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Hailing from the largest state in the U.S., Brian Adams is a portrait photographer with a love for Alaska. He’s published a book (I AM ALASKAN, 2013), has clips in some of the world’s most prestigious publications (The New York Times, TIME, The Guardian), and even shot a movie poster for a Nicolas Cage flick. It’s clear that his home state is his passion—specifically, the people that make it more than just beautiful vistas, oil pipelines and sub-zero temperatures.
We caught up with Adams via telephone just after he returned home from a shooting trip in the Alaskan wilderness to ask about his photos and his career, and how being Alaskan fits into it all.
PDN: Where are you returning from?
Brian Adams: I was just in Wainwright, a coastal village up in the northwest of Alaska. I was working on a project called “I Am Inuit” with an organization called the Inuit Circumpolar Council. I go out and gather portraits and interviews with Inuits. In Alaska, “Inuits” refers to Inupiat and the Central Yupik people, and I gather portraits and interviews that feature them to share with the rest of the world what it’s like to be Inuit. Monday through Friday on Instagram and Facebook, we’re posting portraits and interviews, and then Saturday and Sunday are sense-of-place images. We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary (10/26) of posting a photo every day for the project. I have a list of 20 villages that I’m supposed to go to, and I just hit 19 this month.
PDN: Did you have any intentions of being a journalist? A lot of your work feels very people-centric.
BA: This is my first project ever having to do interviews and reporting on my own, so it’s been a whole learning process. With all my photos, I’ve always liked to have some sort of human element with them, even if it’s a landscape—it connects the viewer with the image, something they can relate to.
PDN: As an American with one Inuit parent and one white parent, you seem uniquely suited to document Alaskan culture. How do you consider your Alaskan identity?
BA: My mom’s side is originally from Wisconsin and Seattle, and my Inupiat half comes from my dad. The first time I ever went to an Inuit village I was eight years old, and it was my dad’s small home village—only a few hundred people live there.
In 2005, I went back to that village for my grandma’s funeral. But I also brought my camera, so it was my first time going there as a photographer. I fell in love with being there, with the people and the culture, and decided that this was where I wanted to do my work, what I wanted to focus on with my photography.
If I see an American flag on the side of a building, or I see a post office or something, I will photograph it—I think it’s interesting to try and connect the Inuit people to the rest of the U.S., to kind of remind them that these villages and these people are Americans.
PDN: You’ve done a few high-profile shoots with Sarah Palin, including the cover of TIME. How did you come to work with her so frequently?
I do work with Global Assignments by Getty Images (now Verbatim Photo Agency); I’ve been signed up with them since 2006. They hired me to photograph the governor of Alaska for WSJ magazine’s first issue. They flew me out to Juneau, and I took some portraits of her for a little one-page interview. Soon after that, she was announced as John McCain’s running mate. I had the most recent photos of her, so everybody was like “Who’s this lady?” I had all these photo editors calling me up, wanting to use these photos. That’s how I got to know a lot of different photo editors at the time. In total I’ve done three sittings with her. The second one was for Runner’s World, and then the TIME cover shoot. I totally almost missed that shoot, too. Apparently they were calling me, and I typically sleep in late, and slept through them calling me. Then my agent at the time, she called and I picked up for her. She’s all “you gotta call these people back! They want you to shoot the cover.”
PDN: Being in such a remote part of the U.S., a website is crucial to presenting your work to photo editors looking to hire someone in your region. In your experience, what’s the most crucial aspect of a portfolio site for you, as a photographer?
Being able to customize it as much as I possibly can, and also keep it simple at the same time. What I really love about my PhotoShelter website is the connectivity with the archive system. I use the backend of PhotoShelter every day: I run my website and the “I Am Inuit” website through it. Every day I’m posting a photo on there. I never send out disks anymore, I never send out hard drives anymore. I have unlimited storage, so anytime I do a job, I just upload it and send the link to the client with the password, and then they can look at them the way I want them to look at them. They can be in order if I want to choose the order, and they can download them all when they want to download them.