How Jody Rogac Helped Raise $1 Million for COVID-19 Relief With Photographs

The photographer details the process behind Pictures for Elmhurst, and why it’s important to make her subjects feel protected on set.

Photographs by Jody Rogac. Collage by W Magazine.

Welcome to Ways of Seeing, an interview series that highlights emerging talents in the field of photography and film, working behind the camera. In this week’s edition,In this week’s edition, visuals editor Michael Beckert chats with Jody Rogac, the photographer who cofounded the Pictures for Elmhurst relief effort. To support the Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, New York, Rogac and other photographers donated their prints to put up for sale. All told, they raised $1,380,000 for the cause.

Hey, Michael! How are you, where are you?

Harlem, still! What about you?

I’m here in New York, too. A handful of my friends left. We thought about leaving, but didn’t really have anywhere to go. My partner and I are both Canadian, from Vancouver, so we thought about going back to Canada, but then we’d have to fly the dog. It just got to the point where we were too late and all my stuff is here and my studio is here, and even though I can’t see people, my community is here. So it just felt weird to leave.

I wanted to discuss the fundraiser you hosted with Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York. Somehow you managed to convince some of the best photographers in New York, and maybe the world, to sell their prints for charity, and you raised over one million dollars for the hospital. How did this all come about?

It happened so fast. It’s a pretty long story. At the beginning of the lockdown, all of my shoots canceled. I was in this limbo place of, what do I do with my time? I can’t really go anywhere. I tried to read and I started working on an ongoing book project. But at the same time, I felt so helpless because I also felt privileged—I’m in my apartment, I’ve got my dog, I’m working on a book project and there’s so much shit going on in the world. I think there was this really deep desire to want to help, but not knowing how.

Last summer, I did a residency in Italy where I met Samantha Casolari, the photographer. She’s originally from Italy, but she has lived in New York for a very long time. Of course, the pandemic hit pretty hard in Italy before it hit here, and there was a fundraiser in Italy for a hospital in need there. Samantha was asked to donate an image, and she did. They raised, I think, 700,000 euros. Her and I started texting like, wouldn’t it be cool to try and replicate this here? She was also texting with our friend Vittoria Cerciello. The three of us started reaching out to people in our network, photographers who we were friends with, loosely gauging interest: “If we did this, would you donate a print?” Within two days we went from casually texting about this project to being full-on, going crazy because the need was so urgent. We didn’t really have time and none of us knew a thing about fundraising or organizing. We just started to hit the ground running and a friend of Samantha’s started the website. Then my partner Matthew Booth, who ended up being a huge integral part of the project, came on board.

At that time, in late March, early April, Elmhurst Hospital was hit so hard. What they really needed at that time was PPE. They were extremely short on ventilators. On our first day, we made over $300,000.

Shaakir and Naazir, 2018. Photograph by Jody Rogac.

Dien, 2019. Photograph by Jody Rogac.

How did you go about choosing artists to be involved?

It’s really funny because it wasn’t curated at all. It was just- “send us one picture.” The one picture we got, we threw up, and it was surprising to see what resonated with certain people who don’t usually look at photography, or look at art at all. I’m sure a lot of people were like, oh, “this famous artist, I have to get that one.” But then for the people who don’t know the names, it was so beautiful to just see them look through the site and be purely attracted to something visual that struck them.

Have you been able to talk to Elmhurst? How is it going there?

Through this process, we’ve spoken with people at the hospital—our liaison, and a doctor who’s been working through the pandemic there. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, seeing what these families, most of which are low-income, are going through.

Now that the fundraiser is over, have you been able to make any of your own work?

Since things have settled down, we’re still doing a fair amount of work on the fundraiser, but it’s totally manageable. I’m working on a book that I’m editing, trying to get out the door, so as soon as businesses are back open, I can get it bound. Also, I’ve been craving nature so much. My dog gets me up every morning—I live a 20-minute walk from Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I get up early and bring my Hasselblad camera out with me to roam. It’s been so long since I’ve wandered around with a Hasselblad in nature.

I feel weird saying this, but it’s been a nice time to sort of recuperate and absolve yourself from that pressure to constantly make work.

I also feel like it’s given me perspective on that. This lockdown has reminded me how important it is to slow down. You don’t have to be this hyper over-creator. Less is more sometimes, if you can just stop and be more thoughtful. Just because your output is high doesn’t mean it’s any good if you’re not taking care with what you’re making. We live in such a capitalist society that it fucks with our heads and makes us feel like I have to have something to show for this time. I could spend five years shooting in Prospect Park and still not have a project, but at least I was going out and exploring something, and that’s okay.

