Waiting around may seem like a tedious task, but for a photographer this is how a shot is captured. Patiently they wait for the right colour to shine through, an object to be placed down and their subject to turn just slightly aligning into the perfect story. For Cait Opperman, the process of capturing a moment is so mentally justified, the entire session becomes a swift mixture of people and elements, all merged into another day of shooting. Introverted but interested in people’s stories, she finds comfort in how humans interact with each other and the environment.
When did you realise that photography was a career that you wanted to pursue?
As a teenager, I was always taking pictures and videos with my friends. I was part of the very early Flickr and Vimeo scenes in that I made friends from across the world who were interested in the same things I was. I ended up going to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to earn my BFA in Photography as well as minor in Art History. I continue to make my own photo work in addition to directing and shooting editorially for magazines as well as commercial projects.
Your photography style is very spontaneous, capturing unposed moments as they happen. When you look back at them, do you always remember the situation surrounding the shot or do you use it as a form of storytelling, coming up with your own stories?
To be honest, if I look back on almost any shoot, it’s all a blur. I always feel so locked into what I’m doing that once it’s over, I almost can’t remember what happened. The photos are quite literally the evidence of it for me. That said, I do remember people and what it was like to spend time with a person. I still remember the email address of a kid I met on the street when I was in school because my short interaction with him was so memorable…it stuck. A lot of the storytelling for me comes together in the edit. Like filmmaking, it’s so much about what we leave in and keep out of an edit that paints a narrative. That changes with each shoot and is probably the most fun part for me - establishing my take on what happened.
Seeing as the human subjects in your shots are not posing for your photographs, how do you get them the way you want? Is it luck or do you wait patiently for the moment to arrive?
It certainly depends on the project but the usual answer is: a lot of waiting! If I have the luxury of time, I spend hours and hours both actively producing a shot or waiting for just the right thing to happen. Which in the case of the Dead Sea work, starts to really hurt after a while - especially if you’ve made the mistake of shaving your legs the night before. I often wait and wait until a person or gesture or a colour feels right or interesting to me. I’ve learnt to be patient but not worry too much if I miss something.
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One collection which really makes you want to know the story behind it is the one you shot over a period of time of the Dead Sea and the people in it. Can you tell us more about that and what made you want to continue going back every year to shoot more?
I first visited the Dead Sea in 2015. I found the showers on the water's edge to be particularly interesting as bathers gathered there to wash the water (almost 10x saltier than the ocean) from their eyes. The space around the showers is often occupied by people who are temporarily blinded from the water seeping into and burning their eyes as they find themselves stumbling desperately toward the freshwater showers for relief. I saw in the groupings of people under the water fluid compositions like those of Renaissance painting, coupled with the oily viscosity of the water itself. I also became interested in the nature of the water's edge as it constantly changes. The Dead Sea continues to shrink as a great deal of water which used to flow into it from the Jordan River is sent to Jordan as a result of peaceful negotiations between the two countries. This body of work speaks to the edge of the Sea and the temporality of what happens there in its fleeting existence.
As a photographer, knowing what to shoot and what to let be must be difficult. How do you decide what is photograph-worthy?
In my early days, I used to carry a camera around in case something interesting jumped out at me. Now, it’s more important to me to have dedicated time off where I can just be. The great thing is that if I’m really needing to take a photo, I always have my phone. When I’m thinking about what I want to shoot, the decision to go after it photographically is honestly instinctual more than anything else. If something overwhelms me visually, I know it when I see it.
Although the subjects in your photography vary, you seem to have a particular interest in featuring people. Does it act as a way to add an additional dimension – the backstory of someone’s life – that you wouldn’t otherwise get from, let’s say, a plant?
It’s funny to me that I’ve amassed such a large archive of portraits and people because I’m fairly introverted in my day to day life. I love to be alone. That said, I also love looking at people and noticing their differences. I think there’s something really innate about humans wanting to look at other humans. Artists have been depicting others for thousands of years, so there has to be something deeply human about that.
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In previous interviews you mention the struggle and fear to share your work to the outside world. Has it got easier with experience and what personal issues have you had to deal with?
For me it’s always been hard to know when something is finished and also when it’s ready for eyes other than my own. I will say that it has got easier, though. I’ve learnt over time not to be quite as precious with my work because agonizing over the tiny details about when and how to release it to the world has never made much of a difference. It’s silly to put so much work into something and then never let anyone see it.
You also shoot a lot of sport-related content, in particular two Time covers – one of Naomi Osaka and another featuring the United States’ Women’s Soccer Team. Were you always interested in sports or was it something that you had to take the time and research on?
As a kid I played every sport I could. Being outside and running around was essential for me. As I got older and eventually went to art school, playing sports became less of a part of my life but watching and following sports helped to fill that space. In 2016, I completed a body of work called Set Piece, where I spent time with professional soccer players in the National Women’s Soccer League, some of whom played on the United States Women’s National Team as well. I invested a lot of my own money and time into traveling across the United States to photograph the players on the field and in their homes. The project earned a lot of recognition and ended up playing a big role in the types of commissions I received for the next several years. That included the world of tennis which was a huge part of my life as a kid. I love when the subjects I’m interested in bleed into the types of projects I’m commissioned for. It’s the dream!
You have traveled all over to shoot for various collections. What are your next plans? Is there anywhere in particular you would like to visit?
Great question! I’ve definitely had a lot of plans that unfortunately got put on hold due to the pandemic, just like everyone else. I’ve had several trips canceled or postponed, but I’ve also really enjoyed having the ability to spend a lot of time at home as well as my studio in New York, catching up on archiving projects and having the time to sit and think about what’s next. Once things calm down, I hope to travel back to Japan to work on a project I began thinking about back in 2019. Fingers crossed!
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