How did you get to the point in your photography and filmmaking career where you could support yourself?
I always say that your work is your passport. People often make a mistake thinking it’s about a great idea or who you know or what school you went to, and it’s really just the work that takes you to the next place. It was my project on the French aristocracy that really started my career. I spent a year waitressing after college and working on that, and I sent it to National Geographic. They had an internship, and I was chosen out of 200 candidates. It was an amazing experience where you get to know the photographers and go through film when it’s coming in from the field and have access to cameras and to the people there, who give you feedback on your work. It was really the first time that I wanted to try to be a photographer, because it was the first time that I saw the photographer as the storyteller, rather than just the illustrator of somebody else’s stories. And a lot of the people that I met were my mentors for 15 years. One of them is still my best friend and my go-to person on all my projects.
When you were starting out, how did you have time for your commercial career and your long-term personal projects?
I’ve always done self-assigned work, even after I started getting assignments from magazines, and my personal projects have always been the driver of my choices. Whatever I’ve been doing, I’ve always tried not to get distracted by jobs. Not to say that I don’t need to make a living like everybody else, but I’ve tried to take jobs that forward and support the personal jobs and not the ones that distract me from that goal.
With Fast Forward, I started the project on my own and then I went to a workshop for young photographers called the Eddie Adams Workshop, and I showed it to an agent there, and she gave me a grant and told me she’d start representing me on the basis of those pictures. So I kept going. I’m like, “If I get a $500 grant, then I can go out and spend $5,000, and just figure out a way to get the rest.” In a way, the grants have always been something that gives me confidence that I’m on the right track. But they are never enough money to actually do the thing. Then I got really lucky—I did a project about this Mexican Mayan village for National Geographic and they ended up killing the story. It was a devastating failure for me—I had spent like six months on it, and it was my first story for them. But then I showed them the [Fast Forward] pictures and they said they wanted to support that work. They gave me the first National Geographic Development Grant, which they have been giving ever since to people they want to develop as photographers. So that funded almost the rest of the project.
Have you experienced other discouraging setbacks along the way?
When it came time to do Fast Forward as a book, I was turned down by more than 20 publishers over a two-year period. In the end, Knopf agreed to publish the work, and it was like a fairy tale, because they were the most prestigious publisher, but one we wouldn’t have dreamed we’d have a chance with, so we didn’t go to them until the very end.
Why did you decide to transition from photographer to filmmaker?
I studied photography and filmmaking at Harvard, but when I got out into the world I found film really hard to break into. I applied to film schools and got rejected by all of them for several years. I was using 16-millimeter film and I had no experience. Back then, you couldn’t just go out make your own film, because it was so expensive. But you could go out and do your own photo projects. It wasn’t until 2004, 17 years after I had first tried to make films, that I made my first movie [Thin].
Was it hard to switch mediums like that?
I’m used to capturing one millisecond in time, so stepping back from the camera and letting someone else shoot and thinking about what’s come before and what comes after was really new to me. I’m not discarding photography as a way of storytelling, but I feel like film really stretches me as an artist. There are some aspects of story that I can’t get at with just pictures. Also, it was so gratifying to reach so many people with Queen of Versailles. For the movie to go to so many theaters and be seen on iTunes and Netflix and Bravo—that’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced as a photographer.
It sounds like no matter what you’ve attempted, you’ve always had a really strong support system. Is that essential?
Having a relationship with mentors has always been really important to me. I show cuts of my movies and edits of my pictures to people and get feedback. In some ways this is a very solitary and very lonely journey, because you’re out there making images and you don’t know if they’ll ever see the light of day. There were certainly times with Queen of Versailles where I said, “Do I have anything here?” We showed it to so many people and nobody wanted to give money for it. Half the time we were self-funding it and always spending ahead of what we had. It took this kind of crazy trust and commitment to the story, which is totally irrational.
Part of it is that I have an incredible partner in my husband, who I’ve been with since college, who just always believed in whatever I’m doing, and says keep doing it, even if nobody else sees it. I think that support is really important for an artist, because you don’t always get feedback from publications or money or fame or prestige.
It can’t be about what anybody else thinks.
In a way, but I do this for communication. I definitely care. I’m not an artist that doesn’t care what people think. I always want to have an audience. ♦