M. Scott Brauer is a photographer based in Nanjing, China. Brauer graduated from the University of Washington with dual degrees in philosophy and Russian literature in 2005. View Brauer’s website here.
This is the fifth segment in a series on international photography. To view the first profile on Michael Rubenstein, go here. To view the second profile on Kevin German, go here. To view the third on Dominic Nahr, go here. To view the fourth profile on Andrew Henderson, go here.
VS: Describe your current work situation and how you got there.
Brauer: “I’m currently based in China, working on various long-term publications.Â I’m represented by Invision Images in Europe, Aurora Select in the US through a partnership with Invision, and Wonderful Machine in the US, as well.Â I get by selling stock, periodic assignments, corporate shoots now and again, and some web design on the side.Â I got here by sheer force of will, I suppose.”
Children play in giant inflatable balls on a lake in the White Horse Sculpture Park in Nanjing, China. (M. Scott Brauer)
“I Picked up a camera in high school when I inherited it from my late grandfather, worked on school and independent student newspapers in high school and at the University of Washington.Â Moved to New York and interned at Black Star (assisted in the dismantling of their film archive, scanned some truly historic images–that was an education and a half) and VII, freelancing a bit for the New York Times and working on my own stories. Then, figuring I wasn’t really good enough at taking pictures, I worked at the Northwest Herald in suburban Chicago and the Flint Journal in Flint, Michigan, learning how to take pictures of things I wasn’t interested in.Â That sounds callous, and I don’t mean it to.Â Before that time, I almost exclusively took pictures of things I decided would be worth photographing, things that I liked, and things that I was interested in.Â The daily grind of community journalism was like a crash course in photography, and ended up giving me the ability to come up with something printable in just about any situation.Â Then, realizing that newspapers weren’t really my passion, I moved to China.Â And here I am.Â Lately I’ve been having some success with art galleries, too.Â That’s something new and exciting, which I hope will grow.”
VS: What best prepared you for working abroad?
Brauer: “I wanted to know how to prepare myself for living in one place for more than a couple years.Â My father was in the US Air Force throughout my childhood, and my family moved at least every two years until the end of middle school.Â Now I’ve got an incurable wanderlust.Â So that’s what gets me interested in seeing new places.Â In college I studied Russian Language and Literature (I have two degrees, one in that and another in philosophy) and studied for 6 months in Russia.Â It kills me that I didn’t really take pictures then, but I got some experience in a strange land.Â I also received a fellowship from my university to spend half a year traveling, no longer than a month in a single country.Â That was the sole purpose of the fellowship.Â So I went to Malawi, Tanzania, India, Russia, the Baltics, and a little bit of western Europe just wandering around.Â I was beginning to take pictures seriously then, and really realized that what I wanted to say was something photographic.Â That trip really got me going.Â I also assisted Antonin Kratochvil on a shoot in Haiti for a week, which really opened my eyes to what it takes to report an international story.”
VS: What is/has been your favorite part of working abroad?
Brauer: “What’s not to love?Â Strange food.Â Weird places.Â Friendly people.Â Interesting customs.Â I’ve always said that my favorite thing about photojournalism is that every day’s a field trip, and that’s even more the case with working abroad.Â There are some downsides, sure: seeing family is a rare occurrence, ice cream sandwiches are hard to come by, working alone can be awful (you feel like you’re in a vacuum, throwing your photos out into the void).”
University freshmen line up for mandatory military training on a basketball court in Nanjing, China. (M. Scott Brauer)
VS: Who were your influences and who do you lean on now for support or advice/wisdom?
Brauer: “My photographic education came from the Magnum website.Â I would spend hours looking through that site, checking in daily for new work, poring through archive.Â I got a cheap copy of Raymond Depardon’s “Voyages” at Powell’s bookstore and absolutely destroyed my copy.Â It was my bible.Â Then the VII website and archive opened my eyes a bit more, and I started going to bookstores (Barnes and Noble and used book stores around Seattle) and libraries and junk stores looking for photo books, old copies of Life and National Geo, etc.Â When I started shooting for the student newspaper at the UW, I met Matt Lutton–he was mostly doing sports photography then, but he still new a good photo when he saw it, and we started shooting ideas off one another.Â Through him I found the APhotoADay listserve, which has been a valuable community for sharing work, getting feedback, seeing new work on a daily basis.Â I’m not as active there as I should be now, but I still love looking through the work everyday.Â In NYC I met a few photographers at my stage of development, and I keep in touch with them.Â Also, through APAD I’ve met quite a few photographers (having not lived in many photo-heavy cities) and keep in contact with them outside of the list.Â One thing I don’t have, that many photographers do have, is a mentor of some sort.Â I’ve never dealt well with those sorts of relationships, and I consider that one of my big weaknesses.
Also, I cannot do any of this without the support and love of my family, my friends not involved in photography, and my girlfriend, Heidi, who’s here in China with me.Â My family and friends keep be in touch with reality, as does Heidi.Â She’s also great at telling me when a picture I’m in love with is total junk.
And I can’t forget my cats.Â There’s no bad day that a cat can’t fix.”
VS: What advice do you have for students who want to work abroad?
Brauer: “Do it.Â Nothing’s holding you back.Â Just like anything else in photography, the only thing that’s stopping you is your wallet, and there’s probably a way around that.Â Maybe teach English somewhere.Â Study abroad and spend all your spare time taking pictures.Â But realize that you probably won’t sell any pictures.Â The experience is tremendously valuable personally, and if you’ve got the right combination of compassion, passion, business smarts, luck, personality, and artistry, you’ll figure out a way to make it work.Â And figure out something that makes money that’s not photography.Â You’ll need that or a trust fund for the first few months or years.
