Stephen Voss Gets His Story

At under eight square miles, you’d think not many big things happen on the quiet barrier island of Grand Isle, Louisiana. Stephen Voss discovered this wasn’t true when shooting on assignment for a client in the area recently.

A professional photographer and resident of Washington, D.C., Voss was enjoying some downtime when not attending to his client’s needs. He wandered the island, eventually discovering privately contracted security guards were preventing access to public beaches. “They were presumably working for British Petroleum,” he says. “They weren’t public employees, like police officers, and they didn’t identify themselves. They were working for BP, saying, ‘These beaches are closed,’ or ‘You can’t go past this spot on the beach, you can’t talk to the clean-up workers.’ This was in Grand Isle, Louisiana,” he reaffirms.

Being a professional news photographer in Washington, D.C. has given Voss the training to not be turned away easily when looking to get a story in his viewfinder. As any seasoned freelancer can tell you, the first rule of meeting resistance is to simply move around it. “I got frustrated with it, so I found a guy who rents kayaks and spent about half of one day kayaking up and down, not on the ocean side, on the Gulf side of Grand Isle, just kind of taking a look around that way. For the most part, I had my digital camera and my Mamiya in a dry bag, but I’d taken it out for a little bit, and the wind had sort of changed at some point, and the waves started coming the other way. The current picked up a little and splashed over the kayak.”

Film damaged by light and dark streaks caused by oil in the Gulf of Mexico, ©Stephen Voss

His digital camera escaped dry and unscathed, but his Mamiya 6 was sitting in about one-quarter of an inch of oil-tainted Gulf water. Voss headed in to the kayak rental and removed the exposed film from his Mamiya. He used distilled water to carefully rinse out the bottom of the camera.* “I’ve been looking at it every couple of days since I’ve been back, and amazingly, I don’t see any signs of rust. Thankfully, I think I’m in the clear, which honestly sort of blows my mind, because I assumed the camera would be fried the second the water hit it.”

Although his Mamiya seems to be working fine, his film was damaged. In the photo at the top of this story you can see both heavy and light streaks of oil which entered the camera and stained the film emulsion. Several other images also were processed to reveal similar damage from this roll.

Oil contaminating a breakwater on Grand Isle, LA, ©Stephen Voss

Voss currently has not one, but two wonderful series of photos on his blog having to do with the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The BP-owned rig, which was destroyed in an explosion, created a Gulf of Mexico sea-floor oil gusher releasing close to five million barrels of oil and the deaths of eleven platform workers before the wellhead was capped on July 15. It is the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. Voss’s eerie black and white images show deserted beaches at the height of tourist season, oil booms attempting to keep crude from reaching the dunes, jetty rocks covered in oil, and a lawn of crosses, each one bearing the name of a marine species or seafood dish which will no longer be harvested from the Gulf of Mexico.

His color images documenting the spill include a series of detritus contaminated by oil. They include a hermit crab, a polystyrene foam boom, a clod of sand, and a plastic water bottle. Shot simply on a white background, these images are a stark testament to human industrial error. The irony Voss hints at by choosing the boom and the bottle—both petroleum products—is more apparent when documented in this setting.

John C. Bogle, ©Stephen Voss

Landscapes and still lifes are not the only thing Voss shoots. As a photographer in the capital, he often photographs government officials and CEOs. If you’re an aspiring photographer hoping to become a pro who shoots celebrities and world leaders, Voss has showcased a session he had with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which lasted all of a sobering 90 seconds. His latest personal project is a fascinating and haunting study of American car dealerships, which, once again, come at a poignant time.

From his car dealer series, ©Stephen Voss

Shooting both digital and film cameras, Voss still uses his Mamiya professionally. “I am really a huge fan of the Mamiya 6. I absolutely love the camera,” he says. While his favorite camera is the Mamiya 6, he also owns and uses a Mamiya 6MF. “They’ve been really good rugged cameras. I have the 75mm f/3.5 lens and a 50mm f/4 lens. For a long time I just had the 75 and more recently got the 50. They’ve just been incredible for me. I think these are the sharpest ones I own, and I love the square format. I love the range finder. There’s just something really special about being able to work so quickly and unobtrusively and still get like a really big image that’s so much bigger than 35mm. Yeah, I’ve been really happy. They’ve been really great cameras for me. I actually prefer the 6 because it has less markings in the window.”

From his car dealer series, ©Stephen Voss

A computer science major in college, Voss took one Intro to Darkroom class in his junior year. Other than that, he’s largely self-taught. Currently eyeing the DM33 for his magazine work, Voss continues to shoot his mix of portraits, editorial, landscapes, and stories. Watch for his continued coverage of major events in Washington, and anywhere assignments take him. Security guards should be careful about denying him access to his subject matter. You never know what this talented shooter will find if turned away.

*It should be noted Mamiya does not condone, approve, or encourage this type of user servicing.

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Written by Ron Egatz

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