Eric Mencher is one of the artists featured in PL130 Gallery's photography show Off Topic, a photo show about the unassigned work of photojournalists who worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News since the 80s. This week we caught up with Eric to learn more about his work and experience.
How did you first get into photography? And how did you make your way into becoming a photojournalist?
As a teenager I went to the (then) Soviet Union with a Kodak Instamatic and a few rolls of Kodachrome in my backpack. After I returned home and had the film processed, I popped a handful of the slides into a projector to show my family and some friends. Some of the images seemed to really resonate with them. Inspired, I bought a 35mm SLR, set up a darkroom, and was hooked for life on photography! I majored in Political Science in college but worked on the school's daily newspaper as a staff photographer and before graduation I had landed a staff photographer's job at The Tampa Tribune in Florida.
Do you describe yourself as an artist, photographer, or photojournalist?
In the past, I called myself a photojournalist. Now, I'm not so sure! I think documentary photographer is maybe a bit more accurate. Or happy street snapper!
In what years did you work for the Philadelphia Inquirer or Daily News?
Do you have a favorite story of an encounter with a subject either on an assignment or a personal project?
It's a sad story, for sure, but a lesson in life. In 1998, in Kampala, Uganda, I was on assignment for The Philadelphia Inquirer photographing one of Africa's first hospice programs. I accompanied a nurse on her rounds and she went into the decaying home of a man dying of cancer, just days from death no doubt. He was shriveled to skin and bones, laying in bed with not even enough energy to move. The nurse administered pain medicine to ease his suffering and then the man asked why he should allow me to take his photo. To which I had no real answer and mumbled a few meaningless words. He asked where I was from. I said Philadelphia in the United States. He then started softly singing the Bruce Springsteen song "Streets of Philadelphia" from the Jonathan Demme movie "Philadelphia" which starred Tom Hanks as a lawyer with AIDS. I walked over to his bed, held his hand for a moment and burst into tears, which I still do when I remember this brief but highly emotional encounter.
In what ways is photographing on assignment different from personal editorial work? And what are the biggest differences in your approach and considerations?
On assignment, there are always readers (first and foremost) to keep in mind, as well as editors and the newspaper as a whole. There are some constraints on "personal vision", along with important ethical considerations that constantly shape a photojournalist's approach. And this is the way it has to be! Photographing for myself, well, almost anything goes. But I owe much gratitude to my photojournalistic roots for they ground me now in ways that (I think) I need!
What are some subjects and themes that you are drawn to? Is there a specific theme that that you keep returning to?
To use an expression often attributed to Dorothea Lange, what interests me most is the beauty of the commonplace. Of course beauty can mean many different things. But I'm most interested in normal everyday life, which when photographed well can become something quite extraordinary!
Who on Instagram do you follow that you really admire?
There are many photographers I admire, including everyone in this show. And my wife Kass Mencher. I don't follow many photojournalists or "famous" photographers but rather photographers who are out in the world everyday photographing for the sheer joy of it. I'm a member of an Instagram-based collective, Hikari Creative, and my fellow members (Marina Sersale, Ako Salemi, Q. Sakamaki, and Adriana Zehbrauskas) are all incredibly talented photographers.
What piece of advice would you give to a young photographer who is interested in photojournalism?
Passion and compassion are critical. Study art, literature, movies, history, and of course the pictures of other photographers. Work on photo projects that are dear to your soul and your heart. Think deeply about what makes a meaningful and compelling image and pay attention to the world around you.
Is there anything else that you would like to add about yourself or work?
I love photography. I love that it takes so many different forms, is seen so many different ways, and can serve not only as a mirror to the world, but as a mirror to ourselves. It is a beautiful medium and a compelling form of expression and I am grateful that I fell into it as a way to go through life.
Visit Eric's website to see more of his work or follow him on Instagram @emencher.