You know those times when you meet someone and you spend hours talking until the sun comes up? This is what happened when I first met the incredibly talented Miami based photographer Zachary Balber whilst working on a project together in Portugal.
For a few days we did not go to sleep before 07:30am! I get inspired when people share the story of how they became who they are today, what their journey has been and what they have overcome to achieve what they have.
Let me tell you, Zachary Balber is someone who has turned his life around to become one of the most creative eyes I have seen in a long time! And as you know, I don’t get easily impressed. This interview is raw, he speaks from the heart and I love the realness of it.
Photography is a subject very close to my heart as it brings memories back from when I was a child and my cousin who was a photographer would use me as his little guinea pig to take lots of shots and use my shadows for his body of work.
Photography was also my first job at age 18 when I was in a new country, so anytime I meet a photographer who has passion, is down to earth and open to share his story, I simply have to listen and find out more!
So let’s talk about this gifted, accomplished & artistic photographer called Zachary Balber. The first thing you’ll notice when meeting Zachary is his ginger hair , bright eyes and smile. He is very humble and will go above and beyond to make sure he gets that perfect shot for you. He is one of the best real estate photographers in Miami and is now venturing out to new countries to share his gift.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, he moved to Miami at a young age where he received his first camera at age thirteen. Fast forward a few years to when he was attending New World School of the Arts and got hired to assist the world renowned fashion photographer Bruce Weber. A position that many coveted, it took him to assist in campaigns for Abercrombie and Fitch, Vera Wang and Vanity Fair Magazine. After that, Zachary’s passion shifted toward the fine arts side of photography and away from the fashion world.
Zachary graduated Summa Cum Laude, majoring in creative photography. His work has been displayed in Art Basel, OCCA, MOCA North Miami, Nerman Museum of Contemporary art, Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, Locus Projects, Spinello Gallery, Fredric Snitzer Gallery, The Armory, Art Hong Kong and Primary Gallery.
As you can see, he knows one thing or two about photography, so let’s find out what he has to share with us today.
Hey Zachary, very nice to talk to you again. Still blown away by our conversations in Portugal, that was fun, so refreshing! You have such a creative eye and way of looking at photography that I had to share part of your story today.
Let’s begin with the time when you got your camera at 13 years old. How did you feel when you picked up that first camera & when did you know you wanted to be a photographer? I know you overcame a lot to be where you are today. Can you share with us that incredible turning point?
Yeah, I think when my father gave me my first camera in the rainforest in Costa Rica and I proceeded to get lost in the rainforest and one of the tribe guys we were staying with, he found me wondering around and turned out I was being tracked by a panther and didn't realize it because when he found me, he was talking but I couldn't really speak Spanish, and he showed me the paw prints on the floor, I was like oh my god! my first Dory moment with the camera! ( To the audience: My nickname to Zachary is Dory! from Finding Nemo, because when we were in Portugal he was being distracted by everything en route to anywhere, so he became Dory!, hence his first Dory moment… )
I was getting tracked by a major predator without even knowing, so that was kind of interesting... and I think, fast forward.. I didn't really know the camera was going to be such a big part of my life.
When I was 18, I got busted with drugs and all kind of stuff, facing a good prison sentence, and I got pardoned. The red sea split for me, my judge offered me to go to rehab, so I didn't think twice about it, I went off to rehab, I was going to go to school for business, and after getting in touch with myself in rehab and learning the steps of recovery, I said " I want to go to school for something that makes me happy!" and I knew I liked photography, I knew I wasn't the best painter or whatever, I knew I could draw, but I had no technical skills, all I knew is that I wanted to do it. So by the time I arrived at college I was ready for it. I had been through the ringer with the law, my family relationships were on the fringe because nobody trusted me, it was a nightmare. So little by little I started to rebuild in school, and I think that turning point was essential to what I am right now.
I learned my ethos from the rules of recovery, like how to be honest, tell the truth, do the right thing. The way you keep everything is by giving it all away, and I don't think that concept is normal to most people. Most people are takers not givers, so, photography became an extension of how I give.
At the age of 21 you got to work with one of the best photographers in the world. The one and only Bruce Weber, tell us how that came about and how was that experience?
