Prior to studying at Kansas, and winning a slew of awards, Goering lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. During his time in Africa, Jon not only ran a bed & breakfast and wrote song lyrics, but he also discovered his passion photography. While he’s working in the US now, he says he’ll end up back in Africa to pursue the style of photography that first made him interested in the career.
I recently met Jon Goering at the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His work about Cartoneros stood out amid a number of similar photo essays, as did his portfolio review. Tewfic El-Sawy recently featured Goering’s Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity essay on The Travel Photographer.
Anyways, I asked Jon to answer this interview and he was game. Here is what he had to say:
11 Questions with Photojournalist Jon Goering
1. I’d like to start out with that “ah” moment when you realized your life would be tied to a camera instead of a more tangible career. How did it happen?
JG: Where to start? How about the middle. My life changed during 2005 when an Ethiopian political party called Kinijit (CUD) quickly started to gain popular support as the elections in the country drew closer. The ruling party had been responding to aggressive street riots with violence and, one day in particular, youths from the neighborhood in which I had been living placed a barricade of rocks across the major road and assaulted the soldiers patrolling the city with rocks when they got out to remove the roadblocks. That evening, standing in the yard outside of our house, you could hear the cries of mothers of youth the soldiers suspected of taking part in the attacks. Since the soldiers had no way of knowing exactly who had been involved in the rioting, they arrested individuals at random — mostly young men. My interest in photography had been growing fast during my time living and traveling in East Africa, but only as a way to document and share my own experiences. Being around history being made during that time made me look at journalism in a way that I never had before. I felt pulled to go out and tell the story of what was going on, but I had no idea how. I wanted to learn.
2. You jumped into a career as a photojournalist later than many. What did you do before and what skills did you bring with you that have helped your photography?
JG: I had originally moved to Ethiopia in 2003, and at that time I was hanging onto dreams of becoming a songwriter. I very much enjoyed the creative process of lyric writing and using chords and melodies to convey the meaning of the lyrics, and I drew a lot of inspiration from the daily life I saw on the streets of Addis Ababa. I wanted to be a storyteller then, and I want to be a storyteller now. But what I found is that an acoustic guitar is a much more cumbersome travel companion than a camera. So gradually the medium changed, but the purpose really hasn’t changed much. The songwriting I loved taught me about the world, it changed the way I thought about and related to the world. It taught me about myself, and it made me a better person. I feel the same way about great visual storytelling.
3. You’ve won your share of awards as a student and as a staff photographer. Do any of the nominations or awards stand out above the rest? Why?
JG: The Hearst awards during my junior year of journalism school stand above the rest for one reason — they gave me money. Awards are pieces of paper buried somewhere in my desk and a rather trite tidbit I feel obligated to include in the bio of my Website. But I do believe in the power of recognition that awards can provide to allow one to continue doing the work one wants to do. Awards can have cash prizes, they could help you land more grants or fellowships, and they might help you drum up a little more work. And that is why I will continue to pursue awards. But I try not to think about it much.
4. You landed a staff job shortly after graduation despite layoffs being more popular than an image on Flickr explore’s pages. How did you land the job?
JG: Despite not being really able to swing any internships during my college career at Kansas because of my responsibilities at home, I was fortunate to be offered a couple of staff jobs shortly after graduation. I worked for about a year as a part-time shooter with the Lawrence Journal-World, during which time I wished every day that something full-time would open up there. But nothing did, and I was forced to look elsewhere for a full-time gig. I was offered two jobs at the same time, and even though I really liked the staff and especially the DoP at the job in upstate NY, the one I am currently at near Birmingham, AL had better opportunities for my wife who I was pulling away from business school at Kansas. In addition it felt safer to me to be moving for a job with a smaller company where I knew I would be more than just a number on a balance sheet, which can so often be the case with larger companies.
5. As a staff photographer, how much freedom do you have in subject/project ideas?
JG: I feel as though I have quite a bit of freedom here, as far as newspaper jobs go. The newspaper environment in general though can be a little bit stifling I would say. That’s really all I have to say about that.
