Robert Coffey is a commercial and street photographer in Columbia, South Carolina. In this interview we discuss the importance of being in a creative community, overcoming the fear of photographing strangers in public and how he plans on getting more involved in working with non profits with his photo work.
Daniel White: Hey Robert! Thank you for being doing this interview with us. We became friends on Instagram some time ago and I have been a huge fan since. Can you tell us how you got started in photography?
Robert Coffey: Sure, thanks for having me. My journey in photography began around 2006. It started with me buying a point and shoot. I thought I would take better pictures with a SLR, so I bought one and, to my surprise, they were just as bad…probably worse. That’s when my quest began to figure out how to take a better photograph. Twelve years later, I’m still on that quest.
Daniel: That’s pretty amazing, so the challenge of getting images you loved kind of gave you the determination to power through the struggle part of photography. What pushed you to buy the point and shoot? Was it just a general interest or was someone else involved?
Robert: It was curiosity, and I would attribute that part of me from my dad. He took a lot of pictures when he was younger, and as we (my two sisters and I) grew up, we would look through tons of photo albums he created. I remember thinking how cool it was to have a glimpse back to a time that I’ve never experienced, nor ever will experience. So, when I purchased the camera, it wasn’t with the intention of becoming a photographer, but probably had to do more with a part of me wanting to archive (and relive) moments in time. At that time, I only understood it as curiosity.
Daniel: I love that, I think most people dive into the creative field because of that exact reason and it ends up blossoming into so much more. So, tell us how you finally conquered the skill the creative the images that you do now. Was school involved or did you just learn it all on your own?
Robert: Well, I had no idea where to start once I decided to better myself, so I started reading books and joining online message boards. I was not interested in going back to school, so I would go to bookstores and read, and read, and read some more. I joined local organizations and national organizations, attended workshops, conferences, etc. I showed up to everything in Columbia and the surrounding areas that had anything to do with photography. The cool thing about that was that I kept running into the same people. That helped me build a network of photographers in my area. I just kept showing up. There was this one time I showed up to a workshop only to find burning crosses and men dressed in hooded sheets printed on canvas gallery wraps. But hey, you run into all types out here.
Daniel: Oh wow! That is absolutely amazing. The power of community is so amazing and inspiring. I always think "Just showing up" is probably the most important factor in trying to learn anything so I’m very glad you put it that way. What road blocks did you hit when you were studying the books and going to these workshops? How did you overcome them?
Robert: I think the biggest roadblock was trying to understand without someone to explain why. It’s one thing to read “what to do”, but it’s another thing to understand “why to do.” Why do you tell the model to tilt her chin down? How do you convey emotion when the subject is giving you nothing? I needed to understand why, because if it made sense to me, I could use it. So, I asked a lot of questions, took workshops and classes that were over my head, and kept shooting. I jumped into film, shooting cameras like the Mamiya RB67 and Holga just to get a good foundation of how to see light, and how to shoot with limitations.
Daniel: Oh yes! those are definitely some of the hardest things to understand in photography but I’m glad the workshops helped. I think you are the first one to mention anything about workshops so far too, so that’s really awesome to hear. Can you tell us how exactly jumping to analog kind of helped you get through those hurdles?
Robert: My dive into film photography came along probably around late 2013. By that point, I had made acquaintances with a number of photographers. Some were students and professors at the University of South Carolina, a few were photojournalists, a couple commercial photographers, and the others were part of a national organization that promotes certifications, print competitions, etc. Each of these groups had their idea of what a good photograph was. And some of those ideas were diametrically opposed to another group’s approach to photography. It was like William Eggleston vs Ansel Adams. I had to rectify that within myself.
So, I got back to the basics and started asking myself questions. What is photography at its core? Writing with light. What motivates me to take pictures? Curiosity. Challenges. People. What made the photographers in the past great? Nothing, except that they stayed true to themselves. That's when I realized I needed to follow what moved me to make an image.
Film was the aesthetic I liked, and the idea of not looking at the back of the camera was liberating. The other part is that I don’t like doing what everyone else is doing. If one or two people are doing it, that’s fine, just not too many people. It helped me be me.
Daniel: Wow that is absolutely amazing Robert! I know a ton of people going back to film as a step backwards but it is quite the opposite and you are living proof of that. I’m also glad those questions were answered after doing that. After looking at your photos on your website, I can see that you have a passion for street photography. Can you tell us where your love for street photography began and why you take a liking to it the most?
Robert: When I was getting into photography, a lot of wedding photographers were calling themselves wedding photojournalists. That was the big thing, and some photojournalists were getting a bit upset because they take the ethics of photojournalism pretty seriously. That, in turn, revealed a whole new world of photography to me. A lot of the photojournalists I started following credited street photographers like Gordon Parks, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Bruce Davidson, as their inspiration. Naturally, I started studying those guys and my passion grew. The reason I like it so much is that it’s raw and real. The limitation is the photographer’s imagination
Daniel: That's great! That is one thing that really draws me to your work is that it’s so in-the-moment and genuine. Can you remember the first time you went out on the streets and started making images?
