If you’re lucky, you’ve seen his work. He has a beautiful eye for seeing stark reality. Sam Herron is a photojournalist/photographer influenced by talented shooters like Lance Mercer and Daido Moriyama, along with design pioneers like Reid Miles.
A protracted descent into poverty gave Herron authentic insight into a reality others just pass by. Living in his car for several months on the streets of Omaha helped him, as Susan Sontag puts it, “participate in another person’s…mortality” and “testify to time’s relentless melt.” Says Herron in his biography, “Experience as a documentary photographer has instilled in me the belief that, to successfully chronicle a world, one needs a feel for location, empathy, and an understanding of the human condition.” Herron goes on to say “I now find myself driven to bring a unique window into the world of those who have been cast off by society.
Herron had a one man exhibit last year at Creighton University called “Street Life Chronicles,” which featured images of the homeless in Omaha. He has submitted for the Lange-Taylor Prize at Duke University this year with the exhibit. Here is a statement from the submission: “The street is full of broken things. We believe “Street Life Fragments” fulfills its obligations as an artifact of a world many people would rather sweep away than reassemble. We hope this artifact makes people stop and attend to its point of origin.”
Born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Herron grew up in Fort Campbell, a United State Army installation. His father was with Special Operations. His parents adopted him and soon they moved to Germany. Sam’s father passed away at a young age, and his mother and he relocated to the states. They lived in Aurora, Illinois, which is where Sam grew up.
Sam says that his father’s side of the family was bent on making him an Ivy Leaguer. “I was to have attended Yale University but my rock and roll lifestyle sidetracked all that.” Herron is a bass player. “I pursued a career in music and was under contract with MCA/Universal. The band I was in finished a recording and was to have toured with AC/DC and Van Halen back to back. We were represented by Creative Artis Agency. This was during the halcyon days of MTV.” Three weeks before the record’s release a squabble between executives at the label left the band high and dry.
Sam’s early photography lessons were learned in the public schools, where he said “Mostly we ran around unattended, camera in one hand and a joint in the other.”
All Sam’s photographs are taken with a pawnshop camera. A Canon SD990 point and shoot. Of the choice to use a point and shoot, Sam says “For the kind of photography I do they are very practical. Rather than the tool being cumbersome, it can be wielded quickly and to great effect. They are also less imposing. Basically people don’t take me all that seriously when I’m using one which helps me get into their headspace and keeps them in their comfort zone. Kinda more in the moment.”
Sam answered FIVE QUESTIONS by email.
1) Your photography is so powerful. Are you able to make a living from it? Will you speak to the challenges of living an artful life, monetarily? How did you become associated with Dr. Maorong Jiang?
SH – Money has never been a primary concern with regard to photography. I really didn’t give it a second thought until certain collectors began to ask if the shots were for sale. Frankly, it presented a bit of a moral dilemma. You rightly mention in your second question that many of the folks I’ve had the pleasure of photographing are in dire straights. They are also people with whom I’ve become acquainted and often friendly with, so this was an issue that gave me pause. My then roommate and benefactor pointed out how financially imperiled I was, and he had a very legitimate point. That made it easier for me to resolve accepting payment.
I was and continue to be exceptionally poor by some peoples standards. On the other hand when compared with a large percentage of the planet, I’m suffering from an embarrassment of riches. It’s all a matter of context. Let me put it to you this way. Revisionist history rightly points out that as a wealthy man, I was somewhat morally bankrupt. The excess of that time is a constant reminder of how well off the average person is. Perhaps a bit of my backstory is in order. Having a great deal of money was once a given for me, and like many afforded the privilege, a bourgeois lifestyle came in tow. Today I’m almost ashamed of my behavior, something I remember ever time I watch people comport themselves in a ridiculous manner while dining. Fine dining to be exact. Shameful really. But on to the rest of your questions, lest we turn this interview into a therapy session.
My association with Maorong began at a forty year retrospective of photography by Father Don Doll, SJ. Several large dollar Creighton donors apparently felt Father Doll should make my acquaintance. Dr Maorong curated the show and we met by total accident at the end of the evening. I mentioned that I was homeless, but capable with the written word and camera. He has a keen interest in the issues of poverty, homelessness, and social inequity. So began our friendship. There are rumors that we will take our ongoing project to Nan Jing University of the Arts soon, but nothing has been confirmed. He is a very nice man with a dog named Pluto. That’s a pretty hip name for a canine. Loyola University in Baltimore will be publishing a book with corresponding gallery exhibition to follow in 2015. I’m not sure what form the book will take. Tom McCauley and I have been working on “Street Life Chronicles” for about a year now. I think it may be another year before it’s completed. Most likely we’ll publish two books. The first being a book featuring a large amount of photographs with a small amount of text. Then later a small amount of photographs with a large amount of text. The structure and graphic design of “Street Life Chronicles” is utterly unique. It will be done when it’s finished.
2) Your subjects are often in dire straights, and I have read that you were homeless yourself for a time. How do you handle the emotions associated with the difficult circumstances of others? Do you ever get personally involved with your subjects, apart from the photography/art?
SH – SOUL CRUSHING comes to mind when reliving the entire period prior to the debut of “Street Life Chronicles” at Creighton University. Twice a day, seven days a week, 365 days, which for the mathematically challenged equals one entire year of my life. That’s what went into that exhibition. I went to my old homeless haunts twice a day to catch the right sunlight. That was the easy part. Having to endlessly live out my recent past with those who still suffered was the difficult part. You rightly point out that I was in fact homeless, living in a car, in the winter. I would not recommend it. Many tonight will be in a similar situation without the benefit of an automobile to sleep in, and it’s a sad fact that should give all compassionate people pause. My heart goes out to all those folks when the temperatures hit these kind of lows. Pray for them.
I maintain friendships with many of the people I photograph, both homeless and otherwise. It has been one of the great joys photography has brought to me. Generally speaking, I enjoy getting to know people, so that’s a very rewarding aspect of taking pictures. Priceless really. Endlessly fascinating stories and shared moments. Life is what you appreciate in the end.
3) What drives and inspires you to create? What are examples of some compliments that have stuck with or have affected you? What goals do you have in your career?
SH – Creativity has always been a blessing, or a curse for me, depending on the circumstance. I’ve never had much choice in the matter. When I’m not working on something that inspires me I’m susceptible to all my bad habits gaining traction. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Seven days a week has been the regimen. Hopefully that can be scaled back a bit for health reasons. We shall see.
I never think of my projects in the context of career path, so they’ll end up going where they’re bound to travel. What I do believe in is hard work. “For those whom much is given, much will be required.” Words to live by.
4) What is ‘cutting edge’? How can you take your art even further? Do you have a studio? Are you all digital or do you ever shoot film?
SH – The cutting edge… there is no honest way to explain it because only the people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. My studio is anywhere my backpack is resting. Film is a luxury I can’t afford, so it’s a digital world for me.
5) What is your personal life like? Are you married or in a relationship? Have kids? Pets? Hobbies aside from your career? How do you relax?
SH – My personal life is a wreckage of broken dreams. I’ve never been married, though not for lack of opportunities. I’m not in a relationship and that’s probably a good thing. Would you let your sister date me? I wouldn’t let mine. That is a joke by the way.
I’m a total let down for daytime talk shows that test DNA samples. No biological children. I have no hobbies and I never relax.