LA BASED PHOTOGRAPER MATHIEU YOUNG was born in Northern California and educated at UCLA. After graduating in 2003 he spent four years working as a photo assistant to top commercial photographers (Von Unwerth, Testino, Mert & Marcus, Streiber) before setting out on his own.
His recent clients include Turner Broadcasting, Dreamworks Animation, Ubisoft, FOX, The CW, The WB and Paramount Pictures. When he’s not obsessing over photography, film, politics, and journalism, he likes riding dirtbikes, traveling to places that everyone tells him not to go, sleeping outside, urban farming and powertools…you can check out his website at Mathieu Young.
What – or who – got your initial interest going in terms of photography?
I got my first camera late, I was 19 and inherited an old Pentax k1000 from my grandfather. I was studying at UCLA, wanting to be a film director. After graduation I began to shoot portraits and assist commercial photographers in order to support myself. It beat the job I had, working the late shift at a restaurant.
Your bio says you spent four years working as an assistant in commercial studios. Can you elaborate as to what kind of work you were doing?
I got a job painting the floors and checking in equipment at a photo studio in Los Angeles. I worked hard and met a lot of people, and managed to transition quickly to photo assisting full time. It was an incredible learning experience getting to work with a wide range of incredible photographers, mostly on advertising and fashion shoots. I made sure to ask a lot of questions and to take notes.
At the same time I would create reportage projects for myself. For instance, I traveled to East Africa and spent time living on LA’s ‘Skid Row’. These projects helped me find my voice even while I was working for other photographers.
How would you describe the work you do now…obviously there’s a strong reportage / photojournalistic element, but are you still involved in the commercial world also?
I am really interested in the intersection of reportage and commercial work. These days my main income comes from shooting stills on sets of movies, TV shows and commercials, and I have begun to shoot some advertising as well. At the same time, I still create reportage projects for myself, and try to add commercial elements into these journalism projects. Because I am really fascinated by both photojournalism and commercial photography, I am hoping to find a path that will allow me to combine them as opposed to switching back and forth between the two.
Which other photographers – old or contemporary – inspire you most?
Philip Lorca diCorcia is one of my all time favorites, and Sam Jones is someone whose path and work I admire greatly. Whenever I am lacking for insiration I find myself going back to the Getty Reportage and VII websites. John Moore and James Natchway are hugely inspiring, for their courage, intelligence and compassion.
Looking at your site you seem to have a lot of interest in social concerns…especially the dispossessed or economically downtrodden etc.
I believe in the power of visual arts to not only entertain and inform, but also influence. I am very interested in projects that encourage social progress and foster understanding.
When you are approaching subjects to shoot, how do you set about it? Do you chat and explain what you’re doing? Or shoot first, ask questions later?
I always try to get permission for a portrait before I take it. A lot of people say no. Sometimes they change their mind. Sometimes they don’t. I try to avoid my photography having a predatory element, I prefer my photographs to be more of an agreement between the subject, the viewer, and myself. That said, there are times when that is not possible, or when I deliberately have a perspective that doesn’t include the complicity from the subject. In those situations you just need to shoot first and answer questions later.
I have only regretted the photographs that I missed.
Your use of lighting is one of the distinguishing features of your work. The daylight flashing of your subjects gives them a fashion/studio feel. Is this something picked up from your commercial days?
That’s exactly right. I am trying to bring some of the commercial lighting techniques that I learned as a photo assistant to my photojournalism projects. It is a tricky balance, sometimes the lighting can get in the way of the storytelling, but other times it can really heighten a situation. I am still trying to navigate the intersection.
What equipment do you take with you to get this wonderful lighting? I’m guessing you try to keep it light as you can when traveling…is it just strobes and reflectors or more?
My kit is generally a Canon 5D and one ProFoto 7B with a p50 dish on the head. That’s it. I am trying to experiment with lighter, more versatile kits now, but haven’t found anything that works as well as the 7B. I have also begun shooting videos on the 5DMKII and am really enamored with the technology.
Has any of your work had any positive effects in terms of helping promote or support welfare programs, bringing the plight of various people to official attention etc?
The proceeds from the sales of my photographs from East Africa went towards paying some school tuitions for orphans, and I hope that I will be able to find more direct ways to give back with future projects.
Is that a concern of yours or are you more concerned in general with aesthetics / art than the moral / social angle?
My goal is to make beautiful pictures about subjects that matter. I’m not very interested in fashion photography because to me it lacks an element of reality. At the same time, some spot news photography lacks the kind of artistic integrity that you can find in more commercial settings. I certainly can appreciate art for art’s sake, but for myself I will continue to look for this intersection between art and commerce and social progress.
Finally, what else are you working on right now and what are your ambitions for the future in terms of your photography work or anything else?
This coming year I hope to find some international service organizations that I can donate time and talent to. I want to travel, I want to shoot, and I want to give back. Hopefully I can find a way to do all three at once.
Check out some of Mathieu’s recent photoessay of Mexico’s “happy” coast.
Please read our other recent interviews with Travel Photographers.
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Paul Sullivan is a freelance writer, author, editor and photographer covering music, travel and culture. His writing and photography work has been published in The Guardian, Sunday Times Travel, National Geographic UK, Matador Network, Wax Poetics, XLR8R and more, and he has scribed/snapped several guidebooks for Time Out, HG2, Rough Guide, Cool Camping and others. He currently lives in Berlin, where he runs the sustainable travel portal Slow Travel Berlin. Check out his photography website, follow him on Twitter or join hisFacebook photography page.