«When I was fourteen years old my parents sent me on a three-week camp bus trip across the western U.S. and north into Canada for the return to Michigan. The plastic camera I used was like a Holga but without the frills. I didn’t know at the time what the subjects I was photographing would look like as photographs. When the pictures came back from the drugstore I was astounded by the difference between how the photographs looked in comparison to my memory of the subjects at the time the exposures were made. I was not expecting the reductive qualities the photographs presented – two dimensional, motionless, silent and very small. Realizing this transformative power was a profoundly magical experience that continues to stay with me. What followed was a better camera - teaching myself how to process B&W film and print in a makeshift darkroom under the stairs in my parent’s basement. I started photographing every day and it has never stopped».
“Incantations”, 1983, Hand colored silver print (collection: Jerry Uelsmann/Maggie Taylor)
2. Have you always imagined your career as a full time photo educator?
«After completing my BFA I submitted an application to the Artist-in-Residence program administered through the Michigan Council for the Arts. The program placed artists in underserved communities. The opportunity was offered to me to work for a year in a rural part of Michigan with a ninety square mile school district. It was a farming community where the school bus picked up some of the students at 5:00 AM in order for them to make it to class by 8:00 AM. During the corn-harvesting season I remember students falling asleep in class because they were up all night to help their families with the harvest.
It was during this residency that I realized the rewards of teaching. My studio/darkroom was connected to the bus garage (the exhaust fumes were a little strong in the morning). It was here that I witnessed the sheer joy of students who never thought about doing anything ‘creative’ discover aspects of themselves that changed their view of who they were and what they can become. It was because of this experience that I hoped to be able to devote myself to teaching full-time at some point in my life.
Steven Benson’s Student’s work: Danielle Tauer
After completing my residency I continued teaching as an adjunct at colleges and universities in the Detroit metropolitan area for the next twenty years while running my studio, working as a freelance photographer and completing my MFA. In 2000 I was offered a full-time teaching position at the College for Creative Studies. I gave up my studio and have been able to “live my dream” ever since while still accepting freelance assignments on a selective basis».
3. Your freelance career spans 25 years- Can you discuss how this experience benefits your students?
«My freelance photography has been wide-ranging including studio and location work for publishers, marketing firms, advertising agencies and Fortune 500 companies. Within these realms I’ve done product, annual report, industrial, portraiture, automotive, editorial, food, travel, aerial, medical, underwater, architecture, photo-illustration…I love it all! A particularly memorable assignment was for Unisys Corporation. Traveling with two scale models of mainframe computers and four equipment cases (in one trip) I was flown to shoots at the New York Stock Exchange followed by Rio de Janeiro to shoot an Amazonian Indian taking a computer back to his village in a dugout canoe; Tokyo – a Monk checking out a computer at a Sumo Wrestling shrine; Moscow – a Russian police officer interacting with a computer in Red Square; Paris – a child on a tricycle opening a door on the computer along the Seine River with Notre Dame in the background and finishing at a manufacturing facility in Cheboygan, Michigan. The best thing about this job was that the concept was my idea. We were planning to do the same thing at the Seven Wonders of the World when IBM did it before we could get started(!) Everyone believed IBM was influenced after they saw our campaign. My students greatly appreciate the international real-world experience I bring into the classroom. So, I’m not only teaching them how to modulate light sources or digital techniques to achieve desired results – it’s also about living the life of a professional photographer. It is worth nothing that my interest in commercial photography is largely based on its ability to support my personal work».
“The Original” 2009, from the series Cultural Critique
4. This series of interviews features schools as well as the teachers. Can you describe the photography program at Daytona State College? What can your students expect of your program? Where do your alumni go after their experience at Daytona?
«The Southeast Center for Photographic Studies at Daytona State College is a very unique photography program. It is a consortium between the School of Photography at Daytona State College, the University of Central Florida and the Southeast Museum of Photography. The photography program is also unique with its emphasis on applied photography/digital video – lighting, creative problem solving, technical and conceptual skills combined with sound business practices are central elements of the curriculum. The Southeast Museum of Photography contributes an unparalleled educational resource providing world-class exhibitions, lecture series, film program and permanent collection. The SE Center is housed in a 30,000 sq ft state-of-the-art facility with more than 4,000 sq ft of studio space – three large commercial studios and four portrait studios. Students have access to a wide array of camera and lighting equipment.
