An Interview with Documentary Filmmaker and Photographer Jeffrey Garriock

Garriock behind the scenes filming whale sharks in Galapagos, 2019.” © Sofia Green

Wilson: Jeffrey, I want to take a minute right off the top of our conversation to say thank you for your interest in this interview. You are an inspiration to me, and I’m honored to call you a friend! For those readers who are not familiar with you and your work, can you please introduce yourself?

Garriock: Thanks so much for having me! It is a treat to be invited to chat with you. Any chance to work with another exciting creative is always a good one!

I’m mainly a cinematographer working in the travel & documentary space, initially, I got started in sports but at the first opportunity transitioned into travel. I started working in marketing and advertising, and slowly as the opportunities appeared, I’ve worked more and more in documentaries, both branded content and honest-to-goodness documentary films. Mainly shorter films, but the past few years have seen me expand into doing longer-form films, and there is a feature not too far over the horizon. I’ve worked shooting in over 60 countries, primarily with G Adventures in the travel space, and with Photographers Without Borders in the documentary world, documenting the work of grassroots NGOs and the issues they attempt to resolve. I’ve expanded increasingly into photography in recent years, becoming a Photographer in Residence on a Polar expedition ship, and teaching workshops with PWB. I also specialize in working underwater, which I try to do at every possible opportunity!

“Eye of the Needle Arch in Wadi Rum Desert, Jordan, 2019.” © Jeffrey Garriock

Wilson: You and I met while on assignment in Ukraine, which for me, was a life-changing project. What were some of the lessons you learned from working on that assignment, being in Chernobyl, and putting together your documentary?

Garriock: Chernobyl was an amazing time for me – it was a place I’d read about for so many years, and I’d always wanted to visit. We were so lucky in that Lucas Hixson, the co-founder of Clean Futures Fund, who we were there to work with, has such an incredible knowledge of the Chernobyl region, both of its history and the culture today. As a radiation expert, he also has great insight on the workings of nuclear power, so he almost always had answers for my increasingly niche questions and had incredible access through his time working with the workers at the plant. I stood on a nuclear reactor thanks to him, which was a pretty otherworldly experience. I learned a lot doing this, but I think the biggest lesson I learned is to leave your assumptions at home. People so often decide what film they’re going to make before they leave the house, but you rarely know the whole story (often, you know almost none of it). With this film in Chernobyl, I thought I had such a good understanding of what happened, why it happened, and when it happened, but what I tell people now is that Chernobyl isn’t a moment in time, it’s a place. It still exists, people still live and work there, and these people are not out of danger, because the danger doesn’t just vanish when the press coverage stops. It endures, and so these people have to endure. I assumed that the accident was something that happened in the past, and it was over. The accident may be over, but the effects are not, and the people living there will be dealing with this for thousands of years. The stewardship of what happens to this place belongs to them, and those choices are being made now and will be made in our future. So making sure you don’t fall victim to your assumptions was a big lesson. It’s something I’ve always told myself, but it was really hit home for me on this trip.

Wilson: The film, ‘Children of Chernobyl” has just been released, where can people view it? And what is one take away you want every viewer to have once they see it?

Garriock: People can see it on YouTube, on the Photographers Without Borders youtube channel, and it’s currently being submitted to a number of film festivals, so if you’re lucky (and if we’re lucky) you’ll be able to see it on a big screen near you! We’re working on planning a few screening events in the coming months as well, so we’ll certainly announce that through Photographers Without Borders’ channels, and I’ll announce it on my Instagram as well. You can also watch it here by clicking below:

Wilson: Besides shooting video in Ukraine, you took some time to shoot infrared film. How did you think of the idea, and were you pleased with your results?

Garriock: I’ve always wanted to have a try of infra-red film, but it’s really tricky to work with. Because of the infra-red filter you need, you lose an enormous amount of light, so in a documentary setting, you’re limited to daytime exteriors with a lot of sun, or you’re doing long-exposures on a tripod. In either case, it makes a simple photo a bit more complicated. As to how I thought of it…as cheesy as it sounds, I wanted to show Chernobyl in literally “a new light,” and I thought changing my process might help me to do that, get a different look at a place by virtue of the format. I find when shooting travel & tourism work, everyone goes to these monuments, castles, lookout points, etc. and stands in the same spot, taking the same shot. Anyone who’s been to Angkor Wat at sunrise will know what I’m talking about – there’s one place by a little pool where everyone stands so they can get the sunrise and the reflection of the temple in the pool. You can’t move for selfie sticks – so everyone’s photos of Angkor Wat come out exactly the same. I felt like I needed to take advantage of the opportunity being in Chernobyl to try and do something a bit different, and working with infra-red film is what helped me to do that. The results are pretty good! The focus was quite tricky, but I have a few shots that came out really really well. You and I were quite lucky to exhibit our Chernobyl work in Sharjah this past year, and I got to see some of the shots blown up quite large, and that was really encouraging to still feel good about them at that size.

