Greta Rybus and I met while she was shooting beautiful photos of beautiful food for the Sunday River issue of Maine Home + Design magazine. She photographed my dry, winter hands holding garnished cocktail glasses and mitigated my embarrassment by saying, “It’s winter in Maine. Everyone’s hands look like that.” I liked her immediately. A year and a half later, I opened a different magazine, at a different job, and saw her name on the page before me. Seemed like a sign. Greta is an incredibly talented photojournalist whose honest and affecting work can be seen in Interview, Monocle, Maine, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. We talked Instagram tactics, incurable sweet teeth, and homesickness for foreign lands over mushroom and herb scrambles at Local 188 in Portland.
Okay, I have to confess that I had never seen Who I Met until last night. It is so awesome–I feel like I need to go through and read all of them. How did that come about?
Well, a big part of photojournalism school is determining what’s a story and what’s not. I was always pretty smitten with the way people live their lives, but not everyone’s life is a “story” in terms of whether it’ll be a good feature for a magazine or a newspaper. So one part of it was me being like, “Well, everybody’s a story, and I’m just going to take time to investigate what they are. And the other component was that I was fresh out of journalism school and I didn’t know what I was doing, and so every week, I practiced connecting with different people and photographing in different situations.
I feel like that a lot of the time. The people who you meet along the way are always so interesting, and having gone to journalism school, as well, I feel like it is drilled into you, “This is newsworthy and this is not.” But it doesn’t have to be “newsworthy” to be worth hearing about.
Exactly. And I remember the moment that I thought of the blog, it just felt really clearly like what I wanted to devote myself to. So, a lot of times, when I explain what I do as far as taking pictures, it’s like, “I photograph everyday people.” That’s so broad. But my hope is that I have a portfolio of stories and images of what I see around me. I want everything to be something that I can investigate–if other people are willing to let me into their lives, which is a huge gift, to be able to do that. And I’m really surprised that people have said yes. [Laughs.]
I feel like you succeed in doing that with the stuff that I’ve seen, which I’m sure is only a small cross-section of your portfolio. It’s a really cool, consistent aesthetic, but at the same time, your subjects are diverse. And your… Stuff in a Bucket! Oh my God! I love it.
Thank you, that’s funny. I was on a lobster boat for a project and took pictures of bait fish at the bottom of this bucket, and as I was walking home, I was like, “What else can I put at the bottom of the bucket?” It was so satisfying to make that circle, and that meant a lot to me because it was the first time I got to make art for art’s sake. It’s a beautiful feeling just to make something. All of the other photos I take feel very collaborative; another person gives me just as much… ugh, this sounds cheesy.
No, it’s true, though–that’s part of journalism. I mean, this is funny; this is one of those weird situations where you’re a pair of journalists and you’re like, “Is the other person analyzing how I’m interviewing?” Or, “Am I answering in a weird way?” You’re not.
Yeah! Well, I feel a little bit like my eloquence is not the spoken word, or even the written word. I think that’s one of the reasons why taking pictures has meant so much to me, because I can create something that’s really clear.
Are you on Pinterest?
Are you like obsessed with Pinterest?
I feel like you’re someone I should follow on Pinterest.
Will you follow me and I’ll follow you back?
I like to try and, you know, do a little bit of homework before interviewing someone, right? So last night, I was internet stalking you and I was like, “Oh, I’ll just follow you on Instagram… that’s not awkward at all…”
No, it’s great. I followed you back. Also, I just switched to posting vertical Instagram pictures, rather than just squares.
Okay, I have this friend who is really good at Tumblr and stuff, and we were traveling together one time, and she was like, “My followers don’t like when I do this kind of photo.” It was a whole other level. I mean, I notice that stuff, but I also have few enough followers that it’s like, “Oh no, now I only have three left.” But she was also like, “Oh yours is different. Yours is more of your story.” And I was like, am I insulted by that? I don’t know. [Laughs.]
