The Photograph as Story: A Conversation with Catherine Vibert

Photographer Catherine Vibert recently was selected to participate in the CLICK! Project, a show featuring talented photographers from the Hendersonville, NC area. (
Her work is truly breathtaking, and I am especially moved by her humanitarian travel photography from India.  I am proud to call Cat my friend and honored that she agreed to allow me to interview her here.

Cat, thank you so much for agreeing to do this! Can you explain what the CLICK! Project is, and how you got involved?

I was invited to be a part of The CLICK! Project by the gallery owner. She wanted 14 photographers and found out about me from a woman who does my Giclée printing. She contacted me through Facebook. I was honored, as there is some exceptional company in what has now become known as "The Fab 14." We plotted and planned the opening for about 6 months before the opening date on Valentine's Day, February 14, 2012. A lot of 14s, I know: 14 photographers, opening on February 14th and running for 14 weeks.

But it's kind of poetic, don't you think?

I think it’s perfect! You have so many incredible photographs, with such a wide variety of subjects. How did you decide what to include for the opening? Was there a theme to your selections?

I decided to use newer shots from The Sunrise Project, my 365 project. It's not that I don't like my older work, but there is a thing in photography where if you just keep working at it, learning all the variables of the camera, etc, it just keeps looking better and better. I wanted to use the best stuff, and to me that is the newest.

Also, when preparing prints for a gallery, it's expensive to have your work printed in large format. I had to think to myself, what do I want on my wall just in case it doesn't sell at this show. And my answer was, the sunrise shots. And there were only a few, because I've learned that you can go out to shoot the sunrise every day, but every day is not a spectacular day for photography. Out of 85 shots I've taken since I began the project, only about 5 are truly amazing...well, amazing enough to deserve a forever spot on the wall anyway.

And I understand you're offering some classes in conjunction with the Project?

Part of the project includes free workshops. I'll be giving my first one on March 25th on the discipline of doing a 365 project to become better at your craft. The class is full! It will include a lot of tech talk about camera stuff, as well as a slide show of the shots I've taken this year so far. I'm focusing on doing the sunrise because I have an awesome sunrise viewing location right across the road from my house.

And I read that your second workshop will  promote humanitarian travel photography. Which brings us to your work from India. You know how much I love those photographs--how you capture the life of the people, the vibrant colors of the clothes, the sometimes stark surroundings. I'm particularly moved by your photo of the woman making chapatis. Her cooking area is sparse and rudimentary. And yet there is worldliness in her face. I'm not really sure how to put that into words, except to say that what you've captured on her face seems to belie her surroundings. Can you describe the back story to this shot?

I love that shot, thanks for asking about it!

Her son was Bapu, the hotel manager where I was staying in Jaisalmer which is a city in Rajasthan on the edge of the Thar desert. I had gone out to a village with two of my friends to see them off on an overnight camel expedition. I had a wonderful photo shoot there of the children of the camel tour guide. They lived in very humble lodgings with no electricity or any such modernities but those kids, poor though they were, were certainly the happiest children I'd ever met. On the way back to the hotel, the driver wanted to take me to meet Bapu's family for a cup of chai – chai is a very important ritual that must be performed at least 5 times a day in India, or more?

Anyway, the house was much more modern than where we had just been. It was complete with electricity and water and all those niceties. I met the Bapu's sister first, and she brought me through the modern kitchen — and by modern I mean, it had lights and an electric two burner hotplate and I think a small refrigerator — and into the traditional kitchen you see in the shot.

The woman in the shot—Bapu's mother—preferred to use the traditional cow dung-fired kitchen to make traditional staples, like chapattis, and sacred ritual foods. She was on her cell phone when I got there, sitting on the floor while a chapatti cooked on the pan. The juxtaposition of her on her cell phone in what seemed like a medieval environment was kind of amusing. The sister offered me a chair, which initially I sat in, but I felt stupid towering above my host so I pointed to the floor and questioned Bapu's mother as to whether I could sit there. She was fine with that.

When she got off the phone, I showed her my camera and asked if I could take pictures, she nodded. Oh, she spoke Hindi but no English, and I don't speak Hindi. She went back to her cooking and I took a few pictures and then just watched her while I drank my chai. I also got to see her yard, which had a huge cauldron-like thing on a chain that is used to make traditional milk-candy for weddings. I think I knew her name for a very short time but I'm sad to say that I didn't remember it, so for me she'll always be Bapu's mother.

I had prints made in Jaisalmer for Bapu and his mother. Also prints for the camel guide's kids. You should have seen their faces when they saw the prints, they were enthralled. Bapu's mother was standing in the modern kitchen next to her husband. She didn't really show any emotion when I gave her the print — her husband put it up on a ledge, then we all had chai.

I  also love the photo of the young woman sweeping. Can you tell me about it?

Monika Sweeps the Classroom

Monika was the first girl I met from The Sambhali Project for underprivileged girls in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. I found the Durag Niwas Guest House from an entry in Lonely Planet, and the owner of the guest house had started a school for these 'untouchable' girls. The school taught English and handicrafts and tried to get some of the girls into traditional schools.

Monika was a super smart girl, always happy, and a natural leader. When I took this picture she was sweeping out the classroom where the English lessons were held. Because I had worked in radio before I took this trip, I came equipped with a recorder to tell stories, and I interviewed Govind, the guest house owner, about the school. At the time it was less than a year old.

 I came back six month's later with a video camera to do some documentary work to help raise money for the school. Monika was attending the traditional school when I returned, complete with school uniform, and I never saw more pride in a young girl's face. You can see the video here:

Now the project is several years old, they have built a new facility for the school in Jodhpur, and they've started a second school in Setrawa, Govind's ancestral village which is about 90k from Jodhpur. It's truly wonderful to see it grow and see so many girls having a better life because of this project.

