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People tell me secrets: MH interviews photojournalist Ryan T. Conaty

Ryan T. Conaty is a photojournalist with a sharp eye and a quick wit. I've had the pleasure of working with him at the Kent County and Warwick Daily Times in central Rhode Island, and the displeasure of firing him when new management ordered major staff cuts. The photographers were the first to go, as is too often the case. It was our loss — and our readers'. Check out his portfolio and his photo blog, and you'll understand why. — Louis C. Hochman

Ryan T. Conaty
Media skills: Photography, image editing, video editing, sound recording
Organizations you've worked for: Boston Herald, New York Times, Kent County and Warwick Daily Times, East Bay Newspapers, WRNI (Rhode Island Public Radio), Providence Business News, Providence en Español
Random awesome fact about you: Once produced an award-winning long-term project on a local man’s gender reassignment.

It's been about three years since we've worked together. What have you been focusing on since then?

Since I left Kent I’ve been gathering clients, some commercial jobs and weddings here and there, but I mostly still pursue editorial work. I’m a newspaper man at heart. There are fewer and fewer staffer jobs to be had, so I’ve developed relationships with about 15 weeklies around New England who focus on community or business news. It’s a lot of Easter egg hunts and pictures of lawyers on the phone.

Shooting for big papers is fun. I’ll work shifts at the Boston Herald with some frequency, and once in a while the New York Times will give me an assignment.

Right now, Rhode Island is in such tough shape. How have you been holding up during all of the insane flooding?

It’s terrible to say, but as a newspaper photographer who lives on the top of a hill, I have to count the rain as a blessing. I spent that whole week up to my chest in sewage. I got a pretty bad cold from it, but I also got some pictures I really like and a new client (a Spanish-language newspaper).

You've been working the ongoing story as a photographer. What have you been seeing?

I’ve seen the same thing everyone else has. Cars under water and ruined stores. I didn’t get to go up in a helicopter or anything cool like that, but I did take a quick tour of the Warwick Mall. That was a lot of fun. They had been drying it out so there were wires and equipment everywhere. It wasn’t so much muddy as it was dusty, so the storefronts had been covered with plastic and the electric was off. It was just really unusual feeling for an environment that you’re so accustomed to being so bright and clean. It looked like a mothballed government installation from the movies … except, you know, with a carousel.

In crises like that, what are you thinking? What's the battle like between Ryan the Photographer, seeing the world through a lens, and Ryan the Person, reacting to and dealing with the situation itself? Do you shift from one mindset to the other, or is it more fluid for you?

Driving in waders was weird, but besides that it, was just another day at the office. I’m thinking about light and how to keep my equipment dry. Maybe I get a little detached looking at the world through a viewfinder. In a way, it’s like I’m watching the situation in front of me and I forget I’m there (if that makes any sense). Plus, I know I can leave it behind — I have to for deadline. In a disaster, I know people are having a bad day. I try not to make it any worse by getting in their face with a camera if they don’t want me there.That said, I don’t help them either. I saw a 5- and 8-year-old playing in contaminated water. I told them to get out after I took their picture. I think about that kind of stuff after work.

What's the most amazing thing you've encountered out in the field?

People tell me secrets.

When you’re photographing someone, when you’re doing it right and they’re letting you see them, you’re both in a very intimate place. I spend a lot of time with people. I’ll be in a person’s bedroom for instance, just watching them and talking, and they must be thinking, "Well this guy has already seen my dirty underwear. I might as well get this other thing off my chest."

People have sincerely told me:
* “After what I did in Vietnam, I’m sure I’m going to Hell.”
* “I might have to sell my body. ... At my age, though, do you think I could still make anything?”
* “I don’t love my husband.”
* “It bothers me to see a white girl with one of the really, really black guys.”

Sometimes, then they cry.

Your primary work is at a photojournalist, but I've seen you describe yourself as a multimedia journalist as well. What sort of work are you doing in other media?

I recorded sound for NPR once. My lady is a public radio reporter (got her with the old “Hey, we should work on audio slide shows” line … convergence at it’s best) and she had other work to do or something, so she showed me how to turn it on, and I went and recorded an interview for "Here and Now." Also, I’m in my second semester of video editing classes at Community College of Rhode Island.

Am I getting hired to produce short web documentaries (the way they say thing are supposed to be going) though?

No. Nothing like that.

With the news industry in such flux, there's a lot of pressure to become a jack-of-all-trades. Have you run into that much?

Well yes, but unfortunately I’ve run into it, but I’m on the other end. Usually, they give the reporters point-and-shoot cameras and ask them to take their own pictures, and my phone stops ringing.

To tell you the truth, over the past (few years) I’ve needed to develop my skills in business more than I have in any technology. If I am becoming a jack of more than one trade, I’d like to be a better marketer or a more efficient administrative assistant to myself. I’ve learned to advocate for myself as a professional lately, which has been hard.

