Casey Atkins is a Boston-based photographer and videographer. Her work with non-profits takes her abroad, where she uses her photograph’s to tell stories. Her personal project of taking a photo a day on her iPhone has turned into a series that spans several countries – and she plans to keep going! She talked to us about how she balances personal projects while traveling, how she got involved in a project with a former gang member, and how growing up all over the world made her a traveler.
Where are you from?
I am originally from Cape Cod, but I grew up all over the world, since my parents taught in international schools. I consider Berlin a second home – I spent 8 years there and went to high school there. Now I live and work in Boston.
How did you become interested in photojournalism?
I actually got into [photojournalism] through my dad, who was experimenting with it. He got me a film SLR when I was 15 and I got into it. I didn’t study [photography] in undergrad, but then when I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, I started exploring it more. I took a certification course, got my masters in photojournalism from Boston University, and then got into it as a career.
Do you think being an expat influences your photography practice or your interest in photography as a teenager?
Honestly, no. But growing up as an expat did spur me to travel more, as I was already comfortable in a variety of countries.
What do you shoot /what do you gravitate towards?
I tend to shoot inspirational moments involving strong light, or quiet moments when someone isn’t aware of me shooting. People, but landscapes in general. I look for something that has a real mood to it, a strong tone.
What is your favorite part about traveling and experiencing new cultures?
Getting to know different kinds of people and meeting people in the different places is always a fascinating experience. I love languages, so I try to learn bits of the local language wherever I go. This kind of thing and these kinds of interactions are very fascinating to me.
How does traveling for work differ from traveling for pleasure?
A lot of my personal trips will have “work” elements mixed in. I travel to visit friends, but I always have my personal projects in the back of my mind. I struggle with balancing those things – wanting to travel as a person or a friend, and wanting to travel as a photographer. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. If I have a project I want to work on, I try and set aside time for it in particular when I’m not going to be doing other things.
Does your photography practice change when you are traveling on assignment versus personal reasons?
Definitely. I think when I’m working on a personal project, I can be more expressive, I feel more free to do whatever I want, creatively. When I’m doing something for work I’m very focused on checking things off the list and getting things done. In doing so, I might end up missing things that I would have photographed otherwise.
In Boston I mainly work for universities and non-profits. I do lots of video work in addition to photography work, and I also work for some non-profits abroad. In Central America, I was working with an organization that gives out micro-loans. I went around with them making portraits of loan recipients.
What do you do you find to be the most effective way to acclimate to a different culture or location?
I just go with the flow and relax into however local people normally live. I try to eat all the local food, and even try to dress more similar to them. Obviously I’m going to stick out because of my appearance anyway, but I try to go with the flow of whatever works for the local culture. At home, I’m pretty organized and need to be on time, but when I’m living and working in another location, I need to let go of that and acclimate to local norms – especially in Central America!
Similarly, how do you prepare for a trip?
On the technical side, I try to make sure that I cover any basic safety concerns and that I’m prepared with information regarding health insurance and things like that. I also try to research the country – I read Lonely Planet guides and then read up on the history of the country. It’s pretty important, especially in Central America with countries like Nicaragua which have a recent tumultuous past. It’s relevant and helpful to know.
What were you doing in Central America? What were you working on?
I’ve been to Central America several times, I went for the first time in 2015. I went to visit a friend and knew I wanted to do some personal work when I was there, so I let her know that ahead of time. This was when I was working with a local microfinance organization,making portraits of borrowers. I wanted my personal work to be documentary style. After pursuing a project on the street kids, I ended up working on a project about a former gang member who now works with children in a physical education program. My friend got me a meeting with the Department of Youth and they introduced me to this man. They were like “This is the man you have to talk to if you want to know about the street kids.” When I met him and started to speak with him, I was like this is it. This guy is the story. He was previously involved with one of the major gangs in the region, and managed to leave when he was 22. He got involved in youth development work after that.
