Keeping it 100 With Ben Zank
Ben Zank is a born and bred New Yorker—one of few you’ll meet in a city of transplants. His origins inform his work, and he always prefers shooting in the wild of NYC versus a steril studio (plus, he has no choice—he’s never had one). Perhaps that will change later on, when he’s older and can no longer cruise the streets of NYC on his bike, but for now, he’s embracing the volatility of his city and accepting all of the many variables he cannot change (to name a few—weather, passerbys, and distractions all play a part in his process). Clearly, he’s keeping it 100, and knows a thing or two about creating an authentic photo, no matter his environment. We sat down with Zank after he got his hands on the new FUJIFILM X-T100 to talk chaos, tranquility, and finding both at home and abroad; check the full interview below.
Have you gotten a chance to play with the camera yet?
Oh yeah! I’ve done the photos.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you shot?
Well, the first two images I did I was still in the city so it was just more or less…I mean, I guess if I can just explain how I work…I’m very spontaneous, and I sort of react to my environment. And as you know, New York is a very difficult place. I only shoot on location, I don’t have a studio or anything, so New York is a very difficult place to just go out and have a photoshoot without encountering many different issues and whatnot. So I go out and I just sort of react to my environment, and I may or may not use some photo manipulation after just to sort of create an environment that I feel is more suitable to my style. So yeah, now that you understand that, what I did was I utilized the camera’s self timer, which is obviously very helpful because I couldn’t use the other equipment that I use to create sort of reactions to environments that I found that were interesting.
Cool, so they were self portraits?
Yeah, they were all self portraits. I mean, when I say self portrait, I use myself as a subject, but they’re not like “this is me.” I just use myself as a character in the images, so it’s not like a “self representation”…I mean it is, but that’s not exactly the goal of the image. People ask me, and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s me,” but it’s not like I’m doing this because it’s supposed to represent this thing. It’s not like a selfie. I don’t show faces or anything. It’s more like I can be an everyman.
Yeah, I’ve looked at a lot of your work, and the anonymous factor lends itself to a blank slate that anybody could fill in with their own interpretation.
Yeah, and the camera was different to work with. The way I work, I don’t necessarily just go out with a tiny point-and-shoot or anything. I feel like it’s a really good camera for street photography, and the way I work I sort of set things up on a tripod, I take a lot of time to get the exposure…and this camera is kind of low stress, so it was interesting to use that kind of camera for the kind of work that I do. It just felt like very laid back and easy to work with, and just very responsive. It’s a really responsive camera for its price range. There weren’t any particular issues that I noticed with it.
Cool, and as far as FUJIFILM, do you have any experience with other mirrorless cameras they make, or is this your first interaction?
Hmm…I think it was my first interaction. When I first started getting into photography I only worked with film, and I’m not sure if I had a FUJIFILM. I can’t remember. I may have not, but I’m not sure. We’ll just say no.
It’s interesting that you say that you started on film, because I know FUJIFILM does a lot of Film Simulation stuff with their digital cameras. Did you try that out at all?
I haven’t given that a test. I mean, to be perfectly honest with you, I’m not into the whole usage of any type of filters. I actually try to do as little as possible to the image beyond the manipulation of an image. I do a lot in Photoshop, and once that’s done I try to make it look like nothing has been done to it. So I actually haven’t gotten a chance to try out the Film Simluations, but I did use the ISO capabilities on it and I was very impressed. It’s a really high quality product.
I know you prefer to alter your images as little as possible—how does that tie into conveying honesty in your work, especially with the “Keeping It 100” project?
The honesty in my work is that I stay true to what I want to do. It’s not necessarily that the images tell a truth or an untruth, because I will take a photograph and it’s almost to where I want it to be. But it’s not quite—maybe there’s material or something in the image that’s sort of taking away from it, and I’ll remove it and sort of sterilize it in a sense, to the point where it’s what I want to show you. So it’s authentic to myself and how I’ve gone about the photography. When I did the images with the FUJIFILM X-T100 camera, I didn’t change a single thing of how I go about making my photos. I did it the exact same way I have done it in the past and will continue to do.
