An Interview with Seth Hancock

You can learn more about Seth Hancock and his photography by visiting SethHancock.com and the Facebook page for "10 Minutes with a Stranger".

How did you get started with photography?

Just like most other people who get started, I was handed a camera when I was very young and just completely... I became engrossed in everything photography and with what the possibilities were that you could create with a camera.

I was handed a Polaroid SX-70 as a kid and then grew from that to a Pentax K1000, which I think probably anyone over the age of 30 has used at some point. From there, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you want to look at it, I listened to my parents and I went to college and then got a degree in something that wasn't photography. I spent a number of years working in advertising and marketing and then in television.

Then one day, on February 9th of 2004, it was a Monday, I woke up and just went, "I never want to do this ever again." And I threw away every necktie that I ever owned. I walked into the offices and I said, "I quit. I'm done." From that point forward, I just started pursuing photography. And I will tell you, it's been the toughest thing that I've ever done in my life but it's the most rewarding a career or vocation that I've ever had.


A lot of people have a hard time deciding to become a professional artist and making that choice. You went the route of doing something more conventional and business-based and then you realized that this is what you love and committed to it.

I tried. I think what's interesting, in talking with a lot of photographers, is in some ways we've chosen the worst possible time in the history of photography to pursue photography as a vocation. My year may be off by one or two, but somewhere around '06 or '07 everyone realized that the DSLR was affordable and that you could produce great images for little to no cost, relative to what photography had been going for. And while this makes it the most challenging time to pursue photography, the affordability and accessibility also make it the best time.


There are so many tools out there now. What kind of gear do you use?

I shoot with two cameras, like all good photographers should. I shoot with a Nikon D3S and for that, I have three lenses. I've got the 14-24mm, the 24-70mm, and 70-200mm. I also shoot with the Phase One. For that I just have the kit lens, the 80mm f/2.8.

What's cool is, with Borrow Lenses, people are realizing that medium format is starting to become accessible. Notice I didn't say affordable; it's accessible. Borrow Lenses now has Hasselblad lenses; so if you have a Phase One, you can buy a little adapter to use Hasselblad lenses. So now you can actually rent medium format lenses for various cameras, which I think is very cool.


When you shot "10 Minutes With a Stranger," what did you take take on the road with you?

I had one camera and two speed lights with me. In all honesty, when I first started out, I also took two Elinchrom Rangers with me.

I left a lot of things open. I just said, "I want to go where the road takes me. I want to photograph what I see or who I see." But what I learned very, very quickly was when you approach someone and you say, "I'm traveling across the country doing a photo series of the random people I meet; I'd love to photograph you," you can't stop and say, "Do you have 20 minutes while I go and set up all my gear?" Most people don't. Those rangers are 25 pounds each, just for the pack. It doesn't include the lights, or the stands, or any modifiers you're putting on there. That's lugging 50 pounds, plus your camera gear. It's not quick. So after the first two people I said, "Okay, the rangers are staying in the car or staying in the hotel room. They're never getting used ever again."

I have two SB-800 speed lights with me and I would just walk out to a person. I never had an assistant, so in a lot of the shots I'm holding the camera turned portrait, so it's turned 90 degrees, and I'm holding the light. I think there was actually one time that I had to use bare bulb on the flash because of the time of the day. I had a LumiQuest Big Bounce on the light. [In some shots] I'm holding a light in my left hand and I'm photographing with my right. There are times where I'm dangling the light over my head with my left hand and photographing like that, or taking it over my head so that the Big Bounce is perpendicular to my right ear and I'm lighting from there.

That's what I did. I mean, I just had one light most of the time. There's one shot in an apple orchard; in that shot, I'm physically holding two speed lights with my left hand and photographing with my right, because I needed as much power as I could get. I never told myself who I could photograph, when I could photograph, or where I could photograph. So, I would just meet somebody at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, in Minneapolis, on a really hot fucking day, where we're all sweating and my grey shirt turned completely black. I'd have 15-20 minutes with this guy... and that's it. I had to do what I had to do.


How did people react to you? What did you expect going into it?

I had a lot of positive responses. It was interesting because I didn't know what to think. I didn't know what would happen.

I'll try to answer both of those for you. Of the 150 people that I met along the way, I only had three people turn me down. I don't what to attribute that to. I don't know how or why that is. All I can say is that I think that a lot of people really like the fact that someone wanted to know about them. That's the only thing I can attribute it to.

Once you get your speech down, you walk up to people and say, "Hi, my name is Seth Hancock. I'm been traveling across the country doing a shoot of people that I meet." It becomes like pulling a string on the back of your neck; you say the same thing over and over again. But what happened was that people just loved the fact that someone wanted to hear what they had to say; that led to the success of the series and getting people to open up.

