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BEST OF 2012, Carey Kirkella
Brooklyn, NY
Project: Commercial advertising assignment to tell the successful‚ life-changing medical stories of real patients at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

© Carey Kirkella

© Carey Kirkella


Lifestyle and portrait shooter Carey Kirkella applied her passion for kids to a noble cause in an ad campaign for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, telling the successful‚ life-changing medical stories of real-life patients.

“I love photographing kids because they are naturally creative in how they present themselves and in what they choose to do,” Kirkella says. “They can’t always be directed, and then I get to go with the flow and into that documentary zone. That’s the kind of situation where I feel completely in my element, capturing moments that are real and helping to tell inspiring stories.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Carey Kirkella: About ten years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

CK: Since 2008.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

CK: Lifestyle, environmental portraits, documentary.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

CK: My drive to do the best I can in everything I do.

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

CK: I’m flexible when it comes to what kind of gear I use, but I prefer to always have some daylight available.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers and their work?

CK: I capture genuine expressions and authentic moments. I think what sets my work apart is that I can do this regardless of whether the people I photograph have any experience being in front of a lens.

ASMP: Based on your photographs for a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) ad campaign, Matisse, the young girl who received a successful intestinal transplant, seems to have a joie de vivre, or is this something you were able to coax out specifically in your images? Was she comfortable in front of the camera? How long did you spend together before you began photographing?

CK: Matisse was definitely comfortable in front of the camera, and she happened to have a very outgoing personality. I think I only needed to spend five minutes talking with her before I started photographing. She is a natural performer.

ASMP: About how many frames of Matisse did you capture in all, and how many did you deliver to UPMC? Did the client choose the images you felt were strongest and/or best conveyed Matisse’s story? How tightly do you edit your work when you know that the final selection is out of your hands?

CK: I captured about 1,800 frames of Matisse in various locations within the hospital and at her home. Some were with her music teacher, her doctors and her mother, and some where she was enjoying some of her favorite activities alone. I was required to deliver all the images I shot for their image library. I edited my favorites down to about 350 frames, which is what the art director chose from. I tend to do a fairly broad edit because I want to show the range of what I’ve captured, especially when I know that the final selection is out of my hands.

ASMP: Had you ever worked with UPMC before this shoot with Matisse? How did your work come to their attention, especially given that you’re not based in Pittsburgh but in New York City?

CK: There were several other subjects that I shot for UPMC during the same week, but this was my first assignment for them. The advertising agency that they work with introduced them to my work through my Web site. An art buyer at the agency saved my promo card for a couple of years before the right assignment came up.

ASMP: Did you seek out any advice or assistance in bidding, estimating or doing preproduction work for the UPMC ad campaign? What resources were most helpful?

CK: I have a friend who is a photographer, and she also worked as a producer for a photo agency. She assisted me with the bidding and some preproduction. I also used the program Blinkbid to help me put together the estimate.

ASMP: Much of your photography is centered on kids. What is it about this age group that attracts you? Is there anything you find most challenging in photographing this demographic?

CK: I love photographing kids because they’re generally the least inhibited and they are naturally creative in how they present themselves and in what they choose to do. Depending on their age, I like that they can’t always be directed, and I get to go with the flow and go into that documentary zone. I’d say the most challenging aspect of photographing kids is that they tend to move very quickly, so you have to have a heightened sense of awareness to anticipate what they might do next.

ASMP: Your niece Julia is the subject of one of your personal projects. How has your familial connection been affected by this collaboration? What is Julia’s relationship to the camera? How long do you envision yourself photographing her?

CK: Photographing Julia has become our special thing that we do together, and it’s a form of play for us. Julia likes the attention she gets from the camera, but she behaves the same way whether or not it’s pointed in her direction. The older she gets, the more it feels collaborative and she wants to see the images more frequently. I hope to photograph her for the rest of my life, or until she tells me to stop, whichever comes first.

ASMP: Your environmental portraits are very clean and well lit. Please talk about the technical aspect of your environmental images and share your approach to lighting and composition.

CK: I like to keep things simple, natural looking and mobile when it comes to lighting. If I have an assistant and I’m photographing one or two people in a relatively small room, I might have him or her hold a Q-flash mounted on a monopod with a soft box on it to fill in the shadows. If it’s a bigger room with more people, I’ll use a strobe or two with big soft boxes with one positioned near a window, to boost the natural light coming through. If I’m by myself, I’ll put a flash on a stand in the corner and bounce it into the ceiling near a window. If there’s plenty of daylight, I’ll have someone hold a reflector for me to open up the shadows. When it comes to composition, I try a lot of different angles while I’m shooting, and I move in closer and farther away often too. I try to be conscious of the fact that I tend to favor centering the subject within the frame and try to experiment with different points of view.

