What Josh Birnbaum Knows

Another of the benefits of revealing my real name and location is the ability to profile remarkable people I’ve met. With Josh Birnbaum, I made it just in time: He’s graduating from Illinois in a few days with a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering. More importantly to both of us, he’s a very talented young photojournalist whose work I discovered for myself while writing about Unofficial St. Pat’s Day. Josh’s photos were in the Daily Illini’s galleries of the event, and I immediately googled his website. His pictures are humane, moving and witty.


May 3, 2008

Another of the benefits of revealing my real name and location is the ability to profile remarkable people I’ve met. With Josh Birnbaum, I made it just in time: He’s graduating from Illinois in a few days with a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering. More importantly to both of us, he’s a very talented young photojournalist whose work I discovered for myself while writing about Unofficial St. Pat’s Day. Josh’s photos were in the Daily Illini’s galleries of the event, and I immediately googled his website. His pictures are humane, moving and witty.

Josh himself is passionate, professional, incredibly hard-working, idealistic, and he looks a bit like a slight John Lennon circa 1969. I knew right away we’d be friends. Take a look at his online portfolio before you read any further.

The oral narrative that follows was boiled down from an hour-long interview I did with him after dinner here at Churm House, April 26, 2008. My two-year old son, Wolfie, a terrific judge of character, took to him immediately and burst into tears when I took Josh away.

(Photos are courtesy of Josh Birnbaum, except the ones of Josh at work, which were shot by Aaron Facemire.)


It was a random sequence of fortunate events that led me into it. When I was 13, my uncle gave me a camera for my bar mitzvah and I just started taking pictures and I liked it. My junior year of high school I took a photo class with traditional darkroom development and I really enjoyed that. My teacher ended up making us enter a congressional contest for most of Southern California. I was driving along and on the top of this huge pile of trash was half a broken surfboard and a flag sticking out. And this was right after September 11, so flags in pictures meant a lot, I guess, and I recognized that and took the picture and did some darkroom magic, burned down the sky to make it look very ominous, and turned it in to this contest and ended up getting first place, which was very unexpected. It gave me about a thousand dollars to use for a better camera. And it was news around the school that someone from the school had won this contest, so the newspaper-yearbook advisor pulled me out of class and said, You’re gonna shoot for me next year. And that was it. I did it all year, dedicated my life to it. I didn’t even think you could make a career out of it. I had no idea.

I grew up in Los Angeles, and I thought I wanted to be an engineer. My dad is an aerospace engineer for Boeing. Mom started out teaching special education, and just recently she was promoted to the principal of a school for special needs children.

I got into mostly California schools but I wanted to try something different, so I decided to go to Illinois. When I was a freshman it was called aeronautical and astronautical engineering, but by the end of that year they changed it to aerospace engineering, so that’s what it will say on my degree. I enjoyed it for the most part, but all the while I had this dual passion. I tried switching to journalism and for various reasons they wouldn’t let me, so I decided to stick it out with engineering.

My parents were very, very open with us and very liberal in a lot of ways. They said, You can do whatever you want with your lives as long as you do something. And anytime we said we wanted to do something, they did whatever they could to encourage it. My middle brother, Nick, went to college at Cal State Monterey Bay, he’s there now, and he decided to go into film. My youngest brother, Alex, he was a theatre major at UCLA and now he’s musical theatre—it’s the same thing, he just gets free voice lessons. But, yeah, we’re all going into some form of liberal arts. My dad doesn’t mind though, as long as we support him when he gets older, he doesn’t care. Oh, and he also says if we ever become lawyers, he’ll kill us.

My official title at the Daily Illini is Senior Staff Photographer. The “senior” came along when I shot a hundred assignments for them. Right now we’re working on one about the trailer parks in Urbana, so we’ve been talking to those residents and getting some pictures of them, and I really feel like I’ve gotten a good sampling of not only the university but the surrounding areas. I freelance for the Chicago Tribune, the News-Gazette, the Morris Daily Herald, the College of Applied Health Sciences, and random people and organizations around this university.

I have a couple of Canon digital cameras, SLRs with interchangeable lenses, and that’s what I use for almost everything I shoot, for a variety of reasons. You know, it’s a lot more convenient, faster, it doesn’t use all these corrosive chemicals, and the quality is just as good if not better than film. Digital can tend to look very cold and sometimes almost very immaculate-looking, whereas film had this warm, sometimes grainy look to it. I love the look of film, but digital is quickly advancing, so I’ve learned to love it as well.