Oh man! That was crazy. I was waiting tables during my undergraduate, and this photographer came in with his crew, had a light meter around his neck, scarf around his head, I didn't really know essentially how famous Bruce was, and my manager was like "hey, you are studying photography, that's the best fashion photographer in the world, and I was like no shit!", so I went up to him and they were getting really to leave, I was right in the middle of lunch so it's a busy restaurant but I left my tables, I went up to him and I'm like " hey, my name is Zack, it's nice to meet you, I'd love to do anything , I'll shine your shoes whilst you take pictures", and he proceeded to ask me where I was from, we are both from Pennsylvania, so we hit it off, and I told him “hey, I'm going to be waiting for your phone call, so even if you call to tell me to go fuck myself, I still want you to call me because I'm waiting for your phone call”
And he called me back!, 2 weeks later and he said “hey, Abercrombie summer season, you ready? We got you a hotel suite, we'll pay you this much” And off I go, not knowing absolutely nothing about fashion photography and assisting Bruce Weber on his photo shoot for Abercrombie.
Fast forward through that relationship, I watched a master do photography, his sense of composition, he used to talk about him and Diane Arbus, who was a master in photography, their conversations and he said you know photographers only want to photograph certain things and he said when I was younger we all photographed everything! Weddings, the whole thing, and he asked why don't you do that?
I was like nahhh, I don't want to do that. But he said you have to say yes to everything, if somebody is going to pay you to take pictures, just say yes and see what happens.
So, I think that is really the seed he planted in addition to going back to school. He said, “this is my dream Zack, you need to go do your dream”... and I'll never forget it.
So how did you feel being back at school after working with Weber?
Honestly, I think some people would feel demoted, because years after people have asked me why did I leave that relationship or what happened, that that was my meal ticket.
I just don't see people that way, I don't care how powerful or amazing a person is. I don't treat people for what they are, I treat them for who they are with me.
There were plenty of times in school when I was very grateful that I had a professional experience to lean on and understand why I was in school and what the potential was.
Bruce Weber is one of the highest paid photographers in the world so I at least had one person who made the dream happen in my line of sight. I think we all need heroes and he was my first hero that I ran into.
Talking about school, I hear one of the faculty members gave you a chance after school, how did you get your work displayed at the art shows?
Going to school, one of my professors was a gallerist, a very well known gallerist in Miami called Fredric Snitzer. He is still very well known and appreciated. I started working with him after I got out of school as his gallery helper, I did everything. I took pictures, I took inventory, I showed artwork, I tried to sell artwork to people who came in, and Fredric represented all of my friends, who also graduated from school, so when collectors would come in, I got to talk to them about intimate stories with my friends who were the artists, and they were always interested in those stories because if you are going to buy an expensive piece of artwork from a young artist, you want to know that they are serious about their practice, that is not bullshit.
Fast forward a couple of years working with Fred, and I finally come up with this body of work, sort of me dealing with the fact that I’m Jewish and I avoided it my whole life because I was ashamed of it, so I made this body of work and a few of his collector buddies saw some of the pictures, and convinced the dealer to do a show with me.
It was a good show and then I further convinced him to show it at Art Basel Miami Beach and on the last of the show, this guy was walking by the booth, I was working there and it’s weird being an artist and showing your work in an art booth at Art Basel because in some ways you want to talk in third person because you are talking about your art and you are trying to sell it, it’s weird you know?
So this guy comes up to me and he asks “hey, whose picture is that?” so I’m like “oh, is this artist called Zachary Balber“, so I’m talking in third person and he says “ well I was going to leave because I didn’t like anything here until I saw this photo” so I say “oh man, I’m the photographer, it’s weird, I was trying to be third person, I’m sorry”, and he was like ‘ well, have you ever had a museum show?” I said no, he said would you like to?, so I introduced him to my gallerist who is sitting down, talking with his buddies and not paying attention, and I was like “ hey, this is so & so from the Nerman museum in Kansas, he wants to talk about a museum show of this work, and I was basically doing my gallerist job for him.
I think a lot of the advances in my career with people have been because of my efforts, I’ve met a lot of talented people, but it’s the people who are persistent who end up getting there not usually just the talent.
