Category Archives: Photographer Q&A

Photographer Q&A with Robert Benson

Robert Benson is an editorial and commercial photographer based in San Diego. For a recent project, he took his camera to the open seas, high-end restaurants, and production plants to document the urchin industry. The urchins are plucked one by one off the ocean floor, processed in California and shipped worldwide in less than a day. Benson, working with feature writer Dave Good, chronicles the urchin’s journey from sea to plate.

Aurora Photos: Peter Halmay, who you photographed for this story, said he banned bananas on his fishing boat because he believes that the fruit brings bad luck. Do you have any superstitions, rituals, or beliefs when it comes to shooting?’

Robert Benson: None whatsoever. In fact, I’ve done a lot of foolish things while shooting. I remember shooting a story about a private company that sprayed for mosquitos in swampy areas of Virginia in the summer. To get unique images, I walked behind the truck as it slowly sprayed, in the chemical mist, which was backlit by the sun. I’m sure that will come back to haunt me….

At a motocross truck race I mounted a camera on a monpod in the dirt bank of a hairpin turn. As the trucks raced through the curve, they immediately buried the camera in two feet of muck and mud, and nearly ran over it.

I’ve shot in lightning and rain, tetered on chairs and other unstable things, and have broken just about every other rule in the superstition book. So no, I don’t follow protocol in that regard.

A.P.: This piece is about nature, industry, food and people.  What do you like about this subject? How did you get involved in photographing the urchin industry?

R.B.: Most American’s gag reflex kicks in when they smell, or touch or eat urchin, but I love it. I lived in Japan for seven years and quickly acquired the taste for it. I found out only recently that a large part of the world’s sea urchin comes from waters here in California, and remember seeing a sign once near that waterfront that was handwritten and read “live sea urchin”. I dug a little deeper, met a urchin diver, and he was kind enough to let me on his boat for a few trips. I wanted to experience some of what this world was all about. I feel like I’ve become a sea uchin expert. I know how they grade the quality, how they are cracked open, how they are prepared, how they are shipped, etc.

A.P.: “Uni”, or urchin, is best eaten right on the boat, fresh out of the water. Did you sample the urchin? What sort of odd or unique experiences have you had while you were photographing?

R.B.: I fed the fish on my first trip, vomiting good a couple of times overboard as Pete’s small boat rocked heavily in four foot seas. This was surprising to me, since I spent so much time onboard larger ships in the Navy without incident. I did eat the urchin onboard. We cracked a few on the boat, and scooped out the gonads with a spoon, while the spiny urchin continued to move. The salt sea water gave it a great after taste. Definitely a unique and good taste.

A.P.: You have another series in which you documented trophy rooms. You’ve also photographed fisherman. Is there a certain element to “the thrill of the hunt” that you relate to?

R.B.: I like exploring things that are uncommon to me – and most people. I love fishing too. Grew up in Minnesota.

A.P.: In this story, you photographed underwater, in factories, on boats and in restaurants. Does the way you photograph vary in different types of locations? What advice do you have about lighting, technology and approach?

R.B.: I shot most of this story in film – as much as I could afford to shoot on a personal project at least…. It gets expensive. Most of what I shoot for income are portraits, lit, and choreographed, and planned….. I come from a newspaper photojournalism backround and haven’t been doing a lot of that, so it was nice to document what’s happening, instead of creating what’s happening, which I do with commercial or portrait shoots.

To view more images from Robert Benson, visit Aurora Photos.
To view Robert Benson’s portfolio, visit Novus Select

Photographer Q&A with Stacy Pearsall

Aurora Photographer Stacy Pearsall knows Veterans; not only is she one her self, she has worked for such programs as the Wounded Warrior Program, Real Warriors and other Veteran programs promoting the health of Vets. Stacy has taken her work nation wide and has even appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the NBC Nightly News. After being medically retired from the service in 2007, Stacy moved forward and started the Charleston Center for Photography. We were fortunate enough to have Stacy answer a couple questions for us.

Aurora Photos: How has your own experience as a solider affect your photography and life?

