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A Q&A with the contributors on identity, inspiration, and the craft of photography.
by Sylvia Kim

Caroline Tompkins

I started halfling zine four years ago as a means of keeping in touch with friends and staying involved with photography. At the time, I had just graduated from college, and no longer had access to the resources that I had as an undergrad. Renting a $4,000 camera for free or using the school's printer was no longer an option. There were no more assignments that made me commit to shooting at least several hours a week, and I didn't want to get lazy. I created the first issue by simply asking friends to submit photos. There were images of schoolchildren and wild horses in Bhutan, cemeteries in Mexico, and Adidas tracksuits in Norway.

Accessibility is an issue in the photo book world, so with halfling I've prioritized accessibility over aesthetics. I've decided that keeping it affordable is more important than having the nicest matte cover or fancy binding. Halfling may never be a coffee table book, but it has its place at zine fests and bookstores with consignment.

With each issue, I've realized the importance of remaining engaged with a creative community. The fourth issue, which launches today, features the first an all-female installment of halfling, with submissions by Molly Matalon, Caroline Tompkins, Natalee Ranii-Dropcho, and Valerie Chiang. Surrounding the release of the zine, I asked each photographer to discuss their work, inspirations, and general thoughts on the craft.

What drew you to photography?

MM: I like photography's ability to lie and tell the truth at the same time.

NRD: I want to capture a moment as it exists, and show the world how I see it. A photograph communicates what you can't explain in words. It's a feeling that transports you into the mind of another person, and helps you to see the world a little differently. By expressing myself with that intention, I was able to find both an outlet for expression and a catalyst to be myself.

VC: I enjoy its illusion of permanence and its ability to record a version of reality.

CT: Being a 14-year-old girl who wanted to be in punk bands, but instead took photos of the punk bands as my way 'in'. Photography has always been my way of getting access to something. I'm good at becoming incredibly interested in something for a short period of time, and then dropping it, but photography never got tiring for me. I occasionally stray away, but it always drags me back.

Where you find inspiration for new work?

MM: Going outside when the light is right, spending time going on day trips, and looking at my photography books when I wake up too early.

NRD: New people, new places, new perspectives. My photography relies on the moment, and the product is just as much a result of my interaction with the subject and environment as it is to the vision of how I saw it.

CT: I'm a (relatively new) photo editor, so I'm looking at photographs more than I ever have. I'm often looking for a rather utilitarian purpose, i.e. can I hire this person? Will this person do the job I need to fill? But it also means being keenly aware of what contemporary photography looks like. This is, of course, a good and a bad thing. I find myself looking at a lot of archives. Photographs that weren't supposed to be anything more than a documentation. I read writings and interviews of other photographers, especially Robert Adams, Paul Graham, and Torbjorn Rodland. I go for walks.

How would you describe your own photography and shooting style? What do you like photographing most? Do you prefer to act as the fly on the wall, or do you immerse yourself with your subjects? Do you use photography as a process or a means to an end?

MM: When people ask me "what kind of photography do you do?" I like to say, "if it looks nice, I'll take a picture of it, and I'm also a portrait photographer".

NRD: My process is trial and error. It is how I learned to shoot and the mentality I take every time I pick up a camera, so that I can truly capture the photograph as it is instead of worrying about what I've done before and after. I started out taking candid life moments and have now transitioned to more editorial work. So there is a mix of capturing and creating moments, but the best photographs happen when the subject forgets about the camera. That is my biggest challenge and aspiration.

CT: I realized recently that I make it very hard on myself to answer this question. I made a body of work where I photographed men who catcalled me on the street, but I would never consider myself a street photographer. I've always made work about Ohio and my family there, but I wouldn't say I'm a personal diary kind of photographer. I'm currently working on a series of pictures of and about swimmers, but I'm definitely not a sports photographer. In that way, photography is my facilitator.

Has identifying as a woman ever hindered you while shooting -- especially if you're traveling or shooting in a male-prominent environment?

MM: No, I don't think so.

NRD: When I first started taking photographs I was covering a lot of live shows and shooting bands. Most of the time I was the only girl, and when you're in the pit you have to fight to get the shot. Sometimes you only get two songs to do it and you have to be aggressive, but I think if anything it only propelled me to work harder. I once shot a Crystal Castles show in the middle of a mosh pit; surrounded by seizure-inducing strobes, fighting off the crowd with one hand and holding my camera with the other. They are some of my best live shots.

VC: It has not hindered me, at least not yet. I travel a lot, and I almost always travel alone, so I am wary of my surroundings and I never let my guard down. But I actually find that some strangers trust me more when I ask to take their photograph because I am female. I can think of a few instances where it may have been harder to get a subject to trust me if I were male, especially when it comes to families with children.