Well, it’s interesting, because I have two female photographers in my life that I’m thinking of now, who I’ve had this conversation with. One says that Instagram gives you these parameters and you [need to] work within them to make the best images that you can. So, you use your iPhone only, shoot square pictures. The other one says that Instagram is where people might meet you for the first time, so you should be showing who you are as a photographer, and if you take photos on your DSLR, that’s fine. I kind of ping pong between the two. The tricky thing is, social media is now important for creative professionals and any place where you’re putting work, now it feels like there’s more scrutiny because you never know how a potential client can be introduced to your work, so you don’t want it to look too bad. But I also don’t want to feel like I’m scrutinizing my life [over the number of likes]. It’s this tightrope of feeling creative freedom and representing yourself in the best possible way.
I [also] want every picture that I really love to have a good home, to have a place in the world. So, Instagram is kind of part of that. It’s a place to put photos that other people might never see.
That’s funny. I feel like that about stories, too. I’ve got another site, Water, Water Everywhere and Not A Drop to Drink… it’s sort of been abandoned a bit lately, but I put stuff on there that fall into the “If I don’t put this here…” category. Like, I have stories that were killed and they’re still people’s stories, you know? It’s that same thing–it’s worth being heard. If I don’t put it here, then no one’s ever going to see it, and even if three people read it, at least it has a home.
You sort of mentioned this before, but are you a sweet or savory person?
Ooh. So, when I eat breakfast at home, I usually go sweet. I’m a big fan of fruit and yogurt and granola. When I go out to eat for brunch, I usually have savory because it’s not what I make at home. And I have a major sweet tooth. But not in the “I want Skittles” way. In the “I want an entire package of dark chocolate chips” way. And I will eat that in two days. I love sweet with a little bit of something else, a little bit of bitter. And I will want something sweet after something savory. Are you that way?
Do you get excited about things like Starburst?
No. I get really excited about interesting flavor combinations. Okay, there’s this place 18 Degrees Celcius in North Conway, N.H. and they have this great homemade ice cream, and the guy who owns the shop, I believe, also owns a bakery? They take all of the day-old baked goods and dehydrate them and make them into toppings and they’ve got all of these crazy flavors. I had a blackberry balsamic black pepper ice cream cone? That’s like… I cannot pass that up.
My mom was a nutritionist, so I was taught to eat pretty healthy. That said, I also come from a family where we are in love with food, and we love comfort food. I will always butter my toast. I just believe in real butter and real chocolate. A good chocolate chip cookie is one of the best things in the world. I hope that in my life, I never have to have some diet where I can’t eat those two things, especially, because they are such simple ways to enjoy… life? [Laughs.]
I feel like part of my whole experience in the world is, food.
It’s such a wonderful thing that you can do with another person, to eat with them or prepare food with them, and I’m not the best chef, but I love to make food–and to think about making food, and how flavors go together. And I just think… things can be really busy and crazy, but, experiencing food is just a beautiful thing that we get to do every single day.
I also feel like it’s a really obvious way that a lot of people overlook to experience different cultures and places, and other people’s lives. I feel like what people eat says a lot about a lot. Whether you’re looking at someone’s food that they’re buying from the grocery store or you’re in a place where they’re eating fish for breakfast…
Do you remember that photo series that came out that was all pictures of people’s refrigerators?
I think so…
I love that. But, I am totally with you. When you travel, eating the way people eat and what they eat is such a big part of the experience.
I was talking about this with my cousin recently. I’m a vegetarian, and he used to be, but he said he felt like he was missing out on so much traveling.
There have been times in my life when I haven’t eaten certain things, and at the end of the day, none of those [diet choices] where particularly helpful for me. I’ve started eating pretty much everything, and a large part of it is that I do travel a lot and… I once heard someone say that the world gives you a lot of limitations, and so whichever limitations you can take away… I think it’s really easy to limit what you can and can’t do, or what you’re capable of. With a lot of things in my life, I’m trying to remove limitations that I put on myself, and I hope never to limit anybody else, so I want to respect other people’s choices similarly.
I remember when we met, you were telling me about all of these different places you’d lived and that you ended up in Maine, which I thought was funny [because I have a similar story]…
Where did you grow up?
In New Jersey.
How often do you get back?
Like twice a year.
Oh, that makes me feel better. I don’t get home as much as I’d like. How did you end up in Maine?
[Laughs.] Well, I was kind of wandering all over and I ran out of money–like nine dollars to my name out of money, in France–so I decided to come back and be a ski bum, for like a season, and get my shit together. That was the plan. That was how I ended up at Sunday River, which was really lucky. Then I really liked it, so. But yeah, I thought you were from out west somewhere and I couldn’t remember, and then [your number] is a 208…
How did you end up in Maine?
