Jennifer Spelman began her photographic career almost by accident. What followed was a surprising journey of self-discovery and creative expansion that she never imagined at the start. This is her story.
How did you get interested in photography?
I used to work for a DA’s office in Colorado as a demonstrative evidence specialist within their Investigations Unit. Part of that job was photographing evidence and exhibits for the prosecution to show to juries. That got me started, and then I came and took a workshop here. Half a week in, I found this was so much more fun than what I was doing.
So I took a leave of absence and spent a summer here as a work/study. I took eight classes in a row and it was amazing. There was no going back after that.
What was your experience like that first time?
The very first workshop that made an impression was Joe McNally, I was wowed by the depth he was able to portray with his subjects through super skillful lighting. The first week of my first summer as a work/study, I found myself in Cig Harvey’s class. I had never considered the idea of metaphor in photography. Photography was suddenly full of far more possibility than I had understood. So that whole summer I took different types of classes. I didn’t know what part of photography I wanted to be in, but I knew I was hooked on making pictures. I enjoyed it so much here that I spent the next two years as a Course Coordinator seasonal staff member and I had opportunity to work with almost the whole roster of frequent instructors. Each of them inspired the heck out of me in their own unique ways. By the end of the summer I felt far more comfortable expressing my ideas with my camera.
How did you become an instructor?
I realized I really liked assisting the classes for beginning photography students, so I approached Reid about teaching a basics of digital photography workshop. Coming from the experience of being a student, I understood how both thrilling and vulnerable it can feel to take a workshop. I don’t know how many workshops I’ve been involved in total, probably close to 100. I’ve spent a lot of time immersed in that format and it’s incredible. You can change someone else’s perspective completely—or your own perspective can completely refocus—in just one week.
What was the most important lesson you learned at The Workshops?
The hardest battle to creating a truly original image often isn't technical or even a creative block, it's simply about finding time and space for ideas to happen. Time spend simply noodling around with my camera has almost always led to good things.
Tell us about your photographic growth and your life following your start at The Workshops.
I’ve had the opportunity to try all different areas of photography; I’ve done food photography, I’ve photographed belt buckles, artists, and authors, a whole variety of things. It’s been helpful for me to not put myself into a box. Five years ago I would have said I was 100% focused on black and white portraiture, but after spending time in Cuba and Mexico, I would now say I’m crazy about color street photography. More and more I understand that photography’s just a tool: what you choose to say with it can shift as you yourself shift. Most of the images I make now are personal work for myself, which is liberating.
You’ve been instrumental in developing the SFPW Cuba Program. How did that happened?
In 2011, Reid asked me if I wanted to join the Cuba team that was already operating in Havana. I, of course, did back flips! So, for the last five years I’ve spent a good part of each winter in Cuba. It’s become kind of a second home. In certain ways it couldn’t be more different than Santa Fe, which is part of what has made it so captivating.
What were some of the challenges you faced while developing the Cuba Program?
Cuba is complicated logistically, but from a standpoint of Cubans graciously opening their homes, hearts, and families towards conversation and images, it's easy. It’s by far the friendliest place I’ve ever been for photography. We work with a team of extraordinary Cuban photographers and they have shared all kinds of unbelievably amazing places to experience across the island. They’ve taken us off the tourist path and, outside of that, they are brilliant photographers so they’ve opened my eyes to how to do street photography. My sense of timing and moment has become much quicker and more decisive since going to Cuba.
Currently, you are pioneering our Japan Expeditions. How is it different than setting up the Cuba Program? How is it similar?
Cuba and Japan are really different cultures. Whereas Cuba is loud and vibrant and colorful, Japan is more refined and calm. The intention for the locations we visit is the same: to find special places that have dynamic characters. It’s exciting that The Workshops has such strong local connections. That gives me confidence that we’ll keep finding really unique places to photograph. We always try to think through what kind of light will be present at the right time of day, which way the light will be facing, we try to create the opportunity for as much magic as we can.
What keeps you coming back to The Workshops?
It’s still thrilling! I was recently a participant in Bob Sacha’s multimedia class, and I was enchanted by the possibilities within sound and motion. I trust this place sets the stage for big breakthroughs to happen. Ten years later, and it still works that way for me.
For a list of Jennifer's upcoming workshops, visit her instructor profile.