How does your iPhone photo project factor into that and your other personal projects?
I was doing my iPhone photo project at the same time. My dad was worried about safety in the region, and told me I had to find a way to contact him everyday. I wasn’t worried, but I started posting a photo a day online to show my dad I was alive. It became a passion project on the side!
Do you have a memorable or favorite image that you created from your iPhone series?
Most of my iPhone images are small, daily moments. A memorable image would be of the young girl who is painting. I took that in a school a ways outside the city. This was taken on my second trip to Nicaragua. I was with a friend who is an artist, so we got a bunch of art supplies and arranged for her to do a day of art classes at the school.
If I were to pick my favorite image I think it would have to be the shot of the guy sitting in front of the blue door. I had gone into a shoe repair shop to get my shoes fixed and had asked the owner if I could take pictures in there. The person in the photo was one of the other people working in the shop. I don’t think he noticed me taking his picture and I love being able to capture quiet moments like this where someone is lost in thought. I also love all the details of the scene around him, the random objects on the walls, the color of the paint, etc.
What made these locations special? What was it like interacting and working with locals while you were there?
It was very beautiful, but I really enjoyed meeting the people there. They are so friendly and welcoming, and would even invite us into their homes. In El Salvador, I was travelling with a non-profit. It was a bit more restrictive due to the political climate there. We had two armed guards with us, and the Mayor of the city actually sent a few more when we travelled to a more risky area. Even that was an opportunity to talk to the men and hear their opinions about what is going on in their country, things that were out of their control.
Do you speak Spanish and if not, how did you bridge the language divide?
I’m working on my Spanish! I’m planning on going back, so I’m practicing. I know enough phrases that I can generally interact on a basic level and ask for a photo (I don’t always ask but I always try to be respectful). In Nicaragua, my friend served as my translator for my project on the former gang member. I was communicating with him through her, but still managed to really form a connection and a trusting relationship. Language barriers are difficult, but if you are open and friendly, and start with a smile, it can all work out.
What was the one of the most surprising things you learned about the country while you were there?
I was somewhat familiar with the culture of Latin America before I went, so I wouldn’t say this was completely surprising, but I’d have to say that the first time I went I was a little overwhelmed with the amount of color and noise. Buildings are often painted very vibrant colors, so visually there’s a lot going on. On top of that there just seems to be noise everywhere, from cars driving through the streets blasting announcements over loudspeakers to music being played absolutely everywhere. Once, I was awakened at 5:30 AM by a brass band outside my window! I certainly wasn’t expecting that.
What type of gear did you use to capture the video (video, audio, stills etc)?
For my Instagram project I use my iPhone 6s, for everything else (photo and video) I have a couple 5D Mark IIIs with a variety of lenses.
How do you typically set up your shots and how does this change when you are traveling? Dees shooting on the phone change your practice?
Shooting on my phone has really helped me to change and grow as a photographer. I had never shot much with my phone before I began my project in Central America and I found that I enjoyed it a lot and that it helped me to see things differently. The phone is a lot more limited compared to a DSLR, so you often have to be more creative and intentional with your composition to make things work. I do a variety of different things to set up my shots. I may ask someone for a portrait, I may spot a moment and just capture it or I may spot a scene that I like, set up my shot and wait for someone to walk through it.
After coming back from a trip with tons of images, what is your process with piecing and editing it all together and telling a story?
Editing down your images into a story is always a difficult process. I try and think about the different components of the story that I want to include but it can be difficult to sort through what’s important and what isn’t when you’re so immersed in it. I try and get feedback from other photographers when I can. Most photographers have a terrible time editing their own work, so a fresh pair of eyes and a different perspective can help a lot.
In your opinion, what makes a good photo essay?
For me, a good photo essay presents honest engaging images that share the story at hand, whether it be the story of one person or an overview of a place in general. I think a photo essay is most successful when it can engage people who wouldn’t otherwise find themselves connected with the subject matter.