Keeping the faith, paving the path
American photojournalist Andrew Renneisen is this year’s winner of the Ian Parry Scholarship Award for Achievement. In an exclusive interview he speaks to CPN Editor David Corfield about accolades, ambition and making the grade...
It’s been quite a year for Andrew Renneisen. The 24-year-old has won the coveted Ian Parry Scholarship, bagged himself an EOS 5D Mark IV by sponsors Canon and has set himself up in Nairobi, Kenya, for editorial clients like The New York Times, National Geographic and Getty Images. Not bad for someone who used to keep his love of photography a secret at school for fear of being branded a geek.
But Andrew has always wanted to be a photographer and is now living a very real dream. With supportive parents and a strong moral ethic, he’s paving his own path and recalls the day he realised that capturing events with a camera was what he wanted to pursue as a profession. “My mom had a basic digital camera and I picked it up one day when we went to the zoo,” he smiles. “I really enjoyed capturing moments and started pursuing it as a hobby. In later years I was the newspaper and yearbook photographer at my high school, but that was considered pretty nerdy at the time; I didn’t tell anyone I loved it...”
As he grew up and decided on a career, he took his camera with him to Syracuse University in New York, USA. “I went in as a broadcast journalist but didn’t like it,” he reflects. “I was working on the university newspaper as a photographer in my spare time and realised that stills photography was what I wanted to do for my major, so I switched to that, much to my parents’ concern. It’s been a hell of a ride ever since.”
A love of people
Andrew’s natural empathy with people stems from a deep fascination with the human race. “Breaking down the themes of human life and trying to understand what makes people tick is what really drives me,” he explains. “To help me understand people, I absorb the works of photographers like James Nachtwey and Don McCullin in particular. These are the guys who I look up to and we should never lose sight of the incredible contribution they have made to our industry. In fact, meeting Don at the awards evening the other week was very special.”
Andrew remembers the Ian Parry Scholarship evening vividly: “Someone grabbed me and said ‘Don McCullin is looking at your work!’ I felt this great rush in my chest, like a punch. Meeting him was so special; it was nerve-wracking but he is such a warm guy with an amazing history. My favourite image of his is the shell-shocked soldier and watching the ‘Seeking the Light’ film of him on CPN introduced me to his beautiful landscapes, too. So amazing. I was truly in awe.”
Andrew remarks that the one thing all these great photographers have in common is a singular devotion to their craft and in telling their subjects’ stories.
“If I’m researching something I want to photograph, I read as much as I can about it beforehand and talk to people who have been on the ground and covered things similar to what I want to cover,” he explains. “I like to think I have a good bullshit filter and I can look at things objectively. For me personally, you can never have enough information. You plan like crazy in advance but when you are there things always go wrong, so having a nose for something is really important, as is being aware that there might be an even bigger story out there that you hadn’t even considered.”
But covering stories these days, especially in the world’s trouble spots, requires more that just subject knowledge. It requires grit, and faith in one’s methods of self-preservation...
“You really have to take your safety seriously,” Andrew explains. “I have a flak jacket and a helmet, which are standard kit these days over and above your camera gear. Being properly trained to deal with conflict situations is really important, and I have done a couple of hostile environment training sessions which I found to be really essential when preparing to work in countries such as Somalia.”
One camera, one lens
With space always tight for equipment on the move, Andrew prefers to stick to the classic photojournalist set-up. “A full-frame DSLR and a fixed 35mm prime. That’s all I need in an ideal world. Of course I have other lenses too for when the situation demands it, such as the 24-70mm and the 70-200 f/2.8, but that 35mm lens? That’s just the best for the kind of work I like to do. I prefer to go in close and be in the moment.”
He continues: “I consider myself a pretty bad technical photographer actually and this 5D Mark IV will make me raise my game, for sure! But seriously, knowing your camera is really important. You should be able to use it with your eyes closed – in, out and backwards. I’ve used the 5D series of camera right from the start of my career so this Canon is the next logical step.”
