Common Humanity: Ben Rasmussen’s Photography

Ben Rasmussen and I knew each other loosely in college. We recently ran into each other in Denver, after which I stalked him on the internet. Instead of digging up all kinds of dirt however, I found his incredible photography portfolio, which I now share with you. Ben has an eye for shots that tells stories. His photographs are artful without being “artsy,” they’re beautiful, humanizing and sometimes haunting. Ben graciously consented to being interviewed, and that hard-hitting exposé follows.

(All images © Ben Rasmussen. You can click on the photos if you’re curious about them, they will link to Ben’s website where you can read about his current projects. It’s definitely worth a look, and a read. In particular check out his Home series.)

Why are you a photographer?

I grew up in the Philippines, with an American mom and a dad from the Faroe Islands, a small protectorate of Denmark in the North Atlantic. And then I married a woman from rural Wyoming. I became a photographer because I loved the idea that through images, I could connect these different worlds to each other.

Growing up between those separate cultures, I learned how there is a common humanity shared between people, regardless of race or culture. And when I began pursing photography, I saw that it had the power to create emotional and aesthetic connections between viewer and subject, and communicate that common humanity.

How do you make a living at this? Do you work on commissions, personal projects, selling prints or books?

Honestly, I am still trying to figure that one out. Right now, I make a living doing a combination of advertising and magazine/newspaper commissions. But a lot of my time is spent on producing personal work and book making, which I lose money on directly, but which end up getting me more work in the long run. And it is setting a foundation for the future, when gallery sales and books will hopefully be a larger part of my business.

What are some goals you’ve set for yourself?

I used to set goals for myself that were concrete and very much based on the industry’s response to my work. Things like winning this competition, being included in that annual, working for this client or getting a write up in that magazine. But the more of those goals that I have met, the less fulfilling they are. And when your goals depend on other people, there is only so much you can do to meet them.

So I have changed my goals and separated them into two categories: promotional and personal.

The promotional goals are the things like winning contests, getting new clients and having my name out there. They are things that I think of in marketing terms, but do not have an emotional investment in.

My personal goals are about where I want my work to go. I know what I want my photography to be and I know the area in which it falls flat. I know what stories I want to tell and what aesthetic tools I want to use and that is where I focus.

What are some goals you’ve met?

I…start[ed] a large project focusing on my personal history that is called “Home.” It explores the meaning of home by looking at the connection people have to place in the three worlds I am connected to.

I [have also] created a series of promo books that both communicate my vision and separate me from the crowd. I started this last spring with my Wanderlust books, which are handmade artist’s book that focus on one body of work created in the last six months and then are sent out twice a year. It has forced me to keep creating work I am proud of and has taught me about what makes books work.

What motivates you to keep shooting?

…I want to see the projects I am pursing develop and grow. They are like children, and my role is to invest in them and nurture them until they are ready to be sent out into the world.

Also, I am motivated to keep growing as a photographer. And this happens through hard work, reading and looking at work, and good conversation. I developed so slowly as a photographer in my early 20s because of not working hard and not surrounding myself with other people and work that inspired me.

What do you fear?

Reaching a creative plateau. Being a young photographer is great, because you are constantly growing and developing. I end each year with work that is so much better than the year before, and so much closer to what I want it to be. But I am terrified of that ending.

That is one of the reasons that I do my Wanderlust books twice a year. It forces me to produce two bodies of work a year that I believe in enough to print, bind, and send out to dozens of people that I admire professionally.

Do you have like ten thousand pounds of gear when you’re shooting? What is the bare minimum you would take on a shoot?

When I shot digital, I used to shoot with just one camera and a couple of lenses. But now that I am shooting more and more medium and large format film, the gear has ballooned. I was just in the Philippines in January and had a huge backpack with a 4×5, medium format, and digital camera, and tons of film and film holders. And added to that was a big tripod and a light with a battery pack, a stand, and an umbrella. This way of working definitely slows me down, but that’s a good thing. I want to make slow pictures.

From the look of some of your shoots (in particular the Faroe Islands and Afghanistan), you’ve met some interesting people. Do you ever write about your experiences?

Nah, I am terrible at writing. I am a bit dyslexic and am much more visual than verbal. Making pictures feels like a very natural and fluid process, but writing is so slow and stilted for me. I ended up in photography because I realized after a year of studying journalism that I hated writing.

How do you choose your subjects (both in a larger sense and also shot by shot)?

I am really drawn to stories about people’s connection to place. It is something that I explored in the whale kill and Afghanistan work, and even more directly in my “Home” project.

Within those stories, I am drawn to people whom I feel an aesthetic connection to. This can be based on they way they look, act, or carry themselves, and is very immediate. When I see someone I want to photograph, I know it immediately. But I am quite introverted, so the real process is not choosing to photograph them, but instead taking the leap and asking if I can photograph them.

Have you shown your work in any galleries? Is that something you’re interested in?

I have done several group shows, which is not something I am very excited about. At its best, it feels like an expression of the curator’s vision more than my own. And at its worst, it seems like just a ploy to get the friends and family of the photographers to go to the gallery.

But I have my first solo show coming up in Washington DC in 2013, which I am excited about. It will be work from my “Home” project, so that is pushing me to finish that work this year.

Who are your heroes?

I am really inspired by people who are creating interesting work and doing it their own way. For photographers, that would include Rob Hornstra, Alec Soth and Richard Mosse. They are all people who are creating powerful and important work, and taking ownership of the process, whether that is through self publishing or creative funding.

Another huge influence is Tom Waits. His music has completely changed the way I think about beauty and place.

Do you ever try to make a point with your images? Or are you concentrating more on documenting events, places, and people?

I definitely want my images to make a point, but it is a really simplistic one. I want them to make viewers feel connected to and gain a value for people and places they have not interacted with. Basically, I want them to make the world a smaller place.

Thanks Ben. Love the work!

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