Hi, I'm Sam Gehrke. I'm a photographer working out of Portland, Oregon. I've been here working independently for almost five years now. Before that, I was down in Eugene, working as a video editor. I went to school for video and cinema. Three and a half or four years into working as a video editor and on productions, I like, lost my love for it, and started moving towards still photography.
I'm originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since moving up here and going off on my own working independently, I have a pretty big clientele base locally and nationally. And I've had my work appear in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Spin, The FADER, locally in Willamette Week, in the Mercury. And then I've had a few things pop up. The New Yorker and the New York Times and LA Times, and a few other things, but I do a lot of photography related to music, a lot of portraiture, commercial stuff for agencies, lifestyle stuff, food photography, anything I can do to survive and make a living. But I really like music, portraiture the most.
I'm working on a personal project of quarantine portraits, which is just a way to pass the time and do something creatively for myself, which I haven't really been able to do for the past five years. One of the reasons that I started getting into photography was doing self-portraiture to get out of that rut of being extraordinarily self-conscious and, you know, a problematic use on myself and my body.
There were a lot of things that I did wrong with addressing my social anxiety. The time that it lasted could have been cut much shorter if I did. I will say that photography was perfect for combating that anxiety and just making me feel I was useful, or I had something to contribute. That it applies to a lot of like, creative things. You know, I was just lucky enough to—like, a camera is something you can take with you. Having that sense of identity that you're contributing something rather than letting yourself get in your own head or sink into your thoughts, you know, negative thoughts or whatever, it is a good distraction. It's translated pretty well into my regular life, I feel because I'm a lot more social even without my camera.
I started doing this personal project of quarantine portraiture, probably towards the end of March. And honestly, it was born out of an individual need to want to get out and see people and talk to people and see friends in any way that I could. And also just to scratch my itch to photograph people because that's probably my favorite thing to photograph. I had the idea to do it a lot more naturally than what of it now. That started out with just messaging a few people that I knew that I thought would be good for it. And I did the first few over like, two days and they came out really well. And actually, the first one that I did got around 800 likes or something which is, you know, I averaged approximately 70 to like, 100 or 110 typically, so that was really big. It was only at that point that I was like, "Oh, well, maybe this is something that could become something more," or, you know, obviously, people are connecting with it in some way. I continued on, and it was a combination of reaching out to people directly that I wanted to photograph, but also a lot of social media, crowdsourcing, in a sense. After that, the first two that I put out on Instagram and Facebook combined, it was just 30 or 40 people right off the bat. I would try to average four to five every day. Sometimes it would be a little less, but it allowed me to see people that I knew, and I would typically see every day. It allowed me to see people that I hadn't seen for like, five or six years, and sometimes even 10 years, but I'd remain friends with on social media.
I realized, about 10 shots in, that this wasn't something that was only fulfilling a need to see other people and be social in some way, it was a two-way street for a lot of people because I started getting a lot of the subjects that I photograph telling me either like, while photographing them or after the fact that, you know, I was the first person that they had seen in a really long time, or they just being able to talk to me a little bit, made their day a lot better.
So, it started out as just something that was like, self-serving in a sense, just me wanting to see people, but as it grew, it became something that was like, this is—it's suitable for other people. The particular way that it fulfilled my desire for socialization and seeing other people started to translate through the photos. And that's why so many people really connected with the series and continue to do so. Because even if it's not face to face, other people get to see images of other people stuck at home. And it's right in a sense to know or see some like, visual of others being in relatively the same boat and you know, stuck at home, staying at home with pets or family. It grew into that; I did not expect it to, but that's where it's at now. I'm trying to reach 100 people for the initial goal, but it's going to probably be spread out more depending on how long this lasts.
I go to wherever they're residing. I am using a 70 to 200-millimeter lens, which is a pretty sizable zoom lens. And I will photograph people either in their yards, porches, windows in their apartments, front steps, anywhere that creates a sense of distance and a sense of home or personal space, from a technical standpoint and making me think more about how I'm shooting. I can usually shoot from like, only a certain point, give or take, and I'm stuck in that plane. And then I have to think a little bit more about how I want to present it, making sure that the geometry in their house or apartment is all lined up. And then how I want to convey that feeling of distance along with like, personal space.
