Man at His Best

ESQ&A: Justin Mott Talks Commercial Photography, Standing Strong Together And Shooting With Your Phone

The resident professional photographer of History Asia's Photo Face-Off talks the need for photographers to come together as well as how the rise of camera phones is actually a good thing.

BY Sim Wie Boon | Nov 22, 2016 | Arts

In the world of photography, the name Justin Mott is not unheard of. Starting his award-winning career as a photojournalist in 2006 in Vietnam shooting for The New York Times, Mott has since then shot over 100 assignments in Asia covering a variety of topics. 
Apart from working for the The New York Times, Mott's work has been published in esteemed titles such as TIME, National Geographic Traveler, BBC, Mircrosoft, The Guardian and many more. Now the founder of Mott Visuals, a commercial photography and video production business, Mott is also the resident pro-photographer and consulting producer on History Channel’s competition reality show Photo Face-Off. We talk to him about his journey, what it means to be a photographer in this age and his work. 

ESQUIRE: So tell us Justin, how did it all started?
JUSTIN MOTT: Well, my background is mainly documentary photography and photojournalism; I studied photojournalism at San Francisco State University and I got really into it.

At first I thought I was going to be a newspaper photographer but when I went to Southeast Asia, more specifically Cambodia to just work on my own projects, I fell in love with the region and its stories. It made me realise that I wanted to do more magazine work, more story-telling and more visual story-telling.

So I decided to move out to Asia, that was 10 years ago. I started out as as a freelancer for the New York Times and then dipped into commercial photography where I opened a destination wedding photography business, as well as a commercial photography and production business.

It’s been quite lucrative for me because most people use a lot of lighting, a lot of recreated moments, a lot retouching while we use very little of that, and so our clients seem to like that, and we’ve been busy, now we’ve grown, we now have three offices and I have about 12 employees.

ESQ: What made you realise that you'd like to branch into commercial photography? 
For the first couple of years out in Southeast Asia, I was travelling quite a bit for the New York Times. They sent to all kinds of places from Australia to Malaysia. But after all the traveling, I began to realise that this wasn't a sustainable living. I wanted to be able to think towards the future and getting older.

I started to realise that when I was out on assignment, I would be shooting a hotel and I would realise that the actual hotel wanted to buy the image. I thought, wow, this is a lot better money. I felt like I could shooting something else and I didn't feel like I was selling out. 

ESQ: Has the landscape for photographers changed? 
JM: I think a lot of clients want more for less, and a lot of clients in the commercial world want full rights. Photographers used to be united and used to have more rights to their work. They would use to be able to say, "Okay,you can use it only for a year. If you want to use it for 5 years, it's going to cost this much."  But a lot of photographers have caved in a bit and so usage rights in Asia now, you can just forget about it. they (clients) want to use everything. 

Unless you’re unified as photographers, it’s really hard to win that battle against these big companies. As far as being creative, I’m lucky, I think a lot of my clients come to us and they want what we do because our look is different; our style is different.

Shooting in Fiji w these adorable schoolchildren . #Fiji

A photo posted by Justin Mott (@askmott) on

I think the total value of photography might have lessened because there’s so much free content out there now. 

But the interesting thing is, there’s more interesting photography than ever. Because everyone takes pictures with their phones, they can get into photography easier by just using a camera phone then taking it to the next step by getting a professional camera, an SLR and then growing into that.

Look at Instagram, people are actually thinking about framing, they’re thinking about composition and about lighting! 

Shooting in Fiji w these adorable schoolchildren . #Fiji

A photo posted by Justin Mott (@askmott) on

ESQ: Some might argue that using a camera phone to take pictures isn’t real photography...
JM: I think it can lead you to be a better photographer if you take that step. I don't really know what the numbers are but I think photographer is the biggest hobby in the world right now. There’s an interest in photography. Like my hashtag #AskMott campaign, which is about teaching photography, it’s taking these people who are interested, anyone interested in photography and just teaching them how to make it more accessible and how to grow into shooting with a manual camera, and slowing down a little bit and thinking about your frame and getting better.

ESQ: What sort of questions do you get asked most as a photographer?
JM: People like to talk technical with me, they want to know what is aperture, what lens to use, what cameras to use and I try to coach them. I want them to think for themselves. I don’t want them to copy.