The hardest part was getting people to open up and write something. Here's the thing. I'm originally from the Midwest, from the Detroit area. I think that people from the Midwest are different from people in LA, or in New York, or in South. Midwest people, we're just honest. We shake your hand. If we say we're going to be somewhere, that means we're going to be somewhere. We'll shake your hand and say, "Okay, I'm going to do this for you," and it's fine. I think people see that. I think people understand if you're really sincere or not, and if you're full of bullshit. I've lived in New York and LA. The one thing I jokingly say about Los Angeles is that, if you're going to live there, you need to make sure that the batteries to your bullshit meter are always charged. I think people see the sincerity and the honesty of really wanting to get to know somebody. I think that's what made this a success; I genuinely wanted to learn about these people and hear what they had to say.

Now, to answer the part of the question; what were my expectations?

I don't necessarily know if I had any expectation; that's what makes something like this work; not having expectations. You have to go out and say, "Let's see what happens." If you're smart, you make adjustments along the way. You see things that happen and you just respond, "Okay, that didn't work with this person. Next time, I will do something a little different." That's where you have a great opportunity to get to know somebody, get them to open up, and just be flexible. That's what worked and that's what I did.


Did anything about it surprise you then? Were there things that were unexpected?

The fact that people opened up, how easy it was to get some people to open up was incredibly surprising.


People wrote down some really personal stuff; people were so vulnerable with you. Not just with you, but then with the project as a whole.

I think that speaks to the fact that they trusted me. In the simplest terms, I think that's what it was; it's that they just trusted me really unconditionally. The hardest one, and I think this is one of my favorite stories, is a guy named "Joey Z." What I like about Joey Z, when you first look at that picture of him - he's got the mohawk, he's got the beard, he's got the tats, he's got a mechanic's shirt. When you look at his eyes, his eyes are red and they looked angry. But then you go back and you read what he wrote and you realize that he had just been crying. It's a different picture now. I can tell you a quick story about Joey; a lot of these can be long.

I'm walking down the street in Buffalo, New York, and I'm going to an area that is known for its bars. I just happened to be walking by this one bar that has a little patio where people can go outside and smoke. As I walk by, I see Joey Z standing here. He had just walked out, lighting a cigarette. I initially walked past him and I thought, "No, you know what? Go back and just see; see if this guy will open up." I go back and I started talking to him, tell him my spiel, and I said, "So what's your story?" A lot times, with just asking that, just saying, "Hey man, what's your story? What's going on with you?" people would open up.

He tells me, "This is my life; I work here; I do this and I do that." I asked if he was married and he said, "No, not right now. My wife died last year." I was like, "Can you tell me about it?" He told me how she had ovarian cancer and it was pretty rough. And I said, "I would love for you to write about that in the book. If you can just write an open letter to her, what would your open letter say?" He's like, "I can't do that. Sorry. I just can't."

We had a beer and we just sat. I was still not even in the bar. I was still standing outside on the sidewalk and we just chatted for a few more minutes and I just said, "Dude, you have to write this because if you don't do it now, when will you?" And he agreed to do it.

And it took him three tries to write it because he had to stop because he was crying. And he had to walk to the bathroom. He asked me to watched his beer, watch everything that was there. He had to walk to the bathroom and he kept his eyes hidden from his friends and so people wouldn't see that he was crying. He had to walk away on two different occasions. But the third time, he finished but he was still crying. I realized at that point (and I am not a megalomaniac and I'm not doing any self-aggrandizing here or saying what I was doing was cathartic) that I provided a platform for people to have some type of catharsis with what was going on.

There's a girl, her name is Erica. She's in the series. She's the girl who did not want to be photographed, so she's sitting on a chair and blowing hair up in front of her face. We were having fun with her picture. She had never talked openly about the fact that she had had a stroke and has blot clots and runs a risk of dying pretty much any day because she took Yaz when she was a kid. She had never talked openly about it. She sent me a note after everything was over, after the photos came out, just saying, "Wow, what a great opportunity. I've never really addressed this issue like I should have and meeting you helped me do that."

I'm not saying I'm changing the world. I'm not patting myself on the back. I realize that what I'm doing is not rocket science; I'm not curing cancer. I just gave people a platform to open up. That's what I did. That surprised me, how people would open up

I also had people who didn't. There are people who didn't make the book. There's one guy in Minot, North Dakota and it's an amazing photo. He's a fire inspector and I got him in front of this old fire truck and I stopped down the camera to where it was super dark in there. I just lit him with that light. So you see him and then it tails off with those old limish-colored fire trucks with the little yellow stripes. It's a beautiful photo but it will never make the series because I spent 20 minutes with him trying to get him to open up. He never said a word about anything.

