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Inside Stories: Gabriela Herman – Professional Photographer

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photo credit: Gabriela Herman

COVID-19 Insights May 20, 2020
COVID-19 Insights May 20, 2020

photo credit: Gabriela Herman

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In normal times, Gabriela Herman would be ramping up for another busy season right now: Preparing for photo shoots, and quite likely travel, on behalf of her many clients. But things are going to be very different this year. Join host Scott Simmie as Gabriela shares her own Inside Story.

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Inside Stories, presented by BMO, provides an intimate look into the lives and coping strategies of people during the COVID-19 era. From well-known North Americans through to the new everyday heroes at your local grocery store, these unusual times have impacted everyone. Host Scott Simmie asks the questions that count, prompting his guests to share their very personal, inner stories.



Scott Simmie: Hey it’s me again, yeah, Scott Simmie. Uh huh, no, no I came in through the WIFI. Listen, I’m willing to bet you have a smart phone and if you’re like many of us you probably use that smart phone to take pictures. Well, you’re in for a treat today because in this special bonus episode of Inside Stories we are pleased to offer tips from a global photography professional, along with a heck of story, absolutely free of charge. 

Scott: Joining me today is Gabriela Herman, a Brooklyn-based editorial and commercial photographer who specializes in lifestyle, travel, food, and portrait work right around the globe. I discovered Gabby the other day during one of those moments on Twitter when it suggested I take a look at her because, in fact, many of the photographers whom I follow, follow Gabby. So, that’s how we, how we met. Gabriella thanks so much for taking this time today. 

Gabriela Herman: Yeah, my pleasure. 

Scott: Everyone’s lives have changed in the last couple of months and I’m really curious how COVID-19 has affected your photography work?

Gabriela: As a freelancer I’m used to sort of the highs and lows and, and, you know, periods of long work and no work. The winter time for me always like a low, so already in January and February like I hadn’t been working that much and I’m not travelling, of course, for any work. I’ve, I’ve had a couple of assignments since this started, one of which was out of my house and, you know, safely, and I drove in my car and, and did the shoot and one of which I was able actually to do just in my kitchen upstairs. You know, I’m not really working and I’m focusing a lot of time with my family and, and I have two children, I have a two year old and a four year old, so I’ve obviously been shooting a lot of imagery of them, which is great just for documentation for this time, but also, you know, something for me to just keep shooting and practicing, you know, with my eye and maybe making interesting body of work just with them. 

Scott: Photography is one of those things where at least people who are good photographers tell me where they’re constantly taking images and constantly looking at their work and always trying to improve, and I’m wondering if you could just talk about, a little bit about that process?

Gabriela: Yeah, of course. So, I always compare it to a musician who like has an instrument that you need practice. You can’t, you know, you, after, you know, if you’re playing the violin you can’t stop, you have to practice every day regardless of whether, you know, you’re performing or not and I think photography is the same way in that you have to practice with your eye and, and, you know, use your eye in that way again and again and again in order to grow and, you know, find creativity. And because yeah, especially now with the iPhone, which is my like number two camera because it’s the one that I have with me all the time, I’m always like, you know, looking even if I’m not like working or shooting or I have my camera, I still have my iPhone, so my eye is still always looking for, you know, interesting shots or lights or colours or patterns, and it’s so much so like in the summer time I very rarely wear sunglasses, because when I wear sunglasses, you know, you’re like, you’re, you’re diluting or, you know, distorting what your actual, what your own lens would see and so, I find if I wear sunglasses I can’t really be looking for images to make because it’s not a true representation, and so I almost never wear sunglasses cause I’m always sort of looking to find an image.

Scott: And if you’re out for a drive on a, on a pleasant day and you see something that strikes you as you’re, as you’re on your way to a destination, do you tend to stop and, and try to capture that image in the moment if you can?
Gabriela: Oh yeah, definitely. I have a group of photographers and we, we sort of travel or get together, you know, once a year and, and hangout and over that course of weekend it’s just this amazing thing where we all know what it’s like to be a photographer and see a scene and have to like stop everything and go shoot, and everyone is so accommodating of people like getting up in the middle or just like taking their camera out while you’re talking because we’re all aware of how important it is to capture a moment when you see it. 

Scott: It seems that you’re capable of doing everything at a, at a very, very high level when a lot of photographers tend to excel at one particular genre within photography. So, someone might be really great at portraits or architecture or landscape photography and I know there’s, there’s no simple answer here, but how do you do it? How do you manage to switch between food and, and lovely portraits and, and all these other things that you shoot?