So how does Zachary jump from the art shows to becoming one of the best real estate photographers in Miami? And not just your average real estate, but photographing some of the most exclusive homes around?
Well, I don’t know that I’m the best, but I think that almost by accident I learned to do real estate pictures. I was a struggling artist and I started photographing all the art shows in town and it was decent money, but it was a lot of work and the art world expects a lot out of photography. So I needed to diversify my portfolio to keep making a living and my main goal after getting out of school, was to not commit to a 9-5 and be a slave because I saw a lot of other people take the safe route and do the 9-5 and the steady thing, but then you are told what to do, your creativity is impossible, you are essentially making other people a lot of money and you are getting paid very little.
So the transition, I called this company in Chicago and asked them if I could work with them. They were looking for photographers and I basically taught myself how to do it. They had an editing team that edited their pictures for them and I think to cut the long story short, I learned about the corporate structure of photography, of how to find photographers, how to multiply your business, because if you are photographing and editing, there is no way you can keep up with that if you are in high demand, you’ll drown.
So the company I was working for, VHT, asked me to call a few realtor teams, and this group and these other people and one of them said they were the best realtors in town and very easily gave me a chance to shoot with them. And so I am being escorted through Tommy Hilfiger’s house , the CEO of Burger King, famous Indian singers and people I don’t even know, because I think a little bit of extra effort goes a long way in photography and my little extra effort in real estate ended up landing me with monster accounts.
Now that the readers have a feel of who you are, let’s talk about some of your work which I find fascinating! Tell us more about the luxury real estate homes. How do you capture those magic shots?
Like anybody who takes pictures, when you take a picture you have a beautiful sunset let’s say, and you want to put a person in there, you can either focus on the sunset or the person, but usually not both. So you have to negotiate. Photography is basically a series of negotiations from start to finish.
I realized I didn’t have the money for lights or for all this jazz that most photographers have, so I learned photography backwards. I taught myself how to edit in Photoshop and I learned what I needed to do in each photo shoot in order to get all the information I needed to come home and hand blend 10 or 15 exposures per image. It would take me an awful long time when I first did it and I started to develop this process that people couldn’t get enough of.
The problem became that I couldn’t spend all this time doing it and photographing it at the same time. So I developed my own editing team that could help me with this. So for about a year and a half, two years I taught and entire team of guys how to edit they way I edit and that is how I was able to keep up with the demand.
On one of you websites the zacharybalber.com, you have the Can I get a Dollar shoot. Where did you get the idea for it?
Oh man, the Can I get a Dollar shoot. I guess as a white guy walking around Miami, they assume because of the color of my skin that I must have a lot of spare money, so every time I would go into a convenience store, people would ask me for money and I got really sick of it, I felt like I was a girl being whistled out on the street, I started to get annoyed but I also recognized that these people were people and I didn't like to pretend that that person was not trying to talk to me so around the same time I had lost my father, I didn't really want to talk to anybody, not even my friends, anybody. I got into my own bubble.
So I would go into the stores to buy something and anytime I would go, these guys would ask me for money, so I had to renegotiate that situation, and I used photography to change the life around me.
Photography is a tool that allows me to deal with life differently from other people because people don’t normally use that tool. I decided that if you are going to ask me for a dollar, I’m going to take a portrait of you, because I don’t want to forget that moment.
So I would go all over Miami, and if people asked me for money, I would have my camera and I did these portraits. They would ask me, what are you going to do with my picture?, so I would ask them, what are you going to do with the money? And they’d say, “I don’t know, maybe get a beer or something” and I'd say, “maybe do an art show with these and I’d love for you to come”, so I’d give them my card and I know it may be hard to keep in touch, but give me a call once in a while and I’d love to let you know the progress…
Wow, that’s an interesting way of dealing with people asking for money. How about The Mannequins? I found that one really interesting and creative!
I think I call this series “Desperately seeking Susan”, because I love that movie and also,rest my sister soul, I lost my sister to an overdose at 21-22 to heroine.
