Interview with Zoriah Miller

Zoriah Miller, commonly known as Zoriah, is an award-winning photojournalist and war photographer whose work has been featured in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries, museums, and publications. Check out his website, blog, one-on-one photojournalism workshops, and Wikipedia article.

PetaPixel: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Zoriah Miller: I began photography when I was 15 years old and within the first year of shooting I won a national award and was pretty into the idea of becoming a photojournalist. Three years later I was shooting abroad and had all of my equipment stolen…well, actually I had everything stolen and ended up having to spend some time in a homeless shelter until I could get money and documents to get out of the country…but that is another story. The point was that my camera and lenses were gone and I pretty much gave up. I graduated college, moved to New York, was in the music industry for six years, gave that up to go abroad and study disaster management and humanitarian aid to developing countries, hated that and then picked up a used camera and a plane ticket and have been shooting ever since then.

PP: What does your name mean?

ZM: My mother made up my name. She combined Zoe and Zachariah. Zoe is the Greek god of life and together the name means “one who loves life.”

PP: What was your first camera?

ZM: I am pretty sure it was a Nikon FG. I was shooting on an old thing my mother loaned me the first year, but when I won the award a local artist donated the Nikon to me with a bag of lenses. I used them for the next three years until they were stolen.

PP: What equipment do you currently use?

ZM: I am more than happy to answer this question, but I always start by saying that it really doesn’t matter that much. It is great to have nice equipment, and when you start making your living at this I do recommend it, but dont get hung up on it. If your pictures are not good, it is probably not the fault of the equipment. Everything I shot up until 2006 was done with a Canon 10D, and these shots blend right in on my sites and still sell just as well as the ones that were shot on nice, new gear.

That being said, I currently have a Canon 1DS MKIII and a 1DS MKII, 16-36 2.8, 50 1.2, 70-200 2.8. About 80% of my portfolio was shot with the 16-35 and I really only use the 70-200 in extreme situations (war, riots, disasters etc.) I primarily bought the 50 as a backup to my 16-35 and dont use it very often either.

PP: What has been your most memorable moment so far as a photojournalist? Does any memory stand out from the rest?

ZM: Such a hard question to answer, because so many moments have been so memorable, both in good and bad ways. The bad stuff gets etched into your head just as much as the good does. I think the most emotional project and the one that I learned the most from was my first year in Iraq. I learned a lot about people, about fear, pain, anger, kindness and of course life and death. Photojournalists are some of the very few people who have experienced war from a “neutral perspective,” meaning not experiencing it as either a combatant or victim. I think getting to know the soldiers as well as the civilians taught me a lot about human nature, both the ugliest of sides and the most beautiful. It was strange to discover that in a war zone, but for me, that was where it happened.

PP: What advice do you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

ZM: I urge people to really consider what doing this kind of work will do to your life. It is not just a job or career, it can really change you. There are incredible things to see and experience and I truly believe that good photojournalism can change and enlighten people, but that often comes at a very high personal cost. You wont forget the things you see and you will find that very few can relate to your experiences. It hurts the people who love you to know that you are always in danger and it can definitely take its toll on your personal life. I think people really need to keep in touch with themselves if they chose this path, be sure you know why you are doing it and if you ever get to the point where you cant remember, do something else for a while.

If it is right for you, then do it with all of your heart and all of your passions. Make beautiful art out of the horrors you see and produce work that people will not be able to turn away from. Anyone can take a photo, but producing a work of art, an image or a series of images that will affect people, enlighten them and bring about change is not something that is easy to do.

PP: What kind of dangerous situations have you found yourself in?

I think that a lot of the situations I have been in have been dangerous. I dont think you ever really know how close to death you are at any given point, there could have been dozens of mines I almost stepped on, dozens of roadside bombs the vehicle I was in almost triggered…who knows.

