Interview: John Keatley Talks About His Recent Work In The Philippines

John Keatley is a advertising and celebrity portrait photographer who calls Seattle home. John has photographed the likes of Andy Samberg, Annie Leibovitz, Sarah Palin, and Bill Gates. I love his stylized portraits but what I really appreciate about him is his concern for others. He seems very interested in building a body of work that seeks to help others. A few weeks ago I talked with John about his recent trip to Manila, Philippines. He was there shooting for Arts Aftercare, an organization “that brings the beauty and healing power of the arts to children and adults recovering from modern slavery.” We talked about image making, preparing for a trip of this magnitude, and how nonprofits can get better media, among other things.

So how are you doing? Good, I’m still trying to get back into my local time zone.

How was the trip? I know that’s kinda a loaded question with what you were photographing so you don’t have to give me a peachy answer. [laughs]. It was a good trip and it was a bad trip. I’m still trying to process it. People will ask about my last trip and I’ll tell them about it and they go, “Oh...ok...,” and they don’t want to hear about it. I think it was a good trip though. I learned a lot, met some really great people, and I think we accomplished what we intended to do. I’m still trying to process a lot of it. When I got back I got sick and I’ve had to step away from it but as I’ve thought about it I’ve realized it was a great experience.

Yeah, I’ve been to Kenya, Sudan, and the Philippines. People ask, “How was it?!,” And you tell them you saw people eating out of garbage and walked on narrow paths that are surrounded by landmines. People go, “Oh...” It’s not like the Caribbean. It’s not easy coffee talk. Yeah

So you’ve been to Liberia before with Miir Bottles, right? How did that trip compare to this one? The only way I could compare both trips is they were humanitarian in nature. I don’t know how much you could compare the two because they were so different. Maybe there is a way you can compare them but I just haven’t wrapped my head around it. They both had poverty but they both had so much different. In Manila there is a lot of wealth as well as poverty whereas in Liberia it’s mainly poverty.

What was the purpose of this trip? The organization I went with is called Arts Aftercare and they have developed a program that uses art therapy with survivors of sexual slavery. They use yoga, music, and art as a means of healing and expression. They have this new program that a lot of PHDs have worked on and they are starting to roll it out. They are training several organizations that work in sex trafficking in this program and are spending the next couple of weeks meeting with these organizations to follow up and do more training. We got to see a little bit of the program unfold. I was there to document the program and much of my work was to photograph people who are in this industry. More than anything else I was there to try to tell why this art therapy program is even necessary and to bring awareness to this big problem as opposed to make some big ad for the program. It’s not like buying a car. It’s not something anyone would want. I think the people developing this program would rather not have to do this because it would mean there isn’t this problem. They’ll probably show these images to potential donors as a way to fundraise. I’m sure they’ll use them on their website. The big focus for me was to make portraits of survivors. I also photographed some different places that work with kids that have been sexually abused. I did some photography around Manila to frame where this is. It’s a big problem everywhere. It’s a huge problem in Manila but it’s also a big problem in Seattle. I didn’t want it to feel like there was this big problem in this distant land. I may even do some stuff here in Seattle to show people it's not something you can put out of sight and out of mind. It happens everywhere.  I didn’t even know this stuff was going on until a couple years ago.

It’s crazy. I just found out the other day that Orlando is actually a huge sex trafficking destination as well (which you can read about here, here, and here). Yeah, it’s crazy.

Did you have any culture shock? I don’t know if it was culture shock. It wasn’t exactly what I had expected but at the same time I knew it wasn’t going to be Seattle. Some of the things I saw hit me pretty hard. I don’t know if I would call it culture shock as much as I would call it sexual abuse shock. There were shocking elements to the project, that’s for sure.

What did you do to prepare? Photographically, emotionally, family wise? I prayed a lot. I don’t know what else you can really do. I’m kinda the type of person that just needs to get into a situation. You can prepare only so much, at least me personally. I think the first part of the trip was a real struggle and it took me a few days to crack it open. I have to spend time in a situation or get acclimated before I’m able to start working or get comfortable. I certainly did research and talked to as many people as I could. We had some conference calls with some people. It’s like editorial photography in general. Sometimes you get to plan stuff out but sometimes you have to show up and work with what you have. You could envision this perfect scenario in your head but if that’s not what you’re going to get it’s kinda pointless. That’s how I approached this, you just have to see what comes your way.