Gabriela: Well thank you, first of all. To be honest, like I, I don’t want to just be shooting food, I would, you know, get bored if that was my only thing and I love that I am and have had opportunities to kinda shoot a little bit of everything, and especially sort of with travel is one of my favourite things, of course cause who doesn’t love to travel, but it’s travel photographer is so great and perfect for, sort of, I think my skill set and eye because in travel photography you have to be able to shoot, you know, an entry of a hotel and a landscape and a plate of food and a portrait of a local and so with travel photography you inherently, sort of, have to do all that and that sort of a little, a lot of, sort of, where my background came from. 

Scott: You’ve worked on a, a number of interesting projects, but there’s one I understand that’s particularly close to your heart and that’s a book published in 2017 called, The Kids, The Children of LGBTQ parents in the USA. Could you tell us a bit about what that’s about and why it was important to you?

Gabriela: I always have personal projects sort of happening in the background when work is slow, and I think it’s really important just as a photographer and a creative to sort of do the work for yourself when no one’s asking you. Bottom line is that my mom is gay and came out when I was in high school and it was for me something that was super traumatic and I, I really didn’t talk about it with anyone and never really, you know, dealt with it or it, I mean, before the start of this project I didn’t even know a single other person beside my siblings who had a gay parent. And through this project I had the idea and I, I ended up starting it after getting connected with an organization in the US that supports kids who have gay parents. I started, for the first time ever, meeting other people who have gay parents and hearing their stories and interviewing them and finding out what it was like to, you know, either grow up from birth with a gay parent or have a mom and dad and have one of them come out. So I photographed, sort of, both those scenarios. I spent seven years working, shooting that project and I shot almost a hundred people for it and in the final published book there’s eighty portraits along with interview, excerpts of interviews of each of the subjects sharing their stories. 

Scott: There’s a quote from you I’d like to read here about you and your discussions with some of the people you were photographing, you said; “As we talked, we recalled having to juggle silence and isolation. Needing to defend our families on the playground, at church, and during holiday gatherings. Some aspect of each story resonated with my experience and helped me chip away at my own sense of solitude. While my experience was difficult, I am hopeful that won’t be the case for the next generation. This inequality will fade and my future children will wonder what the fuss was about.” It feels like this was a very therapeutic process for you, is that true?

Gabriela: Oh, completely. I mean, before I started the project, I started when I was twenty-nine and before, you know, up until that point I wasn’t even able to say the words out loud. My mom is gay. And then I ended up writing a piece about my story for the New York Times and basically, sort of, you know, screaming my story to the world in a way that I never imagined. 

Scott: We live in an era right now when, you know, this fake news is kind of a, a common phrase and I think the same could be said for photography. You know, we see some imagery, particularly on social media, that are so clearly manipulated and in some cases so impossible. I’m curious what you think when you see those sorts of images?

Gabriela: I literally, yesterday, was watching this seminar thing that Getty Images was putting on and they said that their, you know, Getty Images is like the largest stock, they said the, num—one of the top requests that they’re getting these days is sort of unretouched images, they want real, the want raw, you know, they want authenticity, and for me that’s great because that’s how, you know, my photography is. It’s very minimally retouched. I change, you know, colours and contrast a bit, but I’m not a huge, you know, Photoshopper. I just thought that was interesting that, you know, after everything being so over retouched and over manipulated like, you know, people are now wanting just like, you know, not that, the opposite now. 

Scott: And just on the personal side, is your home in Brooklyn or where, where are you living with your family at the moment?

Gabriela: At the moment, yes, I’m in Brooklyn where I’m based, but I grew up in Boston and grew up, my parents have a, a weekend summer house on Martha’s Vineyard, which is an island outside of Boston and, that’s, so I grew up spending all my summers there. Now, because of everything that’s going on I think my family and I we’re actually going to relocate there in two weeks and sort of be based out there through the summer, which I would probably do anyways regardless of the, which I have been doing the past few years is going out there for the summer anyways. 

Scott: Certainly the eyes of, of North America and much of the world have been focused on New York State and, and New York City in particular. What’s it been like to be in Brooklyn as sort of the, really the focus of the pandemic in the US was, was hitting all around you?

