Interview with Karl Grobl by Gary Wise for MenStuff.org (original posting here)
You havenít always done photography professionally. How did you transition from your previous corporate career? I was working in medical sales management for a couple of decades. So, I squeezed photography in on the weekends. I started full-time about six years ago.
Was there a particular moment where being authentic with yourself played a role in your decision to change careers? I donít think it was one moment, exactly. It was more of a process where I started observing the direction my life was taking and realizing that my corporate job didnít seem important in the bigger scheme of things. So, over a period of five years, I started exploring things I really wanted to do with my life. I convinced myself by expressing it verbally to other people that what I really wanted was to make a big change. So, it really took about 5 years of thinking about it, talking about it to finally make the leap. I did and have never looked back.
Was there financial risk in pursuing your passion? Absolutely. For a number of years, I realized that the things I had been collecting were not all that important. So, I started bank-rolling money from my previous job so that I could give myself a two-year window to be successful in my new venture.
You spend several months a year overseas. Has that impacted your marriage? Thankfully, my wife is incredibly supportive and encourages me in what I do. And, sheís also a very independent person. In the early part of our marriage, we were both in corporate jobs and only saw each other on weekends.So, what I do now hasnít impacted us in a way that I would need to worry about it. Iím very lucky in that regard. World Vision, Unicef, and other big NGOs contract you to cover some of the worldís most traumatic events.
What kind of impact hasthis had on your emotions? I had to come to terms with this question myself. For example, when I was sent to shoot the tsunami aftermath, I had to approach it with tremendous focus and a mindset of getting things done. And, if that distracts me from the overall emotional picture, Iím not completely sure. I think it does. Most of my work is initiated by NGOís (Non-Government Organizations) and a lot of what I shoot is relief work where the world community is coming together to help people whoíve just been devastated. So, thereís something uplifting in that.
Sounds like selective viewing on your part. After about a month and a half after Iíd left the tsunami, I had this lingering question in the back of my head of, ďWhy donít I have a heavy-duty emotional reaction to this tragedy? Am I just completely calloused?Ē Maybe itís my defense mechanism. I mean, you see so many bodies and so much destruction. Everyone you talked to had just lost their entire family, their children and so forth. Maybe I just couldnít process it all. And, the angle which I am approaching it and documenting it provides me with a focus on the positive which helps me get through it.
Has there ever been a time when you broke down? Yes, when it gets personal. In flying over the tsunami areas, I viewed destruction on such a grand scale. It was difficult for me to get emotional. Later, we drove by mass graves with hundreds of bodies piled up and it still didnít register. But, when I was standing on a beach in Indonesia talking with a man who had just lost his entire family, his house and everything else, and he noticed how hot and sweaty I was and offered me a drink, it hit me. Thatís when you say and feel, ďWow. This is beyond description.Ē
Is that a type of message people want to hear? I often explain this to NGOís that the work they are doing can be effectively told through an individualís story. And, thatís because our emotional attachments as human beings are geared more to individuals than to large groups.
Do people ever get outraged that you are photographing them in their personal moments of grief? In the East, thereís more of a ďhalo effectĒ around photographers and journalists. People want their stories told so the world can see whatís happening. I never approach a subject by leading with my camera. My style is to engage a person and develop rapport first.
Does that pose a challenge in getting compelling, candid shots? The NGOís that hire me are, for the most part, using these photos to inspire connection with their donors. My viewpoint as a photographer becomes the donorís viewpoint. So, there must be a visual rapport between me and the subject. Consequently, my photos are not voyeuristic or about shock value. Rather, they are about communicating a need or an appreciation.
Why do you think people trust and give you such immediate accessibility to their lives? Well, look at a camera. You point it at people and it looks like a gun. You push a button and you pull a trigger. It can be frightening. I lead with a big smile and an open hand. I learn some of the local culture, greetings and I nod. I find as long as we are respectful of one another and show interest in the other person, rapport occurs naturally no matter where you are.
Why are you interested in this type of work and putting a positive spin on it? In the years that I was working in the corporate health care industry, I traveled to developing countries and compared their health care facilities with what we have in the U.S. It struck me that here in the States, we have state-ofĖthe-art everything while in many 3rd world countries they may not even have a medical clinic staffed with enough people or enough supplies to deal with the most common types of injury. So, I started photographing with an NGO that involved doctors volunteering their skills overseas in the hope that making people aware would help bring about change. I became a conduit of information.
Is there a childhood experience that impacted you to do this type of work? Although my mother was a teacher, I was never a great student. Over time, I realized the importance of education. In my travels especially, I noticed a real gap in the availability of education and knew that what I had taken for granted was not always available to many throughout the world. Understanding is really the key to everything. While working in Haiti, where the education system is very poor and the literacy rate very low, it occurred to me that itís easy for the government or a charismatic individual to come along and exploit peopleís naivete. Youíd be considered an adventurer by many.
What is the adventure in what you do? (Laughs) Every day is an adventure! I wake up in places all over the world and pinch myself and ask, ďAm I really getting to do this and get paid for it?Ē For a number of years, I was doing a lot of stuff that I wasnít all that excited about doing. And, I finally came to the realization that, ďHey, if I really want to change my life and stop going after the brand new car and the big house on the hill, I can. I can do what I want to do. I can do what turns ME on! Ever since, I decided to make that switch and be happy with my old car and existing house. And, you know, I really donít need the latest gadget, after all.
