A People with Passion series
August 17, 2011: Clayton Hauck
In June 2006, photographer Clayton Hauck began snapping photos of drinkers in Chicago’s nightlife scene, a project that became the widely-beloved everyoneisfamous.com. In February 2011, after nearly five years of shooting, Hauck hung up his nightlife camera and began working in the news arena for the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Reader, and Hoy.
In the fifth installment of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism People With Passion interview series, Hauck discusses his introduction to photography, the benefits of shooting the nightlife scene, and the time he (nearly) got Arab Spring photos in Morocco.
I went to film school at Columbia. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I really liked creative video projects in high school. I went to Columbia figuring, “I’ll make movies or be a director,” (laughs) which is what everyone at Columbia thinks, and isn’t very realistic. I always liked photography also, but never owned a camera until I was in college. Crappy digital Canon. Started from scratch, learning it, wandering around and learning everything by hand. Manuel settings and all that.
Film is such a collaborative field. You need so many different people. Whereas photography was just me and the camera. “This is awesome. I can just go out on my own schedule, at my own pace, wherever I want to go, and just make photos.” I don’t need anyone. Just kind of capturing reality. Life.
I don’t know when I realized I was good, quote unquote. I think that’s something a lot of photographers struggle with. It’s not that I think I’m not good. I think I’m talented. But there’s so much talent out there. It’s always like trying to find the balance between, “I know what I’m doing. I’m solid,” and not feeling too down about yourself, because you look on the Internet and you stumble on so many amazing photo websites. It can be overwhelming. Like, “Man, am I doing the right thing with my life?” (Laughs.)
This is what you’re pursuing – I mean, this is what you do, right?
Yeah, at this point, this is it.
So do you feel like, “Yeah, I have the right and the responsibility and the talent enough and the drive enough to do this”?
Yeah, but more recently. Probably in the last year or so. Which is why I quit all the other stuff, throwing parties and doing nightlife photography, which was really great at the time. It led to where I am now. But I feel like I more recently got to the point where I have what it takes to dip into this full time and really go for it, and try to be the best I can at photography.
The first thing I shot was the opening at Continental, which is down the street – late night bar – June ’06. That was around the time when I was working in film. I was an editor slash assistant at a production company, working full-time, crazy hours. I don’t want to say I hated my life, but it was a ton of work, and little money, so I would spend a lot of my free time drinking with friends. (Laughs.) I would always have a camera on me, and I would be in bars regularly. So it happened more or less naturally.
I was really awkward at first and bad at it, but you know, you get drunk and you don’t care as much. You just snap photos. That’s how I learned photography in a lot of ways, which is kind of strange, but I guess works. As long as you get to the end point.
The main challenge was just trying to get better and keep the photos interesting. You would slip into the problem of shooting the same events and the same people, but – and I’m not taking credit for this idea because it’s not my idea – but the whole thing was kind of a brilliant, self-perpetuating thing. Everyone likes photos of themselves. Everyone’s going to go look for themselves. They’re going to use them and other people are going to see them and say, “Who took that? I want that.” It’s this beast of its own, which is why everybody’s doing it.
So I don’t even think it was that tough to keep people interested, because they’re always going to want to see themselves. But from a personal point of view, it was just trying to be the best photographer I could be. Trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else that was starting to do it. I definitely keep up on other photographers. You look around and see stuff, and some of it you don’t like, and then you see a website and you’re like, “That guy is really good. What is he doing?” or “What is she doing? What kind of techniques are they using?” That’s all part of the learning process too. Figuring out lighting, that kind of stuff.
My biggest thing was always anticipating moments, which is a really big street photographer skill. Because stuff is happening and you don’t have control over it. The weird moments stand out – someone double fisting, or doing shots, or spilling, or making out awkwardly, or sleeping. When you spend enough time in a certain environment, you become a part of it, so it’s just paying attention and keeping your eyes open and seeing the future. Like, Oh, that’s going to go down, and then being there at the right time at the right angle without making them aware that you’re there with the camera.