This isn't to say everything has gone smoothly for me. A lot of people approach me when I'm setting up my large format camera, and though I can say that most of these interactions have been perfectly normal, I still get nervous when I'm in an unfamiliar town. Drive-by catcalling and unwanted stares are common -- I just hope that they don't escalate into more dangerous situations.

CT: Isn't being hindered a part of being a woman? Feminism, for me, is about unlearning. No, that joke isn't funny. No, I will not lighten up. No, my appearance is beside the point. I will never know what it's like to be unhindered, but that's important. If you are unhindered you have privilege, and I think it's very important for people who are not privileged to be making pictures.

Have you felt like your work has been censored unjustly? Or have you ever found yourself censoring your own work before realizing you didn't have to?

MM: No, sometimes I wish I could post certain selfies on Instagram, but then I remember my Dad follows me.

NRD: Explicitly, no. I do think there is a different type of censorship that takes place in my process as an artist. There is always this inherent tension between creating something for self expression and putting a product out into the world to be received by an audience. While I don't think censorship in a traditional sense applies to the work I've produced to date, I do feel that I've been my own censor at times by holding back what I put out into the world.

Do you feel like you've found solidarity in other women photographers? Is that kind of community something you see as necessary in a male-dominated industry?

MM: Of course! But I think it creates a blanket idea of what it looks like to be a woman art maker and honestly I think my work is about a whole other set of ideas. Yes, the male-dominated industry is a dark looming cloud but I don't think that means we (as women photographers) should be making work about reclaiming girlhood and period stains.

NRD: I think there is power in numbers. I don't know if it's necessarily creating a community in opposition to a male dominated industry because I don't believe in perpetuating an us vs. them mentality, but I do feel that women need to work together to truly support each other. Especially in New York, there is a competitive tension that undermines progress. At times it makes you feel like nothing is safe ... your ideas, your job, your art, your identity. It's neither inspiring nor productive for anyone. I would love to be part of a community that exchanged and collaborated with others freely, knowing that the work created came from pieces of all of us.

VC: I do believe it's important for women to have a community and support each other's work. It may still be a male-dominated industry but it's inspiring to see so many incredible female photographers, especially young ones, kicking ass. As for personally finding solidarity in other women photographers, I'm not sure that I have. I love the work of the women photographers I've come across, though my own work has nothing to with my experiences as a woman. I live my life as a female and staunch feminist, but I simply take photographs of people and places I find noteworthy. I want to remove myself from my work, because I believe that that is the most sincere way that I can record and explore the world around me.

CT: I definitely feel I have a responsibility, as someone who hires photographers and therefore perpetuates 'the industry', to hire and support female photographers. With that said, I feel I have the same responsibility when it comes to photographers of color, LGBTQ photographers, and photographers who are just starting out. It's very important for me to see other women self representing themselves through photography. I find that very necessary. Gender aside, I think I find the most solidarity in photographers that think photography is important for the same reasons as I do.

Describe your process for when you shot your last series, the photos from the series you submitted to halfling. Did those photos reveal something about yourself that you didn't realized before?

MM: The pictures in the halfling zine are from when I moved from NYC to California and drove here in my van with my best friend Damien.

VC: As The Dust Settles was made into a series when I was scanning and editing the negatives, not before or while I was shooting. I took these photographs with my medium format camera when I went on a family vacation to China in the summer of 2014. I wish I could say I shot this series with a more concrete purpose, but I was strictly a tourist, taking in the beauty and poetry of the places I saw.

What has been the most empowering moment for you as a photographer? Or when have you found yourself to be most courageous when shooting?

MM: I feel this is a leading question. When the word "empowering" is used in relation with questions or statements about women and art, to me it feels cheap. At the end of the day I really believe in the word "empowering" but it has been used to the N-th degree to describe anytime women do something. I wonder would this question be asked to a male photographer?

NRD: Every time someone tells me they like a photo I've taken. It is an affirmation that I'm creating something that's true to myself and positive for the world.

VC: I met a man named George at a motel in Deer Lodge, Montana this past July. He was a Union Pacific foreman working on the railroad that went through the town. I approached him on the second day I was staying there and asked if he would be willing to let me photograph him. He was hesitant at first, but I knew if I didn't try my hardest to get his portrait I would never forgive myself. George eventually agreed and I drove him to a nearby field. As I was setting up my camera, he turned to me and said, "Thank you for taking my photograph. It makes me feel important, and wanted." And that for me felt wonderful.

CT: Empowerment is a funny word because it seems to only really be used when talking about women. I feel proud to have made the work I've made. I feel proud to have put myself into situations that previously made me uncomfortable. I feel proud to be able to successfully live in New York City. In general, I think making photographs is a pretty courageous thing to do.

Molly Matalon

Natalee Ranii Dropcho

Valerie Chiang

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