How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career

The Brooklyn photographer talks shooting porn conventions and dog shows, and shares the best bit of advice she was ever given.

Photographer Mimi Hong
How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career

On a recent May afternoon, the sun fought through an overcast sky into Cait Oppermann's Brooklyn studio. The 27-year-old Pratt graduate was brewing coffee in the kitchen, and the sunlight bounced off the robin's egg blue and candy apple red accented surfaces of the room. Oppermann's use of dynamic colors and sharp lines in her work have earned her photography commissions in publications such as Bloomberg Businessweek, Surface, Wired, and The FADER. She shoots with both a Nikon D810 and Mamiya 7II, which, outside of freelance work, she uses to document her travels around the world in Europe, Asia, and South America. Find out how her sense of fun kickstarted career, and what she's learnt along the way.

How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career
How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career

What made you want to be a photographer?

I never really made that decision outright. I just knew that I had the most fun when I was taking photos, and that I was most excited by the work that came out of me taking photos. Initially, long ago, I was doing video. I never got really super excited about that. I started out in college not even in photo — I did a semester, left for a little while. When I came back, I was like I'm only going to come back and do photo. It’s just what makes me happiest, and makes me feel the most like I’m doing what I should be doing.

How would you describe your process?

I think it’s experimental, at least at first. I like to play until something good happens. For me, photography is fun, and it’s about having fun. At its core, it’s about joy. I think my process as a result is just experimental and about play. I always try to not take anything too seriously — until it becomes serious. I think like all art, photography has to come from a place of wanting to do something, or wanting to make work, or wanting to have fun with what you do.

Which photographers do you admire and why?

In college, some of my favorite photographers were Joel Sternfeld, and Collier Schorr. My favorite photographer is Thomas Prior, who I assist for on photography assignments when he travels. But most of the time, I admire my friends and other people who are hustling in New York, making cool things. If I were to have my home base be somewhere else, it would be hard not being surrounded by people who are constantly hustling. It’s an amazing motivation to be surrounded by people who are having to work their asses off, basically.

How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career
How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career
How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career

What do you think smartphone photography has done to the practice?

I think it’s helped people who aren’t photographers be able to discern a little better what is a “good photo,” and what is not a “good photo.” The bar has been raised for people who aren’t photographers. I don’t think it’s really done anything for good photographers who know how to make a good picture. But I think it really has changed how people look at their own personal photos, and how they share them, because a better looking photo means more likes on Instagram.

What do you listen to when you're editing?

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I listen to a lot of Drake, I just bought the new album. Nothing Was The Same is my go-to work album. That, and the Robyn and Röyksopp collaborative album that came out a couple of years ago.

You photographed the Westminster Dog Show — what was that like?

Those dogs are not dogs. They have a heightened sense of people. When you look in the dog’s eyes, it has this human-like recognition. When you walk by a dog, its eyes will follow you like a human; other dogs get bored and look at something else. Also, the level of care that goes into prepping a dog for the dog show — they’re putting curlers in the dogs’ hair, and they’re brushing them out, and they're blow drying them, and the dogs are just sitting there like props. I was really interested in the relationship between the groomer and the dog, because they’re the people who are spending all that prep time with them. I was really focused on that time, that 30 minutes before a dog was being shown. It was a really intimate thing to witness.

What are some other distinctive or unique shoots you’ve been a part of?

Several years ago I shot a sex convention. I expected to be completely grossed out, but it was actually kind of endearing in a surprising way. It was very clear that a lot of the people who were there had no other outlet for human contact and seemed to be very reclusive, and didn’t really fit into the rest of society. It was this beautiful meeting of pornstars and people who just want to be recognized and paid attention to, and they got that there. It turned out to be this really almost sweet convergence of two very different groups. Very similar to the dog show: an event of really super specific circumstances.

How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career
How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career
How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career
How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career
How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career

You’ve documented your travels all over the world. Which city has been your favorite, and what kind of story were you aiming to tell there?

I think my favorite place, at least in recent years, was Bangkok. What I ended up looking at while I was there was this sometimes tense, but other times symbiotic relationship between East and West. [Between the] traditional Thai culture [and] the very obvious, and sometimes all-encompassing, effect of western tourism.

I was mixing up photos of white German tourists taking pictures from a beautiful hotel on the water next to people swimming laps in the pool next to lavish breakfasts. Pairing that in sequence with teenage boys knocking each other out in Muy Thai fights, and kids playing soccer late at night under the subway station. Sometimes those things could be apparent in the same photograph, but I found in my final edit when I started to compile things together that there were these really stark contrasts within the same city, within the same block.

What's the best bit of advice you were ever given?

When I was in Thailand with Thomas Prior, he was leaving to go to India and I was going to be in the city by myself for a couple of days. When he left, he just said, “Don’t come back to the hotel tonight until you’ve shot every roll of film, and you have nothing left to shoot.” I went out that night and I was a lot more aggressive with the kind of photographs that I wanted to take. I specifically sought out things that maybe would have scared me in the past, or maybe I would’ve said, “Well, I don’t want to go to the trouble.” When I am starting to feel maybe a little bit lazy, or passive, I think back to the time when Tom said that to me, and it’s always helpful. It’s something that’s always in the front of my brain now.

How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career


Check out Cait's work here and follow her on instagram.
How Cait Oppermann Turned A Sense Of Play Into A Photography Career