(They say that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and in the case of photographer Joel Robison that is definitely true! Each of Joel’s pictures—all by itself—is a world, a story, a thousand words or more. I first became interested in Joel’s photos because so many of them have books or reading as a theme, but I’ve fallen in love with ALL of Joel’s photos, each of which makes me feel hopeful, thoughtful, and full of creative possibility. Joel spoke to me last week about words, pictures, life and the creative process; I am very pleased to share that interview with you now. Enjoy the words, the pictures, and how they fit together so beautifully! –Jenni)
Hi Joel! Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started in photography.
I’ve always liked doing creative things; drawing, coloring, and sketching were my passions as a kid. My brothers were athletic, and I was not. Instead I fell into the artistic role, and I was lucky enough to have parents who supported that. When I was younger I wanted to work as an animator at Disney, but eventually I realized I couldn’t draw well enough for that. I focused on helping people instead. I decided to go to college to get my degree and work with kids with special needs.
At some point I came across Flickr and saw some photos that were like nothing I’d ever seen before. They kind of blew me away. I bought a camera (an old-fashioned one), and taught myself how to photograph, how to use Photoshop… eventually I started making creating in photo form the images I would have drawn.
Reading Rainbow’s motto is “Go Anywhere, Be Anything” and your photos express that so well in many ways. I feel you could put that as a tagline under any of your photos and it would be appropriate.
I’ve been asked before how do I describe my style and images, and I guess my tagline would be “Anything is possible.” That’s what I want people to see in my story. I never set out to be a photographer, but it happened. In my images I like to show that there’s some reality and some fiction in everything we do. I like to take familiar objects and change the way we see them. I think it makes us think differently, and make us realize that anything really can be possible.
Using a picture to tell a story—how do you plan that out? What goes into setting up a single picture that will tell an entire story?
I’ve always been a visual person. I’ve always explained my ideas with pictures, building an image in words. For me pictures are the easiest way to show people what I’m thinking or feeling. I definitely do storyboards and mind-mapping to connect all my ideas. If it’s raining then maybe I’m thinking of umbrellas, protection, keeping dry, and all the things connected with those words, and that gets things going in my mind. I like to sketch things out first sometimes because it helps me remember what I was thinking about at the time. Drawing an idea out makes it more visual. Once I draw it I feel the challenge for me is then to get the picture in real life to match the one in my head.
You use books in a lot of your photos, and obviously we love that! Why are books such a theme for you? What do you find so inspiring about books in or as art?
I always loved reading as a kid. My parents would take me to the library and I would take out the maximum number of books allowed. I would make my brother check out books for me too so I could have double the maximum amount. The library was the first place my parents let me go by myself. Reading let me enter the mind of someone else.
When I started taking photos I realized that books are really nice to look at. The architecture of a book is iconic as well: we all know that it contains a story, something that’s different. I like using books as a metaphor; books say that it’s not just this object, but that there’s something inside the object to take us to a different place. I feel like when I use books it connects my photos to stories, and it helps me create the story I want to convey.
Most of our audience are young kids, Can you tell us a little bit about what were you like as a kid?
I was kind of a shy, quiet student. Good at school… but coming from a family where both my brothers were athletic and I wasn’t… there was this gap. My parents tried me in every sport and I wasn’t really very good at any of them. But thankfully my parents recognized that art was something I loved, and they supported that. I was quiet, but always working hard to create things and show things. I feel like I showed my parents—and maybe other people too—that sports aren’t everything.
I was picked on and bullied quite a bit as a kid, and that was a dark time, but I think it focused me, and pushed me into doing the work I do with kids with special needs and with kids who don’t quite fit in. It made me much more of a compassionate person. It helped me overcome a lot and made me much more positive.
I’ve had people talk to me about their experiences with bullying, and I know that it has been a big topic of conversation in the media, but I think there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. What I try to create with my work is a positive place for people to go.
Who or what are your influences and inspirations?
Obviously Disney was a huge influence. I was obsessed with the Disney movies. Had all the “Learn to Draw” Disney character books I could get my hands on. Even now the Disney franchise inspires me. They want to tell great stories, and they do. And they make them so believable that there’s no question about whether or not it’s real. I try to create some of that in my work.
Authors like J.K. Rowling are an inspiration as well. I fell in love with reading for the second time after college by reading the Harry Potter series. I devoured them all over one summer. It was like a reawakening to fantasy for me.
Many of your photos could be described as whimsical, where does that come from, that whimsy? Do you think about your audience being kids or adults?
I try not to think about anyone else at all when I create my photos. I create what I want for myself, and I put them out there, and try not to think about anyone else seeing it.
However, I do think that as kids we’re told at a certain point to grow up, and not to believe anymore. So we have these stories and fantasies that we love so much, and then suddenly we’re told to toss those away and grow up. But I like to show that as an adult you can still have those stories and that sense of happiness that they give you.
I know my photos feel very whimsical and light, but I feel like I live a grounded adult life. I pay bills and such. But I like my photos to show that just because you reach a certain age you don’t have to give up dreams. I show my work to kids and they love it, they believe it wholeheartedly, they don’t think it’s photoshopped at all. And that’s a big compliment to me. When adults think the same thing it’s even a bigger compliment.
What were your favorite books as a kid and now?
I really loved the Goosebumps series as a kid; they were just so weird and so visual. They were all the things I never wanted to think about but I could read about. It’s funny because now I probably wouldn’t be very interested in that genre. I definitely loved the classics, especially Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Even though I didn’t understand everything that was happening I loved it, and it taught me that you don’t have to understand everything right away to appreciate it. Now that I’m living in the town where Lewis Carroll lived while he was writing those it feels like something in my life has come full circle. Alice always connected with me because it’s about weird people who don’t fit in, and so they create their own world, and that’s kind of what I am.
I have a really wide-open mindset about books now. I try and go for ones that are going to give me something I haven’t been feeling or thinking about in my own life. I read a lot of autobiographies and biographies. I get lost in Wikipedia a lot because I get lost in every human being. Right now I really like Douglas Copeland and Margaret Atwood. These are people who create stories you can read again and again.
And our final question, one of my favorite questions… If you could give away unlimited amounts of any book to strangers for free, what book would you want everyone to have?
Wow. There’s a few I could think of. I’ve mentioned that I connect with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, that’s a classic book I think everyone should read at some point. Maybe one that people could really benefit from is the Dalai Lama’s autobiography. I just read it, and it’s about being compassionate and understanding and making the world better. There’s nothing wrong with being compassionate and open and kind.
Joel Robison has been actively been involved in the photography community for the past 6 years. He tells stories with photographs that allow the viewer to experience an emotion and create their own story. Joel strongly believes in sending a positive message through art and in summer of 2013 he, along with 2 fellow photographers, created a non-profit workshop tour that took them across the United States over 2 months, teaching a portrait workshop to over 100 students. He has moderated the Coca-Cola Flickr account, and more recently was the lead photographer in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour, capturing happiness in 90 countries over a 9 month period. He currently lives and creates photos in the U.K. Follow Joel on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr.
As the Reading Rainbow Mom, Jenni Buchanan enjoys encouraging readers of ALL ages to believe that they can “go anywhere, be anything.” See more of Jenni’s blogs and tips for parents about children’s reading by subscribing to the Reading Rainbow Blog, or follow her on Twitter.