Sounds like you found your calling. I was once driving in the sweltering, dusty desert south of Khartoum in Sudan with an NGO and a pharmaceutical company representative and the subject of, ďIf you won the lottery, what would you do?Ē came up between them. I sat in the back seat listening to them go on about how they would live life differently. All the while, I smiled and thought to myself, ď If I won the lottery, I would be doing exactly what Iím doing right now. Except, Iíd be doing it for free.Ē
As an adventurer, do you ever get into life-threatening situations? I would say, ďYes.Ē There have been situations where my adrenaline has been pumping pretty hard and Iíve wished strongly that I was in another place. Iíve been hunkered down in hotel rooms with shots being fired and things blowing up outside. And, in carrying my camera gear on the streets, Iím constantly looking for exit strategy routes. I also make a point of being around people who look friendly and build rapport with them so that, if Iím going to get robbed, the local apple seller will, hopefully, lend me a hand.
Are you able to forge deep friendships in spite of your nomadic life? I have met some amazing individuals who live long stretches of their lives overseas to correct problems. A doctor in Kenya comes to mind who is working hard to combat the ravages of the HIV/AIDS situation. Just to sit in this guyís presence and have dinner with him is amazing. To grasp what he is doing and to witness his level of commitment floors me. This kind of interaction provides tons of inspiration and I feel so blessed to spend time with these types of people.
Any particular modern day heroes inspire you? I have to tell you that my personal heroes are people that most people have never heard of and probably will never hear of. My heroes are not the big names that would be recognizable in this world. They are ordinary people out there doing extra-ordinary things. And, theyíll probably never make the news.
Ever feel lonely and just wish you had a regular, group of buddies to hang with? I do have a group of friends in San Diego. But, itís weird what I do. I go to these countries and plug into a completely different lifestyle and then I return and re-plug back here. Itís not always easy. But, with time, I am getting better at adjusting. Iíve experienced that also. Kind of feels like youíve been in a time warp and experienced so much and you return to status quo. Plays tricks on the brain. My thinking time occurs on airplanes. Itís my time for looking at my life and understanding why Iím doing what Iím doing. I really am kind of a loner. You know, photography is, in and of itself, an individualís profession. I have my own creative vision and donít want distractions. So, I enjoy working alone. That isnít to say that I wouldnít strike up a conversation with an English-speaking stranger if I havenít had anyone to talk with for weeks.We all need connection.
Is there any characteristic of yourself that you see in the subjects you photograph? I thinkís thereís a lot in a personís eyes that tells you about them. So, my personal style is to get in tight and explore their emotions through their eyes. And, though I do literally see my reflection standing with the camera in their eyeballsÖ (laughs) I gotta tell ya. Iím not really that deep. I take a picture and thatís that. It would be frightening to be at some art opening with people sitting around, drinking wine and pontificating about the meaning behind the pictures I take. Iím really much more of a documentary photographer than an artist.
What strengths have you developed by choosing a more adventurous path? The most important has been developing my own sense of understanding. Understanding other cultures, breaking down bias and prejudices that I may have had has been tremendous. I think that if everybody had the opportunity to travel like I do, there would be a huge breakdown in destructive pre-conceptions. Be more specific. When you really venture out into the world and relate to people one on one it doesnít take long to understand that there are a great deal more similarities between us regardless of what color or nationality we may be. Just like you or me, some guy in Haiti or Sudan wants to have a roof over his head. He wants to have something to eat. And, he wants to have opportunity. What causes all our problems and conflict boils down to a lack of understanding. If we all had un-limited plane tickets to travel around the world, we could solve our problems and prejudices.
Is there still a boy in Karl Grobl, international photojournalist? Oh, God yeah!!! I donít feel nearly as old inside as I am. Itís shocking to me. My last birthday, I woke up in Cuba, looked in the mirror and said, ďIím 45 years old, man. This is insane!Ē I still play ice-hockey with a bunch of my friends. I ride my motorcycle. Iím all about being a kid even to the point that I sometimes feel irresponsible because Iíd rather go out and play than be doing the grown-up things Iím supposed to be doing. How do you vent? Is there a wild man in Karl? My way of screaming is putting images together with music for a digital slide show and getting it in front of people. A big frustration is that I go to these places and see these things and canít communicate it fully in words.
Any particular experience that was hard to put into words? I remember coming from shooting some orphanages in the slums of Haiti. Shortly after, I was invited to a catered, Christmas dinner at a multi-million dollar mansion. And, I felt such tremendous disconnection. Nothing could be more different from where IĎd come from to where I sat at that party. And someone at the table said, ďSo, Karl! Tell us something about Haiti.Ē I couldnít possibly do that. At times, I want to scream out information about places Iíve been because the images donít always do it justice.
What do you like about Karl Grobl? I created a job for myself that I love to do. When one of my clients says, ďWe used one of your pictures for an advertising campaign and it resulted in a donor writing us a check,Ē I feel tremendous affirmation. I feel that what Iím doing is helping somebody less fortunate. Thatís the ultimate reward, right?
Any last words of wisdom? Do what turns you on. There are millions of people in Haiti, Sudan, Cambodia, the Philippines, Afghanistan and Laos who donít have the luxury of even thinking about what it is they want to do. Theyíre too busy thinking about what they are going to do to put food on the table for tomorrow. They donít have the options that we have in the U.S. Here, most people, whether they realize it or not, if theyíd just decide that the house was big enough and the car was good enough, could step back and do whatever it is they want to do. We have choice. In the corporate world, I felt I had the responsibility to ask myself what I really wanted to do We should acknowledge our opportunities and do whatever it is with our lives that makes us happy and can also make a difference in the lives of others. Because, when itís time to check out, youíll look back and say,Ē Why didnít I do what I wanted to do with my life? Why did I commute to that job office for the last twenty years?Ē