PhotoServe.com talks with Amanda Koster, internationally acclaimed photographer and founder of the digital-storytelling, citizen-journalism organization for social change, SalaamGarage.
PS: How did you start as a photographer?
AK: In 1991 I registered for Photo 1 at Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut because for the life of me I couldn’t understand how photography worked. I was mystified by photography. My grandfather, a Romanian immigrant, was a factory worker for Kodak. He was encouraged to understand the products and to play with all the latest toys taking pictures and making home movies. We sat through hours of very boring slideshows and home movies. Meanwhile he was glowing. Honestly, I was more fascinated with how it worked vs. the actual content.
The impetus for that Photo1 class in 1991 was at Southern Connecticut State University while majoring in cultural anthropology (after switching from psychology). I thought being a photographer would give me a leg up on my fellow classmates, help get me get grants and generally serve as a skill would support my career as an anthropologist. Once I understood how photography worked I was completely hooked.
On a deeper, more personal level, I now see that photography helped me understand and express my own story, while empathizing with so many other people. I grew up in a heartbreaking situation where I had no voice and being invisible was how I survived. My church caught on and removed me from my home at 13 and placed me with my un-official foster mom, Mrs. Green. I lived with her in high school and worked nearly full time to pay for University. If hadn't told my story to my pastor Mitch Zeman, and if he hadn’t listened, my life would look drastically different today.
PS: Tell us about SalaamGarage and how you came to start the world-renowned digital-storytelling organization.
AK: A few things.
First: The rise of Social Media in 2006. It blew my mind. It seemed to me the goal was to build an audience and then say something. I felt I had something to say, and that it would stand out amongst all the useless noise on social media back then. It would become my new exhibition.
Second: Realizing I don’t have to be the one saying it. For about 15 years, I was working alone on social documentary projects alongside my commercial career. After years of exhibitions and schlepping my photos around I realized something. I un-hung yet another photo from yet another wall, and I wondered if I really cared about the physical photo at all, or was it the story? It was the story. Also, I may not have to be the one telling it, and it may not mean my photo on this wall. What if teams of people were doing this work together and we plugged it into Social Media? What would that look like?
Third: Countless requests for “coffee talk.” “I’d like to meet for coffee and pick your brain... I want to do this kind of work too.... can I carry your bags....?” These seemingly harmless requests would flood my inbox 20 times a week and stress me out. It is impossible to meet all of these people and yet here they, want to do this kind of work. Why not create a platform for them to do just that?
So in 2006 I formed SalaamGarage and built the first itinerary and ground team in India. In 2007 I led the pilot trip to India to work with Vatsalya (Note: Vatsalya dedicates itself to empower vulnerable children to be responsible citizens in the mainstream society by instilling the value of love, equality and justice, and to ensure a better future for them to become contributing members of society). I learned a lot, made a lot of mistakes and finally understood what SalaamGarage really was, literally mid-trip. I am forever grateful for that team and their patience with me as I worked out the kinks real-time. In 2008 long-time friend, colleague and powerhouse Maggie Soladay and I teamed up and more teams blossomed internationally. In 2009 things exploded and SalaamGarage has been growing ever since.
PS: How do you find your teams?
AK: They come to us. They are folks who have a similar vision for storytelling as we do. They are people who are sick of using their creativity to sell stuff for a living and want to reignite and re-engage their original passion for storytelling. They are people who are interested in media and want to work alongside seasoned professionals. They are people who just give a damn and just want to be a part of something greater than themselves. SalaamGarage is built of these kinds of folks. We leave our ego at the door.
PS: How do you separate your group from other organizations doing similar reporting or do you? What is unique about SalaamGarage?
AK: I don’t really think that way. Ultimately I wish SalaamGarage would dissolve and we wouldn’t need to tell such heartbreaking stories or raise awareness about our own neighbors. The more teams working together on independent storytelling media projects in their communities or around the world the better!
PeaceTrees Vietnam bomb removal organization in the DMZ./© Amanda Koster
PS: How do you get the word out about your special stories? Special events, radio?, TV spots, blogs, etc.?
AK: Mostly via Social Media and old-fashioned word of (electronic) mouth. That leads to traditional media blowouts, exhibitions, press, radio, forums, etc.
PS: What has been the most exciting aspect of starting SalaamGarage?
AK: Seeing teams with amazing hearts and creativity come together to work hard, very hard, on projects they care deeply about. Seeing people eyes light up when they hear we want to know them and share their story.
PS: Who are some of your personal heroes, whether they are photographers or not?
AK: Sebastio Selgado and Robert Frank. Also Käthe Kollwitz , Peter Gabriel, Bono and Jesus.
PS: What recommendations do you have for photographers today who may want to do this type of photography or any type of photography?
AK: Don’t believe the lie that anyone or anything is your magical key to success. "Cool factor- VIP pass and we’ll give you photo credit" will never ever pay your bills. There is no easy way. You have to be still and listen deeply to your own inspiration, trust it and follow it. And you need to save your money. You have to get up every day and in the face of failure keep working at it. Choose your projects and your teams wisely.
PS: What’s up next for Amanda Koster and SalaamGarage?
AK: SalaamGarage Seattle is producing and publishing its stories on the site this summer. We will launch a Kickstarter in the fall to raise money for our traveling exhibition “Long Road Home”. I’d like the New York City and Seattle Aging Out of Foster Care work to travel nationally to raise awareness of this nearly unknown situation: America’s orphans.
"Long Road Home" with Brendan Zincavage who is Aging out of Foster Care in Seattle./© Henk Dawson
We took a break from SalaamGarage Global to launch Local. However there has been a swelling interest in international trips, so sign up here and we’ll build and lead some more.
SalaamGarage is also looking for sponsorships and powerhouse partners. Places to publish these stories like MSN, NPR, etc. Places to exhibit the work. Outright cash or grants to produce exhibitions, books, build the organization and offer scholarships, committed leaders to build and lead trips and in-kind items such as printing our exhibitions, publishing and distributing our books, giveaways. SalaamGarage is content rich and is looking build collaborations with organizations who are hungry for raw, community focused, social documentary content. If you have an idea, contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For me? Professionally I have been digging combing media, content development, project managing, tech and software. I’ve been doing that for the last two years in addition to photo assignments and am totally fascinated. It’s the geek in me. Personally I am ready to settle down and will close on a house July 31st. Interesting timing for the launch of “A Long Road Home.” The SalaamGarage team in Seattle is going to tell my story starting with my very first home, ever. If you knew my whole story you’d see how fitting this is. Very fitting.
PS: If you were not a photographer, what would you be doing?
AK: Great question. Maybe I’d run an orphanage, teach practical life skills to girls from tough situations, more public speaking and write my autobiography. I think it would help people. And maybe include a few photos!
We thank Amanda Koster for taking time to chat with PhotoServe.com this month and we will be providing updates on the "Aging Out of Foster Care" stories. You can view her TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talks and other lectures here.
For more updates on the local Seattle and New York City stories, visit SalaamGarage. You can also see the press on their Aging Out of Foster care for New York City chapter work at The New York Book Review, ABC News and an earlier report on PhotoServe.com. And more on the PeaceTrees Vietnam bomb-removal project can be viewed here.