Most important:Â Remember that you’re in business.Â You’ve got to cover your expenses and make a profit to make this work.Â Market yourself like crazy, then market yourself some more.”
A woman butchers dogs at the central downtown market in Yangshuo, Guangxi Province, China. (M. Scott Brauer)
VS: With the current state of the industry, what other advice do you have for students/young professionals?
Brauer: “Diversify what you’re doing.Â If that means shooting weddings, do it.Â If that means making websites for other photographers, do it.Â If that means corporate shoots, do it.Â The editorial market is so sad right now, that you’ve got to find another use for your camera that documentary photography or find some other skills that will help support the documentary work.Â Look through magazines, and all you see is portraits.Â I generally hate making portraits because there’s usually a much more interesting documentary angle to take, but you’ve got to be able to do portraits if you want to make it.Â And forget the preciousness of your photos.Â I’m not saying you should start selling microstock, but you’ve got to realize that your photos aren’t sacred objects suitable only for the rarified picture holes in Newsweek or Time.Â Sure some magazines are better than others, but if the fee is okay, the license is good for your copyright and bottom line, who cares where the picture is being published.Â You’re a hunter, not the cook.Â Find some stock houses that get decent fees and respect your rights (there aren’t many left…) and make your archive available.Â Make your pictures work for you.
Respect your copyright, but realize that copyright can be had for a price.Â If a contract comes along for a rights grab, but the fee is equivalent to a couple years’ good salary, you can probably let go of your copyright for those few pictures.Â But, don’t go giving away your copyright for a couple thousand dollars.
Find your own stories and angles.Â If you don’t, the wires will beat you every time.Â Guaranteed.Â It’s the most frustrating thing in the world to hear “Oh, we’ll probably just pick up that sort of thing from the AP.”Â But wire pictures are essentially free to publications.Â They’ve already paid for them with their subscriptions, so they need a reason to pay for something special.Â This is where the journalistic and artistic value of your pictures comes in.Â Make it count.
Learn to say no to bad contracts, low fees, and other despicable deals.
Be interested in everything, and read as much as you can.
An imam speaks at a small mosque in Pingliang, Gansu, China. (M. Scott Brauer)
VS: Where do you see yourself in the future?
Brauer: “No idea.Â Hopefully still taking pictures.Â Definitely not taking wedding pictures.Â No disrespect to my friends and colleagues who play the wedding game; there’s great pictures to be had, but that’s not why I personally picked up a camera.Â If I can’t get my stories out into the world, I’ve got better things to do with my time.”
VS: What would you do differently know that you didn’t in the past?
Brauer: “I’d likely not go to a market so saturated with photographers, though that’s hard to do.Â I’d also move to a better-known city.Â I’m based in a city about the size of New York City and which was the capital of China for many, many years, and yet every editor I’ve talked to, with few exceptions, has asked me there that is and how close is it to Shanghai.Â There’ve been a few times when big publications have sent photographers to about a half-hour from where I am, and it’s maddening.Â It’s so easy for someone in New York or Paris to understand that a shoot location is X hours from Shanghai, and it doesn’t matter that I’m closer, no matter how many times I’ve told people.Â I would also market myself more. I’m so bad at self-promotion, that it’s not even funny.”
VS: How important is it to have a sense of community/family within photojournalism?
Brauer: “This cannot be underestimated.Â It’s the only way that you can grow as a photographer, it’s the only way you’ll get work, and it’s the only way that the industry will (hopefully, but probably not) return to appropriate fees and respect for photographers’ copyright.Â I know Magnum formed, in part, to combat copyright grabs and low fees, and maybe that’s what we need again now.Â The recent success of collectives–MJR and Luceo are prime examples–is very heartening.Â And that’s what we’re trying to do with my blog, dvafoto.com.Â By joining together with other photographers, the whole becomes greater than its parts.
However, one can get a little too involved in photography circles, losing sight of the all-important goal of getting the stories out to the viewing public.Â A thousand photography blogs read by ten thousand photographers don’t match the power of a single photograph reaching an audience of non-photographers.Â The importance of getting one’s photography outside the bounds of the photojournalism community, also, cannot be underestimated.”
VS: How important is balancing work and personal life?
Brauer: “Incredibly important.Â I think I spend too much time on the personal life side of things, and that’s frustrating, because it’s of my own doing.Â I should be doing more self-promotion, for instance.Â Hobbies and interests outside of photography are also incredibly important.Â I’m a fiend for ultimate frisbee, I read voraciously, and the peace and quiet of a kitchen (even a poorly-equipped on in a hotel in Siberia) serves as valuable solace from the world of photography.”
VS: Is there anything else you want to add?
Brauer: “A realization I came to a long time ago is that the only thing holding back my photography is myself.Â This sounds like one of those pat aphorisms you’d find in your grandmother’s inspirational daily calendar, but it’s true.Â If your pictures aren’t intimate enough, it’s because you aren’t getting close enough to the subjects.Â If your colors aren’t good, it’s because you don’t know light.Â If you aren’t taking the pictures you want to take, you’ve got to change your approach.Â If you aren’t getting published, it’s because you don’t know the right people or your pictures aren’t good enough or the economy sucks.Â That last one, you can’t do too much about, but some people still manage to get published, so it’s probably still you.”