I grew up in Idaho, but my parents are teachers and they’re really adventurous, so we lived abroad a lot. My mom, especially, would get teaching jobs and then we would move. We did it twice–once in the Netherlands when I was a baby, and then once in Japan when I was in high school. So a lot of my cool adventures have come from having adventurous parents, who value travel and were willing to take risks. I really admire them for that. I graduated high school in Boise, moved to Seattle for a year of college, then transferred to the University of Montana and lived there for five years. And then really wanted to get out of Montana. It literally felt like a timer had gone off, and then I stayed for an extra year. [Laughs.] Which is not a good thing.
I have this really distinct memory in my last year of going to Missoula’s art museum, and it’s exquisite. I was paying attention to what other people were paying attention to. It was the biennial exhibition. People would go from artwork to artwork, and they really connected to pictures of animals and scenery. I remember people standing in front of this photograph of an eagle grabbing like a salmon out of the river, and I thought it was a great picture, but didn’t necessarily have a ton of artistic merit. But people loved it. And they would pass up the portraits and the pictures that really meant something to me. I remember thinking then, This isn’t my place because I’m interested in people, and it was almost like our values didn’t match up. I moved to Berlin, Germany for three months. My parents were teaching in Berlin, so I “moved back home.” To Germany, where I’d never really been. While I was there, I got a job as an editing intern at a photo agency in Portland, and I had never been to the East Coast before, so it felt like a big adventure. I got here and loved it. By the time my position ended there, I had freelance work and, magically, my freelance work has continued. So, that’s the long story. [Laughs.] Starting at birth, practically.
My favorite photos are portraits, too. Who’s your favorite photographer–do you have one?
Oh my god. Well, the first person that came to mind is Mary Ellen Mark. She was one of the best photographers of our time. She did things that people hadn’t done before and she really invested herself in people’s work. She followed people for a lifetime–the same people, for decades and decades. I went to a photo festival in March and got to sit in the audience while she spoke on a panel, and she was really quiet, but when she spoke, everyone listened. What she had done in her life was something that so many people knew to give deference to. I don’t know if I’d say she’s my favorite photographer, she’s just really been on my mind a lot. I think the photographers that really inspire me are the ones that really commit to something and you can see their values and curiosity in their work.
There’s this one letter that George Rodger, one of the founders of Magnum, wrote. His son was interested in photography and he wrote this letter to his son, and that, I read probably twice a year. He says this thing about avoiding gimmickry and making sure that your images are honest and true, and I think about that a lot. My hope is that my pictures will stand the test of time, and a lot of that is trying hard to not use tricks and be straightforward. So what people have said about their photography has been almost as important as the photography itself as a point of inspiration for me.
I think photography is like a lot of things: The way you get good at it, in my opinion, is similar to the way you get good at anything and the way you evolve as a person. So, if I can practice being kinder, or a better communicator, it’ll show in my photography. But there are people who are magic. They just have this special touch. I don’t know how they get it, but it’s, like, a wonder to behold. A lot of the photographers I admire have not only worked really hard, but also have this amazing gift.
Let me think about how to say this… I think it’s really easy for people to almost fake it. And I’m not saying that someone’s nice photo isn’t actually a nice photo because of whatever they’ve done with it, but there are people who have a gift. But as you mentioned, I think hard work is part of it–and actually loving it? That’s something else. You don’t automatically love what you’re good at, right?
I’ve met a lot of very jaded photographers and I hope that I never get to that point. [I think] it shows in the photos. Right now, when I’m taking pictures… Yesterday, I got to take photos of a seaweed harvest. So I got to wade in the ocean up to my thighs and the light was beautiful, and the people were doing really interesting things, and the whole time I was taking pictures, all I could think was, This is so awesome. I can’t believe that the world is like this, the world is so cool, and I get to be out in it. I feel like that a lot, and that’s what I want my life to be like. Every day doing something different and visiting different people’s lives. I feel really lucky that I get to stop in on people’s lives.
I’m very much like that, as well. I love [stopping in on people’s lives]. When I did that first interview with my friend Colin, I left that diner with a high–and that’s not even the same thing, really, because that’s a weird location, but stopping through and experiencing a piece of someone’s life is really special. And that sounds cheesy.
