Interview: Chicago-Based Photographer Kyle La Mere

Photography is a genre beset by inherent contradictions: truth versus illusion, documentation versus fantasy. Happily hopping between these registers is Chicago native Kyle La Mere, whose personality and rapid-fire speech are as vibrant as the images he produces. A raconteur on the roam, La Mere is a quick study in assimilation, traveling across the globe to personally acquaint himself with the cultures he encounters to do justice to their stories.

We caught up with him shortly after he returned to Chicago following a jaunt to the Pacific Northwest.

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You just got back from a photo shoot in Oregon. What were you working on there?
I was in Pendleton, about four hours east of Portland—basically the Oregon and Washington border. These sisters from the Umatilla, Cayuse, Nez Perce reservation and I really love working together. We’ve been documenting their lives, regalia, and so on, to bring their culture more to the forefront and develop a professional library of images of their tribe. We’re trying to bring modern Native American communities to life. Not many people have even photographed them these days.

Photographers would show up at the reservation and just come and go, which really bothered them. The family was discouraged, and wasn’t compensated for any of it. But they could own the rights to the photographs I was taking. They could sell prints of them and distribute to museums and other institutions that may be interested.

You call yourself a “photographic storyteller.” It seems like you spend some serious time with the communities you photograph, rather than taking a few shots and taking off. Is that investment related to a narrative element to your work?
Not so much from a photography perspective. But from a human perspective, I get really invested in any project I do. I’m a builder. I use photography to build relationships with people. I don’t know much about the history of photography, and that pisses some people off. I’m not an industry dude—I got into photography through a different route. I’ve always loved culture, and photography became this gateway to get to know different cultures. It gives you a kind of courage.

In the first few years, you want to impress everyone with the technical skill at hand and how great you are at crafting an image, but later it’s more about the message. Now that I focus more on the message, the work just naturally comes out on its own. I don’t think about the images ahead of time—I just kind of react. Like in Oregon, I really went into that world for two weeks. I helped with the chores and bailed hay. I absorbed 1000 percent of the whole experience.

It was an honor and privilege to even be invited into their homes and onto their land. It’s real. People—quite reasonably—want to know why you’re there and what your purpose is. I want my work to be worth something for the world. I want to be a piece of the puzzle of change.

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You lived in Ethiopia for a number of years as well. What was that like? Were you living with a family?
That changed everything. In 2011, a friend of a friend sponsored an amazing community children’s center, but there was no documentation of it at all. Not a website, a logo, nothing. I am a graphic designer as well—that’s my first background—so it was a no-brainer. I moved to Ethiopia for two and a half years. I dove in, hung out, volunteered, documented the kids and did logos. I got very involved.

Most of the time I’d be doing chores—not even shooting. To me, it’s about building relationships. You can always tell if someone’s bullshitting in a photo. I didn’t want to be another 1980s Sally Struthers, like what I saw as a kid.

It sounds like you have a lot of humility in your approach, rather than a white-man savior cliché.
Yeah, when I was in Ethiopia, a lot of people assumed I was a missionary. I was like, “I’m just a dude who likes to help people out. I don’t care where they are, or who they are.” Or “I’m here just to be here.” That answer weirded people out even more. People are blown away by no ulterior motives.

Your photography seems deeply invested in the range of beauty across humanity. Does that motivate you?
Absolutely. What it means to be a photographer this day and age has really changed. That umbrella grew a lot in the last five years, with social media. Am I this, or am I that? I want to capture more images of people I don’t see as much in mainstream media. Why am I just seeing so many white girls dressed up in nice sweaters? Why aren’t there more Black girls, Mexican girls and Asian girls? I’m invested in ethnicity more than anything. As an image-maker who licenses his photography, I want to put those images out there, so they become more normal.

When I got involved in the fashion industry in Ethiopia, with some street fashion out of the capital city, people in the U.S. were like, “I had no idea there was clothing like that there.” But there was everything you can imagine. Everything the media told was the opposite of the truth. The fashion in Ethiopia is off the charts. When people actually start seeing this stuff, it’s incredibly motivating.

So many cultures are given negative connotations that are total bullshit. It’s almost never the way you think it is. That’s where I’m finding my stories now. I want to show people the way things actually are. It charges me up.

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What’s the wildest place your job has taken you? Or the craziest thing you’ve done to get a good shot?
A few weeks ago I was in Boulder, Colorado, shooting this CrossFit athlete for a protein bar company. The client failed to mention that this person doesn’t pose, so we had to follow along with her workout regimen. I was not ready. Her regimen is doing these laps up and down the mountain for hours, so that’s what I was doing. I ultimately had to have my body strapped to the top of a car just to follow her along.

Recently you curated a series published on The Atlantic called “As You Are,” which takes an intimate look into the early mornings of 25 different people. How did you get involved in that?
That came about in part because my anxiety with social media led me to cutting out everything but Instagram. I got tired of everything—and everything being so airbrushed. I wanted to catch people as the people they are before they get on social media. The challenge for me was walking into a scenario that was totally unfamiliar—the lighting, everything. It was very intimate, but it shows how everyone’s kind of the same person.

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For someone who is on the move so often, how does being based in the Midwest affect your overall vision and practice?
For so many creative from the Midwest, you go to New York or L.A. when you graduate. With going to Ethiopia for three years, I came back missing a lot. Chicago seemed very different to me. People said I should move to L.A. or move to New York, but I realized it doesn’t really matter where I’m at. I do my own thing. Chicago is a backdrop for me right now. I love the location and the accessibility of it—being in the middle, I can be in so many places so quickly. I can be almost anywhere in the country in two hours or so. I appreciate L.A. and New York, but now they’re kind of like the “cool uncle”—it’s fun to spend time with them, but after day three, you’re like, “Dude, you have to get your act together” [laughs]. I have to get back to reality.

All photography by Kyle La Mere

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