 As for me, I find it deepens the travel experience if you can do something to help when you are in a place like India. The environment is overwhelming if you are just sitting back getting involved the people you meet the heart and soul of a land in a way that just doing hotels and tours will not provide. And you will make lifelong friends in the process.

It's an incredible way to use your gift.

When I take a picture of a person, it looks like a picture of that person captured as they were at that very moment. But when you take a picture of someone, there is always a sense of story there. Of history. The picture of Pappy at the beach burger joint. Paola in the streetlight. The self-portraits. You capture something more in the shot, something that makes the viewer stop and stare and wonder. I'm trying to figure out an intelligent way to say, "How do you do that?"

People always either love or hate having me around. I am often seen with a camera for a face, and that tends to piss some people off. It was a little easier to pull it off with a point and shoot but with a DSLR, it is very obvious that I am stalking my subjects like a predator seeks his prey.

But you nailed it when you asked the question as far as what I am looking for through my lens. I'm looking for a scene that tells a story, but it has to include several things to make it work for me, number one is good lighting. Good lighting isn't always bright lighting, I actually love taking pictures in low light, but whatever light there is has to flatter the subject somehow.

Paola in the Street Light

Secondly, if there is a scene around the subject, I try to get a sense of place. Paola was beautifully lit by the street light, but her mood while she was waiting was pensive. Adding to that was the bay of partially broken windows behind her, and the cigarette butts on the street. It also happened that the color of her shadow matched the color of the graffiti on the wall.

You can't plan these things all the time. Sometimes you can, you can take someone back to that spot, now that we know it's there, and make them pose, but for me the fun is seeing the scene as it's happening and framing the composition to capture that moment. In many ways, the camera is one of the things that really puts me into a moment when it is happening, rather than just blindly walking by and not noticing the details.

Off camera, I'm super A.D.D., but behind the lens I'm hyper-focused. I don't even notice my body, only the scene through my viewfinder.

We have to talk about your self-portraits. These are such intimate shots. And I don't mean just physically, but if you take, say, the one of you with your guitar, there is a look on your face that speaks to a quiet loss or inner struggle. In other words, it's not just your form that is exposed but your heart, too. What was it like for you to post these particular photographs? Were you nervous?

Well, given that in that particular picture the only thing I was wearing was the guitar, I was definitely nervous! I've been doing the self portraits because it's an every two week photo challenge on Google Plus. It's a nurturing environment to post selfys. I don't do that many actually. There are some folks who seem to post only self portraits. I'd rather shoot other subjects than myself. However, I find it's a great way to learn about portraiture without having to bore some poor model to death. But I have a long way to go in my learning of studio portraiture. It's a whole different ball game from natural light and candid shots.

You’ve already accomplished so much. So tell us, what is next for the talented Catherine Vibert?

The truth is, I have a long way to go before I feel I have mastered the technical skills I need to get where I want to go with photography. Of course that's going to be true wherever I am along the path, and I hope that even when I am masterful at every aspect of photography, I'll still feel there is somewhere to go with it.

It's only been a few months since I decided to graduate to a professional photographer from a Fine Art hobbiest photographer, and I'm still quite a newbie. I heard someone describe photographical expertise like a T: you learn all you can about the broad subject of photography, a little bit of product photography, a little bit of studio photography, portraits, etc, a little bit of event photography, and you get decent at all of those things —that's the top of the T — but then you have to choose where you're going to specialize and learn every possible thing you can about that niche. That's the part of the T I haven't gotten to yet. I have gained enormous respect for photographers who are masters of their niche just based on the little bit I've done in my broad based education. Every single kind of photography comes with it's own hurtles.

I think I want my niche to be people photography. As a documentarian, I love to catch people in their natural environment doing every day things, and that's a good skill to build upon, but I'm really just beginning to be comfortable with posing people and using studio lighting to enhance the shot. But it feels like a natural progression of things.

Ultimately I do want to get back to travel and documentary/humanitarian work abroad, but as I'm care-taking my dad right now, my travel options are limited. I still have many things I want to do with the photography I've already done. I'm thinking about how to incorporate writing with the photography — travelogs (there are so many stories from India and Nepal, as you can imagine), I'm considering a video and photo ebook.

I can't wait to hear those stories!

Finally, what is the best way for people to find your work?

I do have some prints for sale at Fine Art America

However, the best place to see a broad sampling of my work is on G+. Specifically these albums as they were all mentioned in this interview:

Then there's my business website for portrait and event work,

Thank you so much, Cat!


I am thrilled to announce that my debut novel, PAINTED HANDS, is being acquired by Toni Plummer at Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press. The offer came right before my birthday, which, excluding the photo album my daughter made full of family pictures with sarcastic captions, was the best gift ever!

When my amazing (and patient) (and reassuring) agent, Kent D. Wolf, told me who the offer was from, I set off to google Toni. I was so excited to read about her commitment to multicultural literature, and to find out she is an author herself. Her short fiction collection THE BOLERO OF ANDI ROWE, winner of the Miguel Marmol Prize, explores the world of a young woman of Mexican and Irish descent and "one family's passage from the immigrant story to the American story, and the cycle of loss, adaptation, and rediscovery that is innate to that experience."  I ordered her book rush delivery and cannot wait to read. You should order it too, so we can talk about it!

I am so grateful to Toni for her interest in my novel and am looking forward to working with her. I am also incredibly grateful to Kent for believing in the story in the first place and for all of his good work in placing it.

The target publication date is Spring/Summer 2013.