Julie Dermansky is an award winning documentary photographer and multimedia journalist based in New Orleans. Her subject matter primarily focuses on social injustice and society’s impact on the natural world. She is interested in covering industrial landscapes, extreme weather events, and people who are fighting to protect the planet. Julie’s work has been published in many news outlets, including: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Weather Channel, The Daily Beast, and Bloomberg. We sat down with Julie one afternoon to discuss her work.
NCM: Where are you originally from?
Julie: I’m from Englewood, New Jersey.
NCM: When did you come to New Orleans?
Julie: The first time I came to New Orleans I was 17 or 18. I went to Tulane as an Undergraduate student and returned to New Orleans after Katrina.
NCM: When did you first realize you were compelled to be a photographer?
Julie: When I was seven years old I used to drive around taking pictures with my imaginary camera. Making the okay symbol when no one was looking. I decided in high school that photography wasn’t for me because my brother was into it. My mom had a darkroom and we were very competitive. Once he was already great, I wasn’t going to go near it.
I was very stubborn about it. I got a camera in college and barely used it. At Tulane, I took one photography class and learned how to use the darkroom. I remember getting all my prints dirty because I wasn’t good at cleaning my hands when I was working. Photography still wasn’t for me at the time, even though I really enjoyed making it.
I was already committed to being a fine artist when I was 16 or 17. My focus was painting and sculpture, even though I always used photography as reference for my artwork. I always made collages with my photos. It wasn’t until later that I started using photography conceptually. The switch to full-time photography came for me around 2004 or 2005. All art making tools, from pencil to camera, can be seen as instruments to use to express your visual vocabulary.
NCM: So you have almost no formal education as a photographer?
Julie: I only took one intro photography class in college. But I grew up very close to Manhattan, so I was always looking at art and going to galleries from a very young age .
My mother was a pretty damn good photographer. I grew up in a home where Photography was valued. We had a huge, Best of Life Magazine book on our coffee table that I would look at endlessly. I knew what a good photo was at a very young age.
It wasn’t like I just discovered what it takes to make a good photo. I was always looking at photography and I never thought of it as less than other forms of art. Photography was very exciting to me.
NCM: What made you decide to go into photojournalism as your chosen path?
Julie: It was totally accidental. As a studio artist, you’re in your studio and you’re responding more to what’s inside of you, which (I dare say) is pretty lonely place. And so I went the opposite direction. Now I’m going out and hunting for my subject matter. I find myself in the middle of things and I’m responding to everything that is going on around me.
I have always been an issue-driven artist. I’m a sensitive person who pays attention to the environment and social injustice. My first long term project, while I was still primarily an artist, was about looking at dark tourism. I went on a trip to Auschwitz and took pictures there. Then I went around the world to sites of genocide. At the same time I also did a series on natural history museums.
The natural history series indirectly led me to New Orleans. Nine months after Katrina I made a trip down here and was really embarrassed that I didn’t understand the damage from the storm. I started shooting the damage and was drawn to what I saw. The highs and the lows as well as the culture of the city just attracted me here.
I ended up staying in New Orleans and was suddenly riding with the national guard through the streets to do documentary work.
Over the years, I had a fantasy of being a war photographer, but I never thought that was something I could do. I knew I would really like to go to Iraq. Eventually though, I made it happen from my time in post-Katrina New Orleans, riding with the National Guard.
The local Fox station sent me over to shoot with my partner Phin Percy. We figured out a way to get embedded and went over there (to Iraq). That was my introduction into war photography.
Soon after that experience, the BP oil spill happened. I think it’s my compulsive, workaholic nature that makes me a good photo journalist. Once I’m onto something, I just have to keep going. I was determined to find the oil and keep ahead of where it was washing up. Some of that work created some buzz for me.
When I got into photography as a business, photojournalism was crashing. Compensation for work just dropped through the bottom. I had to figure out a way to be creative instead of just whining about it. So I started writing as well. I found my own voice as a multimedia journalist. When I publish a story, it’s the same as hanging a painting on the wall.