I shoot in the raw format, which is essentially where the camera sensor outputs a raw data file, unprocessed. And what I do when I go into the computer is I take that raw data, using an image processor called Adobe Camera Raw, and I adjust for exposure and contrast, and I also decrease the noise levels, but I don’t increase the saturation. Sometimes what happens is when you boost the contrast is that it looks more saturated. In the past I have shot in the jpeg format, which takes that raw data in the camera and processes it for you with some set parameters, and it probably did increase the saturation on those, so some of my early work might look oversaturated, but I think for the most part it’s pretty faithful to the colors that were there. With focal length, I use wide to normal most of the time, a 24, 35 and a 50 millimeter are what I use about 90 percent of the time.

I use telephoto when it’s appropriate, when I want to get closer even if I’m close, or close if I’m far away, but sometimes it can feel distant because the human eye doesn’t really see that way. You’re essentially looking through a telescope and taking a picture. And it’s fine as a picture, but it’s not how I actually remember the moment. It’s not how I actually saw it, so I get up close because I want to be there for the moment, experience it with the person, I want to be close to them, and because I want to show it as it looks from where I am. I tend to stick around 35.

Part of the reason that I love photography is that I don’t think that I’ll ever master it. I have had enough experience to know, however, what I’m looking for when I shoot and when I edit. I’ll shoot thousands of pictures a day sometimes, and I have to go through and choose the three or four that best tell the story or show something to the viewer. When I’m with people, I’m not only taking pictures, I’m experiencing that moment with them. I get to experience the same things they experience. It helps me understand them better, empathize with them maybe, and it helps me decide what I want to tell people about this certain group. When I’m editing that moment, when I’m going through the sequence of maybe fifteen pictures I have of something that happened within a minute, what I’m thinking about is not, Which of these is the best picture? I’m thinking about, What did this moment feel like? What do I remember? What was happening? What was important? A lot of my photography, I hope, evokes emotions from the viewers. Sometimes it’ll be very subtle, but everything that I shoot and edit and show people gets some emotion out of me.

The summer after my sophomore year was my first professional internship. It was at the Oakland Tribune, in Oakland, California. I was a staff photographer, essentially, for the summer, for 13 weeks, six days a week, it was a very intense internship, but I covered just the same things they covered. On my first day there I covered an Athletics baseball game as well as a funeral. I had my second internship, the summer after my junior year, last summer, at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. And then my third professional internship will be this coming summer at the Omaha World-Herald. So I’m looking forward to that.

I enjoy taking pictures of people, about their lives, their relationships, the moments that maybe change them. Moments that other people don’t see. So if you look at all my pictures, I think almost every one of them has a person in it. I feel like I almost don’t have a style, but my style is people. One of the beautiful things is, I get to know people very well. I have built relationships that I will keep for the rest of my life.

I’ll use the wheelchair basketball team as an example. I’ve been following them for three years. I’ve been going on their road trips, going to practices, I’ve just hung out with them even without a camera just so they can get to know me better and I can get to know them. It’s a very reciprocal relationship, because once they know you, they can trust you, and they’ll let you into their lives.

They’re part of the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES), the rehab center. They’re not an NCAA-sanctioned sport, they’re part of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. They’re rather under the radar, I’d say, almost ignored, and that’s part of what I’ve been trying to do with this project is to get people to know them, get them more publicity they deserve, ‘cause they work just as hard if not harder than the able-bodied men’s team. They’re up at 6 a.m. every day practicing in CRCE; after that they have workout, they go into a gym and do training workouts with athletic trainers just like the regular team; they have coaches just like the regular team, they travel just like the regular team, but they don’t travel in glory on airplanes, they have to take a bus anywhere they go. Sometimes they travel for 15 hours to get where they need to go—on a bus. And it’s a big chore to get 30 people in wheelchairs from one place to another, it’s a big obstacle.

The past two years, they’d gone to their national tournament and had placed in a disappointing fourth or fifth, something like that, when they were the number two seed. This last tournament, which was last month, they were the number one seed, and they won the tournament. They hadn’t won the tournament since 2000 or something, and there were a bunch of seniors on the team. As you can expect, it was very emotional. They stormed the court, they were all screaming and hugging and crying, and I was crying too. I had been with the team for these three years, and not just that they had won, but they accomplished their goal, and it was just the perfect moment. I try to show that through my photos.

