Erica McDonald: On DEVELOP and Photography

An interview with Sarah Rhodes

Be sure to also click HERE to view Erica’s multimedia piece on the residents of Park Slope, Brooklyn: The Dark Light of this Nothing.

What motivates you to pick up your camera and walk out the door?

As I’m writing this, I’ve literally just walked in the door from shooting. In very specific terms what made me walk out today was a combination of things: it’s about to storm and the light was lovely, I’m well into a personal project so that creates an impetus to continue, and while I was at my desk I’d been looking at other work that raises questions for me about the medium, that I want to try to answer for myself. Today I photographed the sweetest woman, but of course I didn’t know that she’d be sweet before I approached her. Even after all these years shooting, there are moments when my mind places doubt in front of me about asking someone for permission to photograph, but the act itself of pursuing photography takes me beyond myself and my mind, and opens me to possibility. She and I had a terrific connection and conversation. These types of experiences, which are abundant when you shoot things you care about, have real life value and they stay within, creating a reason to walk out the door again, camera in hand.

You have made a routine for yourself to photograph everyday in the warm afternoon light. What are you looking for?

Actually I don’t shoot everyday. Part of me would like it if I did, or at least the idea of a daily practice is appealing, but in reality my personality is better suited to allowing myself to respond to circumstances and feelings. You are right that I’m generally drawn to the afternoon light; it’s a transitory kind of light that I find exciting. To me it is has a peaceful, even quality, but at the same time I know it won’t last for more than a couple of hours, and that creates a bit of a challenge or tension. Having a time of day that I feel connected to also creates structure, which I find helpful for time management and discipline.

How do you work?

For some time now I’ve been more interested in the series than the single image, but that may change again. I let stories find me, and by that I mean I try to pay attention to my thoughts and reactions when I’m out in the world. The project I’m working on now, which is more in the realm of conceptual fine art than documentary, is something that has been quietly calling to me for years, but I kept pushing it away because it seemed silly, not serious enough. It would have been a shame if I hadn’t listened to myself, because I am having so much fun working on it, and I think as documentary photographers, as photojournalists, we can benefit from exploring territory that is joyful.

Who inspires you –– as a photographer and as a supporter of the industry?

The community as a whole inspires me…we are such a passionate, purposeful and committed group. We support each other, and form genuine friendships and connections. I used to be inspired more by individual photographers or their works, but now I’m inspired by the efforts I see coming from the community to create meaning through our collective contributions to the medium.

Why have you crafted a role as educator and curator rather than focusing purely on photographing?

Learning and teaching are great bookends for me as a creative, but also it seems natural that once I have learned a bit of something, to share that with others. My interest in curating comes from a slightly different place; it’s a mix of wanting to spotlight work I am drawn to and possibly give new opportunity to those involved, the satisfaction of creating something new that others can benefit from in the form of education or entertainment, and also knowing that through editing and curation I can present concepts and imagery in original ways. It’s not a question of whether or not it is adequately fulfilling for me being ‘just’ a photographer, rather that there are sides of my personality that are served by, and hopefully serve, each of the roles.

In what capacity do you see DEVELOP building a global photographic community?

The mission of DEVELOP is to provide resources for the enrichment of the photojournalism, fine art and documentary photography community. The statement is purposefully wide to allow for new and flexible ways of doing that…some of the manifestations of our aims to date are physical exhibitions, workshops, the DEVELOP Photo Facebook Group that allows for information and dialogue to be shared, a Twitter feed, and DEVELOP Tube – two video channels, one on Vimeo and one on YouTube. Creative collaborations are at the heart of DEVELOP and beyond providing educational resources, DEVELOP is really in place to help make the community more aware of our collective wealth of talent and creativity, so people can seek each other out and form new productive relationships. Ideally, I’d like DEVELOP to work on many levels.