Robert: Oh yeah, it was with my cell phone! I didn’t have the nerve to bring a camera and point it at people. I would compose photographs far away and run. I would sneakily get close to people and keep pressing the shutter button, hoping I got something. I was so scared!
Daniel: That is hilarious but I admit bringing a camera out and doing that can be very awkward for people not really expecting it. How did you overcome that fear and stop running away?
Robert: What got me to the point I’m at now was rejection, hard core rejection. I was going along just fine with my phone until I started feeling a bit brave. I was back in Columbia from a wedding I shot in Mt Pleasant and wanted to use up the last bit of Portra 400. I had about 12 frames left on my Mamiya 645 AFD. I said to myself, “I’m going to make some portraits of strangers.” (This was before Humans of New York was a thing).
I asked the first person, they are honored. Second person, awesome. Third person, I’m on a roll. The fourth person, completely shut me down and ran away. Fifth person, heck no. I was like, “People must think I’m nuts. I’m quitting, this is crazy!”
I had to think through those emotions and recognize what I was doing was good, and not crazy. My emotions were trying to protect me from the pain of rejection. I had to get pass that.
Daniel: You really just hit the head on how street photography is because despite the photos you do get, there are a ton of people not having it. I’m so glad you have stuck with it. I know there isn't a goal in mind when you're capturing street portraits because you never know what you are going to get, but tell us your process of taking the photos out in these public places; what are you looking for?
Robert: I like to separate what I do on the street into two different categories; street photography and street portraits. With street photography, I’m looking to either create an idea based on what I see in front of me or convey a mood. Some of my photographs are busy, while others are very simple with one or two people. Sometimes the subject is merely the light that casts across someone’s face, other times it’s the expression on someone’s face. It really depends on what’s going on. I usually take my Fuji x100t to make photographs like this.
With street portraits I’m really looking for characters, people that have this uniqueness about them that they have embraced and have made their own. I typically take my Sony A99 with a 50mm 1.4 lens for photographs like this. There is something special about the street portraits. The stories that come from strangers just help me realize that we’re more alike than different. We all have problems. We all need hope.
I also wrote a blog (www.robcoffey.com/tips-for-photographing-strangers/) post on how to photograph strangers a while back.
Daniel: I love that! I will post that link on the blog! So, would you say your main purpose is really just convey that to your spectators, even when there aren't words? That we're all connected in some way or another?
Robert: Yes, and more. Not only are we all connected, we’re purposefully connected. Sometimes my motivation is just to have a smile with a stranger. It’s not only for them, but for me. What’s been on my mind recently is this, “What can I do to offer a bigger piece of me into this stranger?” I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m not too concerned. I believe it will manifest itself during an interaction. I just hope I have the presence of mind to photograph it.
Daniel: I’m sure you will through your journey forward and I think you have done so well with it so far! I know you get some inspiration from your father who I’m sure is in the back of your head when you’re shooting, but who else inspires your work? Other artists, things, people?
Robert: Honestly, it’s a lot that inspire me. I’m a musician and I’ve found that musical arrangements can be as complex as an Alex Webb photograph. Both inspire me. The sunlight reflecting off a building can make me jump out my car and chase it for 3 hours. Portraits from Yousef Karsh and Avedon, landscape work from Ansel Adams, cinematic photographs from Gregory Crewdson, photojournalism from Doug Mills and Pete Souza. it’s all inspiring.
Daniel: That’s really beautiful that inspirations can be found from a variety of places! It's wild the many different things that inspire creatives. I want to talk about your marketing strategy when putting yourself out there, what tools are you using that seem to work the best?
Robert: I think what’s working best for me is Instagram. It’s a natural fit for what I like to do. I have to be inspired to write, so my blog doesn’t get as much attention. However, Instagram is designed to promote the image first which fits how I like to communicate. Thankfully, through that medium I’ve been invited to give presentations to local photography clubs, I’ve booked weddings and commercial gigs through Instagram.
Daniel: That seems to be the norm these days and it is definitely a powerful tool for all creatives alike! I’m so happy it's working out for you in a positive way through that. What is the future looking like for you and your work? Any idea of how you would want it to end? Is there any other style you'd like to pursue?
Robert: I’m looking to get into some non-profit work. Perhaps bringing awareness to some of the more pressing issues in society. I love a good photo story, so being able to tell a story long term would be awesome. I’m inspired by the work of Joey L. and what he’s been involved with recently. His style and purpose has evolved into something that’s quite beautiful. I don’t necessarily want my images to look like his, which are beautiful, but being able to capture the essence of people where they are…. that’s beautiful.
Daniel: I need to look at his work but that sounds amazing! Working with nonprofits is a very rewarding experience and I know you’ll achieve that goal! Let’s hear some advice you’d give to anyone interested in getting into the creative industry.
Robert: These are what I've learned on this journey:
Daniel: You are speaking the truth Robert! That is some sound advice and I know the readers will take note of it. Thank you so much for this, your work is so beautiful and I’m so glad we have your story now. We are excited to watch you grow and reach your goals. Tell us where we can find you on the internet.