The really amazing part about doing what I do is not just seeing the work being done to revive our communities, it’s meeting the people who are at the forefront of these endeavors. There are few people more influential in the new attitude that is sweeping through the up-and-coming city of Utica New York than photographer and co-founder of Made In Utica, Mark Simon. Yesterday, Mark was kind enough to take some time and answer some questions for me in an e-interview. Check this out for a little lunch break inspiration from one of my favorite leaders of tomorrow.
ME: How did you get into photography?
MARK: I fell into photography in a very unintentional way. I had just recently been dumped by a live in girlfriend who decided to date my best friend at the time. One of the last things she ever said to me was “you have no hobbies; you’re boring,” and in an effort to win back the affection of this girl, I picked up my camera and forced myself to find a hobby. Ironically enough, she had tried to get me into it prior to this, but I just wasn’t interested. I got the camera as a gift and never really used it. Even more ironically, she also owns a photography company now.
ME: Tell me about your work? Where does your passion take you when you shoot?
MARK: A large majority of my work is events and nightlife. Whether it be clubs, bars, parties, or any sort of event, that is where I operate most. I recently began soliciting new work under a more professional name, such as weddings, corporate affairs, basically anything that you would not want to hire DIRTY JERZ for. I’ve done a lot of this type of work before, but it was becoming increasingly more difficult to find work. However, with both of my entities, I am able to take on a wide variety of work and I basically tell clients that if it involves taking photos, I can do it.
My passion, however, is more for creating emotion-invoking photographs than for a type or style. I went to school for graphic and information design, and one of the main lessons was to never do anything without a reason. My reason is always to invoke emotion or reaction. There are lots of different ways to do this, but I find myself working with shadow and the balance of light and dark most often to do so. If I can get someone to tell me they had a reaction to a photo I created, then I feel successful in my task.
ME: Do you have someone who inspires you?
MARK: Yes and No. Up until recently, I followed tons of photographers on social media, mostly music and nightlife photographers like Drew Ressler, Calder Wilson, James Coletta, and Kirill Bichutsky, who travel the world and shoot at some of the most famous venues with the world’s top DJs, and I aspired to do exactly what they do.
But on the advice of Nancy Ford, a photography legend in Utica, I stopped trying to live up to the standards they created. She said “by getting on social media, and seeing these guys traveling all over, and trying to tailor your work towards what they are doing, you’re not being true to yourself.” And since then, I just try to do my own thing and keep looking forward to where my creative mind can lead me.
But on the short side of things, something my dad has told me since I was a little kid has always inspired me. He said, “no matter what you do or who you become, be the best. If you want to be a garbage man, be the best God damn garbage man there has ever been.” I have tried to be the best at everything I do, and sometimes it is not realistic, but it at least keeps me motivated.
ME: As good a photographer as you are, I believe you’re just as good at getting people around you excited about your positive message. Talk to me about this?
MARK: Positivity is contagious. It takes effort sometimes to remain positive, but it’s so much more satisfying to be positive. Over the years as a photographer, I have learned that I can be more than a “button pusher” and use my talents to benefit more.
Utica is in the midst of a revitalization and A LOT is happening around us; some good, some bad. It is pretty simple to take advantage of a bad situation as a photographer, but a great photographer can use his or her talents to show the positives in a world of negatives. I tend to focus on the good going on around us, rather than the negatives. New businesses, growing businesses, new programs, arts, culture, etc are all good things and I do whatever I can to highlight those things.
I find myself doing far more work in the community thanks to Made In Utica, an organization I co-founded with the main goal of positively promoting Utica and the community we have. By fostering a relationship with local businesses, and using my talents to promote their business and/or events, I find that my work extends the reach of a brick and mortar business outside of their location and helps them grow, which in turn impacts the community. It’s a big cycle, and every part is important.
ME: If you could do anything with your photography and your personal talents, what would it be?
MARK: If I could do anything with photography, I would want to be a war photographer. When I was in school, I was randomly assigned James Nachtwey as a “graphical artist” to do a research paper. Through my research (Nachtwey is one of the most prolific war photographers of the last 40 years), I became AB-SO-LUTE-LY obsessed with the idea of being a war photographer. I mentioned before about my passion for creating an emotional response, and war conjures the most intense emotional response, second only to love.
To go a step further, war photographers have brought the atrocities of war to our daily lives and have spurred change in policy, operations, and social interaction between military forces and civilians. Essentially, war photographers have been the first step in rebuilding any war torn country as they bring the most pressing issues into the spotlight.
ME: Anything else you would like to add?
MARK: I could go on and on about the power and impact a single photograph can cause, but what matters most, in any community, is positivity. If you, Arian, had come to Utica even a year before your first trip, and wrote your eventual viral article then, no one would have cared. Most people would have dismissed it, and never told a soul. But because positivity was in the air, but hadn’t really landed yet, your blog was the net that captured the positivity in the air and put it in a glass jar for everyone to enjoy. Since then, positivity has grown, our community has grown, and our future prospects have grown. We all have the tools to positively affect our community; some use a shovel, some use restaurant tongs, some use a pen, and some use a camera. The only constant is a positive mentality and the desire to live a better life.
Find Mark on Facebook at DirtyJerzImages and on Twitter @dirtyjerzimages.