Stacy Pearsall: During my time as a combat photographer, I developed leadership skills, independence and confidence. I grew photographically and was given many opportunities to develop personal projects outside of my everyday military work. My passport was full and I’d seen over 41 countries by the age of 25, which is more than I had ever dreamed. My responsibilities were immense for a young woman of my age. I was required to maintain thousands of dollars worth of camera gear, stay current on weapons qualifications, remain in-the-know about new technology, arrange my own international travel, develop photo stories, shoot, caption and transmit remotely in a timely manner – all while dodging bullets in the worst war-torn countries. Wearing a uniform and staying away from home for months at a time made me appreciate all that I have and value my friends and family so much more. People I’d never have the chance to meet, are now friends for life simply because we served together. We are bound by a commonality, a shared experience, a life no one else can really understand – we’re veterans of the military. It’s amazing how small this fraternity really is and how much of a family we are, no matter what generation, be it WWII, Korea, Vietnam, OEF, OIF or what have you. I’m fortunate to have the title veteran and am proud to be associated with all veterans. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change a bit because I attribute my skills and training as a photographer and my work ethic as a professional all to my military service.

A.P: Can you tell us briefly about your portraits of Veterans for the Charleston VA Hospital?

S.P: After being wounded in action in 2007, I was medically evacuated from Iraq. I went through months of recovery and multiple medical procedures. Eventually, I was told that I couldn’t continue my job as a combat photographer and was medically retired from service. To say I was devastated would be the understatement of the century. I transferred my medical care from active duty military doctors over to the VA. I spent countless hours in many waiting rooms among numerous other vets, who were mostly older males of WWII, Korea and Vietnam Era. They’d ask, “Are you here with your dad?” and I’d chuckle and shake my head. “No sir,” I’d respond, “I’m a veteran.” A look of astonishment would wash over their faces, which was often followed by a floodgate of questions. After exchanging so many stories with wonderful veterans, it occurred to me that I should start making their portraits. I started by bringing my camera to my doctor’s appointments and while I was waiting to see the doctor, I’d take pictures. Then I began to bring a backdrop and lights between appointments and shoot more portraits. I eventually spent the entire year shooting them and obtained 300 plus veterans’ portraits. I never intended for the pictures to go anywhere other then in the hands of the vets. However, the art curator at the Charleston VA asked if they could install a permanent exhibit of a selection of the portraits down the main hallway of the hospital. I was thrilled and the vets have center-stage with their names and branches of service below their pictures.

I continue to travel to other VA Hospitals and take pictures of veterans. My goal is to photograph veterans in every state and perhaps, eventually, overseas. One step at a time I guess.

A.P: How has your work at the Charleston Center for Photography changed the way you approach your own photography?

S.P: I continue to push myself photographically and what’s surprising is my students at the Charleston Center for Photography (CCforP) continue to inspire me. Everyone has an individual, creative vision and I truly enjoy watching other budding photographers make beautiful work. I find that CCforP affords me the opportunity to stay on the pulse of new technology and even test new gear, beta test software and put camera gear through its paces. CCforP really keeps me “in-the-know” and I love it. Plus, I get to work with my husband, combat veteran and fellow photographer, Andy Dunaway.

A.P: Do you have any upcoming projects that you can share with us?

S.P: I am currently working on two different veteran photo stories. One story is about incarcerated veterans and the VA’s initiative to intercede on their behalf. They are doing their best to go into prison systems and get veterans the care they need, whether that be metal health, drug rehabilitation or the like. The second story is about the rise of women veterans’ homelessness. It’s a very important topic, especially because I am a female veteran. I’ve been trying my best to advocate on behalf of other women vets and raise awareness about their needs. This is just one of those very basic needs female vets need right now.

To view more images from Stacy Pearsall, visit Aurora Photos.

Photographer Q&A with Peter Essick


Peter Essick / Aurora Photos

Aurora Photos: In a project published in National Geographic and featured by NPR, you paid homage to Ansel Adams and the Sierra Nevada wilderness area that is named after him. Ansel Adams is undoubtedly the world’s most famous environmental photographer. What about his work is meaningful and interesting to you?

