Steven W Adams is a photographer currently living in Jacksonville, Florida. He has published photographs most recently in Bloomberg Business week. You may reach him on Instagram @swestaxo or on his website www.swesta.com
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Bailey Bujnosek: How did you get started with photography?
Steven Westbrook Adams: It’s funny. In high school, I went to a performing arts high school. My focus was creative writing. Towards my junior or senior year, I wanted to join a photography course. My stepdad at the time had bought me a crappy little point-and-shoot Nikon digital camera for my birthday, and I loved it. But I couldn’t get into a photography course because it had already filled up with visual arts students, who were given priority to be in the course. What the school did for me was, they said I could join the school newspaper. I was the only person on the school newspaper who had a camera, so all photographic responsibilities fell on me. That’s pretty much where it started.
BB: You do a mix of photojournalism and more intimate portraits and series. Is there a different challenge with photojournalism, especially because it’s more spontaneous than the creative shoots?
SWA: To be honest, I find photojournalism like my most recent work to be a lot easier, and a lot more exciting—for me, at least. I feel like people underestimate the level of intensity that there is between one person behind the camera and one person on the other side of the camera. It’s a challenge, and I love it. I’ll never completely stray away from it. But I’m at the point in my life right now where I’m like: okay, what is it that I actually like to do? What is it that I want my work to reflect? And I like being in the moment. I like being where everything happens.
BB: Can you tell me more about the inspirations behind your photography? Other photographers, or any artists who influence you.
SWA: There are a lot. For my more intimate work, I was always deeply moved by the work of Ren Hang, who tragically passed away. He was a photographer from China. Around 2017, he took his own life. His work was always—I always found it super stunning. I remember coming across it on Tumblr as a teenager. The very matter-of-factness in which he shot the human form, and how creative he got with shooting the human form, was something I tried to emulate in my early work.
If we’re talking photojournalism, I have to give it up to Gordon Parks. He was a Black photographer who shot around the Civil Rights Movement. A lot of his photojournalism revolves around being Black in America throughout the sixties and seventies. It’s ironic because he also started out as a fashion photographer but eventually ventured into photojournalism. And with those times very much reflecting these times, I can kind of understand why.
BB: Would you say that in your own photography, there are any themes, narratives, or stories you find yourself coming back to a lot?
SWA: In both my more intimate, singular work and the more wide-ranging photojournalism, I find myself revolving around the idea of intimacy. I’ve always been very interested in how humans interact with each other, and interact with themselves, when they feel like no one’s looking. As far as what I like to shoot when I’m out in the field, I hope to photograph areas and people that people normally don’t get the chance to see. I like working in the South, because no place is probably more misunderstood—or under-understood—than the American South.
BB: Shifting to your work as art editor for the journal, how did you find out about Adroit, and what made you decide to join the staff?
SWA: It’s actually really funny. I never told Peter [LaBerge] about this, and I’m not sure he’d even remember, but my high school—Douglas Anderson School of the Arts—had its own literary magazine, and while I was in high school he actually submitted to our magazine and had work accepted. Through that, I became familiar with his work.
I want to say it was sometime during high school when I became aware of The Adroit Journal. I submitted a photo series and they snatched it up pretty fast. I was honored, because I’ve always admired the journal and the caliber of work they publish. Shortly after they published my work, they put out a call for staff. Initially, they didn’t have an arts editor. But I emailed Peter specifically, saying, “Hey, I noticed that you guys don’t have a de facto arts editor. If that’s something you guys are interested in, I would gladly take on that role.” And after doing some back-and-forth, that responsibility fell onto me. It’s been that way since a couple of years ago.
BB: Can you tell me more about what your role as Art Editor entails?
SWA: I try to log into Submittable and see the art submissions we have at least every other day. Me, Peter, and Executive Editor Heidi [Seaborn] go through our thing and see what we’re thinking is and isn’t a good fit for the journal. But also, a large part of the arts portion is soliciting material from artists, so as to expand and diversify the type of work we publish. The arts portion is so small, and it’s easy to get into the pattern of publishing the same work over and over again. What I try to do is solicit artists that are very much outside the box, and probably not even aware of The Adroit Journal and the work that we typically publish.
BB: What would you say you’re looking for in an art submission? What makes a submission stand out? I know that’s a bit vague since there are so many different types of art.
SWA: I’d say, generally, the work has about five seconds to capture my attention. I admittedly have a pretty iffy attention span. It takes a lot to take and hold my own attention. For that reason, I try to produce work where, upon first seeing it, you instantly know what’s going on, and you’re instantly attracted to it. I’m definitely more attracted to work like that. Even if an artwork doesn’t strike me immediately, if I catch myself coming back to it and finding more things to like about it, and I can really feel what the artist is trying to get across, that’s a sign of a very strong submission. Like you said, there are multiple forms of visual art. I’m not necessarily biased towards photography one way or the other. I wish we did get more photography submissions. That’s actually very much a minority in the types of submissions that we receive. But, thus far, I’ve been really impressed with the caliber of work we’ve received at Adroit. The work that I have pushed to be published in Adroit has all been work of immediacy.
BB: Do you have influence over which art becomes the cover of the issue?
SWA: I do.
BB: With that, do you look through the work you’ve accepted and pick one for the cover, or do you see a submission during the process and know it’s going to be the cover?
SWA: It’s either/or. There are moments when I receive a submission and I’m instantly like, this is cover art material. I’ll give an example. A couple of issues ago, we published an artist by the name of Deandra Lee. She was young at the time, eighteen years old, creating work of the caliber that I couldn’t even imagine with just an iPhone. I solicited her work specifically because I knew she fit the demographic of work we publish at Adroit. The fact that she was unaware of The Adroit Journal signified to me a chance to bridge that gap between an artist who could benefit from our platform and our platform getting access to a really talented artist. Pretty much from the beginning, that uniqueness in and of itself is what made me think her work was cover art material. And throughout the process, Peter agreed with me. She ended up being the cover artist for Issue Twenty-Nine.
BB: Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
SWA: I can’t speak for other art forms, but I know with photography specifically, it can be very intimidating. Especially because, to be quite frank, photography is a very expensive hobby. A very expensive art form, especially when you’re under the impression that you need expensive materials to create high-quality work. To any young photographer, I’d say: worry about the materials last. Just focus on developing your eye and photograph things that make you happy first. It’s a cliché in the photography community, I think, where there are people who have thousand-dollar cameras and produce work that they hate—because it’s popular work. If you want to take photographs for the sake of producing very popular work, or work that has all the glitz and the glamour, you can do that eventually. But first you have to focus on photographing what makes you happy.