"Find Your Style","Understand Lighting", An Other Tips From Master Lensman Justin Mott

It was neither a dream born when he was a child nor a typical story of pursuing a career on a subject he particularly excelled at. That’s how renowned lensman Justin Mott describes his path in professional photography.

An American photographer whose numerous works have appeared in prestigious publications like theNew York Times, TIME, and Forbes, among many others; the brains behind commercial photography and video production studio, Mott Visuals; and a headliner at History channel’s photography reality competition “Photo Face-Off,” Mott told fans at his Philippine presscon that he “was not talented” at first.

“I was the worst photographer in my class,” Mott told InterAksyon in an exclusive interview at History Con Manila where he was one of the gatherings guest celebrities.

The master photographer said that his success today has to do with persistence. He simply pushed through with his love for photography and took shots of images that appealed to him.

His passion is captured in the energetic way he answered questions at the media conference, sharing some tips and advice along the way. Here, the host of “Photo Face-Off: Season 3″ talks about how he started in the field, the power of journalism, and his pet peeves when shooting pictures.

InterAksyon: Photography is your profession but on a personal note, what does photography mean to you?

Justin Mott: I started a personal relationship with photography doing personal projects. So photography, for me, is a journey about storytelling. I love photographing people and stories. It’s my journey, too. It’s my way of exploring and learning about things. I’m a curious person and photography allows me to explore that curiosity.

What do you love most about photography, and what is it that you hate about it if there is any?
Justin Mott: I don’t hate anything about photography. I love everything about it that’s why I shoot everything. I come from a background in journalism but I also run a wedding photography company. I own a commercial company. I love everything about photography. It’s my career, it’s my passion, it’s my life, and now it’s my TV show. It’s amazing. What I love about it is again I get to meet people, and be in situations that I wouldn’t normally be in. To meet people I wouldn’t normally meet, and get to explore. It’s a lot of fun.

When you were a kid, did you dream of becoming a photographer?
Justin Mott: No. I moved to San Francisco, I’ve paid for my own way to school through bartending so I went to school a little bit late. I didn’t know what I would do out there, and when I’ve found photography, I took one class. I was majoring in Journalism, and I took up a photography class; and right when I took that class, I wasn’t talented but I loved it and I said to myself that I’m gonna work on this, and I’m gonna make a living out of this.

Luckily, I have a very open minded mom. My mom, she raised four kids on her own, and she always gave me that freedom to do what I want. We didn’t have money growing up but she said, “whatever makes you happy.” That’s all she cared about. So my career, my path, was guided by her and luckily I have her to be so open and so willing to let me do whatever I wanted to do.

How would you describe your relationship with your camera?
Justin Mott: It’s like when you don’t have your camera on your body, I always feel like something is missing. I try to have it all the time. My teacher always told me when I was in school to “always have it with you.” You don’t know what’s gonna happen so it does feel like an extension of yourself. You know, the camera always being there. Different combinations of cameras and lenses but I always have something there. Whenever I go into a room, I’m always thinking where is my shot? What would be my picture in this room? In this situation? It consumes my mind.

Is there a favorite subject that you like to shoot?
Justin Mott: For me, it’s the stories. It could be any story but it’s people. I like telling stories through people so it doesn’t matter where, or how old, or what country, or what culture. I just photograph people. I love that and for me, that’s why I started with documentaries. That’s what photojournalism is about. It’s about telling stories.

Do you have an all-time favorite photograph?
Justin Mott: Yeah, I have different photographs that have different meanings to me. I took a picture years ago of a man in a tuberculosis hospital. He was quite sick, and the nurse saw that picture and she introduced that picture to a doctor from Doctors Without Borders.

That doctor knew that something was wrong with this man. He shouldn’t be that skinny anymore. We got the patient tested for HIV, and he was HIV positive. We got the right medication, and his health turned around quite a bit. Well, I’m just a photographer who introduced the doctor to that shot but the picture made him feel something, made him believe in the power of photography. It made him believe that sometimes an image even in a different way can make an impact and bring change.

That nurse wanted to act because she was so sad about the picture that it had such an impact on her.

So it made me believe in the power of photography and the power of journalism.

When did you take this photo?
Justin Mott: In 2006 in Cambodia.

If you weren’t a photographer, what profession do you think would you have right now?
Justin Mott: Bored. (Mott lets out a laugh).

If I had the skills and athletic ability, I would be in basketball but I would never be a professional basketball player. I don’t have the fitness for it. That’s a great, great question. I never even thought about that because once I knew about photography and learned about photography, I knew I was gonna make it happen.

What impresses Justin when it comes to “Photo Face-Off”? What photograph impresses you?
Justin Mott: You need to hit all of our criteria in the show. If you get a good moment that’s one thing but we judge every picture on creativity, and how they capture light, and composition then how well they fulfill the client’s brief.

So we have different briefs from professionals, they have to get all those things to get a perfect shot. You need to please the client but you need to have a beautiful picture. The most important thing is when a photograph makes me feel something, then I usually rate it well because when you invoke an emotion out of something, then you’ve done a good job as a photographer. It doesn’t always have to be sad. It can make someone laugh, it can make someone nostalgic, it can make someone curious. When you make someone feel something, as a photographer, you’ve done a great job.

Can you give your top three advice for photographers?
Justing Mott: One, just work on it. Don’t give up. Like I said, I was the worst photographer in my class, and I am now the only professional.

Two, is to never be complacent. Always push yourself to get better. Even if I’m 38 years old, I’m doing this for a long time, (but) you have to keep pushing yourself. You need to keep wanting to get better.

Third, find your own style as a photographer. Find your own identity. How do you frame your picture? How do you use light? How do you tell a story? All these things. Find your identity as a photographer, your storytelling style, and own that, and learn how to market that if you want to make a living out of it.

What are your pet peeves when it comes to shooting photographs?
Justing Mott: My big pet peeve is when people, when doing portraits, ask their subjects to look at the camera because it comes off as a boring shot. It comes off as fake, a set up.

And extra tip, don’t set things up. Life happens beautifully on its own and unscripted, that if you wait patiently, you’ll get a beautiful shot.

Always pay attention to light. Light is the most important thing for me. I use light to tell my mood, to create the mood for my story, then I work on the other things. Where is my subject? What kind of angle do I want to do for my composition? But pay attention to light. Understand light.

What could we expect from Season 3 of “Photo Face-Off”?
Justing Mott: In every episode, you can expect in season 3 that you’ll learn something. You’ll be entertained. It’s a lot of fun seeing these amateurs go head to head they all want to represent their country. It’s sort of a photography olympics. We’ve made photography a sports so you’ll get to see who is the champion.

• In the Philippines, “Photo Face-Off: Season 3,” an A+E Networks Asia’s original production, airs on History Channel on Thursdays at 9 p.m.