Episode 5-"If you want to stand out, don't look at others" with Rob Woodcox @robwoodcoxphoto
This episode includes my interview with Rob Woodcox, American conceptual photographer who is widely known all over the internet for his series of images of giant structures made of human bodies. Besides creating and financing his amazing artworks, Rob also works for clients like Universal, teaches conceptual photography worldwide and has held over 75 workshops all over the world. In addition, Rob is passionate about helping those in need and organized photography-related projects to raise money for foster kids. There’s a lot to learn from him and this interview proves it. We discuss how his curiosity for shooting dancers turned into an impactful art project, Rob’s unique method of finding inspiration in music and how overcoming personal barriers helps you become a better artist.
What we talked about:
- How meer curiosity allowed Rob to start an impactful art project
- How you can stand out as an artist
- Rob’s cool method of analyzing music lyrics to get ideas for his images
- Overcoming personal barriers and how they can help you grow
- When to expect to create impactful art that actually affects people
- I want to dive straight into your recent works: how on earth do you manage to shoot that? For me working with groups is the hardest type is photography. You manage to create masterpieces with large groups of people. I’ve been following you for I don’t know how long and I know that you started with quite different images. Tell us about the beginning of the bodies project? How did the idea come to you? How you managed to develop it? How does working with those groups feel like?
- I’ve been doing photography for 10 years now and I think in my earlier work I’ve been always pushing my own boundaries, trying to accomplish more surrealistic style, and I’ve always been creating those bizarre concepts. But what I think pushed me over the edge into this style is the political environment of my country. As the world knows, we have this terrible leadership in the US, and being open minded, artistic, loving, accepting person, we were all devastated when it happened and you could feel it everywhere. The good thing is, everybody was coming together, fighting back, creating new sources of inspiration and empower the community together. I remember travelling to New York City after Trump was elected and I was inspired by how people came together to push forward positive things and concepts to the world, so I wanted to represent a scene where a lot of people were coming together. I was introduced to some dancers that do freelance in New York, especially my friend, Mati Gelma and Nicole Rae. They knew everybody. I remember being there for 10 days I said I wanted to shoot some dancers, so could they gather some, within a week we had 12 dancers that came through just for the sake of creating art. The entire set was on a rooftop in NYC with really iconic view. That was the first installation of my dance series. We were showing that diversity is beautiful, community is beautiful. That first set got some much attention; I was shocked and I had so much fun doing it. I kind of became obsessed with creating human structures. The more i pushed the concept, the more it got surreal and turned into a tree of humans, staircase to heaven of humans. It’s a series that has developed from a need, as an artists, I believed in, being together, community.
- Do you work alone? or is there a whole team behind your work? Do you work with the same team on all the projects or do you work with different people each time?
- I typically have one person to help directing during the photoshoot with dancers. I know what I want but I’m not a dancer. In NYC it’s my friend Nicole, in Mexico it’s Geovanni, in Los Angeles it’s my friend Vinny. So every city has a main dancer connection that I make and we pull together our teams. I always have help, I couldn’t do it by myself. I have the same team but i constantly get introduced to new dancers, so usually the team is growing, if I really wanted I could push a massive dance group together. For all my shoots I have a crew. in times I’d fly my team to cities I work in, but in every city I have a group of people I can rely on. I’m always open to new people, but having those consistent people is much better for workflow, because we all know each other and we like each other. We know how to get things done together. It’s something I definitely rely on and what I’m thankful for.
- Tell us about the whole journey of finding your style? Do you feel that you have found it already?
- Finding inspiration was easier than making an idea real. In the beginning, when I was 19, I picked up a camera and learned how to use it. Now I’m 28 so it feels like I’ve been doing it my whole life. Up to age 19 I was very artistic but I didn’t know how to channel it. I tried drawing, painting, played an instrument for a while and none of it felt like me, it didn’t feel like an art from that fit me personally. But when I was a kid going to camps, my mom was giving me disposable camera and instructions that half of the photos have to be of people, because if she hasn’t told me so I’d only take photos of nature. I feel this challenge, as a child, pushed my creativity.