“Chernobyl Exclusion Zone memorial, shot on infrared film in Chernobyl City, Ukraine, 2018.” © Jeffrey Garriock

Wilson: Speaking of film, you shoot stills and video. Which did you start out with in your career? Do you prefer one over the other, and what are the advantages of shooting both?

Garriock: I started out with video when I was really really young, maybe 14 in high school in media arts class, so I’ve always been in love with making films. My friends and I used to spend whole weekends making dumb films about whatever we could think of (generally action movies we could look cool in, or horror movies that weren’t at all scary). Eventually, I learned you could actually do that for a job. It was too expensive to get a video camera for a really long time, so I got into stills as a hobby, because I could afford it, and because there were classes for that in school as well. I don’t know that I prefer one over the other, but I would say that 90% of what I do for work is video, and I tend to shoot stills for fun while I’m in cool locations for the video side of things. So video is like work and stills are more like a hobby.

There are definite advantages to shooting both – a huge amount of the skills are transferrable. However, I believe it’s much easier to transition from video to stills than it is the other way around. There are a lot of skills associated with video (working with sound, pulling focus, moving the camera during a shot) that just don’t apply with stills, and those are the trickiest ones to learn. However, white balance, focus, exposing your image correctly, lighting, all these things can be applied to both. So I think filmmakers have an easier time going over to stills shooting, but there’s an enormous overlap in the skill set. The advantage of shooting both is that each one teaches you a bit about the other, and it helps you to look at a subject in a few different ways. Narratively, shots that work really well in a film might be odd on their own as a still, so thinking about how you cover a story is a very different process. In stills, you’re often trying to tell the story all at once. I’d better stop here because I could talk about this all day.

“Above the arctic circle in Kiruna, Sweden, 2016.” © Jeffrey Garriock

Wilson: What are you currently working, and what’s coming out next?

Garriock: I was fortunate enough to get a spot on a ship in September with a team of scientists working with whale sharks in the Galapagos, so I spent 12 days diving with them, working with these massive sharks and getting to know the science of studying them a little bit. I’m building that into a tv-size documentary at the moment so watch for that coming soon! I’m really excited about this one.

“A penguin colony on a floating iceberg in the Gerlache strait, Antarctica, 2020.” © Jeffrey Garriock

Wilson: You shoot a lot of sports photography and portraits of athletes, how did you get involved in that field, and how does that differ from the other documentary work you do?

Garriock: Oh, man, totally different! I got involved with that just because that was where I could get a job when I was first starting out. A producer named Michael Gelfand who I am forever indebted to brought me over to the team at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment when I was trying to get my foot in the door in the industry, and I wasn’t a big sports fan at all (although that’s changed and now I’m an enormous hockey fan). Still, I learned a lot working in that organization, the parent company for Toronto’s Basketball, Soccer, and Hockey teams. Once I established myself in the travel space, they started inviting me back to MLSE for shoots that required someone used to working that way, which led to following Leafs Alumni Borje Salming back to his home town of Kiruna, Sweden to return the banner honoring his number that once hung in the arena here as a part of the team’s 100th anniversary. It also led to working with Masai Ujiri, the president of the Raptors, doing videos for his Giants of Africa foundation – teaching kids in countries all over the continent to use basketball as a tool to improve their lives. So travel and sports kind of linked up and it was a good space for me. The storytelling is very different, though – with a sports team, the narrative is generally “the puck goes into the net, and the home team wins,” so it can be challenging finding new ways to outline that narrative. With the other stories that sports touches though it’s very similar to the rest of the work I do. There’s a character, a setting, a goal, conflict, everything you need for a good story. Generally, though, those projects in sports are for celebrating something, a victory, a record, a player’s accomplishments, and the documentary pieces are to shed light on something that needs to be seen. I think that’s how they differ the most.

“Raptors team President Masai Ujiri in Juba, South Sudan, 2019.” © Jeffrey Garriock

Wilson: I saw some new fashion work with excellent lighting on your Instagram feed! What was the inspiration for these new images?

Garriock: I just wanted to do something different! I had gotten these cool lights and was desperate to use them for something, so I asked a friend (model, TV host, and renaissance woman Lauren Howe) if she’d be happy to model for me to try out something new, and she was totally in. I find that when you work in a creative field, the very first thing you stop doing is your personal projects. It’s hard to let a client down, but VERY easy to let yourself down, so often your personal projects fall by the wayside. One of my goals going forward is to make a point to make time for them. You always learn something, you always have fun, and sometimes you even make something good! I also wanted to challenge myself as I don’t do a huge amount of portraits, and they tend to be on the street or on the basketball court, never in a studio where I can control the lighting and spend time with a model and try again and again to get things just right. So that was an interesting challenge, learning to do some of that. It was made much easier by virtue of directing a friend. I had a great time doing those.

