Photographer Jackson Compean
Giving a Voice to the Voiceless
Where did you grow up?
When I was 11 years old, my family moved to Nairobi, Kenya; my parents were missionaries at the time. I spent the next 7 years of my life in Nairobi, the longest amount of consecutive time I have spent anywhere in my life, so I still consider it home to some degree.
When did you get into photography and why?
In a previous life my father was a photojournalist, so I grew up around cameras and photo books. However it wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized my hobby could be used for deeper purposes. Giving a voice to the voiceless by showing the stories of other humans became my priority and passion.
How would you describe your shooting style?
My journalistic work is almost always derived from a documentary ethic and intent. That means shooting my subjects honestly, in their environment, with as little influence and interaction from me as possible. The resulting aesthetic is often images that are highly dependent upon the moment and the present human emotion, and only secondarily reliant upon composition, colour and lighting; though of course the ideal is to have all elements in the images working in complement to communicate truth and narrative.
When it comes to landscape art, especially when I am shooting on film, I often approach shooting from a very different direction. Its not at all uncommon for me to scout a location for multiple weeks, research lighting and weather patterns, and even plan out the composition before even arriving on location. I think this is largely a personal reaction against the more seat-of-my-pants style that I normally utilize in other work, though it is also a practical necessity when using a view camera and expensive sheets of film.
What kind of gear and technology do you use; and how does this influence or impact your work?
For landscapes I almost exclusively shoot on my Calumet monorail 4×5. Its incredibly heavy and a major pain to get great images out of it, but that is exactly what I love about it: When shooting on that system I am forced to slow down and really think about every decision that will factor into the final image.
For more professional work I typically shoot with a couple Nikon DSLRs and zoom lenses. They’re hardy, dependable cameras that produce great images. I did recently pick up a small mirror-less camera to test-drive that type of system; so far the images and weight-savings have really impressed me. Still not sure if I’m ready to fully switch-over though.
What photographer or artist has had the biggest influence on your own photography?
James Nachtwey (http://www.jamesnachtwey.com/) was probably my first and most lasting influence in the world of photojournalism. His ability to juxtapose – with honesty and compassion – horror and humanity creates images that shout louder than any protester on a street. I also must mention Carolyn Cole (https://www.annenbergphotospace.org/person/carolyn-cole/). Who knew that war, disease and tragedy could be portrayed with such graphic beauty? She also deserves massive respect for absolutely dominating in a field that has largely been controlled and inhabited by men.
When it comes to landscape work, Galen Rowell (http://www.mountainlight.com/rowellg.html) stands in my mind as the high-point in human mastery of light. It also helps that he was a fellow Californian and many of his many of his most stunning images were produced in our Sierra Nevada mountains.
What motivates or inspires you to continue taking pictures?
The stories that still need to be told. Sometimes it’s a more literal story about a person or a community. Sometimes its an abstract narrative about a place or even an emotion. Storytelling is one of the most foundational elements of humanity, and one of the most powerful acts to partake in. I know that my life has been changed many times simply by listening to another person tell his or her story. So in a certain sense I am duty-bound to be a conduit for those narratives and allow others to find the same transformation that first drew me in.
Follow Jackson Compean on Instagram @white_mwangi.
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