Maine the Way: Tell us a little about yourself!
Greta Rybus: My name is Greta, and I’m a photojournalist that specializes in assignment work for magazines and newspapers. I especially love to work on stories about how humans connect with the natural world. Since 2015, I’ve been spending a month of every year working on an ongoing project about how individuals and communities are impacted by climate change, gathering images and stories that reframe environmental issues as human rights issue.
I grew up in Idaho, but my parents were both schoolteachers, and they often worked abroad (we lived in the Netherlands and Japan when I was growing up) and during summer breaks we’d go on long trips. They instilled me with a sense of adventure. I moved to Maine in 2011 for a photo editing internship, and transitioned into freelancing within my first year here. I love having Portland as my home base for work around Maine, New England, and the world.
Like a lot of photographers and freelancers, photography and work take up most of my time. But, I’m also learning to dance and surf. I love books and TV and podcasts and music. I have a scruffy dog named Murray that I am convinced is an actual angel.
MTW: When did you know you wanted to be a photographer? Was that always your direction or how did you come to this career path?
GR: When I was a kid, we’d go on long road trips around the American West. I am an only child in a family that listened to a lot of public radio, so from the backseat of our old Dodge Caravan, I’d tune out and watch the landscapes and vignettes of life that we’d pass, and I imagined making photos. When my family moved to Japan when I was 15, my ski coach recognized that I had an interest in photography, and leant me his film SLR (shout out to Travis Jones, thank you!). I’d wander around our new community and try making images manually, learning how to use shutter, aperture, ISO through trial and error.
I later went to the University of Montana, and got degrees in Photojournalism and Cultural Anthropology. When I was heading into college, I knew I wanted to study photography, but struggled between studying fine art photography or photojournalism. While sometimes I think I’d love the thoughtful and introspective approach of an artist, I like that photojournalism pushed me to look outward, consider other people’s experiences, and work creatively to make images based on reality.
MTW: Where do you draw inspiration?
GR: I think I draw the most inspiration from the people and places I document.
I also feel really inspired by thinking about how other creatives make their work, how musicians craft a song, how comedians hone their own voice, how writers make a craft based on listening and paying attention, how painters use light.
MTW: How has living in Maine influenced your work?
GR: Maine is a really creative place, more so than anywhere else I’ve lived. It has a long tradition of writers and painters traveling to Maine to make their work; it’s where Edna St. Vincent Millay, EB White, Stephen King, the Wyeths, and Winslow Homer came to create. And it’s where a lot of contemporary creatives have invested their efforts; starting farms and restaurants, or making art or small businesses. I think you can feel that energy, I feel buoyed by it in my own work. And, a lot of my own work is based on documenting that creativity: much of my assignments are photographing the lives of artists, chefs, farmers, and fishermen. (Also, just a plug- I made a book about this creative tradition with writer Katy Kelleher, it’s called Handcrafted Maine!).
The seasons also really effect the way I approach my work. By March each year, we’ve had several months of harsh winter. And, after months of photographing a winter landscape, I’m usually ready for something new. So, in the winter, I travel more. In the summer, I make sure to carve out time outdoors and save up to be able to do personal work overseas. I think the long winters here are invigorating, they motivate me to to move, explore, and make work beyond Maine and New England.
MTW: Any tips for getting out of a creative rut?
GR: I think the creative rut is part of the process, and it’s something everyone experiences. It’s uncomfortable and frustrating and even agonizing, but it can also be a time to figure something out, to develop a creative project or to learn a new technical skill. The most important thing is to keep making. Keep making images.
MTW: Are you working on any personal projects?
GR: Yes! I’m spending September 2018 in Idaho, my home state, to work on the next “chapter” of my climate change series. I’ve worked on three chapters so far: “Desert” in Senegal, “Tropic” in Panama, and “Arctic” in Norway. The Idaho chapter is “Home.” I think the project will have six segments total.
MTW: What has been your proudest piece?
GR: I don’t think I’ve made it yet!
MTW: Any advice for aspiring photographers?
GR: I think the most important thing is to make personal work. Make projects that reflect what you are interested in or care about, or that you simply enjoy working on. If you want to work professionally, these projects are the one that will communicate who you are as a photographer to clients or editors. I also think it’s good to begin to recognize that inner sense when you make an image that is not just “good,” but “yours.” It’s a feeling when you make an image that reflects your own creativity, not the input of others’ styles or approaches. I call it a “True North” feeling, a rare of alignment between work and your inner vision or style. I think most of the things I make are still somewhere between Northwest and Northeast, but I can feel myself getting closer over time.
On a more practical note, I always recommend to those who are investing in new gear rent gear before they buy it. There are two good sites for renting lenses and other camera equipment: Lens Pro To Go and Borrow Lenses. Both of them can ship right to your house or to a nearby camera store. I think when a lot of people invest in gear, they read all the stats and photoblogs, and take in all the available information except how the equipment feels to them. A piece of equipment should suit you and how you like to shoot, and that’s not information you can find on a blog. It’s worth spending a little extra to have the experience of using the gear before you drop some funds on gear.
Cam & Christine