It's nice to do that for once and not have the freedom to just go wherever I want and get as close to a person or at any angle that I wish to when I'm photographing. It's strange to say, but it is almost—it's so like, humanizing, being able to see other people that I would typically only see in a setting of them working, or a set of them DJing or people that I usually would see at concerts or even performing at concerts. Now we are all stuck at home. It's almost the great equalizer. It's humanizing and very interesting to see people all kind of, at their homes in their own spaces. From a photographer's standpoint, I want them to be incredibly at ease and comfortable. That it makes a big difference in how subjects act in front of the camera when they're photographed in their own spaces. It's less like an in your face, this is a photo shoot, and they can relax and be themselves. A lot of that comes through in the photos that I've taken so far.
I've done all of these for free. I didn't want to have that underlying like, I'm going to make money because of this. And it's charming to work outside of that constraint because I feel even subconsciously, it affects my mood and my attitude towards my time. Also, I didn't want to feel I was profiting off of others' anxiety or misfortune. People have insisted on paying me for these, and they've donated, but it's totally like, whatever they can afford. And I do think that from the standpoint of this being a personal project and more of an art project or examination of humanity during this time, that if you were to charge, you limit your subjects. And specifically, for what I wanted to do, it's more just seeing people, and that's better than any monetary exchange to me. It reminded me that when I was just starting out doing this, I was doing a lot of work for free. And a lot of work because I wanted to do the job and I wanted people to feel good about themselves when they saw a photo of themselves and be able to just like, get stuff to people and get my work out there. And it reminded me that that type of thing is never—just because you're not making money doesn't mean it's pointless, you know? It always comes back in some form. Ultimately, with this project, I don't even want to think about money right now because it's just that, you know, it's an added thing to think about that that I have thought about incessantly for the past five years.
I will do free work and do my personal projects as long as I can scrape by, and that a lot of people, especially in photography, are going to have to just settle for that and buckle down and maybe think more about what they want to do creatively because, I mean, honestly, freelancing as a photographer, unless you're in that, upper echelon, it's a hustle, and you don't get the chance to think about your creative things that are bouncing inside your minds all the time.
There may be a shift towards a little bit more artistry, but I mean, in a commercial sense, probably a lot more product photography, a lot smaller shoots, a lot more one on one shoots and just possibly a decline in it overall. My bread and butter financially were event photography. Yeah, there's going to be a real downshift in that, but that's all from a commercial sense. That hopefully, this will meet the time that photographers aren't spending on working in the business realm. Maybe this will be a catalyst for a lot more creative stuff that comes purely from people's minds to go to the forefront.
In the past 20 or 30 years, photography has receded into the background as fine art, because images are principally what we see in a commercial sense. Hopefully, this may change that a little bit, we will feel a little bit more, what you would think of as fine art or human base photography coming to the forefront.
My end goal is just making people feel as comfortable as possible in front of the camera. And also working within their comfort zone for how long they want to talk to me. It's like, if somebody wants to speak to me for a half-hour after the shoot, I'm not going to be like, "Hey, listen, I got to go 10 minutes in." I'll basically stay for as long as you want to talk to me. And you know, I'll leave in five minutes if you're like, you don't want to communicate that long. My first approach to it is to make it as fun as a photoshoot as possible. Because the more you put those words "photoshoot" on that forefront or pedestal in people's minds, the more performative they become, and the less themselves they are.
The main thing is to just throw the rules out the window, in terms of a photoshoot, and also work within the confines of shooting from a fixed point and according to the geometry of the architecture of people's homes or apartment buildings. Once things are whatever, like, the new normal is going to be, in many forms of art, people are going to value interaction and socialization in a way that they didn't before.
What I want to do now is totally driven by my—it's something I want to do, and I didn't want to do it because of money or putting money in my account. I wanted to do it because I wanted to do it, and I wanted to see all those people.
See his work on his Instagram @samgehrkephotography