Andrew Cullen first came on my radar in 2010 when I was in Mongolia crashing the group 19 COS conference. One of the volunteers told me about him and that he was in a previous group, but had stayed in Mongolia doing photography.
Since that time Andrew had been very busy. Andrew was gracious to take time to answer questions about his photography and Peace Corps Experiences.
Peace Photography: Where and when did you serve in Peace Corps?
Andrew: I served in Bangladesh from August 2005 to March 2006. At that point, they evacuated us- there had been suicide attacks, bombings, and other forms of violence at the hands of a fundamentalist Islamic group for months- and we came back to the States. Fortunately, Peace Corps found a new spot for me pretty quickly, and I went to Mongolia in June, 2006 and served there until Aug. 2009. I served in a small village in in Hovd Aimag (province) in western Mongolia for the first two years teaching English, and in a library in the Hovd Aimag capital for my extension year.
Peace Photography: What made you want to serve?
Andrew: I had done some community service work in college, and enjoyed it. And I had grown up listening to punk rock that was politically and socially conscious, and had never been interested in getting a job after college that was desk-bound and purely for the benefit of my own bank account or the company’s bottom line. That was one of the reasons why I was interested in journalism- because as interesting as it was to me, the act of retrieving and compiling information and stories could also be extremely valuable to a larger community- and one of the reasons why I was interested in doing the Peace Corps.
But I would be lying if I said my main motivation wasn’t to travel and to learn about new languages and new cultures. I love doing all of that, and there is nothing else that satisfies me in quite the same way as those particular challenges do, except, perhaps, photography. I thought I could do some good as a PCV, but I also knew that the experience would do a lot of good for me. And my interest in photography was always more in longer-term projects that dug into an issue or subject rather than one-off photos of events or sports, although a lot of my professional work ends up being that kind of stuff now. The time commitment and integration aspects of Peace Corps appealed to me for the same reasons.
Peace Photography: Tell me about your photography career.
Andrew: Although my undergrad degree is in photojournalism, my career really started after I finally finished Peace Corps in 2009. For the first two years, I shot film, mostly on a Nikon F100, and hardly got to see any of it. In fact, I still have black and white negatives that I haven’t developed from that period. I should get around to that. When I did develop my color film there, there often wasn’t much that was any good, which was pretty discouraging.
In 2008, I came back to the States for a month, and bought a used Nikon D2H. Back in Mongolia for my extension year, I started shooting more and felt like I improved a bit, and began cobbling together some photo essays and a website (www.andrewcullenphotography.com). I also felt like the rare coverage of Mongolia that I saw in the international press was often behind, or a skewed version of the reality in the country, and I thought I could do a better job of identifying and telling the country’s stories than the drop-in journalists were doing.
When my third year ended, I flew to France for the Perpignan festival, where I tried to show my work to some editors and photographers. It wasn’t received very well- and granted, it wasn’t very good- but I got some solid advice from James Estrin of the New York Times, and I met Dean Cox, the photo editor for Eurasianet.org. Instead of telling me how bad my photos were, Dean said I should get in touch with the editors there about covering Mongolia for the website. A few months later, after I had returned to Mongolia, I did, and Eurasianet.org became my most consistent client in Mongolia. I published once or twice a month with them for the final six months that I lived there. I managed to get some assignments from the UN agencies there, and get some work published in the Christian Science Monitor and The National, a paper from Abu Dhabi. That gave me a start and something to put on my resume.
A lot of my published work in Mongolia was on the dzud, a winter-time disaster that killed about 18% of the country’s livestock, which is a pretty big deal when a third of your population relies on animal herding for some or all of their income. There was a lot wrapped up in that story- the natural disaster, the lack of access to transportation and medical care for rural communities, urban migration as a result of loss of income, over-grazing and unsustainable high cashmere goat populations. It was complex and there was a lot to work with. Otherwise, I focused on Mongolia’s ethnic Kazakh population and the rapidly urbanizing Mongolian culture.
Once I returned to the States in Oct. 2010, I began working as a reporter for the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine- my hometown newspaper, basically. Since then, I’ve done much more writing than I have photography, although I am hoping that that is temporary. I recently began working at The Forecaster, a weekly newspaper that covers Portland. I get to shoot more there, since we don’t have a staff photographer. But there isn’t a lot of space for photos simply due to the physical, tabloid size of the paper. I have a few projects in mind that I hope to start on soon, but I’ll keep them a secret for the time being.
Peace Photography: Has your Peace Corps experience influenced your work as a photographer?
Andrew: Besides the obvious fact that I was able to freelance in Mongolia because I had learned so much as a Peace Corps volunteer, much of my best work in the U.S. has focused on cross-cultural issues. I feel like I’m able to identify and navigate those situations better because of my PC experience, even if the cultures I’m dealing with here are not the same as in my PC countries.
Some examples include the 6 month project I completed for the Sun Journal in December on the 10 year anniversary of Somali immigration to Lewiston (www.sunjournal.com/somalidecade, I did all the writing and photography for this project, but not the video), and some ongoing documentation of Burundian refugees in Portland. (http://www.theforecaster.net/news/print/2012/02/14/portland-churches-struggle-keep-growing-number-asy/114017)
Peace Photography: Did you use your photography skills as a Peace Corps volunteer in any way?
Andrew: I contributed a few images to a book compiled by Peace Corps/Mongolia to use as a cross-cultural training manual. More importantly, I tried to use my camera to get to know my community, shooting photos and giving them to people as an excuse to talk to people and visit their homes.
Peace Photography: Did your service in Peace Corps help you get your current position?
Andrew: I think it did, although perhaps indirectly. I think my time with the Peace Corps showed editors that I was up for challenges, willing and able to learn about a breadth of different subjects and issues, and perhaps even that I’m an interesting person myself.
Peace Photography: What are you working on now? Tell me about what you do and if there is any special projects you are working on.
Andrew: I’m in between projects at the moment. As I said, I hope to get a few new ones started soon. I am always shooting live music, mostly of punk rock/hardcore/metal bands, mostly for fun. Punk rock and skateboarding is actually what got me interested in photography and I still love the music. I’m getting old now so I’m not as quick to jump in the mosh pit as I once was (and having been out of the country for 5 years, I don’t know a lot of the newer bands.) Photographing shows keeps me actively engaged and involved in the music. Some of those images will verrrry occasionally find their way to my tumblr blog, http://www.tumblr.com/blog/andrewcullen. I plan on getting more work up there this year as well. God knows I have a back log…
To see and learn more about Andrew’s work go to the following link: http://www.andrewcullenphotography.com/