On a conceptual basis, when I started shooting at concentration camps, I learned that if you could make evocative pictures that told the story, people could look at them and be able to take them somewhere they weren’t planning to go.
I would purposely photograph basic symbols into the image (which some people might even say is corny) so the average viewer can relate to it. For example, in art school you are told not to use Barbie dolls because they are cliche’. But, I believe, if a Barbie doll is going to help you get your message across, use a Barbie doll! Some of the most basic images (like broken McDonald’s arches after Katrina) are going to tell you the story about our society better than anything else.
I did a lot of collage work when I was a fine artist and became adept at using scrap metal out of dumpsters and scrap paper collages. Now instead of hunting for new objects to put together, I hunt for subjects in the real world. There’s nothing like being in the middle of the first carnival parade in Haiti after the earthquake and finding yourself on top of a float with your cameras around your neck.
If there’s a hurricane coming, I’m out the door within five minutes. Some people think they want to shoot with me and I tell them,”No you don’t.”
You don’t want to shoot with me because I don’t stop. I don’t stop for eating or anything else during daylight. God forbid it’s magic hour and someone wants me to stop. That would be the end of day. So I shoot alone.
NCM: Do you upgrade equipment, software, and hardware that often?
Julie: I try not to because I’m very stubborn and I don’t like to change. I mean with cameras, if you break one, you have to send one in for repair. Instead of bitching about it, I just buy the next one and then I upgrade both. There’s nothing like better stuff.
NCM: What do you use right now?
Julie: I’m using the Canon Mark IV with a bunch of good lenses. I would definitely go with the smaller mirror if I were starting over. My favorite software program is Light Room.
NCM: What would be your dream if you could shoot whatever you want and not have to worry about your bank account?
Julie: I would love to go to Antarctica. But, unfortunately, you have to bunk with a stranger unless you have a friend to travel with you. In that scenario, you could end up spending over $10,000, but end up being stuck with some asshole. And so this is kind of off-putting. A single room is very expensive. It costs around $22,000.
NCM: Where do you think the photography will be in the next 10 to 25 years?
Julie: People with a real vision will have a chance to shine because everyone can use a camera now and it’s cheap enough to get good cell phone cameras. Your work will still be able to have a voice if you have your own vision. Art and photography are never going away. Who knows how the business models will evolve? The more special your vision is, the better chance you’ll have to survive whatever changes come.
NCM: Is there some advice you could give to new photographers out there trying to break into becoming a pro?
Julie: Photojournalism isn’t viable, so make sure to have an income separate from your passion. It’s a rich kid’s sport. It will cost between $70,000 and $100,000 if you decide to go to school to get a degree in photojournalism. You have to be realistic and know that you always have to find a creative way to make yourself valuable. You can’t just do something standard and think that’s enough.
NCM: Who inspired you along the way? Did Anybody influence your style?
Julie: No one has really influenced my shooting style. I love the photography of Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke-White, and Joel-Peter Witkin. Eugene Smith is also one of my all time favorites.
Some of the first artists I really got into were Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. I used to like to go to look at a Picasso’s Guernica which was at the Museum of Modern art when I was growing up. I always loved medieval work, so I’d go to the Cloisters and fantasize about medieval times. Renaissance painting also inspired me.
NCM: Do you have a very favorite image and why?
Julie: I think it’s whatever I’m working on at the moment. Inspiration always finds me.
NCM: What are you working on now?
Julie: I’m interested in all things related to climate change. It’s a combination of extreme weather and the industry that’s helping induce climate change. In Louisiana, I’ve been covering Cancer Alley, which is a stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans packed with petrochemical companies. I’ve been covering that in depth for the last couple of years. I also travel to the extreme weather spots to cover storms that are record breakers.
You can read more about Julie Dermansky and see more of her work at www.jsdart.com or on Facebook under Julie Dermansky Photography.