Talking with Photographer Porter Yates about His Photography, Part of Tonight’s EyeEm Awards in Williamsburg

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After leaving his engineering job five years ago, Brooklyn resident Porter Yates became a globe-trotting photographer who has takes portraits of cultures in far-flung Tibetan villages and ramshackle dwellings in India, photos which are gripping in their granular display of daily life. Yates, who is quick to say that his transition from engineer to photographer was not an instant adjustment, is among the finalists to be recognized at this year’s EyeEm Photography Awards in Williamsburg.

As a festival that recognizes advancements in visual communication, EyeEm aims to spur debate about the future of photography. The event hosts talks about where the practice is heading as new concepts like wearable and light field technology influence the medium. There will also be lectures about the efficacy and place of photography in today’s digital media landscape.

Yates is still a relative newbie among the 200,000 applicants EyeEm received over a six week judging period, but for Severin Matusek, EyeEm’s VP of Community and Festival Director, the photographer’s nascent instincts speak to a specific, graphic honesty. “What truly struck us with Porter is his dedication. His photos show an outstanding sensitivity toward the places and people he meets and he’s driven by an unbound curiosity to tell the stories of the cultures he explores,” Mutasek writes in an email.

We recently spoke with Yates about his affinity for travel and the underrepresented cultures he documents around the world.

Brooklyn  Magazine: How and why did your interest in communities from around the world develop?
I’ve always loved geography and learning about different places in the world. I used to study and memorize maps and encyclopedias as a kid. I visited Europe in my twenties and always enjoyed the lesser known locales. I find traveling expands my horizons and pushes my limits, so it was a natural progression to start visiting more distant places. I remember feeling overwhelmed the first time I landed in Bangkok; it was so far away and so different from all the other places I had previously visited. I was alone and had no one to talk to about the experience. Now, landing in a new place by myself is routine, as there is a skill to traveling that takes a while to learn, though I still get scammed now and again.

What it is it about Tibet that attracts you specifically?
When I first traveled to Tibet in 2013 I had no expectations. I was fortunate to be set up with a great local guide that helped me navigate the country and the culture. He provided tremendous insight into the history of the place and what the current conditions are like. It is an area that is complex and humbling without being overwhelming, and not many places are like that.

You have a background in engineering and briefly worked in the oil industry. At what moment did you decide to change your career and reorient your life?
It was in 2010. I was experiencing a lot of change in my life, and I wasn’t happy with the direction it was heading. Quitting my engineering job was more difficult than I anticipated. It was very hard to walk away from something that I put so much time and effort into. It took me three years to discover photography and to understand that it is a field I want to dedicate myself to. However, I still like the technical details of engineering. I’m currently examining some projects that would incorporate my engineering background with photography.

Was it difficult at any point to reorient your life after establishing a career, especially when it comes to pursuing a profession without much structure
Yes, I still struggle with this. There is something very comforting about a structured routine. When I’m working and shooting abroad I have a strict schedule, usually up before the sun and out after it sets. At home, I work alone and can go a full day without speaking to another person. I am working on balancing the two so my life abroad and at home is not so dichotomous.

For more of Yates’s work, you can check out his Instagram here or his website here.

Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonster 



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