When I was 19, I’ve searched for my art form and said to my parents that I want to go to photography school, I didn’t know why, I just wanted to do it. I think it was in me. So I went to a local college with Canon sponsorship and 2 years program at Michigan. I just felt love for photography. Just for the love of it I’d go 4-5 times a week to shoot personal things. In about 4 years into it I was so in love with it that I started to share on online communities and started to build real life community around photography and that’s when I decided to do it full time and I’ve been a full time for 5 years now. I was doing part time teaching job at Michigan for about 5 years then. I’m self employed and I do a variety of teaching workshops, commercial work, licensing my work and getting publications.
- Tell us about your workshops! I’ve heard you had over 75! That’s very impressive! How are they usually organized. What do you focus on? Is there more theory or practice? Are there any upcoming workshops our followers should know about? Where are they?
- My workshops are taken a few different formats, but the most common is 2,5 day workshop, usually from Friday to Sunday. On Friday we have more of a gathering dinner or meeting, just to introduce everyone to each other. I found that people knowing each other makes them more comfortable in a learning environment. Saturday and Sunday are full day experiences. On Saturday we focus on the shooting. In the morning we start with talking about social media, web related things and then we move on to working with lighting, working with models and then we will go to a live shoot session. First, I demonstrate how I work with models and then let the students do the work. On Sunday we typically move to editing process. Usually we do it in the studio space, so students are able to work more with the lights if they want to. But to my surprise, people are equally interested in shooting and seeing me working in Photoshop. I’m going to be travelling and teaching seminars this year. I took a break from travel workshops, because they are pretty exhausting. I actually self planned 2 world tours; in 2013 and 2017 I did 2 of them, and between them I travelled over 20 different countries teaching. But I’d rather have somebody else organizing those, so all this year’s workshop are organized by somebody else. But it’s possible to do it all yourself, it’s a lot of work and it’s exhausting but it’s possible.
- I’ve read in one of your interviews that you spend half of your week researching locations. Is it still so?
- Having been doing this for 10 years now. I’ve spent a lot of early years of my career location scouting and trying to find the most unique spots to shoot that nobody else has seen, Since I was 14 I was backpacking and hiking into remote parts of the wilderness. Any time I’m travelling to a new place, I book a week extra, because for me it’s important to know the place. I don’t like the concept of fast passing, I really like to absorb culture to build a community. For example, if I go to Vietnam to teach in a workshop, for the week before that I’m travelling through the countryside. Just checking it out and becoming a part of it. I feel like it not only give me stronger connections and access to a more interesting locations, but also makes me feel more educated about the space I’m working with. For any shoot I do a lot of scouting.
Shoots take up to 2 days, depending on the size of the project, and post processing is a whole new world. For some simple projects that could take 1-2 days of editing, but for bigger ones, those can take up to a week. Not the whole week, but I have to leave and come back the next day to see what my fresh eyes think of the photo.
- Tell us more about the process from beginning to end: from getting an idea to getting your final image? Also, you have a very interesting method of finding new ideas: musical lyric analysis from your favorite artists. Please tell us more about that.
- From concept to completion I conceptualise ideas in a variety of ways, but the most common way of conceptualising are relies on a personal experience or the emotional experience of others. Sometimes I’ll have music sessions where I can isolate myself from an outside noise. I’ll sit in a corner of my room, where I’m comfortable at, and play an album that I really resonate with. Sometimes I’ve heard a song recently that I want to use in the process, or sometimes I rely on aged old music I just love. I’ll be listening to the music and let my mind wonder and visualise whatever comes to my mind from hearing those music and lyrics. While I’m doing that I’m writing my ideas, I keep a journal. What this does, ideas are feeting, if you don’t capture them, you might lose them. I like to give myself a space where I can have my all ideas and then capture them.
Once I have an idea, it’s already in my mind, all of my concepts are fully developed in my brain. With the photo the Tree of Life I had that idea for probably 6 months before I created it. I imagined that tree of people in a desolate space, so once I had that visualised in my head, I had to go looking for a location. Once I found it, I had everything I needed, so I contacted the models. Once I have all logistic things in place, that’s when I know the shoot can happen and I can move forward to get other people involved. At that point I had a whole network of dancers in the city, I contacted them and told them to bring their friends too. After the shooting it was a week of processing, getting images downloaded, piecing them together and making a final selection.
