SET THE WORLD ON FIRE:
"I don’t always get away with what I want."
WNW Member and Photographer #3769 Maciek Jasik spends much of his days setting off fireworks and smoke bombs, all in the name of art. Maciek came from Poland to the United States at the age of six, sponsored by the Arkansas Catholic Church. He speaks deliberately, fully articulating his words in a way that English-as-a-second language speakers are apt to do. Maciek is equally thoughtful in his work. He is playful in his purpose, experimenting with color and light in novel ways. Just don't call it psychedelic.
Like so many in this community, Maciek's path to freelance photographer was nonlinear. Maciek attended Johns Hopkins for political science and pre-law, though any legal aspirations evaporated upon taking his first law class. He then became a writer and editor and soon found himself teaching English in Japan. While in Japan, Maciek says he became overwhelmed by being in such a visually stimulating environment, which lead in turn to the pursuit of photography.
We spoke to Maciek about some of his favorite work, why he considers painting to be inspirational and devastating, and how he balances commercial work with personal projects. So much of what Maciek does requires his subjects' participation and a willingness to just 'see what happens.' However sometimes when there's smoke, there might be fire: “The second I got the image, the smoke alarm went off. I had to explain to the person I was staying with that there was no fire, that I was just shooting with smoke. Thankfully he was incredibly nice about and he really liked the image.”
Are your parents in the creative world? Do they understand and support your decision to not be a lawyer?
I think my parents as immigrants tend to be practical and as the next generation I'm less practical. They both paint in their spare time but they chose to be much more practical. So when I first started doing photography, they were a bit skeptical. But once I showed how determined I was, and I started getting more commissions, I think they realized how real the situation was.
Is it important for you to be a freelancer rather than going in-house?
It's really important for me to be freelance to have the time between projects to develop my own projects or do research. There's more and more full-time work being done in photography, especially since more and more businesses like fashion houses develop their own in-house studios. But in a sense that's kind of a dead-end because once you decide to do that, you really have no other options. You don't have any other content really that you can provide. But I understand that certain people have economic constraints that force them into that position. There's no judgment made, but for me I don't see any way besides freelance to really be able to do what I want to do effectively.
How would you describe your own work? How have you heard it described?
I've heard it described in ways that kind of unsettle me. People say things like "psychedelic" which I don't see or understand. But I think it's an interesting aspect that when people are presented with vibrant color they react in a series of different ways. I use color because for me, it's very emotional. People have a very strong response to it, so I use color to make landscapes and faces and bodies surreal and different and unexpected. When I meet people, I tell them I work in color, and that seems like a very simple response to them. But as they soon see, it is much more complicated.
How has your photography evolved over time?
It took a really long time to go from being an amateur to I guess a professional. You go two ways: you either imitate somebody, or you try to do something different. Doing something different is far riskier, far more difficult. I think commercially it's much easier to say you're the poor man's David Sims or Steven Meisel but i think it's much more rewarding to do something on your own. So it took several years for me to come into my own. I started shooting my A Thousand Souls project, my color portraits, in 2009, and that was kind of my break into doing my own aesthetic. But it took a few years before that really caught fire and allowed me to do things either commercially or otherwise besides working on my own.
Do you dabble in film as well?
I was actually a double major in political science and film. My first obsession really was film. I'd watch two to three films a day for months. There was a period after school when I lived in New York and I watched I think a film every single day for a year. And then I got completely burnt out. And I don't actually watch that many films anymore.
But I've started making video. I made a skateboarding video in Los Anglees in an abandoned mall. We strapped fireworks to my friend's skateboard and we did all kinds of tricks. I'm starting to work in film, but it's a very different application. The way you approach still image versus moving image is so different. With film you're taking all of these pieces of a puzzle and putting them together, whereas a still image is the entire puzzle. You kind of have to rewire your brain. So I'm in the process of doing that.
What have you gained from your experiences shooting commercial photography?
Commercial photography has really taught me how to perform under pressure, to stay calm, to stay focused, to understand what shots you can get safely, what you can risk, what you can't risk, how to maintain your composure so no one has any idea how disastrous things could possibly be... And that's really taught me a lot and really helped me in my own personal work.
What's your ratio of commercial work to personal work?
I used to have a ratio probably 95% personal, 5% commercial. Recently, I've become a lot busier, so it's probably been 95% commercial really. I've hardly had any time. I was traveling to London for Wired UK, I had a story for Huffington Post in Alabama, Fast Company in Phoenix. An ideal ratio is probably 50/50 but you have to just take what you can get, and when it rains it pours so I'm happy to work.