That’s one of the things I love about photography – it’s just a little moment in time. A slight millisecond or a little bit of a different angle can totally change the photo. It’s really interesting. And strange.
So now you’re done with EveryoneIsFamous, and I’ve seen some of your shots at the Reader. One was a cover story – the headline was, “27 years ago” or whatever, “so-and-so talked his way into four life sentences…”
This is a question that I was asking writers. Rick Kogan of the Tribune, he doesn’t like the word “journalist.” He prefers “newspaperman.”
That’s old-timey. It’s nice. (Laughs.)
Mary Schmich is a columnist. She was like, “I don’t know if I’m a journalist.” And then she paused and said something like, “That feels like announcing at an AA meeting, ‘I am an alcoholic.’”
Yeah, for real.
So let me ask you: Are you a journalist?
I guess because I’m not a journalist by trade or for my background, I’ve never really thought about the term. So, yeah, sometimes I’m a photojournalist, sure. (Laughs.)
The approach is always different based on what you’re doing. That’s something I love, being well-rounded, dipping my toes into as many different things as I can. Because you know how the economy is. I was out on a job recently for the Wall Street Journal – I don’t know if you heard the story about a couple girls who got killed in Sterling, Illinois in a corn farm. They were detasseling corn, and I guess the irrigation system had electrified some of the water and they got electrified and killed.
We went out there a few days after it happened, and you know, driving around with the journalist, this guy Doug Belkin who writes for the Wall Street Journal. They’ve got their reporters doing video. I’m asking him, “How does it feel to be asked to do a lot more for not more money?” And he’s like, “You kind of have to wear a lot of hats, otherwise they’ll find someone who can and you won’t have a job.”
It’s a weird time. I think a lot of people are trying to figure it out and are afraid for their jobs, so you’re forced to do a lot of stuff. But it’s something I really like. I like being well-rounded and mixing it up and not sticking to one thing. Whether I’m shooting portraits or journalism or parties, whatever it might be, I’m cool with it.
It is a struggle. Am I doing meaningful work? What am I doing wasting away taking photos of this or that that no one gives a shit about? You get an assignment and the subject is really interesting, and you grow as a person, not just get good photos. You learn a lot of life lessons. Even shooting all these Chicago public schools, you see into a world you had no idea existed. It broadens your life horizon.
That’s one of my all-time favorite things about this job. We don’t go to an office and work in the same spot everyday. Our office is the world. That sounds kind of weird to say, but yeah! You’re always in different environments, different situations, with people you wouldn’t normally have access to. I did a lot of photos for Governor Quinn, Pat Quinn, when he was running for governor. And that was cool, because we were just hanging out with the governor. He drove us to the polling places and I’m in the back of his car. That shit would never happen if I wasn’t a photographer, you know? (Laughs.) It’s interesting to see all these worlds. You get a little glimpse. And I love that.
In June of 2009, I covered the Iranian presidential protests in Chicago. I got in touch with people through Facebook, which was cool, but I don’t speak any languages other than English, so I had to depend on the English-speaking Iranians.
Language, yeah. It’s so important.
You’ve done some traveling now – Is that something you like about photography? That it offers an opportunity to slice into that language barrier?
Yes and no. I mean, yes, because cameras are universal. Everybody knows what it is. But that’s something I struggle with. Wanting to know languages. I hate the fact that I only speak English, a little bit of Spanish, but not enough to talk to anyone. It sucks. There are so many more opportunities if you can actually go places and talk to people.
I’ve been shooting for Hoy a little bit. You know Hoy? The Spanish-language daily newspaper? We’ve been talking about doing more in-depth photo journalism projects. They really like my photos, and they trust that I’ll be able to manage, which is awesome. But in the back of my mind, I’m like, “Man, am I going to be good enough? I don’t speak Spanish.”