- Where did you get funding for this?
- I believe in this concept so much that I was willing to pay for it, and I had just received a good paycheck from a job. I’m moving into this phase in my life where most of my work is funded by sponsorship or I get really good jobs and that helps me pay for it.
- Most of the people just look through the photos on Instagram to find an inspiration, they just look at other photographers’ work and don’t look for it anywhere else. I think it’s important to look at other forms of art, and it’s great it’s music for you.
- I made a decision that I never want to copy the work of others. It’s not always bad, but I wanted to set myself apart. So I don’t spend a lot of time looking at other photographers’ work, because I think it might affect my inspiration. I do look up to the greats; Tim Walker, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Gregory Crewdson, Ansel Adams, the list goes on. There are lots of greats that I was inspired by. I went to a photography school, and I was thinking photography is about booking portraits. People close to me were saying that I’ll never make any money from it. And I remember we had a class about the greats and I thought “wow, that’s what I wanna do!” I was telling I’m gonna be next Annie Leibovitz. So I never wanted to settle for anything simple, instead I’ve always wanted to push my mind as far as I could. I developed those concepts early in my career when I was in Michigan. There was always freezing cold in the winter, so I couldn’t do anything different but to sit at home and think of ideas. This hibernation period helped me to learn how to capture my thoughts.
- I’ve heard you have a book coming out, can you tell more about it?
- I was contacted by Thought Catalog, they partner with a select members of art each year to publish books for their audience. I’m super honored, I’ve been selected for 2019 and this company is going to work with me for this year to develop a coffee table style art book of my photography. It sounds like we’re gonna be launching a pre sale in late spring or early summer, but other than that it’s gonna be launched late this year or early next spring. It’s going to be a mixture of my existing work and some new ones. I’m taking a few secret trips this year to create.
- I’ve heard you recently moved to Mexico city? What was the reason for that and how does it feel? I know from my own experience that changing countries might be tricky. How is it for you?
- For me it’s a mixture of things. Before I was living in Portland, Oregon, which is a beautiful city and I miss it a lot, but I didn’t have the exact market that I wanted to be growing in. It didn’t have much of fine art or fashion, it has more of an outdoor, sporty vibe. So I decided to move to Mexico. I’ve been there before and fell in love. Mexico is known for the amazing powerhouse surrealists, and my start in photography was all about surrealism and conceptual art. So to be in the city that sort of globally embraces the type of art I like the most is a dream come true. And Mexico is bigger in population than NYC, a lot of people in the US are uneducated about Mexico, so they are not aware how diverse, multicultural and developed it is. Like I told you how fast the dance photoshoot in NYC came together, same happened here. I’ve had a lot of great and welcoming people in Mexico, so for me it was really simple. And the logistic side hasn’t been a challenge either, I chose to simply start fresh and gave away or sold all my things in Portland. I have 9 months of travel booked this year so I won’t be in Mexico as much as I’d want to. But it’s exciting, everywhere I’m going it’s gonna be a new experience.
- What’s the personal battle that you’re going through right now? What are the barriers that you have to overcome at the moment? I’m interested, because I can relate very much! I have had a very intense couple of years of reconstructing myself, my views of the world and my thought patterns. Had to overcome A LOT of personal barriers. So I’m very much interested in what’s it like for you?
- Something I’ve realized in the last couple of years is that we re so much more capable than we think of doing things. When you’re young you’ve only experienced that much you don’t know what else is out there, you don’t know what you’re capable of and new challenges can be so overwhelming, because you’ve never faced them. But for me, I experience that every time I overcome something new or something a little bigger, it expands my abilities. For the last year I’ve been doing bigger projects and clients; it’s like inner dialog, can I do this, is this what I want from my life? And the answer is always yes, keep going. I’ve always been a type of a person that wants to please everyone and be friends with everyone. But something I realized is that in life there’s only gonna be so many people that have your back and support you. So this year has been that kind of discovering process, there’s been so many people that made promises that fell through. I’ve sorted the people I can rely on. What’s exciting is that there’s these people that just never change, they always love and support you. Now that my challenges are bigger I have those amazing people that stick with me, it’s like a lighthouse. It’s like those people have become beacons in my life and I’m very thankful for them. And I realized if you try to do something bigger in your life, you have to have people around you, you have to be supported, it’s really hard to do on your own. If you have people in your life supporting you and you’re open to that, I think that’s how you can continue to take on the world.
