Galen Stolee and His Love-Hate Relationships with Photography

Galeen Stolee is an American doctoral student from the University of Harvard. His undergraduate was Film and Media Studies at University of Santa Cruz, California. He became interested in photography as a hobby.

How did you start to love photography?”

It grew out of my love of films since I was a little kid. I made the change over two still images. There is something more practical about photography. Film making is something that requires so much plannning. You must have a whole vision and it takes months to do. I am now kind of in the moment person. So photograph became a gate to the creative outlet.

I used to be shy and introverted. I liked taking photos but shy to talk with people. Haha. So my early photos are snapshots of people from faraway and abstract things. Actually you have to ask for people’s permissions when taking their photos but well it took time to be that brave.

I moved to Vietnam at 21 and went to teach English. I wanted to explore the world. And I lived in Ho Chi Minh City and took a lot of photos.

I then moved to Nepal after living in Vietnam. I worked as a photo journalist and documentary photographer but I also had my own small art spaces where I was teaching people photography, film making, etc. I did it partly because I started to get bored of seeing my own works and wanted to see others’.

As a photo journalist, I became closer to my subjects. Being a photo journalist gives the permission for you to do that. I got slowly better at approaching people.

“What’s your tip to better approach people?”

Start with familiar places where you visit pretty often. This place is where you can easily introduce yourself. Use the camera as your tool to open conversations. You can say,”Hey I’m a photographer. I’m taking pictures. And I like your place here. Can I take some photos of it?” And then once you have taken the place photos, you can work your way up to asking if you can take their photos.

The second tip is always remember that though some people say they don’t like their photos being taken, secretly everyone likes their photos taken. They might resist a little bit but we like attention. The fact that someone is curious about us is so exciting.

I also got to do longer term documentary projects with some organizations in Kathmandu. I knew some people whose houses were destroyed by the local government because their houses were illegally built and the area was about to be a public park to attract more tourists.

This proves to be the key to becoming a good photographer. It’s not always about the right setting, camera, etc. It’s really about how close you can get to your subject matter. At this point when I started interested in saddhu’s life in Kathmandu, I was going from ‘not wanting to get too close with people’ to ‘right into their face’. It felt okay because I spent much time with them and they had become more comfortable with me around them.

What is the most unforgettable experience when you took photos?”

I’ve taken some life-threatening photos actually. Several of them were in Haiti, when I was on the side of a mountain, in a moving big truck. I didn’t know it had gone off the edge.

Memorable experience can be when you take a photo and capture someone’s expression and there is so much in his or her expression that you can never forget that. Those mean a lot to me.

“Now that you’re studying Social Anthropology, is photography the ‘gate’ to your another passion/ academic pursuit?”

I started by traveling the world out of curiosity. The more I travel, the more I get awakened. I have responsibilities as a privileged American to be able to visit all these places. And I feel the urge to do something about it by telling people stories, raising people’s awareness, doing more non-profit work.

In my twenties, I still did things out of order, and I thought I knew how to change the world. And as a 25 year old, all of us don’t know how to change the world. And all I need to step back and slow down. And stop believing that I must feel guilty of all problems in the world and fix every problem.

“With your experience in the media industry, can you share some qualities that publications seek in photographs?”

That is complex. We are talking about the market, capitalism. What does the market wants? That’s what a media company listens to instead of what the photographer wants.

Sometimes photographers only need to take photos of criminals in jail. To me, it’s not a photo that I want. But when you ask me what’s valuable, it may be stuff like that. And it takes alot to change our habits around media consumption. It goes into my research what is happening in the election. Media companies tend to appeal to our most base instincts that part of ourselves that are so automatic.

But in photos like the winner’s photo of the competition today, that’s much quieter photo. That is a type of thing that we skip a lot in the click bait and Instagram age. It doesn’t offer much value.

I think for one who wants to have a career in this industry should know what is valuable and also don’t want them to give up what they see as valuable. There are not only just monetary values.

“For those who want to pursue a career in photography, what tips can you share with them?”

As a photographer, you will have enough to live on from time to time but it’s about counting months left to survive, living from job to job. Nowadays, everyone has a camera because they have smartphones. There is a lot competition. It’s a lot harder to get yourself out there. There is more and more online media are doing YouTube. There is still a lot of room to bring skills of photography in it.

Ultimately you have to combine photography with something else. It cannot stand alone. You can combine it with journalism skills, social media skills, and other skills that the world needs. In short, try to diversify.

“Why do you now take less photos?”

When I went to Haiti, I had just felt there was something more that I wanted to do than just capturing people’s images. There is something even about the word ‘capture’, you feel like you’re taking something from someone. And I didn’t like how that felt. In some cases I thought I was just helping but there are cases when I felt just exploitative. And I went to Haiti because I saw stories from there were just so negative. Everything is about poverty and their dysfunction. There are more about it to be heard.

I think one of the things I learned through that experience is the meaning of taking photos. Is there something about that that just doesn’t feel right. And it ended up becoming reflected back at me from people in Haiti. There is a lot of belief about the power of the camera. Many people belief cameras steal our souls and took away something from us. In Haiti, natives are so used to seeing foreigners especially Americans and Europeans coming and taking photos and leaving. And they just don’t know what these foreigners do with their photos. Did they become rich and successful?  No one knows. They took these people’s souls and now they are gone. I hear such complaint from people in Haiti. And it really shook me to the core because I had been feeling that for a long time. But most people never said so because they are too polite.

So when I came here in Indonesia, I took very few photos. I just never really wanted to want that previous relationship with Indonesia. I just wanted to be present, to meet and interact with its people. One day when I met Bajau people, I took photos again. And this was perhaps the last photos I took.

Now I move to Anthropology to learn about people and cultures in a different way than just the visuals. I still love photos but my time of doing that is over for now.

“Some young people want badly to live such a life, traveling around the world and experiencing the life of photographer. But how is that feasible, financially speaking?”

That is a difficult question to answer. Obviously I have a lot of privilege: I grew up in California; my parents made good money; they sent me to good schools. I was lucky to have that to be honest. Yet that being said, at 21 years of age (in 2009) I was Googling to find ways to live in other countries. What kind of jobs that made it possible for me to live overseas? And I found the answer: working as an English teacher. These teachers teaching English in other countries get paid well. That was my entry way.

And I started to freelance in different magazines. And I got paid by photos and articles I generated. It was enough to live on. It was hard but I don’t think that is possible for everyone else. It depends on what your skill sets, expertise, studies. There are more ways aside from this. If your background is tech, you can work as ‘digital nomads’, working online from anywhere around the globe. I find more and more Indonesians doing this.  You also have to live modestly and accept that life can be very unstable and precarious. (*/)

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