There are only three situations I know of in which I missed death:

One was in Iraq: I was scheduled to photograph a city council meeting in Anbar Province. Photographing meetings is not really my thing, so at the last minute I asked to be taken off the mission. I was told I could not be taken off the mission but I could go outside on the street with the security force and shoot on the streets instead of inside at the meeting. A suicide bomber struck the meeting and killed or severely injured nearly everyone attending.

Another was in Gaza: I was going to shoot a story on the workers who smuggle items through tunnels from Egypt into Gaza. it is an extremely dangerous job and many workers die every month when the tunnels collapse. I had a camera crew filming a documentary about my work and we were slow getting everything organized in the morning to go to the tunnel and ended up running about an hour late. As we were driving to the tunnel we got news that it had collapsed.

The other was in the West Bank: The Israeli Border Police had driven through a small village the week before and shot two young children in their faces, killing both of them. The town was outraged and attended a weekly protest of Israeli operations. The protests instantly became violent and I was on the front lines, not far from several other journalists when the Border Police opened fire on us using live ammunition. I could hear the bullets hissing and pinging as they went by my head and hit the trees and ground. I had one of those strange moments where you really under-react to something. I remember thinking “I cant believe those jerks are shooting at me.” I slowly walked down the hill into a small valley and when I turned around I noticed that my friend had been shot in the chest. He nearly died but has made a full recovery.

PP: If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?

ZM: Nothing.

PP: What are some mistakes you made early on that you’re careful to avoid now?

ZM: Well, I would not call them mistakes, because they led me to where I am now. I think in the beginning I paid too much attention the “ethics” of photojournalism. I was worried if cropped too much or my blacks were too dark that I would get sent away to the photojournalists jail. When I finally began to look at photojournalism as an art it freed me up to really experiment with my shooting and darkroom techniques. I realized that most of things many people think are unethical to do in the darkroom or in photoshop are done by others in camera or with filters and strobes with no complaints from the photographic community. In a photograph it is essential to portray not only the facts of a situation but also the mood, what it felt like to be there or possibly even a bit of what your subject may have been feeling. If you cant make people feel things and connect with the subject matter, they wont care about it. To me, making people feel and making people care is extremely important.

PP: What do you hope to achieve with your photographs?

ZM: A lot. I hope that my photographs make people think a bit about what it is like for others around the world. It is so easy to get caught up in our own lives, we forget that there are so many people struggling in some really terrible situations. I want to make photographs that hit people on an emotional level, punch them in their gut and make them feel something. If people can connect to those I photograph then they can empathize with them. This kind of understanding is the first step in changing the situations that effect these people.

In the long term I would hope to leave behind historical documents, photographs documenting lives, situations and struggles that may otherwise have vanished and been forgotten. I hope that at some point there will be fewer conflicts in this world, and if this happens I want my photos to remind people of the horrible things people go through in war.

Finally, I want my work to be art. I want to leave something behind that will inspire people to not only be creative but to also be kind to their fellow human beings, even the ones who live thousands of miles away that they may never meet.

PP: How much editing or manipulation would you say is too much in photojournalism?

ZM: When I work with students during my workshops I tell them that this is something they need to decide for themselves. Some people will tell you a crop is unethical, others have no boundaries whatsoever. For me, adding things to or taking things out of a photo that are essential to the narrative and meaning of that photo is not acceptable. Artistic choices such as cropping, color and contrast adjustments, dodging and burning etc are all not only acceptable but encouraged. Photojournalism should be art! That is where it’s power comes from.

PP: How much do you travel, and how long do you stay in the places you document?

ZM: I have not had an apartment or home base in eight years and have been through about seventy countries in that time, some of them I have been to more than ten times each. I have had times in which I have been in seven countries in a week. Sometimes I will stay for a couple months in one spot, but my average time on a project is usually two or three weeks.

PP: What are your main sources of income?

