March 2015

March 2015 Featured Member: Eli Meir Kaplan

15-108-102

Eli Meir Kaplan became interested in visual media after his parents brought home an early black and white video camera. Eli’s first of many videos on the camera was a stop-motion battle between He-Man and Skeletor, which he made when he was four years old.

Always passionate about storytelling and beautiful imagery, Eli found that his purpose as a photographer was to capture genuine and intimate moments from the human experience. Clients include: AARP, Bank of America, Dwell, Essence, Good Housekeeping, Pentagram, and The Wall Street Journal to name a few.

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photos and interview by Matthew Rakola

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Starting with a pair of softball questions: where are you from and how did you learn photography?

I’m from Teaneck, New Jersey. I took a few classes at the International Center of Photography. One of them was a documentary photography course with Andre Lambertson that got me thinking about a career seriously.  Then I studied photojournalism as a grad student at The University of Texas at Austin. I started shooting professionally in 2009.

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I have to admit– I’ve been trying to come up with a witty little line that describes the huge range of work you in a single sentence. It’s just not possible. You’ve photographed everyone from farmers to restauranteurs to city kids, with an additional helping of soul musicians, athletes, and tradespeople. And, let’s not forget the CEOS, architecture, and your lifestyle images. You’ve raised the idea of being a generalist to a whole new level. Was this intentional?

Thank so much for the very kind words. Of course not! I think I have such a broad range of subjects because I’m indecisive and there are so many subjects out there I want to explore. I’m also always eager to challenge myself and expand my skills. I got into the field purely through documentary photography. I was initially focused on the art world. I went to photojournalism school, but I quickly realized that I didn’t like the assignments I was getting and I started to explore other subject matter and clients. At first I wanted to completely change the type of photographer I was and I tried a bunch of different shoots that didn’t fit my style, but I eventually found that I couldn’t leave my documentary background behind entirely and be somebody else. So in the end the decision was made for me! It’s weird because I still have the urge to do something completely different sometimes but that’s gotten less and less.

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So do you consider yourself more of an artist or a communicator? 

Definitely more of a communicator. That’s the business I’m in. Any time I try to be artsy it doesn’t work.

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Ha! I can relate. So what kind of research do you do on a subject before you make a portrait of the person or shoot a photo story? I’ve talked to photographers who don’t want to know what the person looks like prior to the shoot because they are afraid that it will affect their own images, and I’ve met others who sill spend hours researching how others have photographed a person or shot a similar story. Where do you fall?

Good question! I definitely don’t like to see how others have photographed the person, but I do at least read a bio so I have something to talk about. Sometimes I watch a video clip if there’s one available—I read that somewhere.

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How do you motivate yourself on those mornings when it’s just hard to get out of bed?

Good question. I think about prospects in the future that I’m excited about. Projects, relationships that I want to build.

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Any pre-assignment rituals?

Bring anything I think I could possibly need. Charge all my batteries. Look up the person I’m photographing. Double check the address. Print out any instructions and highlight them. Load mood boards on my iPhone or iPad.

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Making a portrait of a person can occasionally create a very unique bond with them– you’ve literally pixel-peeped at the pores on their nose. Have you ever developed an ongoing friendship with a subject because of a shoot?

Yes! I actually met two of my greatest friends through an assignment for The Wall Street Journal. It was just a couple hours but I thought they were pretty cool. I went back to photograph a portrait of them on my own and ended up hanging out. Actually, they introduced Takoma Park to my wife and I (where we live) and have really become our extended family. Never thought that would happen in a million years.

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Did you have a single assignment or event that you would describe as being “your big break”?

Yes, as a photojournalism grad student at The University of Texas at Austin, my master’s thesis was a documentary project about a boy with autism and his caregiver. I aggressively pitched it to a lot of publications and ultimately it appeared on Time.com, which has since been replaced by Time Lightbox. It also appeared on the Reportage by Getty Images Emerging Talent website. Having the story in the spotlight on those two sites was my foot in the door of the editorial market.

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What is some advice you’d give to your younger self?

Just get started earlier. I definitely took my time. I think my brain wasn’t fully developed yet.

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At the end of the your photography career, at your induction into the Photographer’s Hall of Fame, how would you like to be described, and who would you like to give the presentation?

I definitely would like to be recognized for projects that had a greater purpose than just the advancement of my career and I would like my images to be described in some way as capturing authentic moments from the human experience. It would be cool if one of my future children gave the presentation. This is all hypothetical of course.

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More of Eli’s work can be found at www.elimeirkaplan.com