OPPORTUNITY MEETS PREPARATION
CONVERSATION WITH PHOTOGRAPHER:
BY CHAD SWEENEY, WWW.GHOSTTOWNLITMAG.COM
ANTHONY CARBAJAL is a street photographer living in Redlands, California. He has appeared on the Ellen Show and has displayed his work in multiple galleries and art festivals.
I was honored to sit down with photographer, Anthony Carbajal, on November 20th, 2017, to record this interview. We spoke for over an hour, and here I am including about half of the transcript of our conversation. Anthony Carbajal is a remarkable street photographer despite (or because of) his condition, called ALS, which attacks the central nervous system until the individual can no longer move or speak, but can feel, see, hear and think. Carbajal travels the streets, taking his stunning photographs from the armrest of his wheelchair using a foot or wrist trigger. He is one of the most talented artists I have ever met.
Sweeney: Is the relationship between ALS and photography productive or antagonistic?
Carbajal: The thing is, sometimes I feel defeated with my limitations, and I don't have any motivation to get out, because I feel like it's too difficult for me to work. But if I translate my limitations into something that is potentially advantageous, my limitations will sometimes force me to be a little more creative. So instead of focusing on the things I can't do, I try to focus on the things that my wheelchair allows me to do that other photographers can’t. Does that make sense?
Sweeney: Yes, that’s fascinating, and how does being in your wheelchair become an advantage?
Carbajal: Well, my wheelchair . . . first, there are a lot of disadvantages, things that I can't control as a photographer. It's very difficult for me to manipulate my camera, and so I have to understand what my perspective is, at my hip, I'm essentially shooting at the hip with my camera strapped onto the armrest, I don't always know exactly what's in my viewfinder, especially if it's bright outside. But, when I approach people in my wheelchair the first thing they see is not my camera. They see me, and they see my wheelchair, and they try to understand what I'm doing. They see me rolling up—I have a camera, I'm playing my music—and I feel like they think about what they're trying to overcome and what their limitations are, and they start a conversation and they really open up.
Sweeney: How does that happen?
Carbajal: My wheelchair kind of breaks down social boundaries that people normally place against each other. Because I can still walk, and when I'm walking people don't pay attention to me at all, but when I'm in my wheelchair I get this crazy level of kindness. And when I’m getting this kindness, and at the same time, if I can photograph them candidly without them knowing, I can photograph the essence of every ordinary day. Then I ask their permission to use the photos. I really enjoy it. When I first did this I didn't know what I was doing. I rolled out and started taking photos of cats and dogs and trees and people.
Sweeney: How is this kind of photography different from being a wedding photographer?
Carbajal: As a wedding photographer, I used to photograph people's most important day of their lives. I would say, This is the most important day of your life, this is an investment. That was the sales pitch that I would give to people and half-heartedly believe. And so now I'm photographing the ordinary, because it's so fleeting and trying to realize that every moment's beautiful. With this disease I have a very limited time frame with my strength, and so I realized that every day is important. Now I photograph the ordinary and try to translate it in such a way that everyone can understand how fleeting and beautiful it is.
Sweeney: Can you explain how the transformation occurred from being a wedding photography for a living into being a street photographer as an art?
Carbajal: The last wedding that I photographed was in December of 2013, in Santa Barbara, the most expensive wedding I had ever photographed . . . and I couldn't even button my shirt. I had my assistant help me put my shirt on. At the time I wasn't sure if I had ALS, like my mom has and my grandma, too, or if I had worked too much, because during that year I photographed 47 weddings and I had this monster of a camera that people normally use for the Olympics. I just thought that my hands were getting weak—when I was taking photographs I had to use different fingers to change the settings on my camera, and my arms would shake when I was carrying the camera that day.
Sweeney: Just that one day? It came on that fast?
Carbajal: Well, it was an ongoing thing. I had been very suspicious since Thanksgiving of that year because I did a lot of things with my hands, I did origami, I played yo-yo, I did magic tricks, I drew, I painted, I did photography, I was a very hands-on person, and normally everybody gives me the cards to shuffle because I like to shuffle them fancy for Thanksgiving, but I said No—I had to tell my sister I can't . . . my hands are just too sore and too weak, I can't, I can't shuffle anymore, and I thought, Okay, maybe this is something bad. And then that January Obamacare came into effect, and I was able to get insurance. I made an appointment, got my diagnosis and told my family the news, then cancelled all the weddings and didn't pick up a camera again until maybe a year later. I had to sell all my equipment to pay back those wedding deposits.
Sweeney: How did you get back into photography a year later, and what had changed in your approach?
