Vince is one of the funniest guys you’ll ever meet. And one of the most serious. That balance of qualities has played out in his pictures since his days at the Pittsburgh Press. Since the Press’ demise in 1992, Vince has completed 10-ish stories for National Geographic, no small feat. He and his wife, Callie Shell, also an accomplished photographer, live on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina with their son.
[RT] Your photo just graced the cover of National Geographic magazine. Congratulations. It’s a graceful set of portraits of animals. What were the challenges of making these pictures?
Musi: Thanks, this assignment (Animal Minds) was about as completely different from anything I have ever attempted in my career. Hell, I don’t even have a pet. Nearly every animal pooped of or peed on me or my equipment. I was spit at by a chimpanzee, screamed at by a prairie dog, charged by a pig, splashed by a dolphin and nearly stung by a bee. I have a softbox that still smells like marmoset. The elephant thought I was a veterinarian and there to artificially inseminate her. Use your imagination on that one.
[RT] What was the most challenging animal to photograph?
Musi: Uek (pronounced weck) is a New Caledonian Crow living at Oxford University in England. I waited to photograph him last thinking, bird – easy…Very, very wrong. I shot about 60 frames over two eight-hour periods over two days with a smelly lab coat over my head, shooting through the sleeve while he tried to poke my eyes out with his large beak. We have about four usable frames.
[RT] How did this story compare to the others you’ve done?
Musi: They don’t exactly play the National Geographic theme song behind me when I head out the door – no animals, lights or assistants – this was the greatest challenge of my career and I don’t think I’ll ever have a better project from the shooting to the editing to the layout and to the reception by the readers.
[RT] You’ve been doing personal portraits for the last few years in black and white. They were departures from what has been years of progressively more interesting documentary work. How do you see this story fitting into the progression of your work?
Musi: You know I wasted many years of my career saying “no” to many opportunities because I didn’t think they fit into my “body of work.” NGM Picture editor Kathy Moran really believed that I could and should do this story. I’m glad I did and wish that I had embraced more challenges outside my comfort zone much earlier.
[RT] How do you and Callie balance work with home life?
Musi: You can’t hire both of us on the same day because it doesn’t make much sense for one of us to be in Kansas and one of us to be in New York and our six- year-old is with a baby-sitter in South Carolina. We try to travel as a group when we can but take the financial and professional “hit” when we can’t do that.This is a particularly difficult year because Callie covers a lot of politics and there is a lot of politics happening this year. So I’m juggling Geographic assignments and geography homework with my son.
[RT] What’s your take on how this profession of ours is progressing?
Musi: There are less than 10 staff photographers in the magazine industry, the rest are freelancers like me. It will be just a short time before the freelance model of magazines hits newspapers. Day rates haven’t significantly gone up since I’ve been working as a photographer. Cameras are now $8,000 each and you need to buy a new one about every 18- 24 months to be competitive. At some point in the near future the editorial world may be flush with wealthy folks who will work for little payment except the thrill of getting published. That’s kind of where editorial photography started out and is probably headed for a period of time.Energy wise I can’t think of a better time to be a photographer. The internet is a free distribution and publishing vehicle. You can reach more people on YouTube than you do in the New York Times in a day. It’s empowering, exciting and we haven’t even scratched the surface of the possibilities.
[RT] What advice do you have for people starting out as photojournalists?
Musi: Slow down, be personal, be critical of every picture. Build stories and essays rather than single pictures. Don’t get caught up in over-intellectualizing the editorial underpinnings of content, just tell stories that people should care about. Be creative, be visual, ask children what they think. Trust your instincts and always listen to your spouse.
[RT] You’ve made at least one photo a day of your son since his birth just a few days before 9/11. What do you think he’ll think of those photos when he’s an adult?
Musi: He already hates us for it. He does learn a lot from the early pictures when he was a baby though. Now he heckles the guy who comes and takes the school portraits. When the photographer tries to get them to smile he tells the other kids to ignore him and “act like he’s not there.”He also finally thinks that what we do is cool.
[RT] From where do you draw your inspiration?
Musi: I love the craft of creating. That something can affect so many people is a great feeling of accomplishment. It happens so quickly that we tend to take it for granted and it’s really very special. 40 million people will see these pictures in the Geographic, that’s terrifying.
[RT] What’s next?
Musi: Old. Old cameras, old lenses, old things. Everything old is new to me.