You mentioned on your blog that you guys were looking for funding for the trip and that it still wasn’t fully funded. Did you guys get it funded and how was it funded? We got over there and we got back but that’s about the extent of it. We had some companies donate some gear that we used (Glazer's Camera & Vanguard). We’re still trying to cover basic production costs. I know the film can’t get cut until we get a little bit more money. We really believe in this and it’s something we want to do. We’re not trying to make money off it but we still have to cover basic costs. I still have to raise money for retouching and for my basic expenses. It’s not something I wanted to preach about and didn’t want to ask for money. I want to be conscious of my blog and my voice and don’t want to be bugging people all the time. If someone hears about it and wants to contribute we’re grateful but I haven’t really said a whole lot about that.

A lot of nonprofits are underfunded and understaffed. Do you have any advice for them for getting better media to promote what they do and their value to others? I think people need to be educated. Everyone wants good media they just don’t want to spend for it. I think what people need to realize is spending money on good media is money well spent if you do it right. I don’t think it should be an issue of how do we get something really great for really little. Granted, I think a lot of photographers would love to work with nonprofits and they’re not going to charge them their full rates but at the same time I think it’s important to realize the benefits of good media. If people realize the benefits of good media they will be more willing to spend money on it. It’s the same for nonprofits as it is for businesses. Marketing is the first thing to go when times get tough but marketing is the most important thing in any business and that includes nonprofits. Right along with marketing comes photography and film. I feel like if nonprofits do good media then figure out ways to raise money to pay for that media it’s going to pay itself off and then some, rather than nonprofits trying to figure out how they can get it for free or how they can get someone to do it for cheap. So to answer your question, the most important thing is educating nonprofits on the value of good photography, good filmwork, and good art in general that can help their marketing.

How did you get hooked up with Arts Aftercare and why did you want to help them? I actually went to college with the founders so I have a relationship with them. They contacted me about doing this project. They were also the ones that introduced me to this story of human trafficking. Over the last 4 or 5 years I’ve noticed nothing makes me more angry than injustice, slavery, and the mistreatment of others in this capacity. I slowly realized that if I get this angry about it than I need to get involved.  I had been wanting to do something in this realm for a while but I didn’t know how to do it or what the outlet was. At first when they approached me with the idea I didn’t want to do it. I had another idea that I wanted to do, a more conceptual project. I didn’t really want to be in the filth of it, so to speak. After some time I thought maybe it was something I should do and maybe it was something I wanted to do but I just hadn’t realized it.

Did your wife encourage you to do it? Yeah, she’s a big reason I did it. We had a talk one night and she encouraged me. She’s awesome because she knows me pretty well and she balances me out. I think we have similar personalities but at the same time we’re different in other areas. She knows how to challenge me when I want to take the easy way out. This was not a very comfortable project so it was easy to decide not to do it but thankfully she challenged me in that area.

Yeah, my wife is crazy cause she married me, that’s how I look at it. You have to be a little bit.

So a little bit more on the photography side. How did you go about shooting. Did you have a shot list. Was it more run ‘n gun? What are the images like? You said the first 3 days it was a little stagnant. It’s pretty different than anything I’ve done before. I think the work is pretty different. It’s a mix of portraiture and still life. Most of it is natural light. A lot of it was timed exposures. It’s a pretty different look, even different from my Liberia work. I like it. I feel like I’ve grown a lot since last year as a photographer. I’m still spending time with the work but I think it’s a good step forward.

I’m curious, how did the timed exposure portraits work out? It’s just natural light and I used a tripod with slow exposures. People had to stand or sit and hold really still. It gives a whole different look and it’s clearly not lit, fancy, or shiny so to speak.

Did Arts Aftercare just say, “Go shoot and document our organization,” or was it more planned? A lot of that was just figured out as we went. We had some ideas going into it but it really took being there and getting a feel for the place. I think a lot of times with nonprofits they know they want pictures but they just don’t know what they want pictures of. You can’t expect someone to be a photo editor and a marketing director all of a sudden. I think there was a lot of trust and we tried to communicate as much as possible what would work best. I think the main goal was to create something great that was going to spread the word about what’s going on. Obviously there’s a lot of freedom there.