Dealing with my sister, her drug addiction all her life, then moving from Pennsylvania to Miami at the age of 13 because my mom could not handle me anymore because I was getting into fights and she was like , “go live with your father”, and my dad was dating a young girl named Margarita, beautiful, slightly older than my sister, and I just didn’t understand the whole situation. So it was that person that was attractive enough that I wanted to be with them that started it all. And this was my father’s new wife, so I had a hard time dealing with the fact that my dad was dating someone that was a couple of years older than my sister.
So, I’m in Miami, this woman or my new stepmom, she is doing laundry for me, and she is giving me food but she was like this mannequin that was in my life, and although we tried to have a relationship, I just didn’t respect her as my superior because she was slightly older than my sister, so fast forward , I got this mannequin catalogue on the mail, and I flipped through it and I couldn’t believe it they had all types of mannequins, so I ordered a few and decided to play with them in my house, I would set them up as people, like my stepmom, I would repositioned them around my house for a couple of years, I think in photography people focus on the gaze because as humans we have a desire to connect with our counterparts, and the same goes with photography, people want to connect with what they see, but I love the idea that when I photographed the mannequins up close, they looked like a person but there was no soul there, there was no one to connect with and that is the way I felt with my stepmom, there is a person there that is intimately in my life, but I can’t connect to this person, so she might as well be a mannequin.
So that series came about me dealing with trying to connect with people but being unable to do so because they felt like a mannequin.
That was really powerful and than you for sharing some of those hard moments in life. Zachary, you have so much work out there that is hard to choose just a few of your shoots! I know we’ll be doing a follow up next year, so it’s ok! We can do a part 2 then! For now, tell us about Intimate Strangers! I know people will enjoy learning about that one too.
I believe that, the best artwork comes out of me or maybe people in general when you are not trying to make artwork. Like I said, photography, a camera, printing images, they have become a way for me to essentially find out what's wrong with me.
I like to observe people, to study people, it informs me. At some point I realized, because I’m a white guy with a camera and I take good pictures, that all of a sudden I start to have access to these environments, people, art, houses that previously I did not have access to, so to me as an artist, I was like, the equivalent of putting on a Burberry shirt, Burberry pants and walking down the street and people, shouting at you because you have a Burberry shirt on.
I thought that that was really weird, that all of a sudden my social status changed because I’m a good photographer. And I’m being escorted through some of the most elite homes in Miami, and another places, and part of me was bored after a while of taking real state pictures.
No matter how big or beautiful the real state home was, it just became another monotonous ritual, so in order to liven it up for myself, I started to take pictures of myself while the realtor wasn't looking in the houses.
It all started like a little kid, not knowing anything, and amusing himself, I wasn’t hurting anybody or doing anything. After a while I started to get kind of inventive with what I wanted to do, so I started to bring wigs that my mother gave me after she survived cancer, nice blonde wigs and big afros from Halloween, masks, essentially I had a destabilized moment when I walked into homes that are 15-20 million dollars, and I can’t even believe that people can live like that, so here I am , the white Jewish kid, that everyone assumes, that because I am Jewish, that I am privileged and I have all this money, so I love the idea that I was being escorted through some of the best homes in Miami as if I was going to buy them.
I’m a big photography nerd, there is a writer whom I am in love with whose name is Susan Sontag and in the book of photography she writes on the idea of self portraiture, and that in our world, to be photographed, is to matter, because essentially people don’t take pictures of things that don’t matter right?
She also went onto explain that you cannot own reality in any sense, but you can own an image of reality so it’s more permanent, it's finding a way into that reality, so I’m in this crazy multi million dollar reality with crazy furniture, chinchilla rugs and things that I cannot even think of, and instead of feeling envious or feeling less than, I decided to pose as if that was my house, so I’d get naked, or I’d feel pretty like a girl and pose feminine, or I would put on my mom’s cancer wig because there was two paintings that looked like the wig I had in my bag.
One of the great things is that I don’t know anything about the environment before I go into them, and I don't know what I’m bringing, sometimes I don’t bring anything! And they are all produced in a minute or less, because the realtor or the person escorting me through the house, is right there! Usually I have to tell them to close the door because the best shot is from behind the door, so in a minute I have to take that shot! And that is how Intimate Strangers happened.