Carbajal: I got to the point where I had to do something creative. I hadn't done anything creative in a very long time. I just had to get out. I didn't care what the heck it was, but I had to get out, roll around and take photographs, and that's what I did. And then I realized, I think this is street photography. I think this is something that people do. But normally people go to L.A., or they go to Chicago or New York. I'm shooting the suburban neighborhoods of Redlands. And is this special?
Sweeney: I think it is! So at first you did it for yourself, because you wanted a way to get out. This is remarkable because if you didn't discover you had ALS, or start to feel the symptoms of it, you may not have become a street photographer.
Carbajal: Yes, I mean, I can't drive anymore but when I roll out, I feel like I'm driving. I used to skateboard, I've been skateboarding my whole life in the streets. Now I'm in the streets again and when I go through the streets I have all these memories from before my obligations as an adult, of what life was really about. It's crazy. I go into the streets and have these memories of me playing 21 or me playing football like I used to play all the time, or me skateboarding in the streets of Murrieta, California. And I tell myself if I could go back in time I wouldn't have gone to college. I went to LMU for five years, I graduated from LMU, but if I knew how impermanent my life is I would be doing a lot of things differently.
Sweeney: Like what, specifically?
Carbajal: I would just be focusing on things I can do today, I would be going out more and spending time with family. When I see people use their hands, I'm fascinated by it. When I'm not outside I'm on Youtube watching people making things with their hands. Like I watch carpentry videos, bull training videos . . . I watch origami videos, everything that people do with their hands fascinates me, I can watch for hours. When I get out into the streets it brings me back to what I’ve really enjoyed about my life thus far, and it's just getting out, enjoying the sun. And it's just perspective, you know. Not many people do that anymore.
Sweeney: So the immediate sensory presence in the world is the most precious thing?
Sweeney: What it looks like to me, the people that are the subjects of your photographs, they seem like they're in their private space, rather than in public. And it's impossible to capture an image of someone in private the way you do it, and yet you do it, somehow, time after time after time, because almost every image has this affect. How do you think you achieve that?
Carbajal: Deep question. This might be good for me to talk about, because I'm trying to understand my process. Well, I usually have a short conversation with them, and as I'm talking with them I'm also photographing them, because my trigger, my shutter release cable is on my foot or it's on my hand. I don't have to put my hand on the camera to take their photograph. At first, I rarely ask for permission, I just do it, and then I ask later. I technically don’t have to ask their permission, because they’re outside in public, but I ask anyway if I can take their photograph. Unless, there are kids involved, or something like that, I don't want people to misconstrue my intentions.
Sweeney: So you have their permission, but they don't know the moment you're taking their photograph? So they're not stiff or nervous or smiling in some unnatural pose.
Carbajal: Yes, I always ask their permission and yes, so I photograph them before they put up their guard. And I won't post photographs of kids unless I have their parents' permission. There's one photograph that I have where I asked their permission, but their parents said, I don't want you showing that. It's a really sweet image. It was on the patio in front of Augie's Cafe, an elderly white lady, and she had a baby in a crib, a mixed race baby with blue eyes, very beautiful. It was just such a beautiful moment, the light was really nice, beautiful tones, and she told me that the baby was just adopted, and she had been taken away from her home, and there can't be any photos of her for a very long time posted in public. So I'm always careful, especially around children, that people don't think I'm a creeper.
Sweeney: So when you say, you want them to know you're not a creeper, it implies that we live in a time when strangers don't trust each other, so in a way this project is an act of diplomacy and breaking down barriers, simply to move through neighborhoods and capture images.
Carbajal: Yes, that's my goal. I'm starting a project in San Bernardino—yesterday was my first day of going—and a loved one told me, You can't go there, it's so dangerous!—and this is what everybody says—don’t go there, don't visit there. And it's the next city over. You know, San Bernardino is considered the most dangerous city in California, and it also has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. So I go there on Friday, my first time going there, and I'm very nervous, and I wasn't approaching people much, but trying to ease my way into it. Because if people are saying these things, then how are they treating the city? Are the people getting funding, are they getting the support that they need? Why is it the way it is? I feel like it's good to change perspectives.
Sweeney: Can you talk about any specific interactions from your day in San Bernardino?
Carbajal: I posted an image on Instagram, of a homeless addict, a Native American woman, and she is intoxicated beyond belief, and she doesn't have a shirt on, she has a bra on, and I felt uncomfortable posting it, but I do want to share it because it's not something we can ignore. I don't know what the solution is, but I definitely know that we shouldn't ignore these people. And I posted the image and asked, How does this make you feel? And everybody's response was, Oh my gosh it's so sad—Oh, I don't want to see this, and one person said, I walk by this woman every day on my way to work, it's disgusting. And I feel like, this is how people treat these individuals in real life, not just in the photographs, because of these people, more than anything these people need the most amount of attention because they're hurting somewhere. And I try to at least have a conversation with them, and I rarely post photographs of people in those situations. I don't know what to do with it. I'm still learning. People look at certain individuals and already make assumptions of who they are. I tell Laarne that if I feel uncomfortable, that means it's probably a good place to take a photograph.
