Crystal Street has been a lifelong storyteller with an eye for the subtle, often unnoticed stories that exist in the relationships between humans. She began her career as a photographer at 10 when her father gave her a camera. She immediately started pointing her camera at people and has not stopped since. She studied fine art at Radford College for a few years before deciding to try to support herself freelancing and working odd jobs. At 30, Crystal was accepted into the photojournalism program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where she is currently one online Italian class away from getting her degree.
Crystal earned grants from UNC that afforded her opportunities to travel to Indonesia, Nepal, India, Palestine, Israel and Egypt to shoot projects – experiences that, perhaps unsurprisingly, helped shape her photography and her world views.
To satisfy all the gear heads out there, what are you shooting with?
Up until several months ago, I shot primarily with a [Canon] 5D and 16-35 2.8L as well as the 70-200 2.8L. As a student at UNC Chapel Hill, I had access to a whole closet of wonderful gear.
Now that I’m out of school, I’m struggling to make the investment since I need to get the most camera for my money: one that can shoot in many diverse environments and tackle multimedia shooting as well. I’m shooting a lot of multimedia projects and working with audio, video and stills simultaneously.
My audio gear consists of the Marantz PMD 620. I recently purchased the Canon HV30 HD video camera. I shoot film on my Canon 1v and a Holga. Yes, the $20 plastic camera is currently one of my favorites to shoot with, and both film cameras have traveled the world with me.
You’ve said that you’ve always been into story telling. What drew you to documentary photography as your narrative device?
When I was in high school, my father gave me his copy of The Family of Man, given to him by his father. The gift was a follow up to the Canon AE-1 he gave me at age 10, when I said I wanted to take pictures. I remember spending hours with that book, completely enthralled with the images: simple and honest images of the cycle of life.
I began to use my camera to document my own life, mainly friends and family and, of course, shoot for the high school newspaper. I continued studying fine art photography at Radford University as an elective, but found that my work was always quite different than my classmates. My images always focused on people.
An important moment for me as a documentary photographer was attending a Grateful Dead concert with a group of friends. I spent my days wandering the eclectic parking lots documenting a subculture that was so foreign and fascinating! There was one image in particular of a young woman whose face contained this array of conflicted emotions with a baby in her arms that seemed so trapped in this strange and disjointed environment.
How do you think documentary photography excels as a story telling tool?
In those moments of documentation of reality, you realize that everyone has a story. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true. Words can capture stories, but an image provides a powerful connection, an instant resonation with the person viewing the photo. If the photographer is able to actually document the moment properly, the power of that fraction of a second can have more storytelling ability than an entire chapter of prolific words. As a narrative tool, the still image can release a flood of emotions in the viewer that connects them to the subject. Even if the viewer has no physical connection to that person, they can have an empathetic and compassionate connection through the action and moment that is frozen onto the still frame.
After many years of working in several aspects of professional photography, I always returned to photojournalism and storytelling. I finally decided to truly learn and understand the art of storytelling and returned to finish my undergraduate degree at one of the best visual communications schools in the country, UNC Chapel Hill. Working with such talented photojournalists and life-long storytellers opened my eyes and allowed me to embrace documentary photography with the proper skill set for conveying someone’s story.
Much of your photography background was exploring the medium as fine art. Are there overlaps between photography as fine art and documentary photography? To be blunt, is documentary photography art?
Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange embodied this debate so wonderfully, both in their actual work and the correspondence between them. Art should exist for the sake of itself, as Adams believed; yet art should also exist for the betterment of humanity, as Lange so passionately supported. While both believed there was no compromise between these philosophies, I think that both artists were correct, and I’ve tried to merge the two beliefs in my work.
Documentary photography walks a fine line between art and documentation. People need a voice and as a documentary photographer, I’m in a unique position to provide a platform for them to the outside world. This person trusts my abilities as a storyteller and my abilities as a photographer to do justice to their story. And in order for that person’s story to reach the outside world, the images have to be powerful, striking and sometimes beautiful, even in the despair and the pain that the image may contain. If I’m going to scream at the top of my lungs "look at this injustice, look at this failure in the fabric of society!" I’d better have a loud and strong voice with which to yell.
You were funded by several grants to travel and shoot all over the world. Documentary photographers often deal with being an outsider when shooting an essay. Did you have extra difficulties being a national, cultural, and ethnic outsider to boot when shooting outside the country?
Being an outsider is a challenge that I face both in America and abroad. I am documenting people’s lives from the outside, and in order to enter the circle of their life, I have to create a level of trust that must be established regardless of language barriers and cultural differences. Prior to starting a project, I do large amounts of research on the culture I’m entering and the country’s defining political and historical events so that I understand the genesis of the conflict or the issue I’m covering. Understanding how and why a situation arises prepares me to be both understanding and aware of what to document.