Peter Essick: I like the timeless quality and purity of vision in the work of Ansel Adams. I could relate to the story of how he found solace in nature when he first started photographing in the Sierra Nevada. This story on the Ansel Adams Wilderness was meant to be a tribute to someone who has influenced many photographers and also someone who was a tireless advocate for wilderness.

 A.P: In your blog, you write often about both serendipity and preparation and how they affect image making. For this project, how much did you rely on chance, and how much did you rely on prior planning?

 P.E: I planned the trips the best that I could in respect to trying to go in different seasons and hiking to places that sounded interesting in the guidebook. However, as is usually the case in landscape photography the best pictures were not planned but came as the result of either dramatic lighting conditions or weather events.

 A.P: These photos are all about nature. But you are also widely recognized for your photos of people and cultures. How is your mindset, technique and behavior different when photographing these different subjects?

P.E: I choose the equipment based on whether I am planned to photograph landscapes or people. I like to think of it as a static bag and an action bag. For landscapes it is usually all about a tripod, full frame sensor and slow exposure for great depth of field. For people I use the Canon camera that recycles faster and often shoot wide open. However, in both situations I use a documentary approach where I try to just observe as best as I can and alter the scene as little as possible.

A.P: You have followed the footsteps of photographer Ansel Adams in the Sierra Nevada wilderness and renowned anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands. What other prominent figures inspire you? Whose work would you like to profile next?

P.E: The two other great figures in respect to the American environmental movement are John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. I don’t have any projects involving either at the moment, but would like to figure out some way to do a story about them.

Peter Essick / Aurora Photos

To view more images from Peter Essick, visit Aurora Photos.

Photographer Q&A with Ron Koeberer

Ron Koeberer / Aurora Photos

Aurora Photos: Your situation shooting on movie sets is pretty unique among our contributing photographers. Can you tell us a bit about the experience while on set and how you create images during productions?

Ron Koeberer: I am currently working on a feature film is San Francisco and yes, it is a unique experience. I am always flattered when I am hired as the unit stills photographer. But how tough can it really be . . . the film crew provides locations / sets, dresses the actors up, adds make-up and props, lights the scene and I take the photograph. I know I am over simplifying things but I really do believe I have the easiest job on set.

I got my start if you will, photographing student films.  First I asked if I can shoot some stills; promised I would not walk in front of the camera, step on any toes, or be in the shot too many times. And I hoped I would get invited back. (All this is for free mind you.) And I didn’t so I was. Slowly I started building a portfolio and then with a little luck and perseverance my images attracted some attention, and people start calling me and eventually started paying me.

I was very fortunate to have had one of the best stills photographers in the business as a mentor and friend. He was invaluable at the start (and still is); critiquing my work, answering questions, and keeping my spirits up and eventually referring me to his clients when he was unavailable. What small amount of success I have had, I owe much of it to my good friend.  It’s a tough business, far more difficult than I thought it would be to break into. While you clearly must have the technical ability, know your way around a set and the set protocol, getting a job many times comes down to relationships and who you know.

It’s a great job if you don’t mind the long hours, the difficult locations, and the seemingly endless waiting around and then not being able to get the shot you so desperately want.  But when I am on set, looking through my camera lens, there is no other place on earth I would rather be.  I remember one of first real films I worked on. It was a student film but it had very high production values.  It was 1930’s boxing movie and they had made this great boxing ring set in an old warehouse; complete with extras all dressed for that period. As I walked on set that morning they were just starting to rehearse so I quickly grabbed my camera. Then, as I looked through the lens it was like being transported back in time, the hairs on my neck literally stood up. It was a magical experience.

A. P: Your spin on image making provides moody, sometimes ethereal pictures. Do you naturally see in this way?

R. K: As somebody one said . . . “photography is knowing where to stand.” And I have always contended, and with much disagreement by others, that if any other photographer was standing where I stood and saw what I saw, they would have taken the same photograph. But a more direct answer to would be yes. I think I do intentionally look for those moments: compositions that convey powerful emotions, drama, or something that one would not normally see.

In my opinion, I think that much of that has to do with removing your “filters” and just shooting, not thinking and taking the millisecond to ask yourself the question . . . why am I taking this photograph?

