Let me introduce you to Anthony Kerr. He’s a 32 year old Canadian and has been blogging over at motojournalism.com for the last two years. Kerr brings a unique mix of overland motorcycling know-how and photographic knowledge to his audience. He writes on topics that range from packing a bike for a big trip to nailing composition in photographs.
On his motorcycle powered travels (he has never owned a car) to 10 countries in North and Central America, Kerr has caved out a niche in the photography world. He said, “I think it’s important to have a passion outside of photography itself. Like, you should be into something besides the cameras themselves, Cameras are just a tool to tell stories after all.”
The love for cameras came before motorcycles, but only slightly. Kerr is a self-taught photographer who used to break into his high school’s unused dark room to develop film while learning the basics from Time-Life books. He renewed his passion for photos in 2005 and started working seriously at it in 2007, about the same time he was planning his first overland trip. “I figured if I was going to head out into the world I should make a worthwhile effort to document it,” he said.
That effort paid off. By the time Kerr reached Panama City on his Canada to Panama ride his post on ADVRider had nearly a quarter-million views. Lots of people wanted to know about his photography and asked questions about what kind of gear he was using. “I figured there would be enough moto-travelers that would enjoy learning more about photography.” And thus Motojournalism was born.
Kerr not only blogs about adventure, motorcycles, and photography but also has a pair of ebooks and recently completed a documentary on two aging off-roaders who are still in the game. I caught up with him via email and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about what being a “motojournalist” is really like.
What opportunities has being a motojournalist afforded you that you might not otherwise have had?
Motorcyclists are a pretty tight crew. I’ve had many people invite me into their homes, feed me, show me around, I’ve flown a guy’s float-plane, one rider even gave me a dental check-up! There’s an understanding between motorcyclists, you always help each other out whenever you can. Being a photographer is a great way to pay them back for their hospitality, I always try to leave them with good photos of themselves, their families,their homes.
I also find that regular people react differently to somebody who’s travelled from far away without an airplane. People are curious and come up to have conversations with a guy on a motorcycle. They’ll tell you where to go, where to avoid, they’ll offer food, help, a place to stay. I don’t think that would happen as much in a car.
What kind of outlets does a motojournalist typically work for?
Work? In 2012? Well, it’s really a passion driven thing. Very few people are making a living from just from traveling and I suspect that those who do – the sponsored expeditions, book-writing deals etc, loose a bit of the real freedom of the road. I think you need to do it because you love traveling and storytelling first – maybe you can make something of it when you get back.
I’m inspired by people like Sebastião Salgado, he would pay out of pocket for his own projects and do incredible work with sugar cane labourers in Brazil, oil workers in eastern Europe, all kinds of people. Beautiful photography that will be historically important. After his trips he’d sell his work to fund the next trip – but It seems those days are gone for the time being. I am trying to use the work I’ve done to gain paid assignments, but right now it’s all about saving the pennies from the freelance work
What are your favorite things to photograph? Why?
It’s got to be the people I meet. It’s funny but the camera kind-of gives you an excuse to hang around and take it all in. Like in Guatemala I met these two old blacksmiths, the Juarez brothers. They make all the colonial era hardware for the local buildings, latches, hinges, door handles and hardware, after I’d bought a few things I asked if I could take photos. The camera was a ticket that let us know each other a little bit. It let me see how they work and live. The camera let me make a brief connection rather than just passing through.
What makes a good photo?
Well, there’s this famous Ansel Adams quote that often comes up as a snappy answer to that question, but I think it’s true – he said “A good photograph is knowing where to stand”
I’ve found that once something catches your eye, finding an interesting angle to shoot your subject from is key.
And this is independent of the technology, the camera doesn’t matter at this point – if you were to give a good photographer a disposable camera they’d still be able to come back with good photos. There’s no settings, the only tool you have would be the position of the camera.
And camera position is where composition and good natural lighting come from, you move real-world objects and people around your frame by moving yourself left or right, by crouching down low, or standing on a fence with the camera over your head. Once you have a good position then you can think about the timing and the camera settings.
What is the most important lesson you’ve ever learned about photography/life while riding a motorcycle?
Traveling by motorcycle makes you realize how the world is connected. You’re not sealed in a box so you’re really exposed to everything. You see the light from dawn to dusk and because you travel slowly over land the changes are very gradual; a new plant, a bird you’ve never seen before, the landscape smells different as you roll along to a new place. I can trace in my head the path from Newfoundland to Panama and see how the people, their work, the local customs, the food and the land change slowly.
What is in your camera bag right now?
Hasn’t changed in years. A Nikon D200, a 28mm f2.8, an 85mm f1.8, and an 11-16mm 2.8. About half my photos come from the Lumix LX2 in my motorcycle jacket, and I like to take my Lomo LC-A+. The “keeper” ratio with the Lomo is pretty amazing compared to digital.
Do you find modern assignments require a lot of cross-over between photo and video? How do you deal with that?
Well, video is really all new to me and I’m just trying to make a career out of it now. My introduction to video actually came about because of my motorcycle trip. The producer of a big home renovation show here in Montreal is a motorcycle rider, he’d been following my ride report. When I got back to Canada he called me to film B-roll for a new series he was planning. I’d never shot video so he loaned me a camera to practice. The series never made it out of the boardroom, but I became fascinated with shooting and editing video.