Steven Benson’s Student’s work: Jennifer Lustig
The faculty at DSC and UCF teach across the four-year curriculum. This creates an engaging dynamic environment for teaching and, for students, a remarkable place to study photography. Students study for the first two years at DSC and can choose to complete their BS degree with a seamless transfer to UCF. While there are 350 photo majors studying in our program we maintain a warm user-friendly environment with a lot of personal attention devoted to each student’s needs and interests.
Our alumni include Pulitzer Prize winning White House photographer Stephen Crowley, Inc. Magazine editor Travis Ruse, The Photographers Survival Guide author and photography consultant with Agency Access Amanda Sosa Stone, Under the Radar magazine publisher Wendy Redfern, photographer Ed McDonald serves as a member of the National Board of Directors of ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) to name just a few. Recent graduates Erin Gordon (see Black Angel photo) is currently working on her MA in fashion photography at the prestigious London College of Fashion, Tyson Robertson completed his BFA at Parsons The New School of Design. Current students include Gaye Ajoy who is interning at Magnum Photo and Eduardo Silva interning at Milk Studios, ClampArt Gallery and ICP in NYC».
Steven Benson’s Student’s work: Erin Gordon
5. I was first introduced to your work through your book “The Cost of Power” in China. Please discuss the themes in your creative work and how they relate to the interests in your teaching. Are there specific projects or classes that you relate to contemporary political landscape? How important is this discourse in the study of contemporary photography?
«Much of the creative work I’ve produced has been described as ‘conceptual documentary photography’ (Bruno Chalifour, Afterimage). Many of my photographs certainly take on this character as a result of the overt intent behind the creation of the imagery specifically designed as socio-political commentaries as seen in the “Cultural Critique” series and the photo essay about the “Three Gorges Dam”. For me, this is one of photography’s most relevant callings. In regard to the “Three Gorges Dam” photo essay there is an aesthetic strategy in play. I knew the project was photographic and text based, so the photographs I made were designed to be very respectful, gentle, quiet images while the accompanying text is extremely political and aggressive. Also, since the number of people affected by the construction of the dam was in the millions I wanted to bring this event back to a personal level. As a result most of the photographs are not of large groups of people but of individuals going about their lives in anticipation of what was to be an uncertain future for them.
“Rain, Daning River, China” from The Cost of Power in China: The Three Gorges Dam and the Yangtze River Valley
From a purely philosophical position I understand (via Jean Baudrillard at a picnic in Arles) that the “photograph is not a document – it is a fiction”. To move this idea to the next level, based on an understanding of ‘reality’ as a construction, the photograph is a fiction about a fiction. Within documentary photographic practice there is always that edge we often have to walk between the desire to make aesthetically engaging photographs while at the same time not allowing that desire to overtake the subject of the photograph. In my case it is a tendency toward the surreal with strong visual dynamics. In a related sense I see sophisticated photographs that achieve this balance as marking points in space where internal and external intersect. I am acutely aware of my personal conceptual armature and don’t allow it to direct my analysis of student work (although I would admit it has influenced the selection of student work reproduced here). My goal as a teacher is to help students identify their photographic paths and help them succeed in perfecting their skill-sets and intellectual depth. I try to accomplish this by using an open system whenever possible to allow students the ability to respond to assignments in a way that is personally meaningful to them in the hope that the resulting photographs can contribute to building their portfolios».
“Mound Cover”, Costa Rica, 2011
6. You are serving on National Board for Society for photographic education. You are also a member of American Society of Media Photographers. How do these affiliations relate to your teaching career? What are the benefits your students enjoy through your connections with these institutions?
«I see my involvement with SPE as a member of the National Board of Directors and the American Society of Media Photographers as a General Member and serving on the Board of Directors for the Central Florida Chapter as an extension of my commitment to education and the profession of photography. This is not new territory for me. I’ve headed up several non-profit arts organizations prior to my arrival in Florida. My hope is that through my example students will consider taking on leadership roles wherever they may professionally land. I try to stress the importance of not simply being an observer of their surroundings but the significance of being active participants in the world – that their actions can make a difference».
“Madonna-Prisoner” 2006, from the series Cultural Critique