Interview and Photos by Matthew Rakola
Ken Cedeno is an editorial photographer based in Washington, DC. With over 20 years of experience and a variety of clients that include The New York Times, The Ad Council, Central American Medical Outreach, Corbis, and Weber Shandwick, he keeps busy. His images have appeared in National Geographic Magazine and National Geographic Traveler, Newsweek, TIME, Paris Match, and many more. We met up recently to make some studio portraits and talk shop.
Let’s start with the basics: When and why did you decide to become a photographer?
It all began in high school–ninth grade actually. As a young boy, cool sounds were always interesting. One of them was the sound of a motor drive. I started thinking, “hmmm, photography.” I was always drawn to photojournalism–I grew up on LIFE, LOOK and National Geographic magazines.
So it started with the sound of a motor drive, huh? Have you ever pursued music?
Would you count playing the clarinet in 5th grade? In the early 80’s, I was a radio DJ at KWHL in Anchorage, Alaska for 4 years (I was an Air Force brat so I moved around a lot as a kid) and got to go back stage for a lot of concerts. So, to answer your question—no.
So you went to school at Brooks but only stayed a year. What happened then?
I moved to Chicago for four years and assisted many different kinds of photographers, honing what I really liked to do. And quickly became aware of what I never want to do again.
I assisted in a catalog house and on industrial shoots, and assisted photographers with table top products, cars, corporate, fashion and Playboy. I then moved to Washington, DC where I was a lab tech with AFP (Agency France-Presse) and also got to shoot some assignments, covering the White House and Capitol Hill. After AFP, I started freelancing, which I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. And while I’ve really enjoyed covering politics in DC, I’m starting to focus more on travel and stories. Capitol Hill can get a little dry–people standing at a podium, two men shaking hands, or people testifying at a hearing. About five years ago, a vacation to Costa Rica led to an assignment for a travel book. There were no stiff politicians, no jockeying with 15 other photographers for the same photo, and no pressing deadlines. That got me away from the Hill and to places like Haiti, North Dakota, Honduras, Alaska which opened up some opportunities for me to refocus my work.
You’ve pretty much run the gauntlet in the photo world– how do you think that affects how you approach your current editorial work?
Perhaps subconsciously that range of experience kicks in to develop a new look when shooting editorial. I’ll look at a situation and try different angles, locations, and lighting situations and play with it. I’m sure everyone applies their past experiences to solve a present problem—photographers are no different.
Speaking of which, what have you been shooting lately?
In April, I was in Israel and got to photograph Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the West Bank. I send everything worthwhile to my photo agency, Corbis Images, in New York City. The Israel trip provided some incredible images especially because we were there during both Easter and Passover. The religious history goes way back, and the ongoing issues between the Jews and the Palestinians is ever present in the West Bank. Last fall I was in North Dakota for a self assignment covering the rich oil boom and the massive increase in population as well as the ongoing need to increase its infrastructure.
And later this month, I’ll be returning to Honduras to cover CAMO (Central American Medical Outreach), an organization of dedicated U.S. doctors who provide primary medical care and other important surgeries for the local community. Through a friend of a friend, I was asked to help them improve their visual storytelling and the images on their website to help them raise awareness about their mission and work. And while there, I also stumbled on another story of destitute families who pick through these massive piles of garbage—the dump—to earn literally a few dollars a day.
I always ask photographers, “What makes you want to make pictures for a living?” In other words, why do you want to do this for a living as opposed to a hobby– what motivates you to shoot?
I love what I do and never considered photography a hobby. I’m attracted to the involvement of breaking news, and of sharing it. People, places and moments are what motivate me to shoot. Whether it’s a simple portrait, a wedding, covering a protest in Greece or a clinic in Honduras, I like to capture the moment and people’s emotions.
Hmmmm. This one I regret: I wish I had listened to my heart and gone to a photojournalism school rather than to Brooks Institute. Brooks is a really great place for commercial photography, but it wasn’t for me, and I went for the wrong reasons. Had I taken the time to research more, I might have found the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia or RIT in NY. Either one probably would have been a better fit for me. I sometimes wonder where I’d be with my photojournalism today if I had gone to one of the other schools.
Follow your passions harder people!
Is there one specific moment in your career that you wish you had made a different decision? Or, the opposite– can you think of one definitive decision that has shaped your career for the better?
Dream client and assignment?Well that would be the commonly and often mentioned National Geographic Magazine, who most people would love to work with. There are other admired organizations like the Pulitzer Center, who shed spotlights on stories and issues that are under reported and ignored. There can be many great stories the Pulitzer Center can help push through. As far as assignments, there are many. I think covering the Arctic Circle or the Antarctic would be a fantastic opportunity. Or any location where people just don’t go. You could also throw a dart at the globe and I’d do my best to make the most of that spot and get the best images possible. We’ve all heard the saying that our own backyard has thousands of opportunities …
Thanks for taking the time to do this. I have one last question. I always associate you with eyeglasses? How many pairs do you have? Do you think of it as part of your personal and/or professional branding, or are they simply utilitarian?I have many pairs and styles and divided into two different strengths. One is used for shooting. I look at the images on the back of the camera rather close to my eyes. The other pair is for editing. The distance of my eyes to the laptop is a little further away. I don’t like the standard glasses for men. They’re very boring. I actually buy women’s glasses. Nothing too feminine– no diamonds and flared corners but a good fancy design is great. I often get great compliments on them with the occasional, “Really?” or “You look gay” comment. I really don’t give a shit if I do. I’m fine with it. I think it’s developed into sort of branding both personal and professional. I just ran into a great friend and colleague, Melina Mara who’s shoots for the Washington Post. We both have the same pair. [Editor’s note: awkward.]