One of the stories we’re working on is Mexican immigrants that live in rural places. There are these weird communities that spring up with Mexicans in the middle of nowhere, and they’re doing this big story on it that I might be involved in, and I just wish I spoke Spanish fluently. Is it going to affect my work that I don’t? Are people going to trust me? Especially if they’re illegal, you know? Some gringo shows up with a camera who’s like, “Hey! Let me take your picture!”
I was in Morocco recently, Rabat, Morocco. All the shit in the Arab world was going on, protests, revolutions. Me and my friend were drinking tea, and we hear all this shouting coming around the corner. It’s a massive protest. We’re not from there – I was staying with a friend who was from Morocco, but he wasn’t with us at the time. All these people come by, and we tense up. Is the shit hitting the fan? What are they protesting? We have no idea. We automatically assume it’s the revolution.
So we’re following them with our cameras, and it’s really awesome, because we’re getting real life Arab Spring photos. Of course we get back to my friend’s house later, and we’re showing him the videos and photos, and we’re like, “Hey, translate for us.” And he’s like, “Oh, that’s this big teacher protest that’s going on. They’ve been there every weekend.” We were shocked, like, “Man! We thought that was it.” I was emailing my friend at the Journal who’s a photo editor: “Yo! I’ve got these awesome photos from Morocco. Protests!” He was all excited: “Yeah, send them over.” And then I’m like, “Oh, it was a teacher protest.” Because I didn’t know. Yeah, you kind of need to know the language. It helps. (Laughs.)
You have to do two things at once. I’m not a conflict shooter, so I don’t know first hand nearly as well as those people, but in the few things that I have done, yeah – you’re seeing through this lens, and you have to make sure you have good photos, and your settings are all okay, but you also have to keep your eye around and make sure you’re not missing anything crazy, or that there’s someone throwing a rock at you, or a police officer about to arrest you. It’s definitely a challenge. I wish I was better, but I haven’t done a ton of that stuff.
But in this weird way, and I know this is going to sound horrible, but in a weird way situations like crazy parties where people are moshing and crowd-surfing is, honest-to-god, good training for that. I was at SXSW this past spring, and I shot Odd Future, the rappers, and they’re notorious for absolutely destroying everything. At one point one of the dudes jumped into the photo pit feet first and cut my friend’s forehead. Another dude smacked somebody’s BlackBerry out of their hands. At one point they openly declared war on the photographers. They’re like, “Fuck the photographers. We’re gonna break your shit and there’s nothing you can do about it.” And that’s a mini war in a way, you know?
So how do you keep your mind on your work and on your focus when the subject that you’re looking at is threatening to stop you from doing the thing that you’re trying to do?
It’s adrenaline, kind of a learned skill. And it’s a lot of fun. I can see why people want to go to war zones and be conflict photographers. It’s just this rush of energy. A challenge, you know? I can’t really sum up in words how you do it. You just learn to do it. You try to stay conscious of everything that’s going on while knowing what you’re doing with the camera. A lot of times you might just be snapping photos without even looking through the lens, you know? I’ve done that a lot.
Even in the nightlife stuff. 80 to 90% of the time, I wouldn’t even look through the lens. Which is another great skill to have as a photographer: knowing what your frame looks like without seeing it. These are things you learn, tricks you pick up in experience. Experience is the best thing of all, in any art really, unless you’re just some crazy natural genius, which some people are. (Laughs.)
If I wasn’t making my living by taking photos, I would still be looking at photos all the time. This photo is pretty awesome. (Holds up issue of Chicago Magazine.) David Axelrod, this portrait. That’s a great photo. The lighting. The look on his face. The mystery behind it. It just gets you thinking. That’s what’s great about it: it gets you thinking. It’s very noire, you know? And he’s an iconic guy, so that helps. If that was just some random dude, it wouldn’t be as interesting.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)