I sat down with Charles Coleman on a warm fall afternoon to talk about his personal creative process and how it was developed. As our friend and official photographer, Charles has been hugely influential in the development of Set in Stone’s visual presentation. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed talking with him.
The conversation began by asking Charles how he would describe himself as a photographer/videographer and he flatly said that he wouldn’t. Since this is how I know him I was a bit surprised by his answer. He went on on to explain that calling himself a photographer is an oversimplification by labeling him by the media he chooses to work with rather than what he actually does. He considers himself a storyteller, a teller of tales that are human and relatable. Looking back over his life, this is something that has surfaced over and over again. He recalls that as a small kid he could not be shut up. He would follow his mom and others around regaling them of accounts from his day; often times with proud embellishment. His narratives were so nonstop that he would eventually just be tuned out and his chatter became mere background noise. He eventually grew out of following his mom around and found music as a way to share and connect with people. Regardless of the medium he chose, Charles has always felt a keen need to connect with people through story; even if the story was not his own. For years music became his chosen method. That is until a hike with a simple point and shoot camera opened his eyes. On this hike with camera in hand he developed illusions and hopes of capturing images and emotions worthy of National Geographic. Needless to say, there was no award winning shots gotten, but what he did find was a new way to share stories that afforded him a rare moment of focus.
Charles confesses that he can a difficult person to converse with, because his mind and attention are all over the place; progressing and evolving very quickly. All of this pace and distraction recedes when he is behind the lens. His mind calms down and is able to process and deal exclusively with what is in the frame. This new found focus was a bit of a revelation and provided ample motivation to invest more time and energy into photography. Four years later he is working for himself as a full time photographer while continuing to hone his skills in a mentorships. Though still photography open the door, he has since expanded to include video in his varied storytelling tool box.
I asked him what he would be doing if he was not working in photo/video. He looked at me, took a drink and said with a confident resignation that he would be a homeless guy playing a guitar on the bridge. Of course, we both laughed, but since he never offered me an alternative answer I believe that regardless of the possibilities relating and retelling stories would be central.
Despite Charles’ success, he says that he is just following two very basic qualities of being human. One, we must create; in some way, in some capacity, humans need and love to create. Second, we love to showoff and share what we have created. Sharing what we make is more than just a vain act of hubris, but is an attempt to connect to others. It is through creating and sharing that we are able to put a little of ourselves out there and share ourselves. Through photo and video Charles not only gets to create and share his own work, but enable others to do the same. For him, it doesn’t get any better than this; not only is his day job sharing stories, but showing photos and videos open another opportunity to tell a story about the work itself. He has positioned himself to revel in the layers of stories that surround all of us.
I asked him what it is that he finds so compelling about the process of producing and telling stories. The way he sees it, we all come from stories and we are all generating our own story, but these stories are so close, so under our noses, that we are unable to see them. As far as we are concerned it is just what we do everyday. But the act of taking in other’s stories, processing them and them retelling them gives us not only insight into their lives but our own. Telling and processing stories informs Charles’ personal point of view and helps him see his own story unfolding around him. As it turns out, for Charles, storytelling is a self-reflective, cathartic practice. Narratives give us perspective; especially when you are the one telling the story.
I asked him about moments of risk becoming a self employed photographer. He said that when he decided to go full time, of course, was the most stressful, because you trade all the perceived comfort and stability as an employee for the freedom and possibilities of making your own way. But he has found that to stay interested and motivated he has to be constantly taking small calculated risks, incremental challenges. He likened it to learning to swim and how at first the deeper you get the more risk you feel you are taking; but at some point, deep is deep and your comfort level is all the same. It is all about developing skills that lead to comfort and this new found level of comfort leads to new possibilities of risk. He actively seeks out the opportunities that offer a bit of uncertainty because these are the ones that improve his skills and open new doors. From here we moved on to talk about what it is to be creatively satisfied. Charles said that the moment he can no longer create will be the moment is is not satisfied. He would rather burn out trying to create rather than not be creating at all. It is the creative process itself that is the satisfaction. Of course he wants and strives to create wonderful work, but for him, and I expect many of us, creating crappy stuff is always better than not creating at all.
This interview turned out to be more about our innate impulse as humans to create and share than about Charles’ specific process, but Charles and I both agree that it is important to recognize how this need is both unique and universal. We all process, motivate and create in incredibly individual ways but we all deeply desire to do it.
I apologize for how short this interview is. I usually record the conversation on my phone, but it turns out that if you leave your phone on a steel table in the sun it can actually get hot enough to stop working. So I only got 20 minutes of a 35 minute interview. My apologies and I promise I will not be making that mistake again.
See more of Charles’ work here: