Best of 2014 Honoree: Scott Gable

by | Aug 7, 2015 | Best of 2014

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Buffalo, NY

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Scott Gable visited six Asian countries over a continuous, four-month odyssey to document rice production and the culture surrounding it. His self-produced project Rice is the first segment of his three-part series on the world’s staple foods of rice, corn and wheat.


© Scott Gable


“Food production is fascinating,” Gable says. “Modern industrialized agriculture meshes with so many different parts of our lives that I want to explore the main staples in depth. My ultimate goal is for people to take an extra minute to think about their food supply, the dangers of monoculture staples and what they’re eating.”

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ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Scott Gable: Since 2007.

ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP in 2011?

SG: After attending several local and national events, I gained some real insight into the commercial photography world.

ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?

SG: The ability to contact a wide group of experienced people through a known network of professionals.

ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?

SG: My local chapter has been great, from bouncing pricing issues off each other to borrowing gear to just meeting up for breakfast. It’s nice to have a supportive community.

ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful to your day-to-day business and why?

SG: The ‘Find an Assistant’ program has been invaluable. I travel for the majority of my commercial work and I can bring value to the job by sourcing a local assistant instead of building all that travel cost into an estimate. Clients like that.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

SG: Industrial and healthcare.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

SG: My credit card…?

ASMP: Your project Rice is part of a larger three-part series about world staple foods. What issues and influences piqued your interest this topic?

SG: Food production is fascinating. Modern industrialized agriculture meshes with so many other parts of our lives that I wanted to explore the main ‘staples’ in depth.

ASMP: When did you begin photographing “Rice and how much time have you spent on this project to date? Have you done any work on the other two parts of the project yet?

SG: I started planning the logistics of the trip and taking Mandarin lessons in early 2013. Then the actual shooting and processing took another eight months. A gallery show earlier this year also took up a bunch of time — in a good way. I would guess about a year from start to finish.

ASMP: You traveled to six countries over four months to photograph for Rice. Which countries did you visit, and was this a four-month continuous trip? What types of research did you do in terms of overall background for the project and planning your itinerary?

SG: I was in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. It was a continuous trip from early May to early September.

As far as research: I hooked up with Cornell University’s Rice Intensification Project. They got me connected to several contacts and programs throughout China. I did read several books and papers on rice production to get a feeling for the when-where-how of what I was trying to photograph. It didn’t help all that much, though — weather, seasons and rain patterns all change and harvesting or planting seasons change with them. I ended up in several places I had no intention to be and stayed longer in other locations that I had planned.

ASMP: What type of preparation did you make for this type of trip in terms of visas, permits, gaining access to photograph in certain areas and so on? What roadblocks did you confront with this part of the process and how did you resolve them?

SG: China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos all require visas. Some are easier to get than others. China’s visa process was the most involved.

The only prep I did for photo access was to speak with several of Cornell’s project people in the field, who assured me they didn’t expect any pushback. For the majority of the footage I just went for it. I find if you approach people at their job with a smile and act interested, they are more than happy to talk about their work or show you what they’re doing.

ASMP: Being that these were all Asian countries, did you find similarities between the various people and cultures you encountered, or were there distinct difference between them?

SG: They were very different. Just within a single province of China, I found dozens of dialects and cultures that were really different. Different hairstyles, clothing, jewelry, gender roles, songs and so on. Several highland areas had different tribes in neighboring valleys. So, one valley would be the Yao people and the next would be Mung or Hani peoples.

The rural and highland peoples had distinct and different cultures. The urban environments were more homogenized.

ASMP: Please describe your experiences traveling in these countries to photograph for the Rice project. Did you ever feel uncomfortable, in danger or unwelcome?

SG: I’ve travelled quite a bit, so my feelings on this might be different than others. That said, yes I was uncomfortable quite a bit. Both physically and mentally. Getting to these remote areas requires long, uncomfortable journeys in awful conditions. And once in the more remote areas, living conditions are usually pretty poor by western standards.

Quick story: I was in a really remote mountain village in China and started off early one morning on a footpath with my camera bag and nothing else. I had planned to be back in the village for lunch. Four days later I stumbled down a narrow path on the other side of the valley back into the village. I had walked over several valleys in the same mud caked clothes. I had gotten lost, been fed and sheltered by random families, found my way to several other villages connected to the world by footpath only, and had some of the most amazing experiences of my life.

There were also plenty of times where sticking my camera into people’s business got me the stink eye. When that happened, I put the camera away and either tried to explain/pantomime/gesture wildly to explain what I was doing or I just moved on.

As far as feeling in danger, I have to say this might be subjective. On different trips I’ve had Maoist rebels point machine guns at me, and I have been fleeced by armed, crooked police so many times I’ve lost count. But there were no immediate dangers like that on this rice trip.

ASMP: What is your process for finding your subjects, making an introduction and securing permission to photograph? How much time did you spend with the various subjects you photographed?

