INTERVIEW // JONAS SEAMAN
Interview by Sachin Khona // March 2018
Reading time: 15 mins
Jonas Seaman is a fine art wedding photographer, based in Seattle, who shoots worldwide. Starting as a hobby,Jonas began posting images to his blog americanvirus.com. Soon after, he was invited to exhibit his work in galleries in Italy, Germany, and Los Angeles. From there, he began to receive emails from couples asking him if he had an interest in documenting weddings. He tried it and realized he loved it.
We hope you enjoy this interview as Jonas shares a unique vulnerability and thoughtfulness in his responses about life, photography, and how the two are interchangeable.
PHOTOGRAPHY WORK & PRACTICES
WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A PHOTOGRAPHER?
About 10 years ago. I was several years into an office cubicle job and it was starting to feel a bit soul-sucking.
At the same time, I was discovering all these people on Twitter who kept public diaries and blogs. It was kind of a revelation. You could post about anything and it was like a message in a bottle to the world. This was just before Facebook took over.
I started my blog Americanvirus. It was essentially a creativity blog. My aim was to do something artistic every day and use the blog to track my progress. My first post was a drawing. I bought a camera to record whatever it was I was going to be working on. Then, the camera just took over.
I was hooked ..
WHERE IS HOME FOR YOU AND WHERE DO YOU WORK?
I live just outside of Seattle.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS LIVED THERE OR WAS THERE A CONSCIOUS CHOICE TO MOVE THERE?
I moved here from Southern California when I was 18 to be closer to my family. When I first got here I hated it. Too much rain. Now, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
DOES YOUR LOCATION INFLUENCE YOUR WORK IN ANY WAY?
I’m not sure if it does. I love it here. I love shooting here, but we also travel a lot for work. I feel like I’m influenced by whatever location I’m shooting in.
I will say that there’s an amazing community of photographers in Seattle who have helped me. I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for them.
So, in that way, the community has been a huge influence.
DO YOU HAVE A DESIGNATED WORKSPACE OR OFFICE?
Yes. It’s a mess right now. You wouldn’t want to see it.
DO YOU FEEL THERE WAS A TURNING POINT, MONUMENTAL TIME, OR SERIES OF EVENTS IN YOUR LIFE WHERE YOU FELT AS THOUGH YOU WERE ON THE RIGHT PATH IN REGARDS TO YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY CAREER THAT BROUGHT YOU TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW?
In 2010 I went to New Zealand to spend time with my sister who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
By that time my blog had a little following. A museum in Germany and a couple of galleries in Italy and L.A. had stumbled upon my work and I was now being exhibited and displayed. I was also posting to Flickr where Getty Images found me and started licensing my work commercially.
My sister was incredibly proud of me.
While I was with her I received two emails from two different couples who had seen the blog and asked if I would consider shooting their weddings. I replied to them that I was flattered, but that I didn’t think I was right for it.
That night, I started kind of bragging to my sister that I was getting these emails and how I absolutely had no interest in making this into a job. The reason I started photography in the first place was to have an escape from work. I had my 9 to 5 and photography was my sanctuary. I wasn’t going to spoil that.
Her reaction was very serious.
She said to me point blank that she was dying, and that I was being an idiot. She said if she were given the gift to spend her life making a living at what she loved to do, she would take it in a second.
I didn’t really grasp how profound of a moment that was. I told her I would think about it.
I went downstairs, opened my computer, and the next email in my inbox was from my job. They had gone bankrupt and I was being let go.
If there was ever a moment in my life that felt like a sign from the universe, that was it.
I emailed the two couples back and told them that I really had no idea what I was doing or how to shoot a wedding, but if they still wanted to hire me for their day I’d love to try. They hired me.
The next year I had 30 inquiries in my inbox, and I became a full-time wedding photographer.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE VIA A SERIES OF PHOTOS THAT YOU FEEL DEFINE THE WORK YOU’VE DONE IN THE LAST YEAR AND WHERE POSSIBLE DESCRIBE WHY EACH ONE WAS INCLUDED?
I tend to work very intuitively.
I like to experiment when I shoot. I love letting the lines blur a little.
I love emotion and tenderness. I like to be up close and in the action. I think if you’re able to create a safe space for people, they don’t mind you being there with them. They just start laughing and loving, and you get to be a witness to that.
I love photographing children.
I think the wonderful thing about the kind of photography I’m doing is that I don’t feel like the true author of the events I’m capturing. Everything is a collaboration. I find the more I try to give up control of an image, the more the world gives back something even better to work with.
I love to capture the mood of the environment.
I love people. I think they’re hilarious.
I love the quiet moments.
I love the details.
Especially when the details tell a story.
I’m hands down a romantic.
WHAT INSPIRES AND MOTIVATES YOU TO CREATE?
My wife Mary – who also second shoots with me and helps me run the business. I can’t imagine doing this without her.
