Honesty and Empathy: An Interview with Photographer Brittany Greeson

I look at a lot of photography. There's rarely a day that goes by that I don't at least casually glance through a portfolio or photo project of another photographer. However, there are only a few photographers who really catch my attention and keep it as I look through their work. Brittany Greeson is one of those photographers. 

I first heard about Brittany when I read a blog post she wrote on her blog about creativity and the monsters that can jump on our backs as we grow and develop as photographers/creators. It encapsulates many thoughts that I've had about my own photography but have lacked the eloquence to really put it into words. Here is where it can be read: http://bgwrittenword.tumblr.com/post/92456304693/how-to-kill-yourself-creatively

Because of this strong emotional response that I had to the article, I decided to reach out to her and I'm excited that she agreed to an interview. 

I hope you'll enjoy this glimpse into the life and work of a young photojournalist with a genuine spirit that really shows in her portfolio and attitude.

(Photo captions by Brittany Greeson)

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background with photography.

I was born in Houston Texas, left when I was two, and moved around the Carolina's until finally settling in Owensboro, Kentucky, at the age of 12. I didn't even pick up a camera until I was 16, because I wanted to shoot for my high school yearbook and newspaper. I had an adviser named Gail Kirkland that sort of took me and my best friend, Deron, under her wing. She encouraged both of us to pursue Western Kentucky University, because she had been a journalism alumni, and WKU has a rich history within the journalism department. After leaving my original major of Graphic Design for Photojournalism, it seemed as if everything fell into place. I was already at the school with a great program, and from there I've been trying to learn as much as I can from my peers and mentors.  My mom was a single mom from the time we left Houston. My dad had a battle with alcoholism that ended in his passing when I was 8. I'm telling you all of this because seeing my mom's financial and personal struggles has shaped who I am as well as my photography. My mother gave me everything I ever wanted, but she and I went through a lot together. I think that's why I'm so passionate in using photography to tell stories. It's my goal to tell stories about people like my mom or people who face adversity. 

What is one of the most memorable stories you have told through your photos?

The very first photo story I ever worked, the first thing I had published, on my first internship. It was on a man named Daniel Horton who came to America with nothing but a backpack from Liberia. While Daniel had faced a lot of struggles; he worked his way to owning his own business in the Bardstown road area of Louisville. What's interesting was that when I first met Daniel, I didn't at first think about doing a story on him. He became my friend who had gotten me through some very difficult times that summer. His optimism and graceful view on life was contagious to me. It was through doing the story that I got to know him better. I can still remember the photo I took of Daniel's son dancing out in the rain and how great that felt because I was a part of their little family. Daniel was so happy when the story got the front cover of the magazine, and my reward was for people in the community to know his story. He still sends me little notes of encouragement on Facebook. I was recently at a photo conference and was able to visit him. He still spends time painting with a bright smile on his face. That's Daniel for you. 

Kenth Ebberson, 35, peeks from behind a cabinet in the entryway of his room. Due to violent behavior and the demands of care for his mental handicap, Kenth's parents sent him to live in the institution at the age of 21. By mistake he was originally sent to live in home for individuals with autism, a condition he does not have. There he was greeted with a structured and strict lifestyle that heightened his violent behavior and he reverted to isolation. It was years before he was moved. Today Kenth is a resident at Sølund, a living facility for the mentally handicapped, located in Skanderborg, Denmark. Solund is among many institutions in Denmark that has adopted a philosophy called Gentle Teaching which frames the care around the individual needs of handicapped residents. The philosophy is believed to give the residents more fulfilled lives. Over the course of 8 years, Kenth's previously violent behavior has almost completely disappeared, he has developed close relationships with his caretakers as well as a way of communicating with his hands despite his mental age of around 18 months. (From the photo essay: http://www.brittanygreeson.com/kenth)

And just out of curiosity, what publication did these photos appear in?

