technology has now overcome technique? How or has technology changed your way of “shooting”? Has it developed a change in your creativity?

A. (LO) Technology has definitely overwrought the industry. The gathering of photos has become too easy in one perspective and too elusive in another (especially trying to focus on quality within the barrage of images now cluttering our world). Great creators have always been students of light. Those that revere light and engage it will always bring a signature of craft to their composition and a distinctive flair to their final output. That notion applies to all creative crafts–from painting, to photography, to sculpture and architecture. Technology can be your friend, but it can also be a formidable foe. Just talk to any photographer shooting digitally who has had hard drive problems… I’ve always felt that one has to learn the rules and then break them. It’s the same with photography. I once heard Melvin Sokolsky (the great fashion photographer) speak at FIT. He encouraged the audience to learn every camera, every lens and every emulsion–to know the medium of image making inside and out. Through this process you would find your own personal voice rather than rely on conventions. I agree with him. You can definitely tell the work of someone who knows their gear, who knows light and who knows composition. At that point the technology is transparent (just as it’s always been through the history of the arts–did anyone ask Michelangelo what type of chisel and hammer he used to create the statue of David?). Once the technology enables you to run, not walk, imagination shines through–you can really see that in the work of the masters out there by the depth of observation and craft in their images.

Q.(MM) You have developed an impressive, global volume of work. What subjects do you still long to photograph?

A. (LO) I still need to spend time in the Amazon, the plains of Mongolia and time in Ethiopia, as well as a lot more time in the peripheries of the United States. American needs to be re-examined and to be looked at from the perspective of an eye on issues. I am bored with a lot of the empty fine art photographs of today. I really like Taryn Simons latest book, “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar”, as it’s not all surface, but about the meaning of the places she photographed both figuratively and determinedly. As for so much of what else is out there, I personally have seen enough abandoned swimming pools and vacant spaces from other photographers to last a long, long while. We don’t live in as dead a world as I see in many of the fine art images out there suggest. The times we live in are very kinetic. In all honestly we are at a major crossroads in the world and in the history of the formation of the United States. It’s a pulse I want to tap into with my camera and explore with greater depth. Also, as one wish to the photo gods, I’d like the opportunity to take a portrait of the next President in the Oval Office of the White House. That might be a stretch, but I’m throwing it out there.

Copyright © Lyle Owerko

Nai, a young Samburu girl injured at three months of age in a cooking fire accident, which left her without operable hands or
fingers. She has since undergone major reconstructive surgery to
recover the digit’s embedded in her palms and rebuild them into
workable fingers.

Q.(MM) You work with many different people and cultures. What would you consider to be your most intimate photo and why?

A. (LO) Nai — this was a tough photo to take. It was an emotionally charged moment with a deeply impaired person. I was taking the photograph to document her injuries so we could get her help. When her father reached into the frame she began crying from all of the attention. Her fathers’ casual grasp brought a sense of compassion to the image that indicated aid was on its way. It’s an important photo, as a circle of trust was created that ultimately led to money being raised through the Charity: Water network of donors and a targeted e-mail campaign. The end result of this multi-media effort helped to finance the rebuilding of her hands at the CARE Children’s Hospital in Kijabi, outside Nairobi.

Q.(MM) Do you feel you have found your life long niche in the photo world or is that yet to come? What are those driving aspirations – new challenges and goals that you have set for yourself?

A. (LO) I think I’m finally hitting my stride. I’ve yet to produce the books I have inside of my head, but I feel for the first time the images I create are finding the right slot’s in which to fit. Everything feels like it is falling in to place. I wish it would happen faster, but I am patient enough to know that diligence and dedication are the keys to getting there. As far as challenges, I think the profession of image making is going through some major shake-ups, both because of technology and the fact that thousands of new voices join the medium every day. This will continue for some time, affecting both professionals and amateurs alike. Looking ahead of the curve is the most important thing I can do for my career right now. Beyond that is opportunity and preparedness in meeting the goals I’ve set for myself.

Q.(MM) What philosophy and inspiration can you share and give to up and coming photographers.

A. (LO) Learn the craft of image capturing inside and out. Study the past as much as contemplating the future, while shooting as much as possible. The more you experiment the more you discover. Originality really carves itself off of the status quo through the willingness to deviate and search outside what seems like the limits of your talent. Within that is a voice that will eventually shape your signature. Be patient, it’s there. We all have a point of view — it’s having the confidence to stick with the process that gives it gravity.

Q.(MM) If you had to sum up your life to this point in time, what legacy would you want to leave the world?

A. (LO) Compassion and Authenticity.

Be sure to visit Lyle’s web site at www.owerko.com.

And as of the end of March 2008, Lyle was awarded 2nd place in the 2008 National Press Photographers Association contest for the portrait series of the Samburu.

An Interview by Marla Meier

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