On Assignment: Mathieu Young - Harvest

Often, photographers will learn a new lighting technique or other photographic trick and look for a subject on which to try it out. Generally, this is a misguided approach.

Lighting (or any photographic technique, really) is a specific form of expression. And in an ideal world, form follows function.

In the example above, photojournalist Mathieu Young's lighting is dictated by a need to both add texture to the scene and to protect the anonimity of the worker. Rather than a pre-conception, the lighting style is the last in a conscious series of steps and decisions.

Step one: Gain full access—with your cameras and lighting gear—to an illegal cannabis farm…

Mathieu Young is part of a new-breed of independent photographers. He splits his time between celebrity/entertainment work and self-generated, socially conscious photojournalism projects. (You might remember him from an earlier post on LED lighting in Cambodia.)

I caught up with Mathieu between projects to talk about his picture package on an illegal grow in California and his philosophy and approach to generating these types of projects.

Approaching people as an independent photographer is a different process than shooting with the name of a publication behind you and a staff business card.

"It's true that when I'm on assignment for a specific publication or outlet, it makes it easier to explain myself," Young says. "It's a longer conversation when I'm doing it freelance. It's a little easier now that I have had independent projects published in Time Magazine and Rolling Stone and on NYT Lens blog and CNN.com, but you're generally not taking the time to give people your full CV. I think the key is just being upfront and honest about your intentions around making the photos."

That includes honesty about how the photos might get used, too. He did not want anyone to be taken by surprise, which meant turning down some publication opportunities after the fact because he did not know the context in which his photos would run.

Young is no stranger to working in sensitive settings. He recently traveled back to Cambodia to do a story on illegal logging, and the government's fight against the activists trying to protect the land—sometimes with fatal result.

As with most things creative, photographic limitations often turn out to have a silver lining.

"The restrictions definitely informed the choices that I made in shooting," he said. "Keeping [light] sources high helped keep the eyes in the shadows, which was important. It also forced me to look for details that could tell the story as opposed to just portraits. It had me focus on the process of the harvest, as opposed to the people."

He worked in various settings spread out over a large property, using Profoto 7B strobes so as not to rely on AC. Both the anonymity and gear limitations informed the lighting style for the shoot. Beyond that, he noted that he will generally opt for content over technical quality when forced to choose.

"If the choice is between setting up the perfect light but you're going to change the story or miss the shot, just ditch the light. And I'm getting better at that," he said. "On this last trip to Cambodia we were on motorcycles in the rainforest and occasionally taking pictures of things illegally. You can't bust out a strobe. But you still want a cohesive body of work that matches the work you've done in the past. It's a delicate balance."

Often the solution can be found through patience. Once he got a sense of the workflow on the farm (i.e., where things were going to happen next) he could pre-light an area and wait for the action to progress to that location. This allowed him to work to a style while still making photos that were real.

Still, he said, "trying to bring a journalistic sensibility to lit work can be a challenge."

At the time he shot these photos, he was still working with a Canon 5D and a 24-70mm lens. For lighting he stuck with relatively hard modifiers on the Profoto heads—a Magnum reflector (with 250 frosty diffusion) or a gridded beauty dish. The controlled beam of the latter helped him to keep light and detail out of unwanted areas.

Says Young:
"Putting nice light on an interesting subject can really elevate it. … Yes, the photos became interesting when I decided to photograph a cannabis grow, but lots of people have made lots of pictures of a cannabis grow.

Rolling Stone contacted me after I had self published the photographs and asked to run them, saying that they had looked through thousands of news wire images of cannabis grows, but didn't find any that they felt had enough of an editorial feel. In my opinion, it's the intersection between the subject and the style that makes it interesting. If it's just one or the other, it can fall flat."

To the political undertones of the subject matter, Young notes that these photos are pretty straightforward, shot to satisfy a curiosity about the unseen process. Given how well the photos were received, that curiosity apparently resonates with others, too.

"My personal opinion is that marijuana should be legalized and taxed," Young said. "But perhaps surprisingly, that's not necessarily the opinion of the guys with these small scale grows. There is a recognition that if/when it does become legal, large corporate grow operations are going to come in and push out the little guys. So the matter grows in complexity."

In the end, his drive to satisfy his own curiosity ultimately affords him opportunities to do so for others. The ability to create technically strong photos under difficult circumstances is a marketable skill.

"I'm proud of the photos that I made up there, and this project still gets seen a lot," he said. "It led to getting published in Rolling Stone, and it almost certainly helped me get other jobs since. It very much stands as an example for me that even when the odds are not in your favor, it can pay off to get in your van and drive 12 hours, cross your fingers, and be ready to put in the hard work.

Young is based in Los Angeles where he shoots his commercial work in the entertainment field, but his self-generated photojournalism projects take him all over the world.

If you want a healthy dose of photographic inspiration, check out his website and portfolio, where he has self-published many of his far-flung photographic projects.

And for a special treat, download this excellent audio interview of Young as an energizing podcast for your next soul-sucking commute. There's more detail into exactly how he talked his way into the farm for this shoot, too.