For example, DEVELOP Tube features multimedia in photojournalism, fine art and documentary photography. All the content is broken down into albums with links and descriptions so it can be used as an educational resource, but it can also be watched for entertainment. Additionally, the front page on one of the channels is used to spotlight select crowd funding pitches in photography, and both channels feature original uploads, much of which comes through collaboration with organizations like Documentary Arts Asia, Slideluck Potshow and The Magnum Foundation. In this way DEVELOP Tube is also providing a new distribution platform for work and programming, and hopefully also bringing work to the attention of others. So the content can be used in different ways by curators, editors, educators, supporters and photographers around the world. These same principles will apply to all the facets of DEVELOP.

How do you curate the work on DEVELOP?

The work and projects and happenings that I feature through the DEVELOP Photo Facebook Group and Twitter feed are all chosen because I think they will be resources to our members/followers. The same idea applies for the content on DEVELOP Tube, except that I am curating with a slightly wider audience in mind. The work on the two channels, which have nearly 100% different content, comes to me in variety of ways, from submissions, to collaborations, to me seeking out permission to include a video. I’m very interested in providing a place where the viewer can take in lectures, interviews and talks alongside multimedia presentations of photography, some of which that may have been previously unknown to the DEVELOP audience. I try to have a solid balance between the iconic photographers and those who are lesser known, but deserve to have their work seen. I’ve received some wonderful emails telling me how people use the channels, or what it means to them to be included, or that they have found a photographer through the channel that moved them in some way, and that’s really terrific.

How do DEVELOP and FLAK Photo differ?

Flak Photo, which is founded by Andy Adams, is an online photography channel that presents the work of artists, curators, bookmakers and photo organizations to a global audience of people who are passionate about visual culture. The site’s main feature is The Collection, a digital archive of contemporary photographs which is updated five times weekly. The project has roots in online publishing and arts exhibition and Andy frequently collaborates with presses, galleries, and museums to produce a continuous program of promotional “happenings”.

DEVELOP Photo is a resource for the photography community which is strengthened by the disparate backgrounds of its partners and contributors and by a collective commitment to nurturing the creative person. Through events and innovative distribution platforms, DEVELOP collaborates with photographers and organizations to showcase photojournalism, fine art and documentary photography. Through our activities, DEVELOP creates connections within our field and fosters the art and business of photography from an educational perspective.

Flak Photo has been around longer and DEVELOP is, well, developing, so it is hard to answer this completely. One difference that comes to mind is that my perspective is informed by being a working photographer and early experiences in working in traditional galleries, and Andy is someone who is “passionate about working with digital media to promote arts + culture experiences.” Though I am sure there is some overlap in the work that interests us, if I were to generalize I’d say that Flak Photo is more focused on fine art photography, and DEVELOP Photo on photojournalism and documentary photography.

You have plans for a DEVELOP website. What else could you possibly offer us?

Once launched, the main site will serve as an expanded home for the the educational resources that DEVELOP provides. Hopefully having things in one place will offer a kind of gestalt effect.

What is the future for crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter and Do you feel they will have a short life as people develop donation fatigue or they hold the key to the future of photojournalism?

If photographers are predominately relying on other photographers in their immediate network to meet their funding goals, it does follow that donor fatigue is to be expected, especially as we are a relatively tight knit group. We should be doing all we can to avoid making the joke about us passing around the same twenty dollars a reality. A principal mistake that photographers may be making is overlooking other communities beyong the photo world who may be interested in the project.

I think there is a learning curve for photographers to understand how they can best utilize the crowd funding platforms, and because I curate pitches to feature on YouTube DEVELOP Tube channel, I’ve been following the arc pretty closely. There are some basic things photographers can do to help the platforms help them, starting with a title that communicates their aim, and making sure the video has good audio, lighting and background. The photographer should research previous similar campaigns to see if they were successful or not, to set financial goals based on a realistic budget, to have things in line like their social network base and to have reached out to appropriate organizations and people – before the campaign starts – who may be able to help with letting others know about the project once it does start. Understanding what time of year is best suited to a particular campaign, how long to run it, and how to explain the reason why others should care enough to contribute or spread the word, are all integral to success as are other factors that are in our control. The rewards need to be meaningful enough to act as added incentive to contribute, and the photographer has to be aware of what kind of profit can be taken away through the rewards system while giving back. The video pitch should take into account how long a viewer might watch before becoming disinterested, have continuity, and its description should be grammatically sound and incorporate keywords to help people find it. The photographer might have someone ‘in their back pocket’ with whom they have a mutually beneficial relationship, who is committed to seeing the project succeed and who will come up with funds to reach the goal at the last if need be. The PR for the campaign shouldn’t be over taxing the social networks, but come from a place of sharing with community. These are just some of the factors that play into a successful campaign, and of course it is possible to do most of these things ‘right’ and fail, or do few of these things ‘right’ and succeed because the project resonates with the public.