It's a small magazine in Louisville, Kentucky, called This Is Louisville. I'm not sure if they're still running anymore. They may be on hiatus. It was a publication started by a previous grad from my school, Maggie Huber. Really cool publication because it was solely documentary storytelling.

And as someone who is moving into an industry that is constantly changing and evolving, what are some of the challenges you have faced or that you think you will face moving forward?

I have faced uncertainty on how to get paid for doing what I love. I think that is all in the back of our heads. You're constantly wondering how to stay relevant, how to market yourself to the right clients, and how to balance your vision with what you have to do to pay the bills. I think as the industry evolves you have to. I learned that a lot from a dear friend of mine, Demetrius Freeman. He's an insanely talented photographer who started out in more commercial photography and portraiture, then later decided to put his focus in the photojournalism arena. With that though, he's had the ability to mesh all his knowledge into what he creates, which I think is essential for survival. He's taught me that you have to keep reinventing yourself, marketing your talent, and creating a career for yourself that allows you to do what you love while still financially supporting yourself. The challenge is to be multifaceted. 

Lace Bellamy, 24, of Owensboro, Ky., sits in anticipation of her wedding day as her bridesmaids help her put on pink converse shoes. 

How do you feel your college experience has shaped your outlook on a career in journalism?

I feel my college experience has provided a big web of support within the photojournalism community. I've gotten to know a lot of photographers who are sharing the same challenges as me. In that way, it's helped me grow. College has taught me balance: how to balance creating work with other classes and a job. I've also grown a lot as a person in school simply because I've be able to live so many different places and meet so many different people. When I was studying at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, I learned so much about being well-rounded and finding a creative approach to photography. The Europeans photograph with more emotion and spontaneity than we typically see in American photojournalism. I feel like I need to try incorporating that in my shooting as a way to grow. I gained so much by studying there in addition to my previous studies. 

You have also written on your blog about creative burn out and some of the subsequent lessons you've learned from it. What caused you to write such a personal and vulnerable blog post?

I think I was hitting a spot where I just wasn't happy anymore. I realized I wasn't having fun shooting, and everyday seemed to drag on. I kept asking myself if it was the newspaper, if it was the assignments, or if it was me. I finally came to the conclusion that it was my attitude about photography that needed to change in order for me to really feel happy. I needed to separate myself from the daily grind, and I needed to stop being so caught up in what others thought of me. I kept feeling like I had to prove myself, and that I was only successful if others said so. I still struggle with this. However, writing that article felt like a tipping point for me. It was where I could admit all I had been feeling out loud. That helped in a therapeutic way to move forward. 

Faron Cox of Fordsville, Ky., paces back and forth gathering wood for an open pit fire after a day of logging with his oldest son, Darrin Cox. He and Darrin depend on the 55 acres of land for wood to heat their trailer homes in the rural countryside. (From the photo essay: http://www.brittanygreeson.com/a-father-at-60)

What is one piece of advice you would give students interested in pursuing a career in photojournalism?

Honestly, most people have told me that the biggest thing to do for your career is keep shooting, take a bunch of internships, get your work in front of editors etc. I agree with all of this. All of those things are valuable.  However, I honestly believe the best advice I can give, sitting from where I'm sitting, is just be a good person. Seriously, there is nothing more underrated than the value of being a honest and empathetic human being. That is what is going to make you stand out in an industry like this: practicing a certain set of principles and holding yourself to a high standard morally and within your personal interactions. Humility will get you further than winning contests. Empathy will allow you into more people's lives. Honesty will resonate with your peers. Having a true work ethic and giving your all will be what makes editors want to hire you. That's my two cents, really. I say this because I'm now realizing that the technical aspects will come. If you keep pushing yourself and soaking up information you will get better at shooting. You will learn the industry and all the business aspects. Being a good person can't exactly be taught as easily. It has to be practiced and kept in check.

If you'd like to check out more of Brittany Greeson's work, you can do so here: http://www.brittanygreeson.com and on Instagram: @brittanygreeson