The interview is by Ibarionex Perello at The Candid Frame, which absolutely should be in your podcast subscription list. Great stuff.

Next: Smokin' Joe Duffey


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Blogger IrwinWong said...

Freaking amazing. Getting access to photograph difficult subjects is definitely the wall that separates great photographers from the rest of us

July 23, 2012 2:33 AM  
Blogger RJ said...

How does he end up not being questioned by the police at all? Just curious. But nevertheless, I got the meat of the post: subject first, then lighting :-)

July 23, 2012 4:05 AM  
Blogger Kevin B. said...

Having spent 16 years in law enforcement as a police officer and working four of those as an undercover narcotics officer, I'm always amazed whenever a photographer gains access to a grow. Especially when the intent is to publish the work nationally. Mr. Young's ability to gain the confidence of the "offenders" speaks as much about his talents as his photos do. I enjoyed looking at his work and look forward to seeing more.

July 23, 2012 7:39 AM  
Blogger bradmagnus said...

I hope for Mr. Young's sake he remembered to disable the GPS info of his camera. Or at least that was my first thought :)

July 23, 2012 10:05 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Canon 5Ds do not have built-in GPS. Not even the current Mk III model, IIRC.

July 23, 2012 10:21 AM  
Blogger Drew Shapiro said...

With projects like these, I worry about the legality of even being there. Can't Mathieu be picked up and charged as an accessory? There are no federal shield laws and California's shield law doesn't protect anything that has been published, like photos of people illegally harvesting marijuana. Courts have been more willing to prosecute journalists since 9/1l. Mathieu's project is self-assigned and can't really be considered "freelance" until it is published. If it isn't published anywhere but his website or portfolio, there could be serious legal issues. More information on California's shield law can be found here: http://www.thefirstamendment.org/shieldlaw.html

Mathieu (if you're reading)- how do you deal with the legal issues involved? Has it ever been a problem?

Strobist- Have you run into any situations that have questionable legality? If so, how did you deal with them? I'm guessing your response would be different from Mathieu's because of your status as a staffer or more recently as a freelancer.

July 23, 2012 4:01 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Last I read, taking photos is not illegal. Even if you are using a Canon.

July 23, 2012 5:59 PM  
Blogger bronney said...

lol David you had to sneak that in...

July 24, 2012 12:16 AM  
Blogger trix said...

I'm really missing Like button here for your last comment David.

July 24, 2012 3:58 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

But that has to be an oversimplification, no? Something tells me that if he took pictures of a homicide taking place and refused to give additional details to law enforcement, he'd run into some trouble...very different circumstances than growing marijuana I guess, but nonetheless taking pictures of a crime in progress. Maybe Kevin B. can give us some insight?

July 24, 2012 3:46 PM  
Blogger Jason Doiy said...

If that's the case how does High Times continue to publish monthly?

July 24, 2012 7:23 PM  
Blogger Kevin B. said...

Mark & Drew... as David said, taking photographs is not illegal. Mr. Mathieu is not committing any act in the furtherance of a crime, he's simply documenting it.

July 24, 2012 10:48 PM  
Blogger GrumpyOldMan said...

@Mark - I'm not a journo nor do I have journalisitc or legal training.

But isn't observing, questioning, conversing and recording what journalists do?

The example of the homicide - my impression was there was no legal obligation for a witness, journalist or just plain member of the public to answer questions either as a witness or as a suspect.

If Mathieu assisted in the cultivation, intentionally e.g. carried some fertiliser then he might be liable to prosecution.
But I reckon just witnessing an event, either in public or in private is not an offence.

July 25, 2012 7:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Tonegawa said...

Everyone has been pretty clear about the fact that he is not committing any crime. He is merely observing.
I am asking this question though from the same type of legal/journalistic ignorance.

Why couldn't the police simply ask him where the grow op is located?

-Probable cause: the photo of a guy in a grow op
-They are admittadly photos of a legit grow op, and not props
-He was there walking around freely, and likely knew where he was

As to the "murder" comparison it may be better to word it like this:

He was taking pictures of people being murdered at the murder op where people are continuously being harvested and killed. THEN I would imagine the police would be interested to know where this criminal act is continuously taking place. no?

Obviously he could lie. Like he was blindfolded or something. And obviously he is smooth, quick and clever because of the environments he gets into and survives.

But generally speaking does anyone have any insight?

July 25, 2012 10:49 PM  
Blogger Justin Lochfoot said...

I thought I might chime in on this since I'm a leading photographer for High Times in Northern California and have shot many quasi-illegal gardens for over 15 years. Taking photographs is not a crime and I've never had any problems (or ever been contacted) by any police, DEA, or otherwise. Of course I make make it a point to never be part of any grow operation (legal or not) other than simply taking beautiful images for publication. Paranoia never enters the equation. I'm also fairly confident that a jury in my neck of the woods would laugh at a prosecutor trying to find me guilty of anything else other than photography a beautiful plant. Just a little perspective from someone who's been there.- LF

August 26, 2012 5:08 AM  
Blogger Don Jonce said...

its cool

September 04, 2012 11:46 AM  

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