No. But that moment when you left and you were feeling euphoric? That’s when we know what our “thing” is, and it is really rare to find your thing. And you’re creating ways for you to be able to do your thing, and that’s exactly what we should be doing with our lives. I have a friend who says that the best way to help the world is just to do what you love more than anything else.
Your friends sound very wise.
I have really awesome friends. [Laughs.] I remember thinking, I’m not sure if I’m really helping anyone by taking pictures. When I lived in Montana, I did direct care for people with special needs, so I knew that I was helping people, and here, I’m just kind of doing my own thing, and she was like, “The best thing you can do is do what makes you happiest, and it will help everyone around you.” And I think that’s true. The more you can devote yourself to the things that make you feel great and alive, I think it’ll–hopefully–have kind of a ripple effect.
I hope so, too.
The only thing that I would say, as like an asterisk, is that I say that knowing that it is also a privilege. I think there is a percentage of people who know what they want to do, which is a gift in itself. But I was also raised in a family where I was given the resources and support to do what I love, and I really recognize that, so sometimes I think it’s a lot of pressure to be like, “Just find your dream and chase it!” [Laughs.] Not everybody gets to do that. It’s okay to just work on figuring out how to have the most enjoyable life possible with the skills and resources that you have.
Of the places you’ve lived, which was the hardest to leave?
I’ve actually never really felt that sad to leave a place.
Well, it’s really odd because I always feel kind of ready on some level.
I think that’s amazing!
I’ve always felt like no matter how long my stay is, it is like there’s an internal timer, where it’s like, “Okay, I’m ready for what’s next.” It’s hard to leave some elements of every place, leaving friends behind. But I think the places that have been harder to leave are the places where I’ve stayed for a month. This spring, I was in Senegal, and [when I left], I still felt like I was ready to go home and be in Maine. [But] I think about Senegal every single day. I feel a lot of nostalgia and homesickness for places that I’ve only been to for a little while. When I left Senegal, I felt like I had fallen in love with a place in a way that I hadn’t in a really long time. I just feel… like I need to go back.
Is that a rare feeling for you?
Yeah, in a way. Well, actually, maybe not. I think I always want to go somewhere different, but I feel like I have a bunch of homes. Some days, I’m really homesick for Montana, or Boise. The other day, I was listening to bluegrass music, which was everywhere around me in Montana. All of a sudden, all I could think about was how badly I missed Missoula in the summertime. And then I had a dream about photographing in Boise, in the desert at sunrise and everything was pink. I woke up and the whole day, I just wanted to be in Idaho. So I think there are times when I miss different places, but I haven’t been feeling sad about leaving different places because I really love my life in Maine.
I feel like I get homesick for different places at different times, too. It can be overwhelming, though it’ll usually pass. You know, people ask you, “Where’s home?” and you’re kind of like, “Huh…” Obviously where I’m from is where I’m from, but it doesn’t feel like home. But Maine does. That surprised me. I kind of felt like that in Australia, too, and I wasn’t ready to leave, and I felt like I had to leave [because of a visa issue]. It’s funny that you said you fell in love with Senegal, because I felt like that about Australia, but I felt like I was being broken up with. Like I got dumped.
Do you ever feel… sometimes, I miss the way the air feels in different places or the way colors and the light are different, all of these really silly things.
I think that’s such a luxury of being able to see different places.
I think the more you travel, you’re collecting these different feelings and you never know what you’re going to miss until you’re away from that place or that chapter in your life.
It’s funny when you miss the things you didn’t even think you noticed, or the things you didn’t think you appreciated.
When a place is challenging, I think it takes a little bit of distance to love it because the truth is that sometimes, traveling is really hard, and it can feel like there’s a hurdle you need to jump over around every corner. When you’re away from those things, you get to experience a more distilled version of it and it’s not uncomfortable. This is a little bit different, but one of the quotes that we always say in my family is, “It’s a lot of work to have fun.” And it’s true. Everything that’s really worthwhile takes effort and work and, in some ways, discomfort. Travel is a lot of work–planning and saving up and navigating differences, and to me it’s always worth it, but, it’s a lot of work to have fun.
Which do you prefer: Plane, train, or automobile?