SG: That varies and is wildly dynamic. Sometimes I’m just walking around and I’ll start taking photos. I’ll gauge the subject’s interest and what they’ll put up with either by talking with them or pantomiming. I find that language barriers are both a hindrance and a catalyst in these situations.

ASMP: What were your interactions like with the people you photographed? Were you mainly an observer, or did they invite you into partake in their daily activities and local festivities?

SG: Both an observer and a participant. Some of these people were just working and needed to do their job. I gladly acted just as an observer for that. Sometimes I was invited to be a part. I actively sought out these types of interactions and was rewarded several times with glimpses into lives I would have never gotten by just being an outside observer. My hope is that this shows in the final project.

ASMP: In your artist statement you mention that the lives of the people you met were very different from anything you knew, yet at the same time there were familiarities.

SG: Living conditions, food, language and physical trappings were so different. But the family structures, mealtime interactions and just generally being a human were very familiar. I think the more anyone travels the more one sees this.

ASMP: Did you travel with assistants or other support staff, or were you photographing solo?

SG: Solo. My wife met me in Vietnam towards the end of the trip, but her role as assistant was limited to some light gear lugging.

ASMP: Did you use local contacts such as fixers, translators, drivers or security staff to assist in your travels?

SG: Yes to everything but security staff. Cornell University hooked me up with several contacts that led me to other contacts in-country. I also had several contacts from my Mandarin teacher. These people were all incredibly gracious with their time. In Shanghai, I used a fixer who drove me out to some factories and production fields and also fed me some fantastic meals.

ASMP: How did you deal with the language barrier and communicating with your subjects? What strategies did you employ for building rapport when you don’t share a common language?

SG: This was very difficult. My limited Mandarin was useless in the rural areas where only the local dialect was spoken. Gesturing, pantomiming and a lot of smiling were my strategies most of the time. I find once you make yourself OK to someone in a community, the rest of the people see you as OK and start to trust you more.

ASMP: Were there any governmental issues or obstacles in photographing in Asia?

SG: None that I ran into.

ASMP: The majority of your photos have a beautiful golden-ish hue to them. Was this purely a factor of the natural light? If not, what processes did you use to create this color palette in post?

SG: The light — more diffused — was really something special in a lot of the highland areas in China and Vietnam. Some of the coloring was done in post to create a sense of continuity between the photos and round out the project. I use Lightroom and Photoshop to do all of my post work.

ASMP: You also shot video during your trip and you’ve produced a nine-minute clip mixing stills, video and time-lapse elements. How much time did you dedicate to video vs. stills during your travels?

SG: I am a still photographer at heart. I love making one moment stop forever. But I also love the ability to tell a story with some motion. I’d say that I spent about 70 percent of the time thinking about and creating stills. I used a Canon 5D mark iii and a GoPro for all the footage for the Rice project. I’d say the longest time lapse was a five-to-six-hour segment filming mist and fog creeping up a mountain at dusk. This got compressed into a two-second clip for the video.

ASMP: The editing of your nine-minute motion piece is quite unique and so is the audio component. Did you have an overarching vision for this type of editing, pacing and sequencing from the beginning, or was it something you arrived at through experimentation? Do you consider this nine-minute motion piece final or is it still a work in progress?

SG: It’s still a work in progress. Editing video is such a different monster than editing stills. With stills, you can switch gears on coloring, exposure and levels so quickly. With video it’s almost impossible to do a 180 halfway through a project. The amount of time that you commit to a course in a video edit is considerable.

Yes, the rice video was a result of experimenting with different edits at the beginning. In fact, I always have music selected before I even start the real edit. I will spend days scouring my personal library or the Internet for that piece of music that fits. Then the actual edit begins. I have no idea how other people approach video editing, but this way works for me.

ASMP: In your artist statement you mentioned gear issues during your trip. What kind of issues were they and how did you resolve them? Given the great expanse of your travel and the length of your stay, what gear were you traveling with?

SG: Everything breaks at some point. I had a tripod leg sleeve go bad, a Speedlight that got dropped into a water-filled paddy, a zoom ring on my 16-35mm lens that kept getting stuck and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few others. You learn to just roll with it, I guess. At this point in my career a lot of my equipment is ‘pro-grade’ and can take a lot of beating, but sometimes stuff breaks. As far as equipment, I tried to travel light for this project. I brought one camera body, a 16-35mm, a 50mm, a 70-200mm, a GoPro, two Speedlights, tripod, a netbook, and a ton of memory cards.

ASMP: In hindsight, was there any content that you wished to capture but couldn’t? Were there any particular pieces of gear you would have liked to have brought but didn’t?

SG: Yes, my notebook has some pretty detailed shot lists for this project, including sketches and wish lists. I do this for all of my larger projects. I was really interested in how rice interacted with rural peoples’ home lives and how it integrated into their personal food intake. I really wanted to explore more about families and extended families eating and using rice on a more personal level. I feel that I at least got to touch on this, but I would’ve liked more.

As far as gear that I would’ve liked to have, a small steadicam would have been nice.

