This week’s Questions with a Pro features, Jeremy Ruzich.
Jeremy is a Kansas City-based photographer, artist, poet, and filmmaker who works to tell the stories of nonprofit organizations, small grassroots groups, churches, schools, and other groups that have a desire to get their stories out there. He keeps the viewer in mind when creating, which highly influences how he ends up approaching his work. Here, Jeremy details how he ended up specializing in non-profits, where he typically finds inspiration, and how he started to incorporate filmmaking into his work.
We asked: How did you come to focus on telling the stories of non-profits, churches and grassroots groups?
Jeremy said: The idea itself was hatched while I was living in Bolivia for a year and three months as part of a post-college volunteer program. Beyond my work as a volunteer, I set myself to the task of photo-documenting the small rural town I lived in, and so I started falling in love more and more with “people photography” and the unique stories everyone has. Right before I finished my time there, a US-based nonprofit hired me for a day to create images of its programs in that area. That’s when it clicked: nonprofit organizations need compelling imagery to promote their programs and tell their stories just as much as anyone. And as I researched further, I realized that most organizations (except the largest ones, perhaps) get most of their photography piecemeal through pro-bono/donated work (or bland stock images), which makes consistent messaging and branding very difficult. So I saw this shortage of specialists (reliable photographers who were committed to and understood the field of nonprofit), saw the potential for a fulfilling career, and decided that was the direction I wanted.
What keeps me in it is that it’s personal. The organizations that are my clients are the same organizations and people I personally want to promote and be connected with. I have a deeply rooted passion for service and contributing all I can to the common good, and this niche grants me the opportunity to live that out through my full-time job. Which is stupendous!
We asked: Where do you typically find inspiration for your work? Are there any specific places you look for inspiration?
Jeremy said: I hope this isn’t a cop-out answer, but I can find inspiration practically anywhere. I find it often in literally all of the arts: the pantheon of great photographers, past or present, famous or not; the skilled storytelling of writers and filmmakers; poets; musicians; printmakers…I’m regularly inspired by the stories of self-sacrificing individuals and communities fighting for real justice and restoring human rights and dignity in our societies. Even simple moments of everyday life inspire me: the subtle play of sunlight and shifting shadows through the day; the cycle of the seasons; a meal prepared from scratch and shared with a table full of loved ones… Since my work (both client and personal) is essentially about humans and our relationships with ourselves, each other and the rest of the natural world, life itself is my muse.
We asked: How did you begin to incorporate filmmaking into your personal photography business? What did this entail?
Jeremy said: Around 2012, two main factors were coming together. First, I was becoming much more aware of my photographic vision and strengths, namely that my work was at its best when in collections or sequences of images – stronger together than independently. This is when I began self-identifying as a “visual storyteller.” At the same time, I was taking note of how the demand for video was skyrocketing, especially as my main clientele of nonprofits were catching up with the internet and understanding the importance of having concise but memorable videos on their websites and social media.
So, with both the creative interest and business incentive, I set out to learn more about the art of storytelling and the science of all the additional dimensions of filmmaking (audio, motion, time…). As always, I sought out smarter people to glean from their knowledge and wisdom, growing my local network to include experienced video professionals, filmmakers and storytellers. I also absorbed all I could from widely-known sources, like MediaStorm and Transom, and the bountiful, remarkable documentary and journalism work being made all the time.
As for putting all that into practice, I did it somewhat gradually: starting out creating short vignettes using only still photographs combined with audio (what were often called “multimedia” pieces back then); then with each new project, incorporating more and more “motion” and the other basic elements of video as I expanded my knowledge and tools available. (Still learning and growing!)
Also, especially for learning and integrating the best business practices in video production, ASMP has always been a constant advantage and source of education and point of reference for me. From the online tutorials and form templates, to networking, to stellar speakers and workshops hosted and organized by my beloved Kansas City/Mid-America chapter.
We asked: How do you successfully photograph with the viewer in mind? Do you think this effort changes the way you approach your work?
Jeremy said: I’d say I “put myself in their shoes,” but let’s be honest: we all have different sizes and styles, and I can’t know what it’s really like to walk through everyone’s diverse and exotic life experiences. So what I try to do is take everybody’s shoes off.
I’m looking to connect with the viewer on a deep, universal human level; the level of emotion and vulnerability, of bare feet on raw earth. The level we often forget about until reminded by something like a story of a mother’s love for her daughter, or a story about longing for some sense of home, or about fractured relationships beginning to heal…
And the only way to successfully do this: listening and watching intently; being fully present to the people and places and communities; and letting them tell their stories for themselves, as much as possible.
This doesn’t just change how I approach my work – it’s the guiding force behind it. Yes, most of my client projects are used for helping them fundraise and recruit volunteers and all that necessary pragmatic stuff. But I am always looking to invoke the mission and values at the core of the organization – the “Why” of the organization, the fundamental aspirations of the organization.
We asked: What is one thing you wish you knew before pursuing photography as a career? Would this have changed the way you proceeded at all?
Jeremy said: You know, there actually isn’t anything I wished I’d known before. I’m kind of glad how uninformed I was. Because if I had truly known how many times I was going to fail or how many years it was going to take before I had a sustainable business established, I might have avoided the path altogether; and then I wouldn’t have the fulfilling, meaningful career that I have now.
I got a degree in photography, and I interned, and I networked, and I assisted, and I listened, and I observed; so all the raw knowledge was there, available to me. But I couldn’t grasp all of it yet. I think that’s pretty much the nature of a career as complex as being a self-employed professional artist: no matter how much you research and prepare, you’re not going to learn 90% of what you need to learn until you are out in the thick of it and your livelihood depends on it and you make mistakes and fall so hard that it’s pounded into your head and you tell yourself you darn sure aren’t going to make that mistake again…
I take it back: there is one thing I wish I’d known. I wish I could have better understood how blessed and privileged I am to be able to pursue this life, doing the creative work I love for a living. I’ve taken it for granted a whole lot over the years, and I have so many incredible people to thank for where I am today: my parents, my friends, my ASMP colleagues, my clients, my mentors… I hope that I can become just as supportive and encouraging to aspiring photographers and artists as these folks have been to me.
Find more of Jeremy’s work on his website.