Lucky Shot: Interview With COOPH Photographer Craig Semetko

Words by Matthew Vanatta
Photos by Craig Semetko

Craig Semetko started traveling the world as a performer and comedy writer. Working for some of today’s largest corporations, Semetko found himself in a number of far-flung locals and decided on a whim to start carrying a camera with him whenever he traveled.

This is isn’t an uncommon story, many people carry cameras when traveling. However, Semetko’s journey is uniquely inspiring as he went from traveling amateur photographer to world-renowned documentary and street photographer in a matter of 10 years. Something he attributes to luck or as he prefers to call it “serendipity.”

Since picking up a camera at the age of 40 Semteko has traveled the world documenting different cultures from the US to India. He has shown alongside and been endorsed by some of the most legendary street photographers in the world, he has been endorsed by Lecia and COOPH, and has transitioned into becoming one of the most prominent street photographers working today.

Hey Craig, how are you doing?

I’m doing well. How are you?

I’m great, where are you located these days?

I’m in Los Angeles currently, I actually just got back from Chicago late last night. It’s just a two hour time zone change, but I’m exhausted.

That happens every time I fly back home to Minneapolis. You grew up in Detroit right?

I did. I was in Detroit until about 10 and then we moved to the suburbs. I lived in Detroit until college and then I moved to Chicago and lived there for 15 years before moving to LA. I’ve lived in LA since then, but have missed Chicago and was fortunate enough to figure out a situation where I can live in Chicago for the summers.

Did you get into photography while living in Detroit or Chicago?

For most of my adult life, I was a writer and comedy performer and I worked for large corporations helping them write sketches for big corporate events. In 2000 I got hired by Motorola and was traveling all over the world for these corporate events. I thought I should probably get a camera because I didn’t own one at that point. I figured that I might not ever be in these places again. I bought a cheap camera and I was outside of Shanghai and took a picture of these peasant women traveling up a stream in a boat and after I got it developed I was like ‘wow this looks like it belongs in National Geographic or something.’

That must of been a hell of a picture.

(Laughs) When I look at it now I realize that it’s not the greatest picture, but it’s not bad. The most important thing was that it lit a spark and I realized that I could use some of the free time I had as a performer to tell stories in a different medium.

 

So after that trip did you just dive headfirst into photography?

When I got home from that trip I thought I needed a bigger lens. I thought if I had a big zoom lens I’d be a good photographer, which is completely wrong by the way. When I got home instead of buying an expensive lens for a cheap camera I ended up buying a Leica and 35mm lens, and that’s how it all really started.

Do you think your background as a writer and performer helps you capture more humanistic traits in your work? It feels both humorous and vulnerable.

I think it does 100 percent. Photography itself doesn’t do anything for me, Henri Cartier- Bresson said: “Photography is nothing, it’s life that interests me.” When I bought my Lecia they gave me a Leica catalog that had an interview with Cartier-Bresson who is arguably the greatest photographer of all time. He really invented street photography. I just look at photography as an extension of telling stories, human stories, through just different mediums.

Has he been the biggest inspiration for your work?

Yes, after I bought my camera I became obsessed with his work and for the next 7 years, I just pursue photography as a new found passion as I felt I had sort of sold myself out with my comedy work. I decided I would just shoot for the love of it. I tried to emulate his work and his lifestyle and 7 years of shooting later with no goal I ended up showing beside him at a gallery in Durango, Colorado.

Wow, that’s amazing. Do you think portraying people while there in the midst of their daily lives or in a humorous way helps humanize people that might be thought of as others or might be marginalized?

Well I’ve never really thought of it that way, my most recent book on India is much more serious and poignant than my first book, but there are definitely some humorous things in that project. I don’t recall actually having any kind of an agenda in India other than shooting common human vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies.

You have had what many people would consider a dream career, you found success with your work in a relatively short amount of time. What do you attribute to your success?

(Laughs) it must be because I’m so handsome, I just don’t know what else it could be.

(Laughs) Yeah me too.

No, it’s funny that you ask that because I got a Masters degree a few years ago and my thesis was on Serendipity in Photography, and in my photography in particular. I did a whole speech about increasing serendipity and how my work is purely 100 percent luck. I think I’m just the luckiest guy on earth, and I know it sounds vague, but I think there’s just no other way to explain it.

But there is some formal training if you have a masters in photography.

(Laughs) my master is in consciousness studies, not photography. I have no formal training whatsoever. I made some movies in high school that got a pretty good response, but it really just comes from a combination of storytelling and having an appreciation for good design. When I took that initial picture of these women on the bridge I was standing on a bridge and I took the picture of them coming up the stream in landscape or horizontally. As I’m standing there it occurs to me that the stream is vertical, and that the boat they’re in is vertical, and that the line of trees are vertical so as they went under the bridge I ran to the other side and took the second photo holding my camera vertical and that’s when I got the picture that changed everything for me. So I guess there was an innate ability for composition, but that’s it.

What’s a piece of advice you’d give to aspiring photographers that see your story as inspirational and want to emulate your path?

Well after I bought that Lecia I spent a lot of my nights in bookstores looking through photo books by the photographers I admire. When I teach workshops I always tell the students to look at the work of the masters. Find the type of the photos that appeal to you and consume as much of that work as possible. You might feel like you’re copying them or ripping them off but nothing is original and when you shoot a photograph it’s going to come out differently. Especially if you’re shooting people. Learn from the work of the masters.

Any new projects we should be on the lookout for?

Well, I’ve been working on a project on the United States and I’m trying to get it wrapped by the end of the year. Right now you can buy India Unposed my second book through my website and feel free to follow me on Instagram at @semetko

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