For each international project I’ve worked on, I’ve had the good fortune to have the help of locals or someone speaking the language when climbing those cultural barriers. There is an unspoken connection we make with people; there’s an energy that we put forth, and that’s a universal means of communication. The ability to make someone comfortable with your presence when you cannot communicate through the spoken word is both a gift and a skill that can be cultivated. Knowing when to take the camera away from your eye and look at someone directly, smiling at the right moment and simply listening to someone are all part of a documentary photographer’s tool kit, often times more important than what type of camera or what lens you are using.
Which international project posed the most challenges for you? Which proved to be the most satisfying?
My first trip abroad was to India and I traveled alone. I’d say that trip was the most challenging in that I had no idea what to expect or what I was doing. I learned rapidly and usually by making mistakes. I wouldn’t change anything about that trip, even the scams and the shady people I met were fascinating and taught me a great deal! The people I met on that journey were amazing and though my research before arrival was extensive, the actual interactions and moments that were experienced were worth the challenges.
Every trip contains a wealth of knowledge. I believe strongly in testing one’s boundaries at every opportunity and by experiencing a country in this fashion, in a way that keeps you slightly fearful and reliant only upon yourself, a multitude of knowledge can be gained. On each trip, I lined up my translators or colleagues to work with upon arrival and that is priceless and highly recommended, but I travel to the country itself alone. I find that so many stories present themselves and people open up when I am alone and completely without agenda or complications.
That said, I also highly recommend having a driver pick you up at that airport – there’s nothing more comforting than landing in a foreign country and seeing a smiling face with a sign that has your name on it! I made such arrangements when landing in Jordan last summer and the driver was such a wonderful man! Throughout my stay in Jordan, he’d swing by the hotel and drive me to my destinations and kept me informed of the politics of the town and invited me to dinner with his family.
Those connections and friendships made with people all over the world make for not only a more effective project but provide an enhancement of life in general. I now have a personal face to so many international issues that I study in the news.
Its difficult to say which trip was the most satisfying. I’d have to say that each one had a different degree of both satisfaction and disappointment. The learning experience, people I met and moments I documented were all priceless. Yet, even now, I feel the need to return to each story and location and pick the story up where I left it, slightly unfinished with so many more questions left to answer. I believe that each journey has laid the groundwork for a large body of work that is in the research and fundraising phase now.
You said that you like telling stories about cultural preservation and migration. Could you elaborate on that? What sorts of stories have you crafted around those ideas?
My outside concentration at UNC Chapel Hill is Peace, War and Defense. Most of my research lies in post-conflict communities and both the cultural preservations of these displaced communities and the type of community they create while in exile. My first project was a research fellowship documenting the cultural preservations of the Tibetan Exile community in Dharamshala, India. That same summer, I traveled to Nepal for an internship at the Nepal Human Rights News in Kathmandu. I also studied the security demographics of the Nepalese in the wake of the 10-year Maoist conflict and the recent fall of the Monarchy. My work in Palestine consisted of gauging the situation for both Palestinians and Israelis living in the West Bank, a topic that I barely scratched the rough surface of during my month long visit.
Each conflict has casualties that are well documented, but we often lose sight of the people left behind. They sometimes struggle for years to preserve that which was left, to rebuild a life that will never return to its former state of normalcy. While in Palestine, I spoke at length with a man who could not cross into the next city to see his wife and young children. It would be similar to me not being able to cross the county line to visit my mom, who lives 30 minutes away. Those little fabrics of a community get torn apart because of violent conflict, but often receive little attention. I strive to bring them out in my work.
You, like many professional photographers, are finding a need to shoot lots of commercial work to support yourself. How are you balancing the need to shoot commercially with your desire to shoot narrative work? Are you finding it tough to find the time for your personal work?
Right now, the need to shoot commercial work is paramount to all other needs and desires. Paying rent, buying gear and supporting a small business take the majority of my time and energy at the moment. But the fuel that drives the business is knowing that in the near future I will have, not only a viable business model for other documentary photographers but the ability to fund my work. Without visual imagery, the world would be a rather bland place; and until the powers that drive the editorial business machine realize this and begin to fund our industry again, it falls upon the communicators to make their own means to tell their stories.
Our industry is embarking on an amazing transformation with the merging of storytelling platforms, and in several years it will look completely different. Utilizing sounds and creative video to help tell a story is breathing a new life into our abilities to reach people and provide powerful platforms for society to engage with the world around it. I’ve been very lucky that my commercial clients have sought out my portfolio for the documentary work, and the commercial projects I’ve done to date have incorporated this existing style and storytelling narrative format. These projects have been very interesting and have balanced the dealings with the client side of things.
Business provides a whole other avenue of creativity that I find intriguing and challenging. And while I strongly believe in documentary photography and its role in society, I also believe that to effect change in the world, having the power of a successful business model behind you is a vital tool. Whether it’s utilizing your portrait photography business to raise money for charities you support, funding a powerful documentary project, or creating multimedia narratives for the Council on Foreign Relations, we must have viable business models and monetary support to do these activities.
Crystal is currently living on Pawley’s Island, S.C., shooting commercial work, bartending, planning her next project, and starting her own business. You can see her work at www.crystalstreetphotography.com .