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
Photography, image editing, video editing, sound
Random awesome fact about you:
Once produced an award-winning
long-term project on a local man’s gender
It's been about three years since
we've worked together. What have you been focusing on since
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
. How have you been holding up during all of the
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
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
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
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.
the most amazing thing you've encountered out in the field?
People tell me
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
People have sincerely told
* “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
* “I don’t love my
* “It bothers me to see a white girl
with one of the really, really black guys.”
Sometimes, then they
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
I mean Henri
Cartier-Bresson was the guy. Obviously. But let me see if I can
give you a quick thing here.
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
Morris and Ben Lowy from
VII do really interesting
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?
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.
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.