Gabriela: Yeah, it’s, it’s a weird, weird vibe and, you know, every time you step outside there’s like a whole new sort of vibe happening, you know? I mean now just the fact that, you know, every time you step outside every single person is covered in a mask is very, like, dystopian. But here it’s, you know, we’re in a brownstone, which, you know, has neighbours touching us on either side, so we have a tenant upstairs and, you know, New York is fortunate in that there is still lots of deliveries happening and, you know, people can get take-out, and packages, and so. Just walking outside my door like to the car or something, you know, I have to touch my doorknob, and touch the gate to our thing, and you know, and, and think about how many other people have touched our gate knob, and so it’s, it’s very much on your mind. Unless you’re sitting at home and haven’t left the house like anything else you do it’s very much on the front of your mind, constantly washing your hands, Purel, you know, everything you do you’re just thinking about am I safe? How can I be safer? How can I clean myself? 

Scott: Many people have jobs where they’re able to work from home. I’m, right now, interviewing you from my home office and I’ve got a decent microphone here, but you are in one of those occupations where you physically have to be present at the location and your subject, providing it’s a person, must be there as well. Now we don’t truly know how long this is going to go on for and of course you’ll be getting more calls for gigs. Have you made some plans for ways that you might be able to safely just go about and, and continue with your, with your work during the pandemic. 

Gabriela: Yeah, so I very much hope to, hope to sort of, like, you know, get back into some sort of, I don’t know, regular thing, but at least, you know be have opportunities to be shooting again for clients. The, the fact that we can, you know, use longer lenses and have a safe distance from subjects, you know, I feel, I would feel totally comfortable, you know, doing a portrait assignment where I show up to someone in my own car to their place where they’re outside of their home, especially now with the nice weather it’s easy to do outside portrait and I prefer a natural light anyways, so outside. And, and make, you know, an interesting, beautiful portrait in, in sort of the same way that I would previous. I might not be hugging the person before and after the shoot, but still able to have a dialogue and make images that I think I would be proud of. 

Scott: I’m gonna have to exploit your skills here for the greater good. We’re in an age where everyone is out shooting with their iPhones. Are there some easy tips that you could pass along that might help people take better images if they’re, for example, taking a picture of a friend? 

Gabriela: Yeah, I mean, with our iPhone, which I, and I said I shoot with myself all the time, just the iPhone, I think the number one thing is just to be conscious of the lighting and, and where the light source is coming from and, you know, it depends the look you want for the image, but generally if, you know, you have a portrait and you’re taking a picture and, you know, the sun is behind them and you’re trying to shoot them, that’s not gonna be ideal unless you wanna, you can expose for their face and sort of, you know, blow out the backdrop, but be just aware of where the lighting source is coming from and make sure you place your subject in the direction of the light. Whether it be sort of a frontal head-on light or if you want more of a moody look to have like the light coming from, from the side, but just be aware of sort of where your light source is coming from. That for sure can, and that’s true for like Zoom calls too, I’ve been seeing all these like online tips of how to look better in Zoom calls and of course it’s all about like the lighting and where you’re having the lighting coming from.
Scott: One of the things that strikes me about your photos are the portraits and you seem to be able to draw out and capture something of, of your subject’s personality, which obviously is important in a portrait and often when I take a picture of someone sometimes it works out and I, I get that moment, but other times it’s just a picture of Isaac, my son. What tips might you have there or suggestions for how an amateur can, can elevate a photo to capture more than just that person’s face?

Gabriela: Yeah, that’s a great questions. First, usually when I first start shooting a subject I, I tell them right off the bat, just so you know I shoot a ton and I delete 80% of what I shoot. So, I’m, you know, some people are more sort of reserved, especially back in the film days where, you know, each click was a price tag, but now because it’s digital I, I do shoot a lot, I shoot fast, I shoot loose, I shoot wide and close, and here, you know, this angle, smiling, not smiling and I, I leave shoots with a lot of material knowing that I’m going to delete about 80% right of the bat and then, you know, start my editing from those like 20% remaining images. People make fun of me, but when I’m shooting I’m very sort of, like, uplifting and positive and giving encouragement to my subjects, so that they feel comfortable and, you know, they’re not, they’re not, yeah, they’re just relaxed and they’re not like sort of, stiff and, you know, just I want them to feel like, maybe this feels like this is a collaborative effort and, you know, I’m not here trying to take something from you. We’re here together to create something and I think that makes a huge difference in allowing people to sort of have that ease knowing going into the shoot that that’s what we’re trying to establish. 