DO YOU DO ANY CREATIVE TRAINING OUTSIDE OF YOUR WORK?
Nothing official like going to school, but I am always trying to learn new things. When I started, I did a lot of workshops and online courses.
Now I read a lot. I watch documentaries. I go to museums and galleries.
WHEN YOU GET STUCK CREATIVELY, WHAT IS THE FIRST THING YOU DO TO GET UNSTUCK?
Creativity for me is about making connections and pulling threads from all different kinds of places. So, the best way to get unstuck creatively is to give myself more variety of experiences.
If all I’m doing is living, eating, and breathing photography, I’d be stuck all the time. That’s just me.
But, if I immerse myself in a wide spectrum of ideas and experiences that are maybe tangential or completely unrelated to photography, I find myself more creative and inspired in my work.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN A PIECE OF YOUR WORK IS FINISHED AND NEEDS NO ADDITIONAL WORK?
I think that comes with time.
It’s like a having conversation with someone you love to talk to. There’s no agonizing. You just instinctively move from one subject to the next.
ARE THERE ANY KEY LESSONS IN YOUR CAREER THAT YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE? OR IS THERE A BEST PIECE OF CAREER ADVICE YOU WERE EVER GIVEN?
I think that coming to terms with choosing to make your living creatively can be difficult. One of the most important aspects of this work is having a voice.
The thing is… that means “finding your voice” which is a strange thing to even say. I mean, if you’re taking pictures and showing them… well, you’re expressing yourself. You’ve got a voice.
At first you may be a little obvious about your influences, but you’re choosing your influences, which still is a part of your voice.
In time you begin to sort of “see what you’re seeing.” You begin to recognize patterns that emerge from your work that are entirely your own. You begin to find yourself this way.
The difficulty with this is that eventually, you realize (if you’re being honest with yourself) that by sharing your work (this voice of yours) you’re actually doing something very intimate and personal.
This often feels like unsafe ground to be traveling in, especially as a career choice. It’s the kind of decision that most people back away from.
You have to learn how to live with a certain amount of insecurity.
If you can find some acceptance in that, and not judge yourself for it, the work becomes deeper and more gratifying.
thanks for sharing that with us jonas. Valuable to hear that great advice.
can you DESCRIBE A PHOTOGRAPH BURNED IN YOUR MEMORY THAT YOU NEVER TOOK BUT WISH YOU HAD?
I don’t think I have one of those. That’s probably a good thing.
CAN YOU SHARE ONE CREATIVE TIP THAT YOU USE WHEN YOU ARE WORKING?
Yeah. This is something I talked about with my friends Helena & Laurent Martin. They mentioned our conversation about this briefly in their interview on ARC last year.
A few years ago I read about this creativity experiment conducted at a college by a psychologist named Michael Robinson.
Okay. Stay with me now.
He separated a few hundred undergraduates into two different groups. They were both given instructions.
The first group was told, “You are seven years old, and school is canceled. You have the entire day to yourself. What do you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?”
The same directions were given to the second group. Except here’s the crucial part… without the first sentence about being seven years old.
Both groups were then instructed to write for ten minutes and afterward, each group was given a creativity test. This is a test where you are asked to complete a series of tasks. For example… “Make a list of all the things one could do with a brick.”
Here’s the interesting part:
The students who were asked to picture themselves as children came up with twice as many ideas as the other group!
So what does this mean?
Just by imagining yourself as a child, it can help you become more imaginative.
Why is this? It’s because a large part of becoming creative is actually the process of overcoming your own maturity. As adults we tend to hold ourselves back. We are taught to be reserved. It goes back to that unsafe ground of doing something personal and intimate.
I like to keep that in mind when I work. I set an intention before I shoot to allow myself to be like a child, to have fun and be creative. It’s really just recognizing something within all of us that as adults we’ve tended to push aside.
My advice is to walk into every shoot like you’re a seven-year-old photography savant.
CAN YOU SHARE AN IMAGE THAT YOU’RE PARTICULARLY PROUD OF AND TELL US WHY?
I love this one from Tiffani & Schuyler’s wedding.
It’s hard to claim ownership of it because I don’t feel I had all that much to do with it. This was all them. That said, I think a large part of what I do is to create a safe space for people to feel they can be themselves without worrying that there’s a camera in front of them.
WHAT ARE THE 3 MOST IMPORTANT THINGS IN YOUR LIFE?
My higher power, my wife, and my family.
CAN YOU SHARE A BIT ABOUT YOUR DAILY SCHEDULE / ROUTINES?
We’re often shooting or on the road. That’s always different and I love it. It also makes the time spent at home all the better.
When I’m home and not shooting it looks like this…
Wake up. Take about 10 minutes to sit in silence and stay present. Make breakfast and spend the morning with Mary. I read for an hour. Stretch. Hit the emails. Editing. An occasional client consult (usually via Skype). Take breaks for food and stretching. Knock off in time to hang out again with Mary at night. Stream some TV. Read more before bed.