- What’s your biggest dream as an artist?
- I have a list of short and long term goals. I have a whole list of publications I want to be published in and artists to collaborate with, even a list of dream celebrities I want to photograph. I think those short term goals are important. But I also have my long term goals, I want to start a creative camp for underprivileged kids, maybe not today or tomorrow, but in maybe 10 years.
- Tell us about your charitable initiative and about you raising awareness for those in need.
- Quick summary of mine - I’m adopted. From a young age I felt like I was rescued from a negative situation, I’ve always had this outlook on life I’m lucky to be here. When I was a teenager, my mom started working with foster kids through organization that did camps every summer for foster kids and throughout the year they were continuing the mentoring program. It was really beautiful thing. The foster care program in the US is very corrupted, so there's lots of families that will adopt kids just for the money and will continue the chain of abuse.
There’s also a lot of kids that end up in an orphanage, so they don’t even have their own families. They don’t get that tender love they need as a kids. So those were the kids we worked with in summer camps for years, and I became so passionate about it, and I felt like I needed to do something about it. In that time my audience was way smaller, but I had a big stand in my community back home, so I decided to bring some friends and do the whole visual series to portray what foster kids going through. A lot of volunteers from my community came together to let their kids model for the series. We weren't allowed to photograph actual foster kids since they technically don’t have guardians that can sign their rights over the photos. But we told their stories through the models. The story ended up going around in the bunch of big publications and we raised 12k dollars, which was a half an amount needed to fully fund the next year of camp. Between the donations and our project the whole year of camp was funded and that year over 50 kids went to the camp. In the years to follow the projects had raised lot of awareness and I think we contributed probably 30-40 thousands of dollars to the camp. It was quite an experience, just to know that your art can help people is really beautiful thing. A lot of my current work still touches an important aspects of society. My work is always about making a change.
- Tell us about the idea and meaning behind the interconnectivity series?
- I have a whole series of works that include body paintings and strings on the human body. For the photo with strings on the faces I’ve worked with a variety of makeup artists and done some of it myself. We glue the strings to their faces using latex glue: it's a special type of latex glue just like eyelashes glue. It’s safe for the skin and comes off easily. Yet models have been amazing. It requires a lot of patience, process could take up to 4 hours.
The first photo of the series was inspired by a post shooting in Orlando. I was heart broken and my community was directly targeted. And it continued in Chechnya, the internment camps for gay people. They began to arrest and murder people for being gay and that was really affecting me negatively. I decided to turn it into art and I had this idea that we all bleed in same color but then kinda transform that into colors of rainbow of gay community. I did my first body paining set of 2 gay guys painted in rainbow stripes up and down their body. That’s gained so much response and got published in magazine etc, so I continued creating that series, because I saw that power it had to literally talk about the lines that connect us, we are all connected. When people are being shot over here it affects the whole world. It could happen to any of us. I wanted to continue that series and talk about a lot of different subjects; race issues, gender, body. After a while I realised that I haven’t talked about individuals since the first set of string image. I still wanted to tie the idea of being connected to others when string leaving the body to some unknown place, but featuring the power of self. Before you love yourself you can’t fully love and connect to others. It’s all about how we are powerful as individuals and then we are connected to others.
- What makes a great photograph?
- For me personally it’s an objective based on everyone’s personal opinion. But for me what makes a great photograph is that it makes me feel something. If it’s technically amazing or emotionally amazing or if it’s just compositionally amazing. The fun part of being an artist is that inspiration can come in so many different forms. I might see a white space with a red dot and it reminds me that my heart is still beating.