The point I am trying to make is that I don’t believe the conversation we need to have is only about donor fatigue; it’s our responsibility to learn to maximize the potential for the new medium, and not all photographers are doing that yet. On the flip side, I think the platforms are thinking more widely as well – for example, has responded to the community’s need for support in publishing the photobook, and Kickstarter has started an online Kickstarter School to help in the process of publishing a campaign.

How has DEVELOP influenced your own photography work?

For the moment, I would say that founding DEVELOP has given me so much in-depth relationship to meaningful work and reflections on the same, that it has been like my own little M.A. program in photography. I’ve learned a lot about the importance of time management, and balance between what I am trying to do for others and trying to do for my photography. And, perhaps best of all, DEVELOP has connected me to the community in new ways and increased my understanding of what that means. My sincere hope is that others can benefit from DEVELOP along similar lines.


ERICA MCDONALD is a photographer, educator and curator who lives in New York City. She founded DEVELOP Photo to provide resources for the enrichment of the photojournalism, fine art and documentary photography community. Her photography is regularly commissioned for magazines nationally and internationally and has been exhibited worldwide.

Erica began working in the field of photography under the tutelage of esteemed photo dealer Joe Folberg at Vision Gallery in San Francisco, a “mini-mecca” for photographers. When the chance came for her to manage the gallery at The Maine Photographic Workshops, she was rewarded with the opportunity to learn through the company of some of photography’s greatest image makers. She holds a BA in Linguistics from New York University with studies in Anthropology and Art History. After studying printmaking at the Massachusetts College of Art and working in graphic design, she returned to New York City to pursue her own photographic work. Since 2010, she has taught an annual intensive documentary photography workshop through Spazio Labo’ Center of Photography. In 2011, she became an Adjunct Lecturer in Photojournalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and joined the Advisory Committee for Rehabilitation Through Photography and the Editorial Committee at Photojournale. In 2012, McDonald co-curated the exhibit Uncommon Intimacy: Quattro fotografe e la scuola newyorchese in Bologna, Italy featuring the work of Amy Stein, Juliana Beasley, Amy Touchette and Erica McDonald, and Multimedia Night: Women in Multimedia for Arte Fiera. Erica has served as a contributing editor to the book ‘Connections Across A Human Planet’, a collection of photo documentary stories from around the world and has reviewed portfolios for PDN PhotoExpo / Palm Springs Photo Festival.

Continually inspired by a long line of creatives as well as by the subject and circumstance before her, McDonald believes in the importance of lineage and the narrative in photography.

Commissions and publications include: Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Financial Times Weekend Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Popular Photography, Bloomberg Businessweek, Boston Magazine, YES! Magazine, BE Magazine, El Mundo, Gioia Magazine, The Epoch Times, The Week, Runner’s World Magazine, burn magazine and its printed collector’s edition burn.01, The British Journal of Photography, The Collector’s Guide to New Art, Nonesuch Records and Rhino Records.

McDonald’s photographs have been exhibited in Australia, Romania, Italy and France, and in New York by PowerHouse, the South Street Seaport Museum, the Camera Club of New York, at Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey’s burn gallery, at FotoWeek DC and at Gallery Carte Blanche in San Francisco, California. Her work has been included in projections and exhibits at the Head On Photo Festival, Fovea, LOOK3, the Angkor Photo Festival, Bursa Photofest, Palm Springs Photo Festival, the FotoGrafia Festival in Rome and the Slideluck Potshow. Awards and nominations include IPA/Lucies, PX3, The NY Photo Awards and the Magnum Cultural Foundation EPF, and a Lower East Side Printshop Residency.

She loves dogs, small and large alike.

personal website