A conversation about NFTs: Leslie Spurlock

The Endemic AMA with Leslie Spurlock was a record-breaking one with so many amazing questions and a guest that is a huge inspiration to the whole community. There’s nothing but respect for Leslie and her work and lots of love from all our listeners she touched and moved. How was our last Twitter Space find in this recap or full recording.

What’s your background as a photographer and artist? Are you trained and how did you get to be such a creative and innovative person?

Leslie: I started many years ago back in the film days and out of the blue I decided I want to be a photographer. I did go to school for photography for a couple of years and I was originally doing travel photography and then I took off for quite a while and had kids. My passion was photojournalism and I figured I wasn’t getting any younger, so while my kids were still fairly young, I ended up going to Haiti (was there a total of 6 times). I lived with the rebels when they took over the country and ousted the president, I covered tropical storm Jeanne and much more. Ending as a single mom, I had to make a real living and since photojournalism doesn’t really pay the bills too much I ended up shooting weddings. I was doing it for 14 years and travelled all over the world shooting weddings, creative portraits, engagements, bridals, boudoirs, everything like that and then. And while I didn’t like photographing weddings at all, I loved my clients. Every single one of them.

Afterwards, I was getting remarried and I didn’t have to shoot weddings anymore, so I took some time off. Then the pandemic hit and we were pretty much staying home and then I saw George Floyd protests and movement happening so I went to Minneapolis to cover it and then ended up shooting 17 protests across the US. I also shot hurricanes and became a storm chaser so I do that as well.

What was the hardest thing that happened to you while you were in Haiti, some story that you had to be on your feet and really had your head in a bag?

Leslie: There’s been so many. One time in Haiti I covered the tropical storm Jeanne that killed 3000 people. When I got there, there were bloated bodies on the streets and it created a mudslide as well so people were washed out to the sea and some were buried alive in the mud. I photographed this one handedly sticking up out of the mud and I was walking in water with dead bodies — it was horrific. But the people there were begging me to get their story out. They wanted the world to see these pictures and what was happening in order to try and get more help.

In Soleil, the guy that was driving us took off and left us there and it was just my friend and I photographing the tires burning in the streets when all of a sudden rocks and bottles were being thrown at us. So one of the residents pulled us into this open-air shelter where this one guy started firing his gun at us and it was really a close call. The only thing I could think of is how bad is this going to hurt? Are they gonna shoot me in my head or my stomach or what? And some of the residents surrounded us and tried to get us out of there and they were able to convince the guy to stop shooting at us and they walked us out of there. So these people saved our lives that day. And then I also heard about a father and son who had been cut up in a dumpster, so I climbed up into the dumpster and photographed this father and son who had been chopped up. At that point, I decided the world doesn’t care that I’m taking these images of people and dead bodies and stuff. No one really cared anymore about Haiti and what was happening. So I ended up making a decision to leave because if I couldn’t do any good with my photos, there was no point in taking these types of images if they couldn’t help the people. And I’ve always been about trying to help people with my work.

How did you end up partnering and working with Zuma press and what was the experience?

Leslie: I joined them because I actually had the assignment to go cover hurricane Jeanne with an agency from New York. I went there and made it through somehow and took shots and then the nightfall came and everybody was having a hard time transmitting images. I was sitting on the roof with the New York Times guys and even with these big satellite equipment, they were having a difficult time getting things out. The next morning I went out and shot some more and then went back to Port-au-prince to try and transmit the images and my agent was so mad at me because I didn’t make it back through the floodwaters at night just to get his images — he didn’t care about me or my life. So I ended up contacting the Zuma press and they were happy to take them. They have been so nice to me since then, even if I make some mistakes they are there for me and it’s been fantastic to work with. Any time I do photojournalism, I’ll still submit it to Zuma.

What were your first experiences with NFTs and what’s your feedback on the technology and community?

Leslie: I started hearing about NFTs back in August through another storm chaser and I was like, what the heck is this NFT stuff? I followed some of the NFT people and took up my Twitter feed more and more because I knew I had to build a community. And I saw my friend (also a storm chaser) making quite a bit of money doing this so I decided to go ahead and give it a try. I made a lot of mistakes minting my pieces on Foundation in the beginning and ended up blowing about $2000 of mistakes. But, I’ve learned my lesson since. Until my first sale on DEC 31 and even after it, I grinded every single day from early in the morning till late at night, spending much time on Twitter and that’s when I realized how much more this NFT world is. It isn’t so much about selling it is about the community. I met so many great friends and people from around the world and it’s become a huge part of my life because of the people here. I mean, we all still feel frustrated when we don’t sell. Now I’m not so worried about it but we all go through that because I know it takes time and that the most important thing is this community we have. And even if I don’t make any sales from now on, I would still be here because of this community.

