SpearTalks: Heather Powazek Champ

Posted on January 25, 2008 Under Art

In 1994, years before the Internet became the world's diary (or ashtray, depending on your point of view) that it is today, Heather Powazek Champ launched her first home page. Some form of addiction formed in her constant forays into self-publishing, and after some years the avid photographer found herself co-founding JPG Magazine, the Photoshop-restrictive publication loved well (if not equally) by purists and digital mavens alike. Today, Heather plays the role of Community Manager at Flickr, the hugely popular photo-sharing site.

We chatted with Heather about plastic cameras, digital vs. film photography, and the shortcomings of the iPhone, and learned a few things about ourselves — i.e., "˜The Perpetually Posting' — in the process.

Joshspear.com: What inspired you, initially, to start taking pictures?

Heather Powazek Champ: My parents. They were both inveterate shutterbugs. My sister and I found thousands upon thousands of slides when my father passed. My mother purchased an SX-70 when they were first introduced by Polaroid in the 70's. The sleet aluminum and metal camera became an object that I lusted and desired after.

JS: Do you have a favorite camera? If so, what is it, and what about it do you love so much?

HPC: Well, my cameras would tell you that I'm quite fickle. I tend to have year- long "affairs," and I'm currently very much enamoured with loading 35 mm film into a Holga. In all, I'm a fan of all things cheap and plastic. I do have a Leica M6 that I adore but am completely intimidated by.

JS: You still prefer (and will probably always prefer) film to digital photography. Why is this?

HPC: To my eye, there's something integral to photography that's not translating from film to digital. This isn't to say that I think that digital is crap, but there's definitely something missing.

I also think that a photographer's relationship with shooting is quite different when it's film and when it's digital. If I buy fresh Polaroid film for my pinhole camera, it's roughly $3.75 a shot. Shooting with an SX-70 is roughly $1 a shot. The choices that I make are an important and necessary part of my process.

With digital, you pretty much shoot "˜til your card's full. I guess, I miss the ongoing interior editorial conversation that happens in my head.

JS: If photography were to progress into a solely digital art form, what do you most fear might be lost?

HPC: Herm. A closer relationship with image making? That might sound a little poncy. Then again, with digital, it's cheaper (in the long run) and — as the cost of cameras fall — available for more people. It's hard to say. Digital is the natural progression of photography and hundreds of years of people endeavouring to capture a slice of the world around them.

JS: You have a very close relationship with blogging, both through your own tendencies and through your husband Derek — who was quite an early adopter as far as Internet communication goes. What does the Internet, as an art forum, mean to you?

HPC: I quickly became addicted to the sense of euphoria that I felt when I published my first home page back in 1994 — "I am Heather, hear me roar!" Granted, it was difficult then. You need to know some HTML and there weren't any books, but given the inherent templatization of blogging, it was more free. Don't get me wrong — I love the ease in which people can now share their voice (and millions of people are doing so daily). Something has been lost and as an art form, I think we've all become a little too complacent.

JS: How did you become involved with Flickr?

HPC: I was an early alpha tester, having created my account back in January 2004. In terms of joining the team, I pinged Caterina over IM to congratulate the team after the much rumoured and finally announced acquisition of Flickr by Yahoo! at TED in 2005. I blithely mentioned something like "please let me know if there's anything I can do"¦" and one thing led to another.

JS: What do you do there?

HPC: I'm the Community Manager — I can be a conduit back and forth between our members and the team. I also have days where I'm good cop or bad cop depending upon what's going on. There's an editorial aspect too, one that I very much enjoy in featuring some of the incredible work that our members share on FlickrBlog.

JS: In your own words, what has Flickr done for photography/photographers?

HPC: Flickr provided a collaborative space that has allowed so many to flourish, find their voice and share their view of the world. We've shared in the joy of the birth of a baby and the sorrow of the death of the loved one — the breadth of slices of life that our members have chosen to share is humbling.

It's sort of a flexible empty container of indeterminate shape. The members have very much crafted and are crafting an incredible variety of communities focused around so many different interests, conversations and explorations.

JS: In an interview you did with geeksugar.com, you claimed you were obsessed with your Treo… yet now one of your few methods of picture taking is with an iPhone. What won you over?

HPC: I don't know that I'm completely won over. I totally miss a dedicated qwerty keyboard. Wouldn't it be marvelous if someone developed one that you plugged into the dock at the bottom? That's most likely a heretical thought but I find myself sending our garbled text messages all the time ("are you drunk?" has come back on more that one occasion). That said, I think that the camera application is fantastic. The way in which you scroll through your albums, enlarge and reduce images is pure genius. Some aspects of the iPhone do feel a little "1.0" and I have high hopes for future versions.

JS: As both a writer and a photographer, what does the term "A picture's worth a thousand words" mean to you?

HPC: If this was a recorded conversation, this would be the part where I "erm" and "ahhhh" for an uncomfortably long period. How about"¦. some people are better with words, while others are better with images. I think that I fall mostly in the latter camp. "A picture's worth a thousand words" could be reminder that looking a little or a little deeper might bubble up more to the surface.

JS: What's next?

HPC: I'm on day 21 of a year-long project: Polaroid 366. Given that I haven't successfully made it through NaBloPoMo on both occasions that I've participated, it's a little daunting, but it seemed like a good way to celebrate a leap year.