ASMP: How much styling goes into the settings in your images? Do you work with a stylist or do the styling work yourself?

CK: I usually only work with a stylist on larger commercial shoots. Otherwise, I’m on my own. While I’m shooting, I try to be aware of anything distracting, and I make slight adjustments when needed.

ASMP: What inspired your series “Dance Recital,” and how did you gain access to this location? Were most parents amenable to you making photographs of their children? Did you get model releases?

CK: My stepmother is a dance teacher, and I happened to go to one of her recitals while I was visiting home. Luckily, I had a camera with me, so I shot a few rolls of 35mm film. I liked the results, so I continued to go to several more of my stepmother’s recitals with the intention of photographing (using my Mamiya 7 II, a medium-format rangefinder). Colorful costumes and bustling activity backstage caught my attention, and no one questioned me or asked me not to photograph their children. I did not end up asking any of the parents for model releases, because I knew I wasn’t going to try to use the images for commercial purposes.

ASMP: For your multimedia series “Changemakers,” you worked with a sound editor and producer to create audio slide shows. Who captured the audio for these pieces? What was it like to put sound to an otherwise silent medium? Did you edit your images differently as a result?

CK: The producer at Dowser, the organization that we created the pieces for, hired Gretta Cohn to capture the audio. It was an interesting challenge pairing the images with the audio, and I definitely had to edit them differently for it to make sense. I also had to work with the producer to tell the story that they wanted to tell, as opposed to using only the strongest images.

ASMP: Given your work on this multimedia piece, do you have an interest to incorporate video or other hybrid forms of imaging among your future business offerings or creative output? Please share your thoughts on the future of visual media in its widest sense.

CK: Yes, I’m interested in incorporating hybrid forms of imaging in my work for both business and creative output. I think that shooting video requires such a different skill set than shooting still photography, and I will most likely always identify myself as a still photographer. For me, I think it’s important to feel very confident about my capabilities before I would consider offering my services as a multimedia image maker. I’d like to experience working on more collaborations among people working in different mediums. It’s definitely an interesting time to be creating and exploring different ways to tell stories. I’ve barely begun to skim the surface.

ASMP: You describe yourself as a fine art photographer with a journalistic sensibility. Has fine art work always been a part of your practice? When did this take on a primary significance for you, and what channels do you currently use to present and promote your fine art work, in addition to your Web site?

CK: My fine art work was originally more prominently significant for me. I studied art and media arts at Pratt Institute, and during that time, I started gravitating toward shooting in a documentary style. In the past couple of years, I’ve been focusing more on promoting to commercial clients, and I’ve taken a break from promoting my work as fine art. It’s important to me to simply focus on shooting the way that I like to shoot and to get assignments to support that. I find that I enjoy the creative challenges that come with illustrating an idea or a brand, and I like collaborating with people.

ASMP: What methods do you employ for fulfillment of your fine art print sales? Do you edition your fine art prints? If so, how do you determine edition size and pricing?

CK: At the moment I’m not promoting fine art print sales, but I do edition the prints that I’ve made available in the past. I talk to other fine art photographers about pricing and look at what edition sizes the galleries offer to determine how to go about it.

ASMP: You earned a BFA at Pratt Institute on a full “talent search” scholarship. How did this scholarship come about? What was it like to be branded as “talented” at such a young age?

CK: At the time, Pratt offered a full scholarship based on an application that included samples of work and a high school GPA score, and they awarded it to one recipient for each major of study. I don’t remember feeling particularly “branded as talented” for receiving it, but it was very exciting for me to have the opportunity to follow my dream and attend a prestigious art school in New York City. I was the third person in my family ever to attend college at all, so I was incredibly grateful. I was lucky to have access to darkroom facilities in my middle school and high school in upstate New York, and I decided I wanted to go to New York City and be a photographer when I was 12 years old.

ASMP: You were trained in photography just before the massive industry-wide shift to digital technology. Do you think learning to shoot film before digital was beneficial or a hindrance, given the eventual changeover?

