It was about 10 years ago that Claire Judine Saintil-van Goodman started van Goodman Photography & Art (“vanP&A”) and became a professional photographer, but for as long as she can remember, this New York resident with Haitian roots had a penchant for the arts. The camera—at first point-and-shoot or disposable—was always her faithful companion. “It was always about not losing that moment,” says Claire. “You go back to […] old pictures and realize where you have been.” After becoming a wife and mother, Claire decided to tap into unexplored potentials. She attended photography classes and felt exhilarated by the endless possibilities offered by the pairing up of a camera with the right glass, light, colors, and so on. She enjoyed every moment of her art education. Her first assignments were on black and white photography, and she fell in love with the challenges that it presented in terms of lighting and shapes. One lesson she learned: “You cannot insist on waiting for the sun to come up for great pictures, when in fact an overcast will naturally eliminate some of the harsh shadows that you do not need in your shots and help you get great shots.”
Claire was influenced by the works of Ansel Adams, Walker Evans and Brassai. “They have pulled a personal cord from the beginning,” says Claire. She also often goes back to the works of Jacques Henri Lartigue and especially those of Henri Cartier-Bresson. She explains that “the latter, called the father of modern photojournalism, was also the one who came up with the term Decisive Moment (that one event in time, that cannot be repeated, and has its own significant occurrence). Decisive Moment is a challenge that excites me, and it gives me great satisfaction to be able to capture those rare moments. One the best opportunities that I had for a few years, in the past, was to photograph young dancers on stage at Brooklyn Music School (“BMS”).”
What Claire mostly wants is to use the camera as a medium to express herself creatively, in a way that will pull in the viewers, making them want to be part of the story she tells, ask questions, feel involved. She says, “I really want to be remembered for the individual that I am behind the camera; then maybe the message that I attempt to convey with my pictures will be better understood and leave an impressive mark.” To accomplish that goal, she works with both Canon and Nikon pieces. She pats herself on the back for her decision not to stick to one brand. “I find one to be faster [when there’s] low light; […] the shots [also] come out warmer. However, I deeply appreciate the other for the true colors and [usually] sharper images.” (And, yes, she’s purposely refraining from specifying which brand she’s referring to in each case, as they have both served her well.).
Speaking of cameras, Claire thinks it’s unfortunate that so many individuals believe that buying expensive camera pieces will do the work without much effort and knowledge. “Taking beautiful pictures does not assure you a seat as a professional photographer. [Aside from your talent], you also need marketing skills. [It] is less about the glamour and more about the work, the hours, the business – you need to have the passion to keep going [and continue to feel] right with all the ups and downs.”
When asked about her favorite pieces, Claire referred to the ones that surprised even herself. “My eyes would see one thing, and the camera would give me something completely different and beyond my expectations. I have one client in particular, whom I call my ‘Black Marilyn Monroe.’ Yes, she is gorgeous and elegant, but the WOW factor about her—her features, her smile, her look, her expression—really show up in her pictures effortlessly.” These shooting sessions give Claire much pleasure, as she tries to reach for the stars. Although her photographs have been published in prominent journals, such as the New York Times (Dec 2008; Oct 2012), Claire, a member of the Professional Photographers of America, continues to strive for more. Her biggest challenge? Being taken seriously as a female photographer, particularly amongst her Haitian peers. She doesn’t see it as a setback, however. “Photography is about learning to deal with the world which also requires a strong heart at time, and strength to bear the challenges like a warrior. […] It is a very competitive field. […] You learn to keep your ego in check while still fueling your pride.”
Q&A WITH CLAIRE
MJ: Who’s Claire?
C: [I am] this Haitian woman who once thought the world’s problems could be solved on unilateral ideas, and that it was easy to save everyone. Rude awakenings come with a price; how you handle those moments will dictate your customized personality—eventually. I am still quite gullible about many things, but only by choice. That attitude, not only it has made me more receptive of the myriad different characters that have entered my life, and have left it with no explanation, but it has also put a brake on my negative judgments. I am first and above all a mother; my love for my two kids is incomparable, and I have an incredible husband who supports me to no end in all I do. I enjoy meeting new people, I have had many friends for decades, and I still find time to be by myself. I am a romantic, a bibliophile and I write poetry. As an artist, I feed on my affective empathy to find the angle that will also touch the next person. Sometimes, I do find myself in situations where I take pictures, just to take pictures, and that does come through the shots, and I get disappointed. To me, taking pictures is rediscovering this changing stage around us, appreciating the invisible hands that continuously mold us, stopping this one second of time that I have the privilege to relive as I want, that I have the opportunity to share with others.
MJ: What do you enjoy most about being an artist?
C: Oh, I enjoy BEING MYSELF! I enjoy being nervous before any assignment and I do hope the feeling never turns into a self-confidence that will only fuel cockiness. Being a bit nervous reminds me that I still need my fingers, my shoulders, my eyes, my thought process, my imagination, my breath, to take pictures – I am still human! I enjoy the adrenaline that comes with meeting the demands of a client, the constant push to discover something new about myself, my perception of things. The smile on my clients’ faces when they realize they can be comfortable with me. My art exposes my vulnerability, whether I write, I draw, or I take pictures, and that is a rush in itself when you cannot tell how receptive the others will be to what you offer to the world. Criticisms or praises, they both help me to become a better artist during this journey.
MJ: What would you say is the most important lesson you have learned in your life as a photographer, and how do you apply it to your art?
C: Two lessons: 1. Do NOT judge a book by its cover; and 2. Still waters DO run deep. When I meet new people, even when I revisit friends and acquaintances, I give them a chance to express themselves first and I step into their world. It makes it easier for me to approach anyone, and it also makes them more comfortable with me. There had been times when I had to initiate things first, but always with some reservation to give the other person a chance to be somewhat comfortable. If I have not seen a friend for a little while, it is safer to assume that a lot may have happened in the time lag that we have not spoken; that warrant a stand back and patience before we pick up speed again. Hence, as an artist, I learn to wipe my slate clean all the time. What I get from one session does not guarantee an easy or hard time in the next assignment. I learn to accept every assignment as if it were my first.
Currently, Claire is working on a book that will combine poetry and photography. She’s also planning a solo show (“although I would not mind a collective show,” she points out), which proceeds would benefit cancer research, especially breast cancer. Learn more about Claire and her work by exploring her online portfolio at portfolio at www.clairejsvangoodman.com. Googling “Claire Saintil” will also bring up reference to any exhibition she has participated in, and her small Cafepress store PhoenixGroove 1204 (“PG1204”) with items bearing her work.