Cool. I’m so interested in the fact that you don’t have a studio, since New York is a super chaotic place when you want to control how the image looks, but there are so many other variables that you can’t control. Do you ever think think that you will have a studio, or do you like the spontaneity of it?
I mean probably when I’m older and can’t be like running around on my bike in like 30 years [Laughs], but as for now, I mean no, I don’t need one right now. I have way more fun being outside. It can definitely be very frustrating, but there’s also a lot of reward and mystery to be had from shooting on location.
Where is your favorite place to shoot in New York, if you have one?
I’ve actually moved quite a lot. I am from New York originally, I’m from the Bronx, but in the last two years I’ve actually moved around quite a bit. I do like to keep it local. I don’t like to go on really long excursions when I shoot. Sometimes I do if there’s a specific spot. I don’t want to give away locations, but there some really beautiful places out in Brooklyn that you wouldn’t even believe you’re in New York City. That’s how amazing it is.
Do you travel a lot and shoot in different cities?
Yeah, whenever I travel I always shoot, and make it my number one priority to shoot, rather than relaxing. I relax after I get the photograph. But I’m going to be doing quite a bit of traveling this summer. I’m planning on doing an Americana road trip, and then after that I’m going to be in Europe, or more specifically Berlin, for about two months, and I’m planning to shoot a lot when I’m there.
When you’re in a new environment do you feel like that affects your work?
Oh yeah, definitely. If I go somewhere that I’m going to be living, it’s definitely overwhelming at first because I’m not familiar with the place, and it takes me a little bit of time to sort of observe the environment and get more comfortable with it, for me to come up with more creative ideas. If I’m just passing by a place it’s a lot harder for me to develop a more in-depth idea of what I want to do, and it gets to be this conflict between being in this beautiful location and just sort of standing in it, like there are a lot of images, I’ve done it myself, where there’s this beautiful location and someone is just in it. There’s nothing special about it—you’re just standing in this beautiful scenery. And that’s what happens a lot when you travel—you have all this amazing landscape thrown in your face, and you’re overwhelmed by it and don’t know what to do. But if you live there for like a year, two years, you’re like, “Oh this is boring,” and the real interesting ideas start coming. So that is kind of how I feel about traveling and seeing new places.
Since you’re born and raised in New York, and obviously the city has changed a lot in the past couple decades, how has that changed your perspective and creative vision?
I don’t know. It hasn’t changed for me. I mean as I—I’m only 27—so as I started living on my own, I stopped meeting people who were from here…’cause when I went to school everyone was from New York City, they’re all born here, they’re all locals, and after I graduated college and started living on my own I started meeting people who weren’t from New York. Where are you from? Are you from New York?
I’m from Texas.
Exactly. You’re from Texas. You’re not from New York. It’s hard to find people from New York. You start meeting people from all around the country all around the world. The only thing I’ve felt that’s changed is my pool of people that I know are much more diverse as I’ve gotten older, because it’s actually really rare to find a born and bred New Yorker these days.
Yeah it is. So who are you admiring in photography right now? Who’s keeping it 100?
Maciek Jasik, Israel “Mr. iozo” Riqueros, and Brian Vu. They’re all pretty good friends of mine, but I don’t say that just because they’re friends. I say that because they’re really, really good at what they do. All photographers, but they’re all in neat little subcategories of the industry. Like what I do is almost completely different from what they do, and what they do is almost completely different from each other. They’re very into portraits, but the way that they go about creating portraits is really interesting. They’re always working outside their comfort zone. They definitely keep it 100.
“Keeping It 100” is a series in partnership with FUJIFILM North America
Stay tuned for more from our “Keeping It 100” series for the FUJIFILM X-T100