…why is that so hard? I’m a little afraid of flying, so I don’t love flying, but I love seeing things from the sky. [Laughs.] When I’m in other countries, train is the way to go, but in America, we just don’t have that infrastructure. I don’t love cars because of the environmental impact. That said, I drive a lot and I never really mind it because I get to listen to music and podcasts, and be by myself and think about things. I didn’t have a car for the first year that I lived in Portland–I biked, which was hard in the winter. When I got my car, I had such a huge feeling of independence, which is such an important thing for me.
What kind of car do you drive?
A Prius. [Laughs.] What do you have?
I have a Subaru Impreza and I love it. I needed all-wheel drive for where I live, which people make fun of me for, but it’s really true.
The other thing that’s really funny is that I get my Prius stuck in the snow, like, many times in the winter.
Do you have snow tires?
All Priuses come with all-weather tires. So, not really, no. Maybe this year, I should get big, huge studs and chains and stuff.
Are you an astrology person?
Oh! Yes and no. I read it every week. Do you read Free Will Astrology?
No. Should I?
That is so weird because I felt like you were going to ask me what my sign is. Are you going to ask me what my sign is?
No, I wasn’t going to, but I’m curious. Wait–can I guess?
Yeah. I’d be amazed if you get it.
Hmm. Let me think about this. Are you a Libra?
Okay. Then I don’t know.
I’m a Scorpio.
Oh! So am I!
Really? You’re a happy Scorpio. They always act like we’re going to be so brooding and miserable, but I don’t feel that way. Do you?
No. But, you know, I feel mysterious and sexy most of the time. So…
Okay, so I read Free Will every week. Remind me to send it to you. Or, let’s just actually read our horoscope. The reason why I love astrology is, it’s just advice–you can take it or leave it. And I love advice–giving advice, hearing advice, listening to other people give advice. If they made a book of Dear, Abby I would read the entire thing front to back. But okay, so Rob Brezsny writes these big, poetic, historical ones. Ready?
“In the 16th century, roguish French author François Rabelais… In accordance with the Rabelaisian quality of the current astrological aspects, Scorpio, I invite you to meditate on the reversals you would like to see in your own life. What is first that should be last, and vice versa?”
Oh, that’s good. Also, that was really unexpected. I wasn’t sure if you’d be an astrology person.
I mean, I’m skeptical, but it’s kind of fun. When I was little, my mom used to always play this song by Iris DeMent, and I’d make fun of her for it because it’s very warbling country music, but the song title is “Let the Mystery Be.” It’s very cheesy, but I always think about that, because with some stuff, it’s like, it’s kind of a mystery, we’re just going to let that magic be there and it may or may not be right, but it’s fine that [that mystery] is there. That’s kind of how I feel about astrology.
Would your friends describe you as an optimist, pessimist, or realist?
I think I’m an optimist. I have a friend who’s a photographer and we were talking about why we take pictures, and he said that he takes pictures because he feels a lot of discontent and anger with the world, and I can see why. There is a lot of really messed up stuff. But I’m like, “Oh really? I think I take pictures because the world’s awesome!” Yeah, I think I’m an optimist.
My dad said something really funny to me the other day and I’m probably going to mess this up, because that’s my MO, but he used to be a detective and he said that I wouldn’t have been a very good detective, and I was like, “Hey, I think I actually would be a great detective!” And he goes, “Oh yeah, someone would say, ‘I didn’t do it,’ and you’d go, ‘Oh. Okay.’”
I hate April Fool’s Day because I fall for pretty much everything.
What’s your catchphrase? So to speak.
So, the last few years, instead of having a New Year’s resolution, I made like a New Year’s motto based on whatever I was experiencing in my life. [One year] it was, “Always choose the kinder option.” This year–and I have it written on my daily planner–it’s “Be kind and be adventurous.” I feel like if I do those two things… I mean, that doesn’t mean I’m always going to be kind and adventurous, but those are my internal goals.
Which are good to have, because when you’re in a situation where you’re torn, you can remember that you want to be this kind of person, and it makes it easier.
Yeah. What would yours be?
Um. My best friend and I always say, “It’s probably fine.” Which seems to apply to everything. And I feel like it’s especially funny because I used to be a lot more of a worrier and I don’t know when it shifted, but suddenly, it was like, “Eh, it doesn’t really matter. It’s probably fine.”