“Lauren Howe (@laurenhowe) for a creative project, Toronto, Canada, 2019.” © Jeffrey Garriock

Wilson: Jeffrey, one thing I love about your Instagram feed (and seeing you in action interviewing people) is your complete skill for storytelling. You always give such detailed and educational information along with your images and video. How did you become so talented in researching topics and being so informative? Did you study journalism, or are you self taught?

Garriock: I’m glad to hear that! I sort of wish I went to journalism school as I feel like when I read something a proper journalist has written, it’s always structurally more sound, has a good beginning middle and end, and teaches me something. I’m a bit more stream-of-consciousness than I’d like to be. I just start talking or writing, and then I arrive a thousand miles away wondering if that was the route I had intended to take. I just try to write all the things I would want to know if I were looking at that photo. So often I’ll see people on Instagram post an animal doing something incredible, or unusual and the caption is “Bird, Kenya, 2019”. What bird? Where in Kenya? Why is it doing that thing? What is happening in this photo!?? I try to answer those questions for myself. The other thing is I think it helps my less spicy photos a lot.

An ordinary photo of a man looking at the camera is fine, but not thrilling. What if I told you that the man was the survivor of a Cambodian prison camp, and that he now works in the museum that occupies the grounds of the prison camp, teaching people about a prison that he himself was incarcerated in? What if I told you that some of his co-workers were prison guards there, and would’ve held him captive some thirty, forty years ago. Now they work together, eat lunch at the same time, talk to the same tourists. It’s unbelievable! But it’s because of who he is, not necessarily how good the photo is, so it’s my way of taking a mediocre photo and trying to make it a bit more interesting. You look at something a lot differently when you know a little about it.

“Norng Chan Phal, youngest survivor of Tuol Sleng prison camp, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2016.” © Jeffrey Garriock

Wilson: You’ve led a lot of workshops recently. What do you love about teaching? Are there any workshops coming up this year?

Garriock: I love everything about teaching, but nothing is more satisfying than when you see a student GET it. When they sit and look and their work and say “Hmm…what if I applied that…” and then they bring you their next assignment and there’s a glint in their eye, and you think “Bingo. They understand.”. Seeing people take that step forward in their storytelling and photography is really satisfying. But I also like how no two people have the same approach. I learn quite a lot from my students, because everyone goes about things slightly differently, and it’s always valuable to look at another way of doing things. I’m teaching in Mozambique again this year, at an amazing organization called Love the Oceans in Guinjata Bay. We did a workshop there last year, and it was brilliant so we’re going again in August. I even get to teach a bit of underwater photography there, as there’s some really good diving. Check out the photographers without borders website! Come to my workshop! You’ll have a great time.

Wilson: What’s one bit of advice you can give to someone just starting out in photography?

Garriock: Go shoot! People get very hung up on equipment (myself included), but the most important thing is just to get out there and shoot. Shoot shoot shoot and try different things all the time. Nothing will teach you faster than just going and trying, and nothing will prepare you better than failing at it. So I strongly encourage you to get up early or stay up late, go out for sunrise/sunset, shoot whatever you think is interesting. If you want to learn something specific, you can go on youtube and find nine hundred tutorials on how to do that thing, but if you want to get underway as a photographer, go and shoot. There’s no better way to learn. That’s how you find out what questions you need to ask in order to improve.

“A woman spinning Lotus flower into thread for use in textiles, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 2015.” © Jeffrey Garriock

Wilson: What do you do for fun when you are not working?

Garriock: My favorite thing in the world is breakfast, so I’m always looking for somewhere new to have breakfast. There’s nothing I like more than sitting in a breakfast joint at 7 in the morning with a cup of coffee that never runs out, reading something I’m invested in, and eating a delicious breakfast. I also love going to the movies, and I’m trying to learn how to play hockey as an adult, which is tricky because there are no programs for adults who don’t know how to play – you just have to figure it out. My friend and I have been going out to an outdoor rink in the city twice a week in the middle of the workday, so we have the place to ourselves, and are both just trying to learn how to do things like skate and receive a pass at the same time. It’s a good workout too!

Wilson: One last question… What will Jeffrey Garriock’s legacy be?

Garriock: Oh, man, I have no idea! I don’t think that’s really up to me. I would just be happy to HAVE a legacy! If I’m successful enough that there’s a discussion of my legacy, I’ll feel like I made it. Although I won’t be around to celebrate that. I would love to have taught people something or have reshaped anyone’s idea of what something is. The hardest thing in the world is to change someone’s mind, especially these days, so anything I can do that’s powerful enough to make someone change their mind would be an amazing legacy. Or to shine a light on another side of something people don’t know about or understand. I would love to have a hand in helping protect the oceans, as it increasingly feels like the ocean I get to experience may not be around for the next generation to experience, so anything I can do to help protect that would be a great legacy to have. But I guess we’ll see, in time.

“Filming underwater in Iceland’s famous Silfra Crack, Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, 2013.” © David Ramsay