So finally (I think his name was John), I said, "John, you live in Minot, North Dakota. You could live anywhere in the country because you're a fire inspector, so why Minot?" It was a pretty innocuous question. It was one of my bullshit questions that I threw out there. Anyway, what he wrote was just dribble. After, I'm cleaning up and packing my stuff and he goes, "Hey, are you almost done packing up your gear? I got to go." I said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm almost there. Give me a couple of minutes." He's like, "Yeah, my wife has MS and I'm the only caretaker and I've got to get back to her." I stopped and I looked at him and I went, "Dude, why didn't you write that? Why didn't you tell me about that?" and he goes, "I know it would have been too hard to write about."

Sometimes they were home-runs and sometimes they were singles and then sometimes they struck-out. That's why you have to keep going and try to meet as many people as possible.


Do you have any projects coming up? Are you going to do this again, going back from East to West?

I thought about it, and I'll be honest it's a mammoth undertaking. The trip alone was originally going to be 15 days. I thought 15 days would be good. It ended up being 47 days and 7,000 miles because, like I said, I didn't really have an agenda.

But what I did was tell people I was traveling across the country and they'd asked, "Oh, you're going to take Route 66?" And I'd say, "No, Route 66 has been done over and over and over again." I'm a big fan of Robert Frost. One of the poems resonated with me when I was a kid was "The Road Not Taken". I thought, "Okay, why don't I go up through Lee Vining in California into Reno and then over into Springdale, Utah down by Zion National Park then up to Salt Lake City through Wyoming and North Dakota, South Dakota; places that if I were traveling now, I would not be able to suggest to you because most of those roads would be impassable. I thought, "Why not take that route? I'll just take the road less traveled and see where it goes." And it ended up being 47 days. As you can imagine, 47 days of food, gas, supplies, and hotel ends up being between $6,000 and $7,000.


Do you have any other projects on horizon? Any other big dreams or small dreams?

Always. As photographers, we should always have dreams. I want to do more of the "10 Minutes With A Stranger"; keeping that alive and not letting the Facebook page die once I go through the people that I've met.

At the same time, I've commercial portrait and editorial photographer. The one thing that I'm going to be working on now is, if you look at the very first image on my website, the one with the 8x10s and then all the different faces. I don't know why I've never done anything with that, or done more work with that. That's something that I'm definitely going to be doing. Doing more of those and capturing personalities.


You capture people, in who they are more than just what they look like; you capture little pieces of them. You do it throughout "10 Minutes With A Stranger" and you it in that project with the 8x10s.

Thank you. My team, one of the things that they say, and I guess I take pride in, is that I'm known for taking people who otherwise might not be interesting and making them interesting. I dig that. I think actually that's cool. Like you're saying, I think it takes a special person to be able to pull something like that out.


Is there a particularly good piece of advice that you received that you'd give to people who want to become photographers?

Yeah, you know what it is? Honestly, work your ass off. I mean, that's really what it is. It's work your ass off.

Unfortunately, in this day and age with photography, it's like we all chose the worst possible time to try to pursue this as a profession. Not in the sense that we can't make it, because we can. But there's so much clutter that we have to cut through. The sad part is that it's incessant. It really is ongoing. It's like, you figure out, "Okay, I've cut through the clutter of this level of photographers. Now, I'm at the next level." Then it's like, "Oh shit. It gets even more competitive; it gets even better."

You've weeded yourself out of the 75% of all these other people out there who are calling themselves photographers. But that 25% that you're trying to get through, to get to the top 10%, to get even more work is just amazingly competitive; the people are really, really good.

I would just tell people, "Just work your ass off. Nothing is going to be handed to you and it's not going to come easy. Anything worth getting isn't going to come easy." If you really, really want to do it, you will.

Another thing, I get this question a lot from a lot of aspiring photographers; they say, "How do you develop your style? What do you do?" I'm like, "You know what? Just keep shooting, because your style will find you. And don't worry about what your style is and don't worry about saying, 'Okay, I want to shoot just like Gregory Heisler or I want to shoot like Dan Winters or Brian Smith, or somebody like that.'" You just go out and you just keep shooting and do what you love and eventually you'll find out what your style is. From there, you just hone it and work it.

In the words of Bell Biv DeVoe: "Smack it, flip it, and rub it down." I don't know. I have no idea where that came from just now or why I just quoted Bell Biv DeVoe.