Q&A: Jim Casper, founder of LensCulture, a unique photography site

LensCulture, a website for photography that includes portfolios by select photographers and an on-line magazine, has created a community of people pushing the boundaries of storytelling. I chatted with founder Jim Casper to get a better understanding of the scope and potential of LenCulture.

Tara Todras-Whitehill: Thanks so much for chatting with me Jim. Can you start with was the origin of LensCulture? What was the idea behind the beginning of it?

Jim Casper: LensCulture started based on my own personal curiosity. I wanted to figure out how photography was working in different areas: media, propaganda, advertising and things like that. And I thought the most interesting way for me to do that at the time was to talk with people who were practicing photography and working in the field rather than go to school to study formally. So I started an online magazine to give me an excuse to talk to my heroes and ask if I could interview them for feature stories in my magazine. It turned out to be great strategy. People love it when you’re sincerely interested in what they do. And then I found out there was a body of people who wanted to read about the same things I was interested in. So that encouraged me to continue.


TTW: It’s obviously expanded a lot from there. When did that take off?

JC: We started organizing physical portfolio review events in 2009 in conjunction with FotoFest Houston and Paris Photo and Fotografiska in Sweden. We all saw the benefit of giving serious photographers the opportunity to meet editors, curators and gallery owners who could affect their careers, as well as bringing international photographers together with each other. In twenty minute sessions photographers pitch their ideas to influential people who might find it hard to meet with them otherwise. We also launched our awards competitions and published books with the winners, and featured the winners at physical exhibitions in places like San Francisco, New York and Paris.

Then in 2013 we were fortunate to team up with some very talented business partners who had a lot of expertise in technology, design, and growing businesses. Together, we used the power of the internet and technology to expand our community and improve the ways that photographers and people interested in photography can discover and interact with each other.


TTW: Can you talk a little bit more about the interactions? I think this is something that’s really lacking for a lot of photographers who work mostly by themselves without a community — that we as photographers need more of.

JC: Yes. Well there are several initiatives that are specific to LensCulture that help photographers connect with others in the field with the intention to help them all move forward in their careers creatively and professionally. For one example, every photographer who sends in a series of photos to our photo competitions is eligible to receive free, personal, written critical feedback about their submission from an expert.


TTW: I really like this – no one else does that. It’s really a smart idea.

JC: It’s a great idea. I hope a lot of other people and organizations take it and use it, too. We get thank you notes every day from people who say things like, “Until now, people never took my work seriously, this was really valuable advice and criticism, and I really like the directions you’ve pointed me to.” People crave that interaction and expert advice. So we have built that [interaction] into a lot of the stuff we do. And we also build some basic best practices into the platform. Every time a photographer uploads a new project to LensCulture, we encourage them to share their new project on social media — and we make it easy for them to share. We are helping people promote themselves by giving them tools to make it easy to share their work on Twitter and Facebook.


TTW: And you can engage each other as well.

JC: We also have created this online interactive platform called Sessions that allows up to ten people to talk to each other via live video no matter where they are in the world. The whole Sessions platform is optimized to share high resolution photo images so the group can look at them one at a time, or as thumbnails on a light table where they can talk with each other about editing, sequencing, captions, storytelling. Those can be like virtual workshops where you have typically one expert curator/editor guiding the conversation but everyone participates. And if you have ten people together who are all operating on the same level of photography, the conversation gets interesting really fast. People help each other a lot and share contacts and where they could pitch their stories, or how to re-package the stories for different audiences.


TTW: Yeah, cause I think that photographers are our own worst editors. We get so attached to one image which might not be that great, but you had to work very hard to get it, so you’ve kept it in the story but it’s really keeping the story down. So by having that conversation, I’ve gotten my best editing advice by going to those kind of people who are my peers and I get that chance to do that.

JC: It’s really challenging to edit your own work. As you said, if you know how hard you worked to get that one image you get really attached to it. So that’s why it’s helpful to have an outside party look at the edit and step back and say, “This story would be a lot stronger if you take that out.” The other thing that you know is that most photographers work in isolation. You are traveling on assignment or just working by yourself and it’s really nice to have some kind of informed community responding to your work and helping to shape it, tighten it up, make it better.


TTW: I agree with you completely. The community part – photographers tend to be lone wolves. But for me, starting Vignette Interactive and having a team, I really appreciate that just having more people around. When I was with AP I was part of a team there, and I really got to see what value you get from good photographers around. It’s nice to give photographers that so they don’t feel like they are working in a vacuum. So I submitted three photo essays for one of your competitions, and I really thought the feedback was great.

JC: Oh cool. I’d love to hear more about your experience.


TTW: I was interested so I sent the exact same edit that I won the World Press Photo with – I sent in the Sierra Leone Football Survivors Club. Not that I thought I’d win again, I just wanted to see – And I agreed with all the feedback I got back to make it stronger. I really enjoyed that. Everyone can use it. 