6. You just returned from the Foundry Workshop in Buenos Aires. How much could you learn in such a short time frame?
JG: I found the experience to be a really great one. During my college career I had sort-of shied away from workshops, regrettably, for the very reason you outlined in your question — I wasn’t sure how much I could really learn in a week. But the thing about workshops is that they are a place where seeds are planted, and then it is up to you as a shooter during the rest of the time to give those ideas a chance to grow. I was fortunate to have been placed with Andrea Bruce, who I enjoyed working with very much. I entered the workshop feeling in something of a rut where I making these frames based on what I knew others wanted — or basically, frames that conformed to “rules.” This is a fairly common theme among shooters who work for newspapers it seems. And I had been working for quite a while in systems that applaud a photographer’s ability to make frames under the framework of these rules. But I want to explore more abstract ways of storytelling, while at the same time producing work that is more traditional in its way of delivering a message. I believe that both forms of expression have their home. Sometimes what you are witnessing is so powerful that you just need to step back and be a witness. Share the moment as best and authentically as you can. And sometimes you need to do more than just share moments to really get across what your subjects are experiencing. This is something that I feel Andrea had done quite well, which is a big reason I was drawn to her.
7. Many young photographers often wrestle with the decision to go to photojournalism school or go the self-taught route. As a Kansas grad, how do you feel about this matter?
JG: I don’t believe that there is any one route that is hands-down the best way for anyone to do it. And I don’t believe that there is really such a huge difference between this idea of being “school-taught” and “self-taught.” From the way that I see it, we are all self-taught to a large degree and that is balanced by the things we learned from others. And whether the learning from others aspect is done by mentors, co-workers, friends, college professors, books, etc., doesn’t seem to me to be all that important. There are some definite practical advantages to going to photojournalism school though. It is a great opportunity to network, which is extremely important. It is a good way to get a solid foundation in journalism. It is pretty much a requirement for getting a staff job at this point to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Is a photojournalism school the only way to do these things? Of course not. But it is one of the more straightforward ways to do it. That being said, I wouldn’t go too deep into debt for it!
8. What is the single piece of photography advice you wish you’d learned earlier?
JG: I guess I wished I would have understood from the beginning — and maybe I am just still learning it – but is just how important it is to take advantage of every opportunity you can to make connections and foster those connections. There are just not enough opportunities out there to waste any of them. The industry is a network of connections and your ability to become a part of that network is easily as important as your ability to make solid frames — meaning, you can’t suck at either and survive. And no one is going to hand you anything. This isn’t a they-recruit-you industry. It just isn’t.
9. I don’t want to get you in trouble at the office, but I have a suspicion that you don’t want to retire as a photographer in Alabama. Where do you see your work five years from now?
JG: I don’t want to retire in Alabama. The word retire actually makes me chuckle because if you are thinking of retirement, you should probably become a banker. But I don’t think that it is any big secret that my heart is in East Africa. Right now is not the right time, but the goal most definitely is to be able to be based back in Addis Ababa and do the type of work that is the reason I got into this. Five years from now? Who knows. Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, right?
10. What three photographers provide your greatest source of inspiration?
JG: I would rather share three bodies of work that I think draw on points made in the answers to the questions. The first is by a young photographer whose work I had admired for a long while, Justin Maxon’s outstanding work from Chester, Penn. Check out the link because that second paragraph of explanation of the project is great. But there are more complete essays of the project. Search them, they are easy to find. Another project that I really enjoyed was Capitolio, by Christopher Anderson. And Paulo Pellegrin. His Magnum home page has a really good quote to go along with a beautiful set of mysterious black and white images that ask questions instead of providing answers necessarily. That is true of all three of these bodies of work.
11. And finally, take this one and run with it: Why do you make photographs?
JG: I make photographs because I believe in their power to bring about change. I want to get people interested in what is going on in the world. I want to make sure no one is able to bury the truth. I want to help people explore their world, and I want to help people explore themselves. I want to help people look differently at the world around them. I know I’ve said it before, but these are all the same reasons I was into songwriting. I am reminded of a quote that I saw recently on LUCEO‘s twitter feed from Walter Sickert:
“Photography, like alcohol, should only be allowed to those who can do without it.”
They posed the question could you quit photography cold turkey, though I think a better question would be what would you do if photography just didn’t exist when you woke up in the morning? This, predictably, solicited a lot of responses along the lines of -no i can’t, is that bad? I think it is much healthier to concentrate on the message more than the medium. Is photography awesome? Hell yeah it is. Or else why the hell would we all be spending every waking hour stressing over it? But is it the only way to deliver? I don’t think it is, and I like to believe that I would be doing this same thing in any different way feasible, even if photography ceased to exist.
I owe a giant thank you to Jon Goering, even if he couldn’t find room in his Buenos-Aires-bound luggage for a pint of peanut butter because he correctly assumed security wasn’t going to let him carry it onto the plane in fears the pilot might have peanut allergies. He’s the first interviewee to supply a profile image taken by his own son with in hipstamatic style. Perfect. He also sent over the other images that illustrate this post, so a big thanks for that, too.
* All images in this post are protected by Jon Goering’s copyright. *