Picture this: it’s the night before you head off to camp, and you’re excited (and admittedly nervous) because you don’t know what to expect. Will you make friends? What kind of things will you do this year? Most importantly, what should you pack? If you’re heading off to PHOOT camp — it’s anything and everything.
Founded by Laura Brunow Miner in 2009, PHOOT camp has quickly evolved into something of a cult phenomenon in the photography community. And why shouldn’t it? Put 30+ talented young professionals from around the world together in one place for a weekend, and great things will happen. We spoke to some of the PHOOT alumni on their camp experiences, and how it helped break the boundaries on their own creativity.
Michelle Alexis Newman
PHOOT camp is an invite only retreat, so you need to apply to get in. I was fortunate enough to be accepted in 2011 and have gone back to the retreat three times. I would sum up the attitude of PHOOT as “How are we going to do this project?” instead of “Why are we going to do this project?”. I’ve made some very close friendships and I’ve learned how to be a professional artist through this community. I think a lot of creatives work under the assumption that they are alone. Especially, in communities that are not LA, Chicago or New York. Things like PHOOT remind you that people are out there that DO appreciate you, and can really keep you going.
Since a lot of my work is very internal, I’ve learned that in order for me to be creative I have to take care of myself. There is a balance. If my life is not stable, I cannot make work. Consider this a public service announcement: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. You deserve to be healthy and happy. Second thing I’ve learned is that creativity is a muscle you have to exercise just like any other part of your body. You have to work. That means doing personal projects that are hard or perhaps…dare I say…suck. That project is not a failure. When you are on a regular routine of turning out work you are in a mindset to give a genius idea a place to land (And when I say genius I mean a project you think of as good or satisfying). Example: I always try to clear the back burner. I force myself to do older photo ideas, ones that have taken a back seat. Just because the idea isn’t shiny and new anymore doesn’t mean it was bad. Honor it. Make it. Clear the room for something new.
In 2009, Laura Brunow Miner (former photo editor at JPG Mag), gathered a list of various contributors to the magazine as well as other photo community friends and invited us to go camping at China Camp State Park just north of San Francisco. About 20 of us showed up for a weekend of shooting pictures together and forming new friendships. The next year, we were all welcomed back to the second installment which took place outside of Los Angeles in addition to a few new select applicants who had responded to an open call and seen what we did the year before. Each year since then we all re-apply with a fresh self-portrait and short statement of why we want to go to Phoot. We have gone to Marfa, Texas, Upsate New York, and Joshua Tree so far.
From the onset, my goal has to been to take a look at the various locations’ environments and develop a narrative-based photo, incorporating all of the campers in a single, staged tableau. The experience each time has been invaluable for not only the photos which are crucial pieces in my portfolio, but most importantly, the community that has grown into a family and proven to be a constant source of support and inspiration worldwide. Feeding off a post Phoot buzz, many campers have quit their day jobs and pursued their dreams of shooting photographs full time, it literally is changing lives.
As for how I push my creativity on a day to day basis, my ongoing series “Them & Theirs” about people and their vehicles is important to continue in between other commercial or fine art projects. I am constantly meeting new people who I want to include and currently have a list that slowly needs to be chipped away at. Much of my free time is spent as a tourist in my own town, always looking for potential locations and new subjects.
I was invited to attend the very first Phoot Camp in 2009 - however, that same month I had just moved myself to Los Angeles, so I felt I couldn’t justify spending the money to take a camping trip with a bunch of photographers I had never met. Boy, did I regret that decision. As soon as I saw the creatives who had attended, I instantly knew I should have been there. It was a group of go-getters, and many of them I was already familiar with their work through the early days of Flickr and JPG Magazine.
The following year I applied to be a camper, and have attended every year since. The relationships alone make it worthwhile. These people have not only become my professional peers - the group of people I can comfortable reach out to about industry questions or work related things I may be unsure about. They’re available for critique, and assisting on projects. However, they’ve also become some of my very best friends. There’s real power in having a group of people support you professionally and personally. Plus, now I have couches to sleep on in homes all over the world!
I think these sorts of retreats, camps, initiatives are crucial for the creative community. As photographers, the majority of our job could be done alone. We spend so much time editing, emailing, updating blogs and websites - it’s extremely valuable to be in one place together - to observe how others work, their process, their gear, their techniques. It’s learning, but it’s fun, and I think because it’s so much fun is the reason we all take so much out of it afterwards.
I know that I can struggle finding inspiration at times. It’s hard to constantly be pushing boundaries, and exploring new ideas. Getting together with like-minded creatives ignites a fire in me that I’m able to maintain year round, by keeping these friendships and connections. It inspires me to see my peers land great jobs, get new work published, or create a concept I’ve never seen done. I don’t ever feel competitive - however, I think it’s important to surround yourself with people doing inspiring things, if only to keep yourself wanting to do the same.
Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek
I got invited by Laura Brunow for phoot camp in California and it was the perfect reason for me to book a flight, rent a camper van, grab my favorite cameras and a photographer friend to hit the roads through California and Nevada for three weeks. It was an amazing time and many of my pictures from “The World We Live In” came out of this. PHOOT camp itself was a great experience; to meet such a nice bunch of likeminded people and to hang out together in the forest. To me it was not that much about technical stuff — it was more about getting to know all these other very talented photographers. I’m still connected to them and if someone asks me for a good photographer in the US I still recommend them. It feels like a little family. Love you, guys!