My income sources are definitely not typical for a photojournalist and every year they change quite a lot. About three years ago I got tired of dealing with agencies, editors and publications and set out to be the first “independent photojournalist.” The first year I did quite well with making a living from my blog. I offered paid subscriptions to the blog and also asked for donations to help me continue my work. I was surprised at how well it worked. As the economy got worse I had a harder and harder time making a living just from the blog and began to offer one-on-one, in-field photojournalism workshops. I did some fashion, entertainment and corporate contracts and now I do a little bit of all of the above.

PP: How would an aspiring photographer go about following in your footsteps?

Well, of course there are a million ways of going about things. For me it was just about buying a used camera and a plane ticket. I think knowing how to work on a budget is important, I lived in Asia for two years off of $200 a month and did nothing but shoot. It was an incredible learning experience for me, because I ended up living with the locals instead of in tourist spots. I could not even afford transportation so I would just get up every day and start walking, sometimes I would walk and shoot from sunrise until well after sunset. When I would get tired I would go sit with some people or someone would invite me into their home. I think I got a unique perspective by being with the people, all of the time. Now I have money, but when I do my projects I still do them the same way. I still sleep in refugee camps and with local families, in pension houses and anywhere else that allows me to experience what those I am photographing are going through.

I guess what I am trying to say is that not having a lot of money can actually be a benefit in this business. Photojournalism is all about adaptation. You must adapt to every new place you go, every new story you shoot and then when you return home you must adapt to a constantly changing industry. I think poor people are better at adapting than wealthy people, just out of necessity.

For those wanting to start out, buy a plane ticket and have enough saved up to just live on the road for a year or two. Or if you are not ready for that step, shoot in your “back yard.” If you cant find a story wherever it is you are, you are not looking hard enough.

PP: How much do your personal views and beliefs affect what and how you shoot?

ZM: I like being independent because it allows me to follow the stories I believe in and have personal meaning to me. I tried doing assignment work and just hated it, I need to shoot stories that I am passionate about, not technology and politics. So I believe that my personal views and beliefs affect the stories I choose. Aside from that I try to be open to whatever it is that I experience and tell the story that presents itself to me, not the one that I may have had in my head. I think that far too many photojournalists go into situations knowing exactly what images and what story they will leave with. To me this is sad. I think you need to be open to what is going on and document what the reality and not your pre conceived ideas. I have seen so many people miss incredible stories that were right there in front of them because they were too focused on what the planned to shoot there.

PP: After the earthquake in Haiti, there was quite a bit of discussion regarding the ethics of photographing those who are dead, injured, or mourning. What are your thoughts regarding the ethics of photojournalism?

ZM: I think it is important for photojournalists to be truly compassionate. Compassionate individuals know how to approach different situations, they know how to make people comfortable with their presence and they know when to leave when they are not able to do that. It is essential to put yourself in someone else’s shoes: if your mother just died would you want someone to run up and start shooting pictures all over the place? Probably not. But if that same person came up and looked you in your eyes, put their hand on your shoulder and made a connection with you…made you feel and know that they were there to tell your story to the world and show the suffering that was going on in your country, then would you feel differently? It is just about being human…it is not hard, just something that some people forget to do at times.

PP: Where do you get your inspiration from?

ZM: I am inspired by anyone who is great at what they do. I will go to see pretty much any type of art, as long as it is the best of its kind. And it goes for more then art too…sometimes I see a shopkeeper arranging things in a really specific way and I can see their vision, or a janitor who keeps everything just perfectly neat and clean. Whatever you choose to do in life, own it!!!

Music is also a huge inspiration. It inspires me to make images that produces the same feelings in my viewers that music does in me, that connection is so important.

PP: Who are your favorite photographers?

ZM: My favorite photojournalists are James Nachtwey and Sabastio Salgado. My favorite art/fashion photographer is Chadwick Tyler and my favorite photographer to just enjoy images from is Merkley???

PP: Who is one person you would like to see interviewed by PetaPixel?

ZM: Merkley??? gives great interviews and always puts pompous photographers back in their place.

PP: Anything else you’d like to say to PetaPixel readers?

ZM: Thank you for taking an interest, I really appreciate it!