Balance is an interview series with creatives about how they find balance in their work and lives.
I'm absolutely honored to introduce you guys to Mark Mirko, one of The Hartford Courant photographers who generously took me under his wing and mentored me during my internship (and since). I've long admired Mark not only for his drive to find different ways of telling the stories important to him, but also for his intense thoughtfulness about his work, and about our collective responsibility to the communities we serve.
I've always been impressed by Mark's creativity but there was one time in particular when I walked into the newsroom at the Courant and Mark had all these prints from the Colt factory in Hartford sprawled out on the table in the photo department. Like flowers, the prints were carefully arranged into delicate little diamonds -- something precious made out of images of rusted steel and cracking paint. Something beautiful arising from discarded and forgotten remnants of the past. It takes real vision to see beyond what is right in front of your lens into what could be.
I asked Mark if he could tell you all about his colt factory flowers and how they fit into his broader "peace photojournalism" work.
Mark: The Colt factory flowers came about while I was working on a story about the Colt armory's resurgence as an arts space. I shot the assignment with a DSLR but also shot still-life photographs with an iPhone. About a week or so after the assignment I was printing some of the images and noticed they had patterns resembling flower buds when set adjacent to themselves and rotated. Here is a link to the results: http://www.markmirko.com/x-when-history-flowers-the-arms-plant/.
The “peace photojournalism” work was started in April, 2011, initiated in large part by the death of Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington in Libya. I did not know these men but I knew their work and the nobility of its intention. James Nachtwey wrote that photographers in combat “in a way” were “trying to negotiate for peace.” As an advocate for peace, I wanted to explore the possible alternatives to images of conflict as a way to “negotiate for peace” and that is how the “peace photojournalism” project began. The Colt Armory piece was one of about ten essays, the last of which documented a husband and wife who created a community supported agriculture project after leaving their defense industry jobs on the grounds that they did not want their work killing people.
For those who don't know you, can you give a little bit of a background as to what your creative journey has been thus far?
Mark: Hi Andrea, thank you for this opportunity.
My creative journey is one guided by a love of photography and especially photojournalism.
I was born and raised in California, the oldest of five children. Both my parents worked, my father was an engineer and my mother a secretary. We did not have a television for most of my childhood but my parents subscribed to National Geographic. Those magazines, along with the family photo albums my mom used to make, were the first textbooks through which I began to learn about photography and the world.
I made my first darkroom print when I was nineteen and in my mid-twenties I started working as a newspaper photographer. For most of the ’90’s I was at The Palm Beach Post and since 2000 I have worked as a Hartford Courant photographer and photography editor.
In 2003/4 I was a Knight Fellow at Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication which is where I first heard the term visual learning. Before understanding that there was such a thing as visual learning, and that I was visual learner, I thought something was wrong with my brain. Ha. Which is not to say there isn’t anything wrong with my brain but it was a boost of confidence to finally understand that my brain processes and retains information in a way that is not usually taught to.
What are some of the challenges for you about doing creative work and what are some of the ways you've learned to overcome those challenges?
Mark: When I started at the Courant in 2000, the photography department was comprised of more than 30 people including 24 photographers and 6 editors. Now the department is 8 photographers and no editors. Gratefully, since most of my career has been at The Palm Beach Post and The Hartford Courant, which both have strong histories in photojournalism, I have worked with and been inspired by some great photographers and photography editors.
Someone asked me about ten years ago if I was working on any personal projects. It struck me while answering “no” to the question that working at a place like the Courant, where photography was so thoughtfully conceived, edited and presented, that it all felt like a personal project.
More than just a lack of time and financial resources, which seems to be pervasive in newspapers now, I think having fewer people to collaborate and discuss ideas with has been a challenge. Also, along with the shrinking staffs and increased workload comes a sort of foxhole mentality that if I don’t stay mindful of can really hamper my creative energy.
So I don’t know that I’ve learned to overcome the challenges, really, as much as I’ve tried to stay mindful of how they effect me and what I need to do to lessen their impact. Simple things like exercise, being with my family and meditation help.
Why do you do what you do?
Mark: There are probably a lot of ways to think about that question but there was one conversation in the early years of my life that was a definite turning point in my creative journey. Before deciding to become a photojournalist, but after taking a couple of photography courses at a junior college, I was filled with a lot of anxiety about working in a creative field. And especially, I didn’t want to fail at something like becoming a photojournalist, that seemed so important and out of reach. My best friend’s mom at the time was a social worker and a great listener. I was talking with her about my fears and she offered a simple suggestion that has held true, “follow your heart and the rest will take care of itself.” Her name is Joan Christenson and I dedicated my first book to her.
What do you do to find balance in your life and/or why do you think it's important to find balance as a creative professional?
Mark: Balance, for me, is not so much a steady state as an elusive one experienced in glimpses. The harmony that comes during these glimpses is an intention I stay committed to through those things I mentioned earlier: exercise, meditation and being with my family.
I think balance as a creative professional is important to strive for in a way that is similar to riding a bike. Technically speaking, when we ride a bike what we are really doing is steering under a fall. So the more we ride, the more we can trust our eyes and interests to be directed by intuition and avoid being distracted by the mechanics of steering under the fall.