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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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