Photographing the Faces of Cystic Fibrosis: An Interview with Ian Ross Pettigrew

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Ian Ross Pettigrew is a photographer who got his start in advertising. Having worked with photographers for over 20 years as an art director, Ian further developed his eye for beautiful images. He’s been honored many times over for his portrait work, and it was after he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis seven years ago that his photography took on a personal tone. Ian’s in the process of raising funds for a nationwide portrait project for adults with cystic fibrosis. He wants to change the conversation about the disease because it’s not just a disease that affects kids.

Phoblographer: How did you get your start in photography?

Ian: I’m one of those “art director turned Photographer” people. I worked with a lot of great photographers when I was in advertising, something must have rubbed off. I have only been taking it seriously now for a few years. I think i’ve always had a good eye for things.

Phoblographer: Who influenced your early years and what was some of the best advice you received?

Ian: I think I was drawn to certain photographer’s work before I even knew who they were, like Herb Ritts and Avedon. Portraits have always fascinated me, for some reason. I loved some of Karsh’s work before I knew it was him.

As for advice? Most of what I get from other professionals is “why the hell would you want to be a starving photographer!?!?!” Maybe hanging out with other pros when I was in advertising in the 90’s, and watching films like “Blow Up”, made me think being a photographer was this super-cool, sexy job. But then it reminds me of that quote from Casablanca, “I was misinformed.”

Ha! Honestly, the best advice is just be true to yourself. And wear comfy shoes, i’ve read that a lot.

Phoblographer: How has advertising affected your photographic vision, if at all?

Ian: I honestly, truly believe you CAN’T teach someone to have that creative eye. You can teach someone all the technical skills to be a photographer, but that creative eye…you either get it or you don’t. Simple as that. Certainly that’s where my time as an art director has helped. I worked with some great creative people who I think honed my creativity far more than any photographer.

Phoblographer: How did the idea for your “Just Breathe” portrait julius motal ian ross pettigrew cystic fibrosisseries form?

Ian: I was diagnosed 7 years ago as having Cystic Fibrosis, and i’m 45 now. I am very lucky to have a far milder variant, I wanted to do something with my photography that was more personal and meaningful. I have seen other portrait projects like this, i’ve even seen another one with kids with CF. But its a very different psychological aspect, being diagnosed later in life, or simply being a CF patient that is living longer than is usually normal. I wanted to bring these things to light, and mainly to get people motivated to do something. Sign your Organ Donor card, donate what you can. All of this helps.

Phoblographer: In some of the preliminary images, there’s this very dreamy aesthetic. What’s your gear setup and how do you create that look?

Ian: The look is something I have been working on. It’s very much a mix of gear/lighting setup and post-production. I want to show my subjects in the best possible way, I didn’t want to make it too harsh. Some of the stories I am hearing are so positive and powerful. I want these photos to be inspiring.

My gear setup is pretty simple. It’s a one light setup, I use Alien Bees 1600 through a large octobox on a light background. I’m not a big fan of these overly-complicated portrait set-ups. Right now I shoot with a 5DMII – it gets the job done.I’m not really married to any one brand – i’ve shot with Canon for a while now but i’ve used Hasselblad, Leica, Nikon. What I do like is the Sigma 35 ART lens. I’ve always liked the 35mm focal length, even for portraits. This lens is one of the best I have ever used. I’m pretty excited to try out their new 50mm. The final look of these images all happens in post – a mix of Lightroom and Photoshop. It’s a bit time consuming but worth it.

Phoblographer: Are there any photo essays, books or series that inspired your “Just Breathe” project, and how will it change the conversation about cystic fibrosis?

Ian: Photographer Kyle Monk did a very powerful series on children with CF a while ago. My goal is to shift the conversation to remind people it’s Not a disease just for children. A lot of these adults with CF need lung transplants. If just one person because of this project decides to sign their organ donor card, and someone gets saved because of that, then it will have been worth it.

Phoblographer: Each photo is paired with something written by the person you photograph. Will you have them write their experience before or or after you make their portrait, and how will that affect the process, if at all?

Ian: I do want them to write it at the time of the portrait. I want them to write from the heart – it could be good, it could be bad. It just has to be soulful, thats why I don’t want them to think about it too much. If you write from the heart then its an honest discussion we are having. Before or after, doesn’t matter – just as long as its on the same day.

Phoblographer: What advice do you have for budding portrait photographers?

Ian: A friend of mine recently brought up again the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. I think any budding photographers should read it (again). It has certainly affected how I approach things. Portraiture is tough because so much has been done already. You have to find your own unique voice to really stand out. How you do that is up to the you.

And be nice and really listen to people.

You can donate to the indiegogo campaign for Just Breathe by clicking here. Check out more of Ian’s work on his website.

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