Pittsburgh was different because they gave me more time for projects. In my first week on the job I was photographing a special-needs, after-school soccer program, and I photographed this one kid, he was away from the rest of them, because people had to hold his hand at all times, and they couldn’t let him go, and so after the event I was getting people’s names and talking to the coach, and she said, Oh, he actually has a really interesting story, you might want to talk to the parents about that. I contacted them, talked to them about Jerome, their child, and they were very open with me right from the beginning. I said, I’d really like to show people what your lives are like, and they said, Okay, why don’t we meet and talk about it?

So I met with them one Saturday, June 9th, I think, and they said, We want to make sure that you’re not taking advantage of us, we want to make sure you’re being open with us, and want to be sure you’re doing this for the right reasons. I told them, I’m here to show people what Jerome is like, what your lives are like, what’s different, what’s the same, to try to raise awareness about some issues, maybe get some special needs children adopted, get them help, because they’re having a big problem with that in Pittsburgh. And we talked about this for a while, and I said, Basically, I’ll be open with you if you’ll be open with me. I will let you see every picture I take. I’ll give you copies of them. You can ask me questions any time. You can tell me to stop taking pictures at any time. And they said, That’s fine with us, and from then on they gave me complete access to their lives.

Of course, they were a little cautious at first. But once they got to know me and I got to know them, I was there when they put him to sleep at night, I was there when they went to bed. I had dinner with them. I went to baseball games with them. They said, Hey, Josh, Jerome’s birthday party is coming up next week, do you want to come? Hey, we’re going to the zoo with the Children’s Institute; do you want to go? So I did all those things with them. Everything. I tried to have my own life a little bit, I made a couple of friends, but whenever something happened, they would give me a call, whatever time of day it was. One time Jerome was seizing, and they needed to take him into the hospital. And they said, Josh, we’re gonna be at the hospital if you want to meet us there, so I did.

I think it was so easy to do because (1) I built that relationship, but (2) because they understood what I was trying to do. I shot the project for about 12 weeks over the summer and it ran in the Pittsburgh paper mid-August as a photo essay. I wrote the story as well, and then I also did an audio slideshow online. They were wonderful about it, and they really cherished the pictures, and they appreciate that this project may not have benefited them directly, but hopefully it contributed to a greater good, maybe.

I’m always thinking about what kind of photojournalism helps, what doesn’t, how things have changed in our world, how we’re being oversaturated with images and how that’s affected my job and what impact my pictures might have. And to be honest, I don’t really know. I mean, some of the pictures you saw from Vietnam changed public opinion of the war—maybe not changed it, but just made it even more strong against the war. Same thing with pictures coming out of Iraq currently. But even photojournalism at home, like things I’ve done with just regular, everyday people…I hope my pictures raise awareness or educate people or inform people, make them think about something. Make them more tolerant, maybe. Change the way they think. You know?

With the wheelchair basketball project, there has been some tangible evidence of positive change. As I said, before I came around nobody knew we had a wheelchair basketball team. But once I started doing it, and we ran stuff in the Daily Illini, attendance just skyrocketed. It was unlike anything they’d ever seen before, and now they get tons of people at everything they have at home. I mean, not like 18,000, like the regular basketball team has, that’s a little too much to ask for, but they still get a regular crowd. And because I’ve tried to treat it as a regular sport, there are articles in the paper every week with pictures every week, people have started following them.

Newspapers are an excellent venue for photography because they have such a large audience. I feel like the community who reads the newspaper cares about the issues of its community. I met a guy in a class this year, he said, Oh, you work for the DI? And I said, Yeah, I take pictures, I do daily stuff, and then I do long term projects like the wheelchair basketball project I’ve been working on. And he said, Oh! You’re the guy who does the wheelchair basketball stuff? How are they doing this year?

For the next two years, I will be attending grad school in photojournalism, or as they call it, visual communications, at Ohio University. But after that, I have no plans. I would love to work for National Geographic, that would almost be my dream job; they give you months to work on a project, they fund the entire project, and you get to immerse yourself in this project, in this culture, with these people, with this issue. I would love to work for a good newspaper, because as I said newspapers are important for communities. I was thinking about maybe applying for a Fulbright. You know, having a project funded for a year in some foreign country and then getting that work out somehow.

A lot of photographers freelance for newspapers, magazines, individuals, companies, you name it, anyone who needs pictures.

So these are all opportunities for me and I can’t say right now which one I’d prefer to do, ‘cause each has its benefits and pitfalls. But I can guarantee I’ll be taking pictures, and they will be pictures of people. That’s all that I really care about.


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