Sweeney: So you've said that you go out without intention, but it seems to me that you have quite a bit of intention. What do you mean by not having intention?—is it possible that you actually do? I mean, what are your goals?
Carbajal: Sometimes, I try not to put too many expectations or goals on my process. I just like to go out for the fun of it. It's kind of an escape from my reality, because, whatever I'm going through with the progression of my disease . . . . there are certain parts of Redlands that I used to be scared of, or at least slightly uncomfortable being there—especially that area near Stater Bros—but now I have thoroughly investigated the whole area and I have talked to the people that I was once scared of, and I realize that I shouldn't be scared of them, I should just approach them and treat them normally, because I feel like they are going through something similar to what I am. Because I have a pain in a way, and they have a pain that's ignored. And I remember having this disease, this rare disease, and not having a voice, and I remember what it felt like when someone began to listen to me. And these are realizations that I’m having right now as I'm talking to you. I guess that's what it is, I tell Laarne that I try to find places where I am uncomfortable then I go to those places. And why do I feel uncomfortable, am I making unfair judgments on a community or a group of people just by one look. Everybody's in their situation because of life experiences, and they aren't always positive ones.
Sweeney: Can you tell us about a specific experience where you initially felt uncomfortable but then came into a deeper knowledge of someone?
Carbajal: Yes, so one time I force myself to go into an alleyway by Stater Bros, and there's this girl and it looks like she's meditating or praying or something, but she's homeless, and I go over there and she starts approaching me, and I feel afraid, but I think, maybe I'll find a moment to photograph her, and she comes up to me and she's a little tweaked out and she has track marks on her arms, and she's young, though, she's around my age, and then her boyfriend comes out from behind the building and comes up to me, and they're talking to me, and they ask if they can pray for me. And I wish I recorded their prayer, but I was able to photograph our hands. They asked if I would hold their hands, and their hands were filthy, there was crud all over their fingers and they didn't smell so great either, but she kept on praying, it was a long prayer, like ten minutes, but at the end she said something like, I wrote it down, something like God, thank you for giving Anthony the strength to be outside today, I know he is weak but he is stronger than me. Thank you for showing me this. And that's pretty profound. I don't know how I'm helping, I know I want to help people in some way but I don't know how to. Just by treating them like a normal person is a good start, a really good start, treating them as if they are my brother or my sister. Just pretending I didn't see those track marks, or pretending I didn't notice that they haven't taken a shower in a few days. Why am I going to hold that against them?
Sweeney: Is the project personal in this way where, maybe, it's about expanding your ability to have compassion or empathy beyond what you had been able to before? And maybe that's the project for all of us as your audience, that when we see the photographs the healing we feel is that the limits of our empathy have been expanded, one person, one neighborhood at a time. Because you seem to capture people in their nobility—even if they're in an alley with track marks, somehow, in the photograph the framing and the beautiful light and the texture reveal some divine aspect in the person.
Carbajal: I think it's perspective. You're hitting on a good point. I notice that. A big theme to the conversations that I've had, people say things like, I'm so glad I saw today. Here I was focusing on issues I was complaining about, and here you are smiling, and who am I, my problems are . . . and I don't want to belittle people's issues, their issues are real things, but maybe it's perspective for them. It changes their perspective even in that small conversation, they're lit up, and they're happy for me, like Here you are in your chair, smiling, and I don't know what you're going through but it's not great, but here you are still doing what you love.
When I first started, there was a woman by Chipotle. It was a windy day and her hair was blowing, and she was carrying this small child. It was a really pretty moment, and she approached me and I photographed her as she was talking to me about how she had just lost her husband and that she didn't want to live. But she was carrying this child, this grandchild, her daughter's child who brought her so much happiness. And she was carrying this baby, and it gave everything to her. She said, I've never talked to anyone about this, and I'm not sure why I'm telling you this either. Those are the kinds of conversations where people really freakin’ open up. I share that photograph, but I don't know if it's appropriate for me to tell the story. And I don't know how to respond to that situation.
Sweeney: Somehow when you're in your wheelchair and you tell people, really specifically that you're going to be paralyzed eventually, they just have this moment where you become this very special person in their life, all of a sudden, your vulnerability invites their vulnerability.
Carbajal: That's true . . .
Sweeney: And then they're safe, somehow.
Carbajal: Even though I'm pointing a camera at them, they feel safe.
Sweeney: Amazing, is this vulnerability an element of your art?
Carbajal: I don't always open up in that way, but maybe I should consider doing that with everyone that I meet.