Video is much more involved. There has to be a clear plan of what you are going to shoot, and I think you need a crew of at least three or more to really get rolling. A single photographer can cover a story, but video is best with more than one camera operator, a sound guy, somebody to deal with reflectors and scrims, an interviewer, a field producer, shot lists, room tone, pre-planning… I LOVE it, there’s just a lot to do!
You were asking earlier about work, It’s such a weird time to be making a living with image-making. From my perspective it seems we’re just coming out the other side of this huge transition in the industry, everybody is staggering around, trying to find their feet. I’m confident there will be a way to make a living, but it’s not clear yet how.
Of course these storytelling projects cost money, so I’m looking to the sponsored format of the videos of the Reel Rock film festival, the Arcteryx and the North Face internet videos. They seem to strike an ideal balance between real storytelling, content for the audience and advertising for the sponsors.
I think if you’re making any sort of digital media, it’s GOING TO BE all over the internet, whether you like it or not.
The model of the scarcity of a physical object isn’t valid for recorded media anymore. I think you’ve got to take advantage of the power of having a hundred people each tell a hundred people, “hey, check this out” and on and on. Distribution costs nothing and it’s instant. This is a good thing for creators, advertisers and the audience.
You say you are a photographer, videographer and graphic designer. Why is it important to diversify?
It’s funny, but to me it’s all the same thing. You’ve got a rectangle of space to work in and you arrange shapes, colour and texture into something that makes you go hmm. This diversity gives more opportunity to be involved in interesting projects and sometimes lets you do things that a specialist might not think of.
For the Fifty Years of Kicks motorcycle documentary, I designed and printed a “service manual”. I filmed the subject of the documentary flipping through the pages of this “manual” and this served as the title and opening credits.
Let’s talk about your documentary 50 Years of Kicks. How did you come across this story/what inspired you to tell it?
I met these two old off-road riders Paul and Larry in Ontario. A lot of riders feel that their riding days are over after 40, but these two are in their 60’s and 70’s! They still race and leave people in the dust.
It was a case of “I want to be like them someday!” Larry and Paul are very skilled riders, super-fit, humble, funny, full of stories and fun to be around. All-round inspiring. Video was the right tool to tell their story.
It couldn’t have happened without Dallas Shannon of the Traction eRag taking the role of Producer. He was the guy that had the contacts, made things happen, arranged locations, borrowed and rented equipment drove to the locations, conducted the interviews. I’d come up with a shot list: “Vintage tricycle, chicken-house, 1963 Honda 90” and he’d call round and arrange it all for me to shoot. It was a real team effort.
The documentary was a self-assignment, something we did to learn how it all works. Now we have this under our belt as a demo to get further work. The exposure on YouTube has been great. 40,000 views in the first few weeks, over 95,000 views now.
I love the story Paul told about his balance problem and overcoming it. What are some tips for coaxing good stories from your subjects?
Well, first give them time to get comfortable with you before the cameras start coming out. Have the subject in a comfortable environment, somewhere they feel natural. One reason a separate audio recorder is nice is that it’s less intimidating than a camera and you can leave it rolling while you are setting everything else up.
Some easy throwaway questions at the beginning are a good idea, and it’s important to steer them toward the subject you want, but let them talk – once you get them on a subject they are passionate about, they will pour out all kinds of things you never even thought of. Then you can pick up on the stories as they come out and dig further by asking more questions. It should really feel like it’s a conversation.
Do you have great stories to tell from the filming/producing 50 Years of Kicks?
Oh we met a whole pile of characters from the different corners of motorcycling, all potential stories in themselves.
Some of the GoPro helmet camera footage was funny. It was great to hear Larry and Paul chat amongst themselves. At one point Larry asked Paul “So what did you do while you lived in Florida?” and Paul answered “Oh, I was down at the Cape, flying men to the moon.”
Turns out he was a NASA engineer who worked on the Saturn V for all the Apollo moon missions!
Talk to me about your ebooks, who are they written for?
The ebooks were written for people who travel long distance overland and want great photos of their adventures. Every traveler brings some sort of camera but often they feel a bit disappointed by their images. You hear, “sorry for the bad photos” or “it’s steeper than it looks” a lot. The ebooks are for those people, because with a few basic skills, I know they can take way better photos.
What will people learn by reading them?
The first book especially is about using whatever camera you have NOW to take better photos. I think without a foundation of photographic basics, it doesn’t matter what camera you have. It’s a primer on photography, specific to the situations that travelers will come across. Basic composition, choosing a subject, photographing people and landscapes, the importance of the edit.
The second book is about the tools of photography, camera settings for different situations, choosing gear, packing the gear securely on a motorcycle, and dealing with data on the road.
Anything else you would like to add?
I really encourage everybody to hit the road – even just for a short while – and to photograph and write about it, then share it. Some people are worried that a personal blog or ride reports would be too self-indulgent, but I think that the story of the traveler is just part of it. This type of travel exposes you to how other people live. It’s an ideal opportunity to tell their stories to the world.
You can follow Anthony on Twitter @Motojournalism