CK: I am definitely grateful for having learned film and darkroom techniques before the shift to digital technology. The entire process is more organic and more rewarding to me, compared with shooting digitally. The hours I logged at the color darkroom have helped me sharpen my skills when it comes to color balance, not to mention patience. I’m sure that learning to shoot film and process my own prints helped me as a photographer in ways that I’m not consciously aware of. Also, I’m happy knowing that I’ve experienced photography in the same way that the masters I admire and studied in school did.

ASMP: After graduating from Pratt with a BFA in media arts, you attended the International Center of Photography. Why did you choose to continue your studies at ICP?

CK: I was working at the Wall Street Journal at the time, and I met photographer Andre Lambertson on a shoot that I assigned him. He told me about a documentary photography class that he was about to start teaching at ICP and invited me to attend. Pratt is a fine art-based school, and while I was there, I felt that documentary photography didn’t fit in with most of the work that my classmates were doing. I remember being in critique classes at Pratt and thinking everyone else’s work was very conceptual and abstract. I thought it would be a rewarding experience to specifically dedicate some time to documentary photography. I also wanted some encouragement to keep up with my personal work since I was working full-time at WSJ.

ASMP: Early in your career, you also worked as a staff photographer and photo editor at WSJ. What was the most valuable thing you learned working for this publication? Why did you leave WSJ in 2001?

CK: I think the most valuable thing I learned in my position as a photo editor is what a strong portfolio looks like and also how important it is to market your work to the right audience. I left in 2001 because as a staff photographer, I was shooting still life in a studio, which wasn’t what I was interested in. Also, I didn’t particularly enjoy being a photo editor, and I was determined to be a full-time photographer.

ASMP: A photo editor is a distinctly different profession from a photographer, despite their strong relationship. Based on your work at WSJ, what would you say photo editors come to understand about images that photographers do not? In your opinion, why is it so difficult to edit one’s own pictures?

CK: To put it simply, photographers are influenced by the circumstances surrounding the making of their photographs when they look at them. A person with an outside perspective, such as a photo editor, sees the purpose that they are intended for. I think sometimes photographers are affected by what they see as the potential of an image, if only it were slightly different in some way. It’s hard to get past that and let it go. In some cases, a photo editor may recognize a strong image that the photographer dismissed; possibly because they had a different outcome from what they had intended before shooting.

ASMP: You license select images through Gallery Stock and Getty Images. How did you develop relationships with these two companies? About how much of your income comes from stock photography sales?

CK: Both Getty Images and Gallery Stock approached me to license images through them. I don’t remember if either of them knew how they came across my Web site. A very small amount of my income comes from stock photography sales — probably less than a quarter of it.

ASMP: How do you keep your business solvent in today’s challenging marketplace? Do you currently employ staff or interns to support your business?

CK: I try to keep my overhead low, and I generally do my own retouching, printing and such. I don’t currently employ staff or interns, but I do hire assistants on a per-job basis. I recently started working with a photo consultant, John Berthot, to help me create a stronger marketing strategy. His role is also to help me with estimating for jobs and promo ideas.

ASMP: Your Web site is hosted with FatCow, and EPA Green Power Partner, which powers sites entirely by wind energy. Do you make similarly green choices when powering your digital equipment or in your choice of digital equipment?

CK: I try to make green choices when I can, not necessarily in my choice of digital equipment. Right now I’m experimenting with creating envelopes out of portfolio test prints for promos.

ASMP: Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Turnley said you have a “soft manner” that aids you in creating authentic photographs. Were you aware of this disposition before he brought this to your attention? Is this a manner that you turn up while photographing, knowing it helps you achieve your visual aims, or is it always present?

CK: Actually, I didn’t realize that having a “soft manner” was very much of an asset until he pointed it out to me. I think I assumed I would be better off if I had more of an aggressive personality. I’m sensitive to the idea that it’s a privilege for someone to let me into their world and photograph him or her. With that in mind, and depending on the circumstances of the subject, I may unknowingly turn up my natural disposition a notch, but generally it’s always present.

ASMP: On your blog, you posted the following quote from George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Are you “reasonable” or “unreasonable” in this regard?

CK: I would like to think I’m in the ‘unreasonable’ camp regarding that quote. I say this because in my experience as a freelance photographer, there have been some ups and many downs, and through it all, I’ve staunchly (my mother might say stubbornly) refused to give up. It’s safe to say that there are plenty of less tumultuous roads I could have taken, that fit well within how the world works when it comes to having a job or building a career. I say do what you love and believe in yourself, and the world will eventually come around.