JC: That’s great to hear. Thanks for sharing that story with me. Especially someone at your level of experience and expertise. That makes me feel really good. That’s really great.


TTW: Yeah. I take FOREVER to edit my own stuff. Looking at that story, I took so long – I took things out and put them back in, and then cropped and then didn’t crop or whatever. It just messes with your head after a while. So it’s like you don’t know if anything should be in anymore. So when it wins? Oh! It is good. But I still think this one or this one could be better… You’re still doing that in your head. You also don’t get any feedback when you win, you just know it’s really good but you wonder how it could be better. There is always room for improvement. So I really appreciated the criticism. In the future, just to get that feedback to submit, even if I wasn’t sure it would be a winner but just to get that constructive criticism is very valuable.

JC: I agree that it really helps to get honest feedback and critical advice about your work, no matter what level of proficiency you have. There are always ways to improve and refine your work. And even if you don’t necessarily agree with someone’s opinion and advice, it can help you clarify your own thinking by hearing that alternative viewpoint.


TTW: So I remember at World Press Photo this year people talking about the lack of diversity in the contest. Six women won this year and really not many photographers from Africa or Latin America. It’s European or American-centric and it doesn’t give a very diverse view. I think you have the potential for education to bring people in is huge. Can you speak to that?

JC: Sure. We know that there is interesting work being made every day in cultures all around the world, by men and women, older people and younger people. One thing that we’ve done, that I also hope others will do too, is that we make our Call for Entries available in 15 different languages. We realized that it seemed arrogant to make a call for entries in the English language when we also want to discover talents in the Middle East or Africa or anywhere in the world where English isn’t the first language. So we analyzed where most of our traffic was coming from, and we translated our call for entries into those 15 major languages. We also put the rules and FAQs in those languages, and we have customer support to respond to people in their native tongues, and we allow people to make artist statements and captions in their own languages, as well.

So we are discovering really interesting photographers in China, Japan, Korea, the Middle East, Central and South America, who probably/maybe wouldn’t make the leap to translate their work into English. And as a result, the experts who are invited to be on the juries of our competitions are really thrilled, because in addition to seeing the usual suspects who enter a lot of competitions to get their work in front of juries (a smart business practice), we are attracting people who haven’t been discovered yet. It’s really a fascinating window on what’s happening in contemporary photography right now in cultures all over the world.


TTW: Where do you see a larger multimedia context in LensCulture in the future?

JC: Multimedia and video is probably the future of visual storytelling, but as you know, it’s very complicated – you often need more of a team rather than a solo effort. It takes a lot of time and energy and knowledge to do it well. And it’s really difficult still for readers to find great multimedia content. And since it takes a lot of time to engage with it, it needs to be really professionally produced to reach a big audience who will engage with it and share it with their friends and colleagues. Even from an editor’s point of view, it takes a lot longer to review a multimedia submission compared to a photo essay.


TTW: It can take days. Literally going through the entries of any contest. Photo I can do in a couple of hours, but video it takes days.

JC: So that’s the tricky thing in discovering what’s out there. We need a curator in multimedia to say, “Here are my top five discoveries this week – if you only have a limited amount of time watch these.” And I don’t have a really good way to discover that way yet. I wish someone would start a blog or magazine — oh, that’s you, thanks!


TTW: We are doing in-depth stuff on multimedia. Multimedia can be so many different things. But we are looking at data viz, looking at people who have been doing really good stuff, and things like campaigns for NGOs and seeing what they are doing. Also are focusing mostly in the Middle East and Africa. Because we want that. I want to click on some links and see some cool multimedia in my inbox every couple of weeks. That’s what we are really interested in and it helps me in my photography to think differently and how to integrate it into a multimedia platform better. So that’s what we are striving for with the Vignette blog. And then we are going to put it into a newsletter form.


JC: You can become the curator of multimedia stories for people who don’t have a lot of time. That’s great. I’ll subscribe.


TTW: Please do! We are getting people. It’s going to be good. We’ve got the momentum.  Anything more you’d like to add?


JC: I am really eager to discover new forms and new authors who use the visual language of photography and tie it in with video and motion and time — people who make stories that feel surprisingly fresh and new and important, and who create them in ways that are available to widespread audiences. We’re always trying to find someone who is developing some real fluency with new forms and shaping stories in new ways. It feels like we are really on the cusp of it. Perhaps tomorrow we are going to see the front page of the NY Times and become totally immersed in a visual story, and we will understand an idea, or event, or an emotion more than we ever have before. I’m on the lookout for people like that – people who are trying to pool all these idea together and connect them to help other people gain deeper appreciation and understanding of important stories.

By Tara Todras-Whitehill

Tara worked as a staff photographer for the Associated Press for four years in the Middle East, covering the uprisings, revolutions and numerous elections in the Arab world. Her photography has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic and Washington Post, among many others. She also works on personal projects focused on women's issues. Her passion is trying to portray strong women changing their lives and the world around them.

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