What I’m bad at is curating and naming my collections. I’ve always been a terrible curator for my own images and also for giving titles and descriptions. Some will have really long descriptions, some will have the description I put when I was submitting to The wire because that was easy. I’m bad with words and sometimes I won’t even put out a collection because I don’t know what I’m going to title these things or to tell about them.

Qs from the crowd

What story do you feel you have to capture? Because there is always some conflict, two sides of stories, you can take one side, be neutral or cover everything, so what is the story that you as a photojournalist capture?

Leslie: It varies depending on each thing that I cover. I do try to cover both sides, but when I first went to Haiti and lived with the rebels, I had to set myself apart from everybody else and I was asking the rebels to tell THEIR story. However, there were certain situations where they killed people or there was one time when they had a woman down on her knees with a big sun hat on and tears streaming down her face and the rebels had a machine guns pointed at her head and she was looking up at me and crying. I took that shot even if you know that looked bad for the rebels. It was something that was happening and I was still going to take that shot. And I do that anytime that I go to a protest or anything like that. I can’t help but be biased but at the same time I’ve also got to cover both sides especially because I work independently, I’m not on some assignment so I can do whatever I want and I try to cover things more from a documentary standpoint. In my work, you’ll probably see some bias in there, but I will still show some negatives within the side I’m covering. I’ll do both.

Would you like to work for a big media house?

Leslie: I would probably make a better living and cover more things because right now I fund my own stuff so I can’t go as much. But, I haven’t really tried to get on with any specific agency. I’ve taken assignments before but I actually prefer to work on my own because I can pick and choose the stories and tell them the way I want to tell them, show the truth, which is what I try to do.

Is there a story that you really wanted to capture, but for some reason you couldn’t?

Leslie: Yes, Ukraine. It makes me sick to my stomach that I’m not over there right now. I wanted to go to Ukraine about a month before things started happening. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get there, but hopefully, at some point, I’ll be able to cover some more of the things that are happening.

How did you jump from there to storm photography?

Leslie: Since I was having to shoot weddings and I wasn’t doing my photojournalism and wasn’t getting any adrenaline, that was my release, my adrenaline type of work because shooting weddings is the same thing over and over again and I needed to have more of an adventure. So I ended up doing storm photography and storm chasing and I formed a group called Tornado sirens, mostly a group of storm chasing women.

Is there something you’re afraid of?

Leslie: I won’t do anything that involves heights because that’s the one thing I’m scared to death of. While I would love to go to Mount Everest, you would have to fly me to base camp because I will not trek there. One time I got asked to shoot a wedding and they wanted to hike up to the summit of this mountain. I tried to hike up and they were really patient with me, but we got to this one point where I had to hang on to the side and try not to fall so I started crying and couldn’t go any further. I handed the camera to my second and he didn’t quite make it to the top so the bridesmaid ended up getting the summit shots for us. I shot the rest of the wedding so they forgave me luckily.

Seeing so much violence and disasters, how did it change you as a person and your work?

Leslie: What personally affected me is when I would come back home, it was so hard to mix with my friends afterwards and go back to my daily life because they were all so materialistic and when you go to these places and you see what others have to go through, you realize that what you thought was important in life is not important anymore and that we are so lucky. I don’t have to worry about having any power and stuff like that. But some people have to live this situation day by day and it made me sick to see people that cared more about materialistic things like clothes they wore, cars they drove and houses they lived in. It’s like, you people need to open your eyes and see how the rest of the world is living. Quit worrying about this. It’s always affected me. And regarding my photography, I don’t know that it really changed my photos as I’ve always tried to tell stories with my work and be a storyteller (even at weddings).

What are some of your influences in photography? What are some other photographers that you look up to?

Leslie: For me, it’s mostly been photojournalists, like Lindsey Addario who is such a huge inspiration. I’ve never met her, only seen her videos and have her book, but she is a true war and conflict photographer and amazing in what she does. And she’s actually been kidnapped three times and is still going. Amy Vitale covered Kashmir and she was a huge inspiration for me, along with Chris Hondros and so many people that have died in covering these events and then Ron Haviv who is now my current mentor who is one of the greatest photojournalists in the world and he’s over in Ukraine right now. Then the great Eddie Adams who is now deceased and James Nachtwey. Those are the heroes out there, trying to show what’s happening to the world and trying to get the stories out there and are just really dedicated to their craft. Those are the people that I look up to and looked up to for so long.

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