Because by then it may be too late. I try to go by instinct and emotions. Then, in the editing process I ask myself that question and I try and find what was appealing, what caused me to take the photograph.  Sometimes it may take some manipulation, cropping, etc. to realize what motivated me. I’m not saying it’s always there or that I am always successful, I’m not. But I try and learn from my mistakes which are many. In most cases this is how I try and approach much of my photography. I’m also not above avoiding the obvious great “stock” shot if it is staring me in the face, the one I do not have to go looking for. And I try to avoid directing. I just don’t have the patience for that and don’t think I am particularly good at it. I think my strong suit is recognizing a shot when I see it. And what is important to remember is that when I am on a movie or TV set photographing, I have zero authority to direct or position people. I must find a way to get “the shot” without interfering with the production of it. Occasionally I do receive some prior guidance from the publicity department at the studio as to what kinds of images they need, but aside from that, I am left alone to shoot what I want.  That kind of freedom is priceless.

A.P: What subject or scenario excites you most these days when shooting?

R.K: Lately I have been shooting a lot of reality TV shows. It’s tough as there are no rehearsals, cameras are everywhere, you never know what is going to happen next, and it’s very fast paced and typically poorly lit.  But I figure if I can do a decent job in that environment, it just makes me better a better photographer, and is good training for when when I work on a feature film like I am doing now where you can have multiple opportunities to capture that great shot. It’s still not easy for me, but at least I get more chances.

I have shot my fair share of student films (and still do now and again, my way of giving back), spec. commercials, stage plays, “experimental films” and many feature length films. But if I had to pick a subject or scenario I would have to go with a feature length film, one preferably shot sometime in the past, a period piece with great acting and script, exciting and exotic locations so I can once again, be transported back in time. . .

And finally, stock photography is what I do between films.  My wife and I travel as much as we can, and I take photos when we do so. I also try and give myself assignments and keep my eyes open for photographic opportunities. The beautiful part of all this is that I have a great editor at Aurora who puts up with poorly edited submissions and succeeds in finding a few gems now and again.  At least we hope so. I am blessed with the best of both worlds.

Ron Koeberer / Aurora Photos


Ron Koeberer / Aurora Photos

To view more images from Ron Koeberer, visit Aurora Photos.

Photographer Q&A with Woods Wheatcroft

Woods Wheatcroft / Aurora Photos

Aurora Photos: Your images are playful and amusing, how do you stay creative and inspired?

Woods Wheatcroft: I consider myself a playful and amusing person…!! So basically if i just stay in touch with myself and surround myself with positive fun loving folk while i am shooting,  i usually come away with a frame or two that resonate and communicate this truth. I also keep a journal and have since i was 16.  The journals are my creative sounding board. Everything from shot ideas to colors to concepts i like are all pasted and penned into one book that i refer to often.

A.P: If you could go anywhere on assignment, where would you go?

W.W: Hmmmmm…Hold on…I’m going to go look at my atlas…Currently i am inspired to shoot big wide open spaces on this planet. Dry, arid,big planetary feel. So maybe the Aral Sea in Russian Republics, Atacama desert in Northern Chile, the Gobi…or the opposite…some bubbly warm tropical island in the remote South Pacific!!

A.P: We think your bike commuters series is great. Tell us a bit about your interest in the project.

W.W: My interest spawned in a collaboration with Peter Dennen. It has evolved into a nice personal project and one in which I am not out there amassing frames just for the sake of seeing how many people I can take pictures of that ride their bike. It’s has become a little more than that. I am searching out unique people, situations, and aiming to capture people who truly love their bicycle and the lifestyle that comes with it. And the fact that they use it as a substitute for an automobile is an added bonus…However, I do hope to continue to build the numbers and have the project increase the influence and importance of alternative transportation.  With gas prices rising again, I think the timing for pushing this idea out there is fine.  Also, National Bike to Work Week is the last week of this month…

Woods Wheatcroft / Aurora Photos
Woods Wheatcroft / Aurora Photos

To view more images from Woods Wheatcroft, visit Aurora Photos.