Thank you so much Zachary, I love how passionate & humble you are. It is one of the first things that drew me to you when we met. I remember when we were in Portugal en route to the venue, and we got derailed a few times because you were just like a little kid getting inspired by the new buildings, the light, the people, it was fun to see your process and I knew then that your work was going to be amazing! I know quite a few photographers, but they don't get as excited as you do. Where does that creativity come from? Why do you think that after all these years you still get as excited as you do when you shoot?
That’s a good question and I have a great answer. When my sister passed away and my father died and I was left with a house that I didn’t have to pay bills for and I was more sad than I ever had been because I had lost my two best friends , minus my mother you know, at that point I had bought a gun, I came home, put it to my head, tried to shoot myself and it didn’t work. So I go into the backyard, to see if I had done something wrong, I shoot it into the ground and the way I thought about it is, I wasn’t supposed to die, because I tried and it didn't work, so at that point, I didn’t know what else to do, I didn’t know how I was going to pay bills, how to eat, I didn’t know anything, and I didn't really have any help because my mother moved away at the same time that all of this came crashing down on me, so my mom kind of threw me in the pool and told me to swim. What happened was that I started to create, I started to paint, I spray painted my body gold, put on bell bottoms and started to dance my ass off in my studio.
The point of the story is that I went to school to study art because I thought is something I wanted to do, and then what has happened over time is that art saved my life, if I didn’t have that process of creation to deal with life and the unfairness of it, the uncertainty of it, life and photography have become a therapist, the way I negotiate with the world, so I think art is never going to go away for me, because its how I process the things around me. Creativity is part of me.
Wow that is really powerful, I have to say it was an honor to work with you and see you in action. As you know I get inspired by people and I sure got inspired by you in Portugal. Your story is quite powerful and you are an inspiration to the next generation, to those who might not be in the best of situations now but can have hope that they can turn their life around. So kudos for where you are today.
I always say that is never too early or too late to start a new passion in life or change paths, what is the best advice you can give to anyone who wants to become a photographer?
First step is you have to figure out what is wrong with you! Why do you want to do photography, because most people don’t make it doing what they want to do, if photography has already become a way that you heal yourself or you deal with reality, then I think you have a good chance of being a professional photographer because if you are not doing it everyday, then you are probably not going to pick up this tool and start to do it
Zachary, looking back a few years ago when you started and where you are right now, how do you think Social Media and Technology have impacted the photography industry?
Oh my god!, It’s a huge impact, a lot of people think that because everyone has a camera on their pocket is a bad thing, a lot of the old school photographers get disgruntled and upset because of the new use of photography, to me it's wonderful! Because I can talk to anybody, anybody that has a cell phone and they know more about photography than they ever have, and video and how to frame pictures, how do you take this exposure, etc.
Social Media allows us to share our world with the rest of the world which is really wonderful, that’s why I became a photographer in some ways, because I wanted to share what I see with you!
And I think the whole world is doing that. Technology exists for photographers but you don’t want to get into the business of buying and selling very gadget out there and being essentially an output for this photography companies. So forget all the lenses, fancy stuff, you don’t need it! Be creative with what you have!
What would you say have been some of your most memorable moments in your career so far?
Oh man, well we just had one, so I’m going to speak about that. Going to Portugal and meeting you Elise, who are this ball of wonderful energy and being surrounded by other wonderful creatives, the best poet in the world Saul Williams, who is my hero or all heroes, Rosario Dawson kissed me on my cheek and I nearly passed out and fainted, we got to meet Sol Guy, Thavius Beck, guys that I never knew who absolutely inspired me, that moment in Portugal made me realize how powerful people are, and they say you are who you hang out with, so I am making sure you are people I am going to hang out with as much as I can because you are who you hang out with and maybe the books you read!
You are correct, there is a saying that says you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, and that can be not just in person but who you talk to on the phone,etc. and thank you for including me on one of your most memorable moments Zachary as I completely agree, being surrounded under the same roof by this set of amazing people whilst we all worked together in the same project was incredible! So let’s share a recap video of our journey in Portugal. For sure one of the best weeks I’ve had this year!
This is raw footage, not edited, pure simple photography by Zachary in motion of the event we just did. Enjoy!
So what’s next for Zachary Balber? Any shows coming up?