Scott: How old were you when you knew that you would become a photographer?

Gabriela: Well, I started, you know, high school, black and white dark room, that whole thing, took courses in college and I wasn’t a, I was a psychology major at a liberal arts college, you know, I hadn’t thought about photography professionally at that point and I actually moved to Brazil after college, because my mom is Brazilian and I grew up speaking Portuguese and I had actually studied abroad in Brazil in college a little bit, and I was living there and I had just a random job working at a hotel and I just, I don’t know, there was, there was something in me that I just was like, you know what, I really want to try to like, and I had been continuing up to that point just for myself, just shooting for fun. I was like I really wanna try to like be a photographer and, and I just quit the job I had and for six months I basically didn’t have a job and thankfully had parents who were supportive for those six months and I just sort of networked, worked for free, volunteered, whatever I could and then ended up getting a job working for the top photographer in Brazil at the time. So that was sort of my, my start. 

Scott: What advice might you have for a young person listening or even an older person who really loves photography? What would you tell them?

Gabriela: First, number one is just always be shooting, always be shooting, always be shooting, but one other thing I usually tell is to be social. Being social, it will get you so far. Being social and being nice, you know, those two things will get you so far in terms of just meeting people, connections, getting work. For me, the reason why I even got that job working for the photographer in Brazil in the first place is I had gone to like a photo conference that was happening and a photographer had given a talk and I was sort of waiting in line to speak to him and his assistant who would help him set up his powerpoint was sort of waiting in the line around there and I just stroked up a conversation with her, oh I’m trying to get into photography, how did you start working for him? What’s it like? What kind of stuff do you do? And we exchanged numbers and I was like I’m looking for you know, or happy to, you know, if you ever know of anything, whatever, I gave her my, my email and number and two weeks later she called me and said I’m going on vacation would you want to come fill in for me while I’m gone? So if I hadn’t, like, made that first reach out to just say hi, you know, who knows what would have happened? And so, I, and that’s, there’s so many instances where just meeting the right person at the right time leads to things, so that’s my number one.
Scott: So this is the first time we’ve chatted, you seem to me or you strike me as someone who seems relatively calm and, you know, kind of just chill in the midst of all this and I wonder if you have any advice for people who really might want somehow to get out of their head for a little bit?

Gabriela: Yeah, I’m, I, I feel that I’m in a very sort of, I’m in a very privileged position and I realize that in, in terms of health and having family and, you know, we actually have a backyard here, which has been a saving grace, but there is so, so much, just like bad things happening in the world right now that it is hard sometimes to, to sort of take that all in. I follow the news very closely, but I sort of follow the news very closely every morning and read everything I can and then sort of after I sort of get up and have breakfast then I kind of zone out and just try to focus on what I’m, you know, I want to be informed for sure, and I want to, you know, know what’s happening in my community and the larger world, but after I take in the news I kind of just get to my, my daily life here with the kids and, you know. 

Scott: Well, I want you to be able to get back to your kids shortly, so this sound here, that signals the rapid-fire round where I’ve got a few quick questions to wrap things up and I’ll be looking for a few quick answers from you.
Number one, Nikon, Canon, or something else?

Gabriela: Nikon since day one.

Scott: Two, do you have a favourite portrait lens or does it change depending on the situation? 

Gabriela: Definitely changes. Lately I’ve been very into my 105 macro lens.

Scott: Favourite photographer?

Gabriela: Well, Sally Mann, was my, my first love. [Inaudible] Sally Mann.

Scott: If you could ask anyone on Earth, who would you want to have sit for a portrait?

Gabriela: Obama.

Scott: Finally, what do you really look forward to doing that you cannot do now?

Gabriela: Hugging lots and lots of people. 

Scott: Gabby Herman, thanks so much for sharing your Inside Story. 

Gabriela: My pleasure, it’s been fun. 

Scott: Okay, I didn’t want to tell you this at the beginning in case I lost you, but you can check out more about Gabby and see some of her amazing images at, and by the way, that’s Gabriela with one ‘L’. I hope you’ve enjoyed this addition of Inside Stories. If you’d like to connect on Twitter, my name is Scott Simmie and that’s also my handle, @scottsimmie. Listen, thanks for having me over and thanks for the cup of tea, it was delicious. See you soon. 

Woman 1: The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of Bank of Montreal, its affiliates, or subsidiaries. 

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