For Laurel Golio, Ethics Are The Heart Of Photography
The Brooklyn-based photographer discusses building a platform for LGBTQ youth and how her background in visual anthropology informs her work.
Laurel Golio says she isn’t a morning person, but you’d be forgiven if you mistook her for one. On a chilly morning in October, the 31-year-old photographer and visual anthropologist looked refreshed as she waved me into her apartment, which doubles as her studio. Her Bed-Stuy home has a Studio Ghibli-esque coziness; plants hung sleepily against the windows while books and framed pictures detailed the walls. Indeed, her apartment seemed to possess the quality to transmogrify something potentially untidy, like a sports cap hung on a door knob, into a detail of a larger and organic whole. It’s fitting, then, that “naturalness” and “space” are themes that the socially-conscious photographer says her work hinges on.
From the profile of an accelerating skater to a tired boxer framed by the red barriers of a boxing ring, Golio's photographs show a vivid attention to the environment that her subjects inhabit, all while capturing an in-the-moment energy. She is the co-founder of We Are the Youth, a LGBTQ photojournalist project that aims to give youth in the U.S. a platform for their stories. Her work has also been featured everywhere from the New York Times to Vogue, and she recently photographed the feminist skate crew the Brujas for The FADER.
With her cat, Noodles, cuddled up on her lap, she sat down with The FADER to chat about a variety of topics ranging from smartphone megapixels to social activism.
What made you want to be a photographer?
I was always drawn to visual imagery and photography, [it] just felt like the most natural to me. I never really felt natural painting or anything like that, so I guess I always just loved photography and I would to do it a lot in high school.
And then in college I studied visual anthropology, and a lot of photojournalism and ethical considerations of this and that. I think [that] was like the actual real life adult brain being like, this is cool, [it’s] something that I would like to pursue.
What do you shoot with?
When I shoot film, I shoot with a Pentax 6x7. But I've been shooting a lot of digital with Canon Mark II.
How would you describe your process?
I guess it depends on the situation. Like, when it's a portrait, I like to kind of find a way, if possible, to capture someone in a more natural state. Posing always feels a little uncomfortable to me and asking people to smile, like I hate that shit. If it's a portrait session, [I] kind of like chilling with someone and feeling them out and seeing the way, you know? Even just the way they sit, the way that they talk and compose themselves; [I'm] trying to find a way that feels not put-on. When I'm out photographing an event or an editorial story, I prefer to hang back and just like lurk around with my camera and not in a creepy way.
That kind of reminds me of a photojournalist's role.
When I was studying visual anthropology, I studied a lot of conflict and wartime photography so I was always really interested in intentional behavior and the ethics of getting involved — or not getting involved — for photographers. Do you have a responsibility or is it better to not engage? It's obviously not as serious in like editorial stories, but I think about that a lot: how to engage but also capture something that's semi-real.
What do you look for in an image?
This is an annoying answer because it doesn't really answer the question but I think something just clicks sometimes in my brain and it just feels right. I don't know if that's the weight of different objects in the actual frame. I’ve always found that really hard to explain with words. Sometimes if I’m on a shoot and I feel like, well, I got it, it’s a feeling where something just feels organized in the frame or clocks in a way that feels kind of soothing and pleasing to my eyes.
So your approach is very intuitive?
I guess, yeah! If I had to dissect it technically, maybe it's like trying to keep the weight even in the frame. But yeah, I feel like if I'm photographing events or some sort of story, it feels important to me to keep it as natural as possible.
Which photographers do you admire?
I was actually just looking at the Collier Schorr work that they did for T Mag, where they had the greatest covers of Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga. When I was in college I like got really heavy into Collier Schorr's wrestling project; I loved, loved that series.
When I was a kid I was into [Diane] Arbus and Larry Clark and more documentary-ish stuff. [Arbus was] an interesting character — I think I liked that as a kid 'cause it was like weird characters that she photographed and I always kind of felt like a weirdo kid and like an outlier.
What's the best advice you’ve been given?