Is there something that you’ve been reading during the quarantine that you liked or that you’ve been able to focus on that’s taking your attention off of the rest of the world?

It’s totally random, but I’ve almost finished Virginia Wolfe’s “Orlando.” It was on my bookshelf and I’d never read it, so it was the first thing I pulled after the fundraiser. It’s been enjoyable and lovely.

One thing I’ve found amazing about your work is that you shoot a mix of familiar faces and non-familiar faces; sometimes you’ll shoot a celebrity, or you’ll shoot someone that I’ve never known before. But in both scenarios, you have this way of photographing people that’s incredibly consistent. Is that something you’re aware of?

I think it’s really intuitive. I don’t approach a portrait trying to create a certain look that’s a Jody look, because, honestly, I don’t know what it is. It’s just an intuition based on really wanting to take care of the person and their image. I feel a huge amount of responsibility as a portrait photographer. It’s really about feeling it out with my subject and doing my best for them.

When you go to work on a commissioned portrait, do you show them your portfolio before you get started?

No, I’ve never done that.

I worked with this photographer once who arrived to set two hours early for this big shoot I was producing. He went through every lighting setup. Using his Iphone he shot himself in every pose he was planning on asking the subjects to emulate, and then assembled a PDF print-out of these pictures for the subjects to review when they arrived to set later. At first I thought he was really overdoing it, but it was sort of genius—the talent loved it and they felt so much more comfortable because of it. Now I always think about how explaining your vision or what you want to your subjects can really influence the way they participate in the photo shoot. Do you feel a pressure to make subjects comfortable?

Of course I feel like I need to make the subject comfortable. That’s the number one thing I have to do. You have to show a subject that you’re there to take care of them. I think if you just treat them that way, they’ll understand that, “Oh, she really cares about these pictures and my representation.” There are so many ways to do that. Let’s say, for instance, if there’s a sofa and I imagine them sitting in it in a certain way, I’ll hand my camera to my assistant, and I’ll jump on the sofa. I’ll show them with myself, with my body, in person, not on a preplan, because I don’t like to pre-plan that hard. I like to let it be fluid, work together, and feel the vibe.

Serena Williams, 2016. Photograph by Jody Rogac.

Misty Copeland, 2015. Photograph by Jody Rogac.

Photography, especially in the commercial and editorial realms, is so performative. I’ve been reading a lot of interviews with directors, and directors actually talk about this more than photographers do. Photographers tend to have the exact same experience.

I totally agree that, as the photographer, you are on display, almost as much as the subject is. I don’t like that, being the center of attention. I’m pretty shy. So that part of my job is not something I look forward to. When I’m on a set with a bunch of people—whether it’s five or 50—I always make a little room with V-Flats that is super closed off from everyone else. I try to work alone as much as possible, even without assistants. The shoots I do for Apartamento magazine are usually just me and my camera.

I totally get that. The first shoot I produced at W was with Brigitte Lacombe. She was shooting Lindsay Lohan. When Brigitte got to set she immediately had me build a cage around the studio to protect her and Lindsay when they started shooting together. I had never seen someone request that, so it felt weird at first, but the pictures she got of Lindsay are definitely a testament to the privacy she demanded on set that day. It was funny though because nobody, including the stylist, were allowed to enter this little cage- so virtually nobody saw Lindsay get photographed that day—we only saw her in-between shots to change clothes.

Totally, I love Brigitte. That’s my dream career.

I think you’re already there!

Now I know when we work together I can be like, “Michael, the cage,” and you’ll know just what to do.

Kristin, 2019. Photograph by Jody Rogac.

Jovani Furlan, 2019. Photograph by Jody Rogac.

My last question is one I’m asking everyone at the end of these interviews. What are you most proud of, in regards to photography?

That’s a really great question. I think it’s human nature to always be like, “Okay, well, now onto the next.” I think there’s not one shoot or one so specific photographic accomplishment I could pin down as being something that I’m most proud of. I think it rarely happens, but when I take a moment to stop, look back at things, and take a moment to reflect where I’ve been and where I’ve come from and what I’ve made, I think that journey is what I’m most proud of. There were so many times when I’ve wanted to quit, to throw in the towel. I’ve been so broke. All those struggles and everything you’ve overcome to be where you are is something to be really proud of. It’s important to remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I’m going to be at this until I’m a very, very old lady.

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