When I was in a Conon Photography clinic in Japan, I realised that a lot of us want that instant gratification because everything is so fast now, you take a picuture and you post it immedietely. So a lot of them will go over my shoulder, and take the same shot and be proud of that shot. I don’t want them to do that. I want them to look at me, take the shot and realise how I got it, and appreciate that but then think how do they wanna do it differently. I think the way to stand out now in photography is not to copy—anyone can copy—it’s to find your own style, find your own vision, sure you should watch other photographers and learn to them, but you need to make it your own, like any art, you need to make it your own craft. So I always encourage that.

There's also questions on the business side of things and I enjoying helping with that because it’s hard to learn about contracts, and all those kind of things.When I was in school, no one taught me that. So I like to give talks about what you should do when dealing with a client, how to get a deposit, how to make sure your client respects you.

ESQ: That's very true, a lot of budding photographers often get bullied by prospectful clients, how do they get around that? 
JM: Copyrights is a tough issue, especially in Asia. In the US, we’re a very litigious society, so people are afraid. So the first thing to do, whatever country you live in, is to understand your copyright laws, and in most countries when you take a picture, you own the rights to it, even if you took it for a client, don’t give those rights away, no matter who you’re shooting for. I think it’s important to get that in the contract. And when someone steals your images, you don’t have to be a jerk and yell at them, but politely let them know the first time, maybe the second time, the third time, yeah maybe I would sometimes threaten legal action, or at least explain to them.

The other thing is for a photography society where photographers come together and share. I think that you might not neccessarily have to publicly shame anyone in particular, but you can warn other photographers about hurtful clients. There’s strength in numbers, so if you unite and if you use social media as a tool to let them know, it helps.

Because I don’t want anyone to shame anyone, because I don’t want to bridges to be burned. But if I ask someone a bunch of times, ‘Hey, you’ve used my photos without asking,’ then what else am I gonna do? At some point, I’m gonna have to say ‘Ok, would you like me to put this on Facebook where I have x amount of followers and they’re gonna see that you stole my image’. That’s my image, you stole it, and like anything else, report them!        

When youre're a photographer, you're always on the defensive but photographers need to, as a community, be strong online together. Photographers live in an isolated world physically, but on the internet we have big numbers and we can work together to make sure and educate everyone. 

ESQ: Speaking of the internet, let's talk about social media. There are a lot of grey areas there, when photographers share their images on social media platforms, it causes a lot of problem when people share it. What would you say to that? 
JM: It’s tricky, I don’t really know the right answers eventhough I wish I did; What I do when something like that happens is to reach out and say, "Listen, I’m happy that you've shared this but if there’s a value proposition there and you share it, it should link back to my website or instagram account. I should always be credited for it, ideally I’d like them to ask me before they use it."

It happens to me a lot, but at the same time, I always like to tell young or amateur photographers, ‘don’t chase for credit because credit doesn’t pay your bills’, so I guess if I’ve already gotten paid for that image one way, then maybe I’m a little more accepting if that company uses it on their instagram but not on their website. But either way, I think we’re losing leverage as photographers.

ESQ: Since operating in Southeast Asia, how do you view the photography scene here where is it all heading in the next few years?
JM: I think the biggest growing market is amateur photography. Like I said, because people are fascinated with photography now; they’re interested in taking photos because they all have Instagram accounts, they all wanna take photos, but I’ve seen a lot of them growing into using a professional camera, or a pro-zoom camera were you can use different lenses. 

The professional photographer scene is getting better and better each year. Just from me living in Vietnam, I’ve seen people getting quite good, quite educated about photography, and clients as well. Most people might think the value of images is dying, but what I’m finding out is that some companies are actually starting to spend more on photography because they see so many outlets for it. It's definitely growing more, and there's an increase in Asian clients that see the value of photography.

ESQ: Through your experiences with Photo Face-Off, how has it shaped you and given you insights into photography?
JM: When I started in photography, it was quite a communal field. In my school, we were all very competitive, but we talked a lot of photography. Then when you become a professional photographer, you become quite isolated: friends who aren’t doing as well don’t want to hear about how well you’re doing while other friends are afraid to share information. 

Through my association with projects like Photo Face-Off and the Canon Photo Marathon, I got to meet all these people who are enthusiastic about photography, and that enthusiasm grew making me excited to talk to them. Things like the show and the marathon has connected me back to with the audience of photographers and amateurs, and now I feel like I can teach photography, and I can teach it on one-on-one is fun, I do workshops from time to time, but now I can teach anyone who wants to learn. When people ask me a question privately, I’ll say, "No post it publicly and let other people learn."

And I’m trying to encourage a debate, I’m trying to encourage people to talk about photography and I’m trying to give them access to a professional photographer.


For more of Justin Mott, visit his website and check out more of Photo Face-Off here.