Lauren Welles | New York City

HI LAUREN, first of all congratulations for winning the 3rd prize of this year's Miami Street Photography Festival for one of your Coney Island photos and the Juror’s award in the Center For Fine Art Photography’s “Simply” Contest! How do you feel about that?
Thank you! It felt great to be recognized for something that I love to do. I enjoyed the proverbial 15 minutes.

Tell us a bit about the Coney Island project.
It started out, in the summer of 2013, as just a day at the beach.   I was out with my camera in New York City, and there were no people on the streets. The city can get pretty desolate in the summer, when everyone flees from the concrete jungle, so as not to forget what a tree looks like.  Feeling pretty lonely and uninspired, I decided to take the subway out to Coney Island, to put my feet in the water, be around people and feel the vibrancy of the place. It wasn’t so much about photography at that point; everyone photographs Coney Island and I didn’t think I’d see anything new. I just wanted to get out of the mood I was in.  Anyway, as soon as I arrived, I saw visual stories everywhere and I was able to frame them in ways that kept me interested.  I would go back a few times a month and a body of work started to develop. The project depicts the many cultures and the joie de vivre for which Coney Island is known.  In today’s society, fear, negativity and that “us vs. them” mentality get an inordinate amount of attention; it’s nice to be reminded of a different reality, where people from all different cultures come together to share in happy times. 

When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression?
Back in 2003, I was looking to change careers (to what, I had no idea), so I took six months off to travel and get a new perspective on things. I wanted to take pictures on my trip, so I figured I should learn how to use a camera before going. I enrolled in an into to photography class, and the love affair began. 

Is there a photographer or a type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
There are too many to list, but Cartier-Bresson’s work was my first and probably greatest influence (his geometric compositions, in particular). Then there’s Helen Levitt (I love kids).  The graceful movement and intimacy of Sylvia Plachy’s work inspires me, as does Koudelka's sort of melancholic romanticism.  And, more currently, Alain Laboile’s work; it captures an idyllic innocence and free spirit of childhood, which leaves me speechless.

You’re a former lawyer. What made you decide you were ready to dive into the career of a full time photographer?
For years I had been trying to leave, but I just couldn’t handle giving up my security; it seemed so irresponsible and terrifying. Then my health became a bit compromised and I intuitively knew that it was due to the work stress I was stoically harboring.  At that point it was more terrifying to stay where I was than to move forward.  I don’t know that I felt ready to dive into a full-time photography career, but I was definitely ready to leave my legal career.  Then, little by little, the photography fell into place.

Commercial photography is a totally different kind of photography than personal work. How do you handle the challenge in meeting the demands of clients? Was it difficult in the beginning?
The challenge of meeting the demands of clients is like any other job - I have to please someone else without compromising my own integrity.  But it also feels good to satisfy someone else’s needs when I'm doing something I enjoy (in contrast to much of my legal career).

I was nervous as hell on some of my first assignments. Then, like anything else, it got easier and I became more confident.  Being flexible and resourceful when working professionally is so important; something unexpected almost always occurs during a shoot. I still feel as though I’ll never learn it all, which can be scary, but that’s also what keeps it interesting.

What do you like about street photography? Do you think it helps being a female street photographer?
I love how there is a jumping off point from which to create a visual story. I’m not good at creating something visual from scratch; my blank canvas tends to stay blank. I need to see things to get ideas.  When I’m out in public, everything and everyone is stepping onto my canvas, so all I need to do is eliminate, or add, and then frame. 

As a female photographer, I sometimes think I'm not as threatening to strangers as a man might be, especially when photographing kids.  But whether you’re male or female, I think psychology plays a huge role in street photography. If you look at it like you’re doing something wrong, invading someone’s “privacy,” you’ll tense up, making it more likely for people to get upset with you.  But if you are truly interested in people and maintain a humanistic perspective, your energy will be positive, which can make all the difference.   That’s not to say people don’t get upset with me. But when they do, I try to respect their feelings, not take it personally and move on. 

How important is it to hear your inner voice as a photographer?
It’s the most important thing for me as a human being, let alone photographer! It’s an infallible compass. I think that’s what mid-life crises are all about—your inner voice goes from a whisper to a scream so that you can no longer ignore it. Mediocrity is inevitable if my heart isn’t in something, be it photography or anything else. 

As a photographer we all go through different stages. How do you deal with a creative block and what do you do against it?
I used to get really frustrated and frightened by it, thinking it would be permanent. But I’ve learned to trust more in what the moment is than what it isn’t and just allow things to run their course.  The block is often just a gestation period, though I usually don’t know that until it’s over.  

If I’m not feeling inspired, I’ll still take my camera around just to "stay in shape.”  I’m naturally curious about people.  So, if all I do is have a conversation with a stranger on the subway, I’ll still go home with a smile on my face. That helps me ride out the dry spells.  

How important is traveling for you? Is there a place in the world you would like to photograph?
It’s so important! I’ve always had a streak of wanderlust in me. I love experiencing different cultures. There are tons of places I’d like to visit. But I usually don’t know until I get somewhere, if I’m visually inspired.  I need to be interested in the other aspects of a place, the soul of it perhaps, in order for the visual attraction to be there. Based on that, I think I would enjoy photographing in parts of Eastern Europe, where my grandparents were from.  Before I knew how to photograph, I visited Hungary and Poland (I took pictures, but they were horrendous).  So many things felt familiar to me—the food, people’s demeanor, the look in their eyes.  I’d like to go back one day with my camera and explore.