Probably the best advice, and actually a few people have said this to me, is just keep shooting. Probably some old dude said this, but there's that saying that's like, "masters spend some ten thousand hours working on the craft." So when I'm struggling, during a project or just feeling like I'm stuck in my career, I think that was some of the best advice and it's been said to me a few times — just keep doing it.
'Cause it's something that you have to practice at and that feels very real to me; you wanna get better at taking a certain image or a certain kind of portrait. I feel like, if you want to be a longer term “career photographer,” [then] it’s not just like [you] happen to have this great project, it’s actually something to cultivate and work on. So I think about that a lot when I feel shitty and stuff [about] some things.
What do you think smartphone photography has done to your practice?
I can't take what feels like a "real photo" on a phone. I love to shoot photos on my phone but they always feel kind of like silly.
I find it hard to compose an image on the phone in a way — [it] just feels more natural when I'm holding a camera. But I mean, in the larger world I think, "iPhone photography" and giving everyone a camera definitely has a lot of positives.
How about the general industry?
I mean it's a mixed bag, right? So many people have the ability to capture real time events, so from like a sociocultural standpoint I think that's really important. In terms of [the] editorial, commercial, photo industry, I think there's pros and cons [to] the fact that everyone can be a photographer 'cause you have X amount of megapixel images and does [that] devalue the field 'cause everyone can do it?
But that’s not to say you can’t shoot a project on the iPhone, so I guess that’s complicated. When digital first came on the scene, people were like, “woah, the whole world is changing,” and they were right. The whole world really did change and did that devalue the photo field? I don't think so.
How does visual anthropology come into your work and mindset as a photographer?
Yeah, so I did this project with my good friend Diana. She's a journalist by trade and we've been doing it for six years called We Are the Youth and we photograph and interview queer youth around the country. And to me, that feels like very anthropological. There's image and text and it's super important for us to not go out there and pitch it as an art project, but [instead] to go out there and try to provide a platform for people to speak for themselves.
Are issues that you care about driving mission statements for your photography or do you see yourself more as a documenter?
With We Are the Youth specifically, it feels so close to home for me 'cause I feel like I was that queer youth, you know? I was 15/16 coming out, and parts of me still very much identifies with the queer community. In my personal projects, I try to present people as they are because it feels important to me to not sensationalize or exploit subjects, and [trying] to think about even larger power dynamics when you’re meeting with someone in a certain situation. Like it’s not your space and you’re going into their space and just trying to consider the larger implications of that.
I don't know if my work feels driven by a political agenda but I really try to think about all of these dynamics even if it's just taking a portrait of someone: how can you do it in a way that feels not creepy and [not] exploiting your subject?
Is there a separate mindset to working as a “creative” photographer versus a reporter? Do you have to switch “modes”?
If it's something beyond just like a straight-up portrait, I find myself gravitating to the details of the space more than [a magazine feature]. When it's not specifically a commissioned portrait for example, I'm thinking a little bit more about the wider picture of someone as opposed to just like going in to take a portrait of a businessman; there's an opportunity there to present a larger story.
I feel like probably if I'm commissioned to do a job, I bet somewhere in my brain I'm thinking about like, okay, this is the kind of image that they're gonna want. Maybe more so then if it's a personal job. I guess I feel a little less restricted if it’s like more traditional documentary journalism, [which] feels a little bit free-er [for me] to shoot things the way they are as opposed to asking someone to pose a certain way or lift your chin up a certain way.
What do you listen to when you're editing?
I listen to a lot of ‘90s hip-hop. Actually, I listen to a lot of songs on repeat, which [is] hard when other people are here. When I'm alone, I'll listen to the Fugees, just The Score, on repeat.
The other day, this Beyoncé song came on and I had just turned on my phone from Lemonade. I didn't realize that the actual song was on repeat, I guess I had clicked it off, and then like, an hour later, my brain turned on, and I was like, oh I've been listening to this song for one hour.
Which track was it?
I think it was "All Night," and I couldn't hear that it was on repeat for literally an hour. Then I was like, I heard this so many times. I don't know what that says [about me].