I have been hesitant to show my new body of work, the Intimate Strangers, I would challenge anyone who reads this to look up the word ‘Intimacy’ and the word ‘Stranger’ because if you look at the definition of those, it will explain to you the body of work and I have been afraid to show it because at the time certain clients of mine might have gotten offended that I may be trying to hurt them or offend their image, but it really wasn’t about them, it was about me in my daily life and making it better for me, and here I am years later and it seems people enjoy it when I’m making myself laugh and happy, so that is what’s next in the horizon, a show in New York with the Intimate Strangers and we’ll see what happens!
What or who inspires you in life?
Honest to god, one main pillar throughout my life who I got to meet in Portugal was Saul Williams, in so many ways I think of myself as a poet, because I have always listened to hip hop, I really related to the struggle of, that you have this system against you and you are trying to go through even though there is adversity at every turn, and I think people like Saul Williams who came from 0, they made it, and I think, another person Nile Rodgers, said recently “the best part of my job is that I get to join everyone’s band”, and I think that is the best statement in the world, because I get to do that as a photographer, I get to join everyone’s band. I don’t have to be the band, I get to be one of many, instead of the limelight,
I think Saul Williams is going to love that answer and we’ll make sure he sees this! Plus hey, he might be one of my next inspiring interviews! As I know people would love learning more about the amazing person that he is and whom we got to spend time with in Portugal.
Oh man, he really was an inspiration, his lyrics, the way he talks about the world..
I know, his ethos, everything, it was just incredible, I truly agree with you, to be in the presence of Saul Williams, to actually share, to be with him under the same roof was for sure an honor.
Now what does Zachary enjoy doing on his spare time without the photography?
You know, because I spend so much time in photography and I sometimes see photography even without the camera, and I think this would be a great picture and that would be a great picture, sometimes I realize that life has to be experienced and not photographed, or documented in any way, so it turns out that I have a green thumb! And I love taking care of plants and my garden! So I have cherry tomatoes, three types of basil, oregano, green peppers, I love taking care of plants!
This is awesome! Probably the best answer I’ve had so far! Thank you!
With all the experience and wisdom you have gathered so far in life, what advice would you give to your younger self?
It’s so funny, because my friend who is a therapist is the one who pointed this out to me, that I have adult Zack and little Zack and they both exist in this giant person, so sometimes little Zack is very sensitive and shy and afraid of the world around him, so I think my message for him as the adult is that is going to be ok, to trust yourself because you are going to be ok.
Tell us something not many people know about you
My life is pretty much an open book, so I don’t have many secrets, but there is one thing! Ladybugs!
Ladybugs have become a symbol of people who have passed away in my life, who are no longer here, so when I am in the presence of a ladybug that falls on me or my car, I have to stop. I have actually stopped in the middle of traffic, get the ladybug of my car, put it on a leaf, then get back into my car, so ladybugs for me are like God coming down and kissing my cheek.
That is definitely something not many people would know! Thank you for sharing!
What country would you like to visit that you have not been to as yet?
I always wanted to go to Africa, because I originally fell in love with nature photography when my dad gave me that first camera, so I would love to go to Africa and hopefully not get eaten by the predators! Just go and get lost!
Love that! And finally, what is the one item you cannot live without? (Apart from your camera of course! )
What am I attached to? I’m bonded to my Kangol hats!, my little artist hats, I don’t know where they came from, but they have become part of my attire!
Well there you have it guys, an insight into Zachary Balber’s world. It was hard to choose just a few images to share in this interview because photography cannot be explained, it has to be seen! Through his websites and social channels you’ll be able to enjoy more of those amazing shots and next year we will share the Intimate Strangers collection after he does the show.
I think we can all take something away from Zachary, and that is not only to experience life to the fullest, but to capture some of those magic moments through photography. I get to travel a lot, and I used to buy useless junk as mementos from my trips until I realized that material things only take space and collect dust. Now I rather take some good photos that in a flash can bring you back to that moment.
Like Zachary said, we all have access to cell phones with some pretty decent cameras, so go out, experience life and capture some of that magic!
You can also follow his new Instagram channel: instagram.com/ZacharyBalber
Live, laugh, be bold, take risks & be super mega awesome