Was that freeing? You know, not having an art director there. Or was it nerve wracking? It’s freeing and it’s nerve wracking at the same time. I suppose if there was an art director they would be telling me specific things to shoot but at the same time they would be providing those things to shoot. It wouldn’t be as nerve wracking but it might not be as free. When you’ve got a lot more freedom it’s a lot more nerve wracking. Along with the freedom comes uncertainty and it’s up to you to make those things happen. After a couple of days of figuring out who was who and what the restrictions were I had to start pushing myself into situations and in front of people to photograph because if I didn’t do it it wouldn’t happen. I enjoy working with art directors and I enjoy working alone. I think for this particular project it was nice to do it alone. I could also see a similar project working really well with an art director too.

You always hear people saying, “You’ve gotta keep shooting personal work.” I know you have your holiday promos which I’m assuming are personal work as well as marketing materials. Would you consider this personal work? I think so. There are elements to the project that I would not consider personal work. For example, I’m not going to show the pictures of people using the curriculum or playing the instruments. I think it serves a purpose, it’s beneficial, and it’s a big part of what I went for but it’s not very personal. I think a lot of the work outside of that, telling the story of a few specific people and how slavery effects people, I would consider that personal work.

What do you want people to think when they see these images? What do you hope the first thought in their mind is? That’s a good question. I hope it’s different for everybody. My hope would be that people feel compelled to speak out and to do something. You can’t just come back and get angry at people, judging them for not doing anything about the situation. Life is a process and there was 30 years where I wasn’t doing anything about it. I hope that everyone is honest with themselves and open to the information they take in when they see the pictures. I hope it stirs something in everybody when they see them.

Seeing these things, shooting these things, and helping an organization like this, what has it done for you? Has it changed you in any way? Maybe that’s a loaded question too. If you say “no” you sound bad. Trips like this give you perspective on your own situation and the situation of others. It helps expand your worldview. It’s helped educate me. What do you do when you see human suffering like this and you come back and you have such a wonderful life? I don’t think we should feel guilty but at the same time we shouldn’t feel selfish and complacent about it. You have to be really thoughtful about these kinds of things. Going to Africa and buying someone something isn’t going to solve their problem. Even just building a well for someone and saying, “Here you go, here’s some clean water,” that doesn’t even help. It’s part of a process. There needs to be education and a desire on the behalf of others to make a change. I think the best I can expect from a trip like this is it expands my thinking, it gives me perspective, and helps mold my heart to at care for others and then take the next step, whatever that is.

I think you’ve gotta give in a way that gives people dignity. Or help in a way that gives dignity and not help in a way that just gives things and makes you feel good. Yeah, a gift is not a solution. Gifts, I think, are meant to be signs of appreciation or celebration but it’s ridiculous to think that a gift is a solution to a serious problem. It’s a band aid that’s going to fall off. It’s often times something that feels good for the giver.

So do you have anything else you want to mention that I haven’t covered? I definitely think whatever your profession or your hobby it’s important to help others through your abilities. As much as this is personal work and I’m sure it will benefit me and my career I really hope it just benefits people in general. There was this point in this trip where we were away from a car and needed to be somewhere. There were some constraints and I was getting really frustrated. I just felt God get a hold of me and say, “Forget about yourself for a second.” I was so worried about my portfolio and getting a great image.  The power of photography is much greater than what I want to use it for. So for one afternoon I just took pictures of survivors. It brought them so much joy and they were so excited about it. Some people said it was the first time they ever felt beautiful. That was a big lesson for me. It’s easy to go on this trip and say, “I’m helping people,” but really how much am I helping people and how much I am doing it for myself? That was a good lesson to learn and it put a lot of the frustration of the first few days into perspective. I think the frustration was necessary and it got me to the point of realizing the impact I could have on those people. It’s something I keep coming back to. It’s easy to talk about helping others and going on these trips but still not do anything for others. I know that there are some people that I was able to impact through photography and in turn I was really blessed because I was humbled. I think being humbled is a good thing, especially for me.

I know when I go on these trips I do a lot of soul searching. How much am I doing it for my portfolio and how much am I doing it cause I really want to help? Then there’s that duality in you where you want to get that image but is that image more important than putting down the camera and talking with the person and giving them dignity. Yeah


Many thanks to John and Elizabeth for being so accommodating in setting up this interview. If you have any questions make sure to leave them in the comments below. To stay up to date on what John is up to you can visit his blog, follow him on Twitter, or check him out on Facebook.