Eric Kruszewski did not originally set out to become a photographer. After graduating with an engineering degree, Kruszewski worked for an international firm where he spent over five years working overseas. Inspired by his travels abroad, he decided to leave his engineering career and become an independent creative. Kruszewski spoke to Squarespace about discovering his passion for visual storytelling, finding inspiration during a global crisis, and how he learns from his subjects.
SQUARESPACE: When did you first become interested in photography and videography? What or who were your first subjects?
Eric Kruszewski: Everyone has a unique path to discover a particular love in the arts, and I have always found those stories to be fascinating. For me, after graduating from an engineering university, I began working with an international design and construction firm. They offered me an overseas position that bounced between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Georgia. Having spent most of my life on the east coast of the U.S., I jumped at the opportunity to live abroad with hopes of expanding my horizons while trying something new. Initially, my assignment was slated to be a six-month temporary position. However, I enjoyed the experience so much that I ended up staying for over five years.
Being in new countries opened my eyes to culture, travel, language and a different way of life. And at one point I started thinking: When I eventually come back to the U.S., how will I explain to family and friends what my life was like overseas? With that thought in mind, I decided that showing them—rather than telling them—might be the best approach. So I bought a basic DSLR camera and began documenting the everyday scenes around me, the people in my life, and my frequent travels.
SQSP: When did you decide to pursue photography as a career? How did you go about making that decision?
EK: In 2008, about three years into my overseas assignment, my thoughts about traveling and capturing imagery became incessant. While sitting in engineering meetings, I would daydream about visiting new places, encountering a new stranger or being engrossed in a new story. And I started to wonder if I needed to make photography and travel something that I could do more often—perhaps make it my career. So after plenty of reflection, I started taking steps to make it happen.
At first, I decided to get formal photography training through workshops and expeditions. Then over the next three to four years, while still working as an engineer, I would use nights, weekends and vacations to develop a portfolio by documenting subjects, stories and places that fascinated me.
When I felt ready to make the transition and permanently leave my engineering career, I began sharing my plans with people around me. Of course, there were individuals who told me I was crazy and discouraged me from giving up a stable career in lieu of the unknown. But I did not let that stop me, because the people closest to me—my family and best friends—knew that I had found my passion and totally backed my new endeavor. Having that unwavering support helped drown out the dissuaders and gave me the courage to leap.
I left engineering in March 2012 and have not looked back. The last eight years as an independent creative have been extremely rewarding and fulfilling.
SQSP: Much of your work focuses on people who are going through transitional times in their lives. How do you use photography to share the complexity of these stories?
EK: Living overseas and changing careers were personal transitions that shaped who I am today. Because of those experiences, I am certainly drawn to other peoples’ stories of transition, and I sought out these types of stories in my early work.
One of the first projects I worked on involved living with a traveling carnival. I wanted to understand what it was like to move every week from one location to the next and how that affected a core group of employees and families.
A subsequent project focused on a story in my backyard. After over a century in operation, a steel mill suddenly closed and hundreds of people were out of work. To me, that meant there would be hundreds of stories of transition. I began documenting the story of one steelworker, in his 50’s, who decided to attend college after his decades-long job got shuttered.
Stories of transition quite often take time to unfold, so I must be available and present to document, and I also need to be in constant contact with the people I am photographing. I try to remember that I don't know how the story will go or how it will end; it is simply being “written” as I am photographing it.
SQSP: When documenting real life stories, how much of your own perspective gets incorporated into the final product?
EK: When documenting real life, it’s vital to understand the people in front of my camera and what they are experiencing. So before I capture imagery, I spend time with them to listen and learn. My past experiences and transitions might help me relate to the people I am photographing but I don't think that influences how I capture imagery. It is their story I am documenting, not mine.
Their story develops over time, and we can build a strong relationship during the process. But in the end, the photos, videos, interviews, etc. still need to be true to the characters and story that played out.
SQSP: The world itself is currently in a period of transition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Where do you find inspiration during this challenging time?
EK: During the COVID-19 pandemic, photographers and storytellers have remained dedicated to their crafts, and each artist is approaching the situation in different ways. And as I look across that spectrum, I find actions that inspire and motivate me.
Individuals who are willing to don protective equipment and capture stories from the front lines amaze me, as do those who cover the outer layers of stories stemming from COVID-19. I have seen people using technology in different ways to develop various portrait and video projects. Artists have used materials and scenes from home to create new worlds and push their creativity. There are also individuals who have put away their equipment and used this time to develop totally different skills or try another medium altogether.
This time during the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed me to witness such immense creativity and forced me to see my world in a much smaller bubble and use the resources I have available to expand my vision and develop my skills.
Outside the craft, I am inspired by individuals who are generous with their time while helping and supporting others in their community. There are so many heartwarming stories that invigorate me and propel me to be a better person.
SQSP: You also teach photography and storytelling workshops. What’s the first piece of advice you share with your students?
EK: I try to encourage my students to find what they truly want to capture and the types of stories they want to tell. Part of that process involves asking questions and looking inward. What is it that drives and interests you? What makes you emotional—happy or angry— and why? Is there something you want to highlight or change—perhaps a mindset or how people live? What do you want to learn about or uncover? Asking these types of questions can help focus the students’ energy and vision.
SQSP: In today’s world, it’s vital to have a digital presence that speaks to your professional experience. How has having an online portfolio helped in your career?
EK: When I first started my career, people would constantly tell me, “Show the work you want to get hired to produce.” That advice continues to ring true, so the portfolio I display highlights the subject matter I love to create around the world.
Every week, I reach out and introduce myself to potential clients. Part of that introduction involves directing them to my online portfolio. Hopefully my work and our personal interactions make a lasting impression and develop a collaborative relationship.
Similarly, people can search, find my work online and hire me. In a connected global world, that digital platform has been a key ingredient for a successful career.