Andrew’s scholarship-winning portfolio was all shot in monochrome, but the medium is something he is trying to move away from. He explains: “I shot a lot of black and white early on and I’m naturally drawn to it. Sometimes it can be a cop-out, though, whereas colour adds another element, which you need to be aware of. You need to have a reason for black and white.”
“Making an image that makes you stop, or think differently about something, that’s my real aim now as I get more experienced. Being able to interact with your subject on a personal ‘human’ level is also another important quality and certainly working in New York for two years makes you get past any shyness you might have with people!”
As for what other skills make a good photographer? “Being situationally aware is a key skill,” he advises. “Knowing what you can and cannot push is really important too, and that comes with experience; you never stop learning.”
He quickly pays tribute to the other vital ingredient in a photographers’ make-up: a good picture editor. “Picture editors are a special breed,” he reflects. “A good one is someone who pushes the photographer they hire to do the best work they can and who knows their style and ethic and pushes for that in the editing process.”
“Lauren Steel at Getty [now Verbatim] has been my mentor for the last two years and she taught me to stay on the straight and narrow and kept me level-headed. I’m a bit of a romantic about stories and money and she keeps me business savvy. I really value that.”
He continues: “Sometimes I get too connected to particular images, too. You get attached to the ones that were super hard to make but sometimes they are just sh*t! Having someone who is totally removed from that image making process, and yet also understands the story, is really critically important. There has been many a time when I have suffered from that. And Lauren has always kept me objective.”
With the year drawing to a close, Andrew is taking time out to reflect on an incredible 2016 and spend a month with his family before the lure of the field starts to gnaw away at him.
“I get really antsy when I’m not working, but I needed a break for a little bit. When January comes I’ll be raring to get back on it,” he admits. “And I’m ready to do some more international work, too, which will mean moving over to East Africa which is where the stories that I want to cover are.”
He explains his rationale: “The business model where you are based in New York and work internationally is not there any more. You have to go to that country and physically live and work there. I visited Nairobi while I was just travelling and I ended getting hooked on the place. I think my work on the bigger picture of race and religion is drawing me to East Africa. I’m trying to focus on Somalia right now, in particular my long-term project ‘On the Brink’ which looks at the country’s fight for democracy, but can’t really be based there right now so Nairobi is the next best option.”
Reflecting on his Ian Parry success as he prepares for this next phase of his life, Andrew pays tribute to the people at the Scholarship who saw in him something that Ian Parry had in abundance: compassion.
“There is so much support from everyone involved in the scholarship and those connections and relationships I have started to make are amazing. It teaches me the value of giving back. I’m so grateful for this award and was a bit overwhelmed by the kindness. I just know I have some pretty big shoes to fill that have been left behind by all the other great photographers who have won in the past.”
“If I can give any advice to young photographers wanting to follow me into this business, I’d say this: don't get discouraged by what people say on the state of the industry, as it strikes me that it’s always been perilous. Find something you are very passionate about and photograph it as much as possible and don’t be scared to break rules. Focus on making bodies of work and grow with the experience it gives you.”
Biography: Andrew Renneisen
© David Corfield
Andrew Renneisen is an American freelance documentary photographer based in Nairobi, Kenya focusing on issues related to race, religion, ethnicity and their role in conflict. Prior to Nairobi, Andrew attended the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, USA, with focuses in photography and information management and technology. Andrew has interned at The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Press of Atlantic City, and The Wilmington News Journal and has contributed to clients and publications such as The New York Times, National Geographic, The Washington Post, Time, Rolling Stone, Bloomberg Businessweek, Stern, Mother Jones, NBC News, and Getty Images. He has been honoured with awards from American Photography, The Hearst Foundation, College Photographer of the Year, The Alexia Foundation and most recently the 2016 Ian Parry Scholarship Award for Achievement.