After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, there was a need for any assistance to rebuild one of the major American cultural landmarks. It was a pleasant surprise to see the outpour of support following the aftermath of such natural ire. This was also a moment when the world started to take notice of Richmond native Rebecca Ward. Her experiences in New Orleans led to her renting an art space to create a gallery that would give a better insight into what was really happening there.
The showing enabled her to raise money for schools in the Gulfport, as well as offering her several photographic opportunities in the foreseeable future. Ward has seen her work published in The Washington Post and The Progress-Index, which showcased many highlights of the Obama campaign in 2008. Her work has also captured a considerable amount of Richmond’s musical talent including Prabir and the Substitutes, David Shultz and the Skyline, Pat McGee and several others. In short, Rebecca Ward is a tremendously talented photographer from this great city who has phenomenal promise ahead of her.
Shannon Cleary: At what age did you start to take an interest in photography and at what point did you decide to start taking it a bit more seriously and attempt to work towards making it a career?
Rebecca Ward: I noticed I had a love of photography when I was in the 5th grade and would spend all my allowance money on film and having my photos developed instead of going to the movies with my classmates. But it wasn’t until my first digital camera when I was thirteen that I became passionate about it. That Nikon became permanently attached to my hands. I knew it was going to become my career when I got my drivers license and I could go anywhere I wanted and make photographs of anything. I had no fear.
What were some of your influences in this art form? For example, who were some of the photographers that struck you as fascinating at an early age, and who were some of the photographers that caught your eye after you spent time in Savannah for education?
My influences come from all over the place, such as anything from what’s current in print media, advertisements, commercials, news, or music and fashion. Personally my style of photography, if categorized, is color documentary. Photojournalist Dan Eldon was my first inspiration when I picked up his journals. Not only his Reuters work, but also I fell in love with the photographs of his friends and family just hanging out. I think that’s where I get my inspiration for photographing the local Richmond scene at night. But other photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark, Gary Winogrand, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson among many others were exposed to me while I was at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design). Savannah was one of the best decisions I could have made. I joke that I should have paid rent at Bergen Hall, the photo building, because I ate and slept there.
What initially prompted you to visit the sites of Hurricane Katrina? How did the exposure from NBC News and your gallery showing affect your work and your career path?
It was on a whim, really. It was during class that another photo kid and I decided to pack up his car and drive down there as soon as we were done in the studio. Not going for a class project, we just felt the urge to go. So we drove down through the night, and began shooting night shots at 3 a.m. We were really just curious to see what was going on; we wanted to document the process of rebuilding. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case and that changed the whole project. We stayed down in Gulfport and in New Orleans for 4 days, climbing in windows, trespassing and talking to the few residents left. It was when we came upon tent villages nine months after the ordeal that I needed to do my share. So I came back, edited through what I captured and rented a space and threw the gallery show together. I wrote to anyone who would listen to gain exposure, and NBC News was there to support. Because of the on-air interview, I was able to raise money to donate to a local elementary school in Gulfport, Mississippi. Every student got a new pair of shoes and a backpack with supplies. That was when I knew I was meant to be a photographer. If I can open eyes to what’s beyond the image, I’ve done my job.
I was only twenty years old when the gallery showing happened. So not too much career wise happened right after, because I had to go back to school, where students were doing other great things. So it was back to being on the competitive plank and trying to grow as an artist and a person, and in doing so finding my niche.
How did you link up with Cosmopolitan Magazine?
Well, I’d like to think it was all me, but that wasn’t the case. In any industry, it’s all about who you know. My roommate had interned a summer before and had given me her boss’s name. I emailed and flew up for an interview, three weeks later I was living in New York City and working 9-6 a.m. five days a week for 11 weeks for free. Yes, for free. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I learned the business side of photography that I never learned in my classes. I fell in love with print media. It was pretty cool seeing the images I put on the pages of the magazine on the actual newsstands. And the perks at the office were great, too; seeing photographers’ portfolios of what was current was pretty amazing.
Having such a large publication on my resume hasn’t hurt one bit; it only hurt my bank account. But the best thing about it was the contacts I made; again, networking is a job in itself, but it really comes down to who you know and what you can do for each other.
Have you still been able to maintain a photographic relationship with the city of Richmond, even after your work was published in The Washington Post?
Absolutely. Richmond has still always been where I’ve been based, even though I haven’t always lived here. Its where I started it all, and especially after The Washington Post. It included photos of Pat McGee; and how appropriate for Richmond, we both started our careers here.
How was working for The Progress-Index? Especially considering the proximity to the 2008 presidential elections.
From working at Cosmo, I wasn’t behind the camera. So when I began my job as a staff photojournalist at The Progree-Index, I felt like I had come full circle. My number one love is making photographs; so to be able to switch back to being behind the camera again was great. I had to change my style of working, which I believe helped me grow even more as a professional.
Shooting assignments such as Barack Obama was like an adrenaline rush! I became really involved with every aspect of the election. With it being such a monumental race, I feel lucky to have covered it. I can really say I captured every part of the history being made from the speeches to waking up at 5 a.m. to cover the first votes to covering Broad Street for the parade of VCU students cheering on our new elected president.
I read on your website you are working on a documentary project. Is there anything you can divulge about that or what the focus of the project is?
Sure, it’s been a year in the making, and it’s an on going project. It started as one thing then lead into another, and it may change into something else. But I’m working on a color documentary book, capturing the quirky humor that is American culture. It’s a full country spread, so it’s taking more time than expected. It’s been a lot of fun.
What are some of your favorite memories or moments you have captured on film?
Favorite memories would be those late nights at the SCAD building in the darkrooms. There is nothing better for a photographer than spending hours in a dark room. It’s the beginning of photography, and should be honored as so. I’m not sure I can name one or two favorite moments. I’ve been very lucky in my career so far, from photographing famous people to photographing on the road alone. But my favorite moments captured on film would be my many trips to my favorite place in the U.S. – South of the Border, that truck stop between South Carolina and North Carolina. I love how perfectly quirky it is. I like to take a few cheap plastic Holga cameras, throw them against the wall to create different light leak effects in each one, and then just shoot the brilliance that is South of the Border. The colors and shapes are beautiful, with that nostalgic feel. It’s a humorous piece I can’t stop always working on. Yes, I do always stop when passing by. I can always find new things even if I’ve been there 100 times. I love it.
What does the future hold for Rebecca Ward?
What doesn’t the future hold? I want to accomplish everything the photography world has to offer – the sky is the limit. The great thing about photography is that you can always be creating something new with every click.