WHAT WITHIN YOUR WORK DO YOU NOT LIKE TO DO AND WHY?
I really love this job. I feel pretty lucky here.
DO YOU feel you ACHIEVE “WORK/LIFE BALANCE”?
I’ve started outsourcing more and giving up control of things that aren’t necessary for me to be in charge of doing.
When I started this business I felt like I had to control every facet of it. I’ve been learning now how to prioritize my talents and outsource or delegate the other stuff. It’s given me more of my life back.
I wouldn’t say it’s completely perfect yet. I very much like to work and it’s hard to pull myself away from it. I’m still trying to find that sweet spot. I’m almost there.
WHICH PERSON DO YOU RESPECT MOST IN YOUR LIFE?
WHAT WAS YOUR HARDEST / MOST PAINFUL CREATIVE FAILURE TO DEAL WITH AND WHAT DID IT TEACH YOU?
Wow. That’s a good question. I feel I’ve made a lot of little mistakes along the way that I’ve had to learn from but nothing too painful.
To be honest, my hardest and most painful creative failure probably happened before I ever picked up a camera.
Spending years not believing in myself, or even trying.
WHAT WILL YOU BE DOING (OR HOPE TO BE DOING) 5/10 YEARS FROM NOW?
I hope to have grown deeper in my relationships and in my work. I’m excited to see where that leads me.
THE CORE // FOUNDATION
ARE THERE ANY MANTRAS THAT YOU LIVE BY?
Not sure if it’s a mantra to live by, but when it comes to creating, I love this quote from Andy Warhol…
“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art..”
IF YOU WERE NO LONGER ABLE TO USE A CAMERA, HOW ELSE WOULD YOU EXPRESS YOUR CREATIVITY JONAS?
Probably music. I also think painting is amazing. I’d love to paint.
AND IF YOU ONLY HAD 24 HOURS TO LIVE, HOW WOULD YOU SPEND YOUR DAY?
I’d want to spend it with my loved ones… laughing. That would be the best way to end this thing.
HAVE YOU EVER DOUBTED YOUR TALENT? AND IF SO, HOW DID YOU WORK THROUGH YOUR DOUBT?
I kind of touched on this earlier, but I feel that self-doubt is inescapable for people who make their living creatively. I think that if you haven’t felt this way, you may not be fully putting yourself out there.
Once you realize that your insecurity is a check point, a touchstone letting you know that yes, you’re being vulnerable and honest, then you can learn to accept and live with it.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked through doubting my talent, but I recognize that it is an important and necessary part of my process.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE ASPECT OF OUR SOCIETY THROUGH YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
That’s a pretty big ask.
I think that photography teaches us to look closely. I love that it can freeze time. It shows us a moment we can never have back again. It’s beautiful and also a little heartbreaking.
I think that sometimes the constant demands and distractions of our lives make us a little indifferent to how precious and ephemeral our moments are. I guess if I could do anything it would be to somehow communicate this in my images.
I think it’s a little too easy to be clever and cold with a camera. My hope is that I’m shooting from a place of gentleness and tenderness. I hope my images are viewed that way. If in turn, people were more gentle with themselves, each other, and the world around them after looking at my photographs, that would be amazing.
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
Your favourite podcast(s)
Reply All, S-Town, 99% Invisible, How I Built This
Fav Music // Share a (Spotify) playlist
Film / Documentary that is a must watch?
I just watched a documentary called ‘Holy Hell’ on Netflix about a speedo wearing guru who started a cult. That was crazy.
Favourite book // A book you are currently reading?
I love to read. I recently finished Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson and loved it. I also love graphic novels. I’m about to start ‘My Favorite Thing Is Monsters’ by Emil Ferris
A website you regularly follow?
Just started getting into The Creative Independent
Last place you travelled?
Just wrapped a wedding in L.A.
Favourite photographer or photo project outside of your genre?
That’s way too hard. I keep a Tumblr called Inspiration Bored for this.
Do you have a favourite poem or quote?
Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that will never be again. And what do we teach our children? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must work, we must all work, to make the world worthy of its children.
— Pablo Picasso
Favourite TED talk:
I haven’t watched a ton of them, but I love the artist/photographer Vic Muniz and his Ted Talk was great
Last gallery / exhibit you visited
‘This Is Not A Selfie” at the San Jose Museum of Art, and Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors at the Seattle Art Museum
Your favourite photography book?
Hard to pick a favorite. I love ‘Avedon Fashion 1944-2000’
A creative you’d love to see interviewed on ARC?
John Dolan and Zalmy Berkowitz (editor’s note: past Experience ARC // speaker)
THANK YOU, JONAS!
You can see more of Jonas’ work here // Web
And connect on social here // Facebook // Instagram
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Above Image by 2018 Speaker Niki Boon
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