As a photojournalist, I take pains to blend in to a situation so as not to affect it, and allow it to unfold in front of me. It’s a 180 to all of a sudden try to draw attention to one's self in an effort to get more work.

We used to butt heads once in a while over the handling of your work — over things like cropping and placement. But we're totally cool now, right? Right?

You know what, I always thought we’d be boyz. I feel like there was just a three-beer discussion about women and Star Wars and the free press that we never had. I think we both wanted what we thought was best for the paper, though.

We cool.

Is it sometimes easier when you can go it alone — when you have total creative control over a project?

Sure, I mean my blog, for instance. You wouldn’t call it a "project," really, but it is a venue for pictures that would otherwise just sit on a disk somewhere. Sometimes the paper doesn’t have space, or the picture is a little um, experimental, we’ll say. Or it might not have anything to do with anything, It’s just something I see walking home from the assignment. It’s satisfying to have an outlet for that stuff that’s all me.

That said, I find it hard to get going on ideas if I’m not sure it will be published. I worry that I’ll just be wasting my subject’s time or I won’t be taken seriously if it’s just me with no organization behind me.

Flip that around — what do you like most about collaboration with others? What makes it worth risking that one person's vision may collide uncomfortably with another's?

I don’t get enough chances to work with other professionals. Like I said before, I’ve done some audio slideshows with Megan. That went well. She has good storytelling instincts and we seem to know what one another needs from a subject and don’t get in the way too much. Most of my professional associations are with other photographers, so there aren’t a lot of reasons for us to collab.

I know MedaStorm posts the projects from its workshops, and those are produced by a team of a half-dozen people. A sound person, someone to shoot video, someone shooting stills, an editor … they always come our very good and I’ve thought it would be exciting to do something like that, with a team.

What's your primary shooter, and what lens is always in your bag?

I have a Canon 40D. I shot a wedding in trade for it. I’m not too much of a gearhead. I look at it like: There’s always going to be something else, bigger, faster to spend your money on. If you aren’t careful, cameras can distract you from the important thing in photography. They’re all the same anyway.

Good glass is a little more important. The lens I’ve really made my workhorse is a 30mm. On my camera, it ends up being just about what the human eye sees. Neither wide nor telephoto. If a person is too loose in my frame, I need to walk up to them. There’s something pure about that. It can be limiting, but that’s good. It's limitations (that) force you to be more creative.

Who's your photo-hero? Whose work makes you just think, "Wow, I don't have any clue what I'm doing; this is what it's about?"

OK, wow, remember at the end of High Fidelity when the writer asks John Cusack what his favorite record is and he’s like, "Depends: in a car, at home, in a club?"

I mean Henri Cartier-Bresson was the guy. Obviously. But let me see if I can give you a quick thing here.

Sebastiao Salgado might be my favorite (non-Henri Cartier-Bresson) photographer. I wish I knew more about W. Gene Smith's work. The FSA pictures always got me. I guess for contemporary working guys I’d say Christopher Morris and Ben Lowy from VII do really interesting stuff. Scott Strazzante' blog is a daily must-read. He’s an expert at what he does, but more than that, he's just got a good attitude. I wish I was more like that. Justin Mott, who works in Southeast Asia, knows what he’s doing. There is a wedding photographer named Rupert Whiteley who’s really taught me a lot lately. Besides that … John Friedah at the Providence Journal is a lot better than me.

A team of ninjas just showed up to steal all of your photo equipment. They'll give it back in six months, unharmed, so long as you promise to focus all of that time on one other passion. And you don't want to mess with these guys, because they're frickin' ninjas. What do you spend your time doing?

Maybe become a ninja myself so that this type of thing wouldn’t happen to me anymore would be the smart thing to do. But besides that … learn autobody, I guess. I love cars. I think that it matters what you drive. I think it’s an outward expression of people's personalities and values in a lot of cases. I wish I had a cool car with brake vents and hood scoops and a roll cage and numbers on the side. Yeah, maybe I’d learn how to pimp rides out if I had to do something else.

If you could teach every non-photographer on the planet just one thing about photography, what would it be?

I guess I wish people knew the time and energy that goes into it, and that it is a craft. It seems like the question I’m asked the most is, what kind of camera do I have, so maybe I would like people to know that none of that matters (Editor's note: Our bad). Light and practice, curiosity and empathy, those things matter.

Interview by Louis C. Hochman. All images are by Ryan T. Conaty except the portrait of Conaty, which Hochman took sometime around 2006, quite accidentally doing a nice job of it.


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Comment by Brian Hogue on April 12, 2010 at 11:07am
ryan, your work for us was always great and the picture of you with Nirope still hangs in the abandoned second floor, a testament to your rightful place in the furniture industry.

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