Interview

2023 Booooooom Photo Awards Winner: TJ Martin

For our second annual Booooooom Photo Awards, supported by Format, we selected 5 winners, one for each of the following categories: Portrait, Street, Shadows, Colour, Nature. Now it is our pleasure to introduce the winner of the Shadows category, TJ Martin.

TJ Martin is a self-taught filmmaker from Seattle. Martin won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2012, making him the first film director of African-American descent to win an Academy Award for a feature-length film. He is currently working on his first photo book.

We want to give a massive shoutout to Format for supporting the awards this year. Format is an online portfolio builder specializing in the needs of photographers, artists, and designers. With nearly 100 professionally designed website templates and thousands of design variables, you can showcase your work your way, with no coding required. To learn more about Format, check out their website here or start a 14-day free trial.

We had the chance to ask TJ some questions about his photography — check out the interview below along with some of his work.

What is the story behind your winning image?

The story behind this image lies less in the technical details of its capture and more in the time period it represents. For a long while, I found myself trapped in a space of mourning following my mother’s passing. Unintentionally, most of my photographs took on a mysterious and moody tone, to the extent that even daytime shots obscured human faces.

In this particular image, my partner of five years and I decided to go our separate ways. The image is simply of us leaving our home one Saturday morning to grab coffee but it perfectly captures the weight of my grief while marking the end of a significant chapter in my life.

Can you share a bit about finding your artistic voice, first as a filmmaker and now as you explore photography?

My filmmaking journey has been relatively long and continues to grow. I did not attend film school. I attended a school where you create your own major with a focus on interdisciplinary studies. My primary focus was American Cultural Studies and as a result I found my primary cinematic focus navigating issues of Race, Class and Gender. I taught myself how to shoot and edit which proved to be the best skillset for my eventual career as a director.

Much of my style derives from my skills as an editor. I primarily work in non fiction, which doesn’t always lend itself to having a certain type of aesthetic and narrative control from the outset. It’s very much the art of listening and observation. By embracing that technique I quickly discovered that the control really happens in post production, when you’re molding the clay and writing the narrative. It was in that space that I found my creative voice. I have a background in music and at some point found myself editing music videos. Over time I found myself learning how to incorporate a more rhythmic style of editing without sacrificing the key pillars of filming which is story, character, theme and in my opinion emotion.

My photo journey has been very different. With film, my primary focus has been on how to achieve a desired emotion and translate that to an audience, which often times can be reverse engineered using the tools of cinema (theme exploration, metaphor, music, character development, etc). I have a comfort in using the tools of filmmaking to manipulate audiences. I’m very much still out of my comfort zone when it comes to photography.

Similar to filmmaking, I don’t have a scholastic background in photography. I started focusing on the medium after I was somewhat established as a filmmaker. The same year that I won the academy award was the also the same year that my mother passed away and for some reason I found myself drawn to still photography. Certainly I used the medium to help expand my understanding of how to capture a scene however, what became more notable for me was the types of images that I was drawn towards. I found myself drawn towards mystery and the abstract, which is very different than my work in film. I decided to continue down that path and as a result I still find myself discovering my voice. Similar to my film work, I think emotion and story wins the day, however the tone with which it takes is very different. One day hopefully my sensibilities in film and my sensibilities in photography will collide. We’ll see what that produces.

How would you describe your aesthetic? What are you drawn to?

I think my photographic voice is still developing and I’m genuinely curious to see where it lands. I guess one could describe the work as moody and melancholic but I feel that I’m more drawn towards the intersection of beauty and mystery. I tend to like environments that lend themselves to capturing texture and some sense of obscurity in the frame. In addition to evoking en emotional sentiment I do want the viewer to take a slight beat to try to discern what it is exactly they’re looking at.

What specific things do you enjoy looking at through your viewfinder?

Probably my favorite part in both film and photography are happy accidents. As a result I do find that I try to put myself in positions where I can surprise myself. If there’s too much clarity in the frame (lighting, position of subject) or if the frame feels too clean, I’ll definitely take measures to make it feel more obscure. I guess I find that our lives are mostly lived in gray areas more than we live in clarity so I find that the frame comes more alive for me when the image isn’t crystal clear and viewer is in a state of wonder as it relates to the story. So when I look through the viewfinder I’m searching for mood and narrative probably more than anything.

Do you feel that what you’re doing now is what you were born to do?

That’s a loaded question. It would be hard to convince me that anyone is born to be what they become in the world however, I do think I haven’t strayed too far from whatever path feels accurate to how I would like to live my life. That’s probably the best we can ask for in life is to somehow be in striking distance of who you would like to be and how you would like to spend your time in the world. Lets be honest, our realities rarely live up to our fantasies.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?

One drunken evening a friend of my late father’s once gave me a gift shop toy frog. I was in my early twenties dreaming and drowning in Seattle. He poured me a shot of whisky and said “this thing has no value whatsoever but someone gave it to me and now I’m passing it on to you… the beauty of a frog is that it can’t move sideways, it can move backwards, it can only jump in one direction, forward… keep looking ahead.” Ever since that blackout evening that frog has accompanied every one of my work desks for the past twenty years.

What is the last thing you experienced that blew your mind?

Fever Ray toured the Radical Romantics album the end of the last year and it was fucking amazing.

What’s one thing you’d like to accomplish in the next year or so?

Climb Mt. Rainier.

What about one thing you’d like to accomplish in your lifetime?

Make a scripted film. Hopefully this happens sooner rather than later.

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