Sweeney: How does your camera angle, from the left arm of your wheelchair, how does that change the sorts of photographs that you capture? How can that be an advantage?
Carbajal: Well, there are lots of disadvantages with that. When I studied photography, they say you never point a camera up at someone, at least for wedding photography, it's not very flattering, especially for brides. You never want to shoot up at people, up at their nostrils and so forth, it's not very flattering. But from a cinematography standpoint, when you're making movies, when you're shooting up at someone is usually when you want to make them feel more superior, or stronger, a more dominant role in the movie. And for me this is usually the case, I look up at everyone. Maybe I look a lot less intimidating because everyone is looking down at me, and the camera is also pointing up at them, not down at them.
Sweeney: So the camera captures them in their strength. There's a humble positioning in the camera?
Carbajal: Yes, a humble positioning in the camera.
Sweeney: How does it pick up other things that would be missed if you were standing full height taking photos? How do the photos look different?
Carbajal: Yes, I'm on the outside and I have to use manual focus because the automatic focus will focus on the near ground and blur out the house. Sometimes it won't focus. It takes me a good bit to get it right. If it takes me too long, I miss the shot. Sometimes it's very frustrating for me to use my camera, and I try not to get defeated, or I'm learning to be okay with photos that are out of focus . . . . So I guess they are not always very sexy topics, but maybe we could make them sexy. Those are the kinds of things that really intrigue me when people try to push the envelope on. As soon as someone says, You shouldn't do that—or It's not allowed—it makes me wonder why, why do we say that?
Sweeney: Yes, what's ignored, you’re bringing forward what's in the background or what's in the periphery, what you drive right by—your photography brings it into the center.
Carbajal: That's what I want to do.
Sweeney: There's another quality about this that I'm noticing, between randomness and control, between accident and art or technique. Where do you find that those elements meet?
Carbajal: My best photographs—I don’t' believe in luck—my best photographs will be where preparation meets opportunity. And sure, it's a little lucky, but when you have all your settings right, when you have your angle in the right place, when you're anticipating a moment, a lot of things play a role. It may seem like a lucky moment caught but it may be a little hazy where it can be construed as that, but if you didn't click that shutter, that's a very intentional thing to do.
Sweeney: Ah yes, you chose that moment.
Carbajal: Yeah, when I see someone in the distance who kind of looks intriguing, I'm already checking to see if my settings are in place and where are they going to be in the frame. And if it's going to be a difficult moment to photograph, I'll put it in autofocus, then anticipate right when they're going to walk into my view. I don't want to sound like I’m the best photographer in the world, because I'm not, and I used to get caught up in the technical things in an image, but now I’m realizing that even if the focus is off or if the light is slightly over-exposed, if the essence of your subject is in that image, it doesn't matter. And I used to stress so much about it, I used to read so many blogs where there were pixel keepers zooming in to see how sharp that individual pixel is and making sure the chromatic aberration is not visible and all these other things that I used to stress about, I had to force myself to let go, and when I did I felt liberated. Sometimes I find myself stressing about it, but I have to learn to let go. What it really comes down to is what you're photographing. Composition and technique do play a role, but for me sometimes I can be really off with my composition, and I have to live with it, you know what I mean, because I am limited with my abilities. I can't pick up my camera and move it in that instant when they walk by. I'm still learning the process. I'm trying to figure out what works best. Sometimes I pick out my frame and I just park my wheelchair there and I enjoy the composition, and I wait for my subjects to walk into the frame. If I wasn't doing street photography I wouldn't be outside doing that for any other reason. I'm outside, I'm enjoying the day.
Sweeney: I don't know much about ALS. What I know is Stephen Hawking. He's such a good advocate because he puts a face to it, and we know he's a genius even though he can’t move or talk anymore.
Carbajal: Yes, ALS doesn't take your mind. Stephen Hawking chooses to live. With ALS if you want to live you have to choose to live. It's not always the case because ALS is normally incredibly aggressive and my family's ALS is a little bit slower, which is something I feel guilt over, too, sometimes. After my video went viral, I've been connected to thousands of families with ALS, and now it's been three years since I've had this disease, and I've seen hundreds of people die that I've been connected to in this time.
Sweeney: Oh really, that's fast! It can be that fast?
Carbajal: Yes, 75% - 80% of ALS patients die within three years. It's really aggressive. It's a gnarly disease, my grandmother fought for eight years, my mom's had it now for fourteen—so my grandmother decided not to live any longer. My mom is strong, I don't know how she does it. She has someone who loves her, my stepdad, who takes care of her unconditionally, and would give anything for her.
Sweeney: What a love story, Anthony! Your work and your personality are inspirational. All this would make a really good book.
Carbajal: Let’s do that next!