ASMP: Images from your Rice project were recently exhibited at the CEPA gallery in Buffalo, New York. How was the exhibition received and what was the overall feedback?

SG: It was my first real show, so I have nothing to compare it to. I was more than happy with how the prints turned out and being able to see people interact with them in a physical space was really cool. Our local news and art papers seemed to have liked it also.

ASMP: How long have you lived in Buffalo? Do you find Western New York to be a lucrative place for a commercial photographer to be based?

SG: I grew up in Buffalo, but I’ve lived in Hawaii, Portland, Oregon, Saint Thomas and California. I’ve been back in Buffalo full-time since 2003. I’m not sure if it’s a lucrative place for a commercial photographer but, lately, clients seem to be willing to fly me places.

ASMP: Your commercial work is quite different from your documentary work, yet there are distinct similarities. Does your approach differ when working with your subjects on commercial assignments versus documentary projects?

SG: Yes. There is the interplay of the client, the ad agency and myself. On commercial jobs, everyone is working towards a similar goal but coming at it with different backgrounds and expectations. Personally, I love this team approach to jobs. It allows a bunch of people who are all really good at what they do to focus on what they’re good at. I think this elevates some commercial jobs. Plus, working alone all the time is boring. As far as how I approach subjects in a commercial shoot, I guess there are similarities. A lot of my recent commercial work is in factories and facilities that have a lot of people milling about and I use the documentary style that I use on personal projects instinctively. But there are always the staged shots too.

ASMP: What type of equipment do you shoot with for your commercial work? Does this differ from the gear you shot with on the Rice project?

SG: I still use 35mm DSLR equipment. A lot of my clients now are requesting video to be mixed in with the jobs, so I’m starting to amass quite the collection of cool new video toys, such as sliders, stabilizers and so on.

ASMP: What was the most challenging aspect of shooting the project? In general, taking in account your commercial work and your documentary work, what do you find are the most challenging situations to photograph and why?

SG: The most challenging part of the Rice project was trying to overcome the sketches of my shot list in my notebook. This sounds silly, but when an idea of what a shot should look like or include gets lodged in my head it’s hard to work outside of that idea. Sometimes opportunities or shots appear that you might overlook because you had that idea branded into your brain. I find this is also an obstacle in commercial work. An art director or a client wants shots to look a certain way and sometimes you have to look for opportunities outside of this box.

ASMP: Does your commercial assignment work influence or inspire your documentary work in any way, or is it perhaps the other way around? How do the different areas of your work interact with each other?

SG: Personal work always inspires the commercial work. I think that’s how it has to be, otherwise why are you doing it — for the money? That makes you a mercenary. And a poorly paid mercenary at that. My commercial and my personal work talk to each other quite a bit. Since I’m a science nerd at heart and I always want to know how stuff works, I’m happy to go to a car crusher or a radiator plant or a fish processor or wherever to take photos. I can ask people at these places questions about what’s happening and I can learn something, maybe get a cool new photo for the portfolio and even get paid to do this.

ASMP: How do you plan to market and build awareness for the Rice project and your project on world staple foods as a whole? What are your ultimate goals for this project, and what effect do you hope this work will have on the public?

SG: I’m sending out some pretty cool books from the Rice project to my dream clients. I’ll also be sending out e-mail blasts and more personal e-mails to clients on my lists. I guess my ultimate goal for the project is for people to just take an extra minute to think about their food supply, the dangers of monoculture staples and what they’re eating.

ASMP: Do you market your documentary work differently than your commercial work?

SG: Yes. I’ve been patiently knocking on some doors in the documentary world that I’ve always wanted to get into. I take this as a more personal quest and use handmade e-mails, high-end direct mailers and phone calls. The commercial marketing I do is a little more mechanized.

ASMP: Are there any particular photographers, documentarians, advocates or philanthropists whose work inspires and influences you? If so, please name them and elaborate on how they inspire you.

SG: Edward Burtynsky, Sebastião Salgado and Robert Frank. There are plenty more. But these three can mix strong use of subject matter with light and composition to tell stories in beautiful ways.

ASMP: You are represented by Wonderful Machine. How did this relationship come about and how does it work?

SG: They approached me and pointed out the benefits. I didn’t see a downside for the fees they requested and went for it. After two years I have had some great editorial work from Wonderful Machine and narrowly lost the largest bid of my career from a job they generated and estimated for me.

ASMP: What is the most important business advice you’ve ever received?

SG: Taking photos is about 20 percent of what you do.

ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?

SG: Concentrating on my personal projects and marketing them.

ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?

SG: Taking photos is about 20 percent of what you do.

ASMP: How do you see your career evolving over the next five years? Have you set any major personal or professional goals for yourself in the years ahead?

SG: In the next five years, I’ll continue the slow slide into more motion work. I love the idea of storytelling by motion, but I’m always going to approach that as a still photographer. Goals: I have some dream clients that I want to work with in the next few years and I won’t stop stalking them until I do. I want to complete several projects that I have lined up in my head and maybe spend a little less time in front of the monitor.