A Photographer’s View On Finding Clarity And Purpose Through Art

I’d been planning to take the weekend off when I received a response to an e-mail I sent photographer Ryan Muirhead. He said he was snowed in and could talk if I was available.

“When?” I asked.

“Now,” he replied.

For the next 20 minutes, Ryan and I spoke about his journey into photography and his views on the often unspoken, tiny tragedies of life. His brave and honest answers to my questions kept me thinking long after we got off the phone. We shared moments in which we felt clarity in our respective lives and raved about some of our favorite books. There was snow on the ground for both of us; him in Portland, Oregon and me, in West Virginia.

Check the interview, below!

What brought you to Portland, Oregon from Salt Lake City, Utah?

Running away from Mormons. I grew up Mormon and very religiously conservative and hated it. Finally got out and wanted to live somewhere not so red-state.

I read that you didn’t start taking photos until you were 27. What were you interested in, what did you do for a pastime before then?

I played a lot of computer games, like World of Warcraft mainly.

Hell yeah.

Eventually it turned into some decision between World of Warcraft and photography.

How did you actually become interested in photography if what you were doing was playing video games?

I was a camera assistant on movies and TV shows. Growing up my dad was a Director of Photography and a Steadicam Operator. One time on a movie set a friend asked me to take a photo of him and I just kind of did and got a lot out of it and bought a camera like the next week.

What exactly started influencing you to photograph the things that you photograph personally?

It all started kind of randomly. I mean just like everybody when you start shooting I kind of just shot the same shit everybody does. Kids, people, sunsets, flowers, you know just when you’re taking pictures of everything. I realized pretty early on that I wanted to take photographs of people because I don’t know, that’s the scariest thing. The kind of photography I like is the stuff that challenges me as a person a little bit too. Difficult stuff.

Have you always been interested in people, even outside of photography?

I don’t know, I think it was kind of a reactionary interest. I was really shy and introverted as a kid and didn’t say a lot of what was going on with me. I think it was kind of a natural, like having an excuse to explore that kind of thing.

Do you think that kind of opened that door to being able to explore and communicate with people and express yourself more?

Absolutely. When it’s just conversational or when it’s just you and a person you have to justify the interaction. Why are we doing this? With photography, oh, we’re taking photos and then it’s like the excuse to interact.

Do you think it has helped you in anyway, this art form of yours?

For sure. It’s led to a lot of different experiences, you know? So many of the place I have been and so many of the situations I’ve been in and photographed. Also, it gives you a context for what you’re supposed to be doing. I’ve taken portraits of people that died of cancer shortly after, I shot the funeral of my ten day old niece, I took photos of my grandma shortly before she died, I shot stuff like that. Just stuff like that that’s confusing human situation stuff, it gives you something to do as opposed to sit there and feel shitty about it.

Do you feel yourself drawn to those darker, more tragic moments or are those just examples of things that you have shot?

Absolutely. I don’t feel a lot of clarity about being a person in everyday life, I don’t really get it. In tragic circumstances or really intense moments of when I’m going to shoot it, I feel more clarity than I ever do in life.

It’s like you’re processing.

Yeah, I feel a lot more purpose and drive than I ever do being normal.

You think it’s all worth sharing?

Yeah, for me it is. I also admit that’s reactionary. That’s reactionary to how I grew up in a really closed-minded religion that was like, this is good, this is bad, this is what you tell people, this is what you don’t. I’m not saying everything’s worth sharing for everybody. You’re extremely private and don’t want that and have persona and only want this out, awesome, as long as that’s what you want. For me, I very reactionarily kind of turned into a story, privacy vomiter where I just want to say everything and show everything and share it.

I’m not huge on street photography and I’m not big on stopping people for portraits, random strangers. My favorite way to shoot is like a lot of personal time. The work I’m most proud of that I’ve produced, like me and my friend went to Europe for five weeks at a time, twice, just to travel and shoot and to not to do photo shoots, but to just go have experiences. Then when things came up, then when they felt right, then when they felt real, started shooting to avoid the photo shoot concept. Avoid the, “oh, now we have an hour, now let’s make something we want to say.” I don’t know how to schedule significance, you know what I mean?

I want my work to feel like something because it actually felt like something, not because it was a Tuesday at 10am, I set aside an hour to make something. For a lot of street or documentary stuff, it’s the opposite time frame.

Do you think you shoot for you or do you think you shoot to have people view this and feel some sort of way or feel some sort of emotion, strike a chord?

I think anybody that says they’re not considering their audience is lying, but also, that’s the goal. I don’t shoot for money, nobody pays me for any of my shoots, they’re all mine. In that capacity, I’m shooting for myself. I teach and I sell prints to sustain myself, but I’m never paid for the photography.

Is that just a choice you’ve made, do you turn down money?

Oh yeah, I have quite a few times.

Why is that?

To me it’s the best motivation check ever. When someone’s paying you it’s like, do I care, what am I saying? If you’re spending more to do it, it’s real easy to be like, I don’t want to do this or I’m going to do this no matter what. When you have that kind of motivation, it’s all about clarity. I never understand why people are doing anything. I don’t get why we do almost everything we do as a civilization.

We do it because everyone else is doing it.

I know, and that doesn’t ring very true to me. I don’t like being in the machine and I don’t like making stuff for other people. I don’t like being told what to do, and the best way I can figure out I’m not doing that is when it costs me something. Then when I do it I’m like, “Yeah, I guess you really wanted to.”

You said you teach classes, I read that you do workshops and classes and you sell prints. Is that your main source of income as a photographer?

Yup. Teaching and sales, that’s all of it.

How many people get to do that? I’m so grateful, but then it came with no stability, didn’t really get married, didn’t have kids, don’t have a very good bedrock of anything to fall back on that keeps me grounded as this is what you’re doing or why. It kind of makes for an existential dread of, this isn’t worth it, why are you alive?

How do you cope with those feelings?

I cope with them by making art and then finding art. Finding it makes me feel less alone in trying to make the art that will make somebody else feel less alone.

Did you want to do it in that way so you could find that sense of clarity that you were trying to look for, that purpose maybe?

I hated everything about my life but was making money, and then I found photos and it felt a little more sincere, so I quit doing the other thing.

That’s bold, a lot of people can’t do that.

It’s a weird mix. You can only be bold when you’re actually terrified, right?