Weekly updates:

Posted by

Weekly updates

Acclaimed photojournalist, KC Ortiz, spends a good chunk of the year in some of the most remote, inaccessible places the world, documenting the lives and stories of people and cultures that are unbeknown to many of us. Recently, he followed a group of rebel forces deep into the west Papua jungle. Another time he documented the plight of second-generation Agent Orange victims in Vietnam.

His images are an astonishingly emotional powerhouse packed with sadness and despair, yet are oddly fascinating to the point where it becomes difficult to look away. For all that he has seen and known, it would be easy for someone like KC Ortiz to become withdrawn from the rest of the world and the life that exists back in Chicago. Yet his connection to his graff roots remains intact, evident in his work with his Seventh Letter and MSK families and his creative agency, We Are Supervision. In some ways, Ortiz leads a double life: shooting in a jungle one month before capturing the MSK crew bombing walls the next. Here, Ortiz talks to us extensively about his two paths, how his experiences have shaped him personally and professionally and what he does in his downtime.

Is there a photo or image that changed your life—an image that made you want to be a photographer?

After already having developed an interest in photography while locked up, my mom sent me the book Passion, Justice, Freedom by Letizia Batagllia, and I suppose that was the push over the edge for me where I concretely decided that was what I wanted to do. But it was years of build up leading to that point and kind of a natural progression at that point.

You’re pretty well-known for shooting off the beaten track. What is it that draws you to those sorts of areas? Why did you choose this path?

I try to keep my focus on more unknown subjects and issues. I think there are a lot of talented people out there covering more mainstream issues, and my efforts are used better in telling new stories that deserve attention but are ignored for any number of reasons. These are the stories that I am attracted to, I think this particular path found me; it is just a natural fit. I’ve always rooted for the underdog and hated the abuse of power and that relates to a lot of the stories that I cover.

You would’ve seen some pretty amazing and intense stuff too – much of your work must be emotionally draining at times. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Yeah, that’s fair to say. As draining as it can be, it can also be life affirming. Many of the people I am fortunate to meet live in extremely dire circumstances, yet they often are very positive, kind, and open people and that can have as much of an influence on me as the depressing end of things. The ugliness and heart breaking stuff doesn’t ever go away, but I’ve learned to live with it in my own ways, not that it’s easy.

What’s been the hardest story to shoot?

Many stories have various levels of difficulties. Sometimes it’s the logistics of a project, figuring out how to get in and out of places; other times it’s the physical toll, hiking for days; or sometimes it can be a mundane aspect of a story that is hard to illustrate with a photo. I don’t mind the challenges, especially if I’m able to produce proper results, and as the old saying goes, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.” Although, I really wish more people were doing it. Nothing would make me happier then to see more focus on these issues.

Do you feel you need to disconnect yourself from your subjects at all?

No, I wouldn’t want to disconnect as I feel that would reflect in my relationship with the people I am documenting, my work and in producing a complete story. I do believe that the people I work with to tell their stories understand I am dedicated and invested in them. I connect well with people, and I think a large part of that is due to the fact that I am clearly extremely connected to the story. I wouldn’t want to work on something in depth from a detached standpoint. I report on facts as a detached observer, but as a photographer documenting lives, I am connected.

Can you describe the sort of impact each story has on your work? What do you take away from these experiences and how does it you affect you both as a photographer and a human being?

As a photographer, it’s like anything else, the more you practice a craft, the better you become. As a person, I take home a lot of extra baggage. I don’t want to forget what I’ve seen or know, and I want to shed light on these situations.

Obviously, the work I do changes me, probably quite significantly, as a human being. Even though I come from a truly privileged position, the fact that I get to leave and go home, much of what I do see and experience stays with me and has a great effect on me personally.

I do fear that it creates a bit of a disconnection between myself and the world I come from. It’s much harder for me to relate with friends, family, and acquaintances than most people; I think my head is often just in a different place after everything. I’m a pretty quiet and to-the-point person by nature, so the experiences and such kind of lead me a bit farther down that tunnel and unfortunately, affect how I interact with a lot of people.

You also do a lot of work in the States with people like the Seventh Letter and MSK. What’s your involvement with those guys?

That’s the crew, the family end of things. Some of us have gone in different directions, where we’ve moved away from graff for one reason or another, but that doesn’t change who our friends are or where we come from. We continue to support each other and reach large audiences through our own networks, and I think that’s one of the most wonderful things about the crew. We are all where we are because of our own efforts and hard work, no one gave any of us anything, individually we’ve all made strides in our own fields and that has created a collective strength to further empower the individual as well as the group.

