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“I’m not planning a sequel”

Q & A with Ben Garvin, the Pioneer Press photographer with the most famous beard since Abraham Lincoln

When Ben Garvin stepped out from behind the camera to create this magical video featuring his beard, it was intended for his family and friends.  But after posting the “Magic Beard” on YouTube, the award-winning Pioneer Press photographer quickly became an Internet celebrity.  Goff Public recently caught up with Ben to talk about his career as a photographer and his recent rise to viral stardom.

1. Describe the path that led you to the Pioneer Press.

I was working at a small newspaper in New Hampshire and my Minnesotan wife was feeling the inevitable pull to return home.  Isn’t that always the case with Minnesotans?  They go off, see the world, go to college, rope husbands, and bring them back home.  I’m not complaining by any means, I love it here and affectionately call it home, even in January.  When we rolled into town with our moving van 10 years ago, we were unemployed living in a relative’s attic.  I hustled to book weddings, and the Star Tribune eventually offered me work three days a work as a part-time photographer.  And then the Pioneer Press, which also had used me periodically as a freelancer, hired me full time.  Hooray!

2. What drew you to photojournalism as a career?

I initially wanted to be a writer.  After high school I studied creative writing at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, my hometown.  I took a course in photography and immediately knew it was what I wanted to do.  After a few months of researching schools I transferred to the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, an overpriced private school I’ll be paying off until I’m old and wrinkly.

3. What is your favorite type of story to cover?

I’ve been asked this before and don’t have a real answer.  In some ways it’s the lack of repetition that I enjoy most.  The challenge of shooting the Vikings and Twins is fun for an evening but wouldn’t be for an entire season.  Multimedia storytelling is a terrific challenge but time consuming and exhausting.  And the longer stories – stories where I can return to a place and get to know people.  It’s the diversity I suppose that I love most.

4. What is the most memorable photo you’ve ever taken?

It was the morning after our first night at home with our newborn twins.  A blur of a memory now, but a photo I love of people I love.

5. Some newspapers are cutting – and even eliminating – photojournalism staff (e.g., Chicago Sun-Times).  How, in your opinion, do these cuts affect the overall quality of a newspaper?

If you’re asking about the specific situation at the Sun Times, I think it was an absolute disgrace.  There was a certain inhumanity in the mass axing, the surprise layoffs of that many folks with careers and families and mortgages.  No one should endorse that.

That said, I know why they thought it seemed like a good idea.  Photographers are expensive, with all their gear and traveling.  The Associated Press (AP) and Getty Images provide usable images of all the local pro sports and major news events, reporters can take photos of record that aren’t entirely useless.  What we have to ask ourselves as photographers is how can we remain truly valuable?  What can we offer that doesn’t move on AP or can’t be taken by a reporter?  The answer here is different for every photographer.  For me it’s been to hone my craft as multimedia producer, to work as a photo editor, to share my work on Twitter and Facebook to extend its reach, to look for as many training opportunities as possible.  I personally can’t afford to invest my emotional energy into how the daily newspaper looks anymore.  The online world has given us a real chance to shape how our work is seen, and I really am excited about what’s possible.

6. A lot has changed in how news is gathered and shared.  What change do you like the most? What change do you like the least?

People rightfully lament how the 24/7 news cycle has watered down our work.  There’s often an emphasis of speed over quality, and it’s been much more difficult, especially as we’ve reduced our staff dramatically over the past decade, to do long-term work of real importance.  That said, I like the immediacy.  The news junkie in me enjoys the race to post; the conversations on Twitter; the struggle to stay relevant online throughout the day.

7. What do you envision the news media industry looking like ten years from now?

It will be different in all the obvious ways, which I won’t take the time to enumerate.  But one thing will remain constant is peoples’ desire to connect – to truly feel something.  Heartfelt real stories about real people living in the world will continue to break through the clutter and be seen.  People will always long for that.  Stories that help people feel empathy for their fellow human beings, to cry, to laugh, to feel surprised, to learn something amazing.  In my view it’s better to take solace in that consistency than to lament an inevitably changing media industry.

8. How did the “Magic Beard” idea come about?

Two things coincided.  My wife had recently been playing with a stop motion app.  I remember she made one delightful little video of our dining room table cleaning itself.  So that got me thinking.  And at the same time, I was growing a massive beard because I could, and I’m lazy.  Once I realized that my beard would actually stay up if I pushed it up, I recognized the comic potential.  And that was it.

9. When did you first realize your video was going to make it big?  How did you react?

I initially shot the video to amuse me and my wife and kids.  But after a while, I realized it was pretty damn funny.  I’d show friends as I was editing, and they’d always ask the same question, “When are you going to post that?  I want to share it!”  And at that point I knew there was a possibility it could go viral.  At which point I Googled “best time to post viral video” or “how to monetize your YouTube video.”  All in all it’s been a terrifically fun distraction for me.  And no, I’m not planning a sequel…

posted by Chris Duffy on September 30, 2013

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