How did you hook up with them?

Well, I was pretty active in the graff game for most of the ‘90s so I think that’s where the first introductions came from, but over the years it was kind of just a natural development.

It must be important to you to have something like that – to shoot subjects and images that are completely different to your other stuff. Do you feel you’ve got a good balance?

Actually, if I could have it my way, I would just be shooting the documentary stories. The balance, or imbalance as I think of it, actually tears me in different directions and makes things more difficult on a personal level. I invest a lot of time and effort, mentally and physically, into my work, so when I am shooting something a bit more “fun,” we could say, my mind is flying and I’m actually a bit personally frustrated that I’m not working on a more impactful story. But, it is nice to have those breaks, which really are excuses to hang out with friends and work together.

You’re about to open your joint exhibition, Whitewash, with Pose. What’s your side of the Whitewash story?

Whitewash grew out of conversations between Pose and myself. The more we talked, the more we realised that there is an underlying theme that our work is related and connected under the theme of resistance and struggle and the use of white washing by the powers that be.

For me, the people I cover and the issues I look at, are often the result of the international community or more localised powers, essentially white washing the people. I showed work from Burma and West Papua, two nations that you can’t find on a map, for all purposes they have just been white washed off of the map. But they keep going; they keep fighting.

Pose is no different in regards to his situation. He produced work for 20 years that was continuously buffed over and regarded as an illegitimate form of expression by the local authorities, but he kept going in spite of the difficulties he was up against. I think there is a strong conceptual relationship there, which binds our separate mediums together.

What’s the best thing about Pose?

He’s a man with a plan who is always hustling for his family and friends just as hard, if not harder, than for himself. He is one of those rare individuals that really pushes and influences everyone around him just through his actions and being.

And the worst? And don’t worry, we asked him the same thing!

That guy likes to talk a lot. I prefer to internalise situations through my head and only talk when I have it figured out. Pose prefers to talk through issues a bit more out loud and come up with solutions and opinions through a lot of discussion. I don’t think there is anything wrong with either approach, but they are pretty opposite and the different methods can sometimes produce a pretty humorous result.

Please describe a typical day in your life.

Thankfully, there aren’t too many typical days. Many days are completely different, from locations to time zones to the people I’m with. I only have one ritual that always happens no matter where I am: I always like to step outside for a cigarette first thing in the morning and just appreciate the view of wherever I am. From home, I see the Chicago skyline with the towering Sears Tower every morning. Other times it’s a mountain range or an ocean coast or a jungle. Wherever it is, I try to just have the first five minutes to myself and clear my mind, enjoy the view, be thankful that I’m somehow still standing, and take the day on from there. It also somehow connects the whole world for me in a simplistic and reassuring way I suppose.

If I’m out shooting, I generally get up a little before the first light, find some semblance of coffee, and spend the day working until dark.

Of course, that’s an ideal situation; it really can vary drastically. I could be travelling for a day, by car, by bus, by train, by boat, by foot, all different. I could be waiting in a hotel room for days for a contact to come. It really is all over the place.

If I’m back in the States, the days are full at the studio with Pose. Editing and back end stuff to the photo work, working with Supervision on new jobs, existing work, dealing with clients, printing for a show, again, totally all over the place and no day is very typical.

When you’re not taking photos, what are you doing?

Researching stories to go take photos of. Working on edits, keeping up with contacts, and other back end stuff that most people probably don’t even think of a photographer doing but is the majority of the work. I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I don’t go out all crazy any more really. I’ll catch up with friends over dinner and drinks at bars, but not really partying hard. I’m happy just chilling watching a movie or reading a book, I keep it pretty low key. Most of the time at least…

We came across your sketchbook a few months back…is that a hobby or something you could see yourself doing?

That’s just something I’ll do when I want to turn my brain off and chill. Even though I basically quit writing back in ’99, it’s somehow still in me so the blackbook is where it ends up. I have no real interest in going out and bombing or even doing P walls at this point in my life. I still appreciate the art form and enjoy it for what it is, but I’m content with just doing a bunch of crap on paper these days.

What are your plans for 2012? Any projects you can talk about?

I am hoping 2012 turns into quite an important year. I have some pretty ambitious projects planned. I can’t get into specifics for a number of reasons, but I am the most excited I’ve been in a while with some of the upcoming plans. We are currently working with LRG on a photo book of my work that is due out this year. I’m also trying to find some time for the gallery shows, but I’m not sure how many I will be able to commit to with the way 2012 is starting look already. All in all, I’m really looking forward